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Khruangbin Rising

Houston trio Khruangbin released one of the more beautiful earworm albums of recent memory when it dropped The Universe Smiles Upon You at the tail end of 2015. It’s a lush album whose Thai-inspired funk, crystalline tones and dream-like production create a calm psychedelia perfect for gazing at the cosmos and contemplating your place among them. Samual Muir’s vibrant, astronomical artwork for the record echoes the musical headiness of it all.

Turns out the band is a lot more grounded than that. Drummer D.J. and guitarist Mark Speer had been playing together for 10 years in a church band before they bonded with bassist Laura Lee going down the rabbit hole of Thai funk on the internet. What initially started as nonchalant hangs over music together turned into nonchalant concerts together. 2016 was a coming out year for this band and it’s going to be hard to bottle them back up. When we chatted with Speer, he was in Long Beach watching B-rated horror films while housesitting for a friend, as relaxed as he could get before the band kicked off its festival season. Read below to learn more about the band’s last year, sunrise sets in Croatia and digging for more sounds.

First thing first, how do you pronounce the band’s name?

We pronounce it “Khrung-bin.” We’ve heard it said many different ways. If you want to be authentically Thai about it, you’d say “Khu-ra-bin,” a little tone thing. But we’re not Thai were from Texas and we say things the way Texans say things (chuckles).

Why did you guys pick that name? I know it translates to “fly” or “airplane.”

When we first started the group we were listening to a lot of Thai funk from the 60’s and 70’s off cassettes. Mainly pulled from this online blog where this guy goes to Thailand and gets all these cassettes and puts them out, it’s amazing. Then we ended up listening to that stuff over and over again and we went out to the barn to rehearse and that’s how it came out. We didn’t really have a name for what we were doing, but at the same time we were learning some Thai words so we could understand what the songs were about. Our favorite word was “khruangbin” and it was just the most fun to say. Someone said, “hey you got a gig coming up, what are you going to be called?” We said we I guess this is what it is. Not only Thai music but super into music from all over the world, as long as it’s funky. We incorporate it all into what we do and kind of the airplane thing is from going from place to place to place and putting it all together.

When you first connected was it as friends and then musicians or the other way around?

Well, me and D.J. worked at the same church for like 10 years, that’s where I met him. He’s been a producer in Houston all of his life, very respected in his community. He’s been doing this for a long time. Whether Paul Wall or Slim Thug, any of that from the folks from our local stuff in Houston. We met playing at church every Sunday for 10 years and would just shoot the shit after rehearsals on Tuesdays. Just chill and relax every week. Eventually I met Laura Lee from a mutual friend and she just came by the house and I was watching something on music from Afghanistan or something. She was like, “Who are you, what are you doing watching this film, can we be friends?” (laughs). Anyone who can be interested in this kind of stuff is totally a friend for me.

Then she started coming to the local hang and we hung out every week for months till Laura Lee and I ever started making music together. Once we did we actually went out on tour with my buddy Joe I’m staying with here in Long Beach, he’s gotta a project called Yppah. Then we opened for Bonobo in 2010 and when we got back Laura Lee was like, “I want to start a band, that was awesome.” So we did and we decided D.J. was probably the perfect third person to play with because he was our best friend. We didn’t really know that he played drums originally, just that he was a musician. We didn’t really need anyone with all types of drummer chops, just someone to hold it down (laughs). Turns out it was his first instrument and he played drums from the start, so he just brings this vast knowledge of music and awareness on how to place things.

You certainly received quite a bit of praise for Universe Smiles Upon You, deservedly so. What were your expectations for that in the months before its release?

Absolutely nothing, I just wanted to put out something good (laughs). We had some kind of deal with this UK label Late Night Tales that put out a bunch of compilations. I was familiar with their work and was very excited to be a part of the whole thing. I didn’t actually expect it to do anything, having been from Texas and seeing countless peers that did not get that lucky chance. We’ve all been putting out records for 20 or 25 years but nothing happened, we did it because we loved it. That’s where we were because the whole resolution of making it big by 20 years old was gone by 21, it was wasn’t going to happen (laughs). This is all just cool for me and I get to play music with my best friends. As far as expectations, I don’t have any. I try to avoid expectations because you’re bound to be disappointed if they don’t go the way you expect them to go.

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