“You have to be a strong individual to really want to succeed at your craft or your art. It takes a lot of discipline and focus but also it takes a certain amount of not giving a shit too.”
Introduction by Adria Leeper-Sullivan
Interview & Photographs by Theo Constantinou
The needle is set. There is a brief droning hum before the song begins to play. A crackle underlines the rowdy guitar riffs, and then a powerful voice chimes in with a precise, but subtle loss of control. It’s not distracting, it is completely necessary, and throws off the chilling vibes of a party, or office space laced with dark secrets. It is the deliberate trip just to know where the edge is.
Hanni El Khatib makes music to epitomize his internal creativity. Hanni took a shot in the dark when abandoning his financial security to be a musician. Selling the emotional self is tough, there is no guarantee of success; the entire world could disagree with you. He plays for himself, not out of being selfish, but out of sustaining self-respect, and respect for his listeners. Music made only for profit is no longer art. Fortunately his work not only gets people dancing, but he’s formed relationships, and collaborations that could make the music of legends.
I recently purchased a book written and illustrated by Salvador Dali called “Fifty Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship.” He says in his dedication, “at the age of six I wanted to be Napoleon, and I wasn’t. At the age of fifteen I wanted to be Dali and I have been. At the age of twenty-five I wanted to become the most sensational painter in the world and I achieved it. At thirty-five I wanted to affirm my life by success and I attained it. Now, at forty-five I want to paint a masterpiece and to save modern art from chaos and laziness. I will succeed. This book is consecrated to this crusade and dedicated to all the young who have faith in true painting.” So, are your songs your masterpiece to save modern music from chaos and laziness, and do you subconsciously dedicate it to those who have faith in true music?
I don’t really look at it that way, I kind of view it as something I feel the need to do, need to make. It’s music. I’ve always played music, I’ve always felt the need to play it, and now I’m at a point where I can record it and put it out, and give it to people and share it. To me, it’s sort of a cathartic thing, it’s very personal, and even if I wasn’t touring, playing shows, or releasing records, I would still be recording it because it’s something I feel I have to do. It’s more the setting of personal goals. There is a lot of growth, and development that I can accomplish over the years so I think it’s just a steady climb to try to make the best that I can make. I try not to get too righteous about what I’m doing, and try not to place any importance on it other than these are some songs.
So people take it for what it is?
Yeah, I could kind of care less if people think it sucks. If they think it’s cool then that’s good. I appreciate it but that’s not going to determine whether I continue to do it forever or not. I’ll probably keep making it.
So I was in LA and my camera was stolen right across from LACM, that’s a story for another time. But the next day I went up to Venice and this homeless guy started chatting with me and he thanked me for giving him some smokes. He asked me how I was doing and I told him what happened and he just spit off this quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald and he said it was the only decent thing that guy had wrote, but he said, “You can be as mad as a mad dog at the way things went. You could swear, curse the fates, but when it comes to the end, you have to let go.” Do you agree with that statement by F. Scott Fitzgerald and how do you relate that to saying?
I don’t know, I do agree with that. It’s hard to live by that because in a fucked up scenario all you can do is bitch, and complain, and moan, and that’s the only thing going through your head. Or you start thinking about what you could have done to change the circumstance, but in the end there’s nothing really you can do. What’s done is done. I think it is hard to live your life that way. It takes a lot of self-discipline to let it go when you’re fucking whiling out and getting overly excited over some shit. But if you can just let it go, and move on, it’s the least amount of drama I guess.
But in this situation, even if with the camera it’s like fuck dude that was my only asset, I saved up almost three grand to buy that camera. That was Paradigm and it was gone and all of a sudden you’re like what can I do?
You just have to move forward and say, “Alright. Well shit, it’s on to the next.”
As you get older, is that an MO that you try to live by or …
Like I was saying, creatively I try to abide by that. You make something, and you get a shit review, people don’t like what you did with what you made, then you’ve got to just say fuck it who cares. I don’t really take much to heart, I try not to get overly emotional about stuff I hear relating to my work because people are going to think what they’re going to think. And there are a lot of ups and downs with music. You’ll have this amazing opportunity that’s about to happen, and then there is a 1% chance it might happen, and then it doesn’t. You’re kind of like fuck, oh well. That’s why I have my crew that I work with, I always tell them don’t even bother telling me news until it’s confirmed.
