Khruangbin’s Feel-Good Funk Is Undeniable

Photo: Mary Kang

Khruangbin is an odd name for a band, and the trio of musicians that picked it seems to know this. At the end of “Shades of Man,” the sixth track on their new album, a woman’s voice teases it out: “K-H-R-U-A … Khruang … bin?” But toy around with it, and the idea starts congeal: Khruangbin means airplane in Thai (“kherụ̄̀xngbin” is Google’s phonetic suggestion), making it a providential tag for a small band from Houston that put out a debut album so well-liked, it sent them on five tours through pit stops as far away as the Croatian coast and across India. (It also snagged them a gig as opening act on Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear Europe tour). Interpreted another way, a “khrueang sai” is an intimate Thai classical ensemble mostly made of string instruments. Likewise, Khruangbin makes dreamy, instrumental music with just a guitar, the bass, and drums. And then there’s the “khru” — that’s the fans, the hive, the heads.

The name also created a tiny pocket of confusion: After Mark Speer, Laura Lee, and Donald Johnson put out their first album, The Universe Smiles Upon You, critics and khru-members alike slotted them under the genre of Thai funk. “We can’t claim that,” says Speer, who plays the guitar. “That’s doing great disservice to the folks who actually make what we in the West call Thai funk. Khun Narin, or Paradise Bangkok, check them out, those are actual Thai bands playing Thai funk.” It’s been an honest mistake: Ahead of recording Universe, Speer built a playlist of tracks by Khun Narin, Paradise Bangkok, and their contemporaries, sourced from all over but mostly from a blog called Monrakplengthai. They played it constantly. “If you put something in your head, and you’re listening to it all the time, it will come out when you’re playing,” Lee, the bassist, says.

If that’s the case, then Con Todo El Mundo, which came out on Friday, hints instead at a sonic trip to the Middle East. Khruangbin’s signature sound — funky, jumpy tendrils of guitar, mixed with hazy washes of surf rock — remains intact. But the playlist in their heads has changed. In 2016 Speer made a Spotify mix of Middle Eastern funk and soul music, and it became the band’s personal soundtrack during the months ahead of recording the new album. They absorbed music like that of the glamorous Iranian singer Googoosh. “I couldn’t stop listening to her,” Speer says. “Her voice is absolutely amazing, and then the rhythm section sounded like they play rock on the weekends, like psych metal, so they’re playing this super-tough groove against this gorgeous heartbreaking melody. I was like, this is it.”

As it happens, that part of the world first brought the band together. Years ago, one day on a lunch break, Lee accompanied a friend to Speer’s house in Houston. He was watching a documentary on Afghan music; Lee was an art history major with a focus on art of the ancient Near East. It was so specific a reference, Lee recalls, that they bonded immediately. Speer had been playing in bands around Houston, one of which eventually needed a bass player. Lee didn’t play, but Speer thought she could. “In a fit of insomnia,” she says, she taught herself how. “I still sort of play shapes instead of playing what people know as A, B.” Speer soon met Johnson, a drummer and bandmate in a Houston church band they both played in, and right before 2010 dawned, the three officially created Khruangbin.

Theirs is an unusual sound. It does a lot and not much at all, carrying layers of foreign references while remaining calm. Some low-decibel speak-speaking aside, the music is absent of lyrics. “I am not a multilingual person,” Speer says. “But when I hear music from another country in a language I don’t understand, the vocals are still emotive. When we write, I’m trying to make my guitar take the place of those vocals.” The songs telegraph something less literal, like the feeling of travel. Speer especially has a roving and curious palate for world music, new and old, and has amassed a collection of obscure tracks — Lee calls him the band’s DJ — that he and the band then share through Spotify playlists and a recurring NTS radio show. “Finding funky music from all over the world is my goal,” he says. “Funk, boogie, disco, that music spread across the world pretty quickly, and everyone was like, awesome, let’s do our own thing to it, and they did. So I’m just trying to find it.” (A tip: “You know how in the States there were the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, or the Wrecking Crew, the bands bands that lived in the studio?” Speer says. “There’s Wrecking Crews of West Africa, Wrecking Crews in the Caribbean, over in France. Finding those bands that back up everybody can be a good place to start.”)

Trained ears might notice the Iranian and Indian references in Con Todo El Mundo. Other ears — of which there are more and more: last time Khruangbin came to New York, they opened for Chicano Batman at Warsaw; this time, they’re headlining two April shows at Music Hall of Williamsburg, both of which are already sold out — will just be happy there’s more of Khruangbin. The music pairs well with just about anything that isn’t a high-intensity gym class: “People seem moved, but because it’s instrumental, they want to hear it a lot while they’re working, while they’re cooking, while they’re Uber-ing,” Lee says. “Sometimes it’s ‘I studied to your music, and got an A on my finals.’ Or ‘I fell in love to your music.’” And hula-hooping, Speer adds. “People like to hula-hoop to it.”

Khruangbin’s Feel-Good Funk Is Undeniable