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An Anxious Eroticism: The Flesh and Machinery Grooves of Elyas Khan

Elyas Khan's sensuously-disquieting music, in his own words, is a hallucinatory event: it embodies the kind of fear, alarm and agoraphobia we sometimes feel when we've read too many headlines for the day.

Like a mystic steppe warrior gone punk, Elyas Khan demonstrates a certain necromancy in the fractured funk of his worldly pop-rock. Having toyed with the strains of ska, punk and pop in his prior band Nervous Cabaret, Khan already had the knack of performance down, presenting a sort of Eastern-punk speakeasy for the after hours crowd. Obvious influences of The Clash and Bad Brains could be heard on the band’s three releases and, for all their laborious touring, they’ve remained an undiscovered delight on the fringes of popular music. After a final album with Nervous Cabaret in 2007, Khan would begin work on a collection of solo material, which would eventually end up on his debut, Brawl in Paradise.

Rife with political diatribes embedded in the corporeal funk, Brawl in Paradise manages a dizzying feat of making social dissension sound brazenly sensual; the rhythms often jar and rupture, but they are held together by the thread of a paternal voice. Khan’s breathy, light tenor can either hover over a tune like a cumulus mass or infuse it with the thick luster of blood. And while anxiety will never be measured on the scales of Eros, the two sensations of dread and lust on Brawl are not always mutually exclusive. Khan’s way of bridging the shattered wreck of a fraught mind with touch-paper eroticism opens up an ambit in which his stories of sedition can be lived in curious anomaly.

On the album, grooves automate rhythms like Rambaldi-animatronics; metal-scrap drum loops are housed in the flesh of warm, supple basslines – a strange anatomy that moves with an awkward, mechanized grace. Leading single, “Bells”, propagates a pushy, strutting funk of Manhattan noir, with Khan hymning the panics of war with unnatural calm. There’s a far more peculiar practice in rhythm on “Top of the World”; with clockwork loops running breathless circles around the jump-rope rhymes, a story of political oppression emerges.

Whichever turns are made on Brawl in Paradise, there is the uneasy confluence of disparate emotions. These sentiments are often reflected in the cross-referencing of sound, where guitars battle it out with sequencers for space. Often Khan’s approach to playing is counterintuitive; he plays his instruments as though they were anything but what they really are (“I play the bass like a guitar and the guitar like a bass…so I am told,” he maintains). In an art now augmented by the undeniable influence of digital media, the musician approaches his work with a considered eye; the synthesized elements in his music seem like abrasive intrusions upon the fluid warmth of his melodies. Yet the shock of the techno-incursion is absorbed by that very warmth. It’s an unsettling dichotomy that gets under the skin with the singer’s application of harmonic skill.

At once panoramic and narrowly-focused, Khan’s music is the creation of both a picaresque and guarded life. It is, as Khan has said, the embodiment of fear, alarm and agoraphobia - the sound of voracious desires sheltered in darkness.

* * *

Can you give some background on where you were born and your upbringing? When did you start playing music?

I was born in London, England. My parents were both from Hyderabad, India though my mother’s family finally settled in Karachi, Pakistan. My parents decided to have me live in Pakistan from the age of two through to my sixth birthday. They were very young and trying to make a go of it in London. They felt Pakistan with my Grandmother, Aunts, Uncles, cousins all under one roof would be a better alternative than London. It certainly was albeit without them. My memories are still vivid from a very early age. Then there was war.

I always loved music, it consumed me although I had no “real” idea where it came from and the thought of becoming a musician was foreign to me: it just was not talked about or done in my family. My father was an avid record collector and audiophile, however, so when I was back in London, I got to hear everything from Indian classical and movie music to Credence Clearwater Revival, Stevie Wonder and Pink Floyd. I became obsessed with Elvis Presley and American 50’s Rock and Roll by the time I was eight. Then American funk off of Radio Luxembourg by the time I was 12 or 13 and Punk and Ska ala the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Specials etc., by the time I was 15. No thought of ever playing music. I was into basketball, track and field athletics, movies and reading. I started playing music in my early 30’s. Up until then I scored my early theater work with found sound, using four-track recorders, victrola’s and old 78 records and by picking at broken instruments I had no idea how to play.

Your band Nervous Cabaret points to many of the elements found on Brawl in Paradise that you would further develop. What I hear in both works (especially Nervous Cabaret) are the sounds of German Weimar jazz. There are also Ennio Morricone spaghetti-western guitars and Tex-Mex influences. Can you talk about the formation of Nervous Cabaret and the musical influences of both the band and your solo work?

