The Texan psych-funk trio unpack the success of their critically-acclaimed third album Mordechai, and coming full circle with the curation of their round-the-globe Late Night Times.

Khruangbin by Tamsin Isaacs-scaled

Tamsin Isaacs

Khruangbin by Tamsin Isaacs-scaled
Tamsin Isaacs

The lonely, eerie clanging of a banjo. Isolated beeps signalling an incoming transmission. Faraway words echo in a vacuum all the way from Houston. If it feels like you’re in outer space, ground control to Khruangbin.

In case you’re wondering, this isn’t a lockdown-spawned celestial addition from the enigmatic wig-toting Texan trio. Well, sort of. Guitarist Mark Speer, bassist Laura Lee and drummer Donald Johnson are the latest to helm legendary musician-curated series Late Night Tales, which has seen the likes of Nils Frahm, The Flaming Lips and Jon Hopkins dredging through the hidden depths of their record collections to best evoke that part of the night when the hands of the clock stick like glue, and the night can crash into our thoughts with the weight of a freight train. In Late Night Tales, music has long offered solace to the restless.

Via their borderless global soundscapes (their renowned crate-digging has coloured their woozy incarnations of Thai-funk, Jamaican dub reggae, Iranian pop – you name it), the band – whose name even translates to “airplane” in Thai – extend a means of escape like an already-stamped passport to a faraway land. Now having traversed every other exotic country through their global psych-rock, it’s only fitting that for the last stop of their compilation they send listeners into the ultimate late night destination: outer space. Unexpected, you might say; but then again, that is Khruangbin all over.

And when we’re not toeing the cosmos, the mix takes us on sonic excursions all around the world: Hindi disco from social activist Nazia Hassan, Roha Band’s Ethiopian grooves, mellow South Korean pop from 70s outfit Sanullim, then plonking us right back amidst their roots with homegrown shoutouts to Texas locals David Marez and Kelly Doyle. And it wouldn’t be a Late Night Tales without a cover, and Khruangbin have added their reverb-drenched rendition of Kool & The Gang’s classic “Summer Madness.”

“It’s cool to think about what you would listen to late at night, as a band together, lighting a spliff, kinda vibe,” they muse. A floating spectre of calm in a world of chaos, if you will. But also, just chilled vibes with a good crowd. And in 2020 – the year of heightened stagnation, doom-scrolling, and cancelled travel plans abound – never have we needed it more.

In the most poetic way possible, the band’s Late Night Tales also brings their illustrious career full circle. It was their inclusion in Bonobo’s own compilation back in 2013, with their soothing groove-laden behemoth “A Calf Born in Winter”, which gave them their break, and led to the little-known trio to rise to prominence.

This nocturne project comes hot on the heels of their critically-acclaimed third album Mortdechai, notably recorded in an old barn northwest of Houston, dropping this summer to resounding critical success, but never veering from the Khruangbin footprint. It soundtracks the feeling of waking to the sound of a retreating surf, toasty and dazed after falling asleep on the beach – and in the first few moments of disorientation, you could be anywhere in the world. The jubilant lead track, “Time (You and I)”, is a pulpy disco-inflected anthem which will permanently serve as a reminder of the summer that could have been. Until 2021, my friends.

As we catch up over Zoom (my window outside aptly pitch-black), Mark, Laura and Donald talk counting Jay-Z as one of their fans, making music to go on a date with your parents with, and continuing to stitch together their tapestry of world music in the years to come…

You’ve all pretty much been on tour for the past three years. I read somewhere that in 2019 you did something like 74 shows in 29 countries. What’s been the best part of slowing down?
DJ: Being at home, personally just spending time with my wife who I’ve seen in spurts over the past four years with all the travel. It’s been a time to draw closer and really appreciate things,
MS: I’ve been doing yoga. I mean that’s cool. I’ve been drinking a lot of wine too, so there’s that. Cooking, doing a lot of dishes.

What do you guys miss most about the road?
MS: I mean seeing these guys’ faces everyday.
LL: That’s number one. Number one is just adventuring with my best friends, because that never gets old. Number two is the show, the fans, the crowds, dancing, and the rush and the high you get from feeling all that energy pointed at you.

