That three Houstonians play music inspired by funk cassettes from Thailand is only the second-most novel thing about Khruangbin (roughly, “airplane,” in Thai). More unexpected is that the group’s sound originated inside a barn in Burton, population 298, thirteen miles west of Brenham. “There’s a lot of cows outside and zero Wi-Fi inside,” says drummer Donald Johnson (pictured, at right), who records there with bassist Laura Lee and guitarist Mark Speer. Their new album, Con Todo el Mundo, expands on the group’s 2015 debut, drawing on music from the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Johnson explains how all these far-flung influences came together.
The origin of Khruangbin.
I met Mark at St. John’s [United Methodist Church], where we played together every week. After Mark met Laura, they stumbled upon this blog [monrak plengthai.blogspot.com] of vintage Thai funk, which is when their love affair with that music began. I was the natural fit as the drummer.
What he knew about Thai funk before that.
Why Houston matters.
Being surrounded by so many cultures opens your mind up. It could be as simple as going to your favorite Vietnamese restaurant, and while you’re eating your pho, you Shazam a Vietnamese pop song you hear on the P.A. [Shazam is a smartphone app that can identify a song being played on a stereo system.] Then you’re down the rabbit hole.
How his other music gig fits in.
I’m half of the hip-hop production duo Beanz N Kornbread. We’ve worked with guys like Paul Wall, Slim Thug, and Z-Ro. A lot of what I’m playing in Khruangbin are breakbeats, which are the part of a record where the music cuts out and the drums keep going. In the early days of hip-hop, people took those sections, looped them, and then added samples for rappers to rap over. Two of the most famous breakbeats are from James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” and the Incredible Bongo Band’s version of “Apache.” Those are some of the same records that influenced the Southeast Asians. What’s been amazing about Khruangbin is how what seems foreign ultimately isn’t that foreign at all.
The worst crowd they ever played for.
Making this latest record, we had a bee infestation in the barn. I’m terrified of bees, so our engineer found just enough of a cell signal to Google “How to peacefully relocate bees.” Winds up, they don’t like metallic banging sounds or low frequencies. So Laura set up her bass amp where the bees were, and we sort of made a tunnel for them to get out. She played a low bass sound, and Mark banged on cymbals. A few minutes later, they all split. I guess we weren’t their thing.
Listen to Khruangbin’s newest track, “Friday Morning.”