The electricity goes out in the home of new Angelino Hanni El Khatib just as he answers his telephone. “Can you call me back in five minutes?” he asks. “I want to figure this out.” El Khatib resolves his concern in four minutes – the power outage was building-wide, not just in his pad – and takes the initiative to call the writer himself.
The temporary loss of cable aside, the San Francisco transplant’s life is in a good place right now. From recording his bluesy garage punk demos in a friend’s bedroom, to opening for Florence and the Machine, to headlining his first tour in the U.S., the former San Francisco skateboard kid is content with his new full-time music career. “It’s panned out; I’m happier than ever,” El Khatib says in a recent phone chat, a couple of weeks before his “Highway Man Tour” is set to pass through San Francisco and Café Du Nord on April 7.
As recently as eight months ago, El Khatib still had a day job as creative director for skateboard fashion label HUF. The company was started in San Francisco. The 30-year-old grew up on California Street in the Richmond District, the son of Palestinian and Filipino immigrants. “When I was old enough to leave the house, I spent most of my time downtown or on the Embarcadero, skating,” he says.
It was while working at HUF that he began to record music for fun at a friend’s home. The recordings were in the vein of his influences: a mixture of ’50s and ’60s American garage rock, blues and Motown. He began to treat his music more seriously, and his friend invited him along to play shows. “I enjoyed playing shows so much!” he says. “That was a good creative outlet for me. When I was stuck at work designing T-shirts and skateboards all day, it’s kind of cool to go and play a show afterward.”
El Khatib burned some CDs with his songs and handed them out to his friends, one of whom was Jamie Strong, who worked at independent Los Angeles-based Stones Throw Records. Strong asked him to record an album. About 90 percent of what became his 2011 debut, Will the Guns Come Out, was recorded in San Francisco.
From that point on, things began to pick up. First, HUF relocated to Los Angeles, and El Khatib was forced to move in 2010. Around the same time, he and Strong partnered up with a third friend to start their own music label, Innovative Leisure. His two singles and the debut album went on to be released on that label.
Before the album was even released last September, El Khatib was asked to open for Florence and the Machine. “I went from playing in front of 60 people to playing in front of 3,000 in two weeks,” he says.
The success in the music business led him away from the skate clothing company. In addition to recording and performing, and heading up Innovative Leisure, El Khatib is the label’s head art director. “I was fortunate enough to be able to choose touring and music over work,” he says.
El Khatib’s sound is not as straightforward as garage or punk. He blends in raw blues, Motown melodies, early R&B and soul. He hesitates to list influences because there are so many of them. They are as varied as The Cramps, The Animals, Sam Cooke and MF Doom. “I love Wendy Rene, and all those girl groups, like the Shirelles,” he says. “I listen to that stuff because it’s honest and sweet music.”
“Will the Guns Come Out” contains eight original songs and three covers. The latter were the result of him “just messing around,” and each has taken on a life of its own. Nike chose his take on Funkadelic’s “I Got a Thing, You Got a Thing, Everybody’s Got a Thing” for a national ad campaign. A cover of “Heartbreak Hotel” – where the only thing being covered is the lyrics – was originally a scratch track with the lyrics as filler. “I recorded it and thought it sounded really creepy, so I went forward with that,” he says.
And “You Rascal You,” a song most famously performed by Louis Armstrong, was El Khatib’s form of course-correction for the song. “I listened to a lot of jazz and a lot of big band music while I was working,” he says. “On some radio station, they played a Cab Calloway version of that song. It was super upbeat and had this big band tempo. But the lyrics are super dark. He’s singing about killing someone. I thought that made no sense at all. I couldn’t find a blues version. So I decided to record it.”
Up until now, El Khatib’s stage show has purposefully veered from his recorded sound because he has performed only with drummer Nicky Fleming-Yaryan, a friend from high school. That’s about to change because he will experiment by adding keyboard and organ player Hayden Tobin to recreate the record. “Now we’re doing headlining tours, and they ask you to play for over an hour,” he says. “Well, my record’s less than 35 minutes long. So, I’m sitting there and trying to add more material. At a certain point, guitar and drums get a little limiting.”
Now that his calendar is more packed, El Khatib has had less time for his hobbies like skateboarding. “When we’re on tour in the States, I always keep a skateboard in the van; everybody in my crew skates,” he says. “I don’t take two-day trips to skate parks anymore.”