In Conversation with Khruangbin
Ethereality often comes to mind when trying to think of a way to describe Khruangbin.
Although, of course, there is a sense of irony within this. Whilst their influences come from a multitude of worlds, it’s always been impossible to pinpoint a specific world in which these roots have grown. Many have tried to categorise the Texan-based trio over the course of their (almost) decade-long career, but time and time again, they have defied definition. By cultivating a kaleidoscopic sonic palette which seeks to unify cultures and bridge the gap between multiple interests, Khruangbin are creators of their very own world. It’s one that is based on intuition, groove, and collaboration.
From their 2015 debut The Universe Smiles Upon You to 2019’s Hasta El Cielo, Khruangbin had seemingly always found power in the unspoken. Their mostly instrumental releases acted as a portal to a synchronised consciousness – reverie and revelry poured out of each song with no language barriers, reference points, or egos to reflect a single meaning to the songs. Instead, Khruangbin gave their listeners the ability to assign their own thoughts and memories to the music in a way that relied on raw, honest feeling. On their ambitious fourth album Mordechai, the trio expanded their musical dialect by allowing vocals to serve as another instrument, and now, with Texas Sun and Texas Moon – their collaborative EPs with fellow Texan singer/songwriter Leon Bridges – Khruangbin are transitioning into a new phase.
Texas Sun lounges in languidness and optimism, epitomising the carefree feeling of giving in to lust and longing. It captures the essence of having your perspective on the world seeped in the glow of romance, whilst Texas Moon douses you in rumination. It highlights the moments you feel like you’re fighting a losing battle, and reminds you of the points in time where you’re inclined to give in to the moodiness that falls over you at dusk. But where would one be without the other? Much like the synchronicity of the planets at hand, Khruangbin and Leon Bridges operate with the kind of ease that comes from deep trust and respect. It’s a collaboration that feels kismet, as if Bridges is the conduit to articulate things Khruangbin had never dared to before Mordechai.
Without Mark Speer’s flourishing guitar trills over Laura Lee’s funk-inspired bass lines which accent DJ’s tight drumming style, the worldliness of Khruangbin would crumble. There’s a complete melding of minds which happens when the trio get together and it contains the kind of gravity that is rare to find in a musical landscape which can be quite calculated and polished. It’s even rarer that they were able to find companionship with Bridges to the point where he feels like the fourth member of the band; a missing link perhaps. This all comes back down to the close knit community of Texas and each respective artist's ability to create honest music that gets down to the bones of who we inherently are as people. If you're able to make somebody feel something that seems bigger than themselves, they're going to become invested in you. Can there ever be anything wrong with building a community?
Even though Khruangbin and Bridges may have had to fight in order for Texas Sun and Texas Moon to see the light of day, they were aligned in their desire to highlight the fact that two different worlds coming together can heighten the experience of others, and as DJ reveals, it was truly a worthy battle.
BEST FIT: There’s a lot of patriotism rooted in US culture. What does Texas mean to you and why do you think it's so rooted in your sound?
DONALD "DJ" JOHNSON: In a word, Texas is home. It’s rooted in the sound because there are so many influences that come from this part of the United States. Particularly where I'm from in Houston, Texas, it’s a bit of a melting pot and a lot of different cultures land in the city by way of people coming in to work in the oil industry or the medical industry. You just get a lot of different styles and cultures that blend together here in this one unique space, and all of those influences come out in any form of art that you're doing – whether it be music, painting, food – it is influenced by your surroundings.
Leon Bridges said that he wanted to redefine the Texas sound. Do you feel as though your collaborative EP’s are bridging the gap between two different worlds?
We both grew up in the gospel church sound, and I think that's prevalent on both EP’s, starting with “Conversion” on Texas Sun and looping into “Father Father” on Texas Moon. I think a lot of those things share similarities. Blues, for instance, is rooted in gospel music and all of those things meld together at a certain point if you go back far enough in history. I don't think we're necessarily changing the sound of Texas, I think we're highlighting different aspects of the Texas sound and how it's perceived by people that may be on the outside looking in. Most often when you mention Texas music, people think of things from Austin – Willie Nelson or Townes Van Zandt for instance. Those people are just as much Texas as Erykah Badu, Beyoncé, Megan Thee Stallion. Leon Bridges, and Travis Scott. The list goes on…
Did you discuss your gospel influences with Bridges before working on songs such as “Conversion” and “Father Father”?
