KHRUANGBIN: THE UNIVERSE SMILES UPON YOU
illustration by juliette toma
Let’s just get this out of the way: it’s pronounced ‘krung-bin.’ And the word roughly translates to ‘airplane’ in Thai. Formed in Texas over burgers, beers, and mutual appreciation for music and cultures from around the world, Khruangbin might not have anticipated how much their band name would get butchered out loud. The trio’s second full-length, Con Todo El Mundo, was released in January, following their 2015 debut, The Universe Smiles Upon You, with more blissful instrumental-heavy jams honed over hours playing music in a barn. Open-minded as they are, the band welcomed all kinds of influences into their new songs, including fight scenes from Clueless. Here, they delve into their writing and recording process, and explain how a croissant is a sort of useful way to understand the never-ending loop of cultural influence in music. They perform Thurs., Mar. 22, Fri., Mar. 23, and Sat., Mar. 24, at the Lodge Room in Highland Park. This interview by Daiana Feuer.
Do you get to go out and do any record hunting while on tour?
Laura Lee (bass): We got lucky in London and Istanbul. We got to go record shopping. In Istanbul we picked up some Turkish and world music we wouldn’t be able to find at home. Really amazingly at a lot of shows people have brought us records and CDs of stuff they thought we would like. So we’re actually coming home with a decent haul of music. Everything’s been surprising right on. We’ve been doing this Air Khruang DJ playlist project where we’re curating playlists for people’s plane rides. It started as DJing on Facebook Live. Over last summer we were doing a new set just about every Friday, and every week we would feature a different country and music from that place. Then we put those playlists on Youtube and Spotify. So people give us stuff on par with stuff we posted, or if they noticed a country we haven’t done, like Hawaii or something like that.
Explain the never-ending loop of reinterpreting other countries’ interpretation of Western music influenced by other countries…
Donald Johnson (drums): How much time do you have? Want the short version? Mark can talk about this all day.
Mark Seer (guitar): Give your version, DJ.
Donald Johnson: I should start with the Shadows right?
Mark Seer: Shadows and James Brown, bro.
Donald Johnson: So basically the Shadows and James Brown influenced funk music all over the world. People in different parts of the world were hearing these bands and they would put their cultural spin on these styles. Which is how you end up with funk from Asia in the 1960s and 70s. When we hear funk music from that part of the world, it’s this big inspirational loop because they were inspired by an American art form, put their twist on it, and then American bands were inspired by their interpretation of Western music, and then it keeps going on and on.
Do you think this loop could ever implode?
Mark Seer: People have tried but it doesn’t work.
Donald Johnson: It’s a lot like food. Where would you say the croissant is from?
Donald Johnson: But at the heart of the croissant is flour, butter, probably some water, what else? Where’s the chef in our group?
Laura Lee: Oh, are you trying to hand this to somebody else? …I don’t know if croissant is the right example…
Donald Johnson: It is now! So, the croissant comes from France, and then we have a croissanwich at Burger King.
Mark Seer: And ‘crescent rolls’ at the supermarket.
Laura Lee: An easy one is Vietnamese food. A lot of the stuff you have in America is French-based Vietnamese food. Pho is made from the bones of animals that the French weren’t using while they were in Vietnam. And the bahn mi is on French bread, and pate plays a huge part in Vietnamese cooking, which is French, but then the chilis in the bahn mi wouldn’t have come from France. You see it happen in food, art, music and everything, there’s cross-pollination of cultural elements.
Donald Johnson: I don’t think it will ever stop. If anything it will speed up but never implode. The internet took care of that. We often say Khruangbin couldn’t have existed in any other time, ever. With the passing of files when we first started between Mark and Laura while they were in different places—that couldn’t happen without the internet. Or finding a blog with awesome music from all other parts of the world that we hadn’t and might never have visited—that would never happen without the Internet. The sphere of influence is going to keep looping in all genres of music. I saw a Japanese zydeco band once and it blew my mind. This band playing music from Louisiana on a street corner in Japan.
Mark Seer: And zydeco itself is a mish-mash. It’s based on French culture that was brought to Canada by colonists who settled Acadia. They called themselves Acadians but with their accent it sounded like they were saying ‘cajun.’
