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King Khan Discusses Indigenous Rights, Overcoming Demons With New Album ‘Idle No More’

King Khan
Matias Corral

For nearly two decades, Canadian-born Berlin resident King Khan has made both fans and enemies with his wild take on punk, garage and soul and his over-the-top stage antics (which famously include thrusting his bare butt in Lindsay Lohan’s face during a performance). From his start in Montreal-based punk agitators the Spaces—s to his time fronting the psych-soul ensemble King Khan and the Shrines — not to mention his ongoing collaborations with former Space—s band mate Mark Sultan as the King Khan and BBQ Show and Atlanta’s the Black Lips as the Almighty Defenders — the rocker born Arish Khan has immersed himself in the rawer side of rock n’ roll.

For fans of Khan, it might come as a bit of surprise, then, to know that his most recent offering as King Khan and the Shrines, ‘Idle No More’ (Merge), has a bit of a socio-political bent and was written during a time of intense personal struggle. ‘Idle’ arrives some seven years after his previous release, and during his time away, Khan went through a mental breakdown, experienced the deaths of three close friends, spent time living in a Buddhist temple and underwent psychiatric treatment. A lot has happened in his life, in other words, and making the album served as both a healing process and way for Khan to vent numerous frustrations and emotions.

Khan recently spoke to Diffuser.fm about his personal struggles, his support of the Canadian indigenous rights movement (the name of which became the new album’s title) and learning tarot from avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky.

‘Idle No More’ is definitely a King Khan and the Shrines record on the surface, but it seems to be addressing deeper, social and political themes, too. Did you set out to write that kind of a record?

It kind of like came out naturally. It took a long time because it was some heavy stuff and a healing process. I was assessing what was in front of me at the time, and the record addresses some serious issues, and also the idea for the title came out of that.

Can you talk a bit about the title of the album?  What prompted you to go with ‘Idle No More’ as the title? Have you participated in any of the protests or been involved in other ways with that movement?

My best friend was a Mohawk who passed away. When I was young, I would seek refuge on the Kahnawake Mohawk reservation when my dad kicked me out of the house. It’s heartwarming and inspiring to see the tribes protesting through the snow. And many people are clueless to it. This album was coming out at the right time, so I asked for permission to use the name of the movement as the title. I’m happy about it. Now when I’m interviewed, people are asking about the movement, and it’s spreading awareness.

I take it you’re no fan of Stephen Harper and his party, and maybe not all that happy with Obama either, considering the content and title of your song ‘Yes I Can’t.’

Yeah, you know it’s sad – the right wing seems to be winning everywhere, controlling everything. Nothing has changed. Malcom X’s speeches are still applicable today, and in fact, things have gotten worse.

Do you think rock n’ roll, soul and punk music, or pop music in general, is still an effective way of communicating revolutionary or political ideas?

Yes, soul music and rock went hand and hand with social movements. While they weren’t necessarily about social issues, they were about people rising above. Pop is just numbing the masses and celebrating mediocrity. People are not inspired by it. I’m glad not to be part of the problem.

Are there any politically minded or revolutionary albums that may have influenced ‘Idle No More?’ You’ve spoken about the Prichard Thomas Smith documentary ‘The Invaders,’ about the Memphis Black Power group.

Yes, a friend was making ‘The Invaders’ and wanted me to do the music for it. Invaders leader John B. Smith really liked the music and wanted me to be involved. I felt like I’d followed the right path to move someone from the Civil Rights movement with my music. I felt honored.

Can you discuss some of what you were going through in the past few years? There was the brief break-up of the King Khan & BBQ show, a stint at a Buddhist temple, the deaths of several friends and fellow musicians and some psychiatric treatment?

Several factors led to the overload. The three people I lost, and I felt I had reached a plateau in terms of art. At the time, BBQ and I were hanging out with Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. I was in touch with Alejandro Jodorowsky, who was teaching me tarot. Yet I didn’t know where to go. It was like, “These people are responsible for who you are,” yet I wasn’t knowing where to go with anything. I was losing my grip. But I’m lucky to have a great family I started when I was young. They helped me out of the black hole. And there are avenues in modern medicine to help. I’m glad I’m not in jail or in an institution. I’m happy I had the opportunity to shut down and build up again.

Did writing the material for this record help in a therapeutic way? It would seem like ‘Darkness’ addresses a lot of what you were going through.

The album is definitely about rebirth and losing brothers that are close to you, watching them go down a dark path of self-imposed self-destruction. Music is spiritual. Not all of my music is, but certain elements are. I approached this in a sort of gospel way, taking pain and turning it into something beautiful and harmonious. When you approach music that way, it’s kind of cleansing. There’s a sense of desperation in this kind of music. It’s healing, the way Roky Erickson or James Brown would scream is primitive and cleansing.

How did you link up with Hylas-Film, the production company that made the amazing animated videos for ‘Darkness’ and ‘Bite My Tongue?’

Hylas live in my ‘hood in Berlin. I did some soundtrack work for this underground film director there, who is like Berlin’s Kenneth Anger. I met some crazy artists through him, like Hylas. I felt like I had found the nitty-gritty of Berlin, which is becoming scarce now. It was an alchemical meeting when I met the Hylas people. They showed me the first three minutes of this animation test for a series they were making, and I woke up the next day and thought it was the perfect video for ‘Darkness.’ I got the chills. There were so many synchronicities with the song. It was the first time a collaboration had worked out with no resistance or ego.

Why Berlin?

I moved to Berlin 10 years ago and just love the relaxed atmosphere. It’s a free place to do what you want. It’s affordable. Mark [Sultan] actually just moved to Berlin, so this will be the first time we’ve lived in the same city together in 15 years.

How do the Shrines rehearse with so many members?

We don’t really practice, but it’s funny, it’s a strangely functional machine. I think that preserves the magic of it. We live in different cities, so it’s like being a secret super soul hero.

You’ve matured a lot in the past few years, but are you still prone to some of your crazy stage antics? At a show in Brooklyn a few years back, you stuck a flower in your butt…

[Laughs] I think I remember that. I was . . .  butt-flowering! It’s good to be unpredictable and not planned, so I guess as far as stage antics go, you never know.

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