October Cover Story: King Khan & The Shrines

King Khan & The Shrines have just released Idle No More after penning a new deal with Merge Records, and are returning to the States to tour beginning this month.  This is the first new music with The Shrines in at least four years, even though Arish Ahmad Khan (King Khan himself) has been involved in several side projects during that time.

Khan had some soul-searching experiences that led to the ideas for the new album, including the death of long-time musician friends, Memphis’s alternative star Jay Reatard, as well as Atlanta guitarist Bobby Ubanji, who died in 2009.

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The end product of this rough period in his life resulted in the current change in musical direction, both lyrically and texturally. Khan awakened with a sense of what is important in life and a forward-thinking social consciousness regarding different races and cultures and their needs.

KingKhan_byMironZownirThe record is named after a North American indigenous movement that started in Khan’s homeland of Canada and is unifying different tribes into a coalition striving to return to its roots, and who speak out about the indignities suffered through colonization.

It’s been seven years since the last new music from King Khan & The Shrines. How long did the album take to record?

Actually, it took five. Getting together was a challenge. It was all the same members of The Shrines that I have worked with for the past twelve years.

The theme and music are different than anything you have done before. It was kind of introspective and moody, like something Alex Chilton did on Big Star’s Third.

Well, I guess it came from my two years in the break. During [that time] it was pretty rough. That was like the first song expressing the ‘absence of’ – it was kind of like the theme of life.

Is there more introspection on the new album?

I guess so. There were a lot of things that happened, a combination of emotions. It was also like growing up. But, all in all, I do want to say it is a classic ‘Shrines’ record.

Does it have something to do with the death of Jay Reatard? Is that part of the story? 

Once I hashed it out for a while, I did ‘Darkness’ as a requiem for him.

kkshrines4x6_front2cmyk.pdfWas the album recorded in [your new hometown] of Berlin?

Yeah, actually, part of it was recorded in Berlin and part of it was done in Hamburg in this studio that [doubles as] an art gallery.

So what kind of mood is Idle No More conveying?

I guess I’d like to think in some ways that this album is a part of a healing process. I think that it is going to be new music from the aspect that we are trying to, in some ways, better the world.

What is your writing process? Do you sit down with a guitar or get together with the band?

That is something where sometimes someone will bring in a song or I work with our guitar player and trumpet player, Simon Says.

So you sit around and work out your ideas, then?

It can really build by the fact that sometimes they write a song, and they just bring it in and play it to everyone to show them what to do.

When you started back with the neo-soul, there really wasn’t a scene like The Daptones out of Brooklyn or the Nashville GED Soul scene. 

Not really, we started in 1999 and were some of the first ones who were trying to do that, but at the same time, we didn’t try to take a purist approach.  Like, I love a lot of punk music and I grew up listening to that and basic rock and roll and psychedelic music; I then tried to incorporate all of those things into [our sound].

I guess you’ve had a chance to meet Roky Erickson and some of the people who’ve influenced you.

Yeah, that was amazing. I met Roky Erickson twice and the last time we opened up for him. He is one of the big influences; I also think the 13th Floor Elevators are one of the best rock and roll bands ever.

KingKhan_Cred_MichaelHudlerWith the new songs, are you seeing different fans that you didn’t see several years ago?

We have always found the more shows we play, the younger and newer the audience. So, I feel like the message is properly being conveyed.  I’m having a lot of people come out [who] really appreciate the whole live show.  They leave feeling like they’ve seen something [worthwhile], so I feel like I am doing a service to the world.

The We Fun documentary showed your relationship with Black Lips in Atlanta. How did you end up in Atlanta? 

Actually, I started touring with Black Lips, I guess almost ten years ago, and it became like a second home. Bobby Ubanji was one of my best friends and he passed away a few years ago of cancer; we just kind of got adopted by the whole scene there, and it grew into a second home for me. Yeah, I love Atlanta.

Do you stay in Atlanta when you are in the States?

I used to a lot, but then Bobby passed away; it’s a bit different now. Black Lips are touring around and they are rarely home.

What are a couple of clubs or spots that you are really looking forward to playing in the States?

I love touring all over the States. One thing I like about The Shrines is that we have a lot of fun touring. Everyone is really excited about playing and the U.S. is a great place to play.

You have one of the greatest shows out right now.

Thank you.

It’s kind of like Zappa in that he had a comedic edge about him, but at the same time he had a serious musical force that he could take in a lot of different directions.

Thank you. Yeah, I think that it is important to do a lot of ‘not taking yourself seriously.’ I have always believed that and I guess it’s kind of what people think about the image and how we actually write the songs.

The album title, Idle No More. I wouldn’t describe The Shrines as ‘idle.’ Where did that come from?

The title of the album comes from this Native American group. It’s called Idle No More.  The same thing as ‘I’m covered.’ Anyways, it is really amazing. It is one of the best things that has happened; the fact that in North America the newspapers don’t want to cover it is interesting.

I’ll look into it. 

That would be cool. They are doing great things, especially in Canada. The Native Americans are finally getting together and they are trying to renegotiate treaties and I think that stuff is going on all over America. So, I actually asked permission from the organization if I could put their name on my album, in tribute to them and also to spread the word.

Is there anybody you are connecting with in particular with that movement?

Actually, I grew up with a lot of Mohawk Indian friends, so I’ve always had a place for the American Indian in my heart. I used to go to the Indian reservation and stay sometimes when I was growing up.  It’s just great to see the Native American people coming together and finally tackling problems that they face. I mean, if you have to go and live on the reservation, it’s worse than Third World countries and it’s within our own homeland. So, it’s great to see people get together and unite. The newspapers are not covering the stuff, so I thought it would be a good way to spread the good word.

Maybe through this new release this will increase some understanding…

Exactly. I think it’s always a good time to spread the good word.

Good luck on that. I guess the album is introspective on different levels. You’ve got some serious subjects on Idle No More.  

One of the greatest things happened a few months ago. A friend of mine was talking about the Black Power movement. Prichard Thomas Smith did a whole documentary about them called The Invaders. It’s about a black power movement from Memphis in the ’70s that was about to start working with Martin Luther King shortly before he got shot. He heard my music and wanted me to do the soundtrack for the film, so that was a big honor for me.


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