Khruangbin: Chasing the Eternal Sunrise

Bill Murphy on January 26, 2018

Drop a needle on Khruangbin’s latest album—and really, you should drop a needle on it because this music is meant for spinning on vinyl—and you’ll see visions. They might manifest as the shimmering waves of heat on a desert horizon, or the bustling traffic at a downtown Bangkok roundabout or even the flickering screen of a grindhouse cinema double feature. Whatever your take, Khruangbin embraces it; after all, as co-founder and lead guitarist Mark Speer suggests, he and his bandmates are still mapping out the mission themselves.

“When we first started the band, we wanted to have a formula,” he says. “It’s like, ‘This is what we do, and we’re not gonna try and go outside the box too much. We’re gonna explore the box we’re in. I’ve always been a big fan of that. I used to be in bands where it was like, ‘Man, we’ve gotta think outside the box!’ And all I’m thinking is: ‘You guys don’t even know.’ Music should never be just for the sake of being experimental. Before you even start, you have to know what you’re experimenting with first.”

As origin stories go, Khruangbin’s is quirky to say the least. Start with the name: It’s actually Thai for “airplane” (literally, “engine fly”), signifying the group’s love of vintage Thai soul and funk music, as well as the jet-setting range of influences that have provided a limitless source of inspiration for their liquified, hypnotic sound. Speer first met drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Houston—well-known as the house of worship where Beyoncé grew up singing. At the time, Johnson was playing organ; he and Speer performed together at St. John’s for nearly a decade before it occurred to them that they might want to start a band of their own. 

“We would hang out every Tuesday after rehearsal at a pub called Rudyard’s,” Speer recalls. “We’d have Mexican Cokes and eat burgers and just talk about music. Then I met Laura Lee through a mutual friend, and she started meeting us there too. So we all hung out and ate food and talked about music before we ever played a note. As it turned out, me and Laura started Khruangbin with the intent of exploring these other types of music that we’d been listening to, especially Thai funk.”

Back then, the internet was quickly morphing into a wide-open playground for a devoted crate digger like Speer, who was constantly on the lookout for a new musical fix. He found it in blogs like Awesome Tapes from Africa, and specifically in Monrakplengthai (“I love Thai music”), launched by Thai music enthusiast Peter Doolan in 2008.

It didn’t take long for Laura Lee to catch on. While still a college student in Houston, she began teaching herself to play bass by night. “I went through a t of insomnia in 2010 where I just couldn’t sleep,” she says. “I’ve always been somebody who’d rather make the most of it than just lay there, so I basically started playing at night—which turned out to be great because then I could really focus with no distractions.”

Starting with the Jamaican dub records recommended by Speer and looking to Roots Radics bassist Errol “Flabba” Holt for inspiration, Lee perfected a loping, behind- the-beat feel that served her well when she and Speer first decamped to a barn on the Speer family’s property in rural Burton, Texas, now reverently known as The Farm. Khruangbin’s early demos, built around Speer’s looped breakbeats, drew heavily from the Thai funk and soul ethos they’d absorbed with such fervor. When Speer and Lee realized they needed a drummer, Johnson stepped up to complete the trio.

“Honestly, what makes us special is that we all have extremely different backgrounds,” Johnson says. “I grew up playing in church, and around my teens I started getting into hip-hop and R&B. I started out playing keys and then some bass before I got to drums. It wasn’t until Khruangbin that I really picked up the drums again. But a lot of the stuff  that Mark and Laura are introducing me to, that music is new to me every day. In fact there’s not a lot that Mark doesn’t know, so when I play something for him that he hasn’t heard, I’m jumping up and down!” 

Con Todo El Mundo (“With All the World”) picks up directly where the band’s 2015 debut The Universe Smiles Upon You left off, at least in terms of sonic texture. Lee has described The Farm as the band’s “spiritual home,” and with good reason: Not only do the corrugated surfaces and open spaces of the barn where the band records provide a natural reverb that makes everything sound as though it was tracked in Studio One in Jamaica circa 1975 (with significant thanks to the recording savvy of engineer Steve Christensen), but the location itself also proved to be pivotal when it came to writing new material for the album.

“We needed some crunch writing time in the way that Mark and I used to write,” Lee explains. During the writing phase of The Universe Smiles Upon You, Lee had been living in London, which necessitated sending tracks back and forth online. “Mark would send me a drum loop, and I’d send him a bass line. He’d write guitar over it, and then we’d edit each other. [For the new record] we thought we could just go to the barn and play, and something would evolve. But it didn’t quite work out that way.” 

Speer and Lee sent DJ and their engineer back to Houston and hunkered down at The Farm, each in their own room, to trade ideas at a distance, the way they had before. “We just went back to our original process,” she says. “The first morning, it took us maybe an hour and a half to write ‘Maria También.’ We sent it to DJ, and he was like, ‘Oh, yeah— this is clearly what needed to happen.’”

