Khruangbin interview: 'Now we know how The Beatles felt about touring'

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They're only in their various homes on computer screens but the wigs are on for Khruangbin's interview. Both bassist Laura Lee and guitarist Mark Speer sport heavy, feature-concealing black fringes and hair to their shoulders when on stage too. Donald "DJ" Johnson, usually at the back behind a drumkit, somehow avoids this requirement, perhaps because he barely speaks, so is unlikely to draw extra attention anyway.

"I don't want to be famous," is how Speer explains the look. For this conversation he's disguised himself still further by sitting in a room lit by one dim red bulb. "I never wished for success. I just didn't want to struggle to pay rent.

I want to be able to live a normal life. If I walked down the street wearing this, people would recognise me and want to talk to me, and I don't want to talk to anybody." With that gnarly name (Khruangbin is pronounced "Krung-bin" and means "airplane" in Thai), and largely instrumental guitar music that takes its inspiration from India and the Far and Middle East, it's easy to believe the claim that they aren't fame-hungry musical mercenaries.

Nobody gets into making songs that sound like a late-Seventies Bollywood soundtrack for the money. It's doubtful they decided to record a dub version of their second album last year to fund a private jet habit. Yet the Houston-formed trio are becoming increasingly significant.

They headlined the 5,000-capacity Brixton Academy in December. Four of their songs have been played over 20 million times on Spotify, where they appear on playlists with titles such as Quarantine and Chill, Modern Psychedelia and --ahem -- Weed & Trip. Their third album proper, released next week, sees them singing more frequently and upping the leisurely pace here and there.

It's a retro, funky, impeccably cool listen that ought to make them even bigger. The only problem is they have to promote it from their homes in Houston (DJ), Oakland, California (Speer) and upstate New York (Lee) without the gigs that have done so much for their reputation. The three of them last played a show at Le Bataclan in Paris in December and haven't been together in person since February. "I was in Houston briefly and saw DJ's and our engineer's cars and Mark's truck all parked together -- though they weren't there -- and immediately started crying," says Lee.

What will they do when they finally meet in person? "Eat. And hugs," says Johnson.

The best albums of 2020 so far

11 show all

1/11

Getty Images

2/11 Dua Lipa - Future Nostalgia

Future Nostalgia arrived at the end of March, a ray of light to pierce the lockdown gloom. It was a shot at writing something timeless, taking strands of classic disco and Eighties synth-pop and putting them through a slick, modern filter.

On standout tracks such as Don't Start Now and Cool, Dua Lipa hit her target. More than anything though, this was something defiantly fun, a heartening reminder that there are brighter times ahead. Getty Images

3/11 Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher

It would be easy to label Punisher as a sad album, because it is, with heartache and despondency always within an arm's reach.

But to simply call it that would be to grossly undersell it -- the album, also out today, is cathartic, nostalgic, surreal, grounded, darkly comic and, more often than not, weepingly beautiful. The disarming vocals are morbidly quotable ("The doctor put her hands over my liver /She told me my resentment's getting smaller") and confirm the 25-year-old Bridgers as one of her generation's deftest writers. Getty Images for Tibet House

4/11 Tame Impala - The Slow Rush

It took some time to fall in love with Kevin Parker's latest album as Tame Impala.

Its layers were dense and meticulously produced, a product of the Australian's dogged perfectionism, but when they did eventually unravel, the album's brilliance was revealed in vivid colour. There was squelchy hip-hop and tap-dancing piano on Borderline, alluring -sophisto-funk on Breathe Deeper, and dizzying disco on One More Year. Parker's lyrics were typically conflicted, stuck between past and future, but musically, he'd never sounded so assured.

AFP via Getty Images

5/11 Fiona Apple - Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Fiona Apple's fifth album was eight years in the making, and sounded as if it had been simmering for all that time. It was inescapably personal, rattling with homemade percussion, grinding against Apple's visceral vocals as she retold traumas of sexual abuse and toxic relationships. But it all coalesced to give momentum to a magnificent release of tension, the sound of a furiously convinced artist. "Kick me under the table all you want," she asserted, "I won't shut up."

Getty Images

6/11 Run The Jewels - RTJ4

When Killer Mike, one half of Run The Jewels, wrote Walking In The Snow ("You so numb, you watch the cops choke out a man like me") he was remembering the tragic death of Eric Garner in 2014. It should have been retrospective; instead, it was hideously prophetic, arriving on RTJ4 amid the George Floyd protests. But these were wide-lens raps -- joined by partner El-P, they fired lyrical missiles at the racist police and ruling elite, interspersing it with cutting quips and dark humour.

Painful, prescient, and hugely powerful. Getty Images for DIRECTV

7/11 J Hus - Big Conspiracy

Big Conspiracy was the sound of an artist taking his time. The eclectic beats, largely provided by -chameleonic producer Jae5, avoided the usual bombast for something understated.

