The San Diego band and its unique namesake perform Saturday at the Belly Up
There’s a good reason that even the most seasoned pop-music fans have difficulty naming any American Sikh rock artists.
“That’s because there aren’t any!” said Oregon-born singer-songwriter Hargobind Hari Singh Khalsa, the leader and namesake of Hargo, one of San Diego’s most promising bands. (Apart from the obscure group Roving Sikhs, whose lyrics are sung in Hindi and Punjabi, Sikh rockers are almost unheard of, even in India.)
Hargo, who was born and raised a Sikh, performs Saturday at the Belly Up with his three-man band (which, for the record, sounds nothing like either Tupac or Marilyn Manson). Sikhism is an Indian religion that promotes equality between men, women and all religions, eschews intoxicants and espouses honest, truthful living.
“A lot of times, people see me onstage and they are confused,” said Hargo, 27, whose long beard and turban make him stand out in any rock-music venue.
“They think: ‘Who is this weird character in front of me?’ When they find out I’m not (Hasidic reggae singer) Matisyahu, or a Hare Krishna, they are surprised.”
The real surprise, though, at least for anyone who hasn’t yet heard the still mostly under-the-radar Hargo, is the uniformly high quality of music he and his band deliver on their 12-song album, “Out of Mankind,” which came out in February. It was preceded by a 2010 EP, "The Faint Glow," and a 2007 album, "In Your Eyes."
The thoughtful songs Hargo expertly performs on "Out of Mankind," are clean, crisp and melodically rich. While the group's influences are alternately apparent and subtle — from Radiohead and Prince to The Beatles and Sly & The Famly Stone — they are able to build on their inspirations with freshness and vitality. The band is also adept at mixing and matching influences from different eras, be it Talking Heads or Beck.
"That was an inadvertent influence. I love Talking Heads," Hargo said, "but I never set out as a songwriter to do anything like that."
Hargo bassist John Jolley, 24, nodded in agreement.
"We all have our own influences," he said. "Some of us may love Talking Heads, but not listen to them. Radiohead is a bigger influence on us and they took their name from Talking Heads. It's all connected at end of day, if you want to play great music."
"Soul Survivor," one of the standout songs on Hargo's new album, has a recurring melodic segment that suggests Scott McKenzie's 1967 quasi-hippie anthem, "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)" -- a musical reference point that pre-dates Hargo's birth by 20 years. He smiled when the similarity was pointed out.
"I love that song, but wouldn’t have thought of that," Hargo, the son of two hippie parents, said. "('Survivor') is a special song for me and for us as a band. I don't typically write songs about my personal life. I don't like it when an artist goes: 'Me this' and 'I that,' maybe because it lacks a certain level of humility."
In Jolley, guitarist Sanjay Parekh, 28, and drummer Ron Kerner, 44 -- all San Diego natives -- Hargo has empathetic band mates who help make his songs their own. With more exposure, the group has the potential to make an impact across — and beyond — San Diego County.
That goal may be furthered by the band's manager, Gregg Gerson, a veteran drummer who has worked with everyone from David Bowie and Gloria Estefan to Billy Idol and (a decade ago) San Diego's Jason Mraz.
"It's exciting to see how fast Hargo has evolved as a band," said Gerson, who helped the band secure four performance slots earlier this year at the annual South By Southwest music marathon in Austin.
In turn, Hargo credits Gerson for helping the band's well-constructed music sound even more potent in a concert setting.
"Gregg is a brilliant arranger," Hargo said. "He helped us deconstruct our album and then reconstruct the songs for our live shows."
Just how effective that process has been could be seen and heard when Hargo opened a Belly Up show for surf-rock pioneer Dick Dale at the Belly Up. Although the two have little in common stylistically, Hargo earned an enthusiastic response from the audience for its polished, rock-solid performance.
At one point during the Belly Up show, Hargo introduced a song by using a common four-letter word. His delivery was matter-of-fact, and if you weren't paying attention, you may have missed the word altogether. Still, it was still surprising to hear a Sikh utter a profanity, especially from a concert stage in a nightclub.
"Language is a tool and profanity is a useful tool at times,"Hargo said.
"When you're trying to make a point it has to have impact. And sometimes it provides levity. It's something I learned from my teacher, Yogi Bhajan. I learned from him that using profanity is a tool. He's a spiritual teacher, kind of like a grandfather to me. When he lectured, he would swear constantly! Typically, you think of spiritual people as pious, with a clean presentation. But he was all about being real with people. He would scream at people. He screamed at me: 'You (expletive) (expletive)!' He did it to make a point and get my attention, and he did: 'OK, I'm listening'."
"It goes back," guitarist Parekh interjected, "to the idea of capturing people's attention They see Hargo as a stoic character and expect him to be a certain way. He shatters their preconceptions when he says: 'Put your (expletive) hands together!' "
But one profanity per concert, if that, is considered mild by today's pop-music standards. And Hargo's goal is to win over listeners with his band's music, not to shock them.
"At first take, a lot of the music I grew up on and love you just like at face value. It has great melody, great phrasing, a great beat. And then it starts to sink in a little bit, and you say: 'Wait, there's something being said here.' Or you just feel the intent, even if its not that obvious. That’s something we try to do as well."