Let’s talk about your experience of curating your Late Night Tales – how was it?
MS: It was a dream. I mean, I’ve been wanting to make a Late Night Tales for at least, jeez, twenty years, I mean since I’ve known about it.
LL: It’s cool. I mean especially during quarantine, but even before, we were doing a lot of playlists and a lot of them are uptempo leaning and we kind of got thrown into this global funk curation category which is awesome. There’s so much cool stuff in there, but it was nice to have the series where we could pick slower-burners.
MS: I mean the first two records lean on the side of slow and meditative. There’s not a lot of uptempo stuff. And that’s kind of where we come from, so for this one we were trying to pull from that mindset.
LL: It was a treasure hunt for us last year. I mean we did play in at least 29 countries, and we got to go record shopping in a lot of those, so with this in mind we wanted to try to have as many countries represented.

The Kool & the Gang cover of “Summer Madness” is amazing – why did you pick this track for your Late Night Tales cover requirement?
DJ: It was always something we’d been playing at our live sets and one that we do from night to night. Personally it’s always been one of my favourite songs. When it comes on, it just has this aura around it that’s really peaceful and chill, and I think for the Late Night Tales cover, it was a natural thing.
LL: It was a no brainer. We’ve been playing this for a while and we’ve never recorded it, and I don’t think we would’ve released it as its own cover song, whereas this is an actual home for it.
MS: We would go to festivals and DJs would play this a lot, and it would always be on. You’d always hear it at least one part of the day. It’s just kind of part of the canon of DJ culture. You don’t just start out playing house music, you don’t start at 125 BPM, you have to get there, and “Summer Madness” is one of the steps you’ve got to go to get there. I love that.

I love that with your spoken word element in your Late Night Tales, all of a sudden it sounds like you’re in space: the ultimate eternal late night. The compilation is so global and then you’re in space. What was the decision process behind incorporating that?
LL: I’d kind of forgotten about the spoken word requirement in terms of Late Night Tales. There’s the cover song part and the spoken word song. Mark knew that he wanted to have Tierney [Malone], the man speaking on that track. He’s an artist and a radio DJ and has the most incredible voice. And our friend Geoffrey [Muller], years ago when I still lived in Houston, like ten years ago, he did a night in Houston where he played off of Erik Satie’s compositions on vinyl and it was so beautiful. Definitely cry-worthy and it was the only time I’d ever heard him do that, and so selfishly I kind of wanted to record him playing it so that I could have it, and cross-pollinate this idea and have Geoffrey play this piece. I’m in love with that track – it was sort of like we didn’t actually make it, we curated it, and I was like “we’re geniuses!”.
MS: I just really like the approach that he was coming at it like a spaceman sending a transmission to the person he’s searching for. And Houston being the space city home of NASA, that was a nice thread. And then Geoffrey’s rocking a French classical composition on a banjo, which is an African instrument that is known in America through the South. There’s a lot of layers and threads in there, and it’s the last song on the record. I wanted it to sound like the speaker was getting further and further away from the planet, which just kind of added to the whole cinematic aspect. And by the end of it, he’s all kind of garbled. The transmissions breaking. Also for the British fans who grew up watching and hearing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the banjo is part of the soundtrack to the show. So there’s something inherently spacey about it that I’m really glad we were able to nail.

It’s really interesting how music – whether the record came out this year or a few years ago – has changed meaning in lockdown. It must change meaning while you’re writing it, where it’s this cathartic thing, and then when you’re performing it, it’s a whole other beast. Has Mordechai changed in meaning for you?
LL: There’s a part of it, for me, which feels like it hasn’t even come out because we haven’t played it yet. I mean I was really excited when it came out, but the only real connection we had to it during quarantine was press, and it kind of didn’t really feel like the thing, do you know what I mean? So there’s this rush of making it and there’s this rush of putting it out there, but I think for me until we play a single song of that thing, it doesn’t exist, it’s not out there. I feel like it’s going to be reborn or something.

I think this year has especially illuminated to everyone how collective experiences impact our psyche and our wellbeing – and music massively falls under this umbrella. Do you think you’ve had a similar realisation, that it is all about the performing, and it doesn’t feel real until you have?
LL: I mean they’re different experiences. We make the album version and it evolves to be the live version, but I think about the first two records and the Instagram posts from some of the people who love those songs. I feel like “August 10” off of the second album is one of the fan favourites in terms of what I see online, but I feel so much of that comes from having seen us play live, or listening to it with your friends, or having these moments that connect you to it. I mean obviously you can listen to this album by yourself in your house during COVID, but it definitely feels like something you should share, and I think that’s part of why it hasn’t fully grown up yet.