The lyrical gaze was sharp, ranging from the legacy of slavery to the grind of everyday life, all of it recounted with clever wordplay. It wouldn't be a Hus album without tales of at least one sexual conquest -- the song Cucumber provides it -- but all in all, never has the east Londoner been so searingly composed. Getty Images for Nike

8/11 Bob Dylan - Rough and Rowdy Ways

Bob Dylan's 39th studio album, released today, might just be one of his greatest.

Before this, eight years had passed without any new original music. Had the old master lulled himself into retirement? The surprise release of a 17-minute song about the JFK assassination did away with any doubts.

It's a densely lyrical album, a poetic and historical tapestry, proving that, at 79, the Nobel Prize-winner is still at the peak of his songwriting powers. AFP via Getty Images

9/11 Georgia - Seeking Thrills

Georgia's exhilarating second album landed back in January (oh, those halcyon days) and was the sound of an artist brimming with new-found conviction. Arriving five years after her debut, she had finally found her voice -- quite literally, shunning the over-produced vocals of before -- and a winning musical formula: retro-tinted dance pop, pairing the throbbing echoes of Chicago house with sharp modern melodies.

Hollie Fernando

10/11 Orlando Weeks - A Quickening

Former Maccabees frontman Orlando Weeks took a mature step away from his indie-rock past on his debut solo album, supplanting it with soft, cloudy atmospheres. A Quickening covered his impending fatherhood, and all of the unknowingness that comes with it. It was minutely intimate -- "I'll be your blood sugar", he pledged to the unborn child -- with his vocals at their most tender and innocent.

Jackson Bowley

11/11 Laura Marling - Song For Our Daughter

Another album to ease the pandemic blues, Laura Marling had initially planned an August release, but brought it forward to April. It had an effortlessly classic sound to it -- the folky tones of Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake chimed throughout -- but this album was undoubtedly Marling's own. Her vocals were soaring, sardonic and soothing, singing with all the wisdom of an artist who, still only 30, now has seven albums' worth of experience behind her.

Getty Images

1/11

Getty Images

2/11 Dua Lipa - Future Nostalgia

Future Nostalgia arrived at the end of March, a ray of light to pierce the lockdown gloom. It was a shot at writing something timeless, taking strands of classic disco and Eighties synth-pop and putting them through a slick, modern filter. On standout tracks such as Don't Start Now and Cool, Dua Lipa hit her target.

More than anything though, this was something defiantly fun, a heartening reminder that there are brighter times ahead. Getty Images

3/11 Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher

It would be easy to label Punisher as a sad album, because it is, with heartache and despondency always within an arm's reach. But to simply call it that would be to grossly undersell it -- the album, also out today, is cathartic, nostalgic, surreal, grounded, darkly comic and, more often than not, weepingly beautiful.

The disarming vocals are morbidly quotable ("The doctor put her hands over my liver /She told me my resentment's getting smaller") and confirm the 25-year-old Bridgers as one of her generation's deftest writers. Getty Images for Tibet House

4/11 Tame Impala - The Slow Rush

It took some time to fall in love with Kevin Parker's latest album as Tame Impala. Its layers were dense and meticulously produced, a product of the Australian's dogged perfectionism, but when they did eventually unravel, the album's brilliance was revealed in vivid colour.

There was squelchy hip-hop and tap-dancing piano on Borderline, alluring -sophisto-funk on Breathe Deeper, and dizzying disco on One More Year. Parker's lyrics were typically conflicted, stuck between past and future, but musically, he'd never sounded so assured. AFP via Getty Images

5/11 Fiona Apple - Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Fiona Apple's fifth album was eight years in the making, and sounded as if it had been simmering for all that time.

It was inescapably personal, rattling with homemade percussion, grinding against Apple's visceral vocals as she retold traumas of sexual abuse and toxic relationships. But it all coalesced to give momentum to a magnificent release of tension, the sound of a furiously convinced artist. "Kick me under the table all you want," she asserted, "I won't shut up." Getty Images

6/11 Run The Jewels - RTJ4

When Killer Mike, one half of Run The Jewels, wrote Walking In The Snow ("You so numb, you watch the cops choke out a man like me") he was remembering the tragic death of Eric Garner in 2014.

It should have been retrospective; instead, it was hideously prophetic, arriving on RTJ4 amid the George Floyd protests. But these were wide-lens raps -- joined by partner El-P, they fired lyrical missiles at the racist police and ruling elite, interspersing it with cutting quips and dark humour. Painful, prescient, and hugely powerful.

