Khruangbin's New Album Mordechai Sounds Like the World

Josh Brasted/WireImage/Getty

The musical range of Khruangbin, which consists of bassist Laura Lee, guitarist Mark Speer and drummer Donald 'DJ' Johnson, is, to put it mildly, broad. Starting with the trio's 2015 The Universe Smiles Upon You, their songs have incorporated Thai funk, '60s psychedelia, Jamaican dub, Middle Eastern and West African music, surf rock, jazz fusion, R&B, disco and more. But while their latest album Mordechai is music that sounds like it came from everywhere, its roots are very much in Khruangbin's hometown.

"In trying to sound like the world,'' Lee says, "we hoped that it would really be reflective of Houston, which is where we're from, because it's such a multicultural city. We wanted to show some hometown pride. "The city's diversity stems from the oil and gas industry which draws people from around the world. "I grew up with kids whose parents were from all over the place. You would go to their house and their parents were playing music from Pakistan, and you're influenced that way." The group's internationalism is built into their moniker, which is Thai for "airplane." Translated literally, khruangbin means "engine fly."

Since forming in 2009, Khruangbin has garnered attention from The New York Times, The New Yorker and Rolling Stone, been featured on soundtracks, toured relentlessly and performed at high-profile events like Coachella, the Pitchfork Music Festival and Bonnaroo, as well as on NPR Music's Tiny Desk series. A series of dates in Australia opening for Tame Impala were canceled due to the pandemic.

With the exception of Texas Sun, an EP with singer Leon Bridges released earlier this year, Khruangbin have been mainly an instrumental band. Their two studio albums (The Universe Smiles Upon You and 2018's Con Todo El Mundo) consist primarily of cinematic songs featuring Speer's shimmering guitar, Lee's funk-laden bass, and Johnson's steady and delicate drumming.

Their new album, Mordechai, set for release on June 26 on the Dead Oceans/Night Time Stories label, marks a departure in that it features more vocals than usual against the music's dreamy backdrop. Recorded at the band's farmhouse studio in Burton, Texas, Mordechai focuses lyrically on the theme of memory. In these turbulent times, the resolutely cool and rhythmic music has a timeless quality and feels comforting and hopeful. Lee says. "The songs that we wrote at a very different time still feel like they work now. We're really grateful for that."

As for the shift to vocals, Lee says, "The only thing different from this album is we recorded the bass, guitar and drums in the barn—which is how we always do it—but we actually had three months in between that session and then going back to the studio to record vocals or additional instrumentation, where normally we've done it in one sitting." The extra time, Lee says, gave the group a chance to let the music simmer before approaching it again as well as giving her an opportunity to begin writing lyrics. "Outside of the bass, guitar and drums everything else was a process of throwing paint at the wall and seeing what sticks. And with a lot of these songs, we tried putting vocals on them and we liked it," she says.

The words began with events from Lee's life as recorded in her notebooks but were transformed in the group's collective writing process. "I flipped through the pages when we would listen to each song and I would see if there were any words or sentences that stuck out. I would pass them to Mark and DJ with things highlighted and then we would form them into lyrics. Even though they started out as my words, because the three of us sing together—the lyrics need to fit each of our perspectives. I can't write a personal love song and have Mark sing that. The sentiment has to apply to each of us. If it makes sense for Mark, DJ or I to sing them, then hopefully it resonates with anyone."

"We try to write lyrics that are universal, but that are also open ended where people can write their own stories to it. It's fun and simple but also philosophical, which is a really lovely combination."

Musically, Mordechai ranges all over the place in typical Khruangbin fashion. "Time (You and I)," is very disco-oriented; "Dearest Alfred," inspired by Lee's grandfather, sounds like an old school R&B track; "Shida" and "One to Remember" have a strong Jamaican dub influence; and "Connaissais de Face" is something of an homage to Serge Gainsbourg, complete with lyrics spoken in the French singer-songwriter's trademark nicotine-saturated voice. "We were sort of like method actors in the studio," Lee says, "we pretended to smoke cigarettes to have that feeling."

"So We Won't Forget," an uptempo, rhythmic and sunny-sounding track. is her favorite on the album. She says, "There's a sort of nostalgic quality that exists on it.... One of my favorite childhood movies was The Neverending Story II. I can't remember which character it was, but basically they were allowed to have so many wishes. And with every wish that they made, they lost a memory, and it was down to the last memory. I remember feeling so sad as a kid that they were gonna lose everything. So that's my version of that: "what are the things you remember the most?" And the things we remember the most are the things that you write down. Much of the time if you don't write it down and you don't talk about it, then you forget it."

As for looking forward, Khruangbin will be off the road for the foreseeable future, but Lee says the group plans to get back to writing and recording. She says, "The world has paused, and we've been in a fortunate position to be okay from a health perspective. We also feel it's important to honor the pause for a little bit, because it might be the only time in my life that I have sort of guilt-free time off [for] nurturing yourself or doing simple things that as musicians we don't have time to do."

Despite the possibility for the band to break out to a wider audience with Mordechai, Lee says 10 years of working and traveling together has turned the band into a little family, and one that has discovered what is really important to its members. "One of the things I really learned is that it was about the process more than the result." Lee says, "It's great to get critical acclaim, it's great to get a lot of people at your shows and sell a bunch of records. But the real gusto is enjoying that process. It's way more important to have a good time than to have a big crowd. No matter what comes of it, we had a brilliant time making Mordechai, and that's the real thing.

Suggested Listening

The Universe Smiles Upon You 2015

Starting with the jazzy opener "Mr. White" (which sounds like it could've appeared on a Herbie Hancock record), Khruangbin's debut album was heavily influenced by '60s and '70s Thai music: the sounds of Southeast Asian rock and pop are evident on such tracks as the majestic "Dern Kala" and the ornate "The Man Who Took My Sunglasses." The debut also showcases the group's penchant for reflective subdued numbers ("White Gloves," "Balls and Pins") and uptempo funk ("People Everywhere [Still Alive]"). This hazy and groove-filled record also marked the first time Khruangbin added vocals to their mostly instrumental repertoire.

Con Todo El Mundo 2018

Khruangbin's second album released three years after The Universe Smiles Upon You does not suffer the dreaded sophomore jinx. Instead it expands the group's previous sound to incorporate sounds from places like India and Iran (the standout "Maria También" carries a strong Middle Eastern influence). The album's title can be traced to Laura Lee's grandfather. "My grandpa would always ask me 'Como me quieres?' ('How much do you love me'?)" she once said, "and he'd only ever accept one response. 'Con todo el mundo' (With all the world)." A dub version of this album was released last year until the title of Hasta El Cielo.

Texas Sun (with Leon Bridges) 2020

While only a collection of four songs, Texas Sun, released earlier this year, beautifully pairs Khruangbin's psychedelic soundscapes with Bridges' soulful voice. This EP evokes the feeling of the artists' home state not only through the music but also through romantic and soul-searching lyrics.