Hanni El Khatib’s first idea for his Savage Times project was to do something he’d never done before. Instead, he ended up doing … well, everything he’d never done before. He’d be playing new instruments, writing in unfamiliar new ways, opening himself up to an unrelenting stream of ideas and dedicating himself totally to pure musical instinct—and then releasing songs instantly to the public, without waiting to tour or assemble an album or anything. At the end of 2015, he’d walked into the studio with his guitar and a few lines of lyrics, hoping to sketch out a track or two just to stay busy, but that very first day he walked out with two finished songs and the inspiration to create something raw in real time, recording and releasing songs (and even videos!) direct to the public as soon as tape stopped rolling: “Everything was really as I did it,” he says. “It was meant to be an experiment in how I could write and record and release something as quickly as possible. I didn’t wanna make an album—I wanted to put songs out every week. It’s personal for me.”
El Khatib started Savage Times last December, after the Bataclan attacks forced the cancellation of a planned Paris performance. With unexpected time on his hands—and unexpected ideas on his mind—he’d scheduled open-ended studio time at Crystal Antlers frontman-turned-producer Jonny Bell’s Jazzcats studio. Each day, he’d take the hour-long drive through L.A.’s industrial corridor to Long Beach, sketching out riffs and lyrics as he drove. (The Suicide-meets-Italo-disco burner “Born Brown” came suddenly while in traffic, and he started screaming the words as loud as he could so his voice would be the perfect amount of wrecked.)
If he felt like making an solo electric guitar song, he’d do it—like the one-take from-the-heart “Miracle.” If he wanted to compose on piano for the first time ever, he would, and that’s how he ended up with the shimmering soul-searching “Gun Clap Hero.” And if he wanted to resurrect old-school studio pro techniques like charting music for a string section or hiring a trio of singers for backup vocals, he’d do that, too. For seven months and fifty songs, he’d work with Bell to capture, strengthen and grow that morning’s burst of inspiration, celebrating at Long Beach’s oldest bar—or with the studio’s resident cats and chicken—once the fifteen-hour work day was done. For a grand finale, he wrote and cut the scorching “Mondo and His Make-Up,” a nod to the supercharged guitar-garage he made his name on, and after some precise editing, the Savage Times experiment was done.
And the result? 21 best-of-the-sessions songs, destined for vinyl release as a 10” box set, as well as the kind of creative revelations that only happen when you quit looking around and start looking ahead. Originally, he’d hoped to explode the lingering idea that he was simply a blues-rock guitar player, left over from his first single and his work with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach: that’s why Savage Timestouches everything from garage rock to punk to disco, hip-hop and even some unexpected solo-guitar self-portraiture. But on the way, he also exploded his own idea of what he could do—even maybe who he was, or would be. Savage Times was an experiment, but an experience, too.
“I realized that if I want, I can play everything,” he says. “Or if I don’t wanna play guitar or make a straight-forward rock song, I don’t have to, and it’ll still sound like me. It opened my eyes to how I can sound like myself over whatever backdrop I want. That’s not important. What’s holding it together is my point of view as a musician. What surprised me is how self-sufficient I can be. You realize you don’t need all the things people tell you that you need to make great records. You need good gear and good people—that’s it! And you don’t need much more.”