Hanni El Khatib’s natural setting is night. The tattoos covering his arms are darkly inked. His black hair is greased back like a knife-fight winner’s. His wardrobe color scheme is fit for the hero of a Johnny Cash song. Even his new album is called Moonlight.
His career mission statement might be found in the title track: “All my life, I’ve been fighting for the moonlight.”
You might expect to find him soused in a Bukowski adaption, not sober at a Mid-City sushi restaurant. But even the most nocturnally bent sometimes need to break for a sashimi lunch.
“I’ve always felt like an underground guy … grinding away,” El Khatib says between bites, a few blocks from his Hancock Park residence. “It’s about the end game. I want to record, produce and work with diverse musicians without fitting into a box.”
He’s discussing the events that transpired in the wake of his last album, 2013’s Head in the Dirt. Produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, it ostensibly anointed El Khatib the next superstar of garage rock. The album earned some terrestrial-radio airplay and was licensed for an Audi commercial that aired during the Super Bowl, but it failed to produce a transformative hit.
“There was definitely a musical progression and it did elevate my profile, but I also didn’t have that smash single that changed everything,” El Khatib says. “There was no blow-up moment.”
Of course, everything is relative. Since moving to L.A. at the turn of the decade, the San Francisco–raised artist has become one of the biggest and most dependable local rock & roll detonators — the hip-hop head’s alternative to Queens of the Stone Age.
Formerly the creative director for HUF, a skate company, El Khatib became the flagship act for then-fledgling Silver Lake label Innovative Leisure (he’s now a partner and creative director).
Since switching mailing addresses, El Khatib has lived mostly out of a suitcase. He estimates that 70 percent of his travels have been for European tours, where his profile is substantially higher than it is domestically.
After two years of nearly nonstop road life, he found himself burned out.
“I was fucking tired,” he admits. “So I stopped touring, booked a month in the studio and didn’t leave until I was finished.”
Those 30 solitary days and nights yielded this week’s Moonlight — which El Khatib self-produced and on which he played nearly every instrument. Full of shadows and filth, it’s the 33-year-old’s best and most eclectic work.
If there was a knock on El Khatib’s previous efforts, it was that he too neatly compartmentalized his tastes. The songwriting was uniformly stellar, but each song could be categorized: soul, garage rock, blues.
For his third salvo, he found a way to synthesize his love of dusty hip-hop production and gloomy trip-hop, ’70s sleaze-rock, disco, stoner-prog and jittery post-punk. It’s less sonic mash-up, more a Molotov cocktail tossed after midnight.
“In the past, it was: This is the garage song, this is the soul song. In hindsight, it seems almost scatterbrained,” El Khatib says. “This feels much more connected to who I am.”
He mentions his next projects: a record with Parisian psych-rockers Wall of Death and a gangsta-rap banger with Freddie Gibbs. The latter ingeniously blends chopped-and-screwed production to El Khatib’s bleary vocals and sinister guitar riffs. It augurs a continued future evolution, one in which El Khatib becomes further unhinged from genre, constructing shadowlands of his own design.
“It’s too easy to regurgitate what works and imitate others. At the risk of sounding cliché, I feel like I’ve started to come into my own and home in on a specific thing,” he says, pausing, with a sly grin. “Whatever that specific thing is.”