Khruangbin: Leap of Faith

Dean Budnick on September 16, 2020
Khruangbin: Leap of Faith

The title of the new Khruangbin album, Mordechai, pays tribute to the individual who led bassist Laura Lee Ochoa to the edge of a waterfall and then prompted her to jump.

“After two years of touring, I felt a little lost,” she admits. “I’d been nomadic and my reality was warped. You’re basically only in venues where people are treating you like the person you are onstage, not the person you are at home. So that experience on the hike was really cleansing, as clichéd as that sounds.”

Ochoa’s plunge took place during a pause in the band’s recording process and ended up having a profound impact on the resulting material. Shifting away from the instrumental-driven tracks on Khruangbin’s prior studio records, Ochoa and her bandmates decided the time was right to emphasize her ethereal vocals.

Mordechai is actually the group’s second 2020 release; in February, the trio dropped Texas Sun, their critically acclaimed collaborative EP with Leon Bridges.

It’s been a slow and steady rise for Khruangbin. The project originated through a series of weekly meals at Rudyard’s in Houston. At the time, Mark Speer and Donald “DJ” Johnson performed together at St. John’s United Methodist Church in downtown Houston. The pair would decompress at the pub after their Tuesday rehearsals and, in 2007, Ochoa joined their gatherings when a friend introduced her to Speer (who at the time of their first meeting was watching Breaking the Silence: Music in Afghanistan). The guitarist encouraged Ochoa to pick up the bass and, in 2009, she landed a spot in the touring band for psych-rock artist Yppah alongside Speer.

The experience boosted Ochoa’s confidence on her newfound instrument and she, in turn, suggested that Speer and Johnson form a trio with her (with Johnson moving from the organ he played in church to the drums of his youth). Khruangbin officially debuted in 2010 and, during the next few years, honed in on a multi-hued, cross-cultural sound that is often described as “Thai funk.”

As Ochoa contemplates her band’s development over the past decade, she observes, “One thing I’ve noticed is that a number of people have posted videos of themselves playing bass to Khruangbin songs on Instagram. And even though, most of time, they’re playing the right notes, at technically the right times, it never sounds like me. That’s beautiful and it makes you realize that your voice can be as good as any voice. There’s no reason not to see where it can take you. I’m still discovering my voice as an artist and that’s been part of the journey we’ve all experienced within Khruangbin.”

Your 2019 performance with Trey Anastasio at LOCKN’ was recently streamed as part of a marathon retrospective broadcast. What are your memories of that set?

MARK SPEER: We knew that we had to do something special for LOCKN’ because the jam scene was one of the first scenes in America that really gave us love, even though we’re not a jamband. They claimed us as their own. So when we had an opportunity to play with Trey, that seemed like a cool way to do something special. We wanted to figure out a way to make it work. I remember, when he came out, the LOCKN’ fans were like, “What!?”

DONALD “DJ” JOHNSON: We had a rehearsal space down there, so on the day of the show, Trey came out and we went over a few cues. It’s more regimented than what people think. That goes back to how we create the music. The songwriting process generally starts with a drum loop. Then, Laura plays some bass on top of the drum loop—a free-flowing thing that works on top of the drums. Mark comes in after that, and he’ll add the guitar and shape it. Then, we’ll go in and record all of that live.

When we play our live sets, Laura and I try to stay locked in with the groove, although Mark does his thing with the improvisational part of it. Mark has specific melodies that he plays but then— outside of that, in a vamp—he’ll switch things up a little bit and it gets free-flowing. That’s probably the jammiest part of what we do.

MS: I remember being really nervous trying while we were trying to figure out how to make it work with another guitar player onstage. In all of my years of playing, I’ve been, invariably, the only guitar player on stage. When you play with another guitarist, you’ve got to find a spot to sit so that it’s not just guitar, guitar, guitar. Nothing is more grating to me than a band with five guitar players who are just stepping on each other. But when you have five guitar players who are playing in such a way where it all sounds like one instrument, then I love it. So that was the challenge. But Trey is just the sweetest dude and really open to what we’re doing.

