The Psychobilly & The Sitar

Photo Charlie Smith

It’s Thanksgiving weekend when I call King Khan, and when he picks up he’s making a dinner of butter chicken and dal for his friends in Memphis. They’re all going down to Jay Reatard’s grave before it gets dark to pay their respects.

This fall’s tour has brought Khan—real name Arish Khan—with Tandoori Knights up and down the East Coast, starting with a show in New York opening for ‘60s garage legends The Sonics, and down to New Orleans where he caught up with his friends Quintron and Miss Pussycat.

“We’ve got an RV this time, it’s this traveling living room,” says Khan. “Man, it’s like an opium den when we’re driving around because we’ll have one person driving and four Indian people sprawled out in the back. It’s awesome.”

The Tandoori Knights are Khan and Bloodshot Bill, friends since their childhood in Montreal. When the two are together, that juvenile side comes back in full force—perfect breeding ground for their Indo-rockabilly punk.

With the help of an upright bassist and drummer, the Knights have been banging out their signature recipes, spiced up with sounds from the East mixed into their respective roots of garage and psychobilly.

“I just got this compilation called Bollywood Steel Guitar on this great label Sublime Frequencies, and it kind of changed my life, just to hear the way you could use the lap steel guitar not just in a country way, but into a crazy Indian Bollywood dancing way,” said Khan.

“This has been me ingesting that and tripping out on how to make a guitar sitar-like.”

They’ve brought their Tandoori-seared rock through the States, and the sounds are being gobbled up, tender off the bone. In territory that typically belongs to die-hard country fans, Khan & company are showing folks a whole new side of the steel strings.

“It was crazy, to be in Memphis, Tennessee and have people come up and be fascinated at how we can bring India into rock ‘n’ roll the way we do,” he said. “We’re bridging the cosmic gap.”

Since Khan’s days in the late ‘90s with Montreal wild party machine The Spaceshits, he’s been conjuring the souls of Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, mixing punk, psychedelia and doo-wop sounds to build a powder-keg of rock ‘n’ roll mania.

But Khan wanted to do more, and this desire was embodied in his frenetic onstage energy and off-the-wall wardrobe. He’s built a persona that extends far beyond the everyday 30-something family man that he is. His legacy as King Khan is something truly deserving of a royal title. By now, it has an almost mythic quality to it.

“[Afrofuturist jazz composer] Sun Ra was a huge awakening for me, when I saw how he created myths, and made them reality,” he said. Sun Ra’s cosmic philosophy and sheer creative power inspired Khan to reach even deeper into his art.

“When you think of Sun Ra now, you think of him as coming from outer space. He wasn’t just from Alabama, he came from Saturn,” said Khan. “I think that’s the magic of music […] it’s like discovering the secret things that might be in your bones, your ancestry, and putting that to music.”

Everyone Khan works with is part of one big extended family, their projects fueled by the desire to create music together. The party-punk performer sees it like cooking. “When I was younger my mom refused to teach me how to cook until I got married, I guess so I wouldn’t use it as an aphrodisiac thing,” laughed Khan.

“Especially with Indian food, there’s a lot of improvisation. I never see my grandmother or my mom measuring anything, and it’s the same thing for me. I don’t read music, I just throw everything in a pot and see what happens. Everyone kind of adds their own spice.”

‘A Family Business’

After the tour-ending hometown show on Wednesday, Khan heads back to Berlin, the city he’s called home since moving there after a Spaceshits tour. Long stretches of gigs are rarer now for the frontman, whose rocking out is now balanced against the realities of his wife and two daughters at home in Berlin.

“I met the actor who does the voice for SpongeBob,” he said. “It was my daughter’s birthday two days ago, and SpongeBob personally made her a message and sent it to her. She was really flipping out about that.”

“It gets harder to go away for longer periods of time; I don’t want to miss anything,” he continued. “Especially now that they’re nine and 11 years old, it’s the best time to hang out with them. I can’t wait to go back home.”

When back in Germany he’ll be putting the final touches on a new record with supreme soul-rockers The Shrines, a record that’s been three years in the making.

“We’re in the process of finishing the new Shrines album. It’s taken us years to do it, but it’s going to be really great. We have this great studio in Berlin that we’ve been using, and I’m really excited,” said Khan. “It’ll sound really fat and awesome.”

Whether in a full-sized band complete with horns and cheerleader, or as a duo playing drums with their feet, every project Khan embarks on is strictly for the love of it. He’s a vanguard of genuine music, scantily clad and always ready for a food fight.

“I’ve been able to raise a family without having to compromise anything. I’ve made it into a family business,” said Khan. “I’m really lucky to do what I do, especially in the past few years when we’ve lost so many friends to drugs, and cancer and horrible things. Our time here is limited and people waste so much energy on scheming.”

One of the more serious moments of the conversation is interrupted by something that succinctly proves his point about not stressing too much.

“Sorry, people are laughing at me because I’m wearing this track suit from the ‘70s that my wife’s uncle used to wear,” he said. “It’s really ill-fitting, and we’re posing now for these Indian thanksgiving pictures.”

Khan is a man who’s clearly thankful for everything he’s earned so far, and has no plans to slow down. He’s always got several projects on the go, and you can be sure the King is enjoying every minute of it. Even the typically somber act of paying respects to a dear departed friend takes on a kind of strange, manic possibility.

“I’m thinking about bringing him a plate of food, and just mashing it into the dirt,” said Khan about his plans to visit Jay’s grave. “He’s buried right next to Isaac Hayes.”