Cultures Collide On Khruangbin’s Highly Funky New Album, “Mordechai”

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On paper, Khruangbin doesn’t seem like a natural candidate for indie stardom. An eclectic funk-rock trio that originated in Houston in the early ’10s, the band plays largely instrumental jams influenced by R&B and dance music from far-flung corners of the globe, including Thailand, Iran, and Jamaica. It’s the sort of music that attracts vinyl obsessives but rarely a mass audience.

On stage, the three band members also seem like a strange fit: Guitarist Mark Speer and bassist Laura Lee wear long black wigs and vamp with low-key demeanors, while drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson stoically lays down a simple but steady backbeat. Without a flamboyant singer to act as a focus, all of the attention instead is centered on the band’s airy, vaguely psychedelic, and frequently pretty meanderings.

And then there’s the band name, which many fans inevitably pronounce incorrectly. (It’s KRUNG-bin, and it means “airplane” in Thai.)

Nevertheless, over the course of three albums, including the new Mordechai out today, Khruangbin has proven to be universally popular in seemingly divergent scenes. Upon the release of their 2015 debut The Universe Smiles Upon You, they became stars on the UK DJ circuit, where their laidback grooves soundtracked the twilight hours of all-night dance parties. In the U.S., meanwhile, Khruangbin first gained favor in the jamband scene, even playing the annual Jam Cruise in 2019. A few months after that, they were a sizable draw amid a more mainstream pop and indie audience at Coachella.

“I often say we’re the band that did everything wrong,” Johnson says. “We picked the band name that no one could pronounce. Two of the band members have a style, one of them doesn’t look like he belongs. We record in a barn that’s not acoustically treated, it’s not a real studio. Initially one of the band members lived across the Atlantic Ocean from the other two. It was just all wrong.”

For Mordechai — named after a mysterious, philosophical stranger that Lee encountered while camping in London, because it’s just that kind of band — Khruangbin once again decamped to a barn owned by Speer’s family located about an hour outside of Houston, where they made their first two records. Their songwriting method was also unchanged: They compose music together (along with the handful of lyrics that dot the record) and then work through the songs until they can lay down complete takes live. The trick is to make it sound as though the music is flowing as naturally as the breeze through the cow pasture outside the barn doors. They put a lot of hard work into sounding effortless.

The results speak for themselves: Mordechai is the backyard barbecue album of the summer, full of uplifting funk and chilled-out optimism for a time desperately in need of both. To discuss the making of the album, as well as their unlikely journey to success, I spoke with Lee, Speer, and Johnson separately. But even apart, they proved to be oddly in sync, particularly when the subject of Sade came up.

Are you surprised that Khruangbin caught on like it has? It doesn’t exactly seem like a formula for success.

Mark Speer: When we started with the band, I’d pretty much given up any hope that I’d “make it” in the industry. I’d been trying for so many years, in different bands and different roles. I’d definitely given that up. At this point, fuck it. Do what we want. Who cares? No one’s going to give a shit anyway. So let’s call it what we want let’s do it our way.

Laura Lee: I listen to a lot of music and I feel like I have good taste so if it was moving me, hopefully it will resonate with other people, too. I’ve always believed in it. I was going to push it as hard as I could because I thought it was meaningful. But in no way did I think quitting my TA job was going to turn into what it did.

Khraungbin seems uncommonly democratic for a band. You all write the music together, you write the lyrics together, and there’s no real front person. You even all do interviews with the media. Was that a deliberate decision to keep any tensions at bay?

LL: I think it probably started organically but as time has gone on it’s definitely something that’s thought through. Because it’s three instruments and we started out as an instrumental band, every part is equally weighted.

Donald “DJ” Johnson: Before we were a band, we were friends first. That’s always a good thing. It’s no different than a marriage. If you’re friends with your significant other before you were married, there’s a good chance that marriage is going to last and withstand the troubles that come later on because you have a good foundation of friendship.

MS: I know when we were first starting out, there was talk about getting a singer. Like, “Oh fuck, if we get a singer, it’s going to be all about the singer.” It should be about the music, and I’d rather just be about the music and just be about what we do. If that means that we don’t get to be popular, big deal. I wasn’t really searching for popularity anyway.

LL: We’re kind of lucky that it’s three of us. Because if Mark and I are having a debate about something then we have a tiebreaker built-in.

An oft-told story about the band is that Laura started playing bass not long before you formed, and DJ hadn’t played drums in many years when he joined. How do you think that influenced your sound?

LL: I think that there’s a lot of beauty in naiveté and simplicity. Especially when I listen to those early tapes of Khruangbin recordings, there’s a real childlike playfulness for me, on my bass lines. And I think for DJ, it was an enthusiasm to play an instrument that he was being reacquainted with.

DJ: There are flashy drummers that could do all kinds of amazing things. I’m just not that guy. I mean, that was part of the reason I stopped playing drums in the first place because everyone in Houston that I was seeing were playing circles around me. They could do all these amazing things and they had so much speed and agility and so many great ideas. And I’m still not that guy. If you go on YouTube, you’ll find someone doing something amazing and they’re like only seven years old. I think stylistically, what I do, it worked well for what the band needed starting off and especially moving forward.

Khruangbin draws musical inspiration from funk, soul, and dance music from all around the world. What distinguishes funk music from, say, Thailand or Iran from American funk?

LL: I think it’s the interpretation. I feel the language of particular countries greatly influences the music from those countries, so you’ll find that in countries like Thailand where the language is tonal, that the melodic elements of their songs are very unique, at least to us in the Western world. And then, in places like West Africa, you’ll find certain rhythmic patterns that seem more complex because their language happens to be more rhythmic sounding. In Iran, where this culture and their language is so romantic — and when I say romantic I don’t necessarily mean love, I mean it’s heavy — you’ll have these really almost metal-sounding bass lines.

