Nine Songs: Khruangbin
Despite the chaos, Khruangbin have remained a constant.
Waking to the sound of silence in the city has been an unsettling beginning to each unpredictable day recently. In an urgent bid to build some form of protective barrier from the relentless barrage of information, I’ve been letting my thoughts drift in the freedom of Khruangbin’s breezy soundscapes. A transliteration from Thai for ‘airplane’, Khruangbin’s music is filled with laid-back grooves, flirty trills and weightless passages that glide upwards and carve out a meditative escape.
Greeted with blaring car horns, twittering ringtones and the constant whirr of traffic once again as workaday life hesitantly resumes, I find myself on a crackly 5,000-mile transatlantic call to the trio as Khruangbin’s Laura Lee, DJ Johnson and Mark Speer whittle their initial list of twelve tracks down to the infamous Nine. Reluctantly they each eliminate one pick; DJ’s “He Brought Me Out” by Galilee Baptist Church Mass Choir, Speer’s “Love You Dub” by Scientist and Lee’s The Jackson 5’s "I Want You Back" don’t quite make the cut, but it’s a very close call.
"Our tastes are like a Venn diagram, I would say" Lee explains to me as they finalise their choices. "One where at the centre, we are all totally in agreement and then we each have our own little pockets. But in knowing each other, we all have come to love even the things that aren't our natural go-to’s."
The trio's Nine Songs travel between enchanting Spanish boleros, infectious ‘80s disco, peppy Brazilian jazz and paint a picture of their own wandering sound. Following the release of the insatiably groovy “Time (You and I)” and the bittersweet nostalgia of “So We Won’t Forget”, listeners have been left wondering what road their upcoming third record Mordechai will venture down, which this time features Lee’s vocals, as opposed to their usual instrumental approach.
Itching to be played in a festival setting, the addictive basslines that should have left trademark wigs swinging and audiences swaying will have to wait until post-pandemic. As they navigate life in isolation between Texas, California and Miami, Speer explains the impact the pandemic has had on the group. “We're on hold basically for the foreseeable future. We have a meeting for potential shows that might happen, but we're not holding our breath for anything until the world is more certain about when we can all get together. We're just taking it day by day and we're still putting out music.
"Historically, America doesn't really shell out for the arts. It's usually individual donors. Taking for instance the museums, the opera, the orchestra - it’s all financed by energy and oil. It's different than in New York or L.A., where it's kind of propped up by the industry itself by selling records and live music. But since you can't have concerts, everything changes. It's been a little weird.”
Speer tells me that from times of hardship, the group is focussing on the positives that can arise from the ashes. “It's going to enrich artists artistically, because no good art comes from being constantly comfortable. So I'm wagering you're gonna hear a lot of amazing stuff come out, because everyone's at home writing, or learning an instrument, or learning a language or painting or whatever, because that's what people do when it's this kind of time.”
DJ: “My early twenties was when I really started digging into music, listening more intently and just studying. As you progress and grow as a musician you learn how to really listen. I think around that time is when it really clicked for me. I learned how to listen to records, how to listen to music, how to break down a record by its parts. At that time, I was also learning and playing a lot of bass as well. I was really trying to figure out what was happening in all of these songs that I'd been hearing for years.
“I mean, everybody knows this song. I grew up listening to it as a kid in the ‘80s but I never really paid attention to song structure or things like that when I was younger. As a kid you hear music, but you don't really hear it. When I really started digging in, I heard “September” in an entirely different way.
“It's something that's always been around me, and I know it’s amazing, but you’ve never really realised or appreciated how amazing something is until you get a new set of ears, or a different perspective. That was definitely one of those songs for me, from the horn arrangements to the bassline and the keys, but especially the drums. In my opinion it's the most underrated drum part ever played on a record from Sonny Emery. It's so important, there's no frills and he's just doing his job. It's not a record that you would point out to say, 'Check out the drums on this, it's amazing.' And because it's not, that's why it's so fantastic. He's doing his job so well that no one talks about him.
“The mid ‘70s to early ‘80s was the timeframe I was really digging into. The musicianship was incredible, and it was a special era when recording technology got really cleaned up. I loved the era before that, when musicianship kind of took a backseat to programming and that kind of production, early to mid ‘80s. So that was kind of the sweet spot. I fell in love with that time.”
