Hanni El Khatib has described his sound as “knife-fight music,” a rough-and-tumble approach that occasionally spills over into his own life.
On a recent trip overseas, for example, the Los Angeles-based musician got into a one-sided, 4 a.m. scrap with a Russian bouncer outside a bar in Berlin, Germany.
“I got socked the f--- out,” Khatib said in a recent phone interview. “It was pretty brutal, but it was also hilarious because I had this massive black eye and a swollen face that didn’t go away until two days before we performed on [‘The Late Show with David Letterman’ in July]. I was hoping I’d have a cool black eye for Dave, but that wasn’t the case.”
A handful of the songs populating the singer/guitarist’s sophomore album, the retro, garage-leaning Head in the Dirt, sound equally eager to scrap, particularly the gritty title track and “Nobody Move,” a blazing guitar dustup where Khatib lays down the law, singing, “Nobody moves and nobody gets hurt.”
Though the album sounds like it was put to tape in a single, boozy late night, Khatib, 32, describes the setting in far more familial terms. The musician recorded the album with producer Dan Auerbach in his Nashville studio, and the Black Keys singer’s parents and daughter were a regular presence in the studio during sessions.
“Dan’s folks would come and sit in the control room and his daughter would hang around and approve mixes for us,” said Khatib, who was born to an engineer father and a mother he described as “more eccentric.” “Basically I stayed with him for almost a month, and we had the same routine every day. We’d get up and get our coffee and head to the studio. If there was a day we didn’t feel like recording we’d go see Dan’s mechanic and look at cars. It was pretty laid back.”
The characters in the songs, however, tend to live comparatively dangerous lives, and many of them come across like extras that could have ridden alongside Marlon Brando in “The Wild One.”
“I’ve become less specific about my own life,” Khatib said. “[The songs] are becoming these weird mixes of fiction blended in with stories about myself and my friends and the weird things I read.”