Khruangbin is a band that defies convention. The Texas-native trio comprised of guitarist Mark Speer, bassist Laura Lee, and drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson has a distinct look, a distinct sound—even a distinct name.
You could try to peg them as a specific genre, but you’d likely come up empty. People call them “Thai funk”—perhaps because of the global reach of their various musical influences, perhaps because of the origins of the name (“It basically translates to ‘airplane,'” says Speer)—but that only tells part of the story.
However you might classify it, Khruangbin has a sound that most people aren’t quite able to pin to any familiar style or genre. Despite the theatrical nature of their personas, there’s no particular musical aesthetic they’re going for. To hear them tell it, Khruangbin’s genre is just “the music that comes from Laura and Mark and DJ.”
“This,” DJ gestures around the table to the rest of the band when they sit down with Live For Live Music on Jam Cruise 17, “It’s what we sound like when we play together. It’s really just as simple as that.”
When the notion of their sound’s unclassifiable nature comes up, Speer responds with a devilish laugh. “I hope so,” he says. “We have some rules and limitations that we stick to, you know?”
What sort of rules, you might ask? “Oh, I can’t tell you,” Speer smiles. “But there are very specific rules limiting ‘we don’t do that, we don’t do this. If we do this, we do it in this way.’ You know, that kind of stuff…”
Take DJ’s drumming style, for instance. While many bands and drummers flex their chops in pursuit of a “bigger” sound, DJ sticks to simple breakbeats on a simple kit, staying dutifully in the cut with nary a drum fill to be found. “Depends on your definition of ‘drum fill,” DJ laughs. “No drum solos. But yea, keep it simple. Because the music just doesn’t need it. The music tells you what it needs. And why would I want to get in the way of these beautiful guitar melodies and dope bass notes? So, you know, you do what you can to support it and let the music have what it wants.”
Laura Lee’s bass style falls neatly in line with DJ’s minimalist approach. “I was talking about that with Kamasi [Washington’s] band last night. They were awesome, really complimentary,” Lee recounts. “They were like, ‘You know, you’re so pocket.’ And I was like, ‘Well, thank god, ’cause that’s all I have. No chops. Just pocket.’ And they were like, ‘I’d much rather you have all pocket and no chops than all chops and no pocket.'”
Speer’s guitar often assumes the task of pushing the narrative forward with Khruangbin. Part indie Dick Dale, part LSD-era George Harrison, his methodical lines occupy all the space they need, but no more. “It’s all definitely done with intent,” he explains. “We’re trying to make a big sound with a small amount of people and, you know, sometimes one note’s all you need.”
“Like I said,” the drummer concludes, “I think it’s just what happens when we play together. I’ve been listening to Mark play for over 10 years and he’s always sounded like he sounds now. And Laura has always sounded like she sounds now. That’s just what we sound like.”
The connection between the band’s members began back in the mid-2000s—before Laura Lee ever picked up a bass guitar. Mark and DJ played together in a church band in Houston, and the drummer could tell from the start that Speer’s sound was something special. As DJ explains, “I told him, like, man, I don’t know how, but the world needs to hear this … He’d be like, ‘Get out of here.'”
Separately, Mark was introduced to Laura and the two struck up a friendship. Eventually, Mark began teaching Laura how to play the bass. “It was gradual,” Lee explains. “It was really natural. I met Mark, started learning bass around Mark. He helped me learn. Then, it was sort of like making music together was an extension of me learning. And then,” she trails off…
“…And then,” Speer tags in, “I threw her in the deep end. She’d been playing for maybe six months. There was a band [Yppah] that I was playing with, we were about to do a tour and their bass player was kind of too much for the band. I was like, ‘Leems, you’d be perfect for this gig!’ She was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know, I’ve only been playing for like six months.'”
“I was like, ‘Ah, don’t worry,” Mark continues, “I’ll link up with you every day, go through songs, and you’ll have an audition in like a week. So she learns all the tunes, has the audition, nails it, gets the gig. And then she goes on her first tour after six months of playing, opening up for Bonobo. … That’s pretty rad. And then, after the tour she was like, ‘I want to start a band.’ So, you know…”
[Photo: Chris Capaci, SummerStage NYC – Central Park]
Mark quickly recruited his old pal DJ to round out the trio now known as Khruangbin. Soon after, they hit the Barn, a makeshift studio on Speer’s family’s property, with a mission. As Laura explains with angelic matter-of-factness. “We had this idea that before we ever played a show, we wanted to have a record to sell at our show, some sort of body of work to show. So we went to the Barn and recorded our first EP that we put out ourselves.”
“The Barn,” Lee continues, “was built in the late 1800s which, for Texas, is old. It’s a beautiful house and there’s a barn on the property. They used to house tractors but they traded in cows for tractors. [Now], it’s just an empty shell. Dirt floors. There’s no protection from any weather or bugs or critters. But that’s part of the magic. We were in Houston, wanted a practice space, and all you could get in Houston was sort of crappy studios and warehouses where the toilets are disgusting (“And there’s a metal band playing next door,” Speer interjects) and they were all expensive. And the Barn was free. We were broke, so it was worth the hour-and-a-half drive. But then once you’re out there, it’s the best practice space ever. We’ve recorded everything out there since, really.”
