King Khan and BBQ Discuss Doo-Wop, Dolly Parton and 'the Maury Povich Side of Jesus' 

When King Khan and BBQ last played Nashville, they "kind of had a bummer time": Khan, one-half of the Canadian two-piece, explains that a "snooty" Exit/In audience was impatient to hear their tourmates, The Detroit Cobras. When the band returns to that same space on Thursday, this time as headliners, things should turn out differently. Let's hope so, because their best performances inspire "a deep kind of freakout" that makes people want to "smash chairs or have sex"—again, according to Khan—and recently inspired a fan in Denver to "[try] to put her underwear on our heads."

Such rock 'n' roll chaos isn't new for the band's two members, Salim "King" Khan and Mark "BBQ" Sultan. They've been "doing our D.I.Y. thing together" since the mid-'90s, when they both played in the Spaceshits. Both men have complex résumés and discographies that reflect their long involvement in Quebec's tightly knit punk scene. Most recently, Khan has fronted a 10-person soul revue, King Khan and the Shrines, while BBQ has toured as a one-man band.

Forming a two-piece was a decision that came naturally for two men who see themselves more as "brothers" than colleagues. Khan notes that in the early days of their career, "It wasn't so luxurious. We had ghetto blasters that didn't work." But since their first album, The King Khan & BBQ Show, appeared in 2004, they've been winning over punk and garage fans, gradually achieving what he calls "a certain amount of success."

On their most recent album, 2007's What's for Dinner?, they don't stray from the idea of primitive, stripped-down rock. But whereas it's typical for garage revivalists to interpret that tradition narrowly, turning out series of aggressive, angry punkers, King Khan and BBQ's version of retro-rock is more expansive: "We do...a lot of traditional rock 'n' roll, good punk, old-school kind of punk. Doo-wop—no one does that anymore." They're also inclusive listeners, citing prewar genres like gospel, which "has its own psychedelic freakout."

These influences are apparent in their music. A typical KKBBQ song features distorted, trebly guitar and raw production, along with thumping, repetitive percussion. (Mark Sultan drums with his feet while playing rhythm guitar.) Within that framework, though, there's a lot of variation—the songs on What's for Dinner? range from soulful ballads to fast, Little Richard-style dance numbers to a cover of the Circle Jerks' "Operation." As Khan notes, "We're not purists." (This multi-genre approach can be risky, though—Khan jokes that when he went crunk, "I made the mistake of naming myself Li'l Penis as a rap name.")

The doo-wop aspect of their sound is what most sets them apart from their garage-rock peers. Their songs are often built around strong melodies and embellished with exuberant melisma. "Waddlin' Around," from their debut album, has a melody that recalls The Del-Vikings' "Come Go With Me," and they harmonize plaintively on the minor-key ballad "Why Don't You Lie." Their singing talent is one possible reason this approach isn't more common, as Khan points out. "A lot of people, they can't do the doo-wop thing," he says. But beyond that, adds Sultan, "You really have to, like, peruse through your heart to hit certain things. If you're too macho about things you're gonna get turned off, if you're too self-conscious you're gonna get turned off. But we're retarded, and we have a lot of heart."

The result is audiences who connect viscerally with their music, even if they can't understand the words. The band has recently performed for fans in Europe, South America, India and Israel. Khan admits that touring for six or seven months of the year is taxing, but he also sees it as a privilege. He cites the "amazing" time he had visiting Jerusalem, where a priest friend gave him "the religious tour": "I saw where Jesus painted the Mona Lisa, Jesus made his first pizza, Jesus made his first matzoh ball, Jesus sold drugs. The Maury Povich side of Jesus."He also recalls playing for an audience of military personnel at an Israeli kibbutz, an experience he describes as "very uncomfortable." Khan adds that "I like playing those kinds of places because it's kind of a challenge. We like challenges." If King Khan and BBQ can get Nashvillians to dance, they will have overcome another one. And they're eager to return to Music City, if for no other reason than "I wanna meet Ernest Tubb." Sultan chimes in, "I would still make love to Dolly Parton."


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