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For Hanni El Khatib, rock & roll is about love and other crimes. Each of his record covers features a photo of a smashed-up car, and pretty much all of his stripped-down garage-y songs are about something going beautifully wrong between two people. If he had to spend the night in jail with one of his musical heroes, he says, he'd pick Nick Cave, and if he had to point to a song that perfectly captures that strange but captivating overlap between terrible things and terrific music, he'd put on the Misfits' "Last Caress."
He has two 45s out now and an album coming in September on up-and-coming LA label Innovative Leisure, also home to OC-born-and-raised R&B gentleman-scholar Nick Waterhouse, who shares Hanni's affection and respect for that certain era of music where rock & roll was as romantic as it was raw. Think Gene Vincent instead of Elvis, or Eddie Cochran instead of Buddy Holly, although El Khatib probably could turn out an appropriately rollicking version of "Peggy Sue."
To El Khatib, songs that aren't polished and polite are songs that are honest. He told one reporter he likes "aggressive things, tragic things, raw things." He now explains that what he really meant was "anything that sparks an immediate reaction. It's those things that may bring up some very pure emotions within you. Personally, I feel those things can trigger something within myself that inspires me to create art and music."
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Growing up in San Francisco, he skated every day—until he discovered the guitar, he says. Soon, music had established itself as the other driving force in his life, and El Khatib would lock himself in his room for hours just to play. "Since I've known Hanni, his interests haven't changed—skateboarding, making music and cars," says Ricky Saiz, helpfully identified by El Khatib as his best friend since high school. "Except now his car of choice isn't an Acura Integra."
His first independent EP, Bullfighter's Heart, is quiet El Khatib, recorded acoustically so it wouldn't disturb the neighbors. But prompting from longtime friend Marc Bianchi (of Her Space Holiday) led to the electrified El Khatib, experimenting for the first time with live drums and amplified instruments without anyone on the other side of the wall to demand he keep it down. Call it a . . . transformative experience.
Now reinforced with drummer Nicky Fleming-Yaryan, El Khatib and his guitar make for a cheerfully ramshackle live set, in which originals melt in and out of verses from Marvin Gaye and Sam & Dave or not-quite-straight-up covers of Louis Armstrong and Funkadelic. In El Khatib's hands, they're all cut to their absolute basics—lyrics and rhythm, delivered with a blues-y Bo Diddley or Hound Dog Taylor shuffle. On the records, however, you'll hear the sweeter side—if the live sets are all black leather, the studio tracks reveal the heart of gold in songs such as "Dead Wrong," which recalls the lover-not-a-fighter classics of Dion and the Belmonts. (Or Mark Sultan, unrivaled for wounded-heart rock & roll in the 21st Century.) El Khatib has a musical personality that matches the 45s he puts out—one side revved-up rock, one side heartbroke soul.
"I've always wanted to create two different experiences," he says. "With a recording, you can be precise and really take your time to create exactly the sound you are going for. But with a live show, there are no re-dos—it's basically a one-take deal, so I just like to go for it and embrace the moment and let whatever happens happen."
He'll be playing this weekend at the second Pacific Festival, a colossally expanded version of the Steve Aoki-helmed festival that last year took over Triangle Square and Sutra in Costa Mesa. Then, Aoki booked a slew of DJs and live bands as diverse as Swedish new-wavers the Sounds and LA's traditional-style reggae crew the Aggrolites, but he told OC Weekly he had originally wanted to take over Oak Canyon Ranch. This year, Aoki got his wish, with five stages and more than 50 bands capped by a Snoop Dogg greatest-hits set with a live band. With the rock & roll part including the Black Lips and the Growlers, El Khatib's they-don't-make-'em-like-this-anymore set fits in just fine—guitar, drums, and tales of love and woe.
This article appeared in print as "Wounded-Heart Rock & Roll: Hanni El Khatib overlaps the terrible and the terrific in his music."