- Photo courtesy of Mary Kang
Crafting a musical style upon a foundation of Thai funk might seem a bit high concept, especially if you’re a band that makes your albums in a barn in rural Texas. But, as unlikely as it might seem, that’s the story of Khruangbin, a trio based in Burton, a city of less than 400 souls.
Vocalist and bass guitarist Laura Lee admits that her group does draw some influence from a style of music that sought to reinterpret American funk for Southeast Asian audiences. But she thinks that too much has been made of the connection. “We got labeled as ‘Thai funk’ because people couldn’t place our genre,” she says. “And because our name is Khruangbin.”
“People thought we were just interpreting the Thai music, but we’re just playing music that sounds good to us,” Lee says. “We are just who we are, and we’re pulling from influences that maybe aren’t the average thing that’s coming out of music today.”
Khruangbin’s sound — a slinky, sultry and sometimes psychedelic stew with a decidedly cinematic feel — bears the influence of many exotic styles; many of the song titles on the band’s latest album, Con Todo el Mundo, are in Spanish. And thanks to drummer Donald Johnson, Khruangbin’s music owes a clear debt to hip hop as well. “My approach to drumming is breakbeat-based,” he says, describing music that itself drew upon 1960s and ’70s funk and soul. Johnson notes that, ultimately, all three band members — himself, Lee and guitarist Mark Speer — “come from all different places, but eventually meet up together.”
On the band’s earliest recordings, it chose to focus on a purely instrumental approach. Now the vocals are used more as an instrument, providing color more than serving as a means to deliver a lyrical message. “When we started, nobody wanted to sing,” Johnson says. When they did add vocals, the band decided to use a unison approach. That way, Johnson explains, “No one person stands out more than the others.”
Still, Lee emphasizes the Khruangbin’s lyrics are more than just sonic decoration. “You like something for the way it sounds,” she explains. “And then if it’s something that you’re really into, you can start to dig and find out that the raw ingredients are really special, too.” She says that even though the lyrics aren’t the focus of the songs, “If you went and discovered them, I think we would be proud of what you would find.”