Khruangbin, like the rest of Britain, are pouring one out for Glastonbury. This weekend (June 26-28) would have been the iconic music festival’s 50th anniversary, a summer blow-out celebrating five decades of music goodness down on Worthy Farm in Pilton, Somerset. Sadly COVID-19 had other plans – the festival was cancelled barely a week after the lineup was announced back in March. It’s, er, a bitter pill to swallow.
Texan psych-rock-funk-whatever-you-want-to-call-it trio Khruangbin – bassist Laura Lee Ochoa, guitarist Mark Speer and drummer Donald Johnson – were due to play there this year, and they’re still smarting from the shindig’s absence.
“We carefully planned our entire world tour around Glastonbury,” Ochoa laughs over Zoom. “We specifically arranged it so we could play on the Friday and still get our full weekend at Glastonbury. Whatever happens next year, I’m going to Glastonbury. And I’m not just playing it – I’m going.”
Fittingly, Khruangbin’s music has a distinct Glasto vibe. Inspired by Thai funk, global rhythms and borderless soundscapes, their songs are suited to both the festival’s main stages and the quirky nooks and crannies – such as the infamous Rabbit Hole – around the site. To get in the zone this weekend, skip the shower, lie down on a patch of grass, work on acquiring a 3pm hangover and stick on their tunes – the magic of Worthy Farm will gradually sink into your consciousness. No wellies required.
The band’s new album ‘Mordechai’, released today (June 26) is a good starting point. Their third full-length record wonderfully ties together the countless threads established over their near-decade career. A funked-up bassline struts through ‘Time (You and I)’, noodling guitars take the lead on ‘Connaissais de Face’ and trippy beats wash over the laconic ‘Father Bird, Mother Bird’.
The music’s vibrant nature is topped only by the album artwork’s colourful and other-worldly design, which depicts a trippy looking eagle soaring over a hallucinatory, pastel-hued landscape. Though the world is currently grounded, this is the album where the trio take flight after years of grit and grind.
“We set out to be a worldwide band – and we got it” – Laura Lee Ochoa
Laura Lee is cautiously optimistic that they’ll never quite come back to Earth: “Going into the third album there’s real pressure,” she says. “But it feels like it’s the final push over the ledge and then we can say that we’ve established ourselves and we’re in. Who knows – maybe it’s always this hard?”
While Khruangbin’s stellar 2015 debut, ‘The Universe Smiles Upon You’, largely flew under the radar, 2018’s ‘Con Tondo El Mundo’ provided a critical and commercial breakthrough. Tours with Father John Misty and Caribou, along with festival appearances across the globe, made theirs a formidable and unmissable show. ‘Texas Sun’, their recent four-track collaboration with fellow Texan and soul star Leon Bridges, landed them on US charts (they reached Number One on Billboard’s Emerging Artist’s Chart).
The music, until now, has been largely instrumental. Speer’s superb guitar work – influenced by the group’s mutual love for Thai and Middle Eastern funk – is catchy enough to overpower any vocal line, with occasional chanting peppered throughout. 2017’s ‘Maria También’ is classic Khruangbin: not a single word is spoken on the track, but the lithe guitar riff is catchy as any chorus. It’s music with a worldwide appeal, and their musical crate-digging provides fertile material to draw inspiration from.
This time around, though, almost every song features vocals from all three band members, helping to make ‘Mordechai’ their most accessible album yet. This wasn’t a set goal, just a natural progression for the band.
“We never go into the barn with any expectations,” Johnson says. “We let the song dictate what it wants. There’s a lot of thought that goes into it but we tend to find out along the way, wherever the journey takes you.”
If that leads to them thinking outside the box and confounding expectations and preconceptions, then it’s a bonus. “People like to put a label on our music, but I don’t think it’s anything that we can get mad about. I think it’s a credit to who we are as people that it is good that we don’t fit inside a box.”
“People are reaching for their culture; it’s what makes them unique” – Laura Lee Ochoa
The phrase ‘laid back’ is thrown at the band’s music for its soothing qualities: Khruangbin are veterans of the ‘Lazy Coffee Morning’-style playlists on Spotify, but they also work extremely hard to make music this easy to listen to. Each record is a masterclass in both technical production and general vibe-building. And it’s working: what was once the hipsters’ little secret is now being gobbled up by the entire world.
This inevitably means strangers prying into their personal lives, an uncomfortable fact for a band who regularly strive to remain anonymous offstage – so much so that Speer and Laura Lee regularly don sleek black wigs at gigs. Johnson is more outwardly facing, with production credits in the Southern rap scene as one half of Beanz & Kornbread. Enjoyably, the other two wear their wigs during our interview, the band equivalent of putting on a nice shirt for a conference call.
