It’s a little after 8 p.m. in the German countryside, about three hours outside of Berlin, where King Khan and his family are quarantining with his wife’s parents. He tells me to pick three numbers between one and 22. I reply I have to clear my mind, as I’m familiar with the Major Arcana of tarot. He lets me know the cards are already shuffled, which eases my mind.
Despite what your local newspaper’s astrology section tells you, it’s perfectly fine to schedule and conduct a Skype interview while Mercury is in retrograde. The catch is it works if it’s a redo.
I recently purchased the Black Power Tarot Deck – created and conceptualized by Khan, drawn by Belfast artist Michael Eaton, and guided to completion by filmmaker and Way of the Tarot author Alejandro Jodorowsky – as a birthday present to myself. Khan was offering free readings to whomever purchased a deck, so we ultimately decided to conduct our second interview (more on that momentarily) and the tarot reading in the same video chat setting.
Back in August, I spoke to Khan – bipolar rock ‘n roller, caterwauling soul singer, burgeoning mystic jazz composer – about his new social justice organization called Global Solidarity Forever and his incredible Black Power Tarot Deck for an hour. It may have been the best interview I’ve ever done in my decade as a music journalist; Khan was engaging and eager to speak in-depth about whatever I had to ask.
When I searched for the audio/video file to begin the transcription process, the interview was nowhere to be found. Was it the Skype gods frowning on me? Was it operator error? The world may never know.
Thankfully, Khan was excited by the prospect of a second interview, which I scheduled upon hearing the news about a forthcoming jazz album titled The Infinite Ones (which will be released this Friday, October 30th), recorded with members of Sun Ra Arkestra, Calexico, and stalwart writer/dancer/musician Brontez Purnell. Given Khan’s reputation, you would be forgiven for assuming The Infinite Ones would be a blaring, confrontational free-jazz freakout a la early-to-mid 60’s John Coltrane; instead, it is meditative, soul-searching, and otherworldly in the vein of ‘Trane’s work with his genius wife Alice (which itself is in line with her monumental solo work).
There was a three-card spread, but it wasn’t presented as a traditional “past, present, future” spread. Looking at the cards, however, it most certainly could have been, as it displayed a narrative that resonated with me.
The first card was the Wheel of Fortune, the significance of it being highlighted by the lever which makes the wheel spin. “The reason that [it’s] the Malcolm X card is because it’s showing the three parts of his life,” Khan explained to me. “He was a pimp and a hustler, like Malcolm Little [or his alias Detroit Red]. And here, he joins the Nation of Islam, [where] he’s descending on the wheel. And then, he goes up when he becomes the saint Malcolm, towards the end of his life when he is all about brotherly love.”
Khan spoke about the symbolism of the card, how everyone who followed Malcolm X’s words was at a standstill when he was assassinated. The person turning the Wheel of Fortune is missing, which could either mean someone else needs to turn the wheel to help me get unstuck or I need to perform this function for someone else.
The Sun was pulled as the second card in the reading, naturally represented by the visionary Sun Ra. “It’s like the ultimate source of nourishment and guidance and growth,” Khan said, which could most certainly explain his relationship to both the sun and Sun Ra. Over the years, I’ve met many artists who cited Sun Ra as a formative and lasting influence, including Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces, a visionary in his own right."
Khan continued, “But the Sun is the card that represents that you are a reflection of what other people give to you. So that means if people give you magic, you return with magic. But if they give you shit, you could return with shit.”
The third and final card in the spread was Judgement, which Khan noted was of particular significance because it comes right before the World, the very last card in the Major Arcana. “It’s the card that symbolizes the long journey that you’ve gone in your path to illumination,” Khan told me. “And right before you’re [fully] understanding of the world, you realize that you see from a different perspective.”
In our second interview, Khan and I spent nearly two and a half hours ruminating on the concepts of the tarot and Black Power; we spoke at length about his beautifully designed deck which blends both themes. We spoke about The Infinite Ones and he regaled me with stories about hanging out with Sun Ra Arkestra back in the day. He told me all about Global Solidarity Forever, the community program Just Insulin (developed with activist and Louisiana-based Black Panther member Malik Rahim), and his entertaining and informative online show Tarot-Rism (which is tangentially at best about tarot).
In the Black Power Tarot Deck, Judgement finds Erykah Badu and Andre 3000, naked as the day they were born, praying to an androgynous being as the higher perspective trumpets its tune down on them.
At this point, there is no reason to bear any pretense about my tarot reading being separate from our interview, so let’s just allow for the conversation to roll instead of me attempting to summarize it.
(This conversation, spanning the course of nearly two and a half hours, has obviously been edited and condensed for maximum readability. The entirety of this interview was transcribed by KEXP volunteer Ed Savage.)
King Khan: So what the card is showing is that after your long voyage of getting to understand the world, that right before you understand the world, you suddenly see from this androgynous super-being. And that's like, you shed your sexualities of your male and female side and you embrace this all encompassing view. So basically, the way the cards are set, like this, one thing is interesting; it's that all of these cards are centered. The Empress and [some of] these other ones are looking completely in one direction, or [are] in one direction. So what these cards are saying to me now is that you are a source of inspiration for people and nourishment. But, in that same respect, when you give off this energy, you want this energy back reflected towards you; to the point where you will, give people shit if they give you shit.
So in doing this, though, you're still providing people with this inspiration. There are two things about this inspiration. One, this inspiration comes from either you becoming unstuck and continuing the movement, or someone out there is helping you get unstuck and move again. So on one hand, there's the being stuck thing. And then on the other side, it's that you're seeing from that higher perspective. So it could also possibly be that this higher perspective is what is making you unstuck; that you felt stranded or stuck for a while, and then suddenly, seeing from this perspective is freeing you. So how does that resonate?
KEXP: Oh, yeah. I could definitely see the latter situation happening, because I did feel stuck for a while. I've been – I don't want to say I was struggling as a writer – but I think I was struggling to find a sustainable way to continue being a writer, because I was working at a supermarket and really low on funds. So it was one of those things where I was kind of just pushing through and feeling like I'm stuck in this place. And there was no rhythm or movement, necessarily.
Cool. And since then, you have changed your outlook in a big way.
Yeah, and now it seems that, the middle card being the sun, now you can be a source of inspiration to others because you've found a higher light, almost.
That's really interesting.
Yeah, and the Judgment card is really fascinating because it's like the Erykah Badu and Andre 3000 card. The reason I chose those two is that I just figured that their children must be like the supreme androgynous super beings. You know what I mean? Because, I can't imagine them at all inflicting any kind of toxic masculinity or femininity on their children. I could just imagine almost like aliens or something like that; just like they're gifted with some pretty amazing parents.
Cool, all right! So let's do it. Should we do the interview?
Yes, let's go ahead and start that. And then we'll come back to the--
The reading, later...
Oh, I mean, we can still talk about it. Yeah.
Is there anything that you're...do you get the idea of seeing from a higher perspective?
Oh, yeah. I definitely do. Like, I feel as though a lot of my work is based around kind of trying to find that higher perspective – trying to find whether it... I feel as though there is an emotional through line through my work. So I always try to think about the big picture. I feel as though I'm always on the path of either personal or professional or spiritual enlightenment. So that's a really cool card to be drawn.
Yeah, I find it really interesting, too, because I've seen it in the friends of my daughters. It's like they are so like the youth of today. I find her so gender fluid, and it's amazing to me. I remember... I mean, how old are you? You're in your thirties?
I just turned thirty-seven.
