In 2013, the producer and D.J. Bonobo released his version of “Late Night Tales,” the long-running musician-curated album series. The compilation’s theme was serene songs meant to soundtrack the night, and he included “A Calf Born in Winter” from a band called Khruangbin, an upstart Houston trio that hadn’t yet made a full album.
Bonobo had met two of its members, the bassist Laura Lee and the guitarist Mark Speer, in 2010 when they were touring with another band. What he heard of their own project made a strong impression. “The analogue timbres and subtleties of the melodies were incredible,” he wrote in an email. He didn’t forget about Khruangbin, and made an effort to introduce them to everyone he could — Bonobo was among the first to spread Khruangbin’s music by word of mouth, but he certainly wouldn’t be the last.
“A Calf Born in Winter” didn’t feel like a hit, but maybe that was the point: It was different, an ambient mix of drifting guitar chords, light bass and faint drums that seemed destined for a spot on chilled-out Spotify playlists, and not much else. But it connected with larger audiences in Britain, and Khruangbin started touring the world. Its first full-length album, “The Universe Smiles Upon You,” was released on the London-based label Night Time Stories in 2015.
That might have been a fine-enough existence, to sign with a noted indie label and amass a niche following. But a weird thing happened: Listeners dug Khruangbin — a lot. After the trio released its breakthrough second album, “Con Todo El Mundo,” in 2018, its songs appeared on TV shows like “Barry” and “The Blacklist”; Jay-Z became a fan; and the group grew into one of the best-selling acts on the American indie label Dead Oceans.
The label’s president, Phil Waldorf, signed Khruangbin in 2017 after hearing part of “The Universe Smiles Upon You” in a friend’s car. “It instantly blew me away,” he said. “I couldn’t place it — was it a lost psych-funk classic from a far-off land? The thing that captured me then — the timelessness of it all, and yet it feeling so present, so right now — is still something I love about the band. I think there’s something universal about Khruangbin that’s very special.” (The label will release the band’s latest album, “Mordechai,” on June 26.)
Khruangbin (pronounced KRUNG-bin) gets its name from a Thai word that means airplane, its members are low-key and shun the spotlight, and its music is an atmospheric collage of global subgenres, including reggae dub, surf-rock, Southeast Asian funk and Middle Eastern soul. In an era of oversized pop gloss, where the music is loud and the characters are even louder, how did a band like Khruangbin break through the din?
“I’m still wondering that every day,” Speer said. “I don’t really get it. It’s instrumental to primarily instrumental, with a band name that nobody can pronounce. It’s still really bizarre.”
Though Khruangbin got its start in 2010, its roots extend three years before that, when the three future bandmates had dinner every Tuesday night at Rudyard’s pub in Houston. Speer and the drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson played in the gospel band at St. John’s United Methodist Church in downtown Houston (the home church of Beyoncé, Solange and the rest of the Knowles family). Speer had met Lee through mutual friends, and the two struck up a bond over Middle Eastern music and architecture. Lee has said she encountered Speer watching a documentary on Afghan music, and “was like, ‘Who are you? Can we be friends, please?’”
Lee started to learn the bass in 2009, and Speer “just sort of guided me on my way,” she said. At the time, she wasn’t satisfied with her job as a math teacher, so when Speer got an opportunity to tour with Bonobo — as a guitarist for the psych-rock musician Yppah, who was opening — he encouraged her to audition for a bassist gig. “I had been playing for six months and was terrified, but I got it,” Lee said. She quit the teaching job.
After the tour, Speer and Lee formed their own group, and Johnson — who was playing the organ at church — became their full-time drummer. “At the time, I’d not played drums in many, many years,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know it would turn into what it turned into now.”
It isn’t surprising that Khruangbin, a very chill band, has a very chill origin story. The music, Speer said, “wasn’t meant to be complicated with a lot of shredding and all this stuff — I just wanted it to be simple and pretty and moody.”
The band’s creative process begins in different places, but its albums are always assembled in the same spot: an old barn that belongs to Speers’s family in Burton, a small town 85 miles northwest of Houston, where they listen to the drafts and rerecord them live.
“The barn is a peaceful environment with minimal distractions,” Johnson said, which helps high-pressure sessions when “we all record simultaneously, and no one wants to be the one to ruin a good take.” Their friendship eases the creative process, too: “We all tend to coach each other throughout the session. If something’s not working musically, we hash it out until it feels right.”
Over the past few years, Khruangbin has amassed a cult following by playing in places like Thailand and Peru, where the band derives its influences. But as interest in its sound expanded, the opportunities — and the stakes — ballooned. Last year, Khruangbin backed up the Wu-Tang Clan at the Desert Daze festival in Lake Perris, Calif. In March, the rapper Jay Electronica used Khruangbin’s “A Hymn” as the backdrop for “A.P.I.D.T.A.,” the last track on his long-awaited debut album, “A Written Testimony,” which features many contributions from Jay-Z.
