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A band of sensational instrumentalists

  • Texas band Khruangbin blends Thai funk with classic soul, dub, and surf rock
  • In a short period and with three albums, they’re creating ripples globally

Khruangbin at a concert during Denmark’s Roskilde Festival 2019.
Khruangbin at a concert during Denmark’s Roskilde Festival 2019. (Photo: Alamy)

At one of their five concerts in northern Europe in August, when Khruangbin walked on stage to start their gig, the audience, largely comprising hipsters, really had no clue what to expect. Many hadn’t even heard of them. The three-piece rock band from Texas are a relatively new group—the first of their three full-length albums came out only in 2015—and it is only in the past couple of years that their unique music has been spreading (and garnering fans) across the world.

At the gig, however, the trio—bassist Laura Lee, guitarist Mark Speer and drummer Donald “DJ" Johnson—didn’t take much time to blow away the crowd with a stellar performance.

Khruangbin (it’s a Thai word that literally means “engine fly" but is used to describe an aeroplane) usually have that effect on listeners who first listen to their music. You don’t know what to expect, and then, boom, you are orbiting in a delightful, unpredictable journey. Khruangbin make mainly instrumental music, with vocals showing up very, very sparingly, and, even when they do, it is with lyrics that are abstract and often just a whisper or two. But it is their music—hard to define or classify—that is the most striking thing about this spare band. Rarely has a band fused music from as diverse a range of genres and produced a sound that is at once smooth and accessible, yet as complex, as Khruangbin’s.

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The Thai connection is an important element of the band’s music. Speer and Lee delved into Thai rock and funk—particularly from the 1960s and 1970s—to find inspiration for their compositions, but the other influences that appear in the music include psychedelia, surf rock soul, and bass-heavy dub. Khruangbin’s is the sort of music that you can deploy in a dual manner. You can play their albums at a relatively moderate volume to create a sonic atmosphere while you go about doing other things, or, and this is the best part, you can crank up the volume and get lost in the unusual but intricate guitar riffs, the dub-inflected deep basslines, and the break beat of the drums. The latter way (with the volume knob turned far clockwise) is the one I would recommend.

And, of course, there are their live shows. If you are lucky to check those out, you will likely find Speer onstage in sunglasses, wearing a long-haired wig and striking cowboy boots (a hat tip to his native Texas, perhaps); Lee in brightly coloured outfits and a hairdo that makes her look like a replica of Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction; and DJ in the background looking like an intense jazz drummer of the hard-bop era.

The Quentin Tarantino connection is not coincidental. Khruangbin have occasionally picked up soundtrack themes from his films to inform their compositions and, in 2016, they made a film for their song Two Fish And An Elephant (from their debut album, The Universe Smiles Upon You), which is distinctively Tarantino-esque.

In the Kickstarter-funded film, a blood-splattered woman archer on a killing spree walks through a gritty warehouse before confronting the head honcho, his back already riddled with arrows. And then, in a macabre twist, the two dance together as Khruangbin’s psychedelic lo-fi music suddenly reshapes into an uplifting, reverb-soaked boogie.

That’s the thing about Khruangbin. Their music, even though bereft of vocals most of the time, can be riveting and transmogrifying. Khruangbin have cited as one of their influences The Shadows, the British instrumental group from the 1960s that once backed Cliff Richard. You may be able to discern that in the surf-rock elements that appear in their music but then there are also a host of other hues—besides Thai funk, you can get whiffs of Spanish folk, Iranian pop and other Middle-Eastern sounds on their albums.

Khruangbin’s most recent album, Hasta El Cielo (released this summer), purportedly a dub reworking of their previous album, the sophomore Con Todo El Mundo (2018), even has two tracks that have been produced by Scientist, Jamaica’s leading dub musician. Dub, the electronic subgenre that emerged from the reggae scene more than 50 years ago, heavily inflects Khruangbin’s new album and even though it is supposed to reimagine their previous album, it sounds refreshingly new and different.

The best thing about Khruangbin’s music is how quickly it becomes agreeable. You hear the first few notes of a song and you are hooked. That is what has made their somewhat sensational rise possible. In the past year or so, they have landed gigs, tours and concerts that have been taking them all over the world, getting them large numbers of new fans but also a lot of approval from their peers. They have opened for Father John Misty, Massive Attack and Leon Bridges. And in late August, when they were playing at the Lockn’ Festival in Virginia, US, Phish frontman Trey Anastasio expressed a desire to jam with them—and did.

In rock, it’s not easy to play instrumental fare and still hold the interest of an audience—whether it is live or in studio recordings. But Khruangbin are able do that: They make music that you can either move to rhythmically, or just sit and listen to and get lost in their world of sonic experiments of fusing different genres. The three albums they have released so far are all distinctive ones, demonstrating in different ways the band’s characteristic sound.

The only question one could ask is whether they can sustain it without appearing repetitive. For now, however, that isn’t a problem. At the gig that I went for in August, I saw the hipsters shaking their heads in wonderment, both during and after the band’s performance. They are fans now.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


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