The world’s diversity is almost unfathomable. More than 7 billion people traveling between seven continents and 195 countries, with each having its own unique set of customs, values, languages, rites and rituals, philosophies and ways to navigate. It’s quite a magnificent existence we’ve crafted for ourselves, one worth exploring for all of its nuances and pleasures. For some, that desire to examine the world is their driving force in life. They’ve realized the vastness of the human experience cannot be fully explained if they stay in one place, so they venture out into the world to enrich themselves with what it has to offer.
Something that is offered in every culture of the world is music. The harmonious symbiosis of voice and instruments is a relationship as old as humanity itself and has evolved to be as diverse as the people that play it. You could travel the world your whole life and never run out of new music to hear, which to some, might sound daunting. For bassist Laura Lee, guitarist Mark Speer and drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson of Houston’s Khruangbin, that’s music to their ears.
Khruangbin has always had an ear for the international flavors of the world. Lee, Speer and Johnson all connected by listening to old Thai funk music from [pullquote]A studio recording is capturing a moment, and a live performance is creating a moment.”[/pullquote]the 1960s and 1970s, which formed the sonic basis of the group’s phenomenal debut album in 2015, “A Universe Smiles Upon You.” The band’s name is Thai, meaning roughly “engine fly.” In concert, the band is known to reach into its large repertoire of international funk and bust out songs that went virtually unknown in America but were highlights on the worldwide scene, such as Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “Firecracker.”
The members have even taken their love of musical exploration and turned it into a regular hosting gig on Facebook Live, where they spin records for fans and give them a taste of what the band is diggin.’
“Each Air Khruang show we do on Facebook Live is designed to be a flight to a new destination. So the playlists we publish afterwards on Spotify are usually based on funk and soul records from a far-flung destination. You can come with us to Addis Ababa, Kingston, New York, Tehran, Istanbul, Paris, Rio, and hear the records we’re obsessed with from each place. A lot of bands go to great lengths to hide their references, but we think the best thing about finding forgotten music is sharing it with folks who can help keep it alive along with us,” Lee said.
For its latest album “Con Todo El Mundo,” due out in January, the band flew from the tropical flourishes of Thailand to the desert rhythms of the Middle East. “Con Todo El Mundo” means “with all of the world,” and while the phrase originated as a sentimental response Lee had for her grandfather whenever he asked her how much he loved her, the title couldn’t do a better job explaining the sound of the record and Khruangbin’s multicultural vibe.
“You just don’t really hear the sounds of the Middle East in day-to-day Western life. At least not growing up in Texas. When we first started digging into old Persian and Arab records, the sound was so foreign to us, but at its heart, there was still a funk that’s so familiar and unmistakable. That felt like such a beautiful metaphor for the world right now: we might not all be speaking the same language, but the tune is the same,” Lee said.
The band is currently bringing its knows-no-borders, psychedelic sound to the West Coast with like-minded compadres Chicano Batman. Both groups have a penchant for looking back and incorporating music outside of America into their sound, while also having a flare for hip outfits. Not surprisingly, the two bands first connected listening to music.
“We never played together before the tour, but we all hung out before the tour started and played records together. They came by our place and did an Air Khruang show. We took turns spinning records and trying to impress each other,” Lee said.
Khruangbin’s musical depth and curiosity certainly is impressive and it’s heavily influenced what Lee and company have done both on record and onstage. When you listen to “A Universe Smiles Upon You” or the band’s earlier singles from UK label Late Night Tales, you are truly transported to an exotic soundscape that feels, paradoxically, both completely of this world and originating from somewhere outside of it. Lee, Speer and Johnson’s combined musicianship is elegant and experienced, while the rhythms and melodies float together like stardust through the cosmos.
Live, Khruangbin brings a high-energy showcase of sparkling music. The trio play their songs with a little more stylish bravado that emphasizes Speer’s tenacious licks, Lee’s charging leads and Johnson’s exacting command of the beat. They flex their musical knowledge by constantly dropping songs into their set that feel like they were taken from the playlist of an underground DJ, such as Kool and the Gang, Leon Haywood, A Tribe Called Quest, Naughty By Nature and En Vogue. And for a band that plays mainly instrumentals, Speer is quite talkative and engaging onstage and proves to be a funny and charming captain as Khruangbin flies the crowd to mystical destinations both near and far.
“They’re hopefully totally different experiences. The album is meant to be one cohesive story told by all three of us. The live shows are way more high energy, and I think all of our individual personalities come through much more clearly. We try to create an experience you couldn’t get from any other band, and to create a vibe in the room that could never be recreated after the show ends. … To quote a fellow Texas native, “A studio recording is capturing a moment, and a live performance is creating a moment,” Lee said.
For those who like exploration in their music should seek out Khruangbin. They will find a band whose influences span the globe and whose talent is limitless. The fire that burns inside them for adventure and meaningful experience also burns inside Khruangbin, fuel for a never-ending journey through musical time and space.
Related story: Album review – “The Universe Smiles Upon You.”