From monomania to monastery the garage/soul icon finds his way back.
BY STEVE WILSON
“Became a monk for a little while, gave it up cuz I missed my hair.”
So sings King Khan on “Luckiest Man,” from his hip shaking new King Khan & the Shrines testimonial, Idle No More (Merge). It may sound flip, but there’s a story behind the lyric. In 2010, King experienced what we used to call a nervous breakdown, baby. On tour with Mark Sultan, as part of the fabulous doo-thrash duo King Khan and BBQ Show, King cracked up in South Korea. Years of reckless living had caught up with him. He found himself in the admiring company of musicians like Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, as well as filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. And still feeling empty.
His recovery journey included time in a psychiatric hospital, as well as a Buddhist monastery, presided over by women (the luck!), where he shaved his head, emulated monk’s garb, but still took plenty of smoke breaks.
Hitting bottom helped him, as he told me in a recent conversation, “evaluate the important things” in his life. If the soul baring lyrics on Idle No More are indication, those things include family, self-recognition, and the power of music. And while a detour like his and Sultan’s 2009 collaboration with the Black Lips (as the Almighty Defenders) may have struck some as spoof, there was more than a little investment made in those garage-gospel testimonies. King’s life, like mine (as we discussed with some fervor) may have been saved by rock ‘n’ roll. But after a certain point, you need more.
From a tender age in Montreal, through his wild days with the Spaceshits, the formation of the Shrines, and his work with Sultan, King has lived the rock ‘n’ roll ethos, exploring pleasure, sometimes recklessly. Which, damn it, is all well and good, at least until the pursuit takes priority over pleasure. King now sounds like a man restored, committed to his family (yup, a wife and two beautiful daughters with whom he lives in Berlin) and to the music that started it all in the first place.
Where the snotty, brazen punk of the Spaceshits was adolescent in the best ways, and King Khan and BBQ Show is an earthy celebration of raw pleasures (delivered in a condensed distillation of classic soul, doo wop and punk ass hip shake), the Shrines has always been a vehicle for King’s more reflective side. Songs like “Welfare Bread” from their previous album The Supreme Genius Of evidenced a sensitive, sober (sort of) side to the man. Make no mistake: Idle No More rocks something fierce, but the songs here reflect a changed heart – chastened, less Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts, more Curtis Mayfield, if you will.
The Shrines genius is incorporation. Critics often point out the band’s seamless, skilled way of combining influences as diverse as James Brown, Sun Ra (on Idle No More, check out the intro to “Of Madness I Dream”) and the Velvet Underground. And for sure they do. It’s an eight-piece band, combining classic r ‘n’ b horn arrangements with the sheer drive of garage-rock in satisfying and ass-kicking ways.
But icons like JB, Ra, and the Velvets aside, King will be the first to tell you that as much as anything fueling this music is the thrill of thrift shop single shopping—finding incandescent gems made in basements and local studios. It’s a spirit that informs a song like “I Got Made,” in which an Eric Burdon soaked King sings “I live for today” like Eric was fronting Love (and dig the “Cissy Strut” lick). King was turned on by stray garage-rock forty-fives, old soul chestnuts on obscure labels, and by compilations like Chains and Black Exhaust, a portal to a world of psychedelic soul, bands working the boundaries of Nuggets garage punk, Dennis Coffey wah-wah, and early Parliaments soul. It’s music that inspires King Khan and the Shrines’ musical vision, as well as their sense of underdog righteousness in the face of a bland pop machine.
King may still break out the purple Ikettes dress when a reunited KKABBQS (yes, they are working together) hit the boards, but for the most part he is happy to play music and let the crowd stoke the fire, becoming “part of a chaotic ritual, old school, magic ritual.” For now Idle No More and the Shrines is his chief focus. He believes in the band, its music, its mission—and in rocking for “spiritual salvation, instead of just for kicks.”
The record’s not the work of a self-involved, holier than thou artiste. King Khan still starts the party. He is just more inclined to leave before things get ugly.
King Khan and the Shrines hit the road this fall, playing festivals and clubs all over the world. They’ll be supporting an album that will surprise a lot of people. Idle No More sacrifices nothing in assured, sexy drive and delivers a message of … well, spiritual salvation.
The band’s North American tour kicked off October 11 in San Diego. Dates here: