"When people expect one thing, you give them another."
When we spoke over the phone, Hanni El Khatib claimed that he’s lived in almost every San Francisco neighborhood at some point in his life. He is currently a resident of Los Angeles, but it’s clear that coming-of-age as a skateboarding city kid in the Bay Area helped to define his individualistic ethos.
He described his sophomore album Head In The Dirt as being about “survival and longevity and independence” and guys who, “if they saw a snake on the ground, they’d step on its head.” Produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, songs like headbanger “Pay No Mind,” reggae-tinged “Nobody Move,” and rhythm-and-bluesy “Save Me” are variations on the theme of the idealized outcasts of the American West—think the greasy haired characters crystallized in popular culture by S.E. Hinton in The Outsiders with 21st century problems. Below, El Khatib discusses how being a Filipino-Palestinian child of immigrants helped him dip in and out of social scenes growing up, why he’s never really been in a band, and how advantageous it’s been for him to do the opposite of what people expect of him.
What kinds of music did your parents listen to when you were growing up?
The Zombies, The Beatles…Classic stuff like Queen.
Did they influence you at all?
We were a musical house. There was a piano. There were guitars around. My mom would play what she could. It must have sunk in my head that having instruments around was something that our family does. It started off when I learned piano. My mom really pushed me into it. I didn’t really like it, because it was classical music and I didn’t really have the attention span to really deal with it on a weekly basis with a teacher. I started picking up guitar on my own, but really didn’t get into it until I was 11 or 12, when I started really getting into music.
Were you in bands in high school?
When I was 12 we had our stupid little band, but outside of that, not really.
When you were older and started performing, is there any reason you wanted to have your own self-contained project instead starting a band?
That came out of the nature of the recordings. I recorded a lot of stuff before performing it. At the time [that I started out] I was a creative director of skateboarding company—I was really obsessed with working. I started writing and recording basically as another creative outlet. I would be writing acoustic songs every day. I was sharing them with my buddy Marc Bianchi, who is an Austin-based musician now, and he encouraged me to record them for real. He had a home studio and said, “You can come over on the weekends and record whenever you want.” At that point, I didn’t have a plan or a band. I ended up just overdubbing myself playing over myself. I made the record alone. And then he asked me to open for his band and I didn’t have a name. I didn’t want to make up a fake name for a band that didn’t exist, so that’s where that started. It allows me to change the form and direction of the music whenever I want, so it worked out to my advantage.
The album seems to have a lot of different layers to the sound. Some of the songs have really crisp and clear layers, while some or more rough, lo-fi, and garage-y. How did you decide how you wanted the different sounds to be arranged?
Um, we didn’t really decide. We just sort of did it. We recorded everything live, in a live room, cutting it together. Dan [Auerbach] was playing bass most of the time. Patrick Keeler was drums. We all sat in the room together, so the sound quality was just indicative of the recording style. I think that when we started mixing it was when the sound started to take shape. Tchad Blake mixed the record and I think that he did a really good job of keeping the songs feeling raw, but the mix was still contemporary enough to prevent it from sounding retro or throwback.
The video for “Penny” has a subversive quality with all of these tough guys singing a very sweet-sounding song. Was this a strategy for the video or is the idea of masculinity in the song itself?
It was just for the video. The song is a light-hearted poppy kind of thing. Once you start putting a visual behind it, it would push it over to the realm of corny or cheesy, which I didn’t want. We talked about how to get away from the pop nature of the song. The director of the video came up with that idea. It became about these guys and how this would be the last thing you would expect them to sing. I like playing around with extremes and highs and lows. When people expect one thing, you give them another. That’s usually the stamp on everything that I do.
There were a lot of people of color in that video and the one for “Pay No Mind.” Was that intentional?
No, because I don’t think that way. In the prison video, we were just trying to depict real life, where there are a diversity of ethnicities. In the other one the director had pieced together some footage of these cheerleaders from some school in South Central high school, which kind of led to that being the way the video came about.
That video [for “Pay No Mind’] resonated with me because I am African American and it reminded me of growing up and going to shows and got used to being one of the only women of color.
I grew up in San Francisco. I’m Filipino-Palestinian. Both my parents were immigrants. I was the first in my family to be born in America. For me, I don’t really think too hard about that. I guess, kind of like you, I was dipping in and out of social scenes a lot. I grew up skating too. When I grew up in the early ‘90s, skating was less big of a thing than it is today. You would have the kids who were into metal and you had kids who were into hip-hop and we all just skated together. That’s less of a case now. When the director pitched me the cheerleader treatment, I’m not sure every rock band would be like, “Oh, that’s the one.” It’s another example of me doing something people wouldn’t expect. I could’ve done a video of kids hanging out skating and drinking, but that would be too easy.
Alexis Stephens (@pm_jawn) is a staff writer at MTV Iggy.