Frontman and mastermind of the ferocious, longstanding punk soul revue King Khan and the Shrines, Berlin-based former Montrealer Arish Ahmad Khan, welcomes the new year with an album of back-to-basics, no-frills punk rock. It caps a pandemic year that was incredibly productive, even by the standards of this human tornado. Cosmic jazz for departed comrades, cartoon hijinx, and the next step for his famous Black Power Tarot were all on the table when PAN M 360 reached King Khan, who looked back at a strange year, and ahead to a future “ as devastating as it is enlightening”.
PAN M 360: Let’s start with the latest thing, your new album Opiate Them Asses. From start to finish, it’s a celebration of simple, snotty punk rock from the end of the ’70s, a kind of golden age for punk, wouldn’t you say?
KING KHAN: “Indeed! I grew up on punk rock and this album is an attempt to analyze modern times through the eyeballs of an electric eel. My band is entirely from Bordeaux, France. Les Magnetix (Looch Vibrato and Aggy Sonora) on drums and guitar, and Fredovitch (from the Shrines) on bass. I have been playing music with these folks for over two decades, and not only are they fierce players, but I have seen each of them display incredible feats of absolute magical nonsense. I saw Looch Vibrato take a sip from a can of beer which was full of piss and then grab the pair of glasses off the face of the culprit who passed it to him and eat his glasses without blinking. I knew from that moment on that I had to play in a band with this man.”
PAN M 360: The cover art is again by Mike Diana, a controversial and tragic character from the pre-Internet days of snail-mail zine culture. Are you two in touch frequently? The 2018 documentary about him suggests that he’s really a very sweet and reasonable person.
KING KHAN: ” Mike Diana is a wonderful man and I have been an admirer of his art since back in the Montreal days. I imagine it must be difficult for him to get his art out there in this modern world of cancel culture and all that bullshit. I have been buddies with Cynthia Plaster Caster for many years, so I have even held Mike’s plaster penis in my hands once. I guess that makes us more than just friends.”
PAN M 360: Let’s go back to late last year, and your excellent album The Infinite Ones. That was you exploring psychedelic jazz, to great success. The album is obviously a tribute to Sun Ra, including participation by long time members of the Sun Ra Arkestra. But it’s also a collection of salutes to amazing friends of yours who are now part of the cosmos.
KING KHAN: ” I have been buddies with the Sun Ra Arkestra since 2005, when I stayed with them on a couch in their living room for three days while we played at the NXNE festival. That was when I first got my dose of spiritual jazz training from Yahya Abdul Majid. He spoke to me for what seemed like an eternity, while he burned a mini-volcano of myrrh and frankincense in a makeshift receptacle of two empty sardine cans on top of each other. The smoke filled the room and he told me about learning discipline from Sun Ra and Islam. He told me about his travels around the world living with Tuvaan throat singers, meanwhile he played a Chinese harp and jammed along to Tuvaan throat singing on a small CD player with mini portable speakers.
” He passed away recently, but I was able to send him “Theme of Yahya” which was a song I wrote for him. I even have four harps playing in a stereo circle on the track because of that first meeting with Yahya. It made me very happy when he got to hear the track, he said he was proud of me.
” Danny Ray Thompson was another amazing man who was with Sun Ra since the ’60s, and he loved it when I would read his tarot. Whenever we met at different festivals all over the world, he would grab me and ask me to read his cards on the spot, no matter where we were, even on a sidewalk. “Tribute to the Pharoah’s Den” was a requiem I wrote for him.
” When I began working on my jazz album, I asked myself who I would want to do this with, and Marshall Allen and Knoel Scott immediately came to mind, so I called them up and they were in. We even recorded the tracks in the Sun Ra House in Philly, with Marshall’s old microphones, during the pandemic!
” Sun Ra’s music mutated me from when I first delved into it, and I believe that it has lots to do with following the path of illumination. Hal Willner is another important cosmonaut who left our planet because of Covid. Hal and I had worked on many projects together and I met him with Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson in Australia a while back. Hal and I produced the Let Me Hang You LP with the “unspeakable parts” Naked Lunch recited by Old Bull Lee himself! He really meant the world to me and the last song on the jazz album is a requiem to him. I tried to imagine him walking through the streets of old New York City in busy traffic, and recreate it. I miss him every day.
” I called the album The Infinite Ones because these people will always live on for eternity in music, in memories, and most of all in my heart and mind, they shaped the being that I am today. I have actually almost finished the sequel to this album and it’s dedicated to the fight for environmental peace and justice. It’s called The Nature of Things and even has a strut I wrote for David Suzuki. I hope to release that later this year.”
PAN M 360: These are just two of the many recordings you’ve put out in the last year, in what seems like a burst of COVID-quarantine cabin-fever creativity. Despite the social isolation, they still involve a lot of interesting and important collaborations. You seem to get a real kick out of what happens when creative weirdos get together to make something.
KING KHAN: ” I am so lucky to have so many creative weirdos in my universe, I guess we are spiritually drawn together by some sort of alien magnetism, or perhaps some sinfully flexible imaginary tongue keeps us bound together playfully for life. Bipolarity helps as well, sometimes it can feel like a superpower. But the forced isolation actually gave me a chance to get healthier thanks to my wife guiding me through it. All those 20 or more years of constant touring really took a toll on my health and I am grateful that I was able to repair things before it was too late.”