Laura Lee: “This is my go-to song when I want to get back to myself. It's been a part of my life my whole life. I was really into ‘90s R&B and hip hop, and I used to get my hair braided all the time. Every time I had it done, I was always having a sort of musical education in Soul music from the hairdresser; it was older Soul than I was listening to at the time.
"I heard this track during one of those sessions, and I didn't hear it again for a really long time afterwards. In late high school or college it resurfaced through a mixtape I made for someone and it came back into my life.
“It was a song that I would listen to when I could first drive and I was in a car on my own. Similarly, now whenever I've made a big change or a big decision - maybe I'm having cold feet or second guessing myself - I always put this song on and it automatically reconnects me to the title of the song; that I'm free. Musically, now that I'm an adult and a musician, it's one of those songs you’re really proud to have liked growing up.
“I love this song. It's that perfect expression of the feminine; it's super light and breezy, it's nostalgic, it's like audio waves made of silk. It's certainly calm, but there's also something adventurous about it for me. I just got to be me, whatever that means.”
Mark: “As a kid, I want to say in the early '90s or so, I went to see Parliament at the SU, which is a university in Houston, Texas. I went with a friend of mine, and it must have been one of, if not the first concert, I ever went to. My folks were understandably nervous and the gig itself didn't actually start until midnight, and it played until 6 o'clock in the morning.
“It was the first time that I'd ever been allowed out like that, so I didn't know anything about calling home and letting them know that everything was okay. When I finally got home I was grounded properly for a long time, but the concert itself had a huge impact upon how I viewed music and especially how I viewed live music - the music I ended up listening to for, well, I guess the rest of my life.
“This same friend had given me a mixtape and one of them was that record with “Funkentelechy" on it. And I immediately fell in love with the bassline, because that's what I was learning at the time. I love the bassline. The lyrics are awesome. It's just like classic George, kind of like word association, as well as quoting phrases and lines from corporate America, like ‘you deserve a break today. I have it here.’ He translated it so well into his universe.
“It's continued to challenge me, to make me think about arrangements and make me think specifically about hypnotic grooves, where you play it so much that it becomes hypnotic. You're not wondering why they’re playing the same thing over again, but you think, 'I can't wait for them to go right back to the one again, man, here we go!' It’s got a whole tonne of riffs and the bassline isn’t easy, but it's not bowling you over with a bunch of solos either, it's just a straight-up groove.
“I think I'm still trying to just make “Funkentelechy” over and over again, that’s my goal in music. How can this song, which doesn't really change a whole lot, manage to keep me engaged, for not only 10 minutes and 59 seconds, but as soon as it's over I want to hear it again. How do they do that?!"
DJ: “This was one of the first soul songs I’d heard from Bobby Womack. Actually, I think one of the first was “If You Think You're Lonely Now” - so that was the Bobby Womack that I knew, but as I grew into being a musician and I started searching for other things, I came across that record early on in my 20s and it blew me away.
“My friend Pookey introduced me to “Woman’s Gotta Have It”, I love the way everything walks together, that bassline! I would listen to it bouncing around. I love the lyrics - everything about the song and the way it sounds. It just makes me feel so good.
“Oh man, [it influenced me] all over the place. I listened to it so much when I first found it, that track became a part of my DNA, so there's always going to be something from that track that I'm pulling into the things that I play. The way the drums sound, the feel, everything about it, it's one of my favourite records. The chorus is pretty much laid back, Bobby Womack is the star of the show on the verses, but the bass player definitely is a star too. It's so bouncy.”
Laura Lee: “This whole album Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg is now a huge part of my musical DNA, and I was introduced to it by Mark around the time that I met him. It became my favorite album at the time, and then it led me on a Serge Gainsbourg discovery. With this particular album I love the combination of Jane Birkin's innocence over Serge Gainsbourg’s expert-level arrangement and direction.
“In my early days of Khruangbin, when I was feeling particularly insecure playing next to Mark and DJ who have been playing music their whole life, I always looked to Jane Birkin as inspiration for how naivety can be a strength. It gave me that sort of power at that time, but I'm somebody who is pretty comfortable jumping into different things or into new worlds. DJ especially likes to think of me as somebody who has had nine lives, and I think I found music as great of an adventure as I did anything else. Now it's my greatest potential.
“It's also one of the most incredible covers I've ever known. “Jane B.” is originally a Chopin Prelude and it's an incredible interpretation on what the actual musical word would be for the cover of this. I'm really picky about covers, because I think unless you're doing something different or new or better than the original, it should be left alone.
