Nothing sounds like Khruangbin.
Producing a sound that is both immediately recognisable and inexplicably hard to replicate is a talent few bands possess, but the Texas trio seem to subtly excel in it. Drawing influences from Thai, Spanish and Middle Eastern music, Khraungbin’s unique blend of mostly instrumental, slow-burning psychedelic funk has earned them boundless—albeit unexpected—success. This Friday, the band (comprised of Laura Lee Ochoa, Mark Speer, and Donald ‘DJ’ Johnson) release their highly anticipated third record, Mordechai, into a world that looks nothing like the one they wrote it in. I guess it’s safe to say their soulful, soothing sound couldn’t come at a better time.
In the lead up to the record’s release, I spoke with Khruangbin’s beat keeping backbone, DJ, about how the trio construct their songs, the methodology behind their music, and why the band took a different approach on Mordechai.
Hey DJ, thanks for taking the time to talk as I know there’s a lot going on in the US right now. Are you in Texas? What’s the energy like there right now with the protests?
Yeah, I’m in Houston. So, the protests happened maybe a week ago now. And of course, as you would imagine, the energy around this whole movement has been extremely tense. But I think Houston did a really good job of protesting peacefully. Everybody came together in the centre of the city—about 60,000 people went down and protested and let their voices be heard, and we’re really proud of that.
Things are kicking off in Australia too with our own protests and BLM movement around Indigenous deaths in custody. It’s amazing to see the whole world band together right now.
Yeah. I mean, it came off the heels of the world banding together to beat a virus and now we’re dealing with this other virus that we’ve been dealing with for hundreds of years, the virus of racism and inequality. So, hopefully, some change comes from everything that’s happening.
Yeah. It feels a bit strange to just pivot from that into all these music-related questions…
No, no, of course.
Okay, well firstly, going back in time a bit, is it true you were playing organ when you joined the band and actually hadn’t played drums in a while?
That is true, you did your homework! Mark and I were playing at the same church in downtown Houston, Texas. I grew up playing drums in church, and I think around my early teen years I kind of abandoned drums and started focusing more on keyboards and guitar. And that’s what I did for a while until Khruangbin formed and Mark and Laura asked if I would join the band as a drummer, and I just thought it would be cool to kind of get back into playing drums, you know, recreationally. But then here we are, ten years later, and it’s a full-on career.
Is getting back behind the drumkit kind of like riding a bike again? Like does it just come back to you?
Ah, it’s not like riding a bike for me—mentally, yes, because you know what you have to do, but physically, no, because you have to retrain those muscles and develop that muscle memory and strengthen those muscles that it takes that to play certain things. Particularly, for me, most of the stuff I was playing with Khruangbin early on—and still now—involved a lot of 16 note patterns on the hi-hat with the right hand and in order to keep that up for an entire song, your wrist has to be conditioned to do that.
Everyone’s talking about the addition of vocals on Mordechai. Lyrics and vocals have never been paramount to your music before—what changed?
Um, for me, I think it’s been a bit overstated, because early on, arguably our break out song was ‘White Gloves’ which had heavy vocals the whole way through, and then moving on to Con Todo El Mundo, we had ‘Lady and Man’ and ‘Friday Morning’ that had vocals, so it’s not something that we haven’t done. It’s just that on this record they’re a little more involved due to the way we approached it, and that’s because when we went in to record this record, we were touring extensively which didn’t leave a lot of time for planning ahead of the recording session so a lot of the stuff we put on this record was arranged at the recording session.
Normally, Mark would come in beforehand with these melodies and stuff already ironed out and this time we didn’t have the luxury of having the time to prepare for that so what ended up being played were more rhythmic guitar parts, which is awesome, and then when we got back to the studio, on the post production end of it, Mark had the option to go back and replay a lot of those parts and re-approach them and try to write melodies. But Laura had this notebook full of words and we decided to go down that path instead. I think the first song we did was ‘Time (You and I)’, and it would have been quite jarring for that song to be the only one on the record that had a ton of vocals on it so we decided to just keep going down that path.
Off the back of that, I’m super interested to learn more about how you guys construct a song, because it sounds so organic, like you just hit record and jam, but I know it’s much more methodical.
On the first two records, there was a bank of drums—basically, breakbeats that Mark and Laura were using. So Laura had these breakbeats on her computer, and she would play to these and then she’d send those, her bass track and the breakbeat to Mark, and he would chop it up, take out bits that he liked, piece them together and arrange them and then play guitar over it to make an arrangement out of it. Then we all listen to it and I try my best to mimic what I’m hearing. But this time around, I recorded a folder of the same type of drums and sent it to her and we did the same process. So, it’s very methodical, and that’s kind of always how we’ve worked. Early on, Mark and Laura worked that way not out of necessity, but because Laura was in London and Mark and I lived in Houston, so they’d ping pong ideas back and forth over the internet and a six-hour time difference to put things together and write. But that process works, and I think everyone works well individually as far as creating, and then when it’s time to record we come together and that’s the sound that happens.
I feel like your restraint and how refined your songs are is obviously intentional, like, what you leave out is just as important as what you put in. How do you get that balance right?
We always try to leave a bit of space in everything that we’re doing. If things get too cluttered, Mark’s really good at pulling all the faders down and bringing up one thing at a time and just leaving space for things to happen. He throws a lot of stuff at the wall and some stuff doesn’t stick, and the things that are important and sound good, you keep those, and the things that are kind of getting in the way, you move those and make room for something else to happen. But yeah, it’s very purposeful in its construction.
Right now, most of what’s considered the most “popular” music in the world is so electronically driven and overproduced, but you guys have kept it classic using real instruments—drums, guitar, bass, and little else. How important is it for you guys to keep that live and authentic sound?
Well, It’s important for me because if we start using a drum machine I’m out of a job! [Laughs]. But yeah, that’s a big part of our sound, the sound of the three of us playing together. A comment that we get a lot when we play live is, ‘Oh, you sound so much like your records’, and a big part of that is the fact that what you’re hearing on the records is the sound of the three of us playing together with minimal things happening around it and we try to make our records sound as close as possible to what you would hear if we played it live. And I think that’s another limitation that we place on ourselves—not to overproduce things, because, at the end of the day, three people have to play whatever we record, and if you tend to overproduce things, when you have to break it down to three people it’s going to sound like something’s missing, so whatever we add outside of the three of us playing, we make sure that it’s not crucial to the point that if it’s not there, it’s missing.
Finally, the music you make is obviously super chill, but what are you all like in real life? Do you bring that same energy to a dinner party?
Yeah! We’re all really chill people, no one’s over the top or super high energy or anything. We’re really chill and hopefully that comes out in the things that we make as well.