I had had a long run with a performance troupe I founded in New York called The Dean Street F.O.O. When that came to an end, I really did not know what to do. I continued to do bit parts in TV shows like Oz and perform in off Broadway plays but it just was not exciting to me anymore. A friend suggested I go to an open mic at the now defunct and demolished Between the Bridges Bar in DUMBO, Brooklyn. It was hosted by the British-born country singer Jan Bell. I fooled around with a boom box, bang on a can style song experimentation and a little bit of very simple guitar stuff. Fred Wright, a trumpet player fresh out of conservatory in Denmark, spotted me and later we would crash parties until we met the rest of the lads that ended up being Nervous Cabaret. I had the title for the band years before when I was just imagining actually forming one. I learned on the job and wrote a ton of songs that eventually got to the ears of the group who fleshed them out. We played a lot in NYC. 170 plus shows a year just in the city itself for about three to four years before taking ourselves seriously enough to record a proper record. When we did, it was indeed a proper affair: analog two inch tape at Trout Studios in Brooklyn with producer Danny Kadar. Ecstatic Music For Savage Souls, the first full length, was recorded at Old Soul Studios in Catskill New York with Producer Kenny Siegal, again on two inch tape; Drop Drop too was recorded there in a similar fashion. My guitar work was influenced largely by punk bands like Bad Brains, the Clash, Fugazi and the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt. That was the bedrock. I didn’t know how to play so I got an instructional VHS tape from Sam Ash by a very fey San Franciscan guitarist who taught me the basics. I guess the Weimar stuff came from the theater: Weil and Tom Wait’s work with Robert Wilson. Tex Mex? I had a run in with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top in New York around 2003. We even wrote a song together. Unpublished sadly. That might account for it, although one of my father’s big favourites and mine ‘til this day is Manitas Del Plata, a great flamenco guitarist from Spain.

Brawl in Paradise can be described as a series of vignettes that discuss politics in the story-telling tradition of song narrative. Surprisingly, these are not at all love songs that are common in much of pop music. What are some of the topics and themes you discuss on the album?

I am interested in love as a topical idea, but much more so within the context of the real world and the day to day struggles, trials and tribulations of ordinary and, many times, not so ordinary peoples. Room 804 (of which the song is named after) was simply the number of my studio that overlooked the entire city of Berlin from its high rise location as part of the old East German Radio Station HQ, in the east side of the city on the river Spree. I felt it to be the central point from which I would collect and disseminate my ideas and sounds...

“Top of the World” was majorly inspired by the writings of Arundhati Roy. It’s a whirlwind, linguistically vomited piece. So many issues, so much injustice, so much suffering, so much corruption and I begin the song with the idea of me in the comfort of my home doing something menial like washing the dishes and imagining how easily my view from my kitchen window, my wife milling about the house, everything I love could all be wiped out. What if everything was horribly extinguished and I had to face what was left alone? The door bell rings and in walks Arundhati. She’s here to explain it all and shake up my self-absorbed rumination. I am very interested in life on the communal and fringe level. Both the outsider perspective and common every day existence that changes the landscape itself. “The River” and “Three Merry Boys” address these issues. “Just a Shadow” is a military tattoo of sorts. I have spoken to a lot of veterans from several eras over the years and I have been trying to understand my own attitudes towards military service since I was a kid and experienced war firsthand. There are portraits of people I have known such as in “Dear Eliza”: the subject here is a friend of mine who was a small time hustler and part-time independent sex worker.

In the song “Bells” I am just trying to invoke several ideas: timekeeping in a historical sense, congregational calls for prayer and alarm, the Bell as an anthropomorphic entity, as a witness and persevering aspect of human life, an object that is continually forged by many as a necessary letter in our sonic alphabet. “Lowest of the Low” was based on Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. “Alien in Waiting” was inspired by Werner Herzog. “Cook the Ocean” is a song sung by a Neptune like a character gone mad.

Björk once made the astute observation that music is extremely visual and that as an artist, you must get the accurate image to represent yourself and your music. What are your ideas about music and its many visual components?

I feel the same in many ways. Album covers are important, surely, but firstly for me there are the images the music invokes for the listener. The cinema for an audience of one, invisible to others. That would be my ideal album cover. To invoke that inner cinema it would help to be able to create a physical one for one’s CD or album. I have always had an issue with this since I have never liked the CD format and have begrudgingly had to make said object. I think visually in music so this is something I am focusing on these days. It is really a collaborative endeavour, so it takes longer. But I have several theatrical, filmic and graphic projects on the burn.

What plans do you have for an upcoming album? Where do you see yourself headed musically next?

I will just keep growing, practicing the instruments I want to play and writing with everything from pencil on paper to voice messages, documenting what is around, collecting stories I find fascinating, delving more and more into storytelling techniques, blending all the disciplines I have learned over the years in to one item at times or just performing solely singular pieces only to be heard in a very specific location. I’ll be making club music, music for younger audiences and multimedia works for several platforms. There are countless possibilities and I would like to delve into as many as possible. Next will be an EP for spring 2016 with a full-length for winter 2016/17.

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