Getty Images for DIRECTV

7/11 J Hus - Big Conspiracy

Big Conspiracy was the sound of an artist taking his time. The eclectic beats, largely provided by -chameleonic producer Jae5, avoided the usual bombast for something understated. The lyrical gaze was sharp, ranging from the legacy of slavery to the grind of everyday life, all of it recounted with clever wordplay.

It wouldn't be a Hus album without tales of at least one sexual conquest -- the song Cucumber provides it -- but all in all, never has the east Londoner been so searingly composed. Getty Images for Nike

8/11 Bob Dylan - Rough and Rowdy Ways

Bob Dylan's 39th studio album, released today, might just be one of his greatest. Before this, eight years had passed without any new original music.

Had the old master lulled himself into retirement? The surprise release of a 17-minute song about the JFK assassination did away with any doubts. It's a densely lyrical album, a poetic and historical tapestry, proving that, at 79, the Nobel Prize-winner is still at the peak of his songwriting powers.

AFP via Getty Images

9/11 Georgia - Seeking Thrills

Georgia's exhilarating second album landed back in January (oh, those halcyon days) and was the sound of an artist brimming with new-found conviction. Arriving five years after her debut, she had finally found her voice -- quite literally, shunning the over-produced vocals of before -- and a winning musical formula: retro-tinted dance pop, pairing the throbbing echoes of Chicago house with sharp modern melodies. Hollie Fernando

10/11 Orlando Weeks - A Quickening

Former Maccabees frontman Orlando Weeks took a mature step away from his indie-rock past on his debut solo album, supplanting it with soft, cloudy atmospheres.

A Quickening covered his impending fatherhood, and all of the unknowingness that comes with it. It was minutely intimate -- "I'll be your blood sugar", he pledged to the unborn child -- with his vocals at their most tender and innocent. Jackson Bowley

11/11 Laura Marling - Song For Our Daughter

Another album to ease the pandemic blues, Laura Marling had initially planned an August release, but brought it forward to April.

It had an effortlessly classic sound to it -- the folky tones of Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake chimed throughout -- but this album was undoubtedly Marling's own. Her vocals were soaring, sardonic and soothing, singing with all the wisdom of an artist who, still only 30, now has seven albums' worth of experience behind her. Getty Images

They pushed the album release back by a month but didn't want to wait any longer. "I feel like every time is equally bad and good to release," says Speer. "It's a nice exercise for us to put out a record and not tour and see what that feels like.

We've been on the road constantly and it's certainly helped our growth and success, but now we can see what The Beatles were talking about." After the Fab Four quit touring in 1966 they had the brain space to get to Sgt. Pepper and beyond.

For Khruangbin, it sounds more like they needed the stillness for their own sanity. "We'd been touring for four years, and I loved the adventure, but I think I got carried away with it without checking in with myself for a long time," says Lee. "Last year I was feeling really lost as a human." The new album is named Mordechai, after a new friend that Lee made while on a decompression camping trip last year. "He invited me to take a walk with his family because he could see that I was having a hard time, and he was like a little light in the darkness for me," she explains. "He was an acquaintance and then a friend and a close friend. And now we've named an album after him, so we'd better be friends!"

The new music, though still led by the heavy groove of Lee's bass and Speer's ringing, exotic guitar lines, achieves a sharper focus here and there. Carrying on from Texas Sun, a gorgeous standalone EP which they released with Fort Worth soul singer Leon Bridges in February, vocals appear more prominently. Dearest Alfred lifts its lyrics from letters discovered by Lee's family from her grandfather to his brother.

Time (You and I) is a strutting disco number featuring the trio chanting in unison. On the Latin funk of Pelota, the single released this week, they sing in Spanish about a ball, but won't explain why. "Pelota is just way more fun to sing than 'ball'.

It's a semi-nonsensical song and it's supposed to be fun," says Lee. "I'm never going to tell somebody that their interpretation of a song is wrong," adds Speer. "That ruins the experience for everybody. The more wrong information there is out there about our songs, the better. It creates a richer tapestry."

However, he will answer my question about how they came up with some of the song titles. "August 10 is named for the day that we wrote it. The Infamous Bill is called that because the drum break we sampled for the demo was from a Bill Withers song, and A Calf Born in Winter was titled for a calf that was born on the property where the barn is." The barn is where they make all their music.

It's on a farm owned by Speer's parents in Burton, a tiny town 85 miles west of Houston. That isolation, away from the conventions of recording, goes some way to explaining their unorthodox sound. "It rains, you hear birds and cows. Maybe you're in the middle of a perfect take and the train goes by so you have to start over.

That's life. It's nice when things aren't perfect," says Lee. In any case, in a "perfect" world, wigwearing Texans making music that sounds like it was retrieved from a nightclub in pre-revolutionary Iran wouldn't be quite such a big deal.

And who wants to live in a world like that?

Mordechai is released on June 26 on Dead Oceans.

Pelota is out this week

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