Music for Music: Khruangbin


Khruangbin: Tight Pocket, Global Reach

By Dan Ursini ©2018

Khruangbin is a rock guitar-bass-drums trio which at the very least is creating the first serious updates in surf/exotica music since Dick Dale’s 1962 cover of “Misirlou,” which so memorably opened Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

In fact Khruangbin is reviving surf rock guitar, typically dismissed as a mid-century novelty, by displaying a World Music reach that nobody thought was within its grasp.

A good example of their sound is “Mr. White.” This song is filled with intriguing hooks, the execution is spontaneous yet tight, and it sets a terrific mood.

This Houston-based group is composed of guitarist Mark Speer, bass guitarist Laura Lee, and drummer Donald Ray “DJ” Johnson, Jr. Their name comes from the Thai word for airplane (also translated as “Engine Fly” at the band’s Facebook page), and their early work had a serious Sixties’ Thai funk influence. These surprising choices are consistent with the Houston community, one of the most ethnically diverse in the USA. It is also consistent with the mindset of Mark Speer, who has traveled the world for years, working in various bands. Their recently released second album, Con Todo El Mundo charts their fascination with music from Spain, Ireland, and the Mideast.

The most intriguing accomplishment of this band is its ability to make sense of all these influences and to use them coherently in their songs—largely instrumentals. A good example is “Maria También.”

The music has the rhythmic drive, melodic clarity, and tight playing of traditional surf rock guitar. But most of the fine details are from Iranian music, as the official band video makes clear. Speer is a supple and fluid guitarist who expertly handles these challenges. Drummer DJ Johnson is an excellent funk musician, deftly signaling the ghostly shifts in tempo in many of their songs. Bassist Laura Lee plays concise, balanced lines. She also leads the band in the wordless vocal parts that provide dimension to many of their songs She is quite wonderful in “Friday Morning,” a languorous, elegant love song.

Though there are few lyrics in Khruangbin’s material, real poetic content is pocketed into some of the song titles, especially those with an ambiguous specificity. A favorite is “Evan Finds the Third Room.” Its video illustrates a refreshing decision by the band to put the spotlight not on themselves but on people who offer a compelling presence. The woman featured in “The Third Room” radiates pure joy.

Such generosity is part of an apparent earnest commitment by the band to use the  Internet to extend the scope of its connection with its listeners.

There are a number of interviews with the band on YouTube. Here are two:

And they do a weekly hour deejaying show on their FB page: https://www.facebook.com/khruangbin/

See also: Khruangbin at Bandcamp