Bubblin’ Up: Khruangbin
The exciting Texan trio go deep on the story behind their unmistakable Thai-influenced, bass-heavy, psychedelic outpourings.
Chances are many of you may already have heard of Khruangbin. The predominately instrumental Texan-born trio, formed of Laura Lee, Mark Speer, and Donald “DJ” Johnson, have made quite a name for themselves over recent years, acknowledged for their unmistakable Thai-influenced, bass-heavy, psychedelic outpourings. It’s impossible not to like them.
The adventures started around eight years ago. Laura Lee, a Math teacher turned bass player, began experimenting with the instrument after meeting Mark, who has been a guitarist by trade since the mid-’90s. “He showed me the music I should listen to in order to play bass,” Lee explains. “I feel that Khruangbin is still me learning how to play!” Recognising a natural aptitude, and also helping a friend out, Mark invited Lee on tour with his band, who happened to be supporting Bonobo on a series of North America gigs, thus sparking Lee’s desire to pursue a career as a bass player. The first step was to start a band, so they set out to find a drummer, who turned out to be Donald “DJ” Johnson, a friend of Mark’s from a local Church band. Khruangbin was born.
Together they gathered in a local barn in Burton, Texas, and began jamming away, with little direction or sonic intention. A self-titled and self-released 7″ landed in 2010, aimed to help them find gigs, followed soon by เครื่องบิน, before 2014’s A Calf Born In Winter, the title track of which was included in Bonobo’s 2013 Late Night Tales. It was a breakthrough moment—a platform upon which they’ve gone on to release several EPs and two albums, the latest of which arrived only last month and takes inspiration not just from South East Asia but similarly under-discovered funk and soul of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, particularly Iran.
Set to embark on a world tour, beginning with the UK, and still riding the wave of another sumptuous album, Khruangbin feels like a name on everyone’s lips right now. To learn more about where they’ve come from and where they’re going, XLR8R arranged to speak with the trio, in what is their most detailed interview to date.
So there are three of you in the band. What are your respective backgrounds?
LL: I didn’t start playing bass until just before we started Khruangbin. I always tell people that it’s never too late. I was a Math teacher for a long time, and I have a nerdy affinity for numbers and patterns, so perhaps that’s why it suits me. So for me, Khruangbin is the vehicle for me learning how to play.
MS: I’ve been playing guitar and music in a more general sense ever since I was 12 years old. I took piano lessons as a kid, and then knew I wanted to be in a band. Initially, I wanted to play drums, which was my earliest love, and then it’s all grown from there. I’ve been working as a guitarist since the mid-’90s, mostly in a bunch of wide-ranging bands, for which there is a big scene in Houston. It’s hard to bust out of this region, artistically speaking. As strong as the scene is, it can also be limiting.
DJ: I started playing drums when I was three years old. My Mom would have me play along to Barry White records on my tiny drum kit. My drumsticks were the little cardboard things that come off the hangers because they were quieter. Then, I started playing at Church when I was about 10 and concert percussion in an all-state band. Yeah, that’s pretty much where I started.
What was it that brought you together? Did you all share a similar love for similar music?
LL: Mark and DJ played at a gospel Church in Houston for a decade together, and they’d hang out post-rehearsals for burgers at a local pub. After I met Mark years later, I crashed one of their post-rehearsal hangs and never stopped. We’d play darts and usually talk about music, so we formed a friendship based on a similar love of music and being together.
“Since nobody knew who we were, we showed up to the club and nobody recognised us. That was the first time anybody had seen Khruangbin.”
Do all of you originate from Houston, Texas?
MS: That’s correct, yes. The band was started in Burton, Texas; we never played any Khruangbin music outside of the barn in Burton, until our very first show. Since nobody knew who we were, we showed up to the club and nobody recognised us. That was the first time anybody had seen Khruangbin.
When was the band’s first ever show? What was it like?
DJ: Fitzgerald’s, in 2011. It was extremely hot!
LL: It was for Robert Ellis’ record release, opening up for him. Local crowd. Pretty sure everyone was like, “Who the hell are these guys?”
Laura, you said you only started bass just before Khruangbin. Did you learn bass specifically for the project?
LL: No. Mark and I became best friends, and I started playing his bass every time we hung out. Mark loves encouraging people to play music, saw my interest, and he led me down a path to be the player I’ve become. He’d give me records to learn bass to. He actually bought me the bass I still currently play as a graduation present. Shortly after, I went through a fit of insomnia, and I am not the sort of person to sit back and do nothing—so I used my time to learn how to play. Mark ended up landing a tour gig with Yppah, opening up for Bonobo on a North American tour. They needed a bass player and Mark thought I could do it. I was teaching Math at the time, and I came home from school and would practice every single day. I got the gig, quit my job, and went on tour. At the end of the tour, I said to Mark: “This is what I want to do every day. Can we start a band?”