“I never really wanted to give away all of my secrets and all of who I am,” Speer says of the wigs. “I know I come across as kind of arrogant in interviews and stuff, but I’m honestly a humble person. And I always wanted to be able to walk down the street and not be recognised. That’s crucial for me. So doing interviews like this is weird for me. But you seem very nice…”
Mystery is baked into every element of the band’s appeal. “People trying to uncover us is part of the intrigue,” says Speer. “You should want to know a little bit more. But the other side of the coin is to not tell everything, because some people probably shouldn’t know.
“There are elements of myself in the persona that we put out, but presented in a specific way that is catered to entertainment and being on stage. I don’t want to be all up in someone’s face and on social media; I think it’s desperate and kinda lame. I don’t know how to do it. I just want to play guitar and when I’m done I come home and make some soup.”
Laura Lee adds: “I definitely feel like a character when I’m on stage and wearing the wig. When we started wearing the costumes, we didn’t anticipate that it would have as much significance as it does now, but it certainly does. [The character] Laura Lee is a handful and she’s great, but I can leave her on stage or in an interview. Having a costume helped me think that I was bigger than I am because I was quite a nervous player at first. And now it protects me in a different way – it’s protecting my privacy.”
Khruangbin – whose name means ‘airplane’ in Thai – are most at home when they’re jetting around on tour, but they are finding some perks in lockdown. “It came as a good time for us as a band,” says Laura Lee. “Last year was the hardest we’ve ever worked. We did a world tour, did the Leon [Bridges] project, we recorded this album and another project, which still has a lot of work to be done on. I don’t know how we survived.”
According to Setlist.fm, the band played 74 shows in at least 27 countries in 2019, spanning North America, Asia, Europe, Australasia and Latin America, with all the load-ins, load-outs, plane rides and everything in between. They undertook a whopping 104 shows the year before.
“I don’t want to be on social media; it’s desperate and kinda lame” – Mark Speer
This took a toll on Laura Lee in particular. “We were constantly offered amazing opportunities and I started to question why we had to take them all right now,” she says. “We just assumed that we just had to do everything but somewhere last year it shifted for me. The one hour on stage is amazing, but there’s 23 other hours of travelling and lifting gear – it’s not glamorous at all. Also people don’t talk to you like you. It’s amazing talking to promoters and fans along the way, but they’re not asking how you are.”
She continues: “I felt really disconnected from the Laura Lee that exists when the costume comes off and the lights come down. I was so wrapped up in the other state, so when I finally got back to her, it was like, ‘Oh man. Who are you? What do you like?’”
Before they headed into the studio – at Speer’s family barn in Burton, Texas, just outside of Houston – Laura Lee needed time to centre herself. After the gruelling 10-week European tour concluded in the middle of last year, she sought comfort in a retreat with a group of friends. One person there – a friend of a friend – left a bigger impact than most (so much so that they named the album after after him): “I told Mordechai about how I was feeling and he had no idea about the band or who we were, but I think he instantly saw that I was spinning a bit.”
A week later, Laura Lee, Mordechai and his twin sons took a hike to a waterfall in Texas. The four of them mediated on life, death and happiness on their journey, with the kids’ childlike wisdom helping Laura Lee to realign her priorities. The plan was always to leap into the water, so she’d pictured a tiddler of a waterfall – only to be confronted with a drop that, in her mind, might as well have been Niagara Falls.
“At first I felt like he tricked me into this baptism situation,” she laughs. “But there’s something to be said for the spiritual power of jumping into the water like that.” The bassist called out her full name on the way down: Laura Lee Ochoooooooa!
“I’d always been a spiritual person,” she says, “but I think that I lost it somewhere without realising. I’d lost myself on the road too.”
This really hit home for her when she listened back to an old interview she’d done on the road three years ago, when Khruangbin were first taking flight: “I said that I thought it would all be drugs and parties. And now I realise that touring is the drug. That adrenaline and the ride of the whole thing can take you out – that’s the escapism. I just hadn’t recognised it for a while. So when I came out of it last year, I got back in touch with myself again and asked myself about what I truly value.”
‘Mordechai’ is undeniably Laura Lee’s story. After her realignment, she filled her notebooks with scribblings, lyrics and sketches that would become the album’s lyrics and artwork. Her love of that retreat is evident in the joyous ‘Time (You and I)’, on which she does her best Liam Gallagher impression – “If we had more time / We could live forever” – and the tear-jerking ‘So We Won’t Forget’, where she implores us to not let life slip away: “One to remember / Writing it down now / So we won’t forget”.
