by Roy Kasten
King Khan: Do you know Chuck Berry?
Roy Kasten: I've met him once. Do you want me to pass on a message?
King Khan: Yeah. Tell him to come to our show.
I didn't have the heart to say it: There have been nights when it's unclear if Chuck Berry has made his own gig.
Besides, the rock & roll dreams of King Khan are uncrushable, unstoppable. Since the '90s there have been innumerable bands and personae, on-stage mayhem and mind-fracking videos, indecent exposure and drug busts, meltdowns and breakups. Say what you want about the myth; few performers today are as purely and gaily in love with life and rock & roll.
When Khan returns to St. Louis for a show at Off Broadway (3509 Lemp Avenue, 314-773-3363) on Friday, November 25, he'll be bringing childhood friend and Canadian psychobilly legend Bloodshot Bill. Together, they're recording and touring as Tandoori Knights, a more stripped-down, blues-and-rockabilly outfit than Khan's definitive band, the Shrines. In this interview, the Berlin-based artist takes us through his admiration for Chuck Berry, his familial connections, a recent nervous breakdown and, as he calls it, a musical rebirth.
Roy Kasten: You were telling me about Chuck Berry.
King Khan: I came through St. Louis with the Shrines last fall, and this guy at the show told me he worked with Chuck Berry. I gave him a Tandoori Knights CD but I don't know if it got to Chuck. It should be obvious what an influence he is on me and on Bloodshot Bill.
He's not someone that comes up very often when talking about your music.
That's too bad. He's one of the true originators. I especially love his humor throughout his career. He's got all these crazy situations. "Havana Moon" was one of my favorite songs for a long time. We have a song, "Lover's Moon," that was inspired by Chuck Berry. Ever since I was a kid, playing in a punk band, Chuck Berry was one of our biggest heroes. And of course "My Ding-a-Ling," which is a great comeback and a masterpiece of music.
What was the deal with Bloodshot Bill not being allowed into the states?
He got banned for five years. You know how the border is. Back in the day, he didn't have the right papers and they were particularly severe on him. I've known him since I was fourteen, and it was sad for me and for his fans. But I got a lawyer and did it all right. We've been having a ball. The amount of barbeque he's eaten has been remarkable. He's eaten five years worth of barbeque this past week.
This tour with Bloodshot Bill is a wholly different show than either your music with Mark Sultan or the Shrines. What can people expect?
It's very family style. We've known each other since we were teenagers. We lived near each other and I would eat with his family, and he'd do the same. We played music together as kids, so whenever we get together it gets kind of juvenile. When we started this project, he was dropping me off at my mom's and there was this restaurant, Tandoori Nuit, in French, so we felt this call. We literally went to his house and wrote the first single, "Pretty Please" and "Bucketful." We were flipping out. We called Norton Records, and boom, we got the record out. It all rolled really fast from there. He'll record stuff at his house and send it over the ocean to me in Berlin.
I can tell just by talking to you that you get off on collaborating with people. If someone tried to figure out your discography it would take a lifetime.
I keep myself busy. It's a family business. The people I collaborate with become part of my family. When I record at home, my wife and family are there. So everybody I work with has to be adopted into the family. I don't like to waste my time on things, I don't know how to describe it, but I just want to do things I love.
Can you put a finger on when the actual King Khan was born?
It was right after the Spaceshits, after a tour in Europe in 1999. A good friend of mine, Jasper Hood from England, who I did a band with called the Black Jaspers, gave me this plastic Kaiser helmet. I was 21 or something. I would wear it everywhere, when I was shopping or walking down the street, and all these homeless people would yell out, "Kaiser! Kaiser!" So I felt like king of the homeless, which I kind of was. I was so far away from home. It was a sign that, yes, I am king in this fatherland. All it took was a rubber hat and a couple of homeless people to make me king!
In the last year or so you had some health issues, a nervous breakdown?
This business can be a rocky road. If you choose this lifestyle with touring and the temptations all around you, trying to balance family, I felt like my mind was crumbling. In fact, it was like my mind was going into overdrive, and basically I had to chill out. When me and Mark [Sultan] broke up, we were at one of the highest points in our career. We played the Sydney Opera House, we were invited by Lou Reed. It was surreal. The firecracker exploded. All it took was a little help from medication, but that was just to cool down the jets. I've gotten off the medication and I'm feeling great. I'm looking forward to touring and recording. I feel like the cycle ended and there's been a rebirth.
You didn't feel like pulling a Leonard Cohen and joining a monastery?
I kind of did! I went so far as to go to a monastery in Korea, a female monastery, which I didn't know existed, but maybe that would be the perfect monastery for me! It was in Daegu, South Korea, just absolutely beautiful, in the mountains. I'm glad my meltdown happened there. The monks took me in and fed me, and I got to hang out with the head monk for a few days. It was very helpful for the rebuilding of my brain cells.
Are the live shows as unhinged as before?
I've tried to cut down on the nudity. But the music I've been making is about celebrating life, the crumbling of the Earth. It all depends on how much the audience gives back. It's all about the give and take between performer and audience. You can make it a magic ritual if you do it right. So many performers care about being professional. They have these tricks up their sleeves, or they think too much about what they're doing, and don't get nuts.
It's like they think some record label or someone is watching them.
There's a small group of people that we grew out of, in our rock & roll community, that I'm really proud of. I think it has been a rebirth of rock & roll. But I see it already. Some people are trying to make a career out of it, but that has to happen in a natural way. Thank god that's how it's been for me. I've been able to support my family, but at the same time I don't have to compromise. It's been a good life.