NEW YORK — I'm not usually given to the sort of grand, hyperbolic, "declare and comment" statement that is the bread and butter of John Q. Blog. But as summer 2008 draws to a close, I am ready to make one: For pure, unadulterated, unhinged fun, there has been no greater live show on the road this year — and likely will not be one before 2008 is out — than King Khan & the Shrines'.
The debut American trek from this wigged-out showman and his merry 10-piece garage soul revue was one of the absolute pleasures of the season, worth every dollar in the price of admission — including the bill that King Khan exhorted fans to wave, tear up, burn or toss during the song "Welfare Bread." This was one of many genius moments in a genius live performance, courtesy of the man and his band dubbed by Vice Records "The Supreme Genius of King Khan & the Shrines."
But I'm getting ahead of myself. How to describe the King Khan experience to the uninitiated? The man himself tends to call it "psychedelic soul" — and that it is — something that dawns on you once you realize you have just seen a guy in a leisure suit with a crawfish necklace tear through three minutes of James Brown-worthy funk-n-punk called "Torture," only to later strip down to a glittery cape, gold chainmail veil and some very brief briefs, topped off by a Deutsche bräu belly. He's a head-spinning dynamo of poly-sexual energy, flanked on one side by his wacky Euro keyboardist Fredovitch and on the other by pompom-wielding go-go girl Bamboorella (please don't call her a cheerleader). The Shrines bring it, song after song, with highlights including "Burnin' Inside" and — a signature song as any — "Land of the Freak." Sing, dance, sweat, repeat. Oh, and did I mention the blue Darth Vader-style mask? Sound psychedelic yet?
"I'm out to give audiences an 'eyegasm' as well as an 'eargasm,' " says the King himself, the multicultural wacko that is Arish Khan. When I met up with him on a balcony overlooking Brooklyn's McCarren Park Pool, where he played a mind-bending show with Deerhunter and the Black Lips, I found that attempting an "interview" with Khan is also a head-spinning experience. The man is constantly riding a line between the real and the imagined, the genuine and the outrageous. Better to abandon all hope for a linear conversation and hang on for the ride, because he is in the driver's seat. A sampling of the gems he laid on me in the first 15 minutes of our chat:
"I like your Batman shirt. Are you the new Batman? I thought you looked familiar."
"You like wine coolers? You should try a kiwi cooler, with a twist of lime. In a coconut."
"You ever kiss an uncle? You seen that Web site KissingUncle.com? You should start one."
"You gotta transform fear into something good. Because if you don't, you get cancer and you die."
Little Arish Khan learned his fearless ways early on. As an Indian kid growing up in Montreal, he was largely raised by his grandmother, who would wake him in the middle of the night so the two of them could watch Dracula movies together. He still likes a good scare — or to inflict one on his audience. "Once I brought out onstage this Indian rice bag full of wooden snakes that move when you hold them. I brought out the bag and there were, like, these 16-year-old girls in the front row. You should have seen them. I started singing and shot the snakes out, and they were like, 'Ahhhh!' like it was a horror movie or something."
Growing up in Quebec, Khan said he was witness to some "crazy sh--," like the violent, ugly Oka Indian crisis of 1990. But Montreal was also a hotbed of anarchistic rock — and from age 17, Khan played in bands, most notably as his alter ego Blacksnake in the Montreal punk outfit the Spacesh--s, who lasted five years, made two albums and created general mayhem on both sides of the Atlantic. With that band's demise, Khan found a new adventure, in his adopted hometown of Berlin. "I feel it's the center of the universe," he offered. "Not that there's a big concentration on genius or anything like that, it's just the whole city is built on sand, and when you walk outside you actually start to sink into the city. There are these crawfish that are huge and will attack you in the streets."
Crawfish or not, Berlin did give birth to King Khan & the Shrines. Arish's dream was to create a "family" of musicians dedicated to making "badass psychedelic rhythm and blues" — which is just what they did. With nary a lineup change in eight years, they've amassed quite the Euro cult following, but not until this summer did the band visit the States. However you do it, a lineup of 11 doesn't tour cheaply. "Also, I'm tour-managed by a giant old turtle," Khan said, waxing hallucinatory again. "And every 10 years or so, he'll talk to me in a dream and say, 'Go to America.' "
America first became aware of Khan through his other principal band: a partnership with pal and former Spacesh--s member Mark Sultan called the King Khan & BBQ Show. The duo — sort of a garage Martin and Lewis or Hope and Crosby, dripping with funny, freaky irony — developed quite the passionate Stateside following, paving the way for Khan to finally bring the Shrines here, in support of a Vice Records compilation that culls nearly a decade's worth of the band's finest moments.
King Khan can get serious — especially when you talk about music and what inspires him. "Songwriting to me is like a religion. It's like a prayer or something. It's immortal. Music is immortality, and I think when you discover that, you can be a very happy person even with the littlest of money." And while the man may not have gotten rich yet, likewise, his idols — artists like Sun Ra and James Brown — had long and storied careers that had their ups and downs and transcended generations. "And Little Richard too," he added. "I mean, imagine in the '50s dressing up like a woman onstage and having half the people in the crowd wanting to kill you. That's true punk rock."
The king loves that sort of provocation, donning a wig and a dress when he performs with BBQ "just to piss off the rockabilly kids who look at you like, 'Ah, man, I like this music, but he's dressed up like a f----t.' It just pisses me off that kids can be really ignorant." And — in my favorite live moment of the summer — Khan got an audience of (at times, rather fratty) guys to sing along to his gender-bending "I Want to Be a Girl." "It's not about looking at your shoes and playing music. It's about inspiring people and pushing their buttons."
Fun as it is, all the shtick and irony-soaked antics lead some — especially the more "serious" among us — to view Khan & the Shrines as something of a novelty act. Which is a shame, because, really, as good as the band and the songs and the star are, there is no reason the band shouldn't reach a broad, mainstream pop audience. No good reason, anyway. "Unfortunately, the people that control pop music are people in suits that listen to 'I'm Too Sexy for Your Car,' " he said. "There's still such a big difference in the business end of the music business and its real roots. It's always been like that. But I mean, you've got, like, Vice, which is trying to bridge that and bring our music to where it should be."
Khan, who calls himself a "bad businessman, but a good musician — a lover, not a fighter," knows which rewards mean the most to him. "I think the best compliments I've ever gotten are just people coming up to me and being like, 'Oh, I saw your show, and I was smiling for like a month after.' And that's what it's all about: just giving off this beautiful energy, and it's like magic, like alchemy. You give these people a little bit of something, and they turn it into gold."
King Khan will bring his other brand of magic — with pal BBQ — back to the States in the fall. Meanwhile, even if you missed their sweaty summertime swing, it's never too late to get yourself caught up on King Khan & the Shrines. Find out more at Rhapsody.com/KingKhan.