“Maria También” set the tone for the sessions, and wound up being the first single from the album. From Speer’s perspective, it emerged from the band’s focused listening to “an awful lot of Iranian, Turkish and Spanish music.” Of course, given the song’s decidedly surf-driven swing, there were other influences at play that Speer simply couldn’t resist.

“I wanted to make Khruangbin’s ‘Apache,’” he says, referring to the ‘60s instrumental classic that became a surf anthem at the hands of Link Wray, Dick Dale, the Ventures and many more. “I was going for that because the guitar part in ‘Apache’ is so iconic but, to be honest, my experience with Dick Dale is extremely limited. I know him from ‘Misirlou,’ which is an old Middle Eastern song. I was listening to this Turkish psych group from the ‘70s, and they were playing a similar pattern on the [lute-like] saz. I thought it was awesome, so I went for that feeling on ‘Maria También.’”

When the band, and Lee in particular, expanded the scope of the song’s musical roots into the making of the video, the narrative took on another life. With the help of creative director Sanam Petri, the idea was to piece together archival clips from Iranian TV that showed various songwriters, singers, dancers and artists—all of them women—at the height of their popularity, before the country’s 1979 revolution nearly erased them from history. It’s a poignant, and political, reminder of the creative power of women, especially in the context of recent events.

“Obviously, there’s something to that,” Lee says, “but I think, more than anything, it’s just historical. We’re just showing these people in a way that isn’t what you see on TV—in a way that’s actually more familiar to something we know. It’s presenting a part of the world in its color and its freedom of expression, and then also showing how that was taken away. It is political because of what happened in Iran, but it’s more just telling a story, which gets lost sometimes.”

If there’s a unifying storyline behind Con Todo El Mundo, then it’s more autobiographical. “Lady and Man” comes across as a travelogue of the band’s newfound influences, with call-and-response guitar parts and harmonies that sound distinctly Mediterranean. “Evan Finds the Third Room” is a discofied ode to their tour manager who sorted out a hotel booking while the musicians were feeling particularly delirious on the road. “Friday Morning,” one of the few songs with discernible vocals, pieces together tunes that Speer wrote in church—a cosmic, soulful and tempo-changing vamp that encapsulates how symbiotic the band has become as a unit.

The album title, as well as the two songs “Cómo Me Quieres” and “Cómo Te Quiero,” were meant as a tribute to Lee’s Mexican- American grandfather. “I’d been thinking about him a lot,” she says. “He used to ask me as a little girl, ‘Cómo me quieres?’ which is ‘How much do you love me?’ I’d come up with different answers like, ‘Oh, a little bit, grandpa,’ and he wouldn’t stop asking me until I said, ‘Con todo el mundo,’ which is ‘with all the world.’ So that’s for him, but it also means something more, because we’re influenced by the world too.” 

As a sum of their influences, Khruangbin can’t be easily categorized, which, in a way, insulates the band from the accusation of “cultural appropriation.” If anything, given their individual talents— from Speer’s adventurously melodic guitar style to Lee’s in-the-pocket bass lines and Johnson’s wide-open use of space on the drums (and perhaps more important, his ever-steady, loop-like precision, which hews close to a hip-hop mode of beatmaking)—it’s clear that their musical horizons are still expanding. In a fraught time when nationalist and isolationist tendencies around the world are goading the most susceptible among us 

to give in to our basest fears, Khruangbin’s espousal of universality comes across almost as a throwback, but a refreshingly positive one. Sometimes in looking to the past, the way ahead suddenly becomes that much clearer.

“People are always asking how we feel about the president, or the direction the country is headed in,” Lee observes, citing the band’s frequent touring overseas, “but we want to just promote unity and a boundary-less world. That’s the thing to stand behind right now. To me, that’s the better message, and if our music does instill feelings of peace for some people, or give them calm from something, then that’s incredible.”

Of course, the diverse musical legacy of Texas—with its wide range of styles and sounds—is another guiding force. And in an ideal world, as the three restless souls in Khruangbin see it, that’s the mindset that will bring people closer together.

“I grew up with people from all walks of life, from all over the world,” Speer reflects. “I didn’t know that wasn’t the norm. And the makeup of Khruangbin is just totally Houston. It’s in the music we play and the way we mix it all together. Oddly enough, just us having an integrated band could be seen as a political statement, but I don’t really get into that. I’m staying away from Facebook because everyone is looking for something to nitpick about. Shouldn’t we all be trying to figure out a way to work together? That’s why the music is so important. I mean, you can hear it in the Thai music we liked, which was heavily influenced by American funk and soul, and then reflected back onto us. It goes back and forth. It becomes like a mirror against a mirror, and I really like that concept. This is a tiny little rock we live on.” 

This article originally appeared in the January/February issue of Relix.