Written By Andrew Howie
LOCKN’ Festival hits Virginia this week, and there has already been plenty of buzz about the star-studded lineup, the collaborations, the rarities, the what-have-yous. For me though, one of the most exciting aspects of the festival is the chance to see a number of up-and-coming bands in a unique setting, most of which I’ve only recently become a fan of and have never seen before.
One such group is the ineffably cool trio Khruangbin. Hailing from Texas, their music is a blend of distinctly Asian-inflected psychedelic….almost surf rock, I suppose you’d call it? That’s not accurate, but the point is, the groove is inescapable, and it’s just drenched in that kind of Tarantino-soundtrack level of cool. I first gave their album The Universe Smiles Upon You a listen about three months ago at a friend’s recommendation, and I found myself wishing they would be on the LOCKN’ lineup. Less than two weeks later, they were added as one of the coveted late-night artists, playing on Saturday night. Recently bassist Laura Lee and guitarist Mark Speer were kind enough to take some time and answer a few questions about Khruangbin.
First off, you’re probably wondering about the name of the group. As Mark explains, “We had a deep obsession with ‘60s and ‘70s Thai-funk and psych, downloading a tape a day from Monrakplengthai, a blog showcasing obscure cassettes from Thailand. We named the band ‘Khruangbin’ after the Thai word for ‘airplane’, since it was this incredible Thai music that so heavily influenced the formation of the group. It also symbolized for us the influence of musical genres from all across the world, since a lot of Thai funk music was in turn influenced by American funk and rock, but mixed with local musical forms.” Laura added, “The fact that the literal translation is ‘engine fly’ made it even more special to us—it’s so simple and so beautiful.”
As I mentioned earlier, referring to the music as psychedelic surf-rock wasn’t entirely correct. It really falls into that special genre of “no genre”, or as Laura put it: “We always struggle with this; it’s a strange thing to describe something so personal to you in genre-specific terms, especially when we try to pull from different places. When someone finds out I’m in a band and asks me what the music is like, I do everything I can to encourage them to listen to it without any pretext of what it is—preferably on a calm day on a walk.” I would second that notion. But in all seriousness, the music is so peaceful, atmospheric, and full of infectious rhythms and crystal melodies; it’s a joy to listen to.
The roots of Khruangbin go back before the album (obviously). Laura tells the story of how the group came together: “Mark and DJ (Donald Johnson, Jr., drums) had been playing gospel together for years and would always have a burger every Tuesday after church rehearsal. I’d been friends with Mark, and some at some point crashed their Tuesday night gatherings and never stopped attending.
Mark started teaching me how to play bass, and somehow I ended up landing a gig playing bass (alongside Mark on guitar) in Yppah’s live touring band in 2010 opening for Bonobo. After the tour ended, I looked at Mark and said, ‘I want to start a band’. DJ was the natural third, especially as we’d been discussing music once a week for nearly two years. And Khruangbin was born.”
Another facet of the music that intrigued me was the songwriting itself, the formation of the tunes. Mark shed some light on the subject: “It basically starts with Laura Lee. I’ve put together a bank of drums loops that she picks from and plays over. She sends them to me, I pick the parts I like, and write guitar over them. And then we all sit together as a band, play them, and work them out. Sometimes they sound similar to the original intention—sometimes they don’t. IF vocals are a part of the song, we do those last.” Most of their music is instrumental, but the brief spots of vocals compliment the songs well; ethereal, light, unobtrusive.
For a band in this current music environment, live shows are everything. Khruangbin has been expanding their touring reach for a while now, venturing all over the country and beyond. Mark explains, “We just did a Europe run with Father John Misty. It was our first European run, and it was life-changing”. As Khruangbin prepares to hit Europe again in the coming months, I wondered if there were any surprises or unexpected circumstances of touring to that extent. Laura replied, “For me personally, I was surprised how I went from being terrified to getting up on stage to by the end of, being most comfortable at the times we were.”
Khruangbin’s calming effect doesn’t end with the music, either. The artwork on the album is like a sunset on another planet’s ocean.
Laura explained its inception: “The album artwork is done by band best friend Samuel Muir. He never makes anything of ours without listening to it first and really works to create something that represents us while still maintaining his style and level of creativity.” Mark expanded on this, saying, “We absolutely love Sam. He’s integral to everything we’ve put out the past couple of years.”
As you can see from this article, Khruangbin is definitely not your typical musical experience. Their drive to be unique and create something special is evident in their songs, their artwork, and the collaborative nature of their process on each end. I asked them if they had any unorthodox ideas that would stand out and catch people’s ears. Laura responded, “We want to collaborate with more artists, explore other genres of music, score music for film. In terms of things ‘unorthodox’, we want to explore how space can influence music by doing a tour solely in unconventional venues.”
When asked about where she would like to see the band in five years, Laura had a somewhat surprising (but appropriate to this group) answer: “I don’t know nor do I want to. We like to let the music write itself, so I think we have to take the same approach in our lifespan. But no doubt, we’re shooting for the stars.” I asked if there was any new material coming down the pipeline, and they responded, “100%. Stay tuned.” Personally, I can’t wait.
So if you read my column about LOCKN’ Festival last week, but you still needed a little bit of convincing, Khruangbin alone should be reason enough to head to the festival. Their music is wonderfully creative, confidently groovy, and complimented by lush artwork and inspired band members, making them an excellent addition to an already stellar lineup. If you haven’t already heard of Khruangbin, do yourself a giant favor and check them out.
Tickets for LOCKN’ are still available as well, including single-day passes. If you’re a fan of singular festival experiences, you will not want to miss out on this. Happy listening, and see you on the road!