For Texan trio Khruangbin, it all began in a barn in Burton, a small, sleepy town in Texas. The rehearsals for the band were held there as was the recording for their debut album The Universe Smiles Upon You. The band’s name is Thai for ‘engine fly’ or more generally, ‘airplane’, representing not only the band’s love for Thai funk, an inspiration behind Khruangbin’s sound, but for the transatlantic relationship the band’s three members share. Bassist Laura Lee recently relocated to London whereas lead guitarist Mark Speer and drummer Donald Johnson still live in Houston.
For a state dominated by country music, Khruangbin’s hotbed of Thai funk, music of black origin and surf seem like a huge exit from Texan expectations. The deliberating riffs that seem to drift by for hours, garnished with the Far-Eastern flavours, gives Khruangbin’s sound an internationally cinematic identity not too dissimilar from the band member’s relationships. Khruangbin are notably a semi-instrumental band, with Lee and Steer stating that they were initially terrified by the idea of singing but also because it may take away from the richness of the band’s sound. On some of the tracks, most notably ‘White Gloves’, Lee and Steer share duo lead vocals. But uniquely, they take a backseat to the soulful styling, adding a psychedelic edge to the tracks.
There’s something incredibly real about Khruangbin despite the psychedelic/dreampop leanings. The sense of improvised sound of each track bleeding into one another creates a sense of continuity in the same way the barn recording removes the idea of engineered sound. But more than that, the inclusion of field recordings from Lee and Steer’s travels adds this essence of reality being captured and bottled. The roar of an audience on ‘Dern Kala’ heightens Steer’s riff as does the whirr of grasshoppers in the conclusion of ‘People Everywhere (Still Alive)’.
But if you’re going to judge Khruangbin on one track (which I highly advise you do not do), let it be the arresting ‘August Twelve’. A 6-minute plus epic, ‘August Twelve’ really utilises Steer’s absolute mastery on lead guitar. The Thai funk and ’70s Jimi Hendrix-esque flavours mesh together wonderfully before the bridge at the halfway mark strips the track of its tension. The final two minutes of ‘August Twelve’ are the finest on the album. Johnson and Lee quietly support Steer’s cosmic rise to fever pitch as the riff gains velocity. It’s animalistic and overwhelming and the only downside is that it ends too abruptly. If you’re going to listen to any Thai funk-inspired, Texan-barn recording, Transatlantic instrumental trio this week, make it Khruangbin. You won’t regret it.