Can you pinpoint a specific moment where you believe you achieved that goal?

MS: I haven’t listened to that set in a while. You do so many shows that even the ones that are really special to you become kind of blurry. He really found his spot and was doing some really rad stuff during “People Everywhere.” Even though we’d had some time to rehearse, he still had to find his spot when he first came out. I was trying to lay back a little bit more to give him space to do whatever he wanted to do. I was like, “I want you to rip dude, and I’ll just accompany you. I’ll play chords; I’ll back you up.” So while I don’t think we ever achieved complete synergy, we came really close—as close as you could get from basically rehearsing for an hour, and then going onstage and doing it.

You later recorded with Trey?

LAURA LEE OCHOA: He recorded on a song that we did with Leon Bridges. That song didn’t end up making the EP [Texas Sun]. So it exists; it’s just not out. At the time, we thought, “How cool would it be to have a song with Leon and Trey?” That felt like a Khruangbin thing to do. I don’t know who else could make that combination work. And they’re also both from Fort Worth, so there was a cool synergy to it.

So he recorded on that song and then, I reached out to him about being on our album. There was a back and forth but, for some reason, it never happened. I sent him the record when it was finished and said, “I’m kind of glad that you didn’t end up playing on it—not because we wouldn’t have loved to have you but because Khruangbin albums are nice as just Khruangbin.” He kind of insinuated that was the reason why he didn’t end up doing it and I really respect that.

What prompted your collaboration with Leon?

DJ: We toured with Leon in support of his second album in the fall of 2018. It was really cool—everyone got along and we just had a connection because we are all from Texas. We ended up becoming friends on the road and we sent Leon an instrumental that we’d recorded that we weren’t using on the record. And, the next day, he sent us back a voice memo of himself humming and singing some words over the melody. So that’s where the idea for us to go into the studio together to do a song came about. It just so happened that we ended up doing eight songs because the chemistry was so good. We just kept going. We wanted all of them to come out, but labels make their decisions. So there’s some more unreleased stuff from those sessions with Leon out there in the universe. I suspect it will come out sooner or later.

The record is a successful amalgam of both your voices. Was that more challenging to accomplish than one might think?

MS: I enjoyed jumping back into how I used to work. In the kind of bands that I used to play in, I mainly played gospel, soul, R&B, hip-hop and a shit-ton of zydeco. In those settings, you don’t play a melodic figure at the same time as the vocalist. You don’t play in that same range because you’ll step on them and then it becomes cluttered. So if you want to play guitar, and you want to adorn the melody, then you play inside of the breath. They sing a line, they take a breath and then you play. It’s like a call and response. You’re responding to that melody and you’re expected to complement what’s happening with the singer because, usually, the keyboardist has the chords down. You want to play economically and with feeling. It’s all about supporting the singer, supporting the melody.

When we were doing the Texas Sun record, I said to myself, “I can’t just be playing normal Khruangbin guitar on everything. I need to find a spot where I can fit. What am I doing here? I can’t be doing something that draws attention to the guitar while Leon is in the middle of a line. That’s not going to happen.” He sang and then I “sang,” and we went back and forth. If he’s the one singing the top line, then I need to support him. But, at the same time, it still needs to sound like a Khruangbin record, so I had to put in little bits and pieces here and there. I really like my riff on “Texas Sun” itself.

You mention the EP sounding like a Khruangbin record. Almost from the start, your sound was characterized as “Thai funk.” What are your thoughts on that being used as a default descriptor?

MS: When we started, we were just making music, without giving it much thought. A lot of it was inspired by listening to Thai music, specifically luk thung and mor lam. But we weren’t trying to play Thai music; we were trying to approximate the kind of vibe. This music came across in a really unfussy way. It didn’t feel like it had really high production, it didn’t sound too expensive. It sounded like it was using some guitars, some bass and some drums. In a few cases, it sounded like a single mic in a room. We really liked that unfussy, uncluttered, simple, beautiful, direct sound. There weren’t a whole lot of effects. And if there were, it was maybe some echo or something on the vocals, like a reverb. It was a quick, slapback kind of thing.

