Sporting a mustache copied from Little Richard and a tooth-and-bone necklace no doubt stolen from Screamin' Jay Hawkins, King Khan may be an unlikely spiritual leader, but he believes in the soul-saving power of rock-and-roll.
"Everybody needs an outlet to let their frustrations out and turn hate into love," says the Indian-Canadian-by-way-of-Germany singer, born Arish Khan. "The best way to help people is through music, by giving them a chance to get their freak on."
With his enormous backing band the Shrines, Khan is notorious for his stomping update on old rock sounds as well as for the full-on, freak-out spectacle of his live shows, which are part otherworldly exorcism, part sweaty revival. The band plays in full costume (or in some state of undress), with Khan himself the most outlandish of all. Opting for flowing cape, headdress, and not much else, he often ends up in nothing but a bikini bottom.
"When I was starting this whole thing," he explains, "I wanted it to be not only an eargasm, but an eyegasm, too. I think that's missing in rock-and-roll these days. My heroes are people like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, who had such character and personality — almost like cartoons."
As bizarre as he may be, Khan is no novelty act. He and the Shrines find inspiration in some of the same '60s psych influences as the Black Lips and Jay Reatard, with all the throwback abandon those two comparisons entail. Khan, however, draws as much from r&b, soul, gospel, and free-jazz influences as he does from psych rock. He's more Sam the Sham than he is the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, more Sun Ra than the Kinks. The music is funny, but it's not joke rock. It's vintage, but not retro. His go-go boots walk a fine line.
The gospel of King Khan begins before his birth to Indian immigrants in Montreal: "When I was in the womb, my dad used to put headphones on my mom's belly and play Indian music." He grew up listening to oldies stations and discovered classic rock and heavy metal in high school. "Then," he says, "I found rock-and-roll again."
At 17, Khan rechristened himself Blacksnake and joined the retro-punk outfit Spaceshits, fronted by the infamous Mark Sultan, aka BBQ, aka BBQ Show. "At that young age, I started to realize how wonderful touring was," Khan recalls. "If you play this kind of rock-and-roll music in a pure form, it's like a universal language that you can literally travel all over the world with. That was very inspiring to me."
When the 'shits toured Europe in late 1999, Khan fell in love with Berlin (the city, not the band), and his decision to stay in Germany effectively disbanded the group, although he and Sultan would continue to collaborate throughout the 2000s. Khan eventually formed the Shrines, a loose collective of dancers, drummers, horn players, keyboardists, and guitar slingers — all refugees from polite society. They spread the gospel throughout Europe for most of the decade but had to avoid America for practical purposes.
"I never thought about bringing the whole band to America during that time," Khan says. "It's pretty crazy to bring 10 people over to tour." But with the release of their third album, 2007's What Is?!, American blogs and Internet publications began to take notice of the Shrines. "The reviews were great, and we got offers from all these places," Khan explains, "so it became realistic to come to America. It's basically been all word-of-mouth. I think that's the classic rock-and-roll way of promoting yourself."
Eventually the group signed with Vice Records, home to the Black Lips, the Streets, and Bloc Party. Their first release for the label was 2008's The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines, a compendium of tracks from their earlier, import-only releases. Supreme Genius is a starter kit, emphasizing Khan's pop sensibility to introduce the band to newcomers. Songs like the JB's-style rave-up "Land of the Freak" and the comic "Took My Lady to Dinner" (chorus: "She's fat and she's ugly, but I love her, I really, really love her") are rowdy and rambunctious, horny and hilarious — a perfect introduction. What Is?!, which will get a proper U.S. release in April, is better but farther out, the barnstormers on the first half degenerating into sex ragas and psych trances that are trippy and inspired. "Come all ye faithful, remove all thy clothes," Khan intones on the droning "The Ballad of Lady Godiva." "Rub KY all over, tied up with rubber hose."
Behind all the deviant seductions, onstage antics, exaggerated personae, and gold lamé, however, is a friendly, approachable fellow who dotes on his children and whose love of rock-and-roll has granted him some sense of enlightenment. He beams proudly describing how his daughter could load the turntable before she was a year old: "She would get up in the morning, waddle around to the record player in her diaper, and always pull out the Buddy Holly record. We would listen to the same Buddy Holly record 40 times a day!"
He's also excited by the idea that his children might one day make their own music: "Right now their papa's music is still their favorite, but give it another four years and I'm going to be teary-eyed watching them DJ. I'm really lucky. Not a day goes by that I don't thank the Lord or Satan or whoever's responsible for this."
King Khan & the Shrines, with Golden Triangle and Lover!
Saturday, March 14th
Doors open at 9 p.m.; tickets $10