Donald Johnson: Khruangbin is influenced by the things we listen to but we also stay insulated musically, keeping away from mainstream stuff we don’t want in our heads, unless we get into an Uber and can’t help it. We always have headphones on, to keep what we don’t want out.
Laura Lee: You can choose what you are exposed to or not.
How long have you all known each other?
Donald Johnson: Mark and I met around 2004 at a spot in Houston called The Red Cat Jazz Café. Back then it was the hippest spot for local musicians to play and jam. Mark was playing with one of the bands and I was hanging out. Then I was re-introduced to Mark at church. He started playing at St. Johns downtown where I played organ and keyboards and he came on as a guitar player. I thought he was musically all over the place, even more than I was. So after rehearsals on Tuesday nights we would go to this pub close by and hang out and talk and have burgers.
Laura Lee: I was an art history major studying ancient near eastern art at the time, and working at museums. I went to lunch with a work friend and he lived with Mark. Mark was sitting on the sofa watching a documentary about music from Afghanistan and I hadn’t met too many people with an interest in culture from that part of the world. I got really excited to talk to him about it and he gave me a book, then I found him on MySpace and was like, ‘Awesome book, let’s hang out.’ The next week I got a text from an anonymous number, and it just said, ‘The universe smiles upon you.’ And that was Mark Speer. He and DJ were hanging out at their Tuesday after-church-pub, and I crashed it and never left. The three of us had dinner ever Tuesday for three years before we started Khruangbin. Mark helped me find my way around the bass. So I’m the white belt of the group.
Mark Seer: I don’t really know the belt sitch but you’re definitely not a white belt anymore. Donald Johnson: You’ve played way too many shows to be a white belt.
Do you all still live in different places?
Laura Lee: I just moved to L.A. actually. Mark did too. So at least now we’re all in the same country.
Did you keep to a similar recording process as you did with the first album?
Mark Seer: It was pretty much the same process.
Laura Lee: When we first started the band, Mark would play drums and we’d make these loops that I would play bass over. Then we would put a recorder in the middle of the room and hit record and it would be hours of me playing over Mark. Then he would cut up the parts he liked and write guitar parts over it. When we asked DJ to join the band, we gave him the structure of it and he did his thing. For The Universe Smiles Upon You, I was in London and Mark was sending me drum loops online and I would record bass to them and send them back. But for this recent one, we were at the farm, and I would sit in one room with a drum loop and play bass to that and hand it off to Mark, then he would go in another room and add guitar while I started another song. It was sort of like relay-recording.
Mark Seer: That’s for the writing process. When we actually recorded, it was us in the same place at the same time. On this album there were a lot of snippets and bits that were pieced together and used. But the overall writing we spent a week doing.
Dos it help to spend a limited period of time on the writing process?
Laura Lee: If we spent longer on the songs, they wouldn’t be what they are. What the album ends up reflecting is a time capsule of what you created in that bubble.
How did you approach adding vocals into an instrumental platform?
Laura Lee: At the early stages nobody wanted to be a singer and we were holding back until somebody decided to raise their hand. And then it turned out we liked the songs the way they were. After the first EP, people—professionally and friendly—kept saying you should get words and a singer for this, so we tried to rise to the challenge. ‘White Gloves’ and ‘Balls And Pins’ had full verses on our first full-length. Then we were like, ‘OK, you want vocals, we’ll give you vocals, but we won’t give you actual words. We’ll just ooh and ahh.’ Then for the new album, we started with music first and then the vocals come afterwards, but only if the song says ‘please add another layer’ do we add words.
Even so … in the mix, it’s not like the vocals are riding on top of everything.
Laura Lee: That’s definitely intentional.
Mark Seer: Most of the records I like, the vocals aren’t 10 db over everything else. I’m not into that mixing style at all.
Donald Johnson: Unless it’s Serge Gainsbourg.
Laura Lee: The songs are supposed to be dreamy. As soon as the vocals come to the forefront, it takes you out of that dream state. It’s also about wanting to make sure that the parts that we want to give attention always have their moment. Vocals don’t always have to be front and center.
Can you describe this farm where you record?
