Texas-based trio Khruangbin finds familiarity in the unknown.
While a lot of songwriters tend to gravitate towards writing what they know, Khruangbin has taken the opposite path.
The Texas trio has made a name for themselves illuminating the unknown, playing their own variation of '60s Thai funk, interwoven with hues of obscure Middle Eastern and Mediterranean soul. The result is, somehow, astonishingly effortless: Deep, roomy grooves haloed by vocal textures and guitar lines that seem to sing.
“There's a real element to us letting music happen,” said bassist Laura Lee. “It's like journaling exercises where people put their pen to paper and can't pick up their pens. When you just give yourself the freedom to see what comes out, really beautiful things can happen. Over the period of a few days, those moods change, you hit different notes of your world.”
Following the release of their 2017 sophomore record, “Con Todo El Mundo,” the trio quickly began selling out global tours, hopscotching between festival appearances in India, South Korea, and throughout Europe and the US. It seems like a quick ascent, but the trio's roots are more than a decade deep. Guitarist Mark Speer met drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson in Houston, Texas in 2005 through playing in the band at St. John's Church (known for being Beyoncé's childhood church). Along the way, Speer became friends with Lee, and by 2010 the three had become Khruangbin.
“We're definitely a Texas band,” said Lee. “It's a thing most people are confused by. Like, how does a Texas band play Thai funk? They're surprised that's where we're from. But Houston has been [one of] the most diverse city for several years, we were around different cultures all the time. You go to Thai restaurants, you hear Thai music, it's not inaccessible to be in Houston and get that.”
It wasn't just their homebase diversity; Speer's interest in an array of music cultures also began to distill into Khruangbin's sound.
“Mark's like an ethnomusicologist, a real historian and nerd when it comes to music,” said Lee. “He uncovered a lot of Middle Eastern funk and soul two years ago. We listened to it on repeat going into the recording of [Con Todo El Mundo]. It was a sort of intention we wanted it to be in our heads.”
Stacking many influences into just one sound could easily become a sonic mess, but Khruangbin creates a seamless tapestry, one with unique tonal arrangements: Vocals are tucked into the background, and Speer's trebly guitar melodies sit front and center, as though you could sing along with them.
“A lot of the guitar lines take the place of a vocal melody in a traditional way, so the human vocals end up being a texture,” said Lee. “I listen to a lot of instrumental music or in a language I can't understand, and it helps me focus on what I'm doing.”
“So many times at shows people will tell us, ‘I listen to Khruangbin when I study.’ When you have a prominent vocal line in a language you understand, you're taken out of where you are.”
While so much of Khruangbin is built on understanding the unknown, one of their largest influences comes from a place they know well: The trio's been rehearsing and recording in the same barn on the rural outskirts of Houston since the start. While their influences stem from all over, the barn itself in a lot of ways has defined the trio's overarching sonic feel.
“We record in a barn in the middle of nowhere — not nowhere, it's beautiful-where — there's nobody around, no wifi, not much phone service,” said Lee. “I think the music definitely sounds like the barn to me. I can't unhear it. People don't know where the music is, they can't place it, and I think it's because they haven't been in a barn in the hill country.”
“Traditionally now music is recorded in a studio, and there are some incredible studios, but usually they are really clean and the sound can be really isolated and that's usually preferred. It makes things easier, but we prefer to go dirty on that front,” said Lee. “We have very few mics: There's some on each instrument and a room one, and one out in the field with the cows. That's the way we record. Sometimes the barn creaks.”
“It totally reads dusty to me. It literally is dusty.”
Through both the known and unknown, Khruangbin has become its own world, intimate and vivid.
“Mark and I and DJ all believe in limitations,” said Lee. “We only have three instruments, so our limitation of what we're able to do onstage, we have to be able to do it with those instruments. With that you can really make something great. It works for us.”