Interview: King Khan & The Shrines

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“I’m doing a spiritual service through getting my rocks off.”

For Arish Ahmad Khan AKA King Khan, music isn’t just notes, chords and a clapping audience — it’s a spiritual ritual, it’s a shared experience, a “black mass” in which there is ‘a giving and eating of energy,’ where the communal power of a band and audience is put into good use — to create harmony, love and and oneness.

If there’s any band that can accomplish such a spiritual quest it’s his band, King Khan & The Shrines. The group combines elements of sweaty ’70s garage rock, sweet psychedelia and the savage soulfulness of ’60s R&B to create one of the most infectious sounds in modern music today. It’s a sound that evokes all of the great things about music from days gone by but infused with a sense of timelessness. Put this band on stage before Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival in ’67 and they’d kill it. Put them in a crowded Webster Hall in New York City with a crowd full of hipsters recording the show on their iPhone and they’d kill it. This band moves bodies, shakes soul and blows minds with their beautiful sound.

The band’s spiritual and vocal leader, King Khan, caught up with Pop-Break.com to discuss his intense personal tumult which lead to the band’s multi-year hiatus, the new album Idle No More and performing for 50 Cent in Norway.

Photo Credit: Miron Zownir
Photo Credit: Miron Zownir

Pop-Break: This is your first record since your 2008 greatest hits album. How does it feel to have a new record out?

King Khan: It feels greats. This album feels like it captured what was a pretty crazy part of my life. It’s more serious than the other records. I’m glad I made it — it’s a testament to healing.

Pop-Break: In between albums you went through a period where you actually left the music industry due to a lot of personal loss and tragedy. Can you talk about this time and how you came through it?

Photo Credit: Matias Corral
Photo Credit: Matias Corral

KK: Basically, my mind spun around to the point of no return. I lost touch with reality. I was traveling so much at the time. Then I reached one of the highest points of my career, I was invited [while on tour with The Mighty Defenders which features members of The Black Lips] to play the Sydney Opera House with Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. Playing with people you admire so much and if they’re appreciating/following you, where do you go from there?

A month before all that I met filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, who directed El Topo and Holy Mountain, [and] I remember him looking at me in the eyes (while doing a tarot reading) and saying, “You better be careful. This is the year of your crucifixion.” I remember saying, “Oh…thanks.”

[At the same time] I was losing people [Editor’s Note: Three friend’s in Khan’s life passed away in succession] and not grieving. My mind became a complex mess. I went to a Buddhist monastery in Korea to become a monk. My family intervened and told me to go and seek help. I was down that road — that number state zero, burning the whole Viking ship kind of thing. I started taking heavy psychotropic drugs and during that time I stopped writing.

“Darkness” (the song) creeped into my head and I realized I hadn’t lost power to write. [Writing] helped in the healing process.

PB: With all this of this going on and being channeled into your writing, how does this make Idle No More stand out from the rest of your catalog?

Photo Credit: Eric Luc
Photo Credit: Eric Luc

KK: I don’t think I’ll know the answer to the end of the tour to realize the effect. So far I’m really happy with audiences’ response. The audiences are getting younger and the kids treat our music like a well-kept secret. That’s the way we’ve always gone. We’ve never had a marketing plan, we let the music speak for itself. We’re preserving the old school way of growth.

PB: Can you talk about where the sound of King Khan & The Shrines comes from?

KK: I look at music a lot like I do cooking. My grandmother was an amazing Indian cook and she taught me that cooking was more like painting than measuring. I look at music that way. [Our sound] is the best elements of things that move me. I love the desperation in music; it hits me in my core. Even if the song isn’t full of pain, you can still hear the depth and desperation in the singer’s voice. Like one of James Brown’s screams it was like a volcano. Roky Erickson cites James Brown’s scream as something that changed his life. My life has been devoted to discovering music — it’s powerful and life changing. I was in a punk band, The Spaceshits, we got banned, would throw meat…I was glad I did it at that age. Then I discovered early, crazy, savage R&B and rock ‘n’ roll like The Stooges. I’ve never thought of this band as retro. I think we pay homage but we take it to another level. That makes us free to do what we want.

PB: You performed an after-party show for 50 Cent in Norway, not something one would’ve expected given the style of music you perform and the style 50 performs. Did he personally reach out to you to perform?

KK: To be honest it was at a giant industrial music festival. It’s not as romantic as is sound. There were a lot of hot Norwegian chicks drinking champagne…but 50 Cent was headlining and I don’t think he ever even showed up. I did work with GZA of Wu Tang Clan though.

PB: How’d that happen?

KK: Remember the original host of Yo! MTV Raps, Fab Five Freddie? He came to a [King Khan & The] BBQ show and he thought it was crazy. So he we ended up hanging up and I met GZA. I ended up playing guitar with him on some songs including “Liquid Swords.” It was amazing to hang out and listen to him freestyle while played guitar.

PB: Speaking of live performance, what was the inspiration behind your live show, which has been described as “the wildest show on earth.”

KK: One of the most remarkable things about everyone in this band is that they play like it’s the last show they’re ever going to play. For me it gets to the point with the band that nine people become its own entity. So many unpredictable things happen…I compare it to a magic ritual through show business. It’s sad to listen to popular music today, there’s nothing unpredictable about it. That’s what’s amazing about jazz — you don’t know what to expect. [With us] the show is strange and [powerful] like a cult but there’s no ritual to enter and become part of it — it’s just opening up your heart and enjoying.

King Khan and The Shrines perform a special show at Webster Hall in New York City on Wednesday October 30th. Click here for tickets.

Bill Bodkin is the gray bearded owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, he is lucky husband, and proud father to a beautiful daughter named Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites