Texas is an expansive state, with much distance between its sprawling cities. The amount of time we spend in cars—as well as the moods that experience evokes—is precisely what the instrumental Houston trio Khruangbin and Fort Worth R&B standout Leon Bridges aimed to recreate on their four-song EP, Texas Sun, released last week on Dead Oceans.
That’s especially evident on the EP’s title track—it uses three distinct styles of guitar playing (Spanish, country pedal steel, and psychedelic) to at once nod to the deep palette of genres found within Texas and capture the feeling of a cross-state road trip. And on “Midnight,” a New Orleans second-line-inspired track, Bridges sings of a bittersweet teenage love affair that involved clandestine drives.
Gospel, zydeco, underground Texas rap, country, R&B, and Tejano music are all layered on the album—led by Khruangbin’s Mark Speer on guitar, Laura Lee on bass, and DJ Johnson on drums, and featuring Leon Bridges on writing and singing duties—to produce a sound that’s distinctly of the Lone Star State. Lee and Bridges chatted with Texas Monthly about what went into making the album, their teenage adventures in sneaking out, and music they weren’t allowed to listen to growing up.
Texas Monthly: Where did y’all record this stuff? Was it at the barn?
Laura Lee: Yeah! The thought started while we were on tour with Leon. He’d told us he liked to sing over our tracks from the old records and expressed interest in working together. So before we’d gone on tour with him, Khruangbin had gone to the studio to record a bunch of ideas that were in the vault that we wanted to get down. And one of the songs ended up being a song that became really fitting for Leon. So I gave it to him on tour.
Then the next morning he sent it back to me with words on it. And it was like, well, let’s go record this in the studio. We couldn’t do it at the barn because the barn is a whole situation … You have to book out two weeks to just take all the equipment out there, so it was much easier for us to do this in Houston at the studio where we do all of our mixing and editing and overdubs, which is our friend Steve’s work-live warehouse space. He’s our engineer, we’ve worked with him on every album. Khruangbin has never recorded anything without him. So we recorded in his spot in Houston in east downtown. He’s got his two cats. It’s very much like a living room situation. Actually, my old sofa and rug are in his studio, so it’s particularly homey to me.
TM: Which song was that?
LL: It didn’t make the EP. We actually went into the studio to record that song and a B-side with the intention of putting out a single. And then everybody kind of heard it and was like, “No, we should record more songs.”
Texas Monthly: Tell me about “Texas Sun.”
LL: So in that first session whenever there were any spaces or gaps between recording and we were just sort of sitting there, Leon would almost always pick up a guitar and strum and sing, and so our recording engineer set up a room mic so that we captured Leon singing the things that he was singing, and one of them was “Texas Sun.”
Leon is just one of those people who just sings. He just sings all the time. I don’t know how many of the lyrics that he just randomly spits out are things that he’s worked on before, or if they just come out naturally, but he has an incredible voice and he loves to use it. And it’s a really beautiful thing to be around in the studio. So that was one of the things he sang, and then Khruangbin took a few days in the studio afterwards and just wrote the instrumentation around his vocals, and then we added the bridge that’s in there. Mark and I were kind of thinking about just what “Texas Sun” means to us, and then talking to Leon about it, and what we ended up writing a bridge about was kind of what it’s like to be Texas musicians that are never in Texas.
TM: Leon, was the hook just like a phrase that you started chanting to yourself in the studio? Where did that come from?
LB: Texas Sun. I wanted to capture a vibe that embodies the essence of Texas.
Laura: I think the sun is a thing that unifies the whole state. Like, obviously Marfa looks very different from Dallas or Houston or Austin, but the one consistent thing when you’re on the road in Texas is that. The sun. There’s no other state that I’ve been to that has the same magnitude of the sun that Texas does, because there’s so much space.
TM: When it was originally being written, Leon, were you thinking about it in the first person like you being a son of Texas? Or were you thinking more literally or metaphorically about the sun in Texas?
LB: Definitely not metaphorical. I’m really inspired by Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan, so that song is kind of like my way of writing about Texas in the way that they would write about it.
TM: Can you talk a little bit about the different influences converging on “Texas Sun” and the album?
LL: Pretty much every Khruangbin album has Will Van Horn on it, who is our pedal steel player, and an amazing friend. So we really wanted him to be on this project throughout because pedal steel is one of those instruments that comes out in a lot of Texas songs, and it’s on “C-Side” that he is really present. Chase Jordan, who is our [vibraphone] player, and friend, has a really beautiful moment on there as well. But the accordion is played by somebody who I believe Mark played in a zydeco band with. Mark’s a big fan of zydeco and the role it plays in certain parts of Texas. But yeah, we really wanted to put accordion on that song as a sort of wink to … I mean, there’s accordion in Mexican music and Cajun music that both appear in Texas a lot. I don’t know if everyone hears it. I mean I certainly hear it every time, but I like it because the song sounds like a highway, and at the end the accordion kind of gives it a little lift. It’s tucked away a little bit, but it’s enough to where you’re like, “Oh, yeah!”
TM: I thought it was a great nod to Zydeco and Tejano music. I just love it so much.
LB: My family had to relocate to Houston post-Katrina, so that little moment of accordion which ties in the whole zydeco vibe is just beautiful.
TM: Wow. I never knew that, man. I’m glad y’all are all right. Hopefully?
LB: Oh, yeah. Everybody’s good.
TM: Good, good. That was a happy ending to that story. Can you tell me about the ethos behind “Midnight” and how it ties into the EP?
LB: Well, each song is like a little vignette of some of my experiences growing up in Texas, and “Midnight” is a story of young love. It’s about this girl that I would kick it with back in the day. I was pretty crazy about her but, unfortunately, my mother wasn’t so keen on me kicking it with her, so we would have to kick it on the down low. And so this is basically about making love in the backseat of my mom’s car.
TM: Did you ever used to sneak out back in the day? Like sneak out of your house?
LB: I never snuck out of my house, but I’ll tell you what I used to do when I got off of my restaurant job after hours. I would go over to her house in Poly, which is a pretty rough area in Fort Worth. But she had something special about her, so I had no other choice.
TM: Laura, could you talk about “Midnight?”
LL: Leon smashed the hook. And I think the sentiment of all those years of your life where you’re having that first or second romance, where you’re sneaking around, is part of everyone’s life. I definitely snuck out of the house. I had to figure out how to turn off the alarm system without my parents hearing. I’d cough really loud, like, pretend I was having a coughing fit, and then just disarm the alarm. I remember rollerblading across town to see a guy because I didn’t have a car, so that was the only way I could get there.
TM: Oh my god.
LB: That’s amazing.
LL: [laughs] So, yeah, “Midnight” is that thing and it’s really sweet. But, you know, there is a very Texas-y thing about it in terms of driving your car around the neighborhood. That’s such a thing: making out in a car in Texas.
LB: [laughs] Yeah.
LL: And yeah, we kind of just riffed off of Leon’s hooks. I was really excited about “Midnight” because I’m a big nineties R&B person. It felt like the first time I got to work on a song that has those elements. That was my favorite song on the EP for a long time for that reason.
LB: I was blown away by the arrangement that y’all came up with for that song because the demo that I sent of my stupid-ass guitar stuff … sounded nothing like that. Y’all totally made it really cool.
TM: How about “C-Side” and “Conversion?”
LL: So “C-Side” was a jam session. I’m very open about not being comfortable quote-unquote “jamming” [laughs], but what we did with this one was such a success. We were playing around with the music, and then Leon came over and just started singing. At first, they were “oohs” and then they turned into words. And then we ended up riffing on the song for like forty minutes and it was DJ and Steve really that were able to whittle it down to the length that it is now. And then we had Leon come back and rerecord the vocals over it.
I think when people think about what happens in the studio, they envisage this thing where musicians walk in and things just happen, but it doesn’t always happen that way. This was one where it kind of did, though.
LB: When I first heard the tune, it felt like a New Orleans kind of second-line vibe to me. So when I say, “Let’s lose ourselves in this second line,” that’s because the whole tune felt like a late night rendezvous in the French Quarter somewhere.
LL: Marvin Gaye’s I Want You is one of my favorite albums of all time, and I listened to it a lot when we were recording this album and it was like finally, on “C-Side,” the album kind of got to have the feeling of that record. There’s a point where you just feel like you’re in a club, and we tried to do that with the way that the vocals are layered on top. We tried to make that vibe with our background vocals.
LB: Yeah! I love that the album has range. You know, each song has its own character. Also what I love about y’all, what I love about Khruangbin and myself, is that we’re not afraid to use twang. Just being real about incorporating those elements that are unique to the South. Unique to Texas.
TM: The last song is “Conversion,” and that song seems like it has a really deep meaning for Leon.
LB: Well, to give you some backstory, “Conversion” is … I wrote that song in like 2012. It was one of the first songs that I wrote and it was basically my response to being converted to Christianity. I grew up going to church, but only because my parents went, so I had to go. It wasn’t until I got older that I had that spiritual awakening. “Conversion” was basically my response to that.
At the time I was listening to a lot of underground hip-hop, so that definitely influenced my phrasing and lyricism in that song. I put it on the back burner, pre-Coming Home, and it’s really awesome that it’s able to see the light of day. I never thought that I would do anything with it.
LL: Yeah. I think from Khruangbin’s perspective, there is a long-standing history of gospel music in our lives—way more for Mark and DJ—because they played in a church together for ten years, so they’ve both been inspired by gospel music. And then when I met Mark and DJ and I started going to the church they were playing at, it was a whole new world for me. So I think having a gospel tune on the EP feels very Texas and it feels like somewhere in the Venn diagram of Khruangbin and Leon.
It was one of my favorite moments of the recording session because DJ is pretty stoic. He’s always steady thinking, his face doesn’t always light up, but when Leon started playing this song … And then at the end he transitions into a classic hymn and DJ had been playing that hymn his whole life, but Leon played it in a minor key and DJ had never heard it like that. And DJ got really excited, and went to the piano and started playing with Leon. It was like a home run. For me, now it’s my favorite song on the record. I find it incredibly powerful.
TM: Leon, I know you’ve said that you weren’t allowed to listen to a whole lot of rap music growing up. Are there songs or artists that you might have had to sneak around to listen to when you were younger?
LB: Yeah, well, I mean, when I was younger I was more into R&B music. And so I would sneak and listen to Ginuwine. Actually, the first album that I ever owned was 8701 by Usher. It was a gift from my father. My parents were separated at that time, so I had to hide that CD from my mom, even though it wasn’t all that bad.
TM: What about you, Laura?
LL: Big Pun! “Still Not a Player.” I still love that song so much. I mean, it is filthy and I had no idea what I was singing about when I would sing along to him. But there were a lot of those CDs that I didn’t want the radio edit of and you’d have to get somebody to buy the CD for you at the time. I had a friend in my neighborhood who would help me and it was just those parental advisory CDs that I had to keep on the down low. I didn’t really have to hide too much most of the time, but certainly in my CD pack of like one hundred CDs or whatever they were at the time, I wouldn’t have had that one front and center.