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Mark Speer never thought his band, Khruangbin, would have the chance to back Wu-Tang Clan at a big festival, or have the likes of hip-hop stalwarts Jay-Z and Jay Electronica rapping over their music. In fact, Speer says, the Houston instrumental trio was initially going to play only one show, opening for Robert Ellis at the now defunct local venue Fitzgerald’s in 2011. “We had disguises,” Speer says of the mod wigs that he and bassist Laura Lee Ochoa still don when they’re onstage. “And we had no aspirations for touring.” The band—composed of guitarist Speer, drummer Donald Ray “DJ” Johnson Jr., and Ochoa—made some DIY stickers and a three-song cassette, and played to an unenthused audience mostly there to see the Americana headliner.
While they didn’t make much of an impression that night, the three friends liked playing together and kept at it. Other bands around Houston were faster, louder, and cooler, and Khruangbin didn’t really slot into any scene at the time. “No one cared,” Johnson says with a chuckle. “We were just some band no one had heard of, and we’re playing some weird music.”
Nearly ten years on from that underwhelming Fitzgerald’s show, Khruangbin has a fervent following worldwide, and has performed at huge festivals from São Paulo to Glastonbury to Fuji Rock in Japan (back when festivals happened). Their songs have tens of millions of plays on Spotify, and an early seven-inch single they self-released might set you back $450. On the heels of their third album, Mordechai, out last week, Khruangbin are now one of the most popular rock bands to come out of Texas, one that’s often buzzed about internationally. “I honestly thought they were from overseas at first,” says Fort Worth soul singer Leon Bridges, who teamed up with the band for a dreamy four-song EP, Texas Sun. Bridges wanted to work with the band after falling “in love with the traditional Ethiopian, psychedelic, and funky nuances they incorporate in their sound,” he says. “Khruangbin is redefining the idea of what Texas music is.”
Rather than thunderous drum solos, crunching power chords, and wailing vocals that have traditionally defined rock music, Khruangbin works with hushed tones, textured melodies, and mellow moods. And after releasing two adored albums of drifting instrumental grooves that take their cues from Iranian disco, French yé-yé, Jamaican dub, Thai funk, and more, Mordechai offers up another curveball for the band: fully formed lyrics and ethereal pop hooks. “We wanted to make sure that sonically it wasn’t going to be pigeonholed as being derived from any one geographic location,” Laura Lee Ochoa says. “We made a point to make this album sound more worldwide in hopes that what that would actually sound like is Houston.” For Johnson, Jamaican dub is foundational to their sound, as is the legacy of DJ Screw.
“Khruangbin is as Houston as it gets,” writes Kam Franklin, the front woman and vocalist of Houston’s the Suffers, via email. “I hear the church, I hear the hip-hop, jazz, and endless cultural influences. But I also hear what happens when you grow up in the most culturally diverse city in the world.” While not willfully psychedelic, Khruangbin’s jams also fulfill the experimental promise of our state’s lysergic trailblazers like the 13th Floor Elevators, Bubble Puppy, and early ZZ Top, all while showing what the future of Texas music can be: multicultural and open-minded.
Speer and Johnson first met at downtown Houston’s Red Cat Jazz Cafe back in 2004, but didn’t wind up playing music together until a few years later. At the time, Johnson was half of the Houston hip-hop production duo Beanz N Kornbread—working with the likes of Slim Thug and Chamillionaire—but also played organ in the band at St. John’s United Methodist Church (famously known as Beyoncé’s church), where he connected with Speer. “Stylistically, Mark can play anything: church, club, he’s able to do both seamlessly and play just what’s needed,” Johnson says.
It was during those eight-hour Sunday sets that the seeds for Khruangbin took root, particularly with the nuanced instrumental vamps that riff off the service in real time. “You’re changing dynamics constantly, as you react to how the minister or singing is talking,” Speer explains. “That’s how you induce a hypnotic reaction to the music and get the congregation to reach a point where they can let go. We still try to bring our audience to that place.”
If the church was one of the pillars of Khruangbin’s sound, the other is an affinity for music from all over the world. Speer first met Ochoa in 2007 through a mutual friend; the two bonded over a BBC documentary about Afghan music. Soon Ochoa was hanging out in the backyard of the long-standing Houston venue Rudyard’s every Tuesday night with Speer and Johnson after their church band practice, and the three connected over music. All three had grown up in Houston, where they heard sounds from all over the globe. “I’d go to a friend’s house and their parents would be playing music—a lot of Vietnamese stuff, West African music, Indian music,” Speer says. “That’s not even counting all the norteño I would hear growing up.” At the time, Ochoa was studying the Thai language and was struck by the word for airplane—khruangbin—that became the band’s name.