MS: What we really like is the collision of culture. I like hearing music that is a collision of the influence of the West with the tradition of that region. Let’s just say that it’s the early ’60s. You see this group from England who’s been touring the world, and they come through your town, and you’re like, “Whoa, this is so cool, man.” So, you and your buddies go get some drums and a bass and a guitar. But although you’ve been influenced by this Western group, you can’t turn off your genetic memory, that built-in memory of place and time and a region. So you’re going to start playing the music you know, music you grew up hearing, but now you’re playing it on Western electrified instruments. It creates this collision of culture, and you get things like shadow music in Thailand where it sounds like surf rock, but you’re playing Thai scales. You’re singing in Thai. You’re using Thai rhythms. But you’re using a drum kit, electric bass, electric guitar. I just love that collision.

You’ve talked about how Mordechai also has a strong influence from Houston. How did Houston shape Khruangbin?

LL: We regularly talk about the international influence from Houston, which is a huge part of it. You have the medical center, which is considered essentially the best in the states and the world. And a really huge cancer researching center that draws people from all over the world to come there, as well as the oil and gas industry. It was very common for anybody from Houston to have friends from Pakistan or from Russia or from wherever because their parents were doctors or oil and gas people. Therefore, you’re hanging out with them, hearing what their parents play when you’re at their homes.

DJ: We didn’t realize that the rest of the world wasn’t like this until we started moving around. I know places that are on the coast, like New York, LA specifically, San Francisco, they get credited with being multicultural and diverse, but Houston is rarely talked about in that regard, but it’s really one of those places. There’s some really interesting fusions that happen as a result of cultures clashing here in the city. It’s one of those places where you can go to a strip center and you’ll have a super authentic bomb Vietnamese spot, and they’re serving authentic food, and over the loud speaker they’re playing authentic Vietnamese music. Then you’ll go right next door and there’ll be a super dope African spot where they’re serving Ethiopian food and they’re playing authentic Ethiopian music.

You’ve recorded all of your albums in the same barn. Why?

DJ: Khruangbin always plays to the room. That’s one of our things, no matter where we are, we try to play to our environment. If we’re on a stage at a festival to a lot of people and it’s a party atmosphere, we’ll play a little bit louder and a little bit more intense. If we’re playing in a small living room, maybe a hundred people, we’ll play really quiet and kind of bring people in. In the same way, in the way we record in this environment, being a barn, we can open the doors to the barn and you can see just grass and open fields as far as the eye can see. Big sky, just cows, it’s really peaceful, really quiet out there. You’re playing for the cows. If you play bad music, the cows are going to go away.

I’ve seen Khruangbin grouped in with the jam scene, perhaps because you’ve played the Jam Cruise and once opened for Trey Anastasio’s solo band. Do you have any affinity for jam bands?

LL: We’re not a jam band, in the sense that we play structured songs with parts. Whereas the jam scene doesn’t and it has much more of a jazz, improvisational aesthetic to it.

MS: I really have a big soft spot in my heart for the jam community. It was one of the first scenes to really give us love when we started touring in the states, because prior to that, we had toured overseas. Over there, it’s like the DJ culture was our first audience, essentially. We were known for being that band you put on at the end of the night when you’re coming down after a nonstop dance party. So, we got a lot of love through those folks. Living in the states, the first crowd that gave us love was the jam band scene. I was like, what? Wild.

LL: The fans really, really care about music. And a lot of that music is instrumental which I think serves us well. I see a similarity between jam band festivals and DJ culture. Because in both worlds, a performance is very much a journey and it’s non-stop music from start to finish. So people in the audience can bliss out and be taken on that ride where the sequencing of it is really thoughtful.

You’ve toured throughout America, but you’ve also played all over the world, including countries where a lot of bands don’t play, including numerous countries in Asia and South America. What are audiences like here versus there?

LL: I’d say America is the rowdiest, which also comes with people talking during the show, which isn’t a bad thing, everybody is having a good time. But there are countries like Belgium in particular, and I’ll say Europe as a whole, they’re just really attentive. They don’t cheer as much but they also don’t talk as much. I feel like in Asia as a whole, the audiences are really excited. I think because there aren’t that many western bands that come. And then in South America, especially Argentina, they have amazing claps. Like, their rhythm on clapping is second to none. So, like when we play “Maria También,” the claps we do in the background have never gone off so well.

I’m going to ask all three of you the same question, and we’ll see if you give the same answer: In the past you have collaborated with Leon Bridges and the Wu-Tang Clan. Who would be your dream collaboration?

LL: Sade

DJ: Sade, 100 percent.

MS: Duh.

LL: We always say Sade. I mean, that’s our dream. She’s like a unicorn of music and she kind of inspires us from just how people see her, in addition to the way her music sounds. She’s iconic but she’s also not super out there in the world. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding her.

DJ: I grew up listening to Sade. I mean, I was one of the most awkward kids ever, but I would take my boombox into the bathroom when I would take showers in the morning and I would listen to Sade while getting ready for school. It was either Sade or James Brown.

MS: She’s priceless. There’s a concept in design, in presentation, where it’s like, you go to a shop and there’s a billion things in the window. You know that place is going to be pretty inexpensive. You go to a shop and there’s one thing in the window, you know that place is going to be very expensive. I don’t know how much it costs to get Sade to come play your event, but it seems less like it’s a matter of money and more like you must complete this mission. And you have to go and learn something about yourself and come back a more enlightened person before you can unlock the Sade achievement. She just has this vibe.

Mordechai is out now on Dead Oceans. Get it here.

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