‘… spiritually, I feel like the story of Lucifer is still — ‘ Silence. Twenty five minutes into a phone interview with Berlin-based Arish -King’ Khan – voodoo-loving frontman of the Shrines, former member of the Spaceshits, founder of the Kukamonga Death Cult – and talk has turned to the devil. ‘I think rock and roll basically comes from Lucifer’, the psychedelic soul merchant had announced just seconds before, and whatever Gods are listening to our conversation are clearly not amused.
We don’t get cut off – instead, there’s an eerie silence. State is not surprised – there’s something about King Khan that invites this spiritual interference, a confluence of beliefs that take in everything from tarot to punk.
Khan’s a wonderfully effervescent character – he speaks swiftly, like he’s trying to cram in everything before he forgets. His excitement is infectious, and he can switch between fantastical tales of hazy nights jamming with hip-hop royalty and the influence of spirituality on his music at ease. He’s excited about his band; his upcoming Dublin gig (‘I love Irish people!’); his attachment to Ireland thanks to his brother’s recent marriage to the sister of actress Rose McGowan. He’s intense without being overbearing, eager to share knowledge, telling me to look up specific GG Allin interviews on Youtube. He’s someone for whom the word -character’ was invented, but he’s certainly no caricature.
The last time King Khan played here, with his other band, The King Khan and BBQ Show, Khan went home with a rather unusual Derry city souvenir. ‘This enormous woman bit my ass!’ he says incredulously. Dressed like Tina Turner in a go-go outfit, Khan can only guess that he ‘looked tantalising’ to the hungry woman, ‘like a birthday cake or a piece of chicken’. ‘I was just shaking my butt in her vicinity and she came up and took a bite, almost. Luckily she didn’t draw blood, but there was a big bruise. It required quite an explanation for my wife…’
Bizarre audience participation is in fact welcomed at his gigs, and Khan says he wants a Mardi Gras vibe to his shows: ‘I never want it to be too theatrical. I want to have it more loose and funny and crazy.’ Loose, funny and crazy are all key words in the guide to life for King Khan. ‘I think I have cartoon in my blood,’ he laughs at one point, wondering aloud if it was because of the classical Indian sitar music that he heard in utero, through headphones placed on his mother’s swollen belly. When Khan says that his life is like the story of Homer, he’s not talking about the yellow, paunchy cartoon character. At 17, wanting to escape his home life, Khan went on his own odyssey. ‘And ever since then I’ve been on the road,’ he says. ‘I moved downtown [in Montreal] and discovered playing punk, and then I found travelling was the most amazing way of discovering yourself.’
He describes this life-changing decision as ‘all pre-destined or whatever’, and says that it simply dawned on him one day to start a band. That band was the Spaceshits, a freaky garage punk group that included Mark Sultan, aka BBQ, who still plays with King Khan on a regular basis as The King Khan and BBQ Show. The Spaceshits were Khan’s introduction to life as a fulltime musician, and he spent nearly six years kicking out the jams with his cohorts.
But by his early twenties, things had changed once more for the Canadian. He fell in love, became a father, and settled in Berlin with his wife and daughters. If punk saved him from the banality of everyday life, love saved him from the fate of punk, where the overriding belief is in a -live fast, die young’ mentality. Parenthood, he says, kicked him in the ass to get serious – but not too serious, and above all, ‘to make music that’s about love and not fighting’. He no longer wanted to burn out rather than fade away. Instead, in 2002, he decided to form a band and bring soul to the masses.
‘I think we carry the tradition [of soul music] on, but in the proper way,’ says Khan of The Shrines. ‘A lot of people do this, you know, imitation kind of stuff, or dressing up – actually we dress up but I don’t do it in any imitation way, I like to put our own influence on it and make it authentic.’ Also influenced by the sounds of Bollywood – ‘If you listen to Bollywood stuff from the -70s it’s just like, oh my god it’s jaw-droppingly psychedelic, it’s amazing’ – The Shrines are ‘all about the freak out’.
But what may surprise some is that Khan has crossed paths with hip hop, after chance meetings with old-school hip hop legend Fab Five Freddy and contemporary hip hop legend GZA. After GZA’s manager fell for The Shrine’s sound, the duo kept in touch by phone for a number of months, with Khan emailing the rapper some tracks. GZA and Khan then hooked up at the NXNE festival in Toronto, with Khan moonlighting as the guitarist for the Wu Tang Clan founder’s solo show. He was even given his own clan name – Lord Khan.
Meanwhile, Khan and BBQ caught Fab Five Freddy’s eye when covered head to toe in gold paint – and Khan wound up jamming with the hip hop pioneer in his hotel room. ‘We smoked so much weed and we jammed for four hours,’ laughs Khan. ‘I was just playing guitar in his hotel room and he was rapping. And then when I get back to my hotel room I don’t remember anything I played. The next morning I got up and frantically tried to remember what I’d done.’
This recent leap in King Khan’s profile – a high-five from his musical heroes as well as signing to the Vice record label – may have come relatively late in his long career, but Khan, who is just in his early thirties, is happy about that. He says it’s because he has been patient and not tried ‘to be the flavour of the month’. ‘That’s one of the reasons I’ve avoided England,’ he explains. ‘We’ve played there a couple of times but I can’t stand this whole NME bullshit, like: -Oh this is cool now so everyone listen to this’. That exists, but it has nothing to do with my world.’
So what will you find in Khan’s world? Spirituality, for one thing. He places great stock in the power of tarot cards, not least because the figure that rests on the top of the deck is the Fool. ‘That’s why I think tarot is so amazing, because that’s the highest card, above the universe, above religion, above everything,’ he enthuses. ‘And it’s essentially true – people who are smiling and just happily living their life and dealing with everything and turning hate into love, are the ones who survive. That’s also one element of my music that I take seriously, the gospel feeling, that’s nothing necessarily to do with Christianity, it’s more to do with being able to turn hate into love.’
The power of gospel has great meaning for Khan. ‘To be honest, things in the world haven’t changed: the same racism and corruptness, and all that brutality, it still exists but it manifests itself in a different form. So people still need gospel music. And that’s why my gospel is basically about losing yourself, and enjoying life, and putting firecrackers in body parts.’ He says his religion is music – ‘If I want to pray I’ll put on Silver Apples or Alice Coltrane’ – but he still holds a space in his spiritual beliefs for the darker side of things, the GG Allins of this world and their obsession with death, destruction, the detritus of human life.
And yes, this genial, hyperactive, positivity-focused soul king believes in Lucifer too. ‘I think basically rock and roll comes from Lucifer – but not the devil Lucifer, more the fallen angel part,’ he explains breathlessly. ‘I completely believe in that, and that’s I guess one of the things with the [Kukamonga] Death Cult, it’s not got biblical connections, but in a way, spiritually, I feel like the story of Lucifer is still…’ He never did get around to finishing that sentence.
Foggy Notions presents King Khan and the Shrines, Whelan’s Upstairs on Wednesday 7th October. Tickets €14 plus booking fee from WAV. The line-up includes 60 year-old Chicago-born, Ron Streeter (the live-percussionist of Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, and many other Soul-Legends), a horn section consisting of Simon Wojan (member of Kranky Records recording artists Cloudland Canyon), Ben Ra (Germany’s John Coltrane), and famous French rockabilly saxophonist Big Fred Rollercoaster.