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New Music To Know: Hanni El Khatib Finds His Musical Soulmate In Dan Auerbach

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Annie Reuter
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At first listen, “House Of Fire” off Hanni El Khatib‘s album, Head In The Dirt, sounds as if it’s two songs molded into one. And he says he intended it to be that way.

“It’s nice to hear a song that starts off really vulnerable and isolated,” El Khatib told Radio.com. “You almost feel like you’re in the room with the singer or songwriter or the instrument. Then it explodes into this big thing. It felt like that was the best way to bookend the record.”

El Khatib said the final track on the album was originally going to be twice the speed but as he was playing the song slowly, trying to remember the lyrics, the album’s producer, Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys, who El Khatib met by chance at a bar in Paris, urged him to slow the track down.

“I’m really awful with memorizing my own lyrics. I was singing it to myself and Dan was in the room. Dan was like, ‘You should just play it like that. We can get into the fast part later.’” I remember being opposed to it, but I was like, ‘Why not try it?’” he said.

Much like this song, El Khatib considers his career in music a fortunate accident.

He never had the intention of being a singer. In fact, music became a pastime while working at HUF where he was a creative director for streetwear and skateboards.

“I didn’t think too hard of it,” he said of becoming a musician. “I always had friends that were in bands and in the industry and often times flailing and trying to figure out what to do. I had a cool job designing skateboards and t-shirts so I was not really concerned with trying to get out of my sh** job because I had a fun job.”

Instead, music was simply what he did on the side.

“No one knew I made music. I wasn’t telling people I was in a band,” he explained. “I was just doing it to help me from going crazy at work, just something else to do. Some people paint, some people read.”

In 2010, El Khatib’s demos got into the hands of indie label Innovative Leisure who put out his debut, Will the Guns Come Out, the following year. Now, Khatib isn’t only signed, but is part-owner and the in-house Art Director for the Los Angeles label.

“Once the music started taking off and I started playing shows, I realized that maybe it is something that I could do,” he reflected. “I could always turn back to drawing skateboard graphics if I wanted to.”

While music may be his full-time job now, El Khatib’s time as a creative director has come in handy, as it plays a major part in the creation of his own music. Self-described as a visual person, he said his songwriting and music go hand in hand with his album packaging and music videos.

“Often times I’m thinking of the cover of the record before I’m even writing songs for the album,” he explained. “Just because I need to put it in some sort of visual context which is why I think music videos are so important. It helps further explain your overall concept for the music. I think of the song as a percentage of the overall vision of what I’m trying to do.”

His video for “Penny,” which takes place in a jail where the prisoners are seen singing along to the track, is a good example of his A/V skills. “That song was poppy and uplifting in a sense,” he explained. “So the thought of seeing these inmates stuck in prison singing that song was the other side of the spectrum. That would be the last thing that they’d probably be singing in jail.”

Before he went into the studio to record his sophomore album, Head In the Dirt, El Khatib created a mood board to visualize what message he wanted to get across through his music.

“I was collecting all these old patches from the ’70s and late ’60s and picking up this vibe visually to the point I was getting obsessed with music equipment based on the aesthetic,” he said.

The result is 11 eclectic tracks including the album’s title track, which Khatib says takes “every bit of sound that I like…and meshes it together into one genre-less type of song.” The songs are difficult to place, but it’s not something El Khatib worries about.

“[The album] doesn’t feel schizophrenic in a sense where it doesn’t make sense or there’s no continuity,” he said. “It’s not like there’s a jazz song and then a punk song. It’s hard for me to put my finger on the specific sound of the record.”

El Khatib says an artist must always trust his gut, something he learned from working with Auerbach.

“As a musician and producer myself, I’ve worked with many different types of musicians,” he said. “So to work with him and realize you can still make big records acting as if you are just recording in your bedroom, that was really important.”

 

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