A smarmy, explosive mix of James Brown and the Crocodiles, King Khan himself leads the nine-piece, horn-filled KING KHAN & THE SHRINES with psychedelic costumed antics, tight musicianship, and potential nudity. And he does it all with the charming smile of a close friend and an undeniable magnetism usually saved for voodoo leaders. In the new Shrines video for the groovy single “Bite My Tongue” (their first since 2009), Khan flies around spraying hot sauce on evildoers and battling Jesus, who shoots wine from his eyeballs. “I wanted to show how close Jesus is to Batman,” he says.
A cult leader in garage rock and punk-drenched soul for a decade, Khan has been gathering disciples and getting arrested around the world in bands like the Spaceshits, King Khan & BBQ Show (with Marc Sultan), Tandoori Knights (with Bloodshot Bill), the Black Jaspers and the Almighty Defenders (with the Black Lips). The new Shrines album is nearly finished, so expect some funky new tunes tonight when Khan crashes Brighton Music Hall in Allston.
Speaking to Khan recently, his epic stories about Lou Reed melt into passionate lessons on Tarot cards, mental health and the actual voodoo healings he’s performed, with an explanation of what it means to worship magma. The following interview is virtually uncut. Join the ride.
You’ve got this short east coast tour coming up, is that the way you like it?
This time, this total adventure was kind of like a family trip. I’ve been hanging out with my grandma in Ontario, and so it just happened that people wanted to organize some shows at the end of this family adventure.
With your grandma, that’s great.
Yeah! I just found out today that my great-grandfather killed over 400 snakes in his life.
How do you feel about that, Black Snake?
I know! That was kind of the original reason I called myself Black Snake. My mom, it was kind of like an ultimate form of teenage rebellion at that time because honestly, when someone called my mother’s house and asked for Black Snake, it would send like this evil shiver down her spine, that it was about her son.
My grandma is just amazing. I’ve been hanging out with her and she’s been telling me all these old stories about... she was kind of the one who inspired the whole voodoo thing in me, as a child. She would tell me stories about withes in India. And, in fact, she told me 'bout how if you want to capture someone’s soul, you have to feed them owl meat. But the whole magic part is that you have to capture it at night. You have to be quite evil to beat an owl at its own game at night. So, the intention is really hardcore.
So, all the energy from that is what guarantees the soul capturing?
Right! Exactly. That’s actually what all of voodoo is about. It’s just channeling energies into good or bad. But I’ve always gone the good way. Because she’s always warned me about going the bad way.
If you put a hex on someone, doesn’t it reflect on the hex-giver tenfold?
Yeah, I mean. I’ve helped a friend deal with that before. She had a boyfriend who was this really crazy Satanist and she could really feel these horrible curses on her. One of the ways they do it is you take a picture of that person and you hang it upside down concentrate on it being upside down. And it apparently sends horrible vibes to that person. And it’s true because that girl was really upset. But there are other ways of conquering that thing.
You conquered it?
It’s funny, because if I get into the details it’d sound kind of Harry Potter-ish. I remember these things I used to practice, I didn’t realize what I was doing until later. For example, for a while I would, you know, all the sweat from the show -— I mean, for me I always think the show is like a magic ritual -— I would just put my hands in my armpits and rub all the armpit sweat onto my chest and on my jacket and then I would just walk through the audience and just get a drink at the bar. And it’s really amazing what kinds of people are attracted to you at that point.
That is very raw.
Exactly, it’s very animalistic. It’s like, you’ll see that there are people who are afraid. And there are people who’d be like, “Hey! What’s up?”
I’m glad that’s how we started.
You referred to yourself as a magician in that amazing article/letter you wrote in response to the Sydney Opera House show, with Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson.
Oh god. I must say, that was at the height of my, that was when the magic kind of went nuts. That was after an accumulation of things that basically... I went completely insane for about two weeks and I had a huge kind of melt down. Which was actually predicted by Alejandro Jodorowsky, who is one of my gurus. [Alejandro Jodorowsky is a Chilean-French filmmaker, playwright, actor, author, comics writer and spiritual guru.] He had invited me to his place, about a month before that whole thing and when I was leaving, he was like, “Oh, you should be careful because this is year of your crucifixion.” And I was like, “What?” (Laughs).
He is incredible. He could just look into my eyes and know how old I was and also, this was going to happen. Anyway, I guess it was 10 years of living crazy, you know. And then, two years ago I was kind of invited to hang out with the people that made me, in a way. Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson and Jodorowsky, for example. And I guess after reaching that point, you kind of don’t know what to do. You’ve suddenly been given, whatever, accolades by them. But it’s more them hand-picking you and bringing you into their house and being like, “Hey, you’re one of us.”
