King Khan & the Shrines on the ups and downs of the outdoor show - Reverb

King Khan & the Shrines on psychedelic contact highs, portable toilets, and the Westword Music Showcase

Try not to use the portable toilets during King Khan's Westword Music Showcase set on June 21. Trust us. (Photo provided by Merge Records)

Try not to use the portable toilets during King Khan’s Westword Music Showcase set on June 21. Trust us. (Photo provided by Merge Records)

Garage-rock shamans King Khan & the Shrines have been called plenty of things over their 15 years and half-dozen full-lengths, including psychedelic pranksters, neo-soul punks and fashion-funk polyglots.

But it’s easy to boil all those down to a single descriptor: party band.

“We just kind of go for the throat right away,” said 37-year-old lead singer Arish Ahmad Khan, a Montreal native known for his elaborate costumes (including sweet headdresses) and shirtless, frothing-at-the-mouth stage antics.

We caught up with Khan before his band’s main-stage set at the 20th annual Westword Music Showcase, which takes place June 21 at 17 indoor and outdoor stages across the Golden Triangle neighborhood and includes more than 140 local bands with national headliners such as Diplo, 2 Chainz, Cherub and Man Man.

Hey man, thanks for the time today. So you’re somewhere between New York and Philly on tour at the moment, right?

Right, we played Philly last night, which was wonderful. It was at this place called the Theatre of Living Arts. It was cool and the crowd was good. We’re on tour with Red Mass, which is Roy (Vucino) from Montreal, who I’ve known since I was a teenager. It’s really fun to be the road with him. When we were teenagers we could have gone the wrong way, actually.

How so?

When we were 17 we had this idea to rob a hot dog restaurant and we actually got so far as me borrowing my mother’s car, and we parked across the street from the restaurant to case the joint because we knew someone who worked there.

Is that where you got the idea for it?

No, it was from watching stupid movies. We were going to rob them when the money shipper was coming, but luckily we never did that. And later on we planned other stupid stuff, like we had this one idea of having noise shows and releasing bees in garbage cans during the show — all of which thankfully we didn’t accomplish. So yeah, in a way there’s an energy that we feed off in each other. That’s what keeps you younger.

You’re playing the big outdoor stage at the Westword Music Showcase here in Denver. How does the King Khan party translate to an outdoor stage vs. a club?

Obviously I prefer being in the club or theater just because it’s more intimate and everything, but at festivals you see so many different bands. I don’t really know how to describe the difference, but it still translates pretty good and turns people onto new things. People still get really excited. There was a time where I would be kind of grumpy about playing festivals because I didn’t like the daytime feeling, but I got over that a long time ago and now I just have fun. You kind of have to get into that level of performance, so it’s not as romantic but it is still nitty-gritty.

What’s your idea of fun?

I like to make fun of people a lot during the shows, like the people shitting in the portable potties. I call them out from the stage. I just know people are sitting in those small boxes tripping or making out with strangers in a toilet, and that’s awesome.

You’ve described live music as a ritual, and anyone who considers rock ’n’ roll their religion would agree. Can an outdoor festival be like a spiritual revival sometimes?

It’s a big difference if the sun is up or down in terms of watching something. In terms of when I’m watching something, I don’t take a religious ceremony seriously if it’s in broad daylight. Which is not to say that our show will be less spiritual, but to me aesthetically it’s hard to conjure certain feelings when you’re in the daylight and people are eating hot dogs all around you. But we try our best.

What helps?

I do love seeing people who are tripping balls at our shows. Just recently in Athens, for example, these two 19-year-old kids were tripping and making out and for one second I was watching them doing their awkward stretching — you know like you do when you’re tripping? — and their weird moves and I was like, “Man, I wish I was feeling like that!” And this Athens crowd wasn’t like our normal apeshit-crazy crowd. They were kind of conservative. But the longer I watched these kids the more this sort of contact high took hold and suddenly the show took this really crazy turn. I grabbed this wooden statue and was making out with it and passing it around the room and suddenly everyone just flipped and went crazy. So it is like conjuring, in a way. You have to channel other peoples’ freak-outs, then you can definitely bring that level to a festival.

What are some of your favorite memories of seeing bands outdoors at festivals, or playing summer shows in general?

One of the worst shows-slash-most-amazing was Sly and the Family Stone at Coachella, where it was like Sly had just farted crack into everyone’s brains. I could tell that they probably tried it many times, with his presence on stage, you know, just complaining about people who ripped him off on a tirade of five minutes, then them doing an old song and him stopping and wanting the keyboard player to play his new stuff off of a laptop while the whole band waited. It was so insane and it was really like he had farted crack into everyone’s heads. It was like watching a nightmare. You’re waiting for Freddy Krueger to rip Sly’s face off and reveal himself.

Jesus. What about the festivals you guys have played?

We played one festival in Norway where they helicoptered in our stuff to the site and it was so far off in these islands that we had to take a three-hour boat ride to the island to play it. It was one of these small fisherman’s islands, and really like inbred fisherman. We had the really late shift on that show and we played at 3 or 4 in the morning. I was excited that people were going to be really drunk, but they were so drunk that it looked terrifying, like we were playing to zombies. Just these inbred fisherman, alcohol-poisoned zombies. I mistakenly ate a whale burger at that festival and have been feeling guilty ever since for forcing myself to eat whale!

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John Wenzel is an A&E reporter and critic for The Denver Post. Follow him @johnwenzel.