NEW YORK (AFP) - After exhaustive touring that won him a fan base in Europe, Hanni El Khatib came home to Los Angeles, booked a month at a studio and decided simply to see where his music took him.
El Khatib, whose first two albums offered a retro garage rock sound marked by guitar reverb and a confidently hip vocal delivery, was in a career position where he enjoyed artistic freedom - a loyal audience, yet no chart-topping songs that defined him.
"There is a lot more personal stuff that I chose to delve into, knowing that I didn't feel that I had any pressure on the third record to perform in a certain way. I didn't have one of those hits where people were saying, 'We want another song like that,'" El Khatib said on a recent visit to New York.
"It was more one of those introspective, experimental types of records for me," he said. "I felt like now is my opportunity - I can push myself, and push my listeners as well."
The album, Moonlight, which comes out on Tuesday, starts with El Khatib's signature guitar jamming on the title track and the hard-rocking Melt Me. But Moonlight gradually moves in new directions with the melancholic Mexico, the funkier Home and the nearly six-minute closer Two Brothers, in which El Khatib's guitar builds an atmosphere of dark disco.
"Even though the songs may be varied in style, I think the overall vibe is there, so to me it felt cohesive," said El Khatib, who was alone in the studio with a sound engineer and his live band's drummer Ron Marinelli.
The album also has sombre lyrical turns with the final track opening with the line, "I lost two brothers this year / I hope they died without fear."
The title song tells of light and darkness with the refrain, "All my life I've been fighting for the moonlight." But El Khatib played down his efforts as a lyricist, saying the music drove his work.
"I'm not the kind of guy who labours over metaphors or high-level concept stuff," he said. "If I delve down that road, I'm more stream-of-consciousness than anything." -
El Khatib did not record any music until five years ago when he switched careers from fashion design. He was the artistic director for HUF, a label aimed at skateboarders in San Francisco, where El Khatib was born and grew up.
He has played major US festivals but has been a breakaway success in Europe, especially France. El Khatib has scheduled 10 shows in France in support of Moonlight, around the same number upcoming in the United States.
El Khatib - who also knows the music industry as co-head of his own label, Innovative Leisure - suspected his raw rock sound has fallen out of favour in the United States, where mainstream hits so frequently employ production techniques such as drum machines and backing vocals.
"I think that overseas, people are still connecting to my style of music in a sense. Specifically in France, there is a love and a fascination and a connection to American rock 'n' roll," he said.
El Khatib pointed to Akron Ohio's Black Keys as a rare US band that still enjoys mainstream success with a rock-heavy sound. Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach recorded El Khatib's previous album, Head in the Dirt, after the two musicians ran into each other at a bar in Paris and bonded.
El Khatib charged that the US music press ignored him until recently as his sound did not fit their format. In Europe, by contrast, he said that music critics still wielded "a stamp of approval".
"In American culture, I think that stamp of approval is very short-lived," he said. "You have people falling in love with a band one month and the next month they don't even know who they are. It's a very different thing."