Okay. So yeah, we're not that far away. I'm forty-three. But I remember, when I was a kid, you had to choose your team. There was no question that you could be... it was a lot of pressure, actually, from people. But, I knew some people that were openly gay and that was fine. But it was very strange when I was growing up. And now, when I see this generation – and they're not really faced with these pressures of having to have a boyfriend or doing this, or like they're really kind of in tune with just like, "Oh, yeah, I'm going to figure that out, eventually, when it has to happen," and I'm impressed. And I find that that's a good, positive thing; I think the future is open in that way, in a really good way.
Yeah. I'm really inspired by how generations after us kind of deal with gender fluidity and things [regarding] a sexual identity; all sorts of different natures, like you were saying. It was very rigid and dogmatic for people in our age group. And I definitely felt that myself. On a personal level, my biological mom was very abusive and there was that notion of wanting to make me, quote-unquote, “tougher.” Lots of homophobia in the environment and things like that. And so, I had never felt a need to project my masculinity in any sort of way. I just wanted to be myself and allow other people to be themselves, without any kind of judgment for [toward] me. So, yeah. I could definitely see that going on, and I see that a lot in future generations. They're just like, "Oh, yeah. Let's just be chill and be cool with each other."
I remember I had a friend... one of my daughter's friends, she's 16 and my daughter's 17. She came over and they were just we're just hanging out in the living room and then, she just kind of mentioned in passing that she was bisexual. Imagine, she's 16. I think this is amazing. I'm like, you already know at that point ... I just remember being so confused and so nervous. And also, we're both people of color. So that's even another added stress onto the thing, because we're living in these societies; at least, when I was growing up, it was mostly white. There were a few Black people and a few Indians, like a handful. So that's another thing, where the normal around us is white and we're not a part of that. So then, add that stress of like finding your identity – it's weird, there's a lot less stress these days with that kind of stuff.
Yeah, and I feel as though it might be different in Indian culture. But I know, by growing up in an economically depressed Black neighborhood, there was definitely a lot of pressure to uphold gender roles. I didn't meet gay people until like high school.
And so, [the rigid enforcement of gender and sexual identity] was always something that didn't really sit right with me. And like I caught a lot of shit for that; people speculating whether or not I was gay because I'm like, who cares!?
Right, right! I have so many gay friends and I'm always constantly inspired by, I guess it's by how much more fun that they have and how more liberated and open they are in their relationships, and stuff. I guess, I know I'm very heterosexual. But for me, it's amazing to see gay culture. And I think that so much of rock and roll has to do with that. It's like, you look at Little Richard and where he learned; you know, savage rock and roll was from a bunch of female impersonators and transgender people in that community, in a small town in Georgia, which makes it even more dangerous. If you're already Black, and then on top of that you add that you're dressing flamboyantly, you're becoming such a target for that [hatred].
I feel like so much of that danger and – I like to call it savage rock and roll because, for me, it is savage. And in the most positive sense of the word, savage. You know, they use that word to describe us as being wild and untamed, but I think that's a compliment. When you hear and see what Little Richard was doing back then, he didn't give a fuck. He was just like so crazy, you know.
There's a man in Brandenburg, which is part of Berlin, and he had a hotel in the early ’60s. And it was where all the R&B and rock and roll musicians used to stay when they played in Berlin. And I was friends with his daughter, and I was talking to her about this and said she had some really funny stories from her dad. For example, one of the stories was that when Little Richard came and played, he stayed at the hotel. And when he came to the hotel at night, he was running around naked with high heels on, pounding on every door of people and asking them if they wanted to fuck him.
And then, this guy, the owner of the hotel – he totally respects rock and roll. So he's like, "Sadly, I have to kick you out of this hotel because you've disturbed every one of my clients. But I will find you another hotel where you can go to safely.” He called up another hotel and he's like, "You guys [have] got to take Little Richard, man. He just went crazy and did this." So yeah, I love that, you know. And I think we need more of that in the world; more of these freaky people who do shit like that.
For sure. I feel as though rock and roll is embracing the danger of being the other.
Especially when it was mostly black people. Yeah. It's like, "Okay, we have this implicit understanding that we are people of color; some of us are of a different sexual orientation. And thus, we're in danger." So now, there's this beautiful genre of music that embraces it. That's what I've always loved about rock and roll.
Yeah, totally. Like even, for example, the speakeasy level of rock and roll, which was, I feel, where R&B really came from; jazz, too. It was a part of this... I mean, the name rock and roll, it's about sex. And when you had these speakeasies back then, where everyone would just go in there and get drunk on weekends; it's such the opposite of how you're living daily. If you're working on a plantation or all these kinds of things, your life is misery and suffering. And then suddenly, you have the opportunity to hear this incredible music and fuck and go nuts.
Yeah, it makes sense why we need rock and roll to open up our own souls and allow for that – I guess it wouldn't be called heavenly light, but it's some kind of fiery light. I don't know. I don't want to put too much religious stuff into it. But, yeah. I definitely feel that there's a thin line between spiritual salvation, in the gospel way – like the church way, which is using the same tools as the other way – of using music and blues scales and these kinds of things. So yeah, I thank God for that.
Then also, I don't think that we give enough props to Black culture, because Black culture... not only did that music help us all be free and find our path, but also it was the music that inspired, for example, people like Jack Kerouac and the beats, who were basically white people who were also trapped in this terrible, rigid world. And they didn't want to have anything to do with that. Or you've got Allen Ginsberg, who's mother was completely psychotic and in and out of mental hospitals. And this poor kid has got to live in this kind of hellhole. But then, he's got the Communist Party; his parents are part of the Communist Party. So he's going to these communist picnics and all this kind of stuff. So they all looked at the outside, you know, to find guidance.
And then, when he hears Charlie Parker, he imagines words being spoken in the same flow of Charlie Parker. So it's like so much of our liberation, our personal liberation, no matter what color you are, is based on Black culture. That's why one of the main reasons I wanted to do the tarot, the Black Power Tarot, was to show the path of illumination with African-American people. And I feel closer to the Black culture than I do to my own Indian blood. I was born in Canada and I grew up speaking English the way I do, as my main mother tongue, and discovering music and finding that my soul is in tune with R&B and free-jazz and Sun Ra; all that kind of stuff. More than, for example, let's say Bollywood or something like that, which I never really ... I mean, now I appreciate it and stuff, but I never felt like I belonged to that culture, even though my parents are one hundred percent Indian.
It's also interesting if you look at certain people like John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane. They searched for spiritualities all over, and they found it in Buddhism and Hinduism. And then, when they brought that into their music, you've got like – for me, I believe it's like the purest prayer or spiritual prayer without any... well, obviously, with some Eastern influences. But for me, when I hear Alice Coltrane or late, late, late, late John Coltrane; I mean, A Love Supreme, even. But they were really inspired by the philosophy of Buddhism.
I think that right now, there's this huge thing about cultural appropriation, you know. But art, I don't think art should have any of those boundaries. It doesn't, because it's like you have to be, for example, Korla Pandit, this really crazy organ player. He was Black from Detroit or somewhere out of Chicago, and he wore a turban. And it was super inspired by Arab and Indian music. And he even changed his name to Korla Pandit. That's beautiful. For me, that's cultural appreciation. And that's honoring a culture and finding your escape and your freedom. It may be with the help of another culture, that's beautiful.
You know, when it comes to these fashion labels and all these people completely stealing Native artwork and stuff like that. Yeah, there you go! That's [not] cultural appreciation and that should be punished and all that kind of stuff. But I really feel that in music and art, there has to be a kind of like Get Out of Jail Free card. I don't know what you want to call it. But I think that it's an important thing that you can... Because it's a part of dreaming.
I think it was Phil Cohran, one of the guys who was involved in the [Sun Ra] Arkestra, but also moved to Chicago and became a part of that whole movement in Chicago; that art ensemble in Chicago and all those people. But he, for example, had a band that was called The Maharajas. So for him as a Black man being in Chicago, his fantasy was... Oh, my God. He was an Indian guy with a turban. So it's beautiful. That's the way we should approach art.