And so it was really incredible and at the same time, completely blew my mind to bits. That’s what led me to seek out a homeless aboriginal guy in Australia and bring him to the Opera House and they were both really cool with it. He had a tattoo on his face and he looked really scary, but he was really a wonderful guy and at that point, they thought it was like me being a wild man, which is what they’d heard about, I guess. But then, later when I wound up in a Buddhist temple in Korea, and was really losing my mind, they kind of got worried. Like, “Oh, he’s gone off the deep end, or whatever.”
How did you end up in Korea?
Marc and I (as King Khan and BBQ Show) had another week of touring left in Korea and China. We are very much an old married couple. But this time the fighting had gotten to another level. And we were actually battling in the Orient. (Laughs) It was so absolutely ridiculous.
We’ve always been like the Odd Couple. But, for example, we were sitting in a plane in China going from Beijing to Shanghai and I see these red pillows and they have these little yellow stars on them. And I’m like, oh they’re so cute. I’d love to take one for my kids. So I just take the pillow and I put it in my bag. And then Marc is like, “Oh man, don’t do that.” And I’m like, “Oh whatever, it’s just a pillow.” So then, everyone proceeds to get off the plane. And everyone gets in the little bus that goes to the airport. And then the bus is jam-packed and it’s not moving. Right? For like five minutes. And I start getting nervous, like, what the hell, why aren’t we moving? And Marc is like, “It’s because of your fucking pillow!” It can’t be. And sure enough, there’s a stewardess and a guy with a machine gun circling the bus and they stop right at the window I’m sitting at and the stewardess points right at me. And normally I’m really good at sneakin’ stuff, but there are eyes everywhere in China.
And as soon as they come in, Marc is just, “Oh you idiot, now you’re gonna get arrested.” And the thing was, I had just gotten arrested in Barcelona for another stupid thing ...anyways, all this went wrong because I was going completely insane. And then after that whole tour, I came back home and I had to seek help.
And then I heard you considered stopping the music. I understood you must have gone through something pretty massive.
It was really massive.
But you’re emerging from the darkness and I bet a lot of people can relate.
Well see, that’s one thing. For example, I’ve been doing tarot cards for ten years. And Jodorowski, one of the biggest authorities on Tarot in the world, he taught me that it’s better to do Tarot in public, with everybody watching, so that everyone learns from your own errors.
And that’s the thing. I’m glad I survived that darkness, but I also want to let people know. You just have to want to have help. And then, you heal yourself. Or your get healed. A lot of people are afraid of that step to be like, you know what, I’m in trouble.
And I know that step, because for the last two years, a lot of friends of mine -— not only just dealing with three of my best brothers in the world, who I grew up with, just dying -— but then not dealing with the grief properly and letting it linger until it... that was one of the biggest things that drove me crazy. I would just have these nervous breakdowns where I’d be at a bar, just talking to a friend and then suddenly I’d just start crying. I realized slowly that I had to do a lot of work to break this thing in my brain. Now finally I can handle the mania.
And my wife was kind of turned into my parole officer in a way. But it’s like, we’re dealing with it slowly and I’m not dragging homeless people into situations anymore. But that was really fun. We both had a great time.
You tamed your beast.
There are ways of trying to tap into things, like Tarot cards for me are one of the most incredible forms of psychotherapy that, even someone as crazy as I am, you can offer to a lot of people and help them to find some kind of order in the chaos that is around us. It sounds a little hokey if you don’t believe it, but for people who do believe it like myself, it’s incredible. Really beautiful things happen.
It’s like, you know those crazy Thai surgeries? Where they pull out chicken liver from your cancer? It just like gives the person a feeling like, I really just got rid of something. And you actually are healing yourself.
It’s about seeing the light at the end of tunnel.
Was the light at the end of the tunnel, for you, last year’s album The King Khan Experience? Or was that recorded earlier? What was that?
Oh, thank you. No the light was my family. Those recordings were way before. It’s funny because those were songs that I just never really... some of it was done in Berlin. Some of it was done in Bordeaux, France, during this crazy heat wave that they had. I think it was during 2004 or 2005. And I brought my family to Bordeaux and they had this heat wave and you couldn’t even go outside because it was so hot. Old people were dying in the hospitals. Haha, did someone giggle when I said that?
That was me. So, I didn’t know Experience was so old. It came out late last summer.
