Texan trio with a sound that defies categorisation...

It’s a Saturday evening and I’m standing in the Rough Trade store on Brick Lane trying to find the band manager of Laura Lee, Mark Speer and Donald “DJ” Johnson – a trio better known as Khruangbin – but he’s nowhere in sight.

The store is packed and the windows are beginning to steam up, a combination of the rain outside and sea of bodies hemmed indoors. We’re huddled together for a special, sold out preview of Khruangbin’s latest album, ‘Con Todo El Mundo’ and the excitement in the air is palpable. As I glance around I’m struck once again by the sheer eclectic nature of the Khruangbin fanbase, in particular, a tiny little girl dressed in a fairy costume waiting patiently to meet the band.

When I finally manage to corner the band, I’m impressed to find that their mellow aura on stage is just as powerful in person. I feel like I already know them, an invisible bond forged through their music. My thoughts are soon interrupted, as Laura Lee – the band’s bassist – turns to me and says, “So, where do we begin?”

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Born in Burton, Texas, Khruangbin record and write all of their music from a little barn in the “middle of nowhere”. And yet despite their sound being physically rooted in Texas, the band still manage to capture a well-travelled, worldly earthiness in their music, which resonates with such a natural clarity against the spaciousness of the Texan landscape, it’s as if this fusion was always one universal sound.

Khruangbin first began to cause a stir in 2013 when their song ‘A Calf Born in Winter’ was featured by Bonobo on his Late Night Tales mix. It paved the way for a record deal from the associated label Night Time Stories and, eventually, their debut album ‘The Universe Smiles Upon You’ (2015). Yet as the band acquired a growing and dedicated following, it also led to questions, from critics and fans alike, as to what genre they actually were. Soul? Funk? Psychedelic? These were just a few of the descriptions used by critics. One website even described them as electronic – a genre far removed from the dreamy, hypnotic groove of Khruangbin.

In the end it was the label of Thai funk which stuck, even though, as the band explained to me, “we never labelled ourselves like that”. The reality is that Khruangbin challenge convention precisely because they refuse to be pigeon-holed into labels: “It’s important not to set out to be anything and then you’re just who you are”, Laura says. “I think writers and listeners want to find a thing to connect with, so they ask, ‘what do you sound like?’ And so that’s how we got explained as Thai funk. I think people didn’t know how to classify us”.

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While genre may be an important source of inspiration for new musicians, technological developments over the years have resulted in an increasingly layered music industry. Millions of songs are now instantly accessible through sites such as Soundcloud and Spotify, the latter of which plays an integral role in the Khruangbin experience. For Mark – who plays guitar – Spotify enables him to create a global catalogue of his new musical finds which he then shares with the band as inspiration when making new music.

It has also led to the ‘Air Khruang’ playlist series, allowing the fans to share in these new discoveries. Through these playlists, Khruangbin reinforce how instead of focusing on labels, it is better to embrace music as a vast expanse of musical dialects, a sea of sounds woven into a shared tapestry of influences and cultures.

Laura nods, her face gripped by a thoughtful concentration, “Genres are hard”, she pauses. “I mean the thing is you need them because when you go into a record shop, you need something to help find what you are looking for”.

Gesturing around the now empty store Laura points out how most of the music at Rough Trade seems to be organised into the binary of British or American. Mark chuckles, as we all notice at the same time that we are standing beside a rack which reads: “Africa”, “Rest of the World”. “The thing is, when I go to the record shop I just go to the international section and that becomes its own genre, just because it’s not in English, or it’s not Western”, continues Mark. Laura agrees, “it’s actually nicer in a kind of way. It makes it feel like that category, classifying by location, is sort of the most honest?”

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We’re trying to show people that it’s not just America...

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The diverse expanse of geographical influences is definitely a recurring theme for Khruangbin, their name of Thai origin, aptly translating to “engine fly” or “aeroplane”. ‘The Universe Smiles Upon You’ — although not solely a Thai funk album — still carries the influences of Thai funk from the sixties and seventies.

A particular inspiration was the Monrakplengthai blog; an archive of the cassette recordings of Thai funk musicians, past and present. Meanwhile Khruangbin’s most recent work, ‘Con Todo El Mundo’ carries new global influences — ‘Rules’ is inspired by the Persian guitarist Kourosh Yeghmai, while Mark’s new love for the seventies proto-zouk of the French Antilles can be heard in ‘Evan Finds the Third Room’.

For Mark especially — who Laura describes as “going on adventures in his head” and once went off the radar for three days while hunting for “quintessential Chinese funk” — he emphasises Khruangbin’s mission to reveal hidden and unknown musicians to Western audiences: “We want to make stuff that our audiences will be like, ‘Oh man, wow, they were really funky in Hong Kong in 1974, I had no idea!’. We’re trying to show people that it’s not just America”.

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So, how is it possible to sound authentic without undermining these international inspirations? After all, the idea of “world music” has never really been a genre in and of itself, instead acting as a catch-all title for music that defies conventional – often western – categories. “The thing is, it’s a totally westernised interpretation but we don’t want to be a parody”, Mark pauses, as Laura considers the question. “It’s impossible for it to not be that but I think it’s trying to honour the influence that it comes from, and not to be appropriative. So we try to be as respectful as possible”.

An example of this mark of respect is the latest video for their new single, ‘Maria Tambien’, which celebrates the relative freedom of women’s rights in Iran before the revolution. With such a strong Middle-Eastern influence on ‘Con Todo El Mundo’, it was crucial to the band that this was faithfully represented. Laura explained their motivations further. “I think what the video is doing is trying to tell history, more than anything else, and I think that’s the ultimate respect, sort of like, this is what we’ve found of you”.

I wonder if maybe that’s the key to Khruangbin’s magic. Their music is alive, bringing the hearts and souls of different cultures and generations together with every chord and beat of the drum. Which is why seeing a band such as Khruangbin perform live is an experience wholly separate to listening to the album, with each venue providing a different cultural response. For DJ – the band’s drummer – it’s a matter of feeding off the energy of the crowd: “When you’re in the studio, the recording is capturing and live is creating almost”.

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I think it’s trying to honour the influence that it comes from...

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So in a world coloured grey by the daily grind of routine, what do Khruangbin sound like? Well, their music feels like sun on your skin; crisp air first thing in the morning; the realisation that you never actually look at the sky during the morning commute. It’s a band which provides a soundtrack for the micro-pleasures of the everyday while hinting at the possibility of a world of new experiences, tastes and sounds just within reaching distance. Khruangbin are past, present and future and as all three band members say simultaneously, “global”. As I️ write this, I️’m sitting in a cafe which is playing ‘Con Todo El Mundo’ through the speakers. The barista – who I️ discover is also a fan – taps his fingers in quiet appreciation, as he waits for the coffee machine.

Khruangbin defy convention because they can provide a better alternative, allowing their music to be whatever you need it to be, opening up the senses to new possibilities and cultures. Who needs genre when you can have Khruangbin?

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Words: Tess Davidson

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