By Zane Warman, Staff Writer
If you’ve heard of Khruangbin, you probably define them by their idiosyncrasies: their love of Thai funk-rock, that their rehearsal den is a barn in the middle of nowhere, how they captured the attention of downtempo darling Bonobo before even being a full band. But this psychedelic, simple trio is more than the sum of their parts. Their debut album, “The Universe Smiles Upon You,” is a superior record that is overflowing with spirit, simultaneously worldly and personal without falling into the trap of being too meandering. Recently, the band played a single show in New York, their first-ever, and is now supporting Father John Misty on the European leg of his tour. Right before the big event, WSN spoke to the band on their unique practice space, their easygoing composition style and what they hope to play with sonically.
WSN: You’ve talked in other interviews about your barn near your hometown in Burton, TX where most of your music is made. How did you find the barn and come to start recording there?
K: Mark’s parents have a piece of land out in Burton, TX where the barn is. It used to house tractors for the property, but they traded in tractors for cows and the barn became an empty shell. Mark came up with the idea of using it as a practice space when we started the band, and his parents generously said it was Khruangbin’s to use. It’s idyllic. When it came time to record the album, we initially had considered recording in a studio…and then we looked at each other and said, “Wait a second, why are we thinking of recording anywhere but the barn??”
WSN: The influence of 60s/70s Thai funk and rock is very present in your music, and it’s a sound that’s emulated so precisely. How hard or easy was it for you to lock into that sound and spirit of playing?
K: It was never our deliberate intention to emulate it–we were just listening to a lot of these cassettes, and it came through what we were writing. We’d go out in the barn and play and record. That’s how we were writing our songs. When we went back and listened to what we recorded, we could definitely hear the Thai influence, and respectfully named our band to pay homage to that sound.
WSN: How important is spirituality to the band?
K: It’s a part of everything we do as a group. And to quote Hathaway, “Everything is Everything”. We want to do what feels right–which, for us, ultimately comes from a sacred place. Individually, we have different ways of practicing it. And collectively, we practice it as Khruangbin.
WSN: What was it about the composition of these new songs that led you to add lyrics? On “White Gloves”, for example, they seem to fit so effortlessly; was there much difficulty in incorporating them within your songs?
K: People around us were always asking if we were going to add lyrics. When we decided to take on the challenge, it proved to be more difficult than we thought it would be. During the session where we recorded all of the songs on ‘The Universe Smiles Upon You’, we really struggled with the tracks we intended to have vocals on. By the end of the session, we decided to scratch every single song intended for vocals–because they didn’t feel right. To put it plainly, they didn’t feel like us.
Driving back to Houston from the farm, we listened to the recordings, over and over again. Every time we listened to ‘White Gloves’, we felt that there was something missing. We hummed a melody line to it, and noted on a piece of paper how many syllables we needed to fit each verse. We had some ideas of what we’d want to write about. It was a song was fit for a queen. Upon arrival, we went to Sugar Hill Studios in Houston, locked ourselves in a room, and wrote the words in about half an hour and recorded it immediately after. Once you find a subject that you want to write about, the words just start coming. The song always tells you what it wants. When it works, it works, and we could feel it working. It’s the best philosophy to go by.
WSN: What’s been the most exciting moment for the band, to date?
K: Playing Colston Hall in Bristol for Simple Things Festival. We played in an atrium, with three floors of stairs wrapped around us and faces from all angles looking at us, really engaging in what we were doing. It was the first moment where it felt like, “Wow, we’re really doing this; this could be a thing..”
WSN: Was there a big change-up in approach from the earlier material and your new album?
K: Not really. It’s almost just a continuation of our earlier songs, but trying new things. We’ve been sticking to the same formula in the same space. We like to give ourselves rules and limitations, and explore all the possibilities within those rules. The album represents everything we’d been building to, and it’s a jumping off point toward our next phase.
WSN: What’s something you’re hoping to experiment with musically?
K: Actually, we’re hoping to experiment more with architecture. We like to “play to the room”; or play to our surroundings. Different rooms and spaces resonate and ‘sing’ in their own way, and the space becomes part of the music. The barn served us well in that respect, and we want to see how other shapes and spaces will affect our sound.