OK, cool. Yeah, I’m happy to answer... for me, the King Khan Experience thing was kind of something that just farted onto the Earth and kind of, like, it’s just floating around. I never really intended for those songs to come out in the form they did, I just had the opportunity to do that. And I figured, why not?
Anyway, I’m glad that you like it, because the critics didn’t seem to be too, uh, into that. But yeah, I did my Jay Reatard tribute on that album, too. The “Hammer, I Miss You” tune, in German.
Yeah, tell me about that.
KK: Well, it was just one of my favorite songs of Jay’s. And I mean, I grew up with him. I used to play with him back in the day, in my first punk band. He was probably one of the fiercest, greatest punk rockers I’ve ever known and will know. And sadly he went the classic, uh, rock way. But I gotta say that he was soldier ‘til the end.
I like reading about him.
Yeah. I wrote a huge thing for his tribute DVD about the first time and the last time I met him. And it’s pretty... you should try to look for it.
I will. I respect your writing and lyrics a lot. “No Regrets,” simple, excellent. And “Come Levitate With Me” might be one of my favorite new tunes.
Oh wow. Thank you. You know, I had a crazy thing happen to me after I recorded that “Come Levitate With Me.” I recorded it in Berlin in the winter of maybe 2004. Hold on one second... What? Where’s mom? Where’s your mom? I’m doing an interview. No, wait. Five minutes.
What were we talking about? Oh yeah. After we recorded that song, it was 8 am and I was with my buddy and he was like, you know what? Let’s go get a drink. So, in Berlin of course, there’s this 24-hour bar that people like to go to. I used to like to go to it back then when I was more of like a serious punk rocker. But now when I go there, it’s quite depressing. But it’s like full of these shivering alcoholics. It’s like a shit hole. It’s like Hell. And the owner of the bar is this Turkish dude with gold teeth and huge gold rings and he sits there and reads a newspaper and stares at people. So it’s quite an interesting place.
So, I went there, and as soon as I opened the door -— I was wearing this German hunter’s hat with a feather in it -— and I open the door and there’s a Somalian guy who is 80-years-old who is wearing the same hat and the same scarf right at the door. And he just turns around and goes: (deep scary voice) “You look like meeee!” (Screams)
Later, he loosed up and told me his name was Hasan Hersi Ali Gama, so I wrote it down. And I was on the train, pretty drunk at this point going back home, and I was looking at his name and like an anagram, my real name is in there. So then I started mixing the letters and I spelled, “Arish (my birth name) is a Shaman Gal.”
And I know I do dress up like a chick, and have, for like a long time. But it’s true that when I do administer whatever kind of Shaman healing for people, it’s pretty effeminate. Because you have to be, you have to be very mothering. “A Shaman Gal...” So I started thinking I could definitely be that guy in 40 years at that bar, scaring the shit out of young musicians.
It’s good to hear that you treated your brain with respect recently.
Oh God. I had to. Otherwise I would have gone... you know the other thing is, I have children. I love them to death and I am eternally their protector. So, if I let my shit go crazy, like if I’m thrown in jail three or four times in one year, then there’s something very wrong with what I’m doing.
So it wasn’t three or four times in one year, then, it was spread out?
(Laughs) It was spread over two years, yeah. But there were at least four incarcerations where I’m like, “What the fuck am I doing here?” And especially when you have kids. And you’re in jail in Spain, or in Kentucky. It’s like, Holy Fuck. We had the whole orange uniform. We were full on, with toothbrush, towel and scary dudes with facial tattoos just quietly sitting there.
Hey, you know, you’re a criminal.
Yeah and the best was my mug shot was really funny and my race on my mug shot was “Other.” For real!
I saw that today online. I mean, I also prepared by watching some Tandoori Knights music videos, which I really shouldn’t be watching at work. That one, “Brown Trash,” is incredible.
(Laughs) Wait until you see this new one we’re doing for this band Moon Duo. Oh my God.
What do you mean, “we?”
Yeah, I have this great video production group now, called Hylas Film, that I work with. They did the “Bite My Tongue” video, for example.
That video is awesome.
We should make it into a movie. I should get the guy who did Batman Begins. Make it really dark and scary. Really dark and scary. Yesterday, I was asked about the video in an interview or something. And I said, “Oh, I just wanted to explain how close Jesus Christ is to Batman.”
Are you a James Brown, Iggy Pop or Elvis?
(Laughs) Wow, neither. I love them all. I think I derive from an older source of magic and weirdness. I’ve basically, in the past few months, had these visions about what my spirituality is all about. And I realize that it’s basically, I guess I worship and am a part of some kind of old cult that worships magma. It’s really crazy, but I have actually had really strong visions about how certain people in history are basically volcanoes.
