The most obvious difference in Hanni El Khatib's music these days is a sense of control. The former skate punk -- "playing the world's worst guitar" (but "Guitar Hero is helping out)," he jokes -- still dabbles in garage, psychedelia, punk, and blues, only now his songs are tighter, more realized. They're still menacing in places, but never filled with the raw, reckless abandon that marked such all-out thrashers as "Fuck It, You Win," "Build Destroy Rebuild," and "Roach Cock" from 2011's Will the Guns Come Out. Instead, that tension now gives these songs a pulsating edge.
The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach gets some credit for this musical makeover, redirecting the raw angst and explosiveness in producing Head in the Dirt, due April 30. "He was able to help me look at song structure and arrangement in a different frame of mind," El Khatib explains via e-mail from Paris, "especially playing with different instrumentation that I've never played with or had on my records."
The pair met in a Paris nightclub by chance. After a night of DJing together and "vibing off each other's records," a friendship was formed. When a touring break presented itself, the pair reconnected inside Auerbach's Nashville studio.
Initially, there was slight hitch -- El Khatib arrived at the studio with no guitar and no complete songs or demos. His idea was to approach the sessions with no preconceived notions of what a song should be.
"I'm always writing and recording demos or random ideas. Some of which date back years, while others are done while on the fly," he says. "I shared some with Dan ahead of time, but by the time I arrived in Nashville, it was a relatively blank canvas. Some of the songs were further along than others, but the idea was to get into the studio and see what could be created on the spot."
It was up to Auerbach -- the hot producer du jour -- to work his magic much as he'd done with many other artists. Not unexpectedly, Auerbach brought many of his studio intricacies and played on much of the album. The guitar riff on "Can't Win 'Em All," the fuzzy blues rocker partially debuting during Audi's controversial Super Bowl "Prom" commercial, is signature Auerbach. Ironically, "Skinny Little Girl," which sounds like a leftover Black Keys song from Brothers, based on the underlying rhythm, thunderous bass riffs, and fat, bluesy guitar tone, was actually a true-to-form El Khatib composition.
"It's actually not that far off from my original demo that I brought with me to Nashville," he says. "Dan and Patrick [Keeler] added a little bit to it in the studio, but is true to the original idea."
As with Will the Guns Come Out, El Khatib manages to squeeze many of his influences into a wide range of song styles, including Clash-inspired punk, dub reggae, bubbly rhythm and blues, Detroit garage rock, and blues.
"The songs on this record and the sequencing all make sense," he says, defending the variety of styles.
But that's one of the joys of El Khatib's musical mindset -- variety keeps it interesting. And with a new polished sound and connection to Auerbach, could this open the door to an expanded fan base?
"That's not really for me to worry about. I make music for myself and as long as I'm happy at the end of the day, that's all that matters," he says. "I'm extremely grateful that I even have fans, regardless if they are from the skate scene or straight-edge scene. A fan is a fan, and it's a rewarding feel to know you've touched someone's life with your music."
Hanni El Khatib is scheduled to perform at Carnaval Eléctrico at Crescent Ballroom on Friday, March 8.
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