So did Khruangbin start straight after this moment?
And how did DJ become involved?
MS: I met DJ at Church. He plays the organ in a Church band and I was there playing the guitar, in a band. That’s how we met. We were hanging out pretty much every Tuesday after rehearsals and just talking about music and life. And soon after I met Laura, she started coming to post-rehearsal dinner. We all became friends: we just started hanging out and we decided to start a band.
And then came Khruangbin. Your first release came in 2010, but were you practising a long time before this?
LL: Not really. We started the band in late 2010 and I had it in my head that we needed to have music on wax before we played our first show. So we did. That 7″ is super early days for Khruangbin.
Where does the name Khruangbin originate from? What’s the story behind it?
LL: It means “Airplane” in Thai. Mark and I were in a total Thai obsession at the time. I’d been cooking my way through a Thai cookbook. Mark would play Thai cassettes while I cooked, and I got a bootleg copy of Rosetta Stone: Thai. Khruangbin was one of the first words you learn in the program. It was fun to say, so I started saying it all the time… and when we finally needed a word to name the band, there it was.
What do you remember of the first jam session? What was it like?
MS: I remember that I had a little Arabic Casio keyboard set up through a delay pedal. I was playing the drums and Laura Lee was playing bass. It was the middle of the summer in Texas. It was super hot. I pressed record and got the entire day of us playing.
Sonically speaking, were you trying to replicate any sound or style, or was it just a free for all?
LL: Mark was just playing the drums as he wanted, which he really enjoyed because he rarely gets to play them. I was still such a new player. So, I was just fiddling around playing shapes and noises that felt and sounded good to me.
How clear was the vision the band and its sound aesthetic?
LL: There was no plan. Initially, we just set out playing around in a barn.
MS: I actually wanted to be the drummer, because I never got to play drums in a band. We recorded all the stuff and I chopped it all up and played the guitar over it. I was playing in so many groups at the time that used a ton of pedals, and for this one, I didn’t want to use any pedals; I wanted to do it raw and that be it. I wanted to just see what happens.
So how did you go back to the guitar?
MS: It happened quickly. I have too much of a signature to write those parts and have someone else play them.
What did these early experiments sound like? How close were they to what you’re doing today?
MS: Yes. We actually released some of the first stuff we ever made, on a self-titled 7”. It was some the first music we ever made. The first song on the 7″ is also on The Universe Smiles Upon You, our first album and it’s called “August Twelve.” The version on the 7” is just a really early version of that song. It still sounds quite similar but the late one is a lot more refined. I think we’re a lot tighter now.
LL: I think that 7″ sounds really naive but in a really lovely way.
You first released in 2010. Why did you decide to self-release rather than push to labels?
LL: I don’t think we really thought about it. We’d never even played a show. And we’re from Houston. It’s not a city known for having music labels. I just wanted to get our music onto a piece of wax. I didn’t think about anything else.
Were you confident at this stage?
LL: I was confident that I liked the music. That’s all I really know. I was terrified the first show we played, I still am. But I always knew I loved what we were making.
How did you get the track on Bonobo’s Late Night Tales?
LL: It was a big moment. We’d been on tour together and we followed each other on Instagram. I moved to London and I took a picture of where my new place was in London, and he messaged me and asked me what I was doing there. We had tea and I gave him a CD of some of our new material, and he put it in his Late Night Tales. Amazing.
That led to A Calf Born In Winter, your first release on an external label.
LL: It was really the first contact the world had had with Khruangbin. It’s funny because I didn’t really know what Late Night Tales was before it happened. I told Mark when Bonobo messaged me, and he told me that it was amazing.
MS: I thought we were very lucky. I really didn’t expect anything to come of our early work. I really wanted to be involved in a release like that.
And talk to me about the period after this appearance on Bonobo’s Late Night Tales. Did things progress from there very naturally? What happened next?
LL: Late Night Tales approached us about signing to them, we did, and released a single and a couple of EPs building up to the release of The Universe Smiles Upon You.
Were you surprised at the success of the debut LP?
The sound aesthetic of Khruangbin is interesting. Do you all share an interest in psych-rock and Thai music?
