Khan, who leads the punk rock meets James Brown style soul orchestra King Khan and the Shrines, has always thrived on the edges of existence. He used to claim to be part of a death cult, he's well versed in tarot, and sometimes he would get naked on stage and shake bones at people. But, the Korea freak out was extreme for even Khan, and frankly people were unsure if the wild man had pushed himself over the edge.
Well, after a few years of self repair, Khan is back with his most personal release (which still rocks the hell out) called Idle No More. On it he ponders madness, pays tribute to Native Americans, and looks directly into darkness. So, Punknews features editor John Gentile called up Khan in Berlin and spoke to him about the new album, laying in Joshua's tomb, and that one time that he nose-flicked Lou Reed.
Now, you once said that listening to Alice Coltrane was like prayer for you, right?
Did you know that in San Francisco, John Coltrane has a church dedicated to him, where he is revered as a personification of God?
Yeah, I've been there, actually. I went there for a Sunday service. It was really beautiful. They did "A Love Supreme" with a gospel-singing group. It was wonderful. It was old ladies with tambourines shuffling up and down the aisle. It was really nice.
I found that service, and that church, to be particularly interesting as it follows in the ancient tradition of self-deification. Like, Alexander the Great, after conquering half of the globe, simply said that he was a deity, so everyone agreed that he was a deity. Likewise, the Pharaohs said that they were deities, so people believed it.
When I first discovered Sun Ra, I was about 20 years old or something like that. That was one of my inspirations for The Shrines. One of the things I learned most from Sun-Ra was how it was possible to create your own myth in your lifetime. That's kind of what I did. When you project it in the right way, things happen. That's something that I learned from Sun Ra.
Ah, but the idea of a "self-mythology" suggests that what you are presenting is not true. Of course, people might argue that a self-mythology helps someone create their own reality
In a way, it is creating my own reality. That shaped my life. It changed my life. Sometimes what Sun-Ra would refer to as the "Alter-Destiny," people would use their means to tap into that myth. You don't create myth out of nothing. There is something that inspires it. When you follow the right signs, it's kind of like birthing a deity in your soul, and it gives you the power to control your destiny, and it gives the power to free yourself from shackles and to live life like a king or a slave.
So then, do you feel that you do what you want?
I guess so! [Laughs]
Along those lines, you once laid down in Joshua's Tomb, correct?
How did you get in there?
This was incredible because a very good friend of mine was a Protestant priest in Jerusalem. The first time that I hooked up with him, it was pretty crazy. He drives up to pick me up in this baby blue, 70s Mercedes and he had a pregnant wife in the backseat. And he was like, "Alright, I'm going to show you the holiest parts of the Holy Land" and then he put on a Bad Brains tape. I was really excited. It turned out that he used to be a punk and now is like a high up priest.
He took me to Bethlehem and showed me where Jesus was born and, in going there, because he's a priest, we were allowed to go into the catacombs which is where the Christians would hide. It was really kind of spooky, because there are Ethiopian priests guarding those doors, so when you go into these things, it feels like science fiction.
He was really relaxed about the whole thing and he was like, "Go ahead, lie down in the tomb!" It was pretty incredible.
Did you have any mystical sensations while lying in the tomb, or was it just really trippy?
I mean, I thought it was strange. I was freaked out that we were allowed to go into these places and also that he was so laid back about it. I can't say I was religiously uplifted, but like you were saying, it was trippy.
The reason I bring it up is because, as the mystical forces of the universe operate, you and I have a connection that loops into your new album, Idle No More.
I lived in Egypt for a little while, and while I was there, I saw the body of Ramses II, which is the Pharaoh that many religious scholars identify as the Pharaoh that told Moses and Joshua to get out of Egypt. So, I saw the body of the guy that told Joshua to leave Egypt, at the beginning of Joshua's journey, and you saw the tomb where Joshua ended his journey!
[Laughs] Bah da dump! Chsssh!
But, on top of that, the first single from your new album, "Darkness," deals heavily with the Egyptian belief system. In the video, the main character has his heart weighed against a Ma'at feather!
Right! When he's passing onto the afterlife, exactly. v Why did you explore ancient Egyptian beliefs and symbols?