Khruangbin began to hit the Houston circuit with their first EP at the merch table. Soon after, however, their momentum slowed when Laura Lee moved to London for a new job in 2013. But Lee’s change in location turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“I was living in London,” she explains, “so that sort of helped the thing start over there. Bonobo was in London when I moved over there. We had tea—very British. We gave him a CD of Khruangbin songs, and he put one of them [“A Calf Born In Winter”] on his LateNightTales compilation. So that was the first the world heard of Khruangbin, and then LateNightTales signed us for our first record. That was sort of the real starting point of everything. … That song came out in 2013, and then we went to record the album because we got a record deal.”
[Photo: Chris Capaci, SummerStage NYC – Central Park]
All of a sudden, DJ’s prophecy that the world needed to hear this music was starting to take shape. But the spike in global attention didn’t come without its challenges. “Before she left for London,” Mark explains, “We had a bunch of tunes. I’m like, let’s just go to the Barn and record everything we have. We recorded ‘Calf’ that session, we did ‘[The Infamous] Bill’, we did [‘The] Number 4’, we did all the History of Flight, all those covers, and then just kind of trickled those out over the next year and a half, or something like that.”
“We put out two EPs and a single based off this collection of songs we recorded before I moved,” Laura explains.
“Everything we got,” Mark adds. “Literally everything we’d written. And then we got the deal, like, ‘Oh crap, well now we have to write a record…sh*t [laughs].”
“And then, I was working at, like, a normal job in London and I couldn’t get that much time off to record a record,” Lee continues. “So I think we had exactly a week. … We flew to Houston and our engineer was like, ‘The only way you [finish] a record is to run out of money or run out of time. So, you got a week? That’s just what it’s gonna be.'”
“We ran out of both,” DJ adds with a laugh.
“And it worked,” affirms Laura.
Khruangbin – The Universe Smiles Upon You (2015) – Full Album
Part of the secret to Khruangbin’s far-reaching sound is research. Mark, Laura, and DJ’s tastes in music reach to the farthest corners of the Earth and back, from bygone eras in faraway places largely forgotten today—that is, if anyone ever knew about them to begin with. Their ability to seek out just the right sounds has had a clear effect on the global feel of their own material. In recent years, however, they’ve taken their passion for exotic crate diving one step further.
As Laura Lee explains, “Mark and I both moved to L.A. a couple years ago, and we had a summer where there were festivals but we weren’t touring regularly. So we decided to start a Facebook Live weekly DJ set, and then from that we’ve gotten some of these one-off gigs, just having fun.”
“Y’all are DJs,” DJ says with a laugh.
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Enter AirKhruang, the website the band launched to curate playlists for their fans for any trip. Just plug in the airport codes for your origin and destination and select some options for your “flight” (i.e. “Window – I like to stay in my seat/Aisle – I like to get up and dance” or “Direct Flight – Are we there yet?/Multi-Stop – Take your time. I’m zen”), and you can enjoy a Khruangbin-curated playlist made specifically for your journey, whether actual or spiritual.
“I think where we get most of our inspiration is just listening to music—usually music from, you know, somewhere else.” Mark muses. “I am a product of the American public education system, so I just speak English, and that’s kind of it. So when I hear a song, say, in French, I don’t know what’s he’s saying. I might recognize certain words, but to me, it’s just a really, really beautiful melody sung in a really compelling way. It might as well just be a guitar that is really expressive.”
“I couldn’t get enough of it,” Speer says of his obsession with finding funky sounds from distant lands, “So I started finding little pockets of styles of music that might be, like, funk- or disco- or boogie-related that’re, you know, Nigerian or Thai or Pinoy or whatever. All that rad sh*t and languages that I don’t recognize from a time that everyone seemed to be funky. Pretty much from 1977 to ’83, all the records are just funky as can be. So I’m just looking for that sh*t [laughs].”
[Photo: Chris Capaci, SummerStage NYC – Central Park]
“There’s so many ways of finding music,” Leezy adds. “I mean, obviously the record stores and going that way. You can spend hours on Discogs or Spotify… It’s an endless, infinite journey.”
“You can go by a record label,” Mark offers. “Maybe this label puts out nothing but fire. Or go by producer—this one producer, he’s across a bunch of labels but all his shit sounds great. Or, like, the band. You know, there’s the Wrecking Crew, or Muscle Shoals, or the Funk Brothers, all those bands that were solidified around a studio—there’s tons of those, all over the world. Roha Band was, like, the band to back everyone in Ethiopia from kind of the mid-80s to the 90s.”
“What’s that Chinese band? The Stylers?” Laura recalls.
