Another night, another
bacchanal for the funk/soul/garage maestro.




King Khan is onstage, half-naked in a centurion helmet,
clutching a cobra-headed walking stick, kicking things into high gear. His
“Sensational” Shrines, who include a past member of Curtis Mayfield’s band, a
Sun Ra acolyte and a go-go dancer named Bamboorella, have worked up a sweaty,
frenetic funk, all horns, slap-and-pop bass and wah-wah. During one surreal
gospel interlude, Khan reaches out to lay hands on audience members, Pentecostal
style. One falls away, twitching, just like a holy roller and once again, King
Khan is overcome by the sheer power of his theatrical performance.


“Sometimes you get dizzy like you’re going to pass out,” he
says, later. “It’s a church… except our church is more about losing yourself in
bliss and pleasure. It’s a good church to be part of. We promote procreation.”


King Khan, born Arish Khan in Montreal to an Indian émigré family, came
early into punk, joining R&B garage pranksters the Spaceshits with Mark
Sultan at 17. In the late 1990s he fell in love while on the road in Germany and
decided to stay. (He and his wife still live in Berlin; they have two daughters, aged six
and eight.) By 2001, he had formed the Shrines, a funk-soul-psychedelic
experiment in genre-crossing madness.  Initially,
Shrines recordings were available only in Europe, but last year’s three
album-summing compilation The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines and this year’s US reissue of the 2007 album What Is?, both issued by
Vice, have brought him a wider audience. (Khan also moonlights with his old pal
Sultan in the King Khan and BBQ Show and the guitar/drums duo has notched its own
share of notoriety of late, recently releasing Invisible Girl. The pair additionally teamed up with the Black Lips
as the Almighty Defenders, whose Almighty
came out this fall.)


About half of the songs on What Is?! appeared first
(in the US)
on Supreme Genius — sweltering funk tunes like “(How Can I Keep You)
Outta Harms’ Way”, “Land of the Freak” and “No Regrets.” Yet while last year’s
compilation highlighted the R&B side, What
slants towards 1960s psychedelia. The freakiest of these songs,
“Cosmic Serenade,” is a tribute to Sun Ra Arkestra, one of Khan’s prime


Khan, who spent a couple days hanging out with the Arkestra last
year during a festival in Toronto,
says that discovering the band’s music, in his early twenties, gave him the
idea for the Shrines. “I was fascinated with how Sun Ra created this whole myth
about being a creature from outer space, and it kind of became a real thing,”
he explains. “I think it’s really great to be able to create a myth and turn
that myth into a reality.”


There’s a fine line between showmanship and schtick – and Khan
tries to stay on the right side of it by encouraging improvisation and
spontaneity, rather than nailing down skits and dance moves.


But what about the naysayers, who dismiss the Shrines as a
kind of vaudeville? Khan scoffs, “There are always going to be people who hate
what we do, because we’re having more fun than they are. That’s their problem. The
non-believer shall suffer.”




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