Khruangbin, the internet’s favourite jam band, on returning to their roots

Khruangbin, the internet’s favourite jam band, on returning to their roots
  • PublishedJune 9, 2024

They’re Texan, born and bred, but Khruangbin’s sound has always been decidedly multicultural.

Named after the Thai word for airplane (Khruangbin literally translates to ‘engine fly’), the Houston trio soak up sounds from non-Western cultures and bygone decades, and spin it into a globetrotting fusion of vintage funk, soul, psych, disco and dub.

A fine example of how their balmy, cosmopolitan grooves span continents and eras is 2017 fan favourite Maria También.

It’s a borderless blend of blaxploitation funk, African-steeped guitar, middle eastern groove and Texan grit, all presented with a Spanish song title and an accompanying music video featuring archival footage of Iranian women in the thrall of a 1979 revolution.

Industry logic would dictate that Khruangbin’s difficult-to-categorise sound was destined to be a cult concern. But quite the opposite has come to pass since this trio — guitarist Mark Speer, bassist Laura Lee Ochoa and drummer DJ Johnson — emerged in the early 2010s.

Their easy-listening appeal has seen them grow from ‘best kept secret’ to arguably indie music’s number one (mostly) instrumental group.

A festival fixture capable of selling out shows wherever they go, Khruangbin’s last album, 2020’s Mordechai, debuted at #4 in Australia and reached the top 10 in the UK and across Europe.

For their follow-up and fourth proper album, A La Sala, the internet’s favourite, cross-cultural jam band decided that rather than divine inspiration from ever further-flung musical inspirations, they’d return to the synergy that first brought the band together.

“We tapped into ourselves more than ever on this record,” DJ Johnson tells Veronica Milsom on Double J.

“Matter of fact”, he points out, “two of the songs” have been hanging around since the band’s 2015 debut album The Universe Smiles Upon You.

“It was really interesting to get back to those with a mature sense of musicianship, now that we’ve put out more music and toured around the world. You come back to those songs you had originally with a different approach.”

More of the same quality music

The new 12-song effort hearkens back to a time before Khruangbin became the inescapable soundtrack at hip cafes and coffee shops the world over, when the trio were just making music for themselves.

This back-to-basics approach also follows a prolific few years, which included remix projects, multiple live albums, plus joint EPs with Texan singer Leon Bridges (Texas Moon and Texas Sun) and Ali, a collaborative album with Vieux Farka Touré, on Ali, named in tribute to his father, legendary Malian musician Ali Farka Touré.

“We all liked our earlier stuff the most,” says Laura Lee Ochoa.

“We’d gotten to the place where that was our favourite Khruangbin. And it changes. Your favourite song changes, your favourite eras change.

“But I think we were appreciating where we came from and were trying to get back there.”

From the dusty breakbeats and dexterous guitar twang of ‘Juegos y Nubes’ to the warm, lyrical melodies of ‘A Love International’ and ‘May Ninth’, the new material most closely evokes Khruangbin’s earliest records.

Like their best work, it’s smooth enough to zone out to as background music but with enough detail and idiosyncratic charm to zone in and reward your attention.

The only recurring complaint to be found, among fans and critics alike, is that A La Sala simply offers more of the same.

“There’s been some funny memes about how our new stuff sounds like exactly like our old stuff. I was like ‘Cool, well done to us’,” Ochoa laughs.

She says it’s “hard not to” pay attention to what is said about Khruangbin online. 

“I’m definitely at a place where I have a healthy separation from it and I don’t take anything too deeply,” Ochoa says.

“Or I try not to. But you know, the internet’s just there and it’s fun and I kind of appreciate all sides of the coin. You can use it as a tool if you want.”

Far from being a bad thing, offering more of their winning formula is exactly what Khruangbin’s ever-growing fanbase desires.

The group’s popularity has prompted increased demand for sound-alikes. Plug “bands like Khruangbin” into a search engine and you’ll be greeted with countless recommendations.

Choose your strain: There’s East Asian Krautrock Khruangbin (Holland’s Yin Yin), Swedish pop Khruangbin (Stockholm’s Dina Ögon), black market Khruangbin (Australia’s own Glass Beams) and plenty more acts populating thousands of playlists with names like ‘Khruangbin vibes’.

For many, however, you can’t beat the original article.

The importance of home, family and the farm

A La Sala translates as ‘To The Room’ from Spanish – the phrase a childhood Laura Lee used to shout “around my house to get everyone to the living room to be together,” she explains.

“Really loudly and point my finger. It was very demanding, and I wasn’t a very demanding kid.”

Ochoa, who gave birth to her first child in 2023, says the album has a “general theme of family and togetherness”. 

With the band members’ lives spread across the United States (Laura Lee in New York, Mark in California, Johnson in Texas), the album became Ochoa’s way of saying “go to the living room”.

That idea of a proverbial homecoming extends to the seven different covers created for the album, each taking in a dreamy window view out onto cloudscapes, and the globetrotting trio reconvening to the Lone Star State to make the record during a rare year off from touring.

The intimate sound of three people playing in a room together has always been central to Khruangbin’s process.

The majority of their catalogue was born in a rustic barn in Burton, a tiny town situated between the bustling cities of Austin and the band’s native Houston.

A writing room, rehearsal space and recording studio, the barn has become so crucial to Khruangbin’s sound that the trio have described it as a fourth band member.

So, it felt taboo when, this time around, they decided to record A La Sala at Terminal C, the recording space of their long-time engineer, Steve Christensen: a certified cat person.

“He’s the neighbourhood cat caretaker,” Johnson notes. “He puts food out for them so they come by to eat.”

Ochoa estimates there was “at least 26” feline guests. “[Steve] knew every single one. Had names for all of them.”

No cats ended up on tape but Ochoa says they did make use of ambient sound to achieve a sense of homely atmosphere.

“[We’d] pump cricket sounds and field noise into the studio as we recorded to put ourselves in the headspace of being in the barn.”

The night-time ambience and distant cicadas that bookend the record is “the sound of Texas at night”, field recordings captured by guitarist Mark Speer.

“Mark is the master of foley,” says Ochoa, although she’s been known to make recordings while playing shows around the world.

“I got some really great foley the last time we were on tour in Australia,” she remembers. 

“Specifically, a marketplace — a food hall in Adelaide.

“We didn’t end up using any of it, but I remember being so excited… So rarely do you get people eating and talking with no music.”

Ochoa is also thrilled about obtaining a “getting ready” road case for the band’s extensive global tour plans.

It’s also where she keeps the wigs.

Ever since their debut Khruangbin performance in 2011, Ochoa and Speer have worn black wigs. Whether playing live or conducting interviews, they are rarely seen without them.

It’s a visual signature that also preserves a sense of mystery, and crucially, privacy.

“No pictures of Mark or Laura Lee without their wigs,” reads a well-respected house rule on the popular r/Khruangbin subreddit forum.

“They’re pretty easy to manage,” says Ochoa. “There’s just a lot of them.”

“How many? Enough to not worry about it. Enough to know that when I need to grab one for an interview there’s one accessible or whatever. There’s lots of occasions where I need one, so I have them stashed.”


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