“We Were Less Afraid to be Bold with the Notes We Were Hitting”: An Interview with Khruangbin

Chris Daly chats with Laura Lee from Khruangbin about the band's evolving style, their DJ sets, and the band's new LP, 'Con Todo El Mundo.'
By    January 30, 2018

Con Todo El Mundo, Khruangbin’s sophomore follow-up to the stellar The Universe Smiles Upon You, just dropped. Fans of the laid back and laconic trio will not be disappointed, as the band remains true to its roots while expanding and evolving their hypnotically engaging sound. I recently had the opportunity to interview Laura Lee, the band’s bassist extraordinaire, which we have below for your perusal. —Chris Daly

I’ve heard your sound described as everything from Thai fusion to surf rock. Personally, the closest thing I’ve heard to your sound probably is Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Riviera Paradise.” That’s all good and well, but how would you describe your sound?

Khruangbin: I’m not sure any of us have ever heard that record in real life. Even though we’re all from Texas, we somehow totally missed that boat. If you listen to Scientist or King Tubby records, you’ll hear bass lines that sound like me. If you listen to the Isley’s or classic hip hop, you’ll hear DJ. And if you listen to Dao Bandon or Lata Mangeskar, you’ll hear Mark mimic those vocal melodies. How you actually go about explaining that to someone is beyond me.

I used to describe our vibe as a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack, but it’s not really my place to say that our stuff belongs in someone else’s work. Nor am I sure it’s totally true of our new record. So, I just tell people to listen. I hope there’s something for everyone in what we write.

Con Todo El Mundo seems to cast a somewhat wider net than your previous works. You go disco funk on “Evan Finds the Third Room” (hands down, my favorite track of the year so far) and slow things down to a new level on “A Hymn.” What’s behind the evolution of your sound?

Khruangbin: Aw shucks, thank you. I feel like we were less afraid to be bold with the notes we were hitting, which is really down to the evolution of the band as a whole. Before The Universe Smiles Upon You, we were living in different places, not spending nearly as much time together. Now we’ve been on the road together for a year and a half, so our sound is a lot tighter generally, and a really close-knit family, which I think you can hear in the new work.

On songs like “Evan Finds the Third Room,” you can hear how much fun we were having on tour. And for songs like “A Hymn,” I think knowing each other better means we can help each other express ourselves through music. Mark started writing that song ten years ago, but it was only this past year, with the help of the two of us, that he was able to make it what it is now.

Your video for “Maria Tambien” deals with pre-1979 Iran when women enjoyed more freedoms. The album title is taken from something your Mexican-American grandfather used to say, and there are numerous Spanish song titles, facts that sadly seem salient during our current political climate. As a band, you’ve always seemed to wear your various and individual heritages as badges of honor. Realizing this is a largely instrumental album, has Khruangbin become a political group? If so, what’s the message you’d like to get across to people?

Khruangbin: It’s much simpler than that. We’re just humans who are moved by things: people, history, music, books, culture. Our music, our videos, anything we make is merely a reflection of the subjects or ideas that made us feel something. We’re three individuals who’ve come together to make something that is collectively beautiful. That’s our only message.

In a similar vein, by virtue of your onstage style and various social media accounts, fashion seems ingrained in the Khruangbin mystique. Is it an individual thing for each of you or something you work on as a group?

Khruangbin: All three of us are into fashion in different ways, so when we’re putting together shows, what we’re wearing is reflective of our personalities. For DJ it’s all about a good shirt, Mark can usually be found in a proper Texas Tejano suit. I made a statement early on in the band’s history that I would never wear the same outfit twice, which was good because it forces me to put time and effort into every single show. Fashion makes me present in every performance.

“August Twelve” on The Universe Smiles, now “August 10” on the new one. What’s up with the second week in August?

Khruangbin: “August Twelve” is a really special song for us because it’s the first song we ever wrote as a band back in 2010. And when we were writing the second album, we wanted to bring something of the first along with us—so we reversed “August Twelve” and learned to play it backwards, then messed around with it until we felt it was reflective of us now. The date we recorded it happened to be August 10, two days before its six-year anniversary. So August 10 it was. It’s a nice little reminder of how far we’ve come when we play it onstage.

I see you’re headed to Europe next to promote the new album. Are you planning anything stateside afterwards? Other than touring, anything else to promote? Side projects? A new line of Khruangbin action figures with the kung-fu hand grip?

Khruangbin: Haha. We’ve got a full tour in the States less than two weeks after we finish Europe, so there’s not much time for hobbies.

We work a lot on Air Khruang, which is probably our biggest project at the moment. When Mark and I first got to LA, we’d play records live on Facebook every Friday morning for an hour, “flying” to a different destination every week. So we’d play our favorite records from Addis Ababa, Tehran, Kingston, wherever was the destination. We’d then put out the playlists on Spotify and YouTube. The whole thing started taking on a life of its own. We’ve started DJ’ing a lot as a result, and are building a website to create custom playlists from our deepest cuts. So keep an eye out for Air Khruang Airlines. Coming to an internet near you.

I’m constantly seeing new mixes and recommendations from you guys that introduce artists and sounds that are likely new to a lot of listeners. Are you guys huge crate diggers? What’s the best album you’ve picked up in a while? Similarly, what’s the best local act you’ve heard recently that isn’t yet a household name? In other words, who do you think deserves more spotlight love and is criminally underplayed?

Khruangbin: Mark certainly is and always has been. He’s constantly on a treasure hunt, scavenging for funky music from everywhere, so the rest of us have picked up the habit. It’s become a regular part of touring. If there’s a record shop near the venue, we’ll be there.

For us, it’s not so much about albums as it is about songs. There are albums with just one song we like, and we buy the record for that one track. But the best record we’ve picked up in a while was probably the soundtrack to Janbaaz, which we found in an old dusty market stall down a tiny road in Mumbai. And as far as local bands…they’re not local to me, but I really love the band Poom. I don’t know anything about them except that they’re from Paris, I assume they’re a duo, and they put out some modern psych with amazing chunky Serge Gainsbourg-y bass. So good.

Let’s close with some basics. What’s your favorite band and/or album of all time? Who are you listening to these days? Reading anything good? Seen any good movies/TV of late? Favorite cartoon?

Khruangbin: My favorite band of all time is probably Earth Wind and Fire or the Roots Radics. My favorite album is Marvin Gaye’s I Want You. My latest song obsessions has been Parvati Khan’s “Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja.” And I’ve sort of fallen in love again with Connan Mockasin’s “Feelin’ Lovely (featuring Devon Hynes).” The last book I loved was Kill ‘Em and Leave about James Brown. The last TV show series I watched through was Mindhunter. And cartoon-wise, you can’t go wrong with a little Heckle and Jeckle.

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