We don’t play Thai funk, even though we were heavily inspired by it. If you were to go onto the website Monrakplengthai, which means “I love Thai music,” and listen to that music, then you’d be like, “Wow, this doesn’t sound like Khruangbin at all”—even though we might share some similar melodic elements. That website is run by this sweet dude. He still lives in Thailand and he goes to these bazaars and outdoor markets all the time. He’ll pick up these cassettes, rip them and make them available for download on his blog. It’s very similar to Awesome Tapes from Africa.

We like to call what we do “Earth music” because we’re playing music from the Earth. We play it that way because we’re from Houston. Houston is such a diverse and international city; it just seeps into what we do. As a kid in Houston, you are surrounded by people from all over the world and of all different colors. They all speak different languages and, at no point, are you like, “That’s just so exotic and weird.” It’s just Houston.

DJ: Houston is a super diverse, multicultural city due to the oil and gas industries and also because of the medical center we have here. We have one of the best cancer treatment facilities in the country— in the world, really. When people come here for work or for a treatment, they bring their culture, food, fashion and music. So you get a large dose of that living here.

When I met Mark, he was already listening to music that wasn’t in English. I had no idea what the words meant, but the music was full of these really beautiful melodies. It also had this funky sound. We were influenced by all of that stuff, from every part of the world. There was this golden period in the late ‘60s and ‘70s— and maybe the early ‘80s—where everyone, all around the world, was funky. The things that changed from country to country were the languages and these other small cultural nuances. But, more often than not, you would hear the similarities rather than the differences. We can attest to that because, when we tour, we’ll be in Southeast Asia, and someone will say, “This sounds like our music; this sounds like the music I grew up listening to with my parents.” Then we’ll play that same song in Instanbul or South America and people will say the exact same thing. Here in the States, people say it too. I think that’s due to the fact that there’s so many influences that go into the stew.

LO: The music that we were listening to from Thailand was called Shadow Music because The Shadows [a British instrumental band] was one of the first groups to have a world tour. A lot of people around the world were inspired by The Shadows.

We tend to use food analogies. No matter what your base is— whether it’s a meat or a vegetable—you’ll add spices to it. You’ll find spices from different parts of the world and then, you’ll try them out. There’s no reason not to see what works together. The band’s name is taken from a Thai word. What led you to select it?

MS: We had gotten our first gig and we needed to call ourselves something. Laura Lee was trying to learn some Thai words on Rosetta Stone and “khruangbin” was one of her favorites to say. [The word literally translates to “engine fly,” although it’s also used for airplane.] I knew that she was really digging this word “khruangbin,” so that’s what we decided to call ourselves. We figured, “No one’s going to care anyway. It’s not like we’re going to be touring the world.”

So we just called it whatever the hell we wanted, without any thought about whether or not it was going to be hard to pronounce or anything like that. We didn’t consider if it would be easily Googleable or not. This was right in the thick of every band calling themselves “The” something. Some of those names were cool, but if you wanted to learn more about a band called “The Chairs,” you’d probably end up with an Ikea link in your search results.

But we were just like, “Fuck it.” Years later, I came across this band from Thailand called Potato. They’re a huge band in Thailand and they’re called Potato because they picked a random American word. I was like, “Wow, that’s really similar to what we did.”

Were the wigs part of the equation from the get-go ?

DJ: That was from the very first show. Mark had played in a lot of bands around the Houston music scene and everyone knew each other. So he just wanted a different look. Laura wanted the same thing. It was also a safety net. You could hide behind the bangs and the wigs could act a barrier between you and the audience. It could help you play more confidently. It is the same reason people wear shades—to create a barrier.

It wasn’t a calculated thing at all. We just showed up and we were like, “OK, cool. Let’s play a show.” It became a big talking point early on because people would ask me: “Where’s your wig, dude?” Since I wasn’t wearing one, people couldn’t figure out if the two of people in the band were actually wearing them. They’d ask themselves: “Why are two people wearing wigs and not this other person?”

