Hanni El Khatib Talks Getting ‘Unhinged’ On His Rock-And-Roll Mixtape ‘Savage Times’

There is nothing even remotely hip-hop about Hanni El Khatib.

Listening to the San Franciscan skate rat and garage rocker brings to mind howling ghosts of Southern blues clubs, people whose names started with “Blind” as opposed to “Kool” (and no, not the Blind Boys of Harlem). Over the course of three albums, Khatib has held lo-fi seances with his guitar, conjuring up spirits of entertainers from three whole generations ago, people who would not only be completely unfamiliar with hip-hop, but even his own ideas of rock and roll.

So, it’s a little strange that the hip-hop world is exactly what inspired Khatib’s upcoming album. Savage Times is a collection of the best tracks off of a series of EPs that he released over the last year and a half. And while the album very rarely confronts the idea of rap music directly, save a particularly booming drum track here or there, the entire project and the particularly the ethos that inspired it would slot right in among your favorite Soundcloud artist and Datpiff download.

Prior to the album’s release on February 17, we spoke with Hanni about why he felt the need to make a bunch of mixtapes, his suddenly political subject matter and whether or not this means a move away from the traditional rock music on which he made his name.

Walk me through the experience that lead to you making these EPs? What inspired you to record in this new way?

What prompted it was I was sort of like just finished touring. You know, I’ve been touring pretty consistently for the last five years. And in between those tours, I’ve made three records by just snatching every little moment I possibly could to record. And I record relatively quick, like the record I did with Dan Auerbach [2013’s Head In The Dirt], I recorded that in 11 days. And I spent less than thirty days on the third record. I typically come up with the idea to make an album and then record it fast.

But with [the Savage Times EPs], I removed the album context from the creation process. And it allowed me to really kind of explore the process of experimenting and recording music.

So, why did you release multiple EPs as you went along? Why not just sit on them?

I’m still the type of person that needs a deadline. So, I had to think ‘How can I create some kind of urgency to the music while still giving myself the space to work differently?’

I started thinking about rappers that I liked. Rappers can record and put out mixtapes whenever the f*ck they feel like it. And I thought, “Why can’t I do that? Why is this confined to just rappers?”

I mean, back in the day rock-and-roll artists would do something similar where release a bunch of 7-inches and later that would be put together in a compilation that sort-of acted like an album. But we don’t live in that day and age anymore. We’re in the era of streaming. So, I thought ‘I should try and do the same thing as all these rappers.’ Luckily, I’m the co-owner of my record label Innovative Leisure, so the only person I have to answer to is myself and my partners. So, I decided to stockpile a few songs and then get them out there as quickly as possible. That was the urgent timeline I set for myself.

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Did this change the music you were able to make once you removed yourself from the “grind out an album” concept?

Oh, yeah. Musically, it opened it me up completely. This way I wasn’t bound to a singular concept. Because rock records, especially now are expected to have a theme or a cohesive concept. It’s not like a pop or R&B album where you can try a little bit of a lot of different things. On pop albums, there’s a real mix of ideas, a mix of production. Or like look at a rap album. Every rap album has like 400 producers on it, whereas a rock record only has the one producer, typically.

But [the Savage Times series] let me take a stab at any music I wanted to try out. I have a ton of musical influences, bands and sounds that I love that I really wanted to get out in a song. But I couldn’t because I was confined to an album format and what worked for that particular album, you know?

I could see that.

Yeah. And you’re also brushing up against the limitations of a rock recording setting. Rock albums recorded in studio are recorded by a lot of live players. It’s impractical and inconvenient to change the set up, the instruments and the sounds on every song. Any time you do that, then everybody has to take the time to change. We’re talking engineers, the assistants and the players all have to stop what they’re doing. It really throws a wrench in the creative motion of things. But on this album I could take multiple days to just get in the studio and do that, mess around with any sounds I wanted.

Like I’d go to the studio and say ‘Today, I don’t want any guitars. Just a drum machine and an analog synth.’ And that’s something I’ve always wanted to do.

Are you talking about “Born Brown”? I wanted to ask you about that. It’s so different from anything you’ve ever done. Where did that come from?

I really just wanted to make a brutalist and hard industrial techno song. It’s not something that I I would ever be comfortable with elsewhere. It wouldn’t find a home on any other album. The lyrical content is still there and it might not be the genre that people expect.

But I do think the vibe is still authentic to me. Like I wrote that song on a voice memo while I was driving to the studio and twenty minutes later I had the song. It still has that spontaneity and urgency with which I record.

“Brown” is pretty nakedly political and aggressive, which falls well outside the blues-y, garage type music you were making before. What brought it on? Did it come from a particular incident or just a general sense that it needed to be said?

I think in these kind of political and turbulent times, it’s just really important to state how I was raised and where I came from. And with the climate of the world today, I think it sort of came at the right time. I wrote it a while ago, when I was just starting to hear rumblings of this sort of anti-immigrant sentiment spreading everywhere.

Not to say that it’s new. I’ve always sort of felt that anyway. These problems are nothing new. Being half-Filipino and Palestinian, I feel it anywhere I go and kind of always have. I do a lot of traveling and touring in the U.S. and there are certain places where you can definitely feel the uneasiness and tension.

A lot of my work prior to this record, I’m not going to say that it was fictional, but it was more based in the classic idea of songs as storytelling rather than introspective looks into things that personally effect me. But these EPs let me get down to a very raw and personal level. It let me get a little unhinged.

Do you think you’ll continue to release political music, especially with anti-immigrant feelings becoming more and more accepted in the mainstream?

I don’t really know. I don’t feel like I’ll become this political voice. I don’t really speak on things that don’t directly effect me. But still, sometimes this stuff comes up that I want to get off my chest.

For me, I found my stride and was able to work on political songs in the fact in the fact that it directly relates to me. And if that inherently reflect other people’s feelings and kind of acknowledges what they’re going through, then that’s great.

An entertainer or artist has a unique platform to speak their mind and have people hear it. And some of those people will take what you say as the end-all, be-all. That you’re the truth and the representative for a larger idea. I just don’t think I should be that person. Mu songs are just an answer to something, subjects that effect me personally. Or like it’s just me representing how I was brought up in a positive way so other people can understand it.

Like “Mangos and Rice”?

Exactly, man. That’s me saying ‘Hey, i’m just telling you how I was raised. And if you came up the same way as me then you probably felt like an outcast or strange growing up. But there are other people out there going through the same things.

Okay, so you probably won’t keep heading in the political direction of some of these songs. Do you think you’ll keep moving toward some of the genre experiments on this album, like the disco songs or the pop-sounding tracks?

I mean it’s hard to say. I really do love pushing myself musically but I also really love the tradition of rock and roll music, obviously. I will say that I haven’t had the urge to write a straight-up blues song in a while. But come the next record, I might release a blues album. Who knows?

I’m a big believer that any time you feel creatively stagnant or feel like you’ve hit a plateau, you have to do whatever you can to push past that, even if it fails. And this project was a way to do that that felt good, but also still felt true to me.

It did get to the point that I was like completely going off the rails and making like straight-up house music tracks. And I was in the studio like “Yeah, this is dope.” But then I’d go back and listen and be like “What the f*ck? I can’t put this out.”

But maybe on the next album?
[laughs] Yeah, man. Maybe later.

Savage Times Vol. 1 is out 2/17 on Innovative Leisure. Get it here.