“We found out about a week before it dropped,” Lee said. “I have a friend whose dad owns a record shop in L.A., and I got a text from them saying that Jay-Z was in the shop buying all the Khruangbin records.”
Specifically, Jay-Z bought “Con Todo El Mundo” (“With All the World”), which blends bits of Spanish and Iranian funk into a psychedelic brew. Khruangbin wanted to approach “Mordechai” differently. Where the previous two LPs were recorded in the barn during freezing winter months, the new one took shape over a three-week period in May 2019, when the only distractions came from nature. “You’ve got to deal with the elements,” Johnson said with a laugh, “you know — wasps and bees flying around, a spider may be on the tom and you’re getting ready to do a drum fill. It kind of breaks your concentration.”
None of the new album was written before they got to the barn; Khruangbin cobbled it together from grooves played during soundchecks and instrumental drafts recorded throughout the year while they were on tour. “We wanted to make an album that didn’t sound like any one place this time,” Lee said. “We wanted to have a record that sounded like everywhere and therefore sound like Houston.”
There’s a lot more riding on “Mordechai” than any of the band’s previous releases. Besides the sold-out shows and critical acclaim, Khruangbin reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Emerging Artists chart in February, after “Texas Sun,” the band’s collaborative EP with the R&B singer Leon Bridges, debuted atop the Americana/Folk Albums list. Bridges, whose sound harks back to ’60s soul vocalists like Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Otis Redding, called Khruangbin’s style “effortless, authentic and unprecedented.”
It merges “styles of funk, soul and psychedelia but all through a Texas lens,” he wrote in an email. “Their minimal approach to instrumentation and production is what resonated with me when I first heard their music. It’s refreshing to see a band of their nature thrive in the music industry.”
“Mordechai” marks a creative shift for Khruangbin, and was crafted as a partial response to all the touring the band had done over the past four years. “We were on a plane pretty much every day,” Lee said, explaining the group’s level of exhaustion. “It’s like you’re living this crazy life where a lot of your interaction is with fans or promoters.”
Lee, who never repeats a stage outfit, is Khruangbin’s energetic pulse, the one driving the band’s ambition. By the time the group reconvened in May 2019 to record the new album, she was physically and mentally drained. But during the time off, she’d had an experience that offered a creative spark. On a camping trip with friends from London, she met a family that reminded her of her own. The brood included a man named Mordechai, who sensed she was burned out from the band’s quick rise and whirlwind schedule. “After we camped, he invited me on a hike with his two twin sons, his wife made us a picnic lunch, and it was like a mom’s lunch,” Lee said. Mordechai’s sons discussed the premature death of Whitney Houston, and it struck a nerve.
“The way they were talking about her reminded me of myself, it was a mirror held up on things I needed to deal with,” in terms of life moving too fast, Lee said. When the children grew impatient to reach the waterfall at the end of the trail, Mordechai offered some well-known advice: “Son, it’s about the journey, not the destination,” Lee recalled.
“He’s like, ‘Well, the journey is life, and the destination is death,’” she said. “I was like, ‘You’re so right.’ I have never thought about that expression in that way, and when you do, you realize you should not be in a hurry to get to the end.” When they reached the waterfall, Lee leapt in, screaming her full name — Laura Lee Ochoa — as she fell through the air. Enlightened, she sat with a journal and wrote 100 pages of thoughts, some of which became the fodder for the album.
Through textures of funk, disco and Middle Eastern avant-garde, “Mordechai” is a nostalgic LP that explores human memory. “Dearest Alfred” lionizes the letters that Lee’s grandfather would write to his twin brother, and “If There Is No Question” recalls the gospel songs Speer and Johnson would perform in church. On “Shida,” the album’s sultry closer, Khruangbin turns its attention to the early 1980s, bringing elements of Sade to mind, with gentle vocal sighs floating along the fringes and ethereal guitar chords pinned to the back of the mix. (All three members of the band sing simultaneously throughout the album.)
In the past, the band would focus on one aspect of their multiregional influence: “The Universe Smiles Upon You” leaned heavily into 1960s Thai funk, and “Con Todo El Mundo” took cues from Iranian post-disco and soul. As with any of the band’s albums, “Mordechai” is open to broad interpretation.
“I hope that the music continues to do what it’s been doing,” Johnson said. “I hope it brings people together. I hope people take not only the record, but this experience we’re going through now, as people having to really look out for each other.”
And if there’s pressure for Khruangbin to top its previous work, Speer isn’t listening. “I’m also really, really stubborn,” he said. “Like, ‘let’s just do what we want to do.’ We’ve gotten to this point by doing what we like. Apparently, people like what we do. Let’s just keep doing that.”
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