Donald Johnson: The farm is half-way between Houston and Austin in a town called Burton, which is slightly adjacent to a town famous for Bluebell ice cream. Burton has no claim to fame at this point, other than Khruangbin. It’s Mark’s family property. There’s a barn that used to house tractors but now it’s empty. The barn came about because the band needed a place to rehearse and write and all the venues available in Houston were not suited for that. We’d be trying to write and there would be a heavy metal band playing in the next room. One of the first times we recorded together in the barn, Mark just set up a cassette tape recorder and we just played, and that was it.
What kind of set-up did you bring to the farm to record the album?
Laura Lee: It was pretty simple—obviously more than a cassette recorder but Steve Christianson, our engineer, he brings this mobile studio with him. There’s not a whole lot of mics. There’s no isolation. There’s a lot of the barn, the field, and nature that’s really present in all of the tracks, a lot of bleed from everything.
Mark Seer: We used digital recording into the computer but it was all live.
How do you find a balance between structure and experimentation? Can you think of an experiment that surprised you when it worked?
Laura Lee: The foundation for a lot of the songs comes from experimentation. I’ll experiment on bass to a drum loop and then Mark will curate that experimentation. So the structure comes from that curation. Similarly he will get an arrangement together and play guitar over it. Mark’s a really skilled guitar player. He can do whatever he wants and sometimes finds it difficult to figure out what it is he wants to lay out on top of something. So he’ll play the loop with the bass over it and try a different guitar part every time. Sometimes I will sit in the room with him and help curate his experimentation. That’s where it’s a nice balance between both. A surprise was an experiment Mark placed on us which was to learn our songs in reverse from the first album. So ‘August 10’ on the new album started with playing ‘August 12’ backwards, and it was a happy surprise.
Mark Seer: And it occurred on August 10.
Tell me about ‘Lady And Man,’ the song inspired by Clueless and Romancing The Stone.
Mark Seer: At the farm there’s an old VHS player. There was also Batman, What About Bob, stuff like that. I love Romancing The Stone. It’s an amazing movie. It’s not even a guilty pleasure. I don’t feel guilty loving the hell out of that movie. Clueless is also a total classic. That’s more Laura Lee’s bag. There’s really awesome parts of characters having spirited disagreements and we decided to use that as a jumping off point for what’s happening musically in a song, and at the end, we did some lyrical paraphrasing of different arguments throughout those movies.
Laura Lee: The bass line I’m playing—it’s not swagger or argumentative—I’m not sure the word, but there’s a sort of attitude to the bass parts to represent the scenario and a call and response element between the instruments. I remember writing the bass line during the part where Dionne and Murray are arguing about Murray shaving his head.
Mark Seer: We often have movies on mute while we’re recording. Like having friends in the room with you.
Laura Lee: I think we watched Romancing The Stone three times that week. We could quote it back and forth to each other.
Which is the song where you read love letters?
Laura Lee: That’s ‘Friday Morning.’ We wanted to write a love song and we’re not lyrical writers by nature, so for me it always helps to find a method. We wanted to write about love so I needed to pull some inspiration from my past. All I can say is keep that stuff. People are inclined to rid themselves of old memories. Put it in a box and hide it for a while.
Mark Seer: Then it becomes a little present for you later on.
How did the idea for using a Leslie speaker come about on ‘Cómo Te Quiero?’
Mark Seer: We did that during mixing at Sugarhill Recording Studios with Steve. We generally record the instrument parts at the farm and then do vocal overdubs in Houston. It gives us time to write lyrics for the music that we just cut. We also do percussion and any guests in the studio too. So the Leslie thing was inspired by Black Sabbath. On their song ‘Planet Caravan,’ the vocals are run through a Leslie and it’s awesome. It feels like you’re swimming in a circle of vocals. I always dreamed of having that effect on something.
KHRUANGBIN ON THURS., MAR. 22, FRI., MAR. 23, AND SAT., MAR. 24, AT THE LODGE ROOM, 104. N. AVE. 56, HIGHLAND PARK. 8 PM / SOLD OUT / ALL AGES. LODGEROOMHLP.COM. KHRUANGBIN’S CON TODO EL MUNDO IS OUT NOW ON DEAD OCEANS. VISIT KHRUANGBIN AT KHRUANGBIN.COM.