In my group of friends, “Time (You and I)” imparted this sense of togetherness and summer. Is it weird that it has soundtracked summer for so many of us, but without that festival experience with you on the stage?
LL: Amazing. That song in particular was a real moment during COVID for me, because there were a lot of people dancing with their pets to that song, and it kind of feels like a festival even if it’s not happening.
DJ: I mean, that song took on meaning for me, lyrically. “Time”. Everyone of us got an opportunity to have that in 2020, because we were all stuck in the house. This year just afforded us all the opportunity to slow down and take it all in. I remember just being around my neighbourhood seeing old people that probably haven’t ridden a bicycle in years just pulling out the bikes all of a sudden. We got to go outside to spend time in nature and get back in touch with things that matter. So yeah, it took on a whole new meaning in the most wonderful way.

Khruangbin Late Night Tales
Khruangbin Late Night Tales
Tamsin Isaacs

And there’s been a lot of talk of this barn in Houston, where you guys created Mordechai. You’ve said in previous interviews you were up against the elements, rain and animals, and it really does permeate the record. Would you say it was a spiritually cathartic experience for all of you creating it – how did you feel when you wrapped it?
MS: The process took a very long time, and it feels like a few lifetimes ago honestly.
LL: It was May-
MS: -of 2019. Really it was just last year? So once we were done with that stage of it, we actually had to go back on the road. So we did a lot of stuff after we ended up recording those basic tracks, and those tracks became what the album is. Our approach to it changed over a time as well. It went from being an “oh this is going to be another KB guitar-led album,” to being like, “maybe no, we need to do some other stuff, let’s try out some other paths, let’s see what else we got.” And when it was actually done it was a major moment for everybody. You know, it was like, wow. It was like a big breath out.
LL: We listened to it in full, the four of us with our engineer, and Geoffrey actually was there, and the five of us listened to it, and, it was a real breath.

Was it emotional?
LL: Oh yeah. I mean I cry anyway, but I did cry.

Your journey started out fully instrumental and without lyrics, which, I think is fair to say, is more open to interpretation. Whereas with this record, all of your vocals pretty much feature on every single song. And with vocals, you sometimes lose that sense of anonymity that has perpetuated your music so far. What was your decision to implement that on Mordechai?
LL: Interesting. I still kind of feel like Khruangbin holds up a level of anonymity, even with this record, but I do know what you mean. The vocal decision just happened, there was no plan. Like Mark said, it was going to be another guitar-driven record, in terms of the melodic part, but we threw words at the wall, and the words stuck to the wall, and we write the albums to be albums best listened to in full. And you can’t just have “Time (You and I)”, which has words all over it, and then the rest of the songs have nothing. And that was the first song we wrote words to, so that song kind of dictated the way the album went.
MS: If you believe – articles have written it this way – that Laura Lee is the only one singing, then there’s no anonymity. But it’s actually all three of us. We always sing together at the same time in unison and that’s what makes it sound like that. If you know that, then maybe it seems a bit more universal. When we first started putting vocals on stuff we didn’t want a lead singer.
LL: And I am not a singer.
MS: If you go back and listen to Santana songs, the whole band is singing and I like that. If we had a lead singer, it would be all about the lead singer, not about the band, and we are a band.
LL: Yeah, it’s been funny on this one, because I’ll say, “oh i’m not a singer”, I say, “no I play bass”, and friends of mine will say, “no you literally sing, we have your records, you sing”, but it’s singing in the shower, it’s a different thing. I kind of feel like at the time the album came out it was a lot of places at once because of COVID, and all we could do was look at our phones. But I think as time has gone on, I feel like Khruangbin has fallen back to where we are, which is pretty anonymous. People know my outfits and the lyrics to this album, but other than that I feel like we’re pretty good about it.

Obviously this year with lockdown, even with the explosive success of this album you’ve managed to so far escape people stopping you on the street and stuff like that. Are you kind of grateful for it so far?
LL: I think about that a lot. I think that had this year gone the way it was planned to that this album could’ve been bigger than it was, but we sort of made a group statement to each other that we didn’t have any desire to be bigger than we are, so I kind of feel grateful for the album coming out during the time of COVID because it kind of kept us where we are.