What’s interesting is, many years ago, a friend of mine was talking about bands and musicians and he said to me: “If someone can take a pencil and draw a picture of you, and people can immediately know who it is just by that drawing, then you’re in a really good spot.” That always stuck with me. Fast forward 15 years, when I see all these drawings of us as a band, it’s undeniable who it is just because of our combination of features. You have these two long dark-haired figures and you have this one bald-headed figure with a beard. And, if you know who we are, then it’s undeniably Khruangbin.

Have you ever been tempted to cut bait on the wigs?

MS: You finish how you start, man. You can do the whole reinventing your image thing all the time and that’s totally a vibe; I respect artists who do that. But we created a look for ourselves. It was just so I could get onstage and play in this band and no one would come to the show with any kind of preconceived notion of who I was or what it was supposed to sound like. No one recognized us, which is super wild because we were playing in front of people we’d known for 20 years—it was perfect.

I modeled that look after Turkish psych-rockers like Erkin Koray and those cats with big, Black Sabbath-like hair and bangs covering up the eyes. That was essentially my lookbook.

It became our image. When someone hires Khruangbin or wants to talk to Khruangbin, we need to look like we’re supposed to look. When we make appearances or do in-person interviews, I’m going to look like the guy onstage. I’m not going to look like normal me because that’s not the dude onstage.

I also took a page from Marilyn Manson’s book. Whenever you saw Marilyn Manson back in the days when he was hot shit, you always saw Marilyn Manson. You never saw Brian Warner. And, when he takes [his costume] off, he can just blend into the crowd, and that’s great. I love that. I love that I can play a show, walk off of the stage, change, walk into the crowd and no one will recognize me at all.

How has the band’s visual aesthetic evolved since that first gig?

LO: It’s grown relatively organically. But there was definitely an intention. At the beginning, the wigs and everything were a part of us being in disguise onstage because everybody knew us in Houston. We were opening up for a big Houston artist [Robert Ellis and we kind of wanted to come out on stage like aliens.

Before our first show, we had a rehearsal. We went to DJ’s house, and I showed up with high heels on, and I started doing my little moves. They both looked at me, and I was like, “I’ve been practicing in a mirror because I want to make sure that I look good.” I love math and I think about the different ways that math really plays a part in my life now—limiting how much can go wrong, limiting the possibility of error. [She is a former elementary-school math teacher.] So for our shows, it’s like, “How many things can I drill into myself so I don’t have to think about them.” With the outfits, I know that I’m going to look shiny. I know that I’ve got my moves down. I practice the songs a million times so that, while I’m up there, I can just engage. I’m not worried about the other stuff.

We were a purely instrumental band at the beginning. So the question was: “How can we be captivating.” That was especially true early on because we were mostly playing showcases. If you’re playing in between other bands, you start to think, “What’s going to make us stand out from them?” Obviously, musically, there’s always something, but it’s also like when you go to a fancy restaurant and they serve you food presented in a certain way. If your sandwiches are cut into triangles instead of rectangles, it’s a different experience.

Playing South by Southwest, where you’re competing with a thousand other bands, you think to yourself, “What are we going to do to make people stop, look and listen when they walk by?” The wigs and the costumes are what make people stop, and then they hear the music and they’re like, “Oh, this weirdly looks like this.”

I made this statement at our very first show that I would never wear the same outfit twice, and I’ve stuck to it. At the time, it was because I thought, “If a few images of us playing go online and I’m wearing a different outfit in every one of them, then it will look like we have played a lot of shows.” But then, we got our first big tour, and it’s like, “Crap, how do I find 36 outfits?”

But, the visual thing is a thing. Especially at festivals, where people are seeing so many bands or musicians at once, you think, “What are you going to do to put on a show?”

Shifting to the current album, particularly the use of vocals, did you go into it thinking it was going to be a little bit different from your previous records?