LL: I think the music that brought us all together was actually probably R&B-based. We all grew up with different music, but we definitely have a pool of music that speaks to all of us. And talking about it between us makes that like stronger. I think we all love of music that takes you somewhere. Like gospel. It’s not psychedelic according to genre but it does take you somewhere—like psych rock does. Transportive music.
It’s funny that you put three in a room and this is the music that you make. It’s hardly a common style.
MS: It is strange. I think it’s just a sum of its parts. When I was 20 years old, I was into dance music but I wanted to know what the DJs and the electronic musicians in my city were doing. I spent a lot of time hanging out with them, learning how to dig for music. At the same time, I’m playing in some of these bands and some of the innovators were making their own tracks, with DJ equipment; they were pulling a lot from prog-rock at the time. We didn’t call it psych rock at the time. These were the most psychedelic jazz-funk albums.
“It helped, in a way, that Mark was playing drums, an instrument that he wasn’t playing all the time; and I was learning how to play bass. We never set out to be anything. It was simpler than that: they’re gonna play drums and guitar; I am gonna play bass, and we’ll see what happens.”
LL: We really bonded over The Electric Prunes in our early hangout days. But in truth, there was no intention to produce this sound. Only after we had made it did we think about what we were making and realize that influences had affected it. I think as an artist, you have to be playful and not always try to sound like anything in particular. It helped, in a way, that Mark was playing drums, an instrument that he wasn’t playing all the time; and I was learning how to play bass. We never set out to be anything. It was simpler than that: they’re gonna play drums and guitar; I am gonna play bass, and we’ll see what happens.
How does it work with recording nowadays—especially when you were based in London, Laura?
LL: I was in London, and then I moved to LA in 2017—and so did Mark. It doesn’t matter where you are really; all recording is done at the barn. We’re always together when on tour or recording. The drums, the bass, and the guitar are all recorded at the same time, live in a room. The Universe Smiles Upon You was recorded when I was living in London, and I had a nine-five job. I had only a one-week gap and it was during that time that I flew back to Texas to record the album. I said to everyone that if the album didn’t really do much then OK, we made an album; if it doesn’t then I am all in. Fortunately, it worked out.
So you quit your job?
LL: Yeah. Not immediately, but I did. It’s the second time I’ve quit a job to go on tour. This time for the Father John Misty tour in Europe. I quit because we were going to be on tour for several weeks and I couldn’t take much time off. I was working for Wieden+Kennedy at the time. I told them that I was tempted to ask for unpaid leave for a sense of security, but that in truth, I’d hoped that I’d leave for tour and just keep touring. They were the kind of people I could be frank about that sort of thing with. And they said the best advice they could give me was to remove any sort of safety net and go for it…it’s turned out okay.
How long did the second album take to record?
MS: The actual recording process—the drums, bass, guitar, and vocals—took a week. But then we spent months, on and off, mixing and adding some further instrumentation. We had scraps floating around from other periods of studio time and on the road, and we do sometimes go back to these, but we didn’t have anything pieced together until that week of studio time. It’s quite manic.
How do you start making a track?
LL: We still have the same process as we’ve always had. We either take a drum loop or a break, which Mark gives me, and then I’ll make a bassline. Mark will chop it up and give me the bits that he really likes, and then he’ll create some kind of pattern and play guitar off it. We’ll use that as the framework for the song. We’ll show this to DJ who will then record his version of what Mark and I sketched. If it then seems to want vocals then we put whatever else on there.
MS: It’s a very precise process because we don’t have a lot of time.
It’s also a quicker process than I thought.
LL: It is. I think there’s something to be said for writing and just putting it out. I grew up listening to The Beatles, and they put out music constantly. You can spend too much time on music. And there’s something to be said for getting it out fresh.
Were your intentions for the second album different to the first one?
MS: We didn’t really want to do anything different. People like what we’re doing…so why don’t we just do more of that? We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The box we’re in is pretty sweet so we didn’t need to do anything really different.
LL: I think there was pressure with both releases. With the first album, we had a lot of pressure to put vocals on all (or most) of the songs. Then when it came down to it, we rebelled against that pressure and added them only where we saw fit. I think the same thing happened here: we felt our own pressure to make an album different and better than the first, and then we went into this kind of zone where these external pressures stop mattering and you just do what comes out.
How do you find the touring part of being in a band? How does it compare to going to the studio?
LL: There is no comparison. DJ always quotes Erykah Badu saying something like “In the studio, you capture a moment. Live, you create one.” They’re both equally amazing.
Do you think carefully about where you’re going as a band?
LL: I think we take care to make sure that we’re all happy. That’s the important thing.