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.
Philip Roth once said he doesn't like to be called a Jewish author. He prefers "American author" -- or just "author." Your press materials make a point of referring to you as American-Sikh. Is there anything about your faith and/or upbringing that has influenced your music or that you feel is important for your listeners to know about?
I think Philip Roth would admit that being raised as a Jewish American is an intrinsic part of his writing, if only because that is the environment of which he is a product. Being an American Sikh is, in fact, the story of my life and therefore is evident in my songwriting, persona, image and everything else. Sikhism is very much a lifestyle, more than a religion, centered around balance and a search for knowledge (what "Sikh" actually means), something I think many people can relate to.
I think those ideas, more than any other aspects of religion or spirituality, are the most common in my songs. There is also a recurring theme of isolation, being apart from the norm (hence the album title), that is probably a product of being the only white American Sikh in most of my schools growing up. This album is sort of aimed at the "outsiders" in our society. Though by the end of the album you may realize that the point I'm trying to make is that we're all "outsiders," or "insiders," depending on how you look at it.
You wrote a song at age 8, and it was recorded and used as the theme for the South Africa Peace Conference. How did that come about?
Yes, it's a fun little tune. I wrote the song and played it for my choir teacher in elementary school. I was so nervous. She told me it was really good and that we should do a version with the whole choir and sing it at our next performance. I was even more nervous! All my friends and schoolmates would hear it and have to sing it, whether they liked it or not, which seemed pretty scary at the time. We did end up performing it, and it went over very well.
A few years later, my family moved to a small town near Santa Fe, New Mexico. A lady who lived in our neighborhood heard me perform the song at the Sikh temple in town. She loved it and wanted me to record it on CD so she could take it with her to the South Africa Peace Conference in a few months time. My dad's friend had a home studio and agreed to take a few hours to record the song, throw some drums, bass and keys on it, and make it sound cool. Hearing my own recording as we drove home was the most satisfying and exciting thing. Every musician knows what I'm talking about. The car test. Legendary. Anyway, this lady went to the conference and, when she got back, she told me that everyone loved it so much that they started each session by listening to the song and singing together! I was pretty shocked, to say the least.
If your house were on fire, and all your friends, pets and family members were safe, what two things -- one musical and one non-musical -- would you rescue?
My dark-skinned lover that is my black Les Paul Custom, without a doubt. Non-musical ... probably the metal bracelet, called a "Kara," that was a gift from my Korean Taoist Qi Gong teacher Dr. Sung Baek. Although it's made of tungsten-carbide steel, which I'm pretty sure is indestructible, so maybe that's a poor choice.
What are your plans at the moment? Touring -- more recording?
Touring. We're heading out to Austin in March to SXSW, our first year playing out there. Then we're headed to the East Coast for some shows and radio gigs. After that, I think we're going up the coast again to the Northwest, my home turf! I tend to write a lot and have been working with the band on lots of new material, which I hope will come out next year. Right now the focus is 100 percent on playing the hell out this record.
What are your views on the album as an art form? Is it dead and/or pointless? Are you open to the idea of a few downloads as your official output of any given year? EPs, perhaps?
I think the album format is dated at best, "dead" at worst. That really makes me sad. Although, with vinyl making a resurgence, it's heartening to see some people still want to listen to an LP, hopefully from start to finish, which is my favorite way of digesting music. I don't see us putting out just a few songs a year. When we put something out, at minimum it will be an EP. I do like singles, though, with B-sides. There's a chance we might put out a 7-inch later this year.
You've lived in India and in Liverpool. What are the music scenes there like? What compelled you to head to the U.S.?
The music scene in India is a trip. Ninety percent of music sales are driven by the film industry in Mumbai. Songs from films are the breadbasket of the music industry. Since there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of movies put out every year in India (more than Hollywood), there is opportunity there. People in India also consume music much differently. People discover and download a lot of music through mobile technology like cell phones, which is interesting. The rickshaw driver who has two shirts and two pants and not much else ... has a cell phone. There is an underground hard rock scene that's starting to blossom there as well, but what I've heard isn't doing much for me yet. Electronic music is very popular in certain cities, particularly Goa (which is known for its kind of trance music).
When I was in Liverpool, it was about indie/rock and this gross kind of British "emo" music. It seems like the Brits also have a love obsession with Motown funk/soul, which is understandable because it's the bomb, and there are a ton of bands doing their own take on it. I recorded a song, "Just the Sky," for an art film in Liverpool with a funk/jazz brass and rhythm section, which was a blast.
The difference between British funk and American funk is all in the mood. American funk is fatter and more greasy. British funk is a bit harder with more syncopations. The best thing about the music scene in England is that people are so excited about new music, and what remains of the "industry infrastructure" there is still very supportive of new, different music.
It seems like Europeans, in general, are more excited about new music. They get AMPED at shows, let loose and really know how to have a good time. I genuinely attribute this to the colder weather. Our equivalents are NYC, Detroit, and part of the Pacific Northwest.
I came back to the U.S. after being in England partly against my will. I was "deported" because it turned out I had the wrong visa for what I was doing there. I had researched everything about which visa to get and thought I had it figured out. Immigration told me when I entered the UK that I was good, but apparently, when my friend joined me a while later and told immigration she was "working" with me England, I needed a work visa and permit. They realized it was a misunderstanding on my part, and kind of a technicality, so they let me stay a week longer before I had to leave.
Radio 1 was getting behind "Just the Sky," I had a bunch of gigs and festival shows lined up, studio time on hold for making the rest of my record, etc., and had to bail on everything. I was pretty devastated. Talk about mental whiplash. But it all turned out for the best. I ended up making Out of Mankind with Joel, an incredible producer, and met the grossly amazing guys in my band. We've had a lot of really great support in our home base San Diego, the Northwest, and many other parts of the country we haven't been able to visit yet.
Hargo's new album, Out of Mankind, was released February 28 via Rhetorik Music and Management. For more info, visit hargomusic.com.