Foto-Credit © Tamsin Isaacs
Es ist überaus bekömmlich, wenn man sich zurückziehen und von der ganzen Hektik verabschieden kann. Khruangbin tun das, wenn alle Konzerte einer Tour gespielt sind. Sie verbringen ihre Zeit am liebsten in einer jahrhundertalten Feldscheune im abgelegenen texanischen Städtchen Burton. Dort steht ihr Equipment, dort lassen sie Gedanken fliegen und einen Sound gedeihen, in dem alles Mögliche Platz hat: Hip-Hop-Beats, Twang-Gitarren, Dub-Grooves, psychedelische Atmo, Sounds aus aller Damen und Herren Länder (Surf-Rock aus dem Osten Asiens, persischer Funk, afrikanischer Juju etwa). Auf dieser Grundlage erspielen sich Laura Lee (Bass, Gesang), Mark Speer (Gitarre, Gesang) und Donald „DJ“ Johnson (Schlagzeug, Keyboards, Gesang) ein stetig wachsendes Publikum.
Los ging es dieses Jahr mit Texas Sun, der zusammen mit Soulsänger Leon Bridges eingespielten EP. Außerdem kümmerten sich Khruangbin um die Produktion des Jay-Electronica-Tracks „A.P.I.D.T.A.“. Und weil das noch immer nicht genug ist, gibt es das eigene Album Mordechai als Zugabe obendrauf. Mit ihm dreht die Band am Schwungrad, bringt sie den Vibe eines Roy Ayers genauso ein wie Dynamik aus alten Disco-Tagen. Desert Blues und verschiedene Nuancen aus dem lateinamerikanisch-karibischen Raum kommen ebenfalls vor. Außerdem wird jetzt mehr gesungen, was der superfeinen Sache zusätzlich Reiz verleiht. Wir nutzten während der Pandemie-Pause per Konferenzgespräch die Gelegenheit, mit Mark und DJ über neueste Entwicklungen bei Khruangbin zu sprechen. Houston, can you hear me?
I just saw pictures of lupine flowers blooming and growing in Texas Hill Country. Since you‘ve got a farmhouse studio in Burton, have you got a chance to enjoy this kind of beauty?
Mark: I‘m actually in California now, up here with my girlfriend. We‘re keeping our Covid distance, therefore I‘ve not been able to look upon the splendour in Texas Hill Country. Instead I have been able to look at the beautiful forest around here in the Redwood National Park. I went for a run here for a bit and enjoyed the view and the atmosphere. It‘s good to see that nature doesn‘t always suffer during climate change.
How did the collaboration with Leon Bridges come about?
DJ: We were on tour with Leon in 2018 after the release of his second album. From there we formed a friendship and kinship since we‘re all from Texas. We decided to go in and knock out a few songs in the studio when time permitted. This is how the EP came about.
Why only four songs?
DJ: The record label wanted to trim it to an EP, because they felt the other songs we recorded weren‘t strong enough. So we ended up just with the four on the EP. They worked out great. But it‘s also good to hear that people want to listen to the songs we had to drop. People wanting more of it is a good thing.
It‘s a pretty active period for you at the moment. The new Khruangbin album will come out at the end of June. To which place are you going with this record, what was the initial spark?
DJ: I don‘t think there was an idea that sparked the album at first, we just went in because we knew we had a third album to do and we started recording. Over the recording process the album rebuilt itself over time. We did have some initial ideas of things we wanted to try going in, but none of that even mattered because at the time of recording we went through different life experiences and the perspective on things had changed. You may have something different you wanted to say or convey through the music, so I think for us it wasn‘t anything that was necessarily picked out.
You‘ve stayed inside your box with the first three albums. Do you feel you‘re able to leave your comfort zone now?
Mark: I don‘t know, to me it sounds like a Khruangbin record. If it didn‘t it wouldn‘t come out. I really like what we‘ve done over the past few records, we created a universe and we are continually exploring the box that includes me, DJ and Laura-Lee. It proved how we play and it proved what we play. There‘s no real ground being broken here except for the fact that there are more songs with vocals than on our previous records.
Time (You And I) and So We Won‘t Forget are more uptempo. Both tracks allude to the disco era.
DJ: We do appreciate party spirit in music. On the last record we had Evan Finds The Third Room, a few people thought it was a disco cut but it is more influenced by zouk music from the French Antilles. So We Won‘t Forget off the new album is directly influenced by African juju music and also the Congolese guitar music like rumba. Time (You And I), I won‘t argue with that, was meant to be a dancefloor banger.
In the opening track First Class H-Town is mentioned in the lyrics. Is it a homage to Houston, the city you grew up in?
DJ: Yes, it‘s a shoutout to the city we are all raised in and all love so much. We wanted to give H-Town some love. We tried to highlight it as much as we can because people often don‘t realize that Houston is a melting pot of different cultures and that people who live here that have come from many places and bring in their cultural influences, their food, their music, fashion – everything that makes them who they are. They bring it here and Houston is a spot where they all collide and come together. It really is a unique place and we‘re happy to give our hometown some love on this record.
