King Khan and the Shrines' "psychedelic, erotic gospel"
When James Brown passed away a few Christmases ago, the title of “Hardest Working Man in Showbiz” had to have been passed to someone, if at all. For my money, the obvious choice would be the Montreal-born musician Arish Khan, better known as King Khan.
Khan has been one of the most prolific musicians over the past several years, constantly touring and working and recording with his projects King Khan and the Shrines and King Khan and BBQ Show, most notably. The rock band King Khan and BBQ Show is a collaboration with Mark Sultan, a musician from Montreal who has worked with Khan since their days in a mid-to-late 1990s band called The Spaceshits. There’s also Almighty Defenders, who released an album last fall on Vice Records, which was a gospel-inspired project between Khan, Sultan and Atlanta punk band The Black Lips, who found rock asylum at Khan’s Berlin home after an ill-advised tour of India where the band fled after learning the world’s largest democracy probably didn’t appreciate The Sex Pistols a generation before and still weren’t ready for their music. Khan is also planning on working with Wu-Tang Clan rapper GZA’s next album, when he can find the time.
Even more recently, King Khan and Pat Meteor, a friend in Montreal from the band The Demon’s Claw recorded a single called “The Fiery Tears of St. Laurent” that was released as a 7” on Sub Pop about three weeks ago. Khan told me in our phone interview that he and Meteor wanted to write a song about St. Laurent, who the river that surrounds Montreal was named for. To give a brief history lesson: St. Laurent was a third century French martyr who was burned at the stake for refusing to renounce Christianity.
My favorite project of Khan’s, though, is King Khan and the Shrines. It’s an eight-piece band that combines soul with the sloppiness and ethos of punk. Think for a moment of Iggy Pop and the Dap-Kings and you might come close to realizing what King Khan and the Shrines sound like. They’re currently touring the US with San Francisco punks The Fresh and Onlys, including a stop at Neumos on Tuesday. Khan joked in our phone interview that there’s seventeen people on this tour (eight others make up The Shrines), including both bands and laughed when he said “it is like a mob, or cult”.
Khan said of their sound, “I’m really inspired by a lot of raw, gospel stuff. I think what we do is a modern version of gospel. We’re kind of putting the ‘wild’ back in gospel. I like to call it psychedelic, erotic gospel.” He elaborated, “I think it’s kind of evolved into that. At the beginning you’re always searching for you are kind of searching for your sound and that might take a couple of albums, but I think when we put out the What Is!? album in 2007, we really honed in what we wanted to do. There’s a variety, but it’s mostly gospel and soul and R&B, but I also love punk rock and psychedelic rock. I think we have our own sound and I don’t think there’s been a band that sounded like us before.”
With both 2007’s What Is!? and 2008’s modestly-named The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines (both on Vice), the band has found a sound that has gelled and is consistent. Yet one thing that can’t be overlooked is the humor in the lyrics. “You don’t have to pay your bills; you just have to eat my welfare bread” Khan croons in the chorus of one particular song.
When I was doing research to prep for this interview, I ran across a quote from Khan on his Wikipedia bio that said “when you’re in your twenties, you can get away with urinating on the public; when you’re in your thirties and you’re a dad, it’s just gross.” I asked him about how that’s affected his music and songwriting and he said “I think what mostly affected my songwriting was having children, but that wasn’t recent. That was about 10 years ago when I first started the band. That helped me focus on making more soul music and more music about love and less about hateful, destructive things.”
Maybe I’m grasping at a metaphor, or just anxious to include this story, but early in our interview, Khan told me this story about the first night of this tour:
The first day of the tour, we were eating at this restaurant and outside of it we saw this dying rat on the sidewalk. It was gasping for its last breath of air. It looked like it had been poisoned. We were circled around it and were contemplating what to do with it. Should we put it out of its misery? And then the guitar player for The Fresh and Onlys, Wymond (Miles) bent down on his knees and put his hands above the rat and started doing this chant. He was whispering, maybe a little prayer. He was doing it for about five minutes. This rat was really dying; he looked like a fish out of water, just gasping for air. And then we all stepped back and we watching him. After about three or four more minutes, the rat just leapt and ran away. It was amazing and beautiful. I think it’s a nice intro for this tour. Most of us were just thinking “let’s just bash his head in” but then thank god we had him to heal it!
He joked “I’m hoping by the end of the tour there is a trail of rats following us with dying animals, bringing offerings” and added “I need to practice my flute playing!” It's certainly preferably to the last King Khan and BBQ Show tour, where Khan and their tour manager were arrested in Kentucky for possession of mushrooms and several dates had to be canceled last November.
The live King Khan and the Shrines show is said to be a wild experience with a lot of different costume changes with the band’s signature garage-influenced soul. There won’t be any public urination or trails of rats at Neumos on Tuesday (thank God!), but it should be a unique experience nonetheless. Who else would put both “erotic” and “gospel” in the same sentence? And what could be more rock and roll?