Thai-funk inspired psychedelic sounds from Khruangbin have recently played Bristol’s Colston Hall, supporting Father John Misty. We caught up with bassist, Laura Lee for a quick chat.
In a remote and rural place, unbeknown to many, somewhere in the heart of Texas between Houston and Austin, stands a barn. Inside that barn, three Houston born musicians are busy at work creating their debut LP of which, the title evolves out of an unlikely yet fateful text message. ‘The Universe Smiles Upon You’ – just one of many musings and contemplative moments considered within an earlier conversation between friends Laura Lee and Mark Speer when Laura was fresh out of her college days as a student of ancient Mesopotamia.
“I met Mark a few years ago, and we were chatting about all kinds of mystic things and he later sent me a text message that said ‘the universe smiles upon you’ and I thought it was the best text message I’d ever received. This became a bit of a thing for Khruangbin, we used it on a bit of merchandise for a while, at gigs. It just seemed to fit and so we decided to use it as our album title.” Laura says.
Khruangbin formed in 2011, with Laura Lee on bass, Mark Steer on guitar and D.J. (aka Donald Johnson) on drums. All three band members were already seasoned musicians, with Mark and D.J. regularly playing at their local gospel church, which is how the three met, as well as being revered session musicians. In 2010, Mark and Laura were invited on tour with Ninja Tune’s YPPAH in support of British DJ Bonobo (aka Simon Green) across America, which would become the catalyst for their collaborations and result in the band Khruangbin. Their track ‘A Calf Born in Winter’ appeared on Bonobo’s mix titled ‘Late Night Tales’ which resulted in the band being signed to the Night Time Stories label.
“There’s a real sense of easiness – there’s no pressure, the songs can just be the way they are.”
Although Laura now resides in London, and much of the band’s jamming happens virtually, via file sharing, individual recordings and overdubs, the original chemistry that existed in their first recordings together in rural Texas still remains, and is only amplified all the more when Laura, Mark and D.J. reunite for tours such as this one.
“When I go back to Texas and to the countryside, it’s almost magnified and enhanced, how easy it feels to be back there. The barn opens up on two sides, and you can open up as many doors or as few doors as possible. The first time we recorded, it was hot and the recordings have that real idyllic sense. When we recorded ‘The Universe Smiles Upon You’, it was freezing cold and we had to have a space heater, it was really loud. The acoustics still sound brilliant though.” Laura says.
‘The Universe Smiles Upon You’ is Khruangbin’s debut full length LP, released in 2015. A lilting, immersive sonic experience that literally envelops its listener – conjuring up the distinct sounds of the typified Californian surf-rock guitar sound, coupled with vocals that neither can be pinned down nor set in stone. Created largely in the moment, the record bears witness to the band as a collective, and their strong leanings toward the Thai funk of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as being an open-ended, looping series of work that feels as infinite as it does transient. Recorded in the barn, in the middle of nowhere in Texas, the album is reflective of their surroundings, and as close a replica to each musician’s intuition and spontaneity.
“When we’ve come to record in the barn, none of the songs have been fully written. It’s the perfect space to figure out how things are put together. There’s a real sense of easiness – there’s no pressure, the songs can just be the way they are. That sense of ease and peacefulness translates into how the songs are written.” Laura says.
“Because the Thai language is tonal, their scales are so much more complex than the western world because they have more notes.”
Khruangbin made their UK live debut at Bristol’s Simple Things festival and will be returning again to Colston Hall, in May. The live experience can never be predicted, which is where their beauty begins, as much as when the band are composing ad-lib:
“When we’re writing things on the spot, there is never a clear indicator of when we’re going to move to the next part of the song, we just take cues from one another when playing live. We’re mainly instrumental, but we’re kind of shy when it comes to being on stage. We’ll try to play to the room. If we’re in a basement playing to 200 people and it’s a packed room, we’ll naturally become more rock ‘n’ roll because that feels right for that arena. Conversely, if we were to play a festival at sunset we’ll make it a bit more open ended.” Laura explains.
Upon listening to any one of Khruangbin’s records, the layers of influence and nods towards certain cultural styles become the attraction that traditionally, popular music culture has sought to repel. Taking non-western sound systems and establishing their own identity as Khruangbin has proved to be both an enlightening and instinctive experience.
“Mark has a real fascination for those musical treasures that feel really precious to you because nobody else knows them. He found this huge collection of 60s Thai music which is heavily based on western funk. Because the Thai language is tonal, their scales are so much more complex than the western world because they have more notes. We found it really cool to listen to. So that was the foundation for the band. We’d like to incorporate more sounds from Ethiopia or Brazil, too.” Laura says.
Khruangbin threaten to immerse you in a cycle of sound where neither time nor space exist – and that can surely only be a good thing.
“It feels quite womby to me, when playing bass. There is something that feels so natural about it. We don’t have to say much and it feels right.” Says Laura.
For more information on Khruangbin: www.khruangbin.com