“Obviously you have to be pretty ballsy to cover Chopin in this way, but it's so tasteful and beautifully done. I think it inspired me in that way as well. I played piano when I was a kid, and the bass in that album is my ideal bass; I'm always trying to get the tone on that record.”
Mark: “Elis Regina is a very famous Brazilian singer from the APB era. I first heard this song when a very good friend of mine introduced this to me back in the mid-2000's. This was one of her favourites and I just immediately loved it - all two minutes and 10 seconds of it.
“It means ‘leave me in peace’, but it's a really cheery, almost impossibly happy song in the melody, a really fun arrangement against these lyrics; "and I cannot take any more, leave me in peace, get out, a fire has gone out our game is over" - words that generally would be heavy and just like a breakup song, but this song is so jubilant and alive.
“Her vocal performance is just astounding. Of course, what I take from it is different, because I don't speak Portuguese, so I'm just pulling from the melodies. The song is mixed in such a way where the drums are at the centre. If you want to listen to it on a stereo system and turn the balance all the way to one side, you have the bass and the drums, and then you turn it to the other side where you have the guitar and keyboards. You can alter the sound just by turning the balance knob which is a powerful thing. This track is really, really fun.
“The bassline is wicked for it being such a huge, sweet song. This type of playing and this type of arrangement is really, really important in my music writing. It's a song that sounds soft, just like how most of that Serge Gainsbourg record Laura Lee mentioned sounds, but they're playing softly. Here they're ripping it, but they're somehow playing it softly, just chugging along to it. It's wonderful.”
DJ: “This song is very special to me, because it's one of the first songs I grew up listening to as a toddler. I had a little baby drum set when I was around 3 or 4 years old, it came with real drumsticks, or tiny versions, and because they made a lot of noise my Mom gave me little wire hangers. I don't know if you have wire hangers, that have a little strip of cardboard on the part you hang pants on or whatever in the UK? She would take those off the hangers and give those to me as makeshift drumsticks.
“My Mom always had music on, and I grew up playing in church as well. I started playing in church around nine years old. My Mom always wanted to play the piano, but she never could get the coordination between the right and left hand out. But she always sang and she grew up singing with her sisters. My Dad and I are really musical, he knows good music when he hears it and he appreciates it.
“One of my fondest memories is playing along to this song in particular on my drum kit, and just kind of keeping the beat with it. It's one of those same things - I grew up playing along to it, listening to it as a toddler, but as you grow up, in your adulthood you go back and listen. I really heard how incredible the arrangement is, and also the intricacies of the song.”
Laura Lee: “This song reminds me of the connection between people and life through the art of music.
"I discovered this song in Croatia, I think it was two years ago. For the last seven years I’ve gone to a festival there called Love International. We were having a good day off from festivalling and having a really nice big dinner with all my best friends. The restaurant happened to be playing the most jammin', beachy playlist. “La Paloma” was one of the songs that I shazam-ed that night, and it became a regular favourite of mine over the past couple of years.
“Earlier this year, I visited my aunt in Virginia and while we were reminiscing about my grandparents, I decided to play her all my favourite Mexican boleros, in a celebration of discussing our family. She’d never heard that version, but it was my grandmother's favourite song. I immediately started crying, because I felt that through decades of space and time - my grandmother hadn’t been around for the last 15 years and it was like I'm still connecting with her through a song I’d only just found out about two years ago at a festival? It was such a beautiful moment.
“La Paloma” is romantic and it's sweet and it's unapologetically cheesy, but it works. I love the melody and the sound quality, there’s almost this waltz feeling about it that I love. I tend to write basslines in the way I'd want to dance to them, so this one lets me sit back a little bit.”
Mark: "This is just one song of a suite by a classical Spanish guitar composer. I used to listen to classical guitar all the time as a kid, my Dad really likes Julian Bream and he's always had a lot of his music on cassette. So on long road trips he would put this on and my brother and I would chill the fuck out in the backseats and go to sleep.
“It wasn't until later in my life that I realised that his music was absolutely amazing. Since then it's had such an amazing impact on how I view and work in music.
“This tune is a heartbreakingly beautiful melody played on one guitar, with self-accompaniment. It's all about the space, the beautiful melodies and it's beautifully played, and that's, that's it. That's what it is. There's so much space here - there are no words for this music.”