Houston’s emerging roots rock outfit Khruangbin make music that feels open, wayfaring, and utterly sublime. The trio’s influences, inspired by a shared interest in Quentin Tarantino soundtracks and 1960s Thai psych-rock, include gospel and R&B, but in the process they’ve explored a myriad host of disparate genres, bygone eras, and outlying locales. Despite having been recorded entirely in a barn, Khruangbin’s forthcoming debut album, The Universe Smiles Upon You, attains a cosmopolitan kind of feel–aided by a series of field recordings sourced from different parts of the world that captured the sights and sounds which inspired this band’s eagerly anticipated debut.
The ten-track album, to be released via Late Night Tales on November 6, picks up largely where the band left off during their 2014 and 2015 EPs (the last of which, History of Flight, is a collection of covers by some of the band’s favorite musicians). But Khruangbin took a bold step forward when they dropped the album’s lead single “White Gloves,” the first track to feature the band’s vocals. The band’s voice–often delivered without a lead but as a collective–appears throughout the album, adding cherub embellishments to the psychedelic soul-strut of “Two Fish and an Elephant” or hollering jubilant chants on their rollicking “People Everywhere (Still Alive)” single. It’s a subtle accessory to their already rich mastery of blues, folk, and funk, adding another, unexpected dimension of humility to this simple, sweet, unadorned music.
I emailed Khruangbin bassist Laura Lee about the band’s new record, living in London, and music that makes her smile.
Indie Current: What inspired the formation of Khruangbin? Under what circumstances did you meet Mark and DJ? At point in time did you all decide to start making music?
Laura Lee: I met Mark in 2006 through mutual friends. He and DJ had been playing R&B and Gospel locally for years, and they’d have dinner every Tuesday after rehearsal. Mark invited me along shortly after we met, and from then on the three of us met up every Tuesday. Years later, after I’d taken up bass, Mark and I went on tour as part of the touring band for Yppah, and when we came back from the experience, I told Mark that I wanted to start a band of my own. Naturally, we asked DJ to be part of the new project, and we went out to the barn to see what we could come up with.
IC: As a female musician, have you ever faced or witnessed sexism or unfair treatment while performing, touring, or dealing with the business-end of the industry?
LL: No, definitely not–at least not yet anyway! I’d actually say, if anything, it’s an advantage. While we are more common than ever, we’re still a relatively rare breed. People have told me that I ‘play like a woman’, but I definitely take that as a compliment. I’m a woman; there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s bass; I play from the womb.
IC: What first inspired you to learn the bass? Who are some of your favorite female bassists?
LL: I kind of joked around to Mark about wanting to learn, and he showed me how to play a couple of songs. More and more, I started picking the bass up, whenever I could, and practicing. At the time, I went through a phase of having trouble sleeping, so I’d just play bass through the night. Bass seemed to ‘make sense’ to me.
Favourite female bassists: Tina Weymoth (Talking Heads). Carol Kaye (Everybody!). And Cassandra Wong (Wayne’s World).
IC: Do you play any other instruments?
LL: I took piano lessons when I was a little Laura Lee and guitar lessons when I was in high school, but neither really connected. Although music has always been a big part of my life, when I picked up a bass, I stopped just being a listener and became a player.
IC: Have you done any singing prior to Khruangbin?
LL: Weeelllll, only if you count singing along while in traffic, or during long solo road trips!
IC: Other than working on music for Khruangbin, how do you spend your time in London? What has been your favorite local music discovery since moving there?
LL: With my friends, enjoying myself as much as possible. (And working like mad, obviously; it is London.) In terms of local discoveries, I’ve fallen in love with Balearic music, or what people call balearic music here! We have a lot of friends who are always introducing me to artists such as Ned Doheny or labels like Claremont 56 that produce beautiful, ambient music to be enjoyed in the sunshine. I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time at the Garden in Croatia and that’s pretty much the perfect place to hear it.
IC: Between the US and the UK, in which place do you feel a more natural impulse to create music? Why?
LL: I don’t know if either country gives me a more natural impulse to create music, but compared to the slow country vibe of a place like Burton (TX), London is too fast-paced to make the type of music I want. I’m not sure if the US or the UK are any better than the other, but the feel of a rural environment versus an urban one is drastic. I’ve gone to different parts of,rural England and thought to myself ‘Ah, I should really rent a house out here for a week, and I’d come up with all sorts…”
IC: Name an album that makes you smile.
LL: Jorge Ben, Samba Esquema Novo.
IC: You’ve talked about the presence of folk throughout Khruangbin’s music. Do you consider The Universe Smiles Upon You to be in the vein of spiritual music?
LL: I think there’s definitely a spiritual quality to our music, as it’s present in the way we create it and most certainly where we create it. We’re all influenced by ‘spiritual jazz’ musicians, like Pharoah Sanders, Leon Thomas, and also ‘space jazz’ like Sun Ra. DJ and Mark have played gospel music for over 10 years, and that certainly has an effect on the quality of our music as well. I don’t think Khruangbin would be what it is without those influences.
IC: At what point did the band decide to include vocals (how long has it been in the works?) What do you vocals add to the music of Khruangbin? Who writes the lyrics?
LL: The most common question we got was, “Are there going to be vocals?”. So, we decided to meet the challenge. It doesn’t necessarily come naturally, but Mark and I singing in union makes it easier and feels like us. Similarly, the two of us write the lyrics together.
IC: There are lots of field recordings of natural sounds present on the album, mostly during intros and outros of full tracks (on “People Everywhere (Still Alive)” it’s the chatter and hum of a party). Where were some of these moments recorded? Why were these certain people and things chosen to be featured on the record?
LL: The field recordings were recorded by either myself or Mark during our travels. To name a few, there are snippets of audio from Buddhist shrines in Thailand, a village party in Greece, a lot of recordings of ambient sound out at our barn in Burton. There’s a cohesiveness that these sort of sounds bring to the record, and it adds more of a global or universal feel.
IC: What is your favorite musical moment on The Universe Smiles Upon You?
LL: There’s a moment on “Dern Kala” where the frequency of a note we’re playing resonates in the metal of the barn, and there’s a little ‘zing’ noise that occurs as a result. I’m not sure if anyone else would really notice it, but to me, it feels like the barn is sort of blessing our album as if to say, “The Universe Smiles Upon You.”