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How a Thai Funk, Surf Soul Trio Named Khruangbin Found Their Groove in a Texas Barn

Listen to their debut LP 'The Universe Smiles Upon You' exclusively on Noisey.


Photo courtesy Khruangbin

Texas doesn't have much by way of a surf scene, nor does it have much of anything in common with Thailand, and yet it's a barn in the 300-person town of Burton, Texas that gave rise to the surf psych, Thai funk stylings of trio Khruangbin.

The name translates to "engine fly" in Thai, though generally refers to "airplane." It's a fitting homage to both the Thai funk cassettes of the 60s and 70s that brought the Houston-based group together, and their varied backgrounds and influences that range from gospel to hip-hop to Balearic house to field recordings from their own travels.

Khruangbin first turned heads last year with the video for their song "A Calf Born in Winter," which Bonobo featured on his Late Night Tales mix and eventually led to a record deal from label subsidiary Night Time Stories. They recorded their debut full-lenth, The Universe Smiles Upon You (out November 6), in the countryside barn where they held their first rehearsals, and the band still refers to that space and their long drives across the pastoral East Texas landscape as their "spiritual home."

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The resulting album doesn't sound rooted in any one place or time, but instead feels more universal—a self-contained sense of home. Tracks range from the infectious, undeniable funk of "People Everywhere (Still Alive)" to "White Gloves," a first foray into vocals for the primarly instrumental group.

That sense of home remains more important than ever for Khruangbin, as bassist Laura Lee recently relocated to London while guitarist Mark Speer and drummer Donald Johnson remain in Houston.

I reached out to Lee to learn more about the album, the band's transatlantic songwriting process, and recording in that Texas barn. Read on and listen to a full stream of The Universe Smiles Upon You below.

NOISEY: Khruangbin has a very distinct, specific sound. What are each of your musical backgrounds and influences?
Laura Lee: I think the whole band has a foundation in soul and R&B music. Individually, I have an affinity for psychedelic music, dub and groovy French pop music. Mark delves deep into music from all over the world, namely Ethiopia, Thailand, Jamaica, and the Near East, and DJ has roots in gospel and works in hip-hop and rap production as Beanz in Beanz N Kornbread.

Is the sound on Universe what the group strived for from the outset, or is it something that developed over time? How has that evolved?
We never really set out for a specific sound. I think we decided to go with a very playful intention, and let our influences or the time of day or the feelings that surrounded us influence what was happening. Due to us having been listening to a lot of Thai funk from the 60s and 70s at the start of the band, those influences were very strong in our early music, and over time it has drifted into different places. But anytime we’re looking for some inspiration, we always go back to those Thai cassettes.

Given the band’s range and combination of musical influences, what is the group’s songwriting process like?
It basically starts with bass. Now that I’m in London, I record bass over one of several drum loops that Mark has given me. I send it to Mark, he records guitar over it, and then when we go to play it, DJ plays the drums he feels would suit the track.

What brought you to London, and what have you been doing there? How has your time there influenced you, musically?
I came to London for romance. And through that came a world of things "meant to be" in so many ways. I’ve never felt more at home than I do here, I’ve never had such overwhelmingly beautiful and lovely friends, and Khruangbin has really taken flight since my arrival, almost immediately. In terms of musical influence, I think the biggest things that have happened are a deeper appreciation and understanding of the history of soul, house, disco and balearic music. And regarding Khruangbin, it made me realisze that we can stay true to ourselves when it comes to making music, because people have been so receptive to our natural sound.

Chemistry feels especially important to the success of your music. How does the band maintain that, now that you live in different places?
It’s hard—not even so much with the distance, but with the time difference. It will be the evening for me when it’s the morning for them, and it’s difficult to really be in the same headspace. We do our best given our limitations. We’re always in contact on text, phone, and online; Skype whenever possible to just sort of hang out, and we share music every week to keep sharing influences and feelings we’re having on a regular basis.

Was it always the plan to record the album in a non-traditional space?
Everything we’ve written and recorded has been out in the barn, and I think when you have the ability to record in a space like that… how could you not? It feels like the band’s home, and the spaciousness of the countryside gives off an incredible feeling and a certain sense of natural environment that I hope comes through in the record.

The songs on Universe have an almost improvisational feel to them. What was the recording process like, in that sense? Was each track refined over multiple takes, or was it more of a bust-it-out, on-to-the-next-one vibe?
It’s more of a bust-it-out track vibe. We didn’t have any songs properly written, except for "Dern Kala" and "August Twelve," which we’d played several times in our former Houston days, but hadn’t released. So, most of the songs were written on the day, and we’d motion to each other when it was time to go to the next part, and that’s how it was made. We like that feeling of freshness to the songs that comes from playing things for basically the first time. The hard part was actually going back and trying to learn what we played on that day as a reference to the live shows.

How and why did the band decide to start incorporating vocals? Why weren’t they a part of your music initially?
I think we never had them initially because we were too terrified to sing; we were comfortable being an instrumental band. And I still really love that we are still semi-instrumental. It brings attention to music, which is something that’s overlooked sometimes. The most common question we’d get asked was, “Are there going to be vocals?” We skirted around the issue, thought maybe we’d have a singer sit in, but decided we needed to suck it up and get over our fear of singing.

Why does the band choose to sing collectively, rather than delegate vocal duties to one person?
Neither Mark nor I wanted to be a "singer" in the traditional sense, so we thought that we’d sing collectively to create a more psychedelic sound, and it seems fitting as we write the lyrics together. It feels right to sing together, and we’re really fond of the result.

Several of the songs use field recordings from your and Mark’s travels. Were they recorded with the intention of being used in your music? Why did you choose to record the moments that you did?
The sounds create a certain atmospheric quality to the music, add a very subtle texture to the background, and taking things from around the world makes it feel universal. Mark always had the habit of recording sounds. He’s into sounds, to say it plainly. Sometimes he’d record something and send it to me, so I started doing the same—no limitations on what [it was] that way. When it came time to do the album, we knew that we wanted to use the recordings as a sound bed. In terms of the moments we chose, we tried to find things that related to the mood to the songs. On “Dern Kala,” we used recordings of Thai children watching elephants play, as the song is about Dern Kala, the name of a children’s game in Thailand where they tie half of a coconut to the bottom of their feet and race to a finish line. On "People Everywhere," we used the combination of sounds from village gatherings in Greece and in Mexico to give it a party feel.

What’s next?
Next year, we’re planning on touring quite a bit and doing as many UK/European festivals as we can over the summer. We’d also really like to do an American run (or two), so fingers and toes and everything crossed. And we hope to record at the end of next year for a 2017 release. Basically, we’re going to do everything we can to make this Khruangbin fly.

The Universe Smiles Upon You is out November 6 on Night Time Stories. Pre-order the album on Bandcamp and via Late Night Tales.

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