It’s barely opened and there’s already a pretty good crowd milling around the massive patio behind HVW8 gallery off Melrose. Rife with dirtbags and the women who love them, the crew has clustered here for an opening party celebrating Hanni El Khatib’s artwork and imminent sophomore album release, Head in the Dirt. A band of mariachi veterans play spirited sing-alongs opposite the bar, but nobody dances until they launch into The Champs’ “Tequila.” Then a crush of dudes pairing dark denim and work shirts with dirty hair and snapbacks begins to bop about. At the end of the verse, they hoist their beverages. “Tequila!”
The man of the hour is not among them. He’s on the fringes, handing out hugs to those who’ve come to offer congratulations.
There is much to raise a glass to. Since the 2011 release of his debut, Will the Guns Come Out, Los Angeles resident El Khatib, 31, has seen his star rise significantly. Originally grabbing attention for just a few super-raw demo recordings, the guitar rocker has become a brand as much as an emerging performer, securing licensing placements with Nike, Nissan, and Audi, among others. He’s toured widely on his own and with marquee names like Florence + the Machine. Most recently, he worked with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who produced Head in the Dirt, a collection of guitar-rock scorchers that deepens El Khatib’s dedication to hard-partying, primal rawness. Tonight, he’s pretty chill for a dude who regularly Instagrams photos of the beers he’s drinking on tour.
The venue is set up as a kind of shrine to El Khatib’s hipster-cholo aesthetic. (He’s actually half Palestinian, half Filipino.) Featuring works by El Khatib himself, as well as a cadre of creative collaborators, the exhibit spans a playful range of media. In one corner of the tiny gallery is a neatly terraced altar strewn with cigarette butts, skulls, and driftwood in front of a desert-scene backdrop. On the walls are glitter-bar mirrors, album covers, and projected music videos.
The collection revolves around iconic images of classic Americana: guitars, gas stations, motorcycles, tattoos, stars and stripes, denim, mysticism, and mischief. Also: alcohol. In the corner of the room, there’s an empty case of PBR, crushed cans scattered around it. (This apparently is part of the exhibit.)
As it turns out, the Hanni El Khatib brand isn’t so much a singular vision as a curation of quaintly trashy cultural touchstones.
Several weeks earlier, over lunch at a café in Hollywood, El Khatib demonstrates an absolute obsession with mid-century Americana. He’s into classic cars, stiletto knives, and malt-shop music. He frequents antique malls and thrift stores. He has a collection of cowboy hats and turquoise man-jewelry. His girlfriend looks like a pinup girl.
He’s been into this type of stuff for about 10 years, he says, and isn’t planning to change direction anytime soon. “If I stay true to the things that I like,” he says, “if I kind of stick to that as a guideline for what I do, I’m always all right.”
So far, that strategy has worked well. El Khatib’s natural passions have inspired fiery photo shoots, wild live performances, and studio recordings that are irresistible to advertisers. In January, he captured the brass ring of licensing placements, a Super Bowl commercial sync. The song “Can’t Win ’em All,” from Head in the Dirt, was the soundtrack to an Audi spot in which a high school boy’s dad lends him the car to go to the prom. He bursts into the gym, kisses the prom queen, is pummeled by the prom king, then speeds home with a black eye, howling with glee. The raucous song’s guitar riff plays on over a tagline about bravery.
The commercial drew a backlash, however. A chorus of netizens said it condoned violence and sexual assault. They should see the video for El Khatib’s single “Family,” wherein a gang of Japanese bikers in tighty-whities recruits topless women for a wild afternoon of thicket sex and octopus roasting.
“The music is a little edgy, but not too weird for visual media,” says Innovative Leisure’s Nate Nelson, who did the Super Bowl deal, of El Khatib’s commercial appeal. “It has an attitude and a mystique.”
El Khatib is one of a handful of young artists replacing baby boomer rockers as commercial signifiers of urgency and abandon, of living life lustfully. Much like Auerbach’s Black Keys, a runaway licensing success in recent years, El Khatib’s sound is fresh without departing too much from classic notions of coolness.
Hanni El Khatib is cool the way Elvis was cool, the way Jack White is cool. Raw, wild, passionate. Dangerous, maybe. And devastatingly good-looking.
Must be hard work, no? “First off, I’m not cool,” he insists from behind dark sunglasses, his jet-black hair glistening with Murray’s pomade. “The people I think are cool,” he explains, “is, like, a weird old mechanic who tells epic stories. A lot of the things that other people think are cool, I fucking hate.”
His music career, on the other hand, he’ll admit to grinding out. He attributes most of his success to his good, old-fashioned work ethic. He tours furiously, building his fanbase market by market, show by show, often dealing with less-than-glamorous conditions. “Like, if I go to St. Louis, there’s, like, 10 people there, and then the next time I roll in, there’s double or triple that,” he explains. “You show up again, and there’s triple that. Then you go to a city you’ve never been to, and there’s five people there, and you have to start all over again.”
El Khatib describes, at one point, being physically pushed onstage by his manager while yelling his credit card number into his cell phone to pay to euthanize his terminally sick cat, left behind at home.
But if it’s a life that’s sometimes low on glamor, it is the one he’s chosen. Coming out of the skate scene in his native San Francisco, El Khatib at an early age landed a cushy job doing graphics for the skate brand HUF. But as he crept toward 30, he found there was a separate set of urgent artistic forces brewing inside him in the form of rock ‘n’ roll.
In the summer of 2010, Innovative Leisure partner Jamie Strong caught wind of the demos that would make up the bulk of Will the Guns Come Out. “I was blown away by his voice and the lyrics,” Strong recalls.
El Khatib decided to go whole-hog into a late-breaking music career, and he’s actually now a partner and creative director for the label. “It’s partially talent and luck, but the effort you put into it is the return you get,” he says now.
Though maybe it’s not as lucrative as people think, he notes. “I’ve heard, like, “Your shit was on the Super Bowl tour buses!’ No. Try a rental van.”
Though he’s not planning to return to sleeping on dirty floors, El Khatib is realistic about his relatively modest success and quick to dissuade rumors of his baller status. “The best one is, like, so they gave you an Audi, right?” He laughs and slams his hand on the table. “Yes, they gave me an Audi. That’s exactly how it works. Imported from Germany. It’s, like, what?”
Hanni El Khatib’s Head in the Dirt is out now.