The more boundaries we put on it, especially nowadays ... you know, comedy and music, those are the two things that are the self. Those things help you heal and take your trauma and turn it into pleasure and harmony and disharmony; comedy, especially. If you had a comic like Richard Pryor who really spoke the truth, laughed at the truth, exposed the truth and made it palpable and not – I mean, I can't even imagine the level of trauma that was going on for Black people, even to this day.
I find that I relate to that in just the way that my father was so mean and psychotic when I was a child; that literally, every waking moment when he was around, was scary for me. Like, we didn't know if he was going to flip and beat the shit out of us. He was very unstable. So that's what I feel like. I think the Black experience in America and Canada – and of course, there's talk about Native Americans and everyone that isn't a part of the white [community] has this thing where you don't know what's going to happen to your kids when they go out and walk around. You know what I mean?
You don't know what's going to happen to yourself if you go, you know? And there's so much tyranny. One of the things [Alejandro] Jodorowsky taught me, was that your strange behaviors that you have as a person, come from errors and strange things that might have happened to your ancestors in your genealogy. Let's say, if you're dad or if your great-great-grandfather was lynched or something terrible like that, that occurrence is in your DNA. Because, your family changed; because this incident happened, you know. So maybe later in your life, if you have some kind of strange trait or bipolarity or some kind of strength that you have to try to find the root of where the damage happened – and then try to find a way out. That's what I feel tarot is. Tarot is kind of a strange acupuncture that goes and opens up wounds, and heals them where they started; much like psychotherapy, but I find tarot way more fun than psychotherapy.
I totally agree. I'm actually in the process of going back and tracing back my genealogy, because I totally agree with you about ancestral weight. It's a topic that comes up with my girlfriend [and I] because she's Jewish and her grandparents are Holocaust survivors.
So we talk about ancestral weight all the time, and she bought me a 23 and Me kit for my birthday, which was on the 2nd. So I'm in the process doing that, going back and trying to find out exactly what's going on.
Exactly. You might come from fucking royalty of some crazy African country. Or, who knows where you come from.
It's great that people are able to do that now and feel connected. One thing that I learned quite later in my life: My father told me a few years back [about] an uncle of mine, who I never got to meet because he passed before I was born – he was a few years older than my father and he was [actually] his cousin. So my grandfather was a train conductor. And because he was a train conductor, his family could ride the train for free whenever they wanted to go somewhere.
So my dad and my grandfather, they originally came from a very small village in the UP [Uttar Pradesh] in India. And I had been to this village when I was 12. And this village, the train just stops and there's no train station; it's just in the wilderness. And then, you get off and you walk on a dirt road and you get to the city. It's not a city, sorry. It's a village of, I don't know, I can't even tell how many people. It felt like it was a village of like 30 people or so. The houses are made of mud and stuff, and so they're still very primitive. The only electricity they have in the house is maybe one light bulb that is hanging in one courtyard. So that at night, there's just a little bit of light. So my dad came from this very primitive Indian village and my grandfather got an education somehow, and became a train conductor and then moved to the bigger city, which is called Moghulsarai, in India.
Anyway, my grandfather was living there with my dad's family in a slightly bigger city than the village, obviously. So Mobeen, who was my dad's cousin, Mobeen worked in the opium fields. And what he would do was, there was a job where you scrape the juice that comes off of the flower and you roll it up in balls. And then, you put that into a thing, and the British were taking all of that stuff and making it into medicine and drugs and stuff. So what he would do, because he was smart, was wear a second belt around his waist where he would hide balls of opium in his belt. And he would take that home and then hop on the train and go to Calcutta, which was quite far from the UP; go to Calcutta, sell the opium there on the street, come back with the money and give it to the people of the village. So, he was like a Robin Hood.
And this kid was doing this at the age of 12 and 13. Back in the day, people had to grow old much faster. So he was doing this, and one time – keep in mind that he was a very charming kid, too – my grandfather knew that he was doing this kind of shady stuff, but he knew that he was also giving the money back to the people of the village. He loved him, you know.
So one time Mobeen just comes over and he's visiting a little bit too long, and he's like staying at my grandfather's place. And my grandfather is trying to figure out why is he here for so long, cause he's always like, "I've got some stuff to do in the city." Well, what Mobeen was doing? He was asking his grandfather over dinner and all that stuff about, "Hey, when does this train come, like on this schedule?" and just asking him about trains all the time. And what he was doing was, he was casing [the train schedule].
So he found out exactly when this train that was full of food was going to go by the village, and they bombed the train tracks. So he disappeared. And then a week later, they bombed the train track. He knew exactly which train he had to bomb. And then, the whole village just came and stole all the food from the train. Then my grandfather knew; he was like, "Oh, my God, that was Mobeen." They knew that he had got that information from him like. He was suddenly proud of him because he was really like a Robin Hood type.
So I'm really happy that I found out about that because, in some crazy way, my brother and sister, also, they're working for social justice stuff. My brother is training doctors and going up into the Inuit, way up north, and learning. He's a lung specialist, so he's treating tuberculosis in the Inuit, which is a huge thing. And my sister – she's also working a lot for the UN, against child labor – and now she's doing a lot of stuff for environmental justice. So I have a feeling that there is some kind of Robin Hood gene in our bloodline. And it maybe comes from our Uncle Mobeen, being the dirty drug dealer slash Robin Hood of the village that my parents came from; where my dad came from.
That's so awesome. That actually leads into my first question; maybe you've already answered it. But I was going to ask if there was an event or a series of events that led you to social activism. And I was interested in knowing what radicalized you.
Right. For me, musically, I've always been incredibly inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and the music that was alongside of it. And basically, I remember reading the Malcolm X autobiography when I was 12, and my dad told me about the Black Panthers coming to the University of Quebec where he was a professor.
It was a majority of white people in the staff. And when the Black Panthers came and spoke at the university, he said that everyone was shitting their pants. They were like, “Oh my God, this revolution is going to take over and it's gonna be violent, it's gonna be heavy and it's going to be a reckoning.” So I was always very fascinated by the Black Panthers and by Malcolm X, especially.
I guess in my music, I would make subtle references to politics, but never preachy. I would talk about [the] suffering of all sorts of classes and stuff. But I also mix a lot of humor into my music. So in that way, I admire, I fully respect... in fact, Jello Biafra was one of the people that taught me about politics when I was in elementary school. I remember hearing “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” “Moral Majority,” “Religious Vomit” and stuff when I was probably 12, 13. And that really shaped me into being, I guess you could say, radicalized.
I didn't believe that society was in a good way. I didn't want to live a normal life. I didn't want to go and get a job and do that rigamarole or even go to a university and waste a bunch of time there. I wanted to play rock and roll. My religion or my spirituality, I found through that. By discovering Sun Ra and a lot of free-jazz, I feel like I was evolving in this crazy way. When I found that music, and the way I describe the magic of that music is, if you look at coal, the carbon substance, it's like [when] you put immense pressure on coal, it turns into a diamond. And I feel like that was Black music for me in a lot of ways, because it was like these people were put under so much pressure from the government, from the police, from everyday living, from capitalism, from poverty; there was so much pressure that the coal just turned into this incredible gem that could never be replaced or never [be] remade again. You know what I mean?
So I would say everyone, for example, in the tarot, all of the cards, they represent to me this incredibly beautiful gem or diamond that could never be replaced. And it's in the same way that I think the reason that the music is so healing is because these people had to be able to find joy and spirituality and music and harmony in everyday life, at a time that was even worse than what it is today.
So how did you being radicalized by punk rock gravitate your way into starting Global Solidarity Forever?
