Khruangbin conjures exotic vistas with chill, sparse grooves and textures that draw from worldwide influences such as Thai funk, Iranian pop, African blues, Jamaican dub and spaghetti-Western soundtracks. It’s subtly hypnotic stuff, not what one might expect from a trio out of Texas—and certainly not one that’s headlining large clubs like Boston’s Royale, where the band plays on Dec. 6.
“On paper, we’re a hard sell—it’s instrumental, and nobody can pronounce the name,” bassist Laura Lee says of the near-vocal-free Houston group, which took its name from a Thai word for airplane that’s pronounced “kroong-bin.”
But much like Lee herself—who says, “I was transported somewhere” when she listened to the band’s first recordings on headphones after moving to London—Khruangbin has captivated a growing audience with second album Con Todo El Mundo. The title means “with all the world,” something her Mexican-American grandfather would say to answer her question, “How much do you love me?”
“It’s music to listen to while you’re doing something else,” Lee says, noting that fans share how much they love cooking, studying, driving and walking to it. “Several people have written about giving birth to it,” she adds. “I’m so glad that it’s resonating as much as it has.”
The circumstances that gave birth to the trio were likewise relaxed and fortuitous. An art
history major with a focus on ancient Near-Eastern art, Lee was visiting a friend when she met his roommate, guitarist Mark Speer. “He was in the living room watching a documentary on the music of Afghanistan,” she says. “I was like, ‘What is this and who are you and why do you like it?’ We became friends because we had a shared interest in culture.” She met drummer/organist Donald “DJ” Johnson at a pub where he and Speer had burgers every Tuesday after church band rehearsals.
When first learning to play, Lee referenced recordings of dub and French artist Serge Gainsbourg. “The bass lines are actually really slow… not that difficult from a hand-positioning perspective,” she says. “But what they are complicated about is the feel of them. They’re not on time, they sit back a little, and it was a really good thing for me to learn my ABCs.”
Those lessons were useful when she began jamming with Speer on drums in a barn that his family owned outside of Houston. “Mark would play guitar on top of it,” Lee says of the duo’s sessions. “I just laughed and said, ‘You’re not playing drums, idiot. … There’s a reason you get hired to play guitar.’ ” So they enlisted Johnson to hold down the bottom end with slow, crisp breakbeats while Speer layered his reverb-edged guitar melodies.
Khruangbin plays Royale on Dec. 6.
Lee took a trip to Thailand with Speer, who fueled their inspirations with music he downloaded from a blog. He just kept going, discovering music from Iran, Africa and the Middle East. “Mark likes treasure,” Lee says. “He likes things that haven’t been found yet.” One of his finds was Googoosh, who’s “like the Michael Jackson of Iran,” Lee says. “Mark made a playlist called Middle Eastern funk and soul that we listened to on the road for our first year of touring, which made its way onto our second album.”
Khruangbin recorded both that 2018 release and the group’s 2015 debut, The Universe Smiles Upon You, in the same Texas barn, which Lee promises they won’t trade for a bona fide studio. “It’s part of the magic,” Lee says of the space where their improvisational writing meets computer editing. “You open up all the doors and all you see are the hills and cows.”
The group also embraces the visual aspect of performance in the Prince Valiant wigs that she and Speer wear and the band’s contrasting styles of dress. Lee has even kept a vow to wear a different outfit each night thanks to designers sending her clothes.
Lee equates visual art to Khruangbin’s music, drawing a parallel to artist James Turrell’s Skyspaces. “He basically plays with light and space, a circular or square-shaped hole cut out of a ceiling and you look at the sky,” she says. “We’re using the same ingredients that people have been using forever. It’s just the recontextualization.”
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