DJ: We don’t have any expectations when we start a record. We basically approach each record as a blank slate—a clean canvas— and wherever it ends up, it ends up. For this record, we didn’t have the luxury of having sketches we had already prepared because we were touring so extensively.

For us, the road doesn’t give us the time and space to write properly, although it does help us become tighter musically—we learn each other’s nuances and generally lock in better. When we play shows, we try to approach every night almost like a DJ set, where we’re playing these songs for an audience and we just happen to have instruments instead of turntables. So we play for the crowd and we try to make sure our sets start in a certain manner. We want to end up in a place where it makes sense. There’s kind of an art to the show design and how the energy rises and goes down. In a sense, that also influences what you’re recording because you’re conscious of tempo and flow.

But when we entered the studio, we didn’t have any expectations. You kind of just start walking and, when you get where you’re going, then you’re there.

MS: I was told: “You’re going to have more time than you’ve ever had to work on this record,” and I was like, “Thank God.” All I really wanted was time to work on our music. And they were like, “We’re going to get you into the studio and you’re going to record, and then you’ll have all the time you need,” and I’m like, “Wait, you’re going to give me the time after we record? How does that make any sense? You’re not supposed to write music after you record it.” That just meant we had tons of time in post. I hate making records in post. I want to do it live, I want to come in ready. I want to have the songs, fix the songs, do a little bit of mixing, do the production and vocal overdubs and then be out the door and done.

Now, the most important part of any record to me, is the bass and the drums, so we spent a lot of time working on that. I didn’t focus on my guitar parts. I ended up playing rhythm on a bunch of songs, thinking, “I’m going to use the time in post to overdub these different guitar parts.” But when we went back into the studio again, instead of working out these new guitar parts, I ended up working with Laura Lee and sorting out the vocal parts and lyrics. A lot of the rhythm guitar parts laid down the space for a vocal on top of them. I wasn’t trying to shoehorn guitar melodies into everything. That’s so lame. I don’t really like guitar players who just want to play on everything. It’s like, “Dude, chill, give up the space.” So we went down a path and we wanted to follow that path wherever it went. And that’s what you hear on the record. I really like how it came out.

LO: I knew there would be some songs with vocals, but I didn’t know that it would feature vocals the way that it does. Other than having bass, guitar and drums there really isn’t a rule about what Khruangbin should sound like. We have to have bass, guitar and drums—those are all recorded live in our barn—but everything else is kind of fair game.

We went to our barn in May, with nothing written and recorded. We came up with the instrumental parts of the songs, and we didn’t come back until November. It was the first time that we hadn’t done an album in one sitting. So we had some time away and, during that time away, I wrote a lot of the lyrics. When we came back to the studio to work on the vocals and any supplemental instrumentation that we wanted to put on, I had words to throw at the wall. I think that was part of why they ended up being such a big part of the album. We all liked the way they sounded. I was definitely on a high, creatively. So I threw myself in.

Did the lyrics come in fully formed? Had you previously written poetry, short stories or the like?

LO: It all originated with pen-to-paper journaling. They were not in any sort of lyrical or poetic format whatsoever. When I was really young, I wanted to be a writer because I really liked reading. I remember, at some point, it clicked for me that, if I wanted to be a writer, then I had to live through some stories to write about. That spirit has led me on a lot of adventures. I didn’t realize, until recently, that I have actually already lived an adventurous life, full of stories worth writing down—if just for myself. So I wrote as many of them as I could.

So that is what we used. The instrumental part of the music always comes first. So when we were in the studio listening to each song—based on the vibe, feeling or tone of the song—I would flip through these pages and see if there was a story or a word or anything else that seemed to fit the tone. I would highlight, underline or write those words on a separate page, pass them around to Mark and DJ and that was how we would go about it.

What prompted you to write the lyrics to “Pelota” in Spanish?