So that was because of the Invaders film, a lot of the things. It hasn't been released yet, but the Invaders were like a group of militant black power. They were a Black Power group from Memphis in the late 60’s. John B. Smith from the Invaders, one of the co-founders who was a Vietnam veteran, he heard my music from the director, from Prichard Smith. And he was the one who was like, Oh, my God! He loved my music with the Shrines, and he thought that I should do the whole soundtrack.
So I got asked because of him. And when I got to know him and the story of the Invaders, I'd been working probably eight or nine years on the soundtrack. And I was watching all this footage about Memphis because this group was from Memphis. They were blamed for all of the violence that happened at all of the peaceful protests of Dr. King, which was totally untrue because it was the police that started all that kind of violence.
When I started doing stuff for the Invaders, that's where I got the idea of doing the Tarot [deck]. And then I started going on the road with the Tarot and showing exhibitions and art galleries. And the art galleries, I would get them to fly in John B. I did one art gallery in Oakland during the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party over there. I did it with Malik Rahim from the Black Panthers in Louisiana, and he's from Common Ground Relief. So he came to my exhibit in Oakland and spoke to the kids that were there seeing my stuff, and then me and Malik became really good buddies. And I would talk to him on the phone a whole bunch.
And it was when the pandemic started, and I realized I hadn't talked to him in a couple of months and I called him up. And he was the one who told me that there were so many elders, Black elder people in the neighborhood of Algiers, where he was living, who had died of COVID because of the fact that they didn't have insulin. Their bodies were compromised because there was no insulin. It broke my heart to hear him talk about his friends disappearing because of something that could be very well prevented. It really slapped me in the face a bit.
And then, that's when I realized that, “Okay, now that the pandemic is going on, now is the time that I have to get in line and figure out how to do stuff in true activist ways.” So the easiest thing for me to have done, which I did, was that I wanted to raise as much money as I could and send it to him. And basically, I had like 200 decks left of the tarot, so I decided to charge $100 for each of those decks. And with the hundred bucks, if you buy a deck, I contact you and do a reading with you, and you get a coloring book. So basically, I [had] raised five thousand bucks within like two or three weeks, and then I sent it to Malik. He had some financial difficulties, the banks were trying to kick him out of his house, he had some unpaid tax stuff. So I sent him a bunch of cash and it really helped him out.
I was telling him, I was talking to him every day, pretty much, and it was funny because he's always sitting on his porch in Algiers Point and I'm on a cell phone or iPad, sitting there with him for most of the afternoon. And most of our conversation, there would be, of course, talking about what needs to be done. And he was the one who came up with the Global Solidarity idea. He was like, “What we've got to do is we've got to form global solidarity between every people around the world, and people have got to know. Even if you can't help financially with something, at least you can support something with your heart and your mind.”
So when he was starting to talk me about that, I realized I wanted to start the Global Solidarity Forever thing and then basically find activists and connect them and give props to – for example, I just recently made an award, and it's called Ambassador of Global Solidarity, and I give it to people who usually, when they receive it, they're like, “Oh, my God. I've never received anything for all my years of activism or whatever I've done.” So it's giving them not only a pat on the back but publicizing what they've done.
For example, I gave an award to Knoel Scott and Marshall Allen from the Sun Ra Arkestra. You know, Sun Ra Arkestra has changed my life. And it's one of those things that when I listened to it, during when I was planning all this stuff with the Global Solidarity Forever, I was listening to a lot of Sun Ra. I was listening to a lot of Warumpi Band; this is an aboriginal band from Australia from the 80s. I did an interview with the only aboriginal radio station in Australia. And the deejay told me about this band and I started listening to it, and it's amazing.
It's called the Warumpi Band and their story is incredible. There was one white guy and four or five aboriginal Australians, and they have songs about antifascism and very politically charged lyrics. I think they were one of the inspirational bands of like Midnight Oil and that whole bunch of bands from Australia that were doing political stuff as well as Rock 'N Roll. So Warumpi Band was another thing, (was on repeat) when I was organizing all this stuff. So I actually went out and found them, and I found them in Australia and I gave them an award. And for them to see Malik Rahim's name – a Black Panther's name – on the certificate, it's beautiful because it transfers these energies into places where...they never get recognized for this kind of shit, you know?
If you go to globalsoldidarityforever.com, there's an ambassador's page; you can read all the different ambassadors. There's one from Thailand who was a sex worker, who is fighting for rights for sex workers. And I just gave a bunch of awards to some people who were driving into the Navajo and Hopi lands, and giving them relief for food and COVID protection stuff and like. And it's funny because since I started this thing, people are contacting me all the time and telling me about what's going on. And I'm able to award these people with something like this.
My hope is that... the thing I'm trying to start with the insulin project, we're trying to set up a kind of like an app that a diabetic could use no matter what, where[ever] he is on the social ladder. Because, what's happening is that people are writing to me in New Orleans and are like, “Hey, I have insurance and I get tons of insulin, and I have way more insulin than I need; how can I give it to someone who needs it?” So we're trying to build a depository of insulin in New Orleans, in Algiers for that neighborhood, especially because it's a very special neighborhood. And we're trying to get doctors. We just got a petition that's signed by all these different doctors in New Orleans who want to help us establish this whole thing with the insulin project.
We've made some really amazing headway in it, but this is going to be something that's going to take time because we have to do this safely. When you're dealing with something like insulin, sharing insulin, we have to make sure it's safe; it's all these kinds of guidelines.
You know, it breaks my heart that we even have to do this for America, because in Canada and the U.K., in Germany, if you have diabetes you get insulin. There's an abundance of insulin in the world. But like I learned from Malik, like how the Black Panthers operate, if there's a problem find a solution and do it. Don't wait on government trying to interfere [intervene] because they're never going to help you, unfortunately.
And I don't know what's going to happen in the next election, it's a very tense time. I love America. I've spent all my years from since I was 17, touring America. And I have so much family and friends there [here] that I really deeply love, and I fear for what's happening. I've seen...I've been on tour lately, it's not the same anymore. I remember as a teenager – 17, 18 years old – I'm in New Orleans and rednecks, I found them entertaining; I never felt threatened. I could go to a fucking gas station to see a swastika on a guy's hand, tattooed. But for some reason, I never felt this hostility. I was just like, “OK, that guy is a Nazi; yes, he has a bumper sticker that says ‘Nuke Japan.’ I think I'm going to buy my chocolate bar and I'm not going to feel anything from that.”
But since Trump got elected, I did start feeling that people were looking at me in a very hostile way. These same people who didn't pay attention to me before were suddenly... I was like a problem; I was possibly a fucking terrorist or whatever they have in their heads. But I saw this radicalization of hillbillies, you know, because before they were just fucking hillbillies; it was like a joke. And now they've got these fucking laser light targets. I don't know, I don't like to see America like this.
Yeah, and it feels as though it's like the last lashes of capitalism. I don't even know if it's the last, but it feels like we're really deep in.
I think so too. There's a really amazing thing of Stokely Carmichael talking about capitalism, in the 70’s saying [something along the lines of], “America has so much technology that America could easily have made a car – or they did make cars in the 40’s and 50’s – that lasted for 50 years.” And suddenly, when capitalism started really kicking into high gear – just the notion, first of all, that your company that's making... all the profits of your company don't go to the workers, they go to the owner. That's already fucked up. So you're creating this huge gap; the poor working class, and then they've got the rich owners who have unlimited wealth because of relying on the backs of hard workers. Not only that, but you have technology that you could make a car that could last 50 years and that would be beneficial to all those poor people. But instead, you make a car that lasts two years and that you need to replace.
