"Somehow I guess Lou Reed was my evil mother."
In the wake of Lou Reed's death, Arish Ahmad Khan couldn't help but shade his stories - that span from his juvenile delinquency to the years that went into making his latest record - with memories of the rock poet who is still spawning reverent bands today.
Khan, better known by his stage name King Khan, plays a revved-up garage/funk/soul hybrid with his band The Shrines. Idle No More, the band's latest and first for Merge Records, was released in September.
"We've got a really good reaction to the record," says Khan, from a tour stop in Alabama. "A lot of it has to do with dealing with a lot more pain and suffering and some tragedies that happened. In a lot of ways, the new record documents a whole healing process that had to occur."
In an interview before the band's Wednesday, November 13, at Crescent Ballroom, the Canadian-born, Berlin-residing, self-mythologizing singer talked about the indigenous rights movement that spawned the album's title, writing songs in tribute to friends who died, why the 10-person band lugs itself across the world to perform, and of course, the late Lou Reed.
"Lou really means a lot to me. I remember the first time I got arrested, when I was 18, was because I shoplifted a Velvet Underground record. Because I was 18, I didn't have to tell my parents, but my mom found the court papers in my dirty laundry. Somehow the only tape she keeps in the car on repeat is a copy of that record," Khan says.
Growing up in Montreal, Khan spent a lot of time with a couple close friends on the Kahnawake Mohawk Indian reservation, where he says much of his "juvenile delinquency training" occurred.
One of those close friends passed away while Khan was working on the album, and he began reading a lot about Canada's indigenous population.
"While I was writing this record, I started reading a lot about what the Idle No More movement was going in Canada," he says. "I was impressed by that and happy. I was really happy to see indigenous people rising above and trying to better their situation on the reservation, which are worse in some cases than third world countries. It was shocking to see how they were getting little or no media coverage for all the awesome things they were doing, so I wanted to bring it some attention."
On top of losing a childhood friend, Khan says the death of friend and fellow musician Jay Reatard was difficult. Khan met Reatard touring with his previous band, The Spaceshits, and the pair were kindred spirits. The song "So Wild" is a requiem, in tribute to both.
"In general, the approach I've always taken to writing music is basically approach it like gospel music or any highly spiritual music. It can transform pain and suffering into a beautiful force, a human force. In that way, this album especially feels that way to me," Khan says. "There's tragedy and just human experience and emotion that went into making the songs."
After disbanding the Spaceshits, Khan formed The Shrines in 1999 (sometimes known as The Supreme Genius of King Khan and His Sensational Shrines) and later regrouped with former Spaceshits bandmate Mark Sultan, as The King Khan & BBQ Show.
It was that configuration that brought Khan the attention of Lou Reed, who curated the 2010 Vivid Live festival with his wife Laurie Anderson and invited the duo to perform at the Sydney Opera House.
"I was lucky enough to hang out with him a couple times and found out he was a fan of the stuff I was doing," Khan says. "We were flown out to Sydney and played two shows, and they were in the audience. We got to hang out with them. Lou and Laurie invited me to some private rehearsals. I was sitting next to Lou while he was singing 'Vanishing Act.' I couldn't believe I was there, and at the same time, I was going through this crazy manic episode. I'd been on tour and things were bubbling in my brain."
The Sydney trip also had its downside, with Sultan and Khan ending their band while at each other's throats.
"Me and Mark got into a big fight after one of our shows, and the organizers had kicked me out of the festival," Khan says. "I was in a really fucked-up state and then Laurie Anderson saw me the next day and told me I could go anywhere I wanted and they'd take me there. So they were like my babysitters and it was really surreal."
Khan says he encountered Reed again later, in London. "A lot of people talk about how he was grumpy, but to me he was really nice and down to Earth."
After the fallout with Sultan, Khan was playing in Korea, where he says he had a meltdown, cut off all his hair and went to live in a monastery for a while. The first song he wrote after all that was "Darkness," a warped dirge in which he collected all the negative feelings circling his friends' deaths. The catharsis was his breakthrough and Khan began working on a full album, intending for The Shrines to get back into the world.
"For me, the ultimate way of sharing music is on stage. It's intended to be like a ritual. That's the way that we've progressed," Khan says. "We've never really used marketing or that kind of manipulation to acquire an audience. I find they're really true and they really think of the band as some well-kept secret they have in their heart and there's this allegiance they have and they come out to experience a kind of salvation in a way. It's a labor of love for all 10 of us to get in a van and trudge around the world.
"People appreciate that and feel warmth. That's ultimately what I've always wanted to achieve with music. For me the highest compliment is a kid saying they've been smiling for two months after one of our shows because they keep thinking back to that night."
King Khan & The Shrines are scheduled to perform Wednesday, November 13, at Crescent Ballroom.
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