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The music of mad rocker King Khan is often described as though it's a high-concept pitch for a Hollywood blockbuster. Just as Alien was famously sold to producers as "Jaws in space," Khan's sound with his band the Shrines has been described by the website Sound Opinions as "James Brown meets Iggy Pop," and Pitchfork as "the Dirtbombs on simultaneous Sun Ra and James Brown kicks."
But ask the man himself to think up a tagline for the King Khan & BBQ Show, his collaboration with percussionist Mark Sultan, and he drops enough off-the-wall references to stupefy Quentin Tarantino, that other supreme genius of the campy and obscure.
"It's punk rock meets doo-wop," Khan says on the phone from Brooklyn, the latest stop on a world tour that hits St. Louis on Thursday. "But I don't like to generalize like that."
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Then, in the next breath, Khan rattles off a list of influences that runs the gamut from "progressive sitar rock," to Norwegian death metal band Mayhem to "the soundtracks to Gremlins 1 and 3 — not Gremlins 2, though, because of the racism that was involved in that one.
"It's a curmudgeon of music," he concludes. "A smorgasbord of ecstasy."
In all seriousness, the King Khan & BBQ Show's new album, Invisible Girl, which was released November 3 on LA garage-punk label In the Red Records, is hyper-stylized vintage rock & roll at its unpretentious and inspired best. The record seamlessly shifts between frantic, three-chord '80s-punk screaming and the sort of syrupy-sweet guitar licks and crooned babys and darlins that made the kids at the '50s sock hops go wild. It's untamed, it's unpredictable, and it's unlike virtually all the other flavor-of-the-month retro acts.
It's not surprising, then, that when Khan lets slip one of his true muses, it's the inventor of rock & roll himself: Chuck Berry. "He's one of my biggest heroes," Khan says. "His guitar playing, his songwriting, the fact that he could get 'My Ding-a-Ling' on the charts. We keep his spirit very alive in our music. I'd love to meet him and shake his hand."
And meta though it may be, Khan maintains that, like Berry, the band's style is anything but derivative. "We have an expression: You Chuck Berry someone," Khan explains. "If you do it better than someone, you Chuck Berry them."
Arish "King" Khan, 32, originally hails from Montreal from an Indo-Canadian family. He got his start in the city's mid-'90s punk scene in Mark Sultan's band, the Spaceshits. Khan played bass and went by the name Blacksnake. The now-defunct group was notorious for raucous shows that ultimately led to them being blacklisted from Montreal venues. The Spaceshits has since become the stuff of Internet legend: Just a sample of the tales floating around online include incidents involving fireworks, food fights and Khan getting tossed headlong down a set of stairs by an angry bar owner.
"All that's true," Khan says when asked about the stories. "We still don't play Montreal for those specific reasons. People go too crazy, and we get blamed for it. It's gotten better; there's less violence at our shows now, but when we played Mexico City last time, it was like an Agnostic Front show. It relapsed."
These days Khan splits his time between his adopted homes of Berlin and Brooklyn. He is perhaps best known for his work with the Shrines, a fusion of garage rock and soul on the Vice Records label, and the Almighty Defenders, his and Sultan's collaboration with labelmates the Black Lips.
But where the Shrines feature a ten-piece lineup (including Ron Streeter, former percussionist for Ike and Tina Turner), the King Khan & BBQ Show is the epitome of raw and stripped down. "[The Shrines] are more of a soul, free-jazz, freak-out kind of thing," Khan explains. "With me and Mark, it's just two people."
Like the Shrines, however, Khan describes the duo's performances as a "crazy spectacle." Khan plays guitar and sings while Sultan switches between rhythm guitar and percussion and also contributes lead vocals on a few songs. The frontman has been known to cross-dress, don shiny gold hot pants and strip down to just his underwear. He cites gross-out punk rocker GG Allin, infamous for frequently eating his own feces onstage, as an inspiration.
Typically, such antics would be shocking, but after hearing Invisible Girl, they're almost to be expected. The record's most outrageous cut is "Tastebuds," a raunchy gutter-punk anthem in the vein of Black Flag or the Circle Jerks whose lyrics feature many four-letter words that start with the letter C. Likewise, "Animal Party," as the title indicates, is a story about a house party at which the guests are a variety of wildlife; sound effects like chickens clucking, pigs snorting and monkeys howling clinch the sheer absurdity of it all.
On the whole, though, the songs are accessible and catchy as hell. The album's title track is anchored by a foot-stomping tambourine and a delicately finger-picked, reverb-drenched guitar hook. Together, Khan and Sultan belt out the beautifully psychedelic chorus, "Purple pink and orange/make me as high/as when the sky/ meets with the ocean down below," until it crescendos with enough ooh and ah backup vocals to fill a Beach Boys record.
Most of the numbers are revamped versions of the sort of simple, straightforward love songs that were once the stuff of classics. "I'll Be Loving You," for instance combines ice pick-in-the-amplifiers distortion with boilerplate soda-fountain jukebox lyrics like "Baby, I can see the blue moon in your eyes/and when you cry stars fall from the sky." These would sound cheesy if they weren't sung so earnestly. Then there's "Crystal Ball," which belies its tight, jangling guitar riff with Khan's confessions that "Hopin' and prayin'/livin' and dyin'/got my mind in an awful state," before he joyfully howls the refrain, "Whoaaaa, the truth is gonna set you free."
Together, it all makes for a remarkably eclectic and unique mishmash of material that somehow manages to avoid sounding contrived, despite borrowing heavily from every garage-rock, doo-wop and punk-rock band with a cult following from the last fifty years.
The work, Khan proclaims in his most serious tone and with typical modesty, comes from tapping his own strangely brilliant psyche.
"There's not conscious decision in this band," he says. "It's all unconscious. If you see some kind of pattern developing, it's a complete whatchamacallit, a coincidence. We just do things as they come along; there's no formula or plan. We make music because we love to make music, not because we want to attract a certain market or please people. We please our fans by being who we are."