Once again, I find ancient Egypt to be very fascinating and very inspiring. "Darkness" was the first song that I wrote after two years of absence from reality. After having a pretty severe mental breakdown, I went through one of the darkest moments of my life and "Darkness" is the first song I wrote after coming out of that haze.
At that point, I didn't even really know if I could continue to play music. I was in a psychiatric hospital and stuff. That song was the first kind of ray of light that was shining in that whole period. I lost three of my best friends in the span of two years. I didn't properly mourn their lost. In a lot of ways, this album represents that. It's a healing process. That's why it took so long to put together. The video wanted to explore that whole idea and crossing over into the underworld.
In the video, the main character's heart is heavier than the Ma'at feather.
Well, that's bad news!
Right! He doesn't make it across into the underworld!
What do you think caused those mental issues that you were having?
I've always been a sort of manic person my whole life. A few years ago, me and Mark Sultan [aka BBQ] got invited to the Sydney Opera house by Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. A month before that I was invited to meet Alejandro Jodorowsky, the filmmaker, who is kind of one of my biggest gurus to me in a lot of ways. I've been studying his teachings and tarot for many years. When I got invited to the tables of the people who were basically responsible for what I am, and when I was brought to those places, and found that those people who made me do what I do were appreciative of what I do, it was a crux.
I didn't know where to go from there. On top of that, three of my friends passed away so quickly- Jay Reatard, a Mohawk Indian friend, who was one of my best friends growing up, and BJ in Atlanta who died of cancer. There was so much emotional turmoil going on, and to reach this higher plateau artistically, everything just went crumbling down.
I didn't know what to do. At one point I thought I would abandon everything and become a monk. Looking back on it now, I laugh. But I was in Korea, going to this monastery, going to this female monastery, which was funny because I didn't know they existed. In all those places, there was always someone to guide me and help me even if I looked completely crazy. The head monk at the monastery took me in and would let me sit with her throughout the day and watch how she convenes, and ask me about what I thought. I'm blessed in that respect, because when you are going completely ballistically ape shit in a foreign country, you get help from people. I feel as though I'm protected.
Why were you in Korea?
I was on tour with Mark-BBQ. After we played at the Sydney Opera House, we were hanging out with Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson for a few days. We got into this huge fight. It got pretty crazy. We went and played China and Korea. In Korea, I had this huge meltdown. I shaved my head and went to a monastery. I wrote these crazy letters to everyone that I knew and said I was going to quit everything and become a monk. It was pretty heavy duty stuff.
Then, when I got home to my wife and kids, it was hard to recognize me. I was walking the line - I had gone completely mad. I had a family intervention and they told me to get my head together. That's why I went and sought psychiatric help. I'm glad I did. A lot of people in my life didn't go that route and just crumbled without it. I don't mind talking about that. People should talk about this kind of thing and not be ashamed of it. I had to burn down the whole ship and the Phoenix had to rise and it wouldn't have been possible if I hadn't gone to the zero level.
That's why I think this album, even more than the other ones, is kind of healing album. In ways, I've always written music with that in mind. All the music that I've ever done comes from a special place and there's no preconceived notion. It's something that comes to very naturally. Like gospel music from back in the day. People who were treated so miserably all week and on Sunday would go out and be savage and make beautiful harmony and music. That's why I love gospel music so much. I think my fans feel a little cleansed after seeing the band. I like to continue in that tradition.
"Luckiest man" is kind of about that, isn't it?
Yes! It's kind of a lighthearted way of looking at it. It definitely comes from a darker place.
The song that really blew my mind was "Of Madness I Dream." It's one of the most incredible songs that I've heard all year. It sounds like Rudimentary Peni crossed with the Beatles, to me.
That song, for example, when I talk about music as being a religious thing for me- When the lyrics for that song came into my brain, it really felt there was this light being shown into my head. The way the harmony and the lyrics work together, it's almost like gossamer offered from whatever powers-that-be that guide us and control us. That's one of the reasons that I'm really glad to be able to spread it. I'm happy that you feel that way, because I do too.
You're from Canada, but your parents are from India, right?
