Hanni El Khatib
by Iz Inferno
photography Giorgia Valli
21 October 2013
In Arabic, a Khatib is “one who delivers the sermon.” They have the gift of storytelling and assume the role of orator. Charisma is an assumed quality. There is a certain magnetism that beckons the listener to tune in and absorb the message. The name we are given at birth somehow becomes a part of us, and we assume its qualities. Hanni El Khatib delivers the sermon and the stage is his pulpit.
Hey this is Hanni, I'm at dish now and it's closed and raining. I might cruise to the bookstore close by. (1:46 pm) I received this text message while en route to meet Hanni in DUMBO. This had to be the first time that not only was the interviewee on time, but early. I replied that I was in a cab and would be there in five minutes, which really meant ten. When I arrived it was obvious who I was interviewing based on the Rock n Roll attitude permeating from the street corner. Hanni has a presence of a classic rock dude. He’s tall, comfortable in his skin but not overtly arrogant. We introduced ourselves and there was a certain familiarity of shared experience that I felt. He’d just arrived in New York after performing in Philly the night before. It was evident that he was a man who lived on the road and embraced this aspect of his life.
We conversed about touring and how the demands of performing occupied the vast majority of his time. He has essentially been on tour for the past three years with about three months of downtime. He related to me that one of his beloved spots was Paris, and understanding the social demographic of France made it easy to understand why. Arabs are to France what Blacks are to the United States. They have been corralled and transported to a foreign land for labor purposes, and oppressed systematically. I imagine that for most disenfranchised Arabs in France to witness a tall mean rock dude of Palestinian decent must be quite a sight, especially considering he is American. And that's what he is plain and simple. Half Palestinian, half Filipino: all American. I probed to see if he was connected to some pro-Palestinian movement. If he was the Yasser Arafat of Rock n Roll, or perhaps the Manny Pacquiao of guitar. He simply told me that he is not embracing any movements because he was not well versed in politics in general. His political stance was basic: make good music to foster unity. I understood that bringing cultures together was something that he was born into. Growing up in San Francisco in a multi-ethnic household made it easy for him to recognize that he was American. He grew up on Clement Street in Chinatown which, jokingly, he said made him feel more Chinese than anything.
It was on these streets that Hanni discovered his passion for skating. For the record, skaters in those days were a different breed. They were hard-nosed dudes, with abrasions and lacerations earned through miscalculations and kamikaze missions. There was a brotherhood and regardless of who you were you could gain acceptance. There were kids who listened to death metal, and there were kids who listened to hip-hop. There was an exchange of perspectives that created a bond and helped to build the culture. When you have influences ranging from Black Sabbath to Black Moon your musical frame of reference has depth.
Hanni's experience in skating evolved into a career in the industry when he became the creative director at HUF. He has a unique ability to monetize his interests in a tasteful manner, which is a rare quality. It was explained to me that he maintained a very comfortable job and eventually became discontented with how routine his life had become. Music was always a part of his life, yet he wasn't actively pursuing a career filled with so many delusions. He was surrounded by musician friends who had dedicated their lives to obtain something that, in his mind, was a façade. (One irony of artistic pursuits: the hungriest does not always eat.) He decided to pursue his artistic desire and was approached by Stones Throw to release his songs. This set off a string of events: he meets Florence and the Machine and they take him on tour, he tours and meets Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys in a bar in Paris, he records a second album in Nashville with Auerbach.
I believe Hanni enjoys the spoils of a career in music because he never over-thought the process. He describes recording with Auerbach as straightforward: three minute songs where what you hear is what you get. He brought up how, historically, if you have a 45", there is only about three minutes of space to get your point across. It's this classic approach to recording that lends to the quality and timelessness of his music. He recalled a quote from Tom Petty: "Don’t Bore us get to the Chorus." We spoke about the recording process and the seriousness in approach that musicians upheld in the golden years. He was adamant about maintaining this mentality in the studio and with his live performances. He commented on how nowadays social media catapults acts that aren't prepared to step into the spotlight. It takes years to build a solid stage show and experience cannot be underestimated. He appreciates both the intimacy of small venues and the thrill of being in front of thousands. "Fuck a Blog" were his words to describe how overnight stardom is granted to groups who haven't gotten their feet wet and are beneficiaries of suspect journalistic practices. There is no shortcut to creating music that stands the test of time. "My dream is to be able to continue to work and make relevant music even when I'm seventy." Hanni has transitioned into the new era of the music industry with a unique understanding of how to survive the game. Through touring and publishing he has successfully monetized his art while maintaining creative control. He is part owner of his label and is hands-on with the creative aspects of their release. Hanni is a 21st century artist who understands that multiple hats must be worn.
The classic resonates in Hanni. He rides a vintage BMW bike clad in perfecto leather jackets. The affinity he has for mid-century Fenders is admirable. (The cat on the hood of a roadster smoking at a gas station is one image that comes to mind.) He is an authentic Khatib, relating stories of love and Rock n Roll and possessing the rarest of dispositions: genuine.
Hanni El Khatib is currently on tour.