Also because of the fact the city was hit by severe flooding a few years ago?
Mark: Yeah, unfortunately there‘s flooding every five or seven years. The last one came in 2017 when Hurricane Harvey hit the town, the whole state and other regions in the US and beyond. Lots of homes were left without electricity, people had to move away and there had been deaths too. It was an awful situation, but I think there was a lot of support for Houston in the US with a strong sense of solidarity as well.
DJ: The Astros, the local baseball team, came out with the slogan Houston Strong around that time and won the World Series finals in the fall period of that year. We were covered in the middle of it. We played a show during the World Series and our show had to be moved to a different venue because of traffic issues. We ended up playing outdoor.
Pelota is another standout tune on the record. Again you‘re incorporating a Hispanic vibe in that song like you did with Con Todo El Mundo. Lyrically it‘s about and a person who‘s looking for a perfect way he just can‘t find. He‘s constantly moving on. It reminds me of the idea The Temptations have given in Papa Was A Rolling Stone. How did the song come about?
DJ: That was really good impact. We like to think that everybody gets a different thing from our songs, for you to get that insight is amazing. But yeah, Pelota is our first song in a foreign language…well, not really foreign, Spanish isn‘t really foreign to Texas because we‘re just north of Mexico and everybody speaks Spanish here…but I think the challenge was….Laura was coming up with the words and it just didn‘t feel right in English. So she decided to give it a go in Spanish and off it went.
You‘re incorporating different musical styles and languages in your work. Do you consider it as an important part of your artistic endeavour to convey a spirit that actively differs from the divisive nature in US politics these days?
Mark: Absolutely. I don‘t want to get too much into politics, but the current head of administration is an absolute jerk that does nothing but divide everybody across the world. I can‘t wait to before he and his ignorant racist bigoted ass get out of the office, you can quote me on that. Our music is not meant to directly contradict his ethos, but to us it‘s important to show that we‘re all living on the same planet and we need to get along, otherwise we‘re only going to destroy ourselves.
The album is named after the biblical personality Mordechai in the Book of Esther.
DJ: We all know that amazing story of Mordechai in the Bible, but this particular Mordechai the album is named after is an actual person that is alive today. He‘s a friend of Laura‘s. It‘s a personal thing. I guess similarly Mordechai lended a helping hand to a fellow human without asking for anything in return and I think any time you see an example of that in the world is a beautiful thing. I‘m happy that kind of story inspired an album that we‘re part of.
Both of you started to make music together in a church band. Would you say that this experience still has an impact on what you‘re doing today?
DJ: Mark and I have a musical chemistry that only happens when we play together for an extended period of time. We played in the same church band for over ten years and over that course of time we‘ve spent hours rehearsing and just listening to each other and learning each other‘s musical tastes, likes and dislikes, and also learning where each other‘s pocket is. I am playing so long with him that there are no musical surprises in a sense. I know where he‘ll be and he knows where I‘m gonna be. There‘s this synchronicity that happens between people that play together for that amount of time and I think that‘s really special. I‘m happy to play with such a world-class musician like Mark. 10 or 15 years ago I told him that he‘s a world-class musician, I think he‘ll believe me, so here we are.
Mark: I‘m not exactly sure I believe you… (both laughing)….
DJ, your beats are very much influenced by those in hip hop – not necessarily by hip hop being made in 2020, but in its older classic form. How do you assess the quality of that music today? Does it still inspire you or do you find it inferior, compared to older stuff?
DJ: I‘m not inspired by the hip hop in 2020, but there are still lots of talented producers and artists that are making amazing music. That‘s the thing about this and any genre – if you dig into it there‘s this genre and there are all these subsets within it. You have different types of them and one thing they like to blanket it under. There‘s still music that is reminiscent of the origins of hip hop, the samples, breakbeats, digging to find that form of loop that‘s really dope. That culture is still very much alive in the world of the genre. In the underground they are still doing some incredible work, you have to give a shoutout to all these people. One of them who comes to mind is Black Milk, he‘s from Detroit and is extremely dope. When I heard the drum loop to the song he did called Give The Drummer Sum at the end of the 2000s, I was blown away by the loop and how everything‘s put together.
Talking about the H-Town scene today, if you had the chance to collaborate with the mighty Megan Thee Stallion, would you do it?
Mark: Depends on the context….
DJ: Yeah, I agree. I definitely love what she‘s doing, she‘s really doing her thing. The first time I saw her in a video was when she was rapping and freestyling on a rooftop in Houston over a a cool hip hop beat. I remember her talking and her flow being so on point and hitting all the spots, it was mindblowing. When I saw the video I didn‘t know she was from Houston. THAT was the icing on the cake!!! Shoutout to what she‘s doing, she has her own way and she‘s got her followers. But yeah, as far as the collaboration, we don‘t shoot down any collaboration idea, it just depends on the context. We never thought we could get an opportunity to collaborate with Jay Electronica, but it happened.
Interview: Tom Whelan