You know, it has to stop. I really think that in our lifetime we're going to see universal income be put into place, because how else are you going to help these people that can't pay rent, when there's like 30 million people that can't pay rent because all of the restaurants have closed. You know what I mean? We're seeing this heavy shit that we've never seen before, so there's got to be heavy...you know, like these idiots; Jeff Bezos who's like floating on whatever, one hundred billion dollars of profit every fucking year, or every month of the pandemic. That money should just go back right to the people. You know what I mean?
Yeah. Or like Elon Musk, who builds cars, going back to that conversation.
Yeah, exactly. You know, I never know what figures are right. But I've read somewhere that it would take 30 billion dollars of money to just make sure that everyone had food and shelter. And you look at your fucking military budget. You've got, what, 50 trillion dollars just spent on weapons of a war that does not exist; just putting the money back into the fucking pockets of the government officials who own these businesses and all that stuff, who just rake in all their... it's so crooked. It's ridiculous. and I think that it's time that we figure this shit out.
And you know what? It's not that different in Canada and in other parts of the world. I mean, the healthcare thing is very different, You know, I grew up, and everywhere I've lived, I am not afraid to call the ambulance. Imagine that you're so desperate, or if you're really hurt, you second-guess calling the ambulance because you think, Oh shit, I'm going to go broke.
That's actually happened to me. A few years ago, I passed a kidney stone and I was at urgent care. Oh, it's so fucking painful. I was throwing up in the sink at urgent care, and they were recommending that I take an ambulance when the hospital was right down the street.
Oh, right. Okay.
And I'm like, “I'll drive,” because I knew that the ambulance ride was going to be like three thousand dollars to go down the block.
Oh God, it's unbelievable. And you know what? They talk about animals, how their meat gets poisoned by fear, you know, in these big concentration camp farms and shit. But imagine the human body. What kind of poison is created when you fear getting better? This is all psychologically terrible on your mind. This is insane, you know, and this has got to stop.
I don't know. I'm hopeful, I have to be hopeful. I have children, they’re young women. But I swear, the more I hang out with their friends and their generation, the more hopeful I am. Because those kids don't have the same problems that we grew up [with] and they don't have the same ignorant ideals. We're just witnessing this; it's just like the John Wayne cowboy colonist capitalist structures. These old men, this is the last 10 years of their life, and they're wanting to make sure that they will fight and make sure that they will try to make abortion illegal. That's their fucking game. Their whole life is based on that; their 80 years of life, they've been begrudgingly hearing about abortions all over America, and they're just like really pissed. And they want to get their last fucking claws... it's ridiculous! Fuck them!
Imagine how much good came out of Roe vs. Wade. I don't even want to get into that debate. But yeah, it's just these cowboys, man, and they're going to be gone. And in 10 years, the next generation, they're going to laugh at this era. They're going to be like, “Holy shit, I can't believe how fucking scary and shitty America was for a couple years.”
Yeah. I mean, it's this huge power grab, right? And it feels as though America itself was institutionalized on this power grab. And now we're shifting towards a generation who doesn't care about that power, that wants to spread well-being and good welfare to everyone, instead of just holding on to power and money that you can't take with you when you die.
So, yeah. Now, let's talk about something more fulfilling than old white men trying to wrangle their power. So, I've been teaching myself tarot for about a year now. You've been studying it for a while now. Yeah?
Yeah, I first started in 2000, so it's been almost 20 years.
What got you interested in tarot?
It was just a conversation I had with Sophie Crumb, who is Robert Crumb's daughter. I met her at a music festival we were playing. I was just curious because I'm a huge... Robert Crumb was a huge influence on me, and meeting Sophie... first of all, I'd just had [my eldest daughter] Saba Lou. One thing I asked Sophie was if Robert Crumb had hidden his artwork from her as a child... Because, I was curious whether I should do that to my own kid, because we have all sorts of books, weird books. And Sophie was just like, “No!” They [her parents] never hid anything. You know, she was so smart and down to earth, and also an incredible artist on her own, and a great comic artist. So I was really impressed. I was like, OK. That's great. I don't have to hide everything from my kids. I'm just going to let everything be where it is. And if they see stuff, they see stuff and they asked about it.
You've done a lot of wild shit, so I understand the concern. [laughter]
Yeah, my kids, they grew up – like, I was walking in the living room and I'm wearing a miniskirt with a wig, and my wife is like sewing sequins for me or something. So, yeah, they saw those kinds of things.
So I asked Sophie, "Hey, have you ever met Jodorowsky?” And she was like, "Oh my God, I just went to his tarot reading and I had no idea that he was into tarot." This was like 2000. And then I got a phone call the next day, or something like that. There was an art group in Berlin. They had taken over a building and, basically, this building was going to be demolished, and they had three days to do anything they wanted. So they asked me, they wanted me to have one room and do whatever I wanted with the room. So I told them that I was going to do tarot, just because I heard that Jodorowsky did. And I was like, “Oh, I want to try that.”
And so I had this completely hokey way of reading it. But the deck that I had was this Aleister Crowley deck that was in German. So I didn't even know how to read the words on the deck. So that's how fucking ridiculous my tarot reading was, where I had to ask someone German, "Hey, what does that mean" But in doing this, I was telling people stuff that I saw in their cards, and people were like, “Holy shit, that's really very accurate.” And I was like, “Cool, next!” I started to see that I had some kind of knack to it.
And then I got really obsessive over it. I would do the tarot for Mickey Mouse. I would do tarot for anything, and I was realizing that what I was doing was basically making a relationship with all of the cards and figuring it out. But then I met Jodorowsky, I think it was 2010, and I had been doing it for ten years. The first thing he said was, "Show me your cards." I showed him my Rider-Waite deck, which is a very common one that a lot of people use. And he was like, “No, no, you're not going to use that.” And he gave me the Tarot De Marseilles.
And one of the most important things he told me was that you don't need the 78 cards. You just need the Major Arcana, which is 22 cards. And he said that for the purposes of what we do, tarot, which is basically to help people find their way in the path of illumination. He said that by using the major arcana, you are able to really hone in on what you have to do. And he said, also, if you want to really understand the tarot in a deeper perspective, then you were to memorize what the Minor Arcana looks like in your head; what the seven of cups looks like. It's like the symbols and stuff. And he said, by understanding these symbols in your head, you become better at working with the Major Arcana.
For me, when I did the Black Power Tarot, for example, I didn't even want to do a Minor Arcana. I wanted to just have the majors, you know. I remember when I was talking to him, I talked to him a lot about how I should approach this thing with the Black Power Tarot, you know. What was beautiful, was that he was really supportive of it the whole way through. And the main thing that he told me was, “Make sure you don't put your ego into the card.” Which meant that I had to really figure out who should be in the cards. And not just because I love them and they're art, but because of who they are as a person or what their art was about can relate to the card.
So when I finished all the decisions that I got, Michael Eaton from Ireland came in; he worked for Game of Thrones. He also did tons of portraits of blues musicians and rock musicians. So he was really the perfect guy to just fall into my universe when I was looking for him. So that was, I guess, how I got into making the tarot. But what you were saying, to learn them, really, you have to look at every card. And I really strongly suggest the book, The Way of Tarot, by Jodorowsky and I think Marianne Costa. This book is really incredible, because if you're familiar with, The Holy Mountain or Jodorowsky's movies – El Topo, Santa Sangre – his movies are so magical and psychedelic and you really feel like you're on so many different drugs when you watch these movies. They just get right into your head.
And so in the same sense, the beauty of Jodorowsky is that, back in the day, if you wanted to learn about Zen Buddhism, he would go and live with Zen Buddhist monks for months and find out what it was about, in reality. Nowadays, we just fucking Wikipedia this shit, you know. Back in the day, he was really going and living with people; he went to Mexico and lived with a healer, a mushroom healer or whatever. And all these different people he's learning from, and it's beautiful because he's from the same surrealist movement as Dali, Man Ray, Picasso, all that shit. Yeah, he's one of the OGs of that shit. So when I started, I had a great working relationship with him, where I would basically send him tons of poems and ideas and scripts and stuff like that. And wherever he really loved them, he would write me back and tell me that he was really enjoying it or whatever. I just feel lucky because from an early age, I just instinctively found mentors. And I think that that might also be because my father was so shitty with me; that I needed these strong male figures in my life to guide me and teach me the stuff that I feel like my father scared the shit out of me. I wasn't able to find that with him.
