Flying under the influence
The band Khruangbin came together over a common love of 60s and 70s Thai funk, electric molam, and ‘Shadow music’, Thai bands influenced by British instrumental band The Shadows. Sounds plausible, except the trio hail from Houston, Texas, and no one in the band is Thai. Guitarist Mark Speer met bassist Laura Lee in 2007, and after performing together as a guitar-and-bass duo for a while, they were invited to join British music producer/DJ Bonobo on his 2010 tour of the States, along with Ninja Tune’s Yppah.
Inspired by the Bonobo tour, Speer and Lee brought in drummer Donald ‘DJ’ Johnson and formed Khruangbin. Lee came up with the band’s name, which means “airplane” in Thai, while she was trying to learn Thai from Rosetta Stone lessons. “I just liked the sound of it,” she says in interviews.
Khruangbin crafted its bass-heavy, psychedelic, surf-meets-world-music sound profile in a drafty barn in the small town of Burton, Texas, population 300. Their first recording, “A Calf Born in Winter”, ended up on Bonobo’s 2013 Late Night Tales compilation.
If the Thai connection weren’t unlikely enough, Speer and Johnson first met while serving as paid members of Rudy Rasmus’ famed R&B/hiphop/gospel band at St. John’s Methodist Church, the same Houston church scene associated with Beyoncé and Solange Knowles. Their debut album, The Universe Smiles Upon You (2014), gathered a devoted following, including such prominent figures as punk godfather Iggy Pop and K-pop superstar Lee Hyori. They’ve since toured with Father John Misty, Tycho, Massive Attack, and Chicano Batman, and played festivals like Glastonbury, Bonnaroo, SXSW, and Thailand’s own Wonderfruit.
The trio has now performed in Thailand twice, first at the Wonderfruit Festival outside Pattaya in December 2017, and again in May 2018 at the Helix Garden, EmQuariter, in Bangkok. The latter concert came in support of their second album, Con Todo El Mundo, released at the beginning of this year. Boasting Middle Eastern and Latin as well as Southeast Asian flavour profiles, the album—along with extensive touring around the world—has given the group a hugely devoted following among fans and music critics the world over. The title, which means “With All the World” in Spanish, is a tribute to Laura Lee’s Mexican-American grandfather, as well as the band’s crate-digging, open-armed approach to global music sources.
The band’s success is all the more remarkable given the genre-defying music they play. A YouTube user commenting on a live performance summarized the ambience by writing “This feels like you’re dropping acid on a Mediterranean 1970s porn set.”
I had a chance to interview the band members just before their recent Bangkok concert, a sold-out show organized and promoted by BAMM. Thai bands The Photo Sticker Machine and Summer Dress provided solid opening support. Asked about the band’s Thai roots, Speer said “Years ago, we stumbled on a music blog called Monrakplengthai and dived headfirst into this amazing music, stuff we’d never heard before. We instantly fell in love with Dao Bandon, Sutrak Aksonthong, Don Sornrabeab, Chantana Kittiyapan, Man City Lion, Onuma Singsiri, Phimpha Phonsuri and especially The Impossibles. It was inspiring to hear this music that was both immediately familiar but also so different.”
“We had an incredible time at Wonderfruit,” adds Lee. “Mark and I had been to Thailand before, but it was DJ’s first time. Everyone was so appreciative and also curious about what we’re doing with our music. For us, it was a real moment to perform in the country whose music has had such an impact on us.”
Asked about the Middle Eastern influences on the new album, Speers says the band is always on the hunt to uncover new music around the world.
“It just happened we found a few pockets of music from that region. Googoosh was on repeat for a long while. Some others we love are Kourosh Yaghmei from Iran, The Rahbani Brothers from Lebanon, Al Massireen from Egypt, and Sezen Aksu from Turkey.”
In other interviews, drummer Johnson has pointed out that regardless what country it’s from, the music they’re drawn to the most is funk-oriented, lo-fi tracks that popped up all over the world between the 60s and the 80s. At the Bangkok concert last month, the trio showed how effortlessly they’ve incorporated global motifs, whether Thai, Latin, or Arabic, into a sound that is exclusively their own. Weaving a powerful spell over a rapt audience of Thais and foreigners, the band delivered more of a state of mind than a stylistic pastiche.
Asked about the YouTube comment, Speers told me “Maybe it’s the inclusion of strong feminine energy in the band. It’s not just a bunch of dudes playing rock. There’s a seductive gentleness to the music. It never hits you over the head or screams at you.”
Words by Joe Cummings/CPA Media
Photos by Charles Dharapak