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They sound like Khruangbin: For rising trio, it's all about that Houston vibe

By Eric Pulsifer
Special to the American-Statesman

After taping the “Austin City Limits” TV show on Monday night, eclectic Texas trio Khruangbin will cap the week off with four sold-out nights at Stubb’s, Sept. 15-18. Then they head to Colorado for two sold-out nights at Red Rocks Amphitheater. 

Not too shabby for a hard-to-label Houston-born band whose worldly sound feels forged by crate-digging deep cuts and an almost scholarly admiration of grooves from around the globe.

Khruangbin — pronounced like “krung-bin” and no doubt regularly butchered in ways the band could never have imagined — consists of guitarist Mark Speer, drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson and bassist Laura Lee. 

Khruangbin literally translates to “engine fly” in Thai, or as the band's Twitter bio puts it: “It means airplane.” It’s an apt name for a band whose sound feels like a vacation — and not just because of the laid-back vibe that regularly lands them on playlists with names like “Low-Key,” “Indie Chillout,” Totally Stress Free” and “Stay in Bed.” The band’s music is a globally sourced sampler of psych and funk influences mixed into a head-bopping blend that can be labeled most concisely and consistently as “sounding like Khruangbin.” 

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Khruangbin’s audio aesthetic is unique (in the literal sense of the word), feeling consistent across a diverse discography — whether they’re leaning heavier into vocals on last year’s “Mordechai,” jamming with former tourmate Leon Bridges on “Texas Sun,” reimagining their music as dub on “Hasta El Cielo,” or riffing on “Christmas Time is Here” from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The sound has catapulted this once-cult act from the world of NPR Tiny Desk Concerts to this year’s supersized fall tour. 

But it’s not just the sound that is thoughtfully constructed. From album artwork to their attire, the visuals around all things Khruangbin never feel like an afterthought. The trio is unreasonably stylish in press photos and on the festival circuit, stone-cold cool in avant-garde designer duds and shiny Western wear. 

Guitarist Mark Speer performs during Khurangbin's "Austin City Limits" taping on Sept. 13.

Their strong sense of fashion paired with a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of music could be enough to make someone (like a writer who’s spent most of the last 16 months in jorts and flip-flops) assume the band could be a little aloof in real life. But during my early morning call with guitarist Speer and drummer Johnson, they were anything but. Any glamorous rockstar facades in my imagination evaporated when we talked about the realities of being a band that has gone from rising to risen while on a forced hiatus; music discovery in the age of Spotify; and what’s so special about Texas, anyway.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

People outside of Texas often don’t get why Texans are so vocal about their love of Texas. And the same feels true for Houston. What’s special about Houston and Texas to you?

Donald "DJ" Johnson: I grew up here. My family is here, and I've planted my roots here. I travel enough to see what’s out there, and Houston is awesome. I get around and I see what other places have to offer in terms of food, culture and all — but Houston is cool. It’s a good place to live.

Mark Speer: I really love the weather. I'm one of those cats that, you know, I don't really like air conditioning. I like it nice and warm and humid. That's my vibe ... (Houston also has) such a really vibrant music scene, and it doesn't get a lot of love as it’s overshadowed by another town in Texas. But Houston pretty much has it all going on.

Mark Speer and Laura Lee of Khruangbin perform Oct. 7, 2018, during weekend one of the Austin City Limits Music Festival at Zilker Park.

You’ve now had a few shows to get back in the groove on this impressive tour. For many fans, this is the first live music they’ve seen in more than a year. And likewise, you’ve been off the stage for that time, too. What’s the experience been like?

DJ: I think it’s a two-fold thing. We’re super excited to get back to playing, and people are excited to be back at shows and in a crowd of people listening to live music. We all missed it. We never had a chance to miss it before.

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What’s the energy like from the crowd?

Speer: They are chomping at the bit.

Johnson: For some people, this might be their first show back. … For those who have made a Khruangbin show their first show back, we hope that we’re able to make that special. … But it’s nervewracking getting back on stage and trying to figure out how we do this. Last time we did this, we were a well-oiled machine, and you hit the pause button for over a year. We were really nervous. But it's kind of like riding a bike. Halfway through the set, I settle in and tell myself, “OK, I remember how to do this.”

Speer: Not me! I'm still flying by the seat of my pants, dude. I don't know what the hell I'm doing. But I’m trying. … When you first start playing shows as a young band and you’re playing for a 200-cap room, you’re like, “Yeah, I can do this no problem!” Then it’s 500 people. “Whoa, I’m getting kind of nervous.” And you power through it. Then it’s 1,000-cap and you go, “Oh my God, I’m so nervous.” And then you do it. But you worked your way up. You progressively work to deadlifting a lot of weight. But coming off of not playing for a year and a half and stepping onto the stage in front of a lot of people, it’s like, can I get that ramp-up again? 

Laura Lee of Khruangbin performs Oct. 7, 2018, during weekend one of the Austin City Limits Music Festival at Zilker Park.

Your music is an amalgamation of different cultures, a concept that feels true to the spirit of Houston. When you’re writing and recording, are you intentional about the influences you’re sourcing or in exploring a particular influence?

