King Khan in New Orleans. Photo by Gary LoVerde.
It's strange to think that dominating, drug-addled personalities still exist in a society that seems under the strangle hold of composure and puritanical values. Sometimes it feels as though freak freedom times and people are so far removed that any spectacle resembling a lack of inhibition may be contrived.
This article documents a six foot French-Canadian Indian (sometimes taller when he dons his WWI Prussian infantry helmet) whose marvel eclipses his soul. This is the legend of King Khan, the Maharadscha of Soul, and these are the stories of his congregation.
Destined to rock, Erich Khan left the suburbs of Montreal at age 17. He changed his name to Blacksnake, abandoning his birth name for a symbol of misfortune. Supposedly, it was not a complete family betrayal, as according to Khan, his grandfather was known in his village as a snake handler. If a snake entered the village, his grandfather would be called upon to snap its neck and save the village from death.
Blacksnake met others like him in the city: young, deranged and rebellious; they called themselves the Spaceshits. The Spaceshits aimed to recapture rock and roll decadence, the good old days when kids were kids, etc. “At that time there weren’t many people who wanted to provide that rock ‘n’roll spirit in Montreal,” he said. “There were a lot of poseur bands and scenesters. They laughed at the fact that we played simple rock ‘n’ roll.”
Signed to Sympathy for the Industry Records, the Spaceshits music spoke to others who shared its dissolution, expressing their posture at its gigs with feral dancing and a general debauchery. “We attracted a lot of delinquent kids who brought firecrackers to the show,” Khan said. “A friend of ours who worked in a butcher shop brought a bag of raw chicken wings. There were always crazy antics at every show that ended in either a big puff of smoke or the bartender angry with us. We attract scum.”
In The Red Records owner Larry Hardy recalls phone calls from Blacksnake about doing a record together. “I remember loving the Spaceshits records,” he said. “The phone calls were always funny.” To this day, Hardy opens his doors to Khan, even to let him housesit. “The house is still glowing from his presence,” Hardy said. “I think footage exists online of him walking around in my clothes giving someone a tour, claiming it’s his house.”
Blacksnake was 22-years old when he decided to stay in Germany while finishing a Spaceshits tour. After four years together, the Spaceshits officially ended their reign, and Khan pursued a new life. During this transition Blacksnake shed another layer of skin, transforming himself into King Khan and thereby reclaiming his family name.
Khan attributed his reformation to a natural intention for change at that time in his life; it helped that he met a girl. In conversation, Khan smoothly sums up this period as poor, loving, still rooted in rock ideology: “When I was first living here I had no money for six months,” he said. “Literally I could not afford food. But because I was in a punk band, people will openly feed you, house you, they give you unlimited amounts of alcohol.”
Still 22-years young, and Khan’s first child was born, another change that greatly influenced his transition from garage punk to soul father. “I had been playing delinquent rock and roll music and when my baby was born I wanted make something more soulful, something about love,” Khan said.
It would be in this stretch of his career that Khan formed the Shrines, a 10-person soul band. Jared Swilley of the Black Lips, friend and fan of Khan, said he always admired Khan for moving to Germany to start anew. “I was about that age the first time I went to Europe and I wanted to stay there,” Swilley said. “I thought it was pretty bad ass that he stayed and got together 10 other people where he didn’t know anyone. Formed a soul band and established himself as this cult celebrity.”
Khan lived in an old Nazi parachute factory, complete with a bomb shelter basement. Practicing in the former Nazi bunker, Khan and the Shrines released several 10” and 7” singles before its full length Three Hairs and You’re Mine in 2001.
The story of the first King Khan & His Shrines show in London solidified the band’s looming infamy. Khan recalls it fondly:
The first gig in London was while we were recording our first album at Toe Rag Studios in 2000. We played a gig with the Masonics and another English band that had a pretty big crust punk following. I remember they had a fire breathing Indian midget that played in the band as well. Anyways, we played last that night and by the time we got up all the crusty punks were trashing the bar, they dragged a couch outside on to the curb, smashing bottles here and there — it was chaos. When we started the punks got even crazier and after our third song the bartender asked us to stop. I have fond memories of playing ‘Shivers Down My Spine,’ a ballad, and watching the crusty punks stop smashing stuff and start swaying softly to the music like in a trance. The bar owner said the police were coming, so I started yelling 'Fuck the police. Fuck'em in the ass!' on the microphone and things went berserk. That was when we had to leave out the backdoor. It was especially funny because only a week before that we were booked to play a reggae festival in East Germany and when we showed up there were about 3,000 skinheads everywhere. It was a skinhead reggae festival. Now that was really scary, made London feel like apple pie.
Only two shows into the Black Lips’ first European tour, King Khan hitchhiked to the venue from a neighboring town to properly introduce himself. “I think he had a different idea in his head of who we are,” Swilley said. “By the end of that night, he ended up getting us banned from that club.”
That night the club was celebrating the promoter’s birthday. Swilley remembers being apprehensive of Khan’s antics as he proceeded to urinate on the merch table, flailed a piss cup on the audience, and smashed a birthday cake on Cole Alexander’s head. “He started smearing cake on everyone’s faces and the Germans were losing their minds,” Swilley said. “By the end of it there was broken glass everywhere. I fell down and cut my hand and he started drinking it and said we were blood brothers.”
That particular night did not convert the Lips to Khan’s freak soul gospel, but he gave them a copy of his album, which healed their reservations through his soul power dogma. The Lips closed its tour in London with a collaborative Khan and the Shrines show. “He’s one of the best live performances I have ever seen,” Swilley said. “You can tell he’s real focused and dedicated because the shows are these extravaganzas.”
His blood brother and former Spaceshits band mate Mark Sultan, also known as BBQ, would visit the Berlin bunker as well, resulting in further weirdness. The King and Sultan bunker sessions, led to drinking, led to more playing, led to drunken recording and songs about teabag parties — the unpleasant kind, not the dainty English type. It may require some digging, but the lung dust is worth it if you can locate a copy of the King Khan & BBQ Show’s comical 7” Teabag Party. “The whole ‘Teabag Party’ thing was us giggling like school girls,” Sultan said. “We were drinking wine in Berlin and thinking of a finish to something Khan started doing while on tour a few years back— teabagging people who actually volunteer themselves. We are retarded.”
Reconnecting with Hardy’s label, The King Khan & BBQ Show, the two-man band rocked like a European White Stripes with less vagina. “I remember one of the first shows we did together, we were so happy and BBQ was dancing with four girls when his pants fell down,” Khan said. Hardy warned of their shows by stating that “the usual is him dressed in drag, teabagging people. That is not even the off the wall stuff. That’s Tuesday for Khan.”
As you read, seven years have passed since Khan formed the initial incarnation of his soul group. Vice has released The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines, and Khan has thereby brought his pseudo celebrity over the pond to more fervent ears, that respond to his Baptist preacher-like gospel rants, his shrines blasting those horns in affirmation. “It's funny that I can be so optimistic,” Khan said. “I remember 10 years ago when I was playing rock and roll, I just wanted everyone to burn in hell and die. Now it’s come back around and good bands are getting the recognition they deserve.”
Posted on December 22, 2008. More on: alexander cole, black lips, blacknake, erich khan, in the red, jared swilley, king khan, king khan and the shrines, larry hardy, spaceshits, sympathy for the industry records