I was lucky enough, I got to know Melvin Van Peebles quite early [on] for a bunch of years, especially before his dementia kicked in; I was talking to him often. And in a lot of ways, I think Melvin Van Peebles was kind of like the Black Jodorowsky. He made the “Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss” song, the film, about the same time that The Holy Mountain came out. And to even think that these two people made those two films in the same universe at the same time, it's just mind-blowing.
So I think all these entities are very close together in my mind. And I feel like now is a time when we need to practice this. It's great that you're learning tarot because you'll see that every time you read tarot for someone else – whatever you're reading and see for them – you're learning yourself not to make those same mistakes or to defy enlightenment through that same way. And that's the beauty of doing tarot in public, when you do tarot for a bunch of people. But this is if the tarot reader is not a manipulator. That's a problem with tarot. One thing that Jodorowskty taught me, for example, is you have to read the cards always facing up; the numbers should always be facing up. Because, that's a great manipulation that people do when they're like, Oh, you've got the upside down Death.
The reversed, yeah.
Yeah, yeah. That's bullshit. And Jodorowsky told me that that's just a way of them manipulating you into believing that they have this power over you. And that's a dangerous thing about... I guess all art forms are like that. There's the manipulation level of something and then there's actual healing levels. That's an important difference. And he told me never to charge money to read the deck or read people's cards. Just recently, I'm charging just for the decks, but for the reading I'm not charging anything. And I think that's a holy thing to trust. Yeah, there's all sorts of things that he was telling me that really shaped the way I do things.
Yeah, that's cool. So going back to your love of Black iconography – like it really shows – and the Black Power Tarot Deck because of where you put each Black icon in the Major Arcana, I was wondering how long it took you to develop that and to figure out that Nina Simone should be the Empress or Screamin' Jay Hawkins would represent the Devil.
Right. It took me a good, I would say maybe one or two years; maybe closer to two years. I was really figuring it out, and I feel like the most important thing in knowing, is the path of illumination. And what's beautiful in the cards, for example, is if you want to follow the path of illumination, you have to be a fool. That means that you have to be... and that's why Richard Pryor is the first card. It's the door, the opening of the path of illumination, because Richard Pryor, he was able to laugh at the truth and make you laugh at your own mistakes and make you laugh at his mistakes.
So when you are truly free, is when you can make fun of the king and eat at the same table as a king. You can also go out and hang out with the homeless and be at home with them. So in order for the path of illumination to work, you have to be free. And then the first card, the first step of illumination is when the fool learns his tools to become a magician, and then controls his destiny. So once you've learned those tools, for me, those tools were music and art. Those are the tools that got me to control where my destiny was headed.
And then, as soon as you learn your tools, the next card is compassion. It's the High Priestess. And that's the card of Marie Laveau; that's the card of the mother of all the orphans, who didn't have her own children. The highest form of compassion is to understand the suffering of others and make it your own.
So already, the path of illumination, the first three steps are being free, learning your trade, and then using your trade for good and in a compassionate way. So yeah, I think that when you start to see the cards one-by-one and how they relate, and how they move to the next, you know, what the steps are. That's why Malcolm X is in the middle of the path of illumination; it's the tenth card, so it's the X.
What happens is that, during the path of illumination, right at the middle point is where suddenly there's a stall. And your wheel is stuck, just like Malcolm X's death was something like that in the Black Power Movement, where suddenly they lost one of their biggest soldiers or leaders. And so everything was at a standstill. And suddenly, like in the card, you have to be the person to move the wheel, to turn it. So that means you have to internalize the movement than Malcolm X started, and you have to be the movement from now on; based on his movement, but based also on the fact that everything stopped when he was gone. And then you'll see the after the ten, the eleventh one is strength. So after the pause of Black Power, where Malcolm X gets killed, that's being stuck and then suddenly there's a great strength that comes out of it to make it move again.
And this strength is like Tina, you know, going through so much pain in her life and always still having the might to take a risk, to put her head in the lion's mouth or to let the lion speak. After this huge explosion of strength that comes after Malcolm X's death, then Tina, then comes Tupac. Then comes a point where you've gotten this new strength. Now it's time to hang upside down and meditate and figure out what you need to do with all the strength; like what needs to be done, and realize that you're not about winning or losing. You’re just about being, and seeing the world differently from everyone else.
And then the next card – boom! – is Death. Or, it's the unknown. So this happens in the path of illumination, in the middle where, suddenly, you realize that your old ways have to go and your new way has to start. And the new way begins then with... [searches cards] Oh, yeah! Then after the complete reunification or the end of the old and the beginning of the new, comes the balance of love. That's a very important thing; learn all of the steps of the illumination and how you're evolving in those steps. Then when you read other people's cards, you really know what kind of advice to give them.
How instrumental was Jodorowsky in completing this concept?
It was the most important step. I mean, not only being the inspiration for me to seek out tarot, but his book, his first reading for me... Here, I can even show you. I've done millions of readings for people and this is the only reading that I remember word-for-word.
The first card here is the Pope, right? So my question was "should me and my wife have another child?", right? So I picked these three cards, the Pope, the High Priestess and the Chariot. So right away he said, “This is obviously your wife and this is you. And you do not see eye-to-eye on why you should have another child. See, she's looking in another direction and she is sitting on the egg of fertility, contemplating her fertility. She's reading the sacred books. But she doesn't see why you want a child.”
“You – this is me as a High Priest – are staring at the sun. You want a son.” And he's like, “What happens if your next child is another girl?” And I was like, “Well, I would just love her like I love my other daughters.” And he was like, “No, because she will always be a disappointment to you.”
And I never thought of this at all when I was wondering whether I should have another kid. But then he looked at me and he said, "Why do you need a son when your son is sitting right next to you?" And he was referring to Cole [Alexander] from The Black Lips 'cause I brought him to the reading. And Cole used to call me Dad and I used to call him son. And I never told Jodorowsky about that, so he had no idea that I used to call him son.
It was just very deep, and I was really moved and I kind of just knew that I had to to learn this language. I thank God for people like Jodorowsky because these are the artists whose pieces of art forced you to mutate. You're never the same after this art, you know. And I really feel like after meeting him and being a part of his world and being one of his spiritual warriors, as he calls it, I feel like I judge art always in that high respect. You know, if art doesn't change you and mutate you, then it's not working for me. And it's a failure for me.
Anytime I hear a song, and if it's really amazing, I will not be the same person after I heard that song. Even if it's a small thing that changes in me, at least it's something that is like, Oh, my God. This is so amazing! And I feel like I was a part of a punk rock revolution there, you know, like when we had Jay Reatard and the Black Lips and a bunch of bands from our era, that were just mind-blowing, and we were all a family. So, yeah. I'm a firm believer that mutation is the only way that we can become better people or a higher level of human. Look, William S. Burroughs for me, too, was my first mutation, or one of my first mutations. When I read The Naked Lunch I was 14. That book will change you, you know, it's so hardcore. It's so filthy and amazing that, yeah, you're definitely not the same person after reading that.
All right, let's talk about Tarot-Rism, because I've actually been watching it's such a great, enlightening show.
Oh, I'm so happy.
How did that idea come about?
