Photo: Dustin Aksland

Interview: Hanni El Khatib

Hanni El Khatib has just put out FLIGHT, his fifth album, which eschews the guitar-based sound of his previous work in favour of beat and sample-oriented pop. He tells us about growing up with this kind of music and how a near-death experience inspired him to follow his heart and create an album that displays his true self.

Between 2010 and 2017, Hanni El Khatib released four albums and toured them all more or less non-stop. Unsurprisingly, by the time he was on the road for 2017’s Savage Times he was exhausted. What had started as a chance happening, with Innovative Leisure signing him after a CD-R fell into the hands of founder Jamie Strong, had become a full-on, non-stop whirlwind.

What made the endless cycle even more draining for Hanni was that the music he put out on those first four albums, and was playing night after night, wasn’t even what sat closest to his heart. As a teenager growing up in California’s Bay Area, integrated in the local skateboarder scene, he was more attuned to golden era rap, and he would spend hours of his spare time making music in this vain. As he tells it, he only started writing rock songs as “a reaction to not making beats; I just wanted to do the opposite of what I’d been doing for years.”

It was just happenstance that it would be these songs that would get him signed, and it was a balance that was hard to rationalise for people who knew him. “I would go out skating with my friends, talking hip-hop all day, then in the same night I’d jump on stage with slicked-back hair playing guitar and doing garage songs,” he recalls. “My friends in the audience would go ‘what the fuck was that? When did you start doing that?’”

Throughout his career on the road playing these rock songs, Hanni’s appetite for music stayed voracious, and he was continuously devouring sounds from across the spectrum, but beats and hip-hop remained the most treasured. After burning out on the Savage Times tour, he scaled things back; stopped drinking, took himself off the road, started a skateboarding company, got back into graphic design, and produced for other people.

“I honestly didn’t think I was going to make another album,” he reflects now. “I knew I was going to continue making music, but I didn’t want to make another record under Hanni El Khatib.”

The music that he did keep making, as an escape, returned to the beats of his upbringing. He would send some of it to his long-time collaborator Leon Michels in New York to work on, but there were often long gaps where they wouldn’t pick it up again. “I had no sense of urgency,” he says. “Leon and I would talk about finishing it, but we just never had any plans.”

Then, last year, while out driving he got into a collision that saw his car flipped upside down. It was this event that actually lit a fire under his ass to finish this project. “The thought of having incomplete music and dying, it freaked me out,” he admits. “There are so many people that I work with, my partners at my record label for example, they’ve invested a decade into my career, and I’m sitting here making music and listening to it to myself on my headphones – what the fuck is the point in that?”

Following this epiphany, Hanni flew out to New York to work with Leon in his up-state studio. They hunkered down and properly appraised the demos and sketches they’d been passing back and forth for months. Now focused, hungry and determined, they finished FLIGHT in a week.

The resulting album is a hard right-turn on the sounds of what came on previous Hanni El Khatib records, with drums and guitar replaced by 808s and a much brighter, electronic-based sound palette. “The reaction from my friends has been ‘This is crazy! It sounds like how I know you’,” he laughs.

The car crash and subsequent revelation is captured in “ALIVE”, the vibrant and chirping single from the record, which is a perfect example of the new sonic realm that Hanni El Khatib’s entered on FLIGHT. What could have been great subject material for a brooding garage rock song has instead been brought to light with bright blocky beats and looped flute samples, reflecting his new-found thankfulness at being alive. At first, it’s not even obvious that Hanni’s singing about being in a car accident: “I love that approach to it, because it’s disguised,” he says. “On first listen you’re just like ‘Yes! A survival song’, then you go ‘Wait, did this fool fucking almost die!?’”

That effusive, boundariless enthusiasm crops up across FLIGHT, reflecting the fact that, for the first time, Hanni didn’t feel like he had to stick to a single style. The blueprint is laid out in the album’s opening couplet of songs, “CARRY” and “GLASSY”, which flow seamlessly into each other like a one-two punch. They’re also two opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, the first finding him lamenting “I’m a baby, see me cry”, while the second bounces back with pure happiness, repeating “I love you, you love me.”