“The Stylers, yeah. They backed up everyone,” Speer responds, clearly excited. “I mean, Sly and Robbie, they backed up tons of people in Jamaica. Same kind of deal. The band that became Kassav’, same kind of deal. They were a studio band and they kind of created their own vibe.”
“And then there were producers [who were] like, ‘Hey guys, I got this new record. I want you to make this record but, you know, in French,'” Speer explains. “There’re so many versions of, uh, ‘Feel Like Makin’ Love‘. Like tons, in Estonian, Filipino…”
“Yeah, it’s all over the place,” Lee nods in agreement, “It’s a global standard.”
“That’s a global standard, dude,” Speer laughs.
It’s clear that Khruangbin embodies a “global” standard in their own music as well. You can feel the presence of their myriad inspirations when they play live, but what comes across as a whole is uniquely their own.
“That feeling, to me, is ‘steal from everybody,'” Mark jokes. “Who was it that said that ‘good artists copy, great artists steal?'”
It’s not just the international influences that are apparent in Khruangbin’s live set. You may hear snippets of familiar tunes tucked into their dream-like grooves—a few notes of “Night Nurse” here, a whole medley of popular hip-hop beats there. But in the end, you don’t feel like you’re hearing covers. Those homages are just another facet of Khruangbin.
Their hip-hop medley, in particular, has evolved organically over time. As Laura explains, “The way it started, we were playing three shows in L.A. and we started a West Coast medley, and then we went on tour and we tried to incorporate songs from wherever we were playing. And now it’s kind of everything. We played the hip-hop medley on our tour with Leon Bridges. When you’re playing for people that don’t know you, it’s something that brings you down and makes you familiar.”
“I think we’ve picked the greatest hits of those shows,” Mark adds. “When we were in Chicago, we played, like, some house music. It’s showing love to the places we go.” After a moment of reflection, he continues, “It’s also like, you know, we’re not that weird. We also like [this stuff]. … Something old, something new.”
In the spring of 2019, Khruangbin served as one of just two supporting acts on Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio‘s unusual Ghosts of the Forest tour. While none of the band’s members are particularly well-versed in the Phish universe, they all clearly appreciate that distinction.
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As Lee explains, “A lot of our team are huge Phish fans. And so we were getting video messages from them at Phish shows because they started playing Khruangbin records [at set break]. So that happened, and then I told our agents, I was like, ‘When are we going to play with Phish?’ And they were like, [in a serious tone] ‘Laura, Phish [doesn’t] ever have support! Don’t you know this about Phish!?’ I’m like, ‘Sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t know!’ [laughs]. But then this opportunity came along, and that’s about as close as it gets.”
“We’re humbled,” DJ notes with sincerity.
“I’m just glad to be along for the ride, dude,” adds Mark.
“And the jam community has been awesome, too,” Laura professes.
Speer continues, “Yea, they’ve been really, really sweet and very forgiving of us for not knowing…how to jam [laughs].”
“I think the ‘jam’ quality that comes out in Khruangbin is because of the way the music’s written,” Laura muses. “It’s sort of written in jam form. And then we learn, very specifically, what we did in those moments. So it becomes a structure, but it’s based off a jam, essentially. I think it makes it sound like it’s totally improv because at one point it was, but it’s not anymore.”
“Since then,” Mark chimes in, “It’s been heavily sharpened and honed.”
“DJ and I are both too mathematically inclined to be that,” Laura explains, eliciting laughs from DJ. “But the community is just the most warm, friendly, supportive. … I find that they really like to go on the journey. I think what they really like about the jam ‘aesthetic’ is that you just ride along. It might not be in totally the same vein as the rest of the community, but Khruangbin definitely likes to take people for a ride.”
Khruangbin’s “ride” in the extended jam community can largely be traced back to the 2016 edition of LOCKN’, where their late-night set at the Garcia’s Forest side stage quickly picked up a reputation as a surprise highlight of the weekend. When they return to LOCKN’ in 2019, they’ll play a sunset slot on the Main Stage to a crowd filled with fans rather than curious onlookers.
As DJ explains, “When we first started touring, after we played LOCKN’, it seems like every show we played there was someone at the show, like, ‘I saw you guys at LOCKN! I saw the LOCKN’!’ Or, ‘I heard, my buddy told me about the LOCKN’!’ And it didn’t really seem like there was that many people when we played in the Forest that night.”
“We were in the Forest, it was far to get to our set,” Laura recounts, “And our set overlapped with the main act.”
“I think My Morning Jacket was playing,” Mark recalls.
“It’s sort of like we had all the odds stacked against us in a way, for that show…” Laura begins.
“But the word traveled,” DJ concludes.
“If I would say anything to that crowd,” he continues, “I would say thank you. ‘Cause they’ve been very, very good to us and the understanding that they have of us is amazing as it is. I think they get it. Obviously, there’s something about what we’re doing that’s resonating with the audience and we appreciate every show that they’ve attended, every comment, every stream. Thank you.”