So basically, I started a, I don't know, a Facebook group or something like that called Tarot-Rism, a long time ago; probably about eight or nine years ago. And I was just there for people, I could read their tarot if they had questions. And a lot of people were writing me and asking me personal stuff. So I was doing the readings and then my buddy Pete, from Slovenly Records, he started this public access-style TV station online called rrbs.org. And he would just put it out there. He was like, “Hey, if any of you guys ever thought about doing something like a TV show or something, I could host it on this platform.”
So then I got my co-host, Jenny Messer, she's like a filmmaker from Los Angeles. And it's funny. Ever since I met her, she's one of those people that, whenever we hang out, we'll spend all the time trying to make the other person laugh. And I love people like that in my life. It's just about being even funnier, and so the comedy exponentially grows. But she also is very influenced by Jodorowsky and stuff, so it's really wonderful to have her bouncing off questions and shit from her brain.
So yeah, this Invaders movie is still not released yet, and we're still waiting for Nas' company, Mass Appeal. They're supposed to be figuring out all the details of when it's going to come out, and stuff. But in the impatience of it, it's like there have been a couple of Invaders that [have] passed, and they never got to see the light of day; the day they got justice in the world. And also, the climate in America right now, politically, this is the perfect time to learn about the Invaders. So anyway, I just decided that I've learned so much from John B. about Black Power, about 1967, or when Stokely Carmichael actually uttered the words, Black Power. Hearing it from John B., you know, and his whole process, it's amazing.
I was listening to The Infinite Ones and reading what you had written about it; about pieces of art coming from deep within your soul. And then they flop out onto the table and wait for the idea to be born. So when did the idea of recording and coming up with this jazz album present itself to you?
Basically, a couple of the songs were stuff that I had written years ago that I'd never brought to the Shrines. Like I said, when I first discovered Sun Ra, which was early, like late, late teens or whatever. When I moved to Germany and was going to start this soul band, I met an artist, an American painter, who was going back to America while I was coming to Germany. And he gave me a bunch of these films; A Joyful Noise, Space is the Place, and some lectures of Sun Ra. So when I started to really internalize Sun Ra, that was when I feel like I found the first light of spirituality in jazz music.
And that led me to go in further and get into Albert Ayler or Alice Coltrane; Rahsaan Roland Kirk is a big one. So that's always been on the back burner of my mind when I was writing stuff for the Shrines. I was trying to mix in the free jazz and the jazzy element but still keep it R&B and soul. So there were some pieces that I'd worked on for a couple of years and that I never brought to the table.
Finally, when the pandemic happened, a friend of mine who was the trumpet player in Calexico – in the mariachi band from, I think they're from Arizona. He was playing in Calexico, my bass player was playing in Calexico. So in the original lineup of the Shrines, I had these two guys that were really amazing players. And they both left the Shrines because they were touring all the time with Calexico at the time. So I replaced them in the band.
Then I got back in touch with the trumpet player during the pandemic and I was like, “Hey, you know what, I have a bunch of jazz songs that I would love to try and finish them, and I was wondering if you had time and if you could check them out.” So the trumpet player was totally into it, and he suggested to get the drummer from Calexico, John Convertino, involved.
So basically, I'd written all the songs mostly on guitar and bass, without a click. That's an important practice that I really wanted to preserve in doing this album. Like Sun Ra talks about, the internal music; listening to the music inside of you and following that. So I really followed that deep within me, and I feel like bass is my best instrument to communicate in or to do. So I'd written the songs on bass, primarily, and then I put drums on after horns and harps, and all sorts of things. So the pandemic was the big instigator for me to just buckle down and finish a whole jazz album.
And like I said, I had a couple songs already, but then the newer ones that I wrote, like the one about Yahya Abdul Majid, who was one of the sax players from the Arkestra, who I was very close with and who passed also during the pandemic. I made a tribute to him. He loved to play Chinese harp, so I have four harps on that song and I placed them sonically in left or right in this weird panning. So it's like a flower of harp. So I guess, in a way, I was able to look deep within me and find that light of jazz.
Also, just a personal experience, my wife had cancer removed. Thankfully, it was right before the pandemic; she had time in the hospital and there was no madness going on with COVID. So she was in and out of the hospital and she was recovering, but we were basically waiting for six months for the results, to see if the cancer had spread. And it was during the six months where she'd be sitting in the living room and I'd be working on my stuff in the studio. And in some way, I really feel like there was a heavy healing process that this music was doing to both of us. It's the calmest music I've ever made, I think. I'd like to think that it's music for introspection, for looking within and to find that magic and bust it out.
That's super interesting. Also, while I was listening to the album, I thought about the concept of The Infinite Ones, and there are a few tributes to people that passed. And it made me think of how The Infinite Ones could be a conversation with people who have passed on, and the legacy they have left behind through art.
Completely. That's completely where I was going with [the concept]. I think it's something that I learned early on. As a teenager I was really obsessed with weird, rare music; music that was not pop music whatsoever. It was like being a part of a cult, and you're searching for the weirdest, most obscure, art, and finding these things, these gems that are made by kids, the poor kids. You know, a lot of those compilations, like Back From the Grave, those were the kids that were sent to Vietnam and killed. Those were the kids who had those garage bands that they were part of. They weren't rich kids, they were poor kids. So when the draft happened, they were the first ones to be sent to the front lines and killed.
That's why when I think of Vietnam, I think of how many Curtis Mayfields and how many Roky Ericksons have died in Vietnam; it's unbelievable how many. And then you finally see that the government was trying to suppress rebellion, and it's always been trying to do that. So politically, punk rock is very important, not only for your spiritual freedom but for your societal freedom; do whatever you want, act the way you want, be whatever sex you want to be. So it was a part of my search for freedom that I found this great music. Yeah. Like I said, these people pass.
And who would have known that an Indian kid living in Montreal would discover the real kids, you know, or like bands that were not even really popular when they existed? So when this started happening and I started seeing this, I started to see that music has an immortality to it and an art has an immortality to it, where your pieces will be left a long time after you die, and people will still feel the same energy that [of] whatever you brought to the table. So, yes, very much. That's exactly where The Infinite Ones comes from.
Like you’ve got Danny Ray Thompson and Yahya Abdul-Mateen, and also Hal Willner. Hal Willner was a perfect example of someone who was always pushing the envelope and trying to find ways to get the artists that he loved onto mainstream stuff. He did a TV show. He got Screamin' Jay Hawkins on TV for the first time. He had this show called Night Music, and that was like in the 80’s. And he got Diamanda Galas on that show. People that are so just avant-garde, like for normal people, you would wonder how they would get on live television at that time. But you had these people like Hal Willner that were fighting for us.
I had this great relationship with... you know, Lou Reed was a huge fan of my music, and I got to hang out with him a bunch of times, and I did tons of work with Hal, his producer. So for me I feel like the family of dissidents comes from our desire to find our freedom and express our freedom, and lure people into believing that they can be freed. You know, we don't live in a thing where you only have to listen to pop music and be mediocre. No! You can be exquisite, you can be different. You can be special and be a part of us, this giant dissident family. I feel like we're all the children of Lou Reed and Burroughs and Andy Warhol, you know, like Basquiat. I mean, these people changed the way we look at society and, you know, we'll never have to go back to being mediocre.
So how do you go from being somewhat of a disciple of Sun Ra to having members of the band on your record?
That's awesome that you ask. So I first met them 15 years ago, in 2005. And I was very open in interviews. For example, I was always talking about how Sun Ra changed my life and made me want to do the Shrines. And we ran into each other in the weirdest way. I was in Montreal, my hometown, with the Shrines. We had a day off on a Sunday. And I ran into, of all people, the girl that I lost my virginity to. It was right in front of my sister's apartment – not where I lost my virginity [laughs], but where I saw her – she was walking on the street and I was like, “Oh my God, how are you doin'?” And we hadn't seen each other in years, and I'm like, What are you doing now? And she's like, I have this kind of unofficial date with one of the members of the Sun Ra Arkestra. And I was like, “What, are you shitting me!?” And she's like, “No, they played last night.” I had no idea they were even there. So I told her, “Well, I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to be the third wheel now that's going to come on your date.” [laughter] And she was laughing and said okay. Of course, she knew how much I loved the Arkestra.