PAN M 360: 2021 also brings the news that you’re doing voice-acting work for the forthcoming animated feature film Schirkoa, alongside Asia Argento and Gaspar Noé. It’s directed by Ishan Shukla, expanding on his own short film of the same title, and promises to raise the profile of India’s animation industry. Got more info on that?
KING KHAN: ‘ So, I’ve been doing stuff for Rapid Eye Movies for a few years now. The last project was that I got to score some music for a softcore japanese “pink film” from 1968 called Blue Film Woman. It was a dream job, I made music to a very odd and amazing film, and the scenes I scored mostly involved naked gogo-dancing women with 8mm pornography projected on their naked dancing bodies. So when I got asked to be a part of Schirkoa, I met with Ishan and we bounced around tons of ideas and the story was really inspiring. He also wanted my character to be very much like me, so that wasn’t too hard to pull off. In my sessions with Ishan, we were discovering each other’s madness like two dogs sniffin’ butts. I didn’t realize it at the time but he seems to be reinventing cinema and anime, and taking it into a new frontier. I guess the natural next step would be to get plastic surgery and just get my forehead sculpted into the Klingon way I was born to be.”
PAN M 360: You’ve become an animated cartoon character yourself, in the past year. The animated short film The Tandoori Knights vs. The Desaturators features your duo with the marvelously disgraceful Bloodshot Bill. Can you tell us more about that?
KING KHAN: ” I find most of what little kids watch these days is so atrocious, really mediocre, thoughtless drivel! My kids were raised with SpiderMan from 1967, Fat Albert, Barbapapas, the Flintstones, Scooby Doo, and lots of really wonderful old-school cartoons. I wanna create an animated show inspired by this golden age of toons. I have known Bloodshot Bill since I was 14 and our life together really is worthy of animating. The biggest challenge now is how can we hogtie Norm Macdonald and get him on the show.”
PAN M 360: Let’s talk about your Black Power Tarot. How would you explain the project, and what’s the latest news there?
KING KHAN: ” I have been a Black Power advocate since I was 12 and my father gave me The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I have always been very inspired by the civil rights movement, and especially the music that accompanied and strengthened it. For almost a decade, I was working on the film soundtrack and score for a documentary about The Invaders, a Black Power group of young black folks from Memphis in the late ’60s. They caught the attention of Dr. King and eventually became a part of his Poor People’s Campaign. Their story had never been told, and I hope the film comes out sometime this year.
” The Black Power Tarot came from a dream I had years back about my guru Alejandro Jodorowsky, asking me to show him “a card that is weird”. I woke up from that dream realizing that I had to make a new deck based on the Tarot De Marseilles and Black Power. Jodo has been my teacher for the past 10 years, he invited me to his house and gave me the Tarot de Marseilles and began my training. Since then I would send him ideas, poems, movie outlines and all sorts of stuff, and he in return would send me books, comics, teachings and life advice. When I told him I wanted to make this new tarot, he was thrilled by the idea and advised me to not use my ego, and supervised the whole shebang.
” During this time, thanks to the dance of reality, Michael Eaton reached out to me from Belfast. Besides being an amazing artist, he also worked on the art for Game of Thrones. When I saw his art, I knew he was the one I needed to work with for the Black Power Tarot. Since 2015, I have done lots of exhibitions all over the world with huge door-sized prints of the deck. I asked the galleries to fly in John B. Smith from The Invaders to many of these exhibitions, and gave him a chance to tell young people about his activism, his work with Dr. King and his amazing life.
” I also began working with Malik Rahim, a Black Panther from New Orleans, and we started the Global Solidarity Forever organization. During the pandemic, I raised a bunch of money to help Malik avoid homelessness by reading cards for people all over the world, and selling tarot and T-shirts on my Hello Merch store. I actually got the blessings of the New Orleans branch of the Social Medicine Consortium and right now, we are trying to build a community centre in Algiers, 15th Ward, New Orleans, where we will help Malik, with a team of doctors and healthcare workers from New Orleans, in organizing diabetes education programs to help diabetics learn on how to properly deal with their ailment.
” Malik also wants to continue his Save The Wetlands initiative to plant tall grass in the Wetlands, to help absorb the impact of hurricanes. I think all this work is very important, especially since so many businesses are going broke everywhere, building this community centre, which we call the Just Insulin House, is meant to bring hope to a devastated community.
” Algiers is very important as it is one of the birthplaces of jazz and even the Beat movement. William S. Burroughs lived there in 1948-49, and his house was written about in On The Road by Kerouac. New Orleans R&B was also one of the biggest influences on me starting the Shrines over twenty years ago, so I see this as a way I can give something back.
” I never imagined the scope of what happened and continues to happen with the Black Power Tarot – besides being loved and used by many people from all walks of life, it even made it into a Taschen book all about Tarot! Michael Eaton and I also just released a new collection called the Dots & Feathers Flash Cards. I worked with eight amazing First Nations healers and helpers from all over America, from several different tribes (Mohawk, Osage, Cree, and Inuit) and even got the blessings of Tanya Tagaq and Buffy St. Marie, who are included in the deck. The Painter Joe Coleman even guided us on one of the cards.
” I really believe that the tarot is a tool that we need right now to help us follow a path of illumination. It has guided me for over two decades and I look forward to where it shall take us. The world is finally ready to evolve into something new, and its as devastating as it is enlightening. The most important thing is to be a part of the change and make sure its for the good of all humanity.”