I’ve got this book it’s called “Picturing Hemmingway,” and there is a pretty simple and true message in the beginning of the book. It says, “We are doomed to lose so we must lose on our own terms, it is all that is left us, we exiles from the Garden of Eden.” Not to say that you’re losing or any of us are truly losing, but how important is it in this life to lose on your own terms whether that is music, careers, relationships, or whatever?
I guess that’s a matter of controlling your scenario. I don’t know, losing on your own it’s like a
Yeah. I don’t know. I don’t really think of stuff like that. I think that if you’re going to fail at something that you’re trying, the fact that you’re trying it is good enough, and if it doesn’t work out then shit happens it doesn’t work out. Like me with music, I had a career before this that I was creatively happy with, financially it was successful, the thing that I was doing was good, everything was fine. When I started doing music I was all happy then sort of switched gears and was like fuck, if I’m really going to do this, if I say I’m going to do it, I have to really do it. I quit my job and I hit the road. A year and a half later, and I’m still at it. I’ve been doing it for three years now, no sign of stopping. The way I was looking at it when I took that jump was if it doesn’t work out, what can you do? I’ll just go back to doing some other shit or I’ll try something new. I guess that’s losing on your own terms cause you’re just fucking going out for it.
That’s actually funny because the next question is exactly what you were saying. It’s in this idea that … I read this thing I wanted to bring to this, I chose something else, but it’s this quote of this Native American guy that basically says jump off the cliff and what you realize is the gap isn’t really that wide.
That’s true, it really is because things just work out and you have to commit to whatever that thing you’re going to do is, otherwise it won’t work out because there is always something stopping you from achieving that next step. I’ve seen friend’s bands turn down amazing tour opportunities because maybe there’s not enough money to cover it or whatever but that type of opportunity is exposure they needed to get to the next thing. So you can’t really do that without risking everything, it’s a total gamble. I just made the choice, I saved up a little money to last me the duration of touring and I was like, well if I can sustain this hopefully something will work out post that. It’s probably why I tour so much. When you are a hundred percent committed you can work 24 hours on it, you have nothing standing in your way.
So in the end it kind of goes back to what Hemmingway said, you just lose on your own terms. There is nobody else except you holding you back from any of it.
Two nights ago a friend of mine told me to take this book and I actually wasn’t going to take it because I just have too much stuff I’m reading, but I can’t turn down a book cause you never know what will happen when you read something. I’m not a Taoist by any means but it’s a book from Tao Tae Ching. I was reading through the short passages, nothing stood out to me, then the 33rd passage came and I was like shit this is really powerful, “Knowing others is wisdom, knowing the self is enlightenment. Mastering others requires force, mastering the self needs strength. He who knows he has enough is rich. Perseverance is a sign of will power. He who stays where he is endures. To die, but not to perish is to be eternally present.” Specifically, have you found in knowing yourself enlightenment, and how much strength has it taken you to know the self?
I think there’s a certain age where a few years back it kind of dawned on me that you could really do what you want and eventually people will catch on to it. So I started … before I used to make art, I used to be a designer and stuff doing a lot of art and also making music just on the side. I would do all these things to get other people’s approval, or do it for a job where you’re making something for a certain purpose which I still think is cool too because it’s like a total puzzle trying to figure that out, it’s a whole different thing. But for me when I started writing songs and making music in the way that I make it now I realized that you can do anything you want and that’s enough. So I did and I felt personally satisfied by that and then stuff started to click in place. Now I got signed and I’m able to tour, and travel around the world realizing that the more comfortable with yourself and what you do as a person on your own, that’s what makes other people more interested. Not conforming to what people may want or what’s cool or whatever. That’s the moment when it dawned on me, like fuck this I’m going to do everything my way however I want to do it. It took a long time to get there because I went through so many different changes of creative paths and different choices of stuff that I do and I feel now I’m at a point where I’m completely comfortable. I know my limitations, I know what I’m good at, and I know what I suck at. You get to that kind of point. Then to sustain that is a whole different level. It’s like you said, all personal strength and will power, perseverance. You have to be fucking relentless for this thing to work out. Music is such a fucking crapshoot and you have to be on the road. One night you’ll play a sold out show in front of a thousand people and then the next night you’re in some place where no one gives a shit and you’re playing in front of ten people. That’s a pretty good jab to your morale when you’re on the road and you just keep doing it day by day. We were just out in Europe playing for thousands of people and then we come back into town and play in front of ten. It doesn’t change the show. That’s the other thing. I know what I’m doing, I know what I want to do, so it’s not going to change what I do, it doesn’t really get me down either. It’s just how it is, that’s the reality. You have to be a strong individual to really want to succeed at your craft or your art. It takes a lot of discipline and focus but also it takes a certain amount of not giving a shit too.
