King Khan: Return of the King

The Black Lips' favorite Canadian brings his German band and glad tidings

In the liner notes to The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines, Black Lips bass player Jared Swilley describes his first encounter with the group as something like a religious experience.

It was a foggy and foreboding evening in London several years back. Swilley lost most of his possessions, including his passport the night before, and his morale was low. The Black Lips were headlining a show, following a performance from the Shrines, and things were shaping up to be a bummer of a night. But then, like a ray of hope, the Shrines took the stage with an explosion of horns, and a saturated '60s funk/soul and psychedelia that washed away his troubles.

"I was spellbound, moved, shaken, stirred and cured," Swilley writes. "...I left the show a changed and converted man." Coming from the son of a Southern preacher, those words should not be taken lightly.

For years the Shrines experience was something that few Americans witnessed. The German-based group's 10 to 12-piece lineup keeps it on European turf. As a result, the Shrines have remained a specter that more people have heard than actually seen this side of the Atlantic.

But with Vice Records' June 17 release of The Supreme Genius – the group's American debut – followed by a full U.S. tour, the Shrines have landed on American soil to show off the extravagant side of Khan's musicianship.

These days, Arish "King" Khan is a Berliner. The Indian guitar guru was raised in Montreal, Quebec, and cut his teeth playing guitar in the sloppy Canadian punk band the Spaceshits. After their first European tour he opted not to go back to the Great White North, and settled in Germany where he runs Moon Studio out of his house.

For years Khan has kicked around with the Black Lips, and often calls Atlanta his second home. He has never had a problem drawing crowds in Atlanta with the smaller and more portable two-piece, the King Khan and BBQ Show. Alongside drummer BBQ (aka Mark Sultan), Khan spearheads a bare-knuckle balance of chaos and melody. The duo plows through a slapdash release of classic rock 'n' roll hooks that drown in a haze of feedback and an unrestrained charge that summons rowdy audience reactions.

It's been that way since Khan and BBQ first played Atlanta as special guests at the now defunct Kirkwood Ballers Club open mic night at Lenny's in 1995. "I thought we would have to beg people to come out, but tons of people showed up and they already knew the words to the songs," Swilley recalls. "Khan has charisma. He really is like the Pied Piper. Everywhere he goes it's like that, but in Atlanta everybody comes out and everybody wants to have fun."

Khan chalks up his love affair with Atlanta to an artistic connection with the city's current crop of musical exports. "Deerhunter recorded something at my house recently and the Black Lips recorded part of Let it Bloom in my living room," he recalls. "Ever since then there has been a familial thing going on between us."

The Shrines are an altogether different beast from the two-piece. The band incorporates a horn section and a cheerleader, and the music is much more elaborate – a far cry from the ramshackle chops of Khan and BBQ.

With the Shrines, Khan emerges as part soul man, part witch doctor, giving a high, crackling yowl to a truly soulful review. The Supreme Genius compiles 16 songs that stretch back to the group's beginnings, circa '99. The songs are a twisted, magnetic splatter of tongue-in-cheek soul that commands profoundly danceable rhythms in "Took My Lady to Dinner" and "Land of the Freak." The over-the-top sense of humor in "Welfare Bread" has to be taken with a grain of salt, and the Jimi Hendrix-esque "Outta Harm's Way" showcases a captivating range of emotions and depth in both Khan's abilities as a songwriter and the band's ability to deliver an array of fun and infectious tunes.

Bringing such a large group overseas is a laborious endeavor that probably won't be a huge money maker, but no one in the group is too worried about it. "It's been a longtime dream of mine to bring the whole crew to the States," Khan adds. "It's hard to make it worth everybody's time, but for them it's less about making money than it is about seeing the U.S. and spreading the good cheer."

That good cheer is exactly what brought Swilley out of his funk on that dreary night in London when he first crossed paths with the Shrines so long ago. And as strongly as he states in the album's liner notes, he stands by his words when he repeats that, to this day, the Shrines put on "...one of the best shows I have ever witnessed."

To hear a song from The Supreme Genius, click here.