Raucous rocker Hanni El Khatib is playing it by ear

“I like the idea of taking every single thing that interests me and mixing it up, and then representing it in a way that seems contemporary and fresh to me,” Hanni El Khatib says.

“I like the idea of taking every single thing that interests me and mixing it up, and then representing it in a way that seems contemporary and fresh to me,” Hanni El Khatib says.

Hanni El Khatib has a new album with a particular song title we can’t print here. Let’s call it “Funk It, You Win.” It’s a beast: a snarling slab of junkyard rock, heavy under the weight of distorted blues riffs, clashing cymbals, and Khatib’s manic vocal assault.

It’s refreshing to learn the performance wasn’t calculated. Quite the opposite. El Khatib says he had written the song with different music, but when the tape kept rolling in the studio, something else emerged. Within six or seven minutes, it had gone from “stoner rock” to the feral animal you hear on record.


“Most of my recordings are like that. For a long time I had to learn the lyrics because I didn’t write the lyrics down and would make them up in the studio,” says El Khatib, who performs at Brighton Music Hall on Friday. “When we went to play our first live show, I had no idea what the lyrics were.”

The song comes from El Khatib’s debut, “Will the Guns Come Out,” released last year to little fanfare but respectable acclaim. As El Khatib tells it, he didn’t expect anyone to hear his music.

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“There was no intention of actually putting out a CD,” he says. “I had had friends who were in bands that ranged from really successful to depressing stories about being a struggling musician. I heard all those stories, so the thought of me pursuing music as a profession wasn’t that appealing.”

Instead he was making music on the side, in addition to his job doing graphic design at a skateboard company. No pressure, no label. El Khatib ended up recording an album out of necessity. The rush he got from live performance, at dive bars and house parties, hooked him, and he realized he needed material to play at shows.

As buzz built up around him, he caught a break when he was asked to open for Florence & the Machine two years ago.


“I went from playing in a bar for 30 people to the next day playing in front of 3,000 people,” he says, still astonished. “All the while, I was doing my job as a creative director for a skateboard company and taking the work with me on the road.”

Born in San Francisco, El Khatib lives in Los Angeles now. He’s 30, but from the looks of him, he could have been transported from some 1950s film about juvenile delinquents — slicked-back hair, tattoos peeking out from under shirt sleeves, black sunglasses to keep you from seeing his bloodshot eyes.

From a 20-minute chat, it’s clear El Khatib is a voracious music listener, which is evident from the brash mix of styles on “Will the Guns Come Out.” Surf rock caroms off garage-rock influences, and folk ballads come on the heels of thrashing metal blasts.

“I started playing a lot of the songs at home on an acoustic guitar. They were real simple three-chord songs. When I got around to recording them, I realized they could be something else,” he says. “I’ve always listened to old rock ’n’ roll, doo-wop, and soul. I wanted the music on this album to fit all the imagery I saw in my head.”

His influences, though, are merely that. El Khatib isn’t interested in — and doesn’t think he could even pull off — replicating the vintage sounds he listens to on vinyl.

“I like the idea of taking every single thing that interests me and mixing it up, and then representing it in a way that seems contemporary and fresh to me,” El Khatib says. “Whether that comes across or not, I don’t know. But I’m just writing songs that feel right.”

“Will the Guns Come Out” landed him comparisons to the Black Keys, the blues-rock duo whose frontman turns out to be a kindred spirit. El Khatib met Dan Auerbach through mutual friends at a bar in Paris, hit it off, and now Auerbach is slated to record and produce El Khatib’s next record in Nashville.

That’s quite a leap for a guy who just wanted to tear it up in dive bars, making up the words — and his story — as he went along.

“It’s weird how it turned out. Now I’m focused on not only myself, but I have bandmates, I have a label. I just produced a new record for a band we signed to the label,” he says. “It can kind of keep snowballing if you let it. And I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon.”

James Reed can be reached at
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