Khruangbin have established their live reputation with spacious instrumentals, but the band’s third album, Mordechai, features prominent vocals and disco-funk jams. Andrew Drever interviews the Texas-based trio upon its release.
While the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage in the US, the situation has actually been a blessing in disguise for Khruangbin drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson Jr.
“I’ve used the time to rest, honestly,” he says from the band’s hometown of Houston, Texas. “We’ve been touring pretty hard since the first album dropped in November 2015 and we just kind of seemed to not stop touring. Everything’s kind of all up in the air now, so for me, it’s been time to rest and just sit back, gather my bearings and spend some time at home with my wife. Since we got married back in 2014, this is the longest time that I’ve ever been home. It’s been great.”
Johnson is surprised and full of admiration when he hears New Zealand has essentially eliminated Covid-19. “Wow,” he coos. “That’s awesome. I guess (geographic) isolation does count for something!” However, he isn’t prepared to commit to my invitation for a tour here just yet – as long as the band are prepared to do a mandatory two-week quarantine, of course.
The band, which also features bassist/singer Laura Lee Ochoa and guitarist Mark Speer, are currently quarantining in different parts of the US, with Ochoa in Miami and Speer in Oakland, California. “No one really lives anywhere because we were touring pretty consistently for the last three-and-a-half or four years,” says Johnson. “When quarantine hit, we just had to stay put wherever we were, so that’s what we did.”
Khruangbin (pronounced Krung-bin) has built an ever-increasing cult following. Their kaleidoscopic live shows have gained fanatical disciples wherever they travel. A festival favourite, they’ve played Glastonbury, Bonnaroo, Fuji Rocks, South By Southwest and Australia’s Golden Plains and Womadelaide.
Their third album proper, Mordechai, which dropped last week, seems like it’ll be the one to push them out of the cult niche and into the mainstream.
With a sound that’s built around a stew of funk, psychedelia, soul, surf-rock, dub, folk and global music influences (Thai, Middle Eastern, Pakistan, and West Africa, for starters), the band is tough to categorise, but their music is spacious, accessible and dynamic.
Johnson and Speer originally met in Houston in 2004, playing together in the St John’s Methodist Church gospel band – the same church, incidentally, where Beyonce grew up singing. Each Sunday, they’d perform to around 3,000 churchgoers.
In 2007, Speer met Ochoa through friends and taught her how to play bass. The three then began meeting for dinner every Tuesday night to talk about music. In 2010, Ochoa and Speer went on tour with Ninja Tune artist Yppah and formed a band upon their return, asking Johnson to join them on drums.
The threesome rehearsed and recorded in Speer’s remote family barn in the small town of Burton about an hour-and-a-half drive from Houston. On the drive out, they’d listen to cassettes of 60s and 70s Thai funk-rock, which became a big influence on their debut album and the band itself (Khruangbin means “flying engine” or “aeroplane” in Thai).
Their first two albums – 2015’s The Universe Smiles Upon You and 2018’s Con Todo El Mundo – were primarily instrumental, with only a couple of tracks on each featuring vocals (and usually like just another instrument at that). But on Mordechai, nearly all of the tracks feature vocals prominently, something which the band doesn’t consider as big a left-turn as others seem to.
“I think the change has been a bit overstated,” says Johnson. “It’s a really good talking point in a lot of interviews that we do, but it’s not our first time singing or having vocals on a record. Our first breakout song was ‘White Gloves’ and that featured prominent vocals. And our first album also had Balls and Pins, which, in my opinion, has a great vocal melody. Then, on the second record, we had ‘Evan Finds the Third Room’, which had vocals throughout, and ‘Friday Morning’, another vocal track. We haven’t leaned on vocals, though, which has been good.”
Mordechai has been headlined by the pre-release of two uptempo singles, the eminently danceable and funky ‘Time (You and I)’ and ‘So We Won’t Forget’.
The colourful video for ‘Time (You and I)’ features British comedian Stephen K Amos and Lunda Anela-Skosana roaming the streets of London. Amos is a well-known face in New Zealand and Australia where he’s toured regularly, often undertaking working residencies in these parts. Johnson wasn’t aware of him previously before the video, but he says he’s now well versed with his comedy.
“I think he was perfect for that role,” he laughs. “Being in the States, we weren’t familiar with him, because he’s not as well known here. But a lot of our listeners – especially in the UK – saw him and were like ‘oh man, you’ve got Stephen in the video!’ I went back and checked out his stand-up and he’s really funny. He also killed it in the video too, with his super-dapper suit and smooth dance moves!”
The two singles, however, are red herrings. Across the album, the mood is mostly languid, with opener ‘First Class’ a breakbeat instrumental and ‘Pelota’ featuring flamenco guitar and Spanish lyrics. ‘Conossais De Face’ offers nostalgic lounge-pop, with Lee and Speer talking in the track about memories and people they knew.
“It was meant to sound like two people having drinks and cigarettes,” chuckles Johnson. “Just having a chat. There were drinks present and I think that helped capture that vibe as they sat there with two mics across from each other and they just basically had a conversation.”
As on the previous two albums, Mordechai was recorded at the Burton barn that’s become their spiritual home. Johnson says he now can’t imagine working anywhere else.
“We do try and emphasise that there’s nothing comfortable about it,” laughs Johnson. “It’s not acoustically treated, it’s not insulated – it’s literally just a barn. [But] our engineer producer Steve (Christensen) captures us beautifully. It’s a special place with minimal distractions, very little cellphone signal, no WiFi, and it’s outside of the city. It’s very isolated – much like New Zealand! We’re basically recording outside, so you can take advantage of all those natural soundscapes that happen while we’re recording. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Inspiration for Mordechai was drawn from Khruangbin’s work last year on the Texas Sun EP, where they collaborated with fellow Texan and soul singing star Leon Bridges. Four tracks of moody, cinematic soul, it sounded like the perfect road trip soundtrack. Johnson says there’s more material from those sessions yet to see the light of the day.
“We actually ended up doing eight tracks with Leon,” he says. “At least two more of them are really, really good. To hear the two of us collaborate, I think it was really special – especially with us both being from Texas and the chemistry that we had naturally in the studio. We’re always open to collaborations that make sense.”
Mordechai by Khruangbin is out now.