Like a Young John Lennon

This Saturday, July 28, San Diego-based Hargo is set to headline the Belly Up Tavern for the first time.

Hargo is a band built around the songwriting of Hargobind Khalsa. The four-piece creates well-crafted pop rock with thoughtful lyrics derived from a multitude of influences. The vocals are soft and Sunday-morning easy, positive and provoking. The music is well-produced with interesting yet subtle turns, both in arrangement and underlying soundscaping.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Hargo Khalsa and learn a little bit more about the background and forward progression of his music.

Alfred Howard
: Your songs are very densely layered: lots of ear candy. How do you recreate that live?

Hargo Khalsa: It's a challenge for us, and something we put an extreme amount of thought and practice into making it translate properly live. Sanjay morphs into a Hindu deity with eight arms and plays nine instruments simultaneously, to begin with! Actually, we used some technology (Ableton, sample pads) to help fill in texture, along with a strange little Raagini machine from India. Those who know what that is will appreciate it.

AH: I understand your song "Crying For John Lennon" is one of the last songs Phil Spector produced. How did that come to be?

HK: It's a long story, but basically I wrote "Crying For John Lennon" several years ago and put it out on a solo CD. I just kind of threw it up on Myspace and it started to take off a bit. This guy Mark Elsis from called me and said he loved the song and was making a documentary about people going to Strawberry Fields at Central Park in NYC every year to honor John. We became friends and then months later I was in NYC to work with [photographer] Mick Rock and Mark asked me to come to Central Park to be filmed playing the song so he could use it in the film. That day he called me and said he got a letter from Phil Spector saying that he wanted to contribute an interview to the movie from his house in L.A. Three weeks later the interview took place. I was invited and met Phil. Mark asked him to listen to the recording of my song. He put it on the stereo in his billiards room and really liked it. "You remind me of a young John Lennon," is what he said. I was stunned. Mark asked Phil if he'd consider producing the song for the film and he said he needed time to think about it. He was busy with pre-trial court dates and lawyers meetings. Three weeks later we got a call from Mark saying that Phil agreed to produce the song and that I needed to send all my recording files to a studio in L.A. ASAP so they could start working on it.

AH: What was it like working with him and how has that impacted your music career?

HK: It was nothing short of incredible. Phil is probably the greatest record producer of all time, and just having the opportunity to work with someone of his caliber was really huge for me. When you get to meet and work with your creative idols, there are few things more special than that for any artist. The whole experience impacted me in many ways. There was a bunch of press, people found out about my music and all that. But more importantly, the experience showed me that I was on the right track and inspired me to keep at it. Making a career in music has to be one of the most challenging things you can do, and it's not always easy to stay motivated. But these special moments really inspire you and give you legs!

AH: Who are some of the main musical influences of you? Of the band? Where do they meet and collide?

HK: Some of my personal influences are the Beatles, Cat Stevens, Led Zeppelin, REM, Neil Young, Rage Against the Machine, Prince, etc. [Guitarist] Sanjay comes more from the funk/hip-hop side, [drummer] Ron from funk, punk and classic rock. John comes from punk, techno, noise music and alternative. Our influences meet with a number of great bands, ranging from classics like the Beatles, Zeppelin and Neil Young to the Talking Heads, REM, Radiohead and Nirvana.

AH: I read your quote: “Tupac and Marilyn Manson saved my life." Since their sound doesn’t come across directly in your music, how have they effected your creative process?

HK: When I was stuck at boarding school in India, super depressed and feeling hopeless, I started listening to Marilyn Manson's Holy Wood record, which had just came out. I remember putting on the headphones and the music scared me! I loved that and found refuge in his rage. Much the same with Tupac, though he really hits you in the heart sometimes. Songs like "Dear Mama," "Breathin," "Hail Mary" and stuff off of Makaveli really had an impact on me and still do. I think there are elements of Manson coming out in small doses with some of the new stuff we've been working on. But lyrically, I think his impact can be heard even on our current record Out of Mankind, especially "Empty Cups" and "Crashing Down pt. 1."

AH: How does your religious and cultural background come to play in your music?

HK: Growing up Sikh, I was surrounded by Indian music and a lot of '60s and '70s folk (a bunch of the "white Sikhs" like my parents who had converted to Sikhism were hippies and into that whole folk scene), so I heard a lot of Dylan, Cat Stevens, Beatles, etc. Mostly it was about consuming music that had a message, usually one of peace, love, and fighting "the Man" (I can't think of something less cliche at the moment), and that had a massive effect on me. I write a lot about other people, situations around me, and not as much about myself personally. I'm a more empathic writer than an egocentric, though that seems like a somewhat egocentric thing to say, haha. But that concept of not dwelling on the ego is one of the founding ideas in all Indian and Eastern philosophy, which definitely comes through in the music we make.

AH: I notice you have a lot of socially conscious lyrics. In your opinion, what is the role of the musician in society?

HK: I don't think artists have a preset role in society. Inevitably, through a function of just being who/what they are, they create art that is a reflection of the times and our thoughts on culture. As a songwriter, I believe in making art that inspires people. That inspiration doesn't need to have a particular direction, but inspiration usually leads to a change of some kind. And change is always good.

AH: Any special things you’d like to mention about the show?

HK: This is our night, and our fans' night, so we are planning some special stuff. We want to create a sonic/visual experience that will transport people into our world so that the music really surrounds you. This is our first real opportunity to do that, and we're so excited.

AH: What are your favorite places to play in San Diego and beyond?

HK: We're big in Northern Idaho, a huge music market [laughs], and love playing there! Seriously, we toured through Sandpoint, Idaho last year and played one of the coolest shows ever for a radio station that was getting behind our record, Out of Mankind. The gig was on a lake up in the mountains. As we're playing, we were thinking, "Is this a rock & roll show, or are we on vacation?" Other fun places to play, Austin... North Las Vegas (not)... Webster Hall in NYC... Alberta Rose theatre in Portland... just to name a few. Belly Up is our favorite spot in SD.

AH: What’s next for Hargo?

HK: We're working on some new material to release sometime soon, perhaps an EP. Mostly, we're just anxious to get back out on the road and keep hitting California and the Northwest.

Alfred Howard writes lyrics for the Heavy Guilt and the Black Sands. He also writes music reviews for Owl and Bear.

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