It’s really weird, there are all of these distractions, all of these highs and lows you’ll notice once you start getting into the real world of the industry, and there’s other bands, you’ve got people out on this level and everything is totally fucking confused, and getting clouded with your judgment.
But then would you say still that it comes back to you and the knowledge of self? Even now it’s a year later and we’re revisiting an interview, now I’m interviewing people I never thought would speak to me, and it’s like you said, it’s these highs and these lows but it’s all for the same reason whether it’s music or trying to get creative people’s knowledge into a singular place, but I think your 100% right with just that idea that it’s this huge balance of not giving a shit, the peaks and the valleys, the whole fucking thing. Then the ego checks, it’s crazy.
The rule in my crew is if you start getting way in over your head, you’re fucking out. Or if you’re not, I’ll call them out on it. And there are moments where things aren’t going like I want at all and I’ll act like a bitch and be like no, I want it this way, but it’s more out of me being demanding versus me thinking I’m fucking Cher cause at a certain point I realize I have to be demanding or else this isn’t 100% the vision and I’m still struggling with that. I want things to be very specific but the support, the demand, and the money somehow that all comes into play, it’s little by little. I want a cool light show but you have to play at a big club and you have to have enough money to hire someone to do that. You can’t do that without all those pieces, it’s a part of every stage that I go through. For me it’s a slow build, there’s never been ‘that one break’ that will catapult us over night. Shit, I’ve been touring for like two and a half years straight. It was a year ago that I was here, and before that I toured the US twice, it’s been pretty nonstop. Now I’m at the point where I’m feeling I’ve done what I can do with this. The first record has pretty much hit the wall of what I can actually do in terms of supporting it. At a certain point you have to be ready to put that away and go into the studio, record something new, chill out for a minute, regroup and come back out again. I’m feeling like I’m at that stage. I’m definitely beyond anxious to record a new record. That’s a goal that I really want to attempt; I’m working with Dan Auerbach of Black Keys and I feel like he and I totally vibe musically. I feel, given that I’m going to be around someone like that who gets it and who also has access to things that I would never have access to, I’ll be able to make a record closer to how I really want it to sound. That is the important part. Now it’s like, a few years later I’m recording a record this way and now I can really make what was in my head. That came about organically. I met him through a mutual friend, kept in touch and chatted, and the next thing you know we’re doing a record … there’s no higher power telling me that I need to team up with this guy because it’s going to boost whatever. We just met, hit it off, and now we’re fucking doing stuff.
I think that’s the most beautiful way that these things happen. I meet one person who tells me to meet this guy, whatever and then it really vibes because it’s not some pretentious shit …
It’s not forced
In 1957 James Baldwin wrote a short story called Sonny’s Blues about a musician suffering from a drug addiction written from his brother’s point of view. I haven’t read this story since high school, but you can just grab a passage from any page and find something profound about passions. What makes the future worth getting to, and what makes music the real drug to any musician’s heart? Here’s a passage, “All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.” Do you find that the effort behind your music is often misunderstood by those who listen, and do you find Baldwin’s expressions through a fictional story to be relevant and accurate in our times? How do you feel about the passage in general?
There’s lots of different types of musicians and I think for some people, and partially myself, it’s like I write songs for myself about stories that are either very close to me or personal and I hope that when it’s recorded and people hear it they can take something from it. I can’t ever know what people take away from it but if people react to it positively or negatively the song is doing something. I was talking about this with the guys in the band. It’s crazy how you create something for yourself, or for others and you never know what it means to the person who is the listener. They could have conceived a child to your song, that song is forever important to them, or helped them get through someone’s death, someone’s passing away or whatever and they listen to that song daily. I know I have songs like that, my friends have songs like that. To me the artist knows the root of the songs and they know why they’re writing these things but the cool thing about music is you can take whatever you want from it, you could take a piece of it. You could not care about the lyrics but the music makes you feel something and that’s one thing, but the other person might only listen to the lyrics and it speaks to them in an emotional way. That’s why music is really fulfilling as a listener and creator as well.