Speer: If there’s any one song that’s too on the nose, we have to switch it up. Like, we don’t want to do a Thai song. We want to do elements of Thai music, elements of Congolese rumba, elements of chicha all in one song. Because that’s Houston. It’s all these things. It’s not just one thing, it's all these things living together, eating together, going out together and falling in love.

Those worldly influences are at the heart of your sound. Is there an alternate timeline or some sort of bizarro world out there where Khruangbin would have become a straightforward American indie rock band?

Speer: No. I don’t even know how to play like that. It's a very codified, stylized sound. I'm old enough to remember when indie rock meant it was basically put out independently of a major label, and then it became a thing where indie rock always had eighth note baselines, that's how you knew. How else are you supposed to know it’s indie rock? … But there are folks out there already doing that so well. Like you’ve got cats out there making great beer, so you know what? I'm gonna start a brewery? No.

For many of your fans, Khruangbin is a gateway to new genres they may have been unfamiliar with. I know you’ve said that much of your own musical discovery came from buying random records at Half Price Books. How do you feel about discovering and consuming music in the algorithm-driven age?

Johnson: It’s an amazing time to be alive, because we have access to all of this music across multiple decades and genres. New stuff, old stuff, stuff that just came out five minutes ago — we have it all. There’s good and bad with that, you know? … There's a beautiful thing that comes out of it. If you're a band just starting up, now you can go to your listeners and see exactly where they are and how much they're listening to, and you can basically plan a tour to work around those hotspots. Back in the day, you really didn't have access to that kind of intel. 

Speer: Some of my favorite stuff, it's like not popular — not really. And I don't mean that because like, “Oh, I’m so cool and listen to unpopular music.” But I listen to some music, and I'm the only one of the band trying to listen to this because it's annoying and it's unlistenable. Like I really love (experimental act) Negativland. Most of the people I played it for do not like that, and I'm like, “That's cool. That's fine.” 

I really like this site called Forgotify. You go there and it’ll play you a song that has like no plays on Spotify. I go there and I'll dig for stuff because no one’s listening to it, and I feel like I should give it a chance. There’s a lot of music that I don’t want to listen to that pops up, but sometimes there’s some really cool stuff. I like that. I generally don’t listen to my Discover Weekly (playlist) or whatever Spotify tells me I’m going to like, because I’m like a grown-ass man, I’ll listen to what I want.

Usually, I find stuff through movies, or producers, or if I like a band’s bass player, I’ll go find other stuff they’re on. I’ll go through Wikipedia and find what I want to listen to there.

Khruangbin drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson performs during an "Austin City Limits" taping on Sept. 13.

What does your first "Austin City Limits" taping mean to you? Do you have any favorite “ACL” memories or performances?

Johnson: I’ve always been a fan of the format. It has just always been there. Growing up as a kid without cable TV, that was a staple in our house.

Speer: (My favorite “ACL” performance is) Esteban "Steve" Jordan, the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion playing in 1979. Go check that out.

I imagine it can be frustrating being a band that’s out there for a while and seeing inaccuracies become these false myths that get repeated and end up as truth in the eyes of the internet. Is there anything you regularly hear or read about yourselves that you would like to correct and throw out into the world so it can be sourced on Wikipedia and corrected and you can stop hearing about it over and over again?

Speer: We’re not a Thai funk band. I would love to stop saying that, because that’s really disrespectful to actual Thai funk. There’s really good music out there. We never made that claim. We’re heavily influenced by it. We love it, and, in fact, are named because of our early love for it, but to call us Thai funk is not accurate.

Johnson: That label got cast upon us early because it was an easy hook for a headline. And one person in the media uses something and it perpetuates over time. 

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Speaking of labels, I noticed in discussions of your music, it can almost feel like a random genre generator, a list of countries paired with subgenres. What do you think about that?

Speer: I’m absolutely fine with that. I don’t have any issue with genres. I like genres. But not everything is meant to be a genre. Some music is just music. Like someone says, “I like classical music.” Like, bro, how wide is that? Does that mean it has violins on it? Which country? What composer? 

Speaking of the internet, you all seem pretty active online. Have you had any online interactions over the past year or two that have especially stood out?

Johnson: One of my favorite producers reached out to me: Jimmy Jam of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. I talk to him on and off now that we’ve connected. It’s something that would have never happened without the internet. That’s the cool side of the internet — the side I appreciate. But with that comes all the other stuff, like the comment section.

Mark, I’ve seen you regularly get online and answer fan questions about your pedals or how to play songs and inspirations. Is there anyone you wish you could have had those sorts of conversations with when you were younger music fan?

Speer: One of my guitar heroes recently passed, and I didn’t really get a chance to interact with him. I would love to be around one of my favorite bands, Kassav. I would love to ask Jacob Desvarieux what they were running through. His tones are so wild and really funky.

As far as making connections online, I made friends with this cat named Pachyman online — on the ’Gram — and I'm a big fan of his. Now he’s going to open up for us in Colorado.