It came naturally… The chat about our gospel roots didn't actually happen until we started doing interviews and answering questions about it. That’s how I found out a little bit more about his background and he found out about my background as well. When we were in the studio, in the early stages of making “Conversion”, Leon was just plucking around on a guitar and singing, like he often does. He started singing this really popular gospel hymn called “At The Cross”, which would eventually become the tag at the end of “Conversion”. He started playing it in a style that I'd never heard before – it was a Minor reharmonization of the traditional hymn. When he started playing that, I remember immediately just running over to the piano and wanting to join in and play what he was playing. Our engineer Steve Christensen set up a couple of mics whilst that was happening organically, and he captured that moment which was the rough basis of what we were able to build on in order to finish producing the song.
Khruangbin’s music seems to rely on an otherworldly feeling as opposed to trying to conform to any set genres. How do you feel about the limitations of genre?
The inherent nature of humanity is to want to categorise things and place them in a box so it makes sense. For us, particularly when we first hit the scene, we got a Thai Funk label for whatever reason, although we're not a Thai band. Nobody in the band speaks Thai, and no one is of Thai descent, but we were given that label because of the name Khruangbin and us being influenced by Thai music. If you actually listen to a Thai Funk band – Paradise Bangkok, for instance – you can see that it sounds nothing like what we do. We were definitely influenced by music that came out of Thailand in the ‘60s and ‘70s when we first started out, but we were influenced by music from a lot of different regions and parts of the world – particularly Southeast Asia.
I think it will get to a point where people just enjoy music for what it is. I think it's happening throughout art, with the ease that people are able to move around via airplanes. You can grab your passport and fly to another part of the world and experience different things. I think it's happening not just in music, but in food as well. In one plate, you can see inspirations from different parts of the world all coming together and that just happens naturally through the course of human history, if you think about the Vietnamese Báhn mì sandwich… It's French bread but it’s crafted in Vietnam or in Southeast Asia. French bread obviously came from France but when you put those two things together, you have this amazing sandwich that wouldn't have happened had those two cultures not come together at some point.
It’s interesting how universal that analogy is, but it works especially well with music and food because those are two things that a lot of people find joy indulging in…
They’re definitely at the top of my list!
The release of Mordechai was the first time that Khruangbin had explored lyrics as the core part of a song. Did that change your song writing approach when you began working with Leon Bridges?
Our approach was completely different. With Khruangbin, we work individually and then come together to arrange our compositions all before recording the arrangement that we’ve made together. With Leon, there were actually two different approaches. On one hand, Leon is coming in with songs that he’s already written, so we’re fleshing those songs out and producing them, but then there are also a couple that just happened when Leon was in the studio. We started to jam and he would hum melodies and write out lyrics. “B-Side” was one of those moments. It was actually intended to be a song on Texas Sun but it was held back. We started jamming on a riff in a studio and Leon grabbed the mic and was humming things, just ideas and word vomit. If you listen closely, you can hear remnants of that initial vocal take of Leon just spitting out ideas – you could hear it coming through the drum mics.
I couldn't think of a better artist to invite into the Khruangbin space other than Leon, in terms of creativity, because he's so easy to work with. He’s very kind and humble, and very willing to take direction no matter how weird it may sound. He's willing to try different things and step out of his own sound in order to try something new.
You’ve been in each other’s circles for a while now. At what point did you decide to collaborate?
We supported Leon in 2018 during his tour for Good Thing.. I guess we were kind of in the same place career wise – that was his second album and we put out our second release in January of 2018. With us going on the road together, it just kind of happened. Laura Lee literally just sent him an instrumental that we had. We’d be sound checking and Leon would be somewhere just singing along and creating his own melodies to what we were doing, which was instrumentals at the time, so Laura Lee sent him something that we'd been working on and the next day he sent back a voice note of him spitting out some words on what we had done.