“I was going through a lot of anxiety and personal trauma, and I just freestyled it and the lyrics sort of came out,” he explains of “CARRY”. “Then it goes into the second part, “GLASSY”, which is basically a conversation to myself, it’s me singing ‘I love you’ to my own brain. I wanted to put those songs back to back to open the record because they are two polar opposites, sonically, and the subject matter encapsulates what you’re about to hear.”

This is the entryway to FLIGHT, which then flits about wherever the creators were compelled to go, and gave them a diverse array of canvases to reflect the wildly different moods that Hanni might be feeling on any given day. This includes the storming “STRESSY”, about which Hanni says: “I really love aggressive sounds, and I really wanted to do some sort of drum-and-bass inspired track. I was in a very stressed state of being and I wanted to create something that reflected how I felt. The song should feel unresolved and tense, wrapped up in this sort of Prodigy or Manchester weird rave vibe.”

There’s also space for break up songs, as on the lumpen thud of “DUMB”, which carries the burden of despondency in every carefully-selected sound of its production. “That song is about the end of a relationship,” he admits. “It was an exercise in minimalism, really.”

On an album this meaningful for Hanni, of course he had to pay tribute to his dog, Harlow, who has a song named for her and adorns the album cover. “I got her around the time I started releasing albums; she’s been there through every pivotal high and low of my life in the last decade, and I wanted to honour her in that way,” he explains. “And I just thought it would be cool to see my dog on a billboard in Los Angeles.”

Considering the diversity of sounds and emotions here, from summer-ready pop to DnB-lite to 50s doo-wop samples (and too many more to mention), it’s impressive that FLIGHT is a cohesive collection. “If you think about it like a rap album, there’s a new beat by a different producer on every track, but then the one continuous thread is the rapper,” he explains. “So I looked at my album in the same way; I can present so many different styles and inspirations and influences as long as my voice is there shining through.”

It’s unsurprising that Hanni relates it back to hip-hop, because the influence of the genre is the beating heart behind FLIGHT, and is an area Hanni wants to work in more going forward. Already able to boast work with the likes of Freddie Gibbs and Lil B, Hanni has a laundry list of other emcees he’d like to invite to work with him. “I’m not Busta Rhymes, I can’t rap like that, but I could make a beat that he could rap on, so Busta if you’re listening and you want to jump on “LEADER”, feel free,” he jokes. “That goes for Andre 3000, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye, Pusha T, Rick Ross… and Quasimoto – can’t forget that.”

This is further proof, if any was needed, that Hanni has fully got his verve back, and he’s hoping to carry this newly rediscovered joie de vivre into his live show – whenever that will be. While he might not necessarily go on full tour again, he is hoping to play some live shows around the world and is excited about the prospect of trying to work together his older guitar-based material with the electronics of FLIGHT. “I’m taking a look at my old catalogue and seeing which songs could actually be reinterpreted as this new way,” he says. “We started working on “Two Brothers”, “Paralyzed”, “Moonlight” – these songs that I felt already lend themselves to being sampled and rearranged and rethought.”

There’s no concern on his part about what fans might make of this huge aesthetic switch, as he’s already seen positive reaction online. “No one’s batted an eyelid, honestly,” he says. “It goes to show that, in this day and age, no one fucking cares what you do. As long as it’s cool, you can just continue doing it.”

Talkative, excited about his music again, and even looking forward to future where he’s on tour, this last year has been a complete U-turn for Hanni El Khatib, and FLIGHT is bold and brilliant result. All it took was getting in a car wreck.

Hanni El Khatib’s FLIGHT is out now on Innovative Leisure. You can follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

The cover of FLIGHT, starring Hanni’s dog Harlow