LO: I had used those words, pretty much verbatim—in English—in my journaling. I really liked what they meant to me. Unfortunately, “I want to be a ball” doesn’t sound great. It doesn’t sing very well. I remember we hit a wall in the creative process. We decided to call it a night, and we left the studio, but I still had some energy left. Mark had helped me set up a little living room studio at the place where I was staying and I just went at it. I decided to try the song in Spanish so I called my mom because she speaks fluent Spanish and I don’t. I asked her: “Do these words mean this?” And she was like, “Yeah, but it makes no sense.” I said, “That’s fine, but does it actually translate to this?” She said, yes, so I said, “Perfect, I’m going into the studio and trying it tomorrow.” Everybody was on board. Pelota is just so much more fun to sing than ball.

“Time (You and I)” sounds like Tom Tom Club to me. Was that band a reference point?

MS: I can totally hear it. I love Tom Tom Club. I love Tina Weymouth’s awesome bass lines. She’s a great bass player. She has awesome, fun bass lines. That’s hard. How many bass players can you think of that have fun bass lines? There are tons of deadly grooves and some really funky bass lines. But her bass lines are pure fun, and I love that. But I think the touchstone for “Time (You and I)” was that I really wanted to have a song with a disco breakdown on the new record.

Another favorite of mine is “Shida.” It sounds similar to what we were doing on the last record. It’s like a continuation. It’s the most arranged tune on the record—the hardest one to perform. Every day that we were in the barn, we would try to nail that song. I don’t think we got it until maybe the second to last day because there’s some specific, intricate rhythm stuff that’s happening between the drums and the bass. I was inspired by listening to Persian pop and funk from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, where it sounds like the band plays hard rock on the weekends. There’s something tough about the bass and the drums on that music but it’s backing up this heartbreakingly gorgeous melody sung by Googoosh. So I wanted that balance between some tough drums and bass, and a heartbreaking melody.

DJ: “Time (You and I)” and “If There Is No Question” are two of my favorite tracks on the record because a really good friend of ours, Cleo Sample, came through and played keys and organ. He’s an extraordinary keyboard player, but he’s a bit of a recluse and kind of a ghost. [For a while, Sample toured in D’Angelo’s band.] At one point, we played at the same church—he played keyboards, I played organ, Mark was on guitar and we had two other guys on bass and drums. Everyone knows his legend, but he’s hard to nail down. So when he came in and played on the record, that was a really big deal for us.

What has it been like releasing a record during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly since you can’t tour in support of it?

DJ: It seems like we recorded it ages ago, with the way time has kind of slowed down with quarantine and everything. That’s what the lyrics in “Time” actually speak to. So it was kind of prophetic in a sense.

Quarantine has been difficult in so many ways, but the one thing it has allowed us to do is sit back and exhale. We poured all our energy and souls into Mordechai and sometimes you have to fill the tank. Houston is such a multicultural environment, as you’ve expressed.

When it comes to social and political issues that prompt divisiveness, has the band felt an impulse to speak out or perhaps simply offer music as a healing salve?

DJ: Khruangbin, as a band, has typically stayed out of politics. If you know who we are and you listen to our music—and you know our ethos—then you know where we stand.

As a Black man, it’s important for me to say something in regard to the issues of police brutality against people of color. I’ve lived that experience. Mark being pulled over by a police officer is not the same experience as me being pulled over by a police officer if I’m driving the car. I’ve been well aware of that my entire life. There’s an entire protocol that I follow when I get pulled over to ensure my safety, and it’s been that way since I first got behind the wheel of a car at 16 years old.

That’s just a part of being a person of color in the United States of America. I, for one, am happy that it’s being addressed in such a dramatic fashion. We’ve been a little too nice in the past about how we’ve gone about expressing the way we feel, and we’ve been ignored. We’ve had athletes like Colin Kaepernick try to protest peacefully and the story was spun to be that he was being disrespectful to the flag and the troops. In actuality, he was protesting the very thing that we’re protesting today. In this climate, it makes it really hard to spin something when you watch someone basically suffocated for eight minutes and 46 seconds. It’s really hard to ignore that and it’s not too much to ask for someone to be held accountable for their actions. So I think it’s important to lend my voice and do what I can.