That was the initial jump off point for us getting into the studio, but that song didn’t make either EP oddly enough. The stuff that we created after the initial song just didn't hold up to the same standard as the things that followed. That's not to say that it won't ever see the light of day, but it has to at some point be revisited and reconstructed for it to make sense in the Leon Bridges/Khruangbin universe that we've created now.
Were you always intending to make a counterpart to Texas Sun?
It’s a funny thing... The original release was supposed to be an actual full-length release but, of course, when you're dealing with two artists – Leon has a label that he signed to and Khruangbin are signed to another label – Leon's label didn't feel that some of the songs from the initial release were strong enough, and so they were scrapped. Originally, they were going to just kill the entire idea and Texas Sun wasn't going to happen. Laura Lee graciously reached out and sent an email to all the label execs, just pouring her heart out and saying how much she really believed in this, and how we all really wanted it to come out, and that’s how it got to go through.
We settled on putting out just four songs. No one had any faith in what it would do, we just thought it was good; we wanted to put out good music and good art. Thankfully, that resonated with the listeners, and Texas Sun did surprisingly well to the label, as you would imagine. All of a sudden those songs that didn't sound so strong at first – for instance, “Doris” was one of the ones that they said was not strong enough – those songs sounded different after you see the numbers that the first EP did. I understand that running a record label is a business and it can really be wrapped up in charts, figures, and numbers, but thankfully, the numbers looked good on the first one and it gave us a second opportunity to release some of the songs that were intended to come out on the first round. “Doris” in particular was really special to us. The song is about Leon's grandmother transitioning [to the other side] and it was really important to us to get that story out; to get that song heard. We're really thankful for the opportunity.
Are there any other songs that are sat waiting to be released in that case?
I don't know what the future holds, is all I can speak to that. I would love to be the one to give you a scoop, but I don't know what the future holds in that regard. On the Texas Moon release, “B-Side”, “Doris” and “Father Father” were recorded in the Texas Sun sessions and “Chocolate Hills” and “Mariella” were the newer ones that weren’t done on the previous session. It just so happens that those songs ended up being bookends or sister songs of each other. “Mariella” is the sister of “Texas Sun” and “Chocolate Hills” is the sister of “Midnight”. It just happened to work out that way…
There’s a synchronicity that seems apparent not just in the songs, but the way that you work with Leon Bridges. Is collaboration something that you’re keen to explore in the future?
If it doesn’t happen organically, if two artists don’t get on naturally in the world outside of music, it’s not going to work. The beauty of the Texas collaboration with Leon is that we forged somewhat of a friendship naturally before we even thought of going in to make music together. We genuinely just like each other as people. You get a good idea of what a person’s like because you’re on tour and you spend a lot of time together. If it’s a natural thing, and it feels right, that’s the best way it can go.
Who would be the ultimate collaboration in that case, in terms of someone you’ve never met?
You can ask me, Mark or Laura the same question and all three of us will always give you the same answer: Sade. We don’t know if she’s ever heard our music or come across it at any point, but if you know her by any chance, tell her we love her. We’d love to make music with her if the opportunity presented itself!
What would you say is the most important think that you’ve learnt through the making of these EPs?
Personally, I’ve learnt patience. I’ve always considered myself to be a patient person – at least I thought I was. In a collaborative project, everyone has their ideas and their interpretations of what the final outcome should be, or what it should sound like or look like. This taught me to have a lot of patience in that regard… To really listen and take to heart everyone's thoughts and opinions in regards to where things should go at a certain time, and to be really sensitive in a room with what I would consider to be brilliant minds. No matter how long things may take, you should trust that it’s going in a good direction and the finished product will be beautiful.
We're three completely different people, and with Leon we're four completely different people, but in regards to the collaboration, it was definitely the ideas of others coming together to ultimately make what we made.