So I met the two of them that night, Cecil and I think it was Dave Davies. They were the younger ones that had joined the Arkestra, maybe a bit later that when Sun Ra wasn't there but Marshall was leading it. So we just had a great time. And it turned out that they were playing three nights in Toronto, the days that I was playing with the Shrines but in different places. So they were playing the early show, the dinner theater crowd; seven-thirty, eight, eight-thirty they would play their shows. And we were playing the late drug crowd, like we were playing an after-hours where people just used to go to that bar to get drugs. It doesn't exist anymore. It was the Silver Dollar and I forget what the other bar underneath was called.
Anyway, it was a joint where the scum hung out; not only scum, but there was a good amount of fucked up people in there. So we were playing three nights there, and then the Arkestra members would come after their show and join us on the stage at our shows. So already, the cross-pollination started. I actually asked them the first time they came because I needed a place to stay and had basically run out of couches that I had hooked up the rest of the band with. You know, the Shrines is like ten people. So I finally needed to find a place for myself. So I asked the Arkestra guys and I was like, Hey, can I stay... and they had two condominiums. “Can I stay on a couch or something at your place?” And they were like, “Yeah, no problem!” So I was sleeping on the couch in the Arkestra house. And the funny thing was, that since we played so late – and we were partying and stuff – I would come home pretty late, usually, and I'd be knocking on the door and then this elderly member of the Arkestra would come and would be like, “Who is it!?” And I'd be like, [whispers] “It's King Khan.” "Oh Khan, yeah. Come in." So then I'd go to sleep on the couch.
One of the first nights that I was sleeping there, I went up to go to the bathroom in the morning, pretty early in the morning. And I look, and one of the doors is closed, and this yellow smoke is billowing out of the bottom of the door; weird yellow smoke. And I'm like, Oh my God, there's a fire. So I go in and I open the door, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen is sitting on the bed, and he's got two empty tuna fish cans and he's got a giant stone of myhrr, the myhrr rock and frankincense. It's just a volcano of smoke, it's filling up this whole room with yellow smoke. So the whole room is full of smoke, and he's sitting there breathing the smoke. And he's got like a clay Chinese harp that he's playing, plucking it like, [singing] ding dong dong. And he's listening to Tuvan throat singing on a CD player with two small speakers. So I was like, “What planet is this?”
I open the door and I'm happy to see that there's no fire. But then Yahya looks at me and says, "Kahn, come sit down. I want to talk to you." So I sit down. And then Yahya started talking to me for like an hour and a half, nonstop about discipline, about what he learned from Sun Ra, what he learned from John Gilmore, what he learned from Islam – the discipline that he learned from finding religion – and talking about his adventures with the Arkestra. He told me about when he went to Tuva and lived with these throat singers up in the mountains, I guess it was the Himalayas or something, and they're sharing the stories of their civilization. So it was kind of like a stream of consciousness training that I was going through, and I was learning all these secrets that were learned by the Arkestra from Sun Ra himself.
And the funny thing, too, that happened, was that on the night they recorded my first track, which was called “Wait Till The Stars Burn,” at that same moment when they were recording, out of some crazy kismet or coincidence, Rihanna – the R&B star – she posted a song that I did with my daughter when she was six or seven or eight years old. The song is called “Good Habits and Bad.” This song that I recorded is basically kind of a lullaby I wrote for the kids. And I wrote it with my daughter, Saba Lou, and we recorded it when she was, I don't know, six or seven years old. So it's a really old recording.
And for some weird reason, Rihanna found the song and played it for a commercial, for her sunglasses. Without asking permission and without giving credit to us or anything. She just played this that night. So Sun Ra Arkestra is recording a song of mine and at the same time, Rihanna posts this weird song that I wrote with my kid from years ago. So I was just thinking that the light was so bright from the Arkestra doing that song, that Rihanna had to advertise sunglasses. Cause in a lot of ways, that's the two polar opposites of music – the music of Rihanna and the music of Sun Ra Arkestra.
Yeah, I think in some ways, I feel like doing jazz, for me, seems like the next level of my evolution. This music is really all about personal healing, and I think it's a personal story, or you have to have lived a certain thing in music to be able to play jazz. And not to say that it has to do with being a better musician or something. I think it's just about experimenting with these sounds, with these skills, with these ideas. It's much more abstract than, for example, traditional or whatever, nontraditional, rock and roll or soul.
This is like a whole new bag, but there's still a punk rocker in me. I have a punk album that's gonna come out next month, no, in February, which is very Cleveland-punk kind of; completely from another world than the Sun Ra Arkestra stuff. But yeah, like Joe Coleman, when we became really close, he was telling me how he thought of me as a trickster, and that's what he loved and admired about me. At first I didn't really understand that, now I realize what a trickster is. And I think, yeah, in a lot of ways I feel like I am kind of like a musical hustler. You know, I'm always just...keep moving, just keep doing stuff. No boundaries, just keep yourself entertained and the ass will follow.
That brings me to my last question, which actually ties into this really well. Do you feel as though you're chasing a different feeling, a different thing when you're creating jazz, rather than creating punk or rock and roll or soul music?
Yes, completely. What I like about it is that, for example, there's no vocals. And I feel like the more soundtrack stuff I was doing for the Invaders and also now for the jazz album, I just feel like I'm fascinated by the world of no lyrics; no singing. And I feel that it's almost like a liberation because then you're just kind of making the rise and fall, sonically, in the music and not necessarily in the delivery of any vocals; kind of making a drawing or a picture with words or something, you know. So, yeah, definitely. I really feel like there is a different...kind of like, I would say, a little like your judgment card. It's like seeing from a higher perspective, and not just the perspective of the masculine, feminine, but from the super-androgynous.
I feel like jazz is kind of like that weird, super androgynous higher perspective that I've always admired, but never was a part of. And now I feel like it's opened its arms out towards me, and I was really lucky to have heavy hitters like Marshall and Noel be there to guide me. But it was a 15-year relationship that founded on trust and loving each other's output in music. I think a lot of the time, I feel like when I got all these mentors, like I was telling you, I think it was really important to understand that they also enjoyed what I was doing. You know what I mean? I think I had to earn my way into the minds of these people.
And I feel, like in tarot in the path of illumination, I did all of the music that I was doing, not for commercial gain or popularity, or for becoming a pop star or something; quite the opposite. I did these pieces of music because it healed me. As a bipolar crazy musician, music heals me. And all of the music that I was creating was not only to heal me, but to heal everyone. It was just having compassion around the world and trying to make it into your own. Yeah, trying to find a way out for everyone.
I remember I played in London a couple years ago, and a couple and their child came to me and they were like, “Hey, you know, we just wanted to tell you that my wife had cancer for many years, and we would listen to ‘Out Of Harm's Way’ by The Shrines all the time; and that was like our go-to song, and it really helped us throughout a really hard part of our lives.”
You know, it almost brought tears to my eyes, and I was just like, “Thank you for telling me that because that furthers the whole idea that, when I write a song that I feel like is some kind of a personal healing, that that can actually be used by other people as the same thing.” And, yeah, that makes me happy.
A true dynamic duo, Montreal’s King Khan and BBQ Show dropped by the KEXP live room to flaunt their tasty brand of retro garage and doo wop ditties. Marinated in all types of awesome sauce, this gruesome twosome wet our palates with a preview of succulent songs off their upcoming We Are The Champ...