For much of his childhood growing up in suburban Boston, Naseem Khuri didn't even realize he was Palestinian. Though his name was a little unusual and his family's Thanksgiving dinner came with a side of hummus, he always thought of himself as a privileged American kid. It was only later that he learned that his mother and father had both been born in Palestine and fled to Lebanon as children; only later that he started to notice walls going up and suspicious glances being cast his way at bars and in airports; only later that he found people considered him—a Massachusetts native—"Middle Eastern," with all the implicit bias and baggage those two words entail; only later that he realized he'd never truly be seen as a "regular" American, despite this country being the only home he'd ever known.
That tension - between growing up comfortably in a nice suburb and existing on the margins as an ‘other’ - lies at the heart of 'Another Other'—the new album from Kingsley Flood, the rollicking, literate, five-piece rock and roll band Khuri fronts—and sets the stage for an exploration of identity and race and class that plays out over thirteen exhilarating tracks.
"What makes you belong somewhere in the first place?" Khuri muses over a beer in Washington, D.C., where he's lived for the past few years with his wife, a speechwriter for President Obama. "At the end of the day, I'm American. The only Arabic words I know are foods and swears. It's just that much more jarring to somehow always be labeled 'an other' when you don't even see yourself that way."
That kind of questioning has pushed Khuri to tackle big-picture issues with his music ever since the band released their debut album, 'Dust Windows,' in 2010. Upon that record's release, NPR raved, "Take some rough and raw vocals akin to Tom Waits, mix in heavy doses of Bob Dylan, add melodies that send you back to a bygone era and push you forward with rock 'n' roll urgency, and you get Kingsley Flood." The band followed it up with a 2011 EP, 'Colder Still,' and a 2013 full-length, 'Battles,' which earned them a main stage spot at the iconic Newport Folk Festival and widespread critical acclaim, including love everywhere from Rolling Stone and Esquire to Paste and American Songwriter. They broke out from their native Boston, where they were championed by both the Globe and the Herald, and hit the road for national touring, sharing bills with Grace Potter, Lucius, Langhorne Slim, Angus and Julia Stone, Brett Dennen, and more along the way.
When the dust had settled and it was time to head back into the studio in 2015, the band decided to take an unusual approach. Rather than record a single batch of songs in one long session for an album, they'd hit the studio every few months to record smaller collections of EPs, resulting in a steady stream of new music throughout the year for their fans and a solid framework for a new full-length LP to follow. In order to fund the approach, they launched a successful, year-long PledgeMusic campaign, in which their fans could act as patrons and enable the band to take the time they needed to hone in on the ever-evolving sound that would become 'Another Other.'
"We've always been an independent band, and as far as the model for how a band survives these days goes, it's just the Wild West," says Khuri with a laugh. "We know we have very dedicated fans, so we wanted to create a model in which they could play an active role in helping to create the kind of art that they wanted to enjoy for a sustained amount of time. And we wanted to give them the ability to interact with us in a personal way and nurture that connection, which is really important to us."
The resulting album is the band's finest work to date, blending the energy of The Clash with Springsteen's keen eye for the experiences of those living on the margins of society. Produced by Paul Kolderie (Radiohead, Pixies, Portugal. The Man), 'Another Other' draws its roots from Khuri's childhood memories and works its way to the present.
"When I was in high school and escaped my nice suburb to venture into Boston," he remembers, "I was always warned not to go past this one particular bridge, which cleanly separated two very different parts of town. I began to understand that 'It’s not safe there' actually meant 'They're not like us.' Later, when I was living in Boston, I'd spend many nights in that exact neighborhood I'd been warned about, sleeping on a friend's porch on hot summer nights and marveling at the hypocrisy of it all. On the one hand, I came from an affluent suburb and enjoyed a life of privilege. On the other hand, I was still seen as 'an other' because of my name and heritage. I felt like I fit in both places and neither place at the same time."
Khuri sets that context with album opener “The Bridge,” which centers on that suburban boundary he had been warned not to cross as a child and grapples with the fear of unintentionally perpetuating the same social divisions he grew up with. It sets the stage for what's to come, laying out a vision of a modern American society still sharply divided along lines of race and class. On songs like "Cavalry" and "To The Wolves," which plays like a 21st century answer to "Fortunate Son," Khuri examines why change is so hard to come by, while unflinchingly implicating himself and other good-intentioned souls for maintaining the status quo in the punk-leaning "On My Mind," which features stand-out slide work from guitarist George Hall.
"I thought of that tune after being stuck at a red light in Cambridge and seeing a guy begging for money," remembers Khuri. "Here I was, comfortable in my car, feeling bad for the guy but not actually rolling down my window to help. I had to put a mirror up to my 'armchair activism' because I was going on stage talking all sorts of talk about trying to change the world. What’s any of it worth if I’m not willing to roll down my window?"
The question of what responsibilities those with privilege owe to those without turns up throughout the album. Keyboardist/horn player Chris Barrett's jazz-noir trumpet line hints at Khuri's barely suppressed revulsion on "Tricks," a song inspired by the political ladder-climbing and empty lip-service he witnessed after relocating from Boston to DC, while the sweeping, string-led "Thick Of It" (the album features fiddle contributions throughout from Eva Walsh and Jenée Morgan Force) looks at the ways personal comfort can reduce our investment in activism. "Good Old Wind" is an infectious, fiddle-led rocker that was inspired by a bigoted convenience shop owner in a changing neighborhood from Khuri's youth. Perhaps the album's musical and emotional centerpiece, though, is the title track, a "Guns Of Brixton"-esque earworm propelled by a deep groove from bassist Nick Balkin and drummer Travis Richter.
"I had this complexity growing up because I could look white, but I also knew I wasn't totally white," says Khuri. "'Another Other' came out of a night at a bar when some news about a terrorist bombing came on TV, and the people I was with put it together that my heritage is from that part of the world. A wall was put up in the blink of an eye. I wasn't doing anything differently, but suddenly I was cast as 'an other.’ I grew up thinking I had the power to define my own identity, and suddenly I didn't.”
Ultimately, 'Another Other' doesn’t offer any easy answers, but it does reflect on some basic truths. Change is hard to come by on a broader level because it's hard to come by on a personal level. Those with power and wealth are often more invested in preserving those elements for themselves than divvying them up amongst others. Racism and classism aren't inborn instincts, but rather learned biases. It's easier to fear differences than search for commonalities.
By the end of the album, though, one thing is certain: in Kingsley Flood's America, to be 'Another Other' is a badge of honor. It's the hallmark of those courageous enough to embrace their heritage and the ways it contributes to the fabric of a society that was itself founded by men and women considered to be others. As Khuri sings in the final verse of the title track, 'Thank God I'm not the same."