“Funky drums, dub bass, melodic guitar, those are the only rules.”
Hailing from Houston, Texas and comprised of Donald “DJ” Johnson on drums, Laura Lee on bass and Mark Speer on guitar, Khruangbin is one of the most exciting instrumental three piece (with the odd vocals thrown in) to emerge in recent years. The band incorporates recognisable R’n’B, soul, funk, dub and hip-hop patterns with a wealth of other musical influences gathered from foreign rock and pop records. The band was formed around 2010, but the inclusion of one of their tracks “A Calf Born in Winter” in Bonobo’s Late Night Tales November 2013 mix album got them noticed internationally. The band were subsequently signed to Late Night Tales’ sister label Late Night Stories, releasing their first full-length LP The Universe Smiles Upon You in 2015, followed by Con Todo El Mundo on 26 January 2018 last.
A renowned hip-hop percussionist and producer, Donald Johnson was also an organist with the local worship band at St John’s downtown church in Houston, playing a mix of gospel and R’n’B. This is where he and Mark Speer originally met over a decade ago. An art history student, Laura Lee met Mark Speer through mutual friends. Endless weekly musical discussions ensued and the band gradually took shape.
Playing in different bands and hanging out with DJs, Mark Speer has always been collecting music from all over the world and digging for second hand records, constantly on the lookout for obscure bands or atypical music labels. In a recent interview, Mark Speer highlighted the influence of The Shadows for instance who were one of the first European bands to tour the world beyond Western Europe or the US in the early 1960s. The unique Shadows’ surf rock sound spawned the creation of countless bands (referred to as “Shadow Music”) all trying to emulate the same melodic guitar-based sound but blending it with their own local colours. The music of James Brown of course also ignited a similar creative spark worldwide.
“August Twelve” from the début “The Universe Smiles Upon You” (2015)
Closing a very interesting loop here, Khruangbin are filtering and re-interpreting the sound of 1960s, 1970s and 1980s rock bands from all over the world who were themselves influenced by Western rock bands in the first place while re-injecting heavy doses of soul, funk, jazz and psychedelia to create an entirely new sound.
While writing songs for their first album The Universe Smiles Upon You, the band were almost exclusively listening to Thai Funk music cassettes from the 1960s and 1970s. The band’s name originates from that period: “Khruangbin” is Thai for “airplane”. Con Todo El Mundo casts a wider net and draws on an eclectic mix of Middle-Eastern, Turkish, Lebanese, Israeli and particularly Iranian music from the 1970s and 1980s.
Adopting a stage persona for every public performance (a “cool look and attitude” involving wigs for Laura Lee and Mark Speer), Khruangbin also follow a strict blueprint when it comes to composing new music, contributing to a steady and consistent sound throughout the two albums they have recorded thus far. Every track is first built around a looping beat or drum pattern. Laura Lee then adds a bass line and Mark Speer finally appends melodic guitar overlays.
As a result, the Khruangbin sound is an infectious brand of hypnotic dance music infused with so much rhythm that every track almost warrants three additional listening sessions to appreciate fully Donald “DJ” Johnson’s minimalist yet incredibly subtle break beats, Laura Lee’s mellifluous bass lines and Mark Speer’s rich tone on the guitar. As well as that, playing at all times as a close-knit rhythmic unit at the service of the Khruangbin groove, the three musicians never break into solos.
“We found the happiest lady in China. We told her that you don’t need a real hula hoop to have fun. She agreed.”
Another strong ingredient of the Khruangbin stamp is the recording process. Mark Speer points out that the three musicians find themselves drawn to all kinds of music from the 1960s up to the mid-1980s simply because it features a more textured sound which predates the digital era. To capture a similar vibe, the band mainly rehearse and record their music in a barn on a Mark Speer’s family property situated outside Burton, a remote country town 90 miles away from Houston (hence the cattle photograph on the LP cover). Minimising distractions, studio arrangements and post-production, the musicians also make a point of recording their music without the use of click tracks, giving their sound a definite human touch.
A live band par excellence performing over 100 concerts a year, the musicians post a location-specific playlist on their website each time they play a new city, thus digging always deeper into a wealth of forgotten or under discovered music which will eventually feed into their own spellbinding musical DNA.