Like, William S. Burroughs, for example, being one of the fiercest. In elementary school he was thrown out for having gay relationships with other kids, and then he was shuffled around from school to school. And his family basically wanted to hide him. His family -— like water -— could not put out this fire. Right? So then, finally, when he got older, the volcano just erupted and he puts out Queer and Junkie and then, the whole world tried to wash away his fire. But, it just turned into steam and people gathered around. And then from that volcano came Iggy Pop and Andy Warhol and all those people.
I really wasn’t following you until you started to explain this. People like volcanoes, of course.
Yeah, which is why, for me, I need water. There are a lot of people with this magma and it’s dangerous too, because it can swallow you and turn you into dust.
Because nothing can stop magma, the ocean helps it form an island...
Exactly, and from that island is grown life. And it makes sense visually, and even physically in terms of art. That’s what art does, art creates that barren land and on top of that, fertility. That’s what makes art beautiful. The fertility and life it causes. So magma is basically like the blood of the earth.
And rock ‘n roll.
(Laughs) Yeah! Hell yeah!
Sometimes I’ll just explode with information onto people. This is a part of my mania. And this is why, for years before I started to tame it, I was always labeled the manic guy, the singer who’s crazy. And I would obviously put all of this mania into the show. And people would get crazy. But you lose the message in the mania.
And I had the message all along, but the more research I did about what it is that my message is —- and it’s not really concrete, one message -— but it’s like, it’s me and my path into enlightenment.
If you are initiate, then that is your chosen destiny. You go from the fool to the enlightened. And I am always forever going to be a fool and I will be forever on this path. And the day that you think that you are enlightened you’re not. You’ve got to be a fool to be enlightened. It’s just a crazy chaotic circle of events.
You have to respect the chaos.
You have to enjoy it. You have to see an order in it.
And you’re able to do that on tape.
Yeah. And I got back into writing poetry.
What are you working on now? There are so many collaborations that you’ve done. What’s the future?
I feel like I am like a phoenix rising out of ashes. I’ve finally been able to focus on what I really want to do and not get distracted by every firefly out there. The Shrines are in a very good form right now, it’s really fierce. We’re ready to finish up this album, which we’ve been sitting on for quite a long time. (Laughs) There’s that, and more and more, I’d like to get into doing stuff in film and television. Just kind of broadening the spectrum a bit.
I’ll always love to get on stage and perform the ritual, but it’s like, sometimes it gets taxing when you’re only bound to a room of, whatever, X amount of people.
So it’s time to grow, then?
Yeah, and it’s exhausting. The whole touring, I mean everyone experiences this kind of thing. You have to reprogram the weaponry. It’s not really like weapons. I guess it is sometimes like weapons.
You can use your weapons for good.
Yes! Exactly! I have really felt the whole samurai thing really makes sense for my music. I was talking to BBQ (Marc Sultan) about this last weekend, that it is like weapons. Our music can really cause damage. Music in general, you see how it has so much more influence that organized religion sometimes. You can cause a lot of healing or a lot of damage.
I think now, the world is really searching for a more spiritual way of dealing with things. And more fun. Laughter ultimately is the best medicine. I teach that to my kids too. Sometimes it’s hard for them to see how I take life really like a joke sometimes. I love laughing, and when I’m with the proper friends, we’re just laughing the whole time.
The gods figured that out. They look down at us and laugh. Because we’re ridiculous. If I had an art farm, I’d be laughing.
It’s been great to catch up with you, as a fellow ant.
No, no man. You rise above. And yeah, good stuff. Arcade Fire doesn’t have this kind of stuff to talk about. (Laughs) But that’s why they’re up where they’re supposed to be and I’m not. But I’m happy I’m not there. I’d rather be invisible in Kitchener, Ontario hanging out with my grandma. I still can’t believe my great-grandfather killed over 400 snakes.
Hey, yeah. And it comes back around.
My grandma was telling me, he was a tough dude. He could chase a snake in a circle, I think, and then grab it by its tail and then smack it against a rock. That’s intense.
And then drink the poison?
(Laughs) Or inject it into a syringe and sell it.
Gotta stay unpredictable.
I’ve always liked that saying that William Blake had, [paraphrasing] “unlock the locks and take the doors out of their jams.” I think that’s essentially what my philosophy is and will always be. Keep all your doors open.
KING KHAN AND THE SHRINES + HECTOR'S PETS | Brighton Music Hall, 158 Brighton Ave, Allston | July 23 @ 8 pm | 18+ | $15 | 888.779.0140 or brightonmusichall.com