And you guys were meant to do Glastonbury…
LL: Well, still can.

Next year, next year…
DJ: We did Glastonbury last year? Or was it the year before?
LL: Yeah, but this would’ve been televised, it’s a different thing for Glasto.
DJ: I’m of the belief that everything happens in its time for its reasons and I think this album got exactly what it was supposed to get, and came out exactly when it was supposed to in 2020. Like I said, a lot of the things we wrote for the album were in a sense prophetic lyrically. We didn’t know it at the time.
MS: Time changes everything.

Glastonbury aside, you’ve had so many incredible moments, like Jay-Z buying out all your records in a store, performing with Wu-Tang, the success of Mordechai. What’s been your biggest pinch-me moment so far?
DJ: That was a pretty big moment. Finding out that we were going to sampled for a Jay Electronica record. Especially given the context of when it actually happened during quarantine, and it was just this big whirlwind of emotions that everyone was experiencing at the time. Personally, that was a pinch-me moment, I never thought we’d be connected with Jay-Z or Jay Electronica.
LL: It was also at the same time the album was about to come out. We had it ready, and “Texas Sun” had come out already. I was in New York so I saw the “Texas Sun” thing up in Times Square, and then got all these text messages saying Jay-Z was putting us on a song, and then Mordechai was pending, and it was like, oh shit, I’m not sure if I’m ready for everything, and it was actually all perfect.

Your music is so globally influenced, and so everyone who listens to it, no matter where they are in the world, connects with your sound and it feels like home to them – is that why you think you’ve been such a success?
MS: I mean, I don’t know, but I have things I think might be factors of it. I think because in the first and second record there’s no words to get in the way, I think music tends to transcend borders. We’re nodding to different cultures, different regions, different people; we’re like hey, we hear you. We’re doing that on purpose. We were trying to bring everybody together.

What I got for my birthday four years ago was Trump being President, and then the best thing we could do was bring people together. The wild thing about it for me was because we did that, because we made music that was meant to be borderless, we built this audience, not a massive audience in one place, but pretty big, globally. And once we came out with this album, which I would argue is slightly more pop that what we’ve done before, that audience was in it, and the feedback we’ve gotten is overwhelmingly positive. They’re along for the ride. They want to hear what we’re doing. They want to go along with us.

When we started working on this record we said, why shouldn’t we include more phrases and words that aren’t in English, what other band is going to do that? We can’t learn every single language on the planet but we can incorporate bits of it, and that came from me listening to a ton of Japanese city pop, where it’s in Japanese with a phrase in english. I know your ear kind of catches on what’s in English, and even if the majority of our album is in English, even if we have a few phrases in other languages that when that song plays in that region it speaks to them, then that’s good, I want that to happen. I think we should be doing that more so.
LL: I think that’s an important thing. One thing you just said was, it feels like something only Khruangbin can do, and that’s definitely something we aim to do now, because it feels like we’ve created this thing and that’s a goal: can we make this just sound like Khruangbin and no one else? Even with the additional vocals that we put on this record, it still feels that it could only be a Khruangbin record, and there’s two things: maybe they’ll be a bunch of baby bands that will come out, like they did with our first record and so we have to evolve. Another thing was so that it was so internationally resonating on the first two records was the vocals of “nananas” and “oohs”, and everything else was instrumental, so it was able to be ingested in the same way in Korea as it would be here. So by putting words in other languages, whether or not they are our native language, still feels like we’re winking at that train.

Even with the weirdness of this year, it’s still been a big one for you guys. And you can never predict what you’re going to do next. If you could fast forward to five years in the future, what would be your goal?
MS: I just want to make music that everybody can connect with. I don’t want us to become generic, at least not in a generic-generic way. If we’re going to make generic stuff it should be our own generic winky stuff like “ha-ha!”
DJ: I think for me, is seeing that the audience we play to being as diverse as our own personal group of friends. That would suggest we’re on the right track, I think.
LL: Yeah, music that you can go on a date with your parents to, is kind of a beautiful thing. It happened a lot at the beginning where we were going after shows and meeting more people, and people were like, “my dad introduced me to you guys” or “I learned about you from my kid.” And that’s cool. I’d like to see Khruangbin continue to explore different things creatively. I’d like for the fourth and fifth album to sound equally different than they have from these three.

Khruangbin’s Late Night Tales is out now.

Maybelle Morgan

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