As the three gushed about everything from French crooner Serge Gainsbourg and Iranian pop star Googoosh to the surreal surf guitar music that arose in Thailand in the seventies—in addition to all they could hear around their hometown—they set about crafting a sound that drew on the music they loved without appropriating cultures. “The music is formed by Texas and perhaps that’s the magic ingredient,” British down-tempo electronic music producer and early booster Bonobo writes via email. “But its influence runs far broader.” For Speer, Khruangbin’s success comes from paring everything down to its fundamentals, and focusing on bass and drums. Emphasizing those rhythms gave the band more space to draw on outside influences without sounding derivative.
Just as the three started making music, they ran into a problem: finding a decent place to practice. “Rehearsal spaces in Houston are expensive, and you’re right next to a really loud band and have to compete,” Speer says. “We didn’t want to do that; we wanted to be quiet.” So the three trekked out to the tiny Hill Country town of Burton, near Brenham, where Speer’s family had bought some acreage in the early eighties; he had spent many summers out there “playing the dirt.” “Technically, out there you could play as loud as you want to,” Johnson says. “But nothing about the Texas landscape says, ‘Play really loud, because that’s what these cows want to hear right now.’ The setting lends itself to playing the way we play.”
While the Speer family barn isn’t finished out as a proper studio or even insulated—it’s a big empty tin building with dirt floors—the space has become integral to the Khruangbin sound. Human neighbors can’t readily be seen, and the band is in the company of birds, bugs, and spiders instead. They laid down 2015’s The Universe Smiles Upon You and 2018’s Con Todo el Mundo, as well as Mordechai, out there. Khruangbin’s 2014 single, “A Calf Born in Winter,” was named after a birth the band witnessed on the ranch.
That song—which features Speer’s guitar slathered in copious reverb and Ochoa’s limber bass lines paced by Johnson’s unhurried snare—caught Bonobo’s ear. He befriended Speer and Ochoa back in 2010, when they played in Bonobo’s opening act Yppah. When Ochoa sent him the single, he was stunned. Bonobo included “Calf” on an influential compilation he was putting together, and the song found an audience in the U.K. When Khruangbin finally started performing overseas, they found fans waiting for them. As they released albums in 2015 then 2018, the band might have been relatively unknown in Texas, but they continued to resonate with fan bases in places like Peru, Japan, and Thailand.
But that unprecedented success, coupled with a near-constant touring schedule, began to wear on Khruangbin. Ochoa felt it acutely during festival season last summer. “You have one hour of bliss when you’re on stage, and that one hour was the only time I felt like I was home,” she says. “Which was a head fuck, because if the only time you feel at home is when you’re an alter ego of yourself performing, then …” She trails off and then breaks into a knowing laugh: “Who are you when the lights go down and the costume comes off?”
While on a break from tour last year, Ochoa was camping with some friends in California when she met a man named Mordechai, who invited her over for lunch one day. After months of backstage catering and the like, Ochoa was treated to a home-cooked meal by Mordechai’s wife. He then took her on a hike to a waterfall with his twin sons. Somewhere along the way, his sons started to get impatient. Their father reminded them that “It’s about the journey, not the destination,’” Ochoa recalls. “And I never thought about it like that. If that is the case, then why are we ever in a rush to get somewhere?” After reaching the waterfall, Ochoa jumped into the water, a feeling she likened to a baptism. Following that moment of clarity, she started writing and didn’t stop.
When I asked Ochoa why the band pivoted to full-blown lyrics for Mordechai—nearly every song features verses and choruses sung in unison—she just says: “It was time.” It’s fitting, given that Ochoa’s lyrics on the album touch on memory and take a long view of time itself. The music was all laid down before Ochoa’s baptism experience, the lyrics coming after and reflecting her newfound perspective. The crackling Latin percussion on “Pelota” and the sleek disco of the album’s first single, “Time (You and I),” stand out for their body-moving tempos. But listen closer to the lyrics of “Time” and the line “Time/ Forever/ You and I” gets repeated in a dozen languages. Elsewhere, the album moves at a languid pace, not unlike a hammock swinging in the muggy Houston air.
Slinking ballads like “Dearest Alfred” and “Father Bird, Mother Bird” are slow-moving and deeply psychedelic, in the tradition of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crystal Blue Persuasion” or Black Sabbath’s “Planet Caravan.” Meanwhile, “If There Is No Question” percolates thanks to Johnson’s hi-hats and Speer’s swirling Mellotron and an array of percussion: conga, tambourine, and cowbell. The chorus of “you’re not crazy” resonates as an assuring affirmation during an otherwise mad and maddening time.
Right now, at the height of the pandemic, Ochoa is far from her friends, family, and bandmates while quarantined at an apartment in Miami, Speer is in Oakland with his girlfriend, and Johnson is home in Houston. The band would have been on the road with fellow psych-explorers Tame Impala at this moment. But right now Khruangbin remains grounded and is making the most of an even longer break from the road. The three stay in touch constantly via text, waiting for whatever might come next. “I often tell people we’re the band that did everything wrong: we picked a name that no one could pronounce, we recorded in a barn that wasn’t a proper studio, we don’t even look like we all fit together,” Johnson says. “But that’s kinda the charm.”