My parents are Indian, correct.
Did they come from a Hindi background, or a different belief system?
Actually, my father was never very religious. But my roots are from Muslim people
That's interesting, because you use a lot of Christian imagery, and a fair amount of Pagan imagery, too. Do you have a specific belief system?
Umm… I guess, like I just believe strongly in spirituality. I think every belief has a lot of great things to offer. For a while, I was really involved in tarot cards. I still really enjoy those mystical kind of things. There's not really one set of things that I adhere to.
Okay, enough with the heavy stuff. Lou Reed- is he cool?
I had a great time. I had more fun with Laurie Anderson, his wife. It was really funny. They invited me to these rehearsals. I got to sit right next to Lou and Laurie was playing this crazy violin synthesizer that she has. They finished this song and I looked over at Lou Reed and said, "That was a really beautiful song… but you've got something on your sweater." He looked down and I flicked his nose. And then he looked at me, he looked kind of like an ancient turtle, and grumbled [in a gravelly voice] "Please don't ever do that to me again."
Then it hit me after a moment, "Oh my God! I got invited to his private rehearsal and the first thing that I did was nose flick Lou Reed!" I was a little bit in shock. Then I went to Laurie and was like "Oh man, I think Lou must hate my guts now." Then she was like "Oh… what? That… that nose thing? All the best uncles do that." And then after that, everything was fine.
The festival that they curated, the Vivid Festival, they were kind of like and queen. They invited like eight bands to perform for them and I couldn't believe that me and BBQ were one the bands that they invited. They brought in these Tuvan throat singers, and I was sitting right next to Lou… have you ever heard of them?
Yeah, they make like two sounds at once while they sing.
So, the thing was, during that whole time, that was the beginning of me going kind of crazy. I hadn't slept in days. I was sitting next to Lou and as soon as the notes started hitting my gut, "WrRrR WrRrR WrRrR." I thought, "I'm gonna pass out!" This is pretty heavy. It would be so embarrassing, sitting next to Lou , and as I'm thinking this, I look over at Lou and he is totally nodded of. I thought, "Oh, cool!", and just took a little cat nap.
Later on, me and BBQ got kicked out of the festival because of the behavior of our fans and my behavior. At the show, it was too risqué for them. We weren't allowed back in the festival. Then Laurie Anderson and Lou, they said they would be my personal baby sitters for the next two days. So I got to see everything I wanted, but I had to be by them, or else the security would come and kick me out.
I met a homeless aboriginal guy, who I met at the Opera House and invited him to come with me. He was pretty incredible. He looked like an aboriginal Charles Manson. I got to introduce him to Lou Reed and it was pretty insane.
Speaking of native peoples, the new album is called Idle No More, which is borrowed from the name of an organization dedicated to helping Indigenous people.
Idle No More is an incredible group that has been spreading all over America - South America and North America. It's a great movement and it's sad for me to see how little publicity it is getting. It's kind of scary how the right wing is controlling all the papers. Growing up two, of my best friends were Mohawk Indians, and it as really refreshing to see indigenous people rising above and trying to fight and better their situation. In a place like Canada, you have this place full of fish and oil and you have these poor children like ten of them in a shack. I just contacted the people and asked them for permission to use the name.
What happened to your collaboration with GZA
Unfortunately, it kind of fizzled out. It was a plan for a while. My whole thing that I was going through- that got in the way. Basically, it was just those two shows that we did.
I also heard that you were scoring the music for a documentary about a black power group.
There's this great documentary coming out called The Invaders. A friend of mine from Memphis, Prichard Thomas Smith, he directed it. It's about this black power group from Memphis called The Invaders. When the director played the leader of the Invaders my music, he wanted me to do music supervision for the film. That's going to come out in the next few months
The Invaders were these young guys, 18 or 19. They had gotten all these youth in Memphis together and went to all these rival gangs and got them to drop their colors and put on Invader jackets. Martin Luther King, Jr. met with them because he wanted them to help with the Poor People's Campaign. Unfortunately, he got shot the day after he met with them. It's kind of this untold story. It was just a complete honor that a revolutionary form that period could enjoy my music and it reminded him of that time.