“I don’t know how we survived last year” – Laura Lee Ochoa
Khruangbin experienced a period of emboldened creativity in the studio; Laura Lee describes her bandmates as technically minded “cavemen” who are ready to spend hours perfecting in the studio. They helped her story emerge as she grew more confident in her own playing and singing.
“They recognised that I’m the one who goes out and lives the most outside of music,” she says. “They’re like, ‘We don’t have stories to tell; you have one to tell, so let’s do that’.”
The isolated nature of the barn worked in their favour too – there was a lack of phone signal, a single computer, the sound of bugs and the stillness of dusty plains, all of which seems to have seeped into their ethereal music.
“I prefer to take myself out of the world,” says Speer. “You don’t know what time it is and it’s so quiet – there’s a lot of room to let the music breathe.”
Khruangbin’s rise, these past two years, has been fascinating. Here is a genuinely alternative prospect in an age of social media self-promotion, their low-key movements enabling them to cultivate a diverse and rabid fanbase worldwide. At the time of writing, the band’s top listening locations on Spotify stretch from Jakarta, Indonesia through to Amsterdam, the Netherlands and to the West Coast in the USA. It’s not unusual for Speer and Lee to look out to the crowd and see people on the front row donning the same jet-black wigs.
Although they relish their anonymity, Laura Lee admits that there is little you can do to alter the path when things get this big – you just have to sit back and enjoy the ride. “I think once you start a band, it has a life [of] its own. It’s like a child – you nurture as best you can, and at some point you just have to let it do whatever it wants to do. Obviously you’re a part of it, but it’s a different entity.”
The music industry’s shifting approach to music in a non-English language, or that’s been influenced by non-Western countries, has played a part in their rise too. In the last few years we’ve seen Spanish-language artists such as Rosalía, J Balvin and Bad Bunny achieve massive chart successes in the US, while K-pop acts such BTS are stadium-level live prospects. That’s undeniably a result of borderless streaming habits, but there’s got to be something else going on, right?
“Due to coronavirus the world has been given a big lesson about living in the moment” – Donald Johnson
Laura Lee agrees. “My parents – my mum and my step-dad – are both Mexican-American and their generation was trying to keep their Mexican [side] hidden because they needed to assimilate into their culture,” she says. “Now – and certainly [I see this] in myself – people are reaching for their culture because it’s what makes them unique. The songs that Mark and I used to DJ with – world funk, world boogie, world disco – everyone listens to that music now. At one point in time it was our little treasure, but now we’re really having to dig now to find stuff other people haven’t found yet.”
Yet Speer counters that, actually, listeners’ open-mindedness is nothing new. He points to the 1960s and 1970s, when major labels were pushing some pretty mind-expanding music to the public: “Audiences were into some weird stuff. Take Miles Davis, who was a global star, and a majority of it is… weird. It’s not your standard dinner-room jazz. Fans are willing to go for a ride with an artist.”
Khruangbin’s Houston origins, in particular, are fertile for their cross-pollination of ideas and influences. Texas’ most populous city is arguably its creative and cultural hub, and has produced its fair share of 21st-century icons: Beyoncé and Solange, Megan Thee Stallion and Travis Scott all hail from the city.
“Houston is a real melting-pot,” Johnson says. “There’s a lot of really unique fusions of cultures that happen here that wouldn’t elsewhere. Specifically on the food side, there’s a really amazing fusion of Vietnamese food and Cajun food here in Houston. You’ve got these two completely different cultures that are both influenced by French cuisine coming together to make something really special. It’s the same in the music.”
For Khruangbin, beyond the release of ‘Mordechai’, it’s now time to survey their rise and the world around them. They may not be able to go crate-digging on tour stops in every major city in the world, but they are taking stock of their journey so far.
“You have no idea how long it’s going to last when you’re starting out,” says Laura Lee. “The whole of last year was a real ‘Holy shit!’ moment. We set out to be a worldwide band – and we got it.”
This chimes with Johnson. “People on the outside look at our trajectory and go, ‘Oh, it happened so fast’,” he says. “But, y’know, not really. We’ve been at this for nearly 10 years, I have no idea how we ended up where we did. I think that [due to the coronavirus] the world has been given a big lesson about living in the moment. We can only take this band one day at a time.”
So there’s your plan for the aborted Glastonbury weekend; to try live in the now. It might not be quite the same as your usual late July weekend, but it’s the one we have – so cherish it. Bang ‘Mordechai’ on and remember all the good times down on Worthy Farm. And who knows? This time next year, you might well bump into Khruangbin deep in the Rabbit Hole without their wigs. If you do, just ask them how they are. They’ll appreciate it.
Khruangbin’s ‘Mordechai’ is out now.