Interview: Hargo Khalsa Discusses Hargo's New Album, 'Out of Mankind,' and Working with Phil Spector
We recently chatted with Hargo Khalsa, the 26-year-old American-Sikh frontman of Hargo, whose new album, Out of Mankind, was released February 28 via Rhetorik Music.
Khalsa lived in India and Liverpool, England, before moving to California, where he honed his natural knack for songwriting. When he was 8, he wrote the theme song for the South African Peace Conference. Another Hargo composition, "Crying for John Lennon," was produced by Phil Spector and used in the 2009 documentary Strawberry Fields. It marks Spector's last production.
Out of Mankind is the culmination of Khalsa's journey -- a hook-filled masterpiece of layered guitars, dense vocal harmonies and creative sounds that recalls John Lennon, Cat Stevens and Smashing Pumpkins -- all while speaking directly to society's "outsiders."
"Out of Mankind asks listeners to examine their lives differently," Khalsa says. "It's about stepping outside of your culture and the things we are spoonfed in the world todsay -- and about being a human being."
GUITAR WORLD: You worked with Phil Spector on one of his last projects. What was that like?
He had agreed to work on a song I wrote, "Crying for John Lennon," as part of a John Lennon documentary produced by Mark Elsis, owner of john-lennon.com. The experience of meeting him and working with him in the studio was so surprising and fulfilling. He is one of the most recognized record producers of the 20th century, producing Let It Be, Imagine, All Things Must Pass and so many other great records. After listening to my song for the first time in his billiards room, he said he loved it, that it was reminiscent of a demo John would have given him to produce back in the day, and that I "reminded him of a young John Lennon." The latter statement still blows my mind and probably will for a long, long time.
Mark asked Phil if he'd be interested in producing the song for the film, and, after a few weeks of driving around listening to the demo in his Mercedes, he agreed. I was instructed to send all the tracks and session files I'd recorded to a studio in Sherman Oaks, California, where he would begin working on the song in between pre-trial court dates and lawyer meetings.
About a month later, I was asked to come up to LA to record my vocals. I was to come alone, as Phil didn't want anyone but us and the engineer in the studio. I arrived outside the gate at the studio and met Phil, who was with his bodyguard. We went into the studio and I ended up chatting with him for about 45 minutes, just the two of us, while we waited for the engineer who was running late. We talked about Bowie and photographer Mick Rock (a mutual friend who had done Phil's Back to Mono boxed set).
The actual vocal session was probably about two hours. The first time they played back the song, with everything they had done, I was stunned. It sounded so incredible, and right from the start it had Phil's touch all over it. By the end of the track, the Wall of Sound with his signature strings, tambourine and piano was in full force. This was the sound I'd heard in so many of my favorite songs, and to hear it enveloping my own song is still beyond words for me.
At the end of the session, he told me how pleased he was with how the whole thing came out. I had a CD with some other brand-new demos I was working on, and the engineer, Graham Ward, and I listened to them together in the control room. Phil, from the other room, came back in and listened to both tracks and really liked them, particularly the first demo (which would become "Empty Cups" on our new album, Out of Mankind).
What kind of gear did you use on the new album?
There are so many random, cool instruments and pieces of analog gear used on this record. Joel Hamilton's (producer) collection of vintage compressors, limiters and mic-preamps alone is ridiculous. Mostly though, we used an '80s Les Paul through a Supro Model 24, a '70s Guild acoustic, my '80s Rickenbacker (which was apparently one of The Bangles') and this weird customized Tele through a Fender Princeton.
One of the coolest things we did was run John's bass through the Modular Synth for the bridge of "Crashing Down," which is so funky. We used a Waterphone on "Soul Survivor," that weird metallic ringing sound you hear during scary scenes of movies. It's such a trippy little thing. For the same song, John chopped up and destroyed a loop of cymbal swells and field recordings from the subway, cutting and distorting them in Ableton before Joel added insane amounts of delay and reverb.
There are tons of little tricks and "ear candy" on this album, which adds so much ambience. My personal favorite were the trumpets layered over each other, each one changing notes randomly. The way they sound, twisting together, through a bunch of plate verb, sounds like they're being played from some distant mountain top.
I hear a lot of "tunes," as in catchy, sunny melodies, on the new album. Would you say The Beatles were a big influence on you?
The Beatles are a huge influence on the music, in many ways. For me, as a songwriter, I was definitely drawn to the Lennon/McCartney stuff, as well as some of George's later work in the band. I think it's most obvious in the song structure and chords. Once I first looked at some of their chord charts, I became obsessed with the mastery that was laid out before me. As a rhythm guitar player, there is no doubt in my mind that John Lennon was the greatest. Those songs have so much magic in them, and a lot of that is in the detail that you don't consciously notice. The material on the White Album, in particular, is pure brilliance. The first half of "Happiness is a Warm Gun" really sets the bar. Cmaj7, Am6, Em and then ... Dm. Wacky.