“The ticket sales are good but it’s not been like any other city,” Lee said and noted that, of late, a Khruangbin ticket is a hot ticket, something snagged by lucky music fans within hours of the box office’s opening. “The last two times we’ve played (Houston), the last two shows have been at White Oak. We played downstairs and upstairs the time before and they sold out on the day, they did sell out. It’s just that it doesn’t sell out until 30 minutes before or whatever. I think Houston’s gonna come through, I do, I just think that it doesn’t operate the same way as it does in other cities, and that’s okay.”
Lee is qualified to speak to the city’s music habits because Khruangbin is a Houston band. Its members were all born and raised in Houston. It formed here after Lee and guitarist Mark Speer toured with the electronica act Yppah in 2010. The band’s drummer, Donald “DJ” Johnson, still lives here when he is not on the road, the place that more than any has been Khruangbin’s home the last few years. Its penchant for touring and the strength of a pair of recent releases – 2015’s The Universe Smiles Upon You and 2018’s Con Todo el Mundo – have the band soaring. Its blend of instrumental funk, soul and psych rock draws from global influences, giving Khruangbin a universal sound, one that has caught the interest of the average music listener and music industry notables. It’s ensured Khruangbin – which literally translates to “engine fly” in Thai – has recently traveled in interesting circles.
“I also want people that aren’t from Houston to come because we have fans that follow us, we have this great core group of fans that come to so many shows,” Lee said. “They came to the show we did recently at Desert Daze, you know they’re there for the thing that we might do only one time.”
At Desert Daze, that wild, amazing one-off was Khruangbin sitting in with Wu-Tang Clan for the closing set of the California-based music fest. The team-up made music headlines everywhere. Music writers and fans dubbed the funky union “Khru-Tang.” Lee said performing with the hip hop legends was like “a pipe dream. It’s not even like a bucket list item, it’s so far-fetched you would never put it on your bucket list.”
We asked how the pairing came about and Lee said she randomly met Desert Daze founder Phil Pirrone at a music festival. Lee and Speer wear signature wigs onstage. The day she met Pirrone she was out of costume, what she called “just my outside self.”
“I’m a social person and I like going to festivals as much as I like playing them and I also find that I learn so much from watching at a festival. Not only watching the other shows but also seeing the fans, I like being a fan, that’s part of what inspires me to play,” she said. “When I can I go to festivals that we play, like I go out before or after and see other bands.”
“I ended up randomly sort of making friends with this guy,” she said of meeting Pirrone and once he realized who she was he asked if Khruangbin might be interested in teaming with Wu-Tang for some songs. That’s how one of this year’s best live mashups came to life.
“It ended up being a giant win for everyone and it just came from having a drink and having a laugh at a festival. That’s awesome! To me, that’s where the good stuff is, that’s how I got Khruangbin out to begin with in the deejay scene, with me going out, enjoying music, playing it for other people, sharing and appreciating and listening to music together, bringing people together - that’s the thing,” she said.
The band’s first success came from Lee playing its earliest music for deejay friends while she was living in London.
“So I played them Khruangbin and it eventually started to run around,” she said, with deejays playing the band’s music as the come down set in their gigs. They would go hard, people would dance, and sort of like the sunrise or late night set would be Khruangbin, like they would want to hear that.”
That overseas success, coupled with the band’s overt nods to world music (not to mention its name, which roughly translates into “airplane”) suggests the band was always meant for audiences elsewhere. Setting its sights on horizons outside Houston helped Khruangbin grown into an international phenomenon. Lee said that blueprint might not be for every Houston band, but it fueled Khruangbin’s engine.
“I think the thing about the Houston music scene is there seems to be kind of a ceiling on it, just because of where the industry is, so it’s like bands that somehow have quite a big life in Houston sometimes will hit that Houston ceiling and unless you go outside the city it’s really hard to make it to that next lane. I know, for us, our very first show ever was opening up for Robert Ellis at Fitzgerald’s, which is a big show. It was his record release show, it was a really good show for us to be on,” she recalled.
“The other Houston gigs we got were all good, we weren’t going to get seen by anyone, there wasn’t really anything that was going to happen other than us playing, which is obviously the main thing of why you do it, but I think because Mark and I had - before the band started and the reason I started Khruangbin - is because I had gotten opportunities to go on a big tour, opening up for Bonobo. That seems like that’s how you’re going to do something, really putting yourselves out there.”
“I’ve watched a lot of bands in the scene get big and, I think because it’s so small, it’s easy to kind of seem that you’re bigger than you are because everybody knows who you are in the scene. So, it feels successful,” she said. “That’s not to say we don’t have enormous pride for our city and we wouldn’t be where we are without it.”
Even though she says she and Speer are presently nomadic, “In our heads, every single time we play a show, which is like 150 times a year, we’re like, ‘We’re Khruangbin from Houston, Texas!” They record their music in a barn in Burton, Texas, just 90 minutes away from Houston, making Khruangbin the best thing to come from a Texas barn since Blue Bell. The band’s approaching album, which Lee said is about two-thirds done, is going to sound like Houston.
“This current album we’re working on, people are asking us, ‘The first record was Thai, the second record was Middle Eastern, what is this one?’” Lee said. “I think that our goal with this record was to sound like Houston. It’s pulling from everywhere. So we’re not pulling too much from one influence. Actually what we’re feeling is this is Houston, Houston is everything, it’s all walks of life. That’s our goal with it.”
Being an instrumental act allows Khruangbin to reach listeners of all sorts. There are no vocals to translate or navigate around and music writers frequently note how the band’s music – favorites like “Dern Kala” or “Maria También” - soars over cultural barriers and borders. Lee said they also are able to bridge the gap between generations of music fans, as anyone who comes to Saturday’s show will see by scanning the (hopefully) sold out crowd.
“Khruangbin has the ability, because we do things instrumentally, we tend to pick songs, like you can know them from just the instrumentation. Like our hip hop medley,” she said of a handful of covers the band will work into its set. “All the songs are also samples of older songs, like Isley Brothers. It’s not just Ice Cube, it’s someone before him. So, if you’re in a crowd and there are people in their fifties and there’s people in their twenties, everybody knows that song, whether it’s the old version or the new version. They don’t have to have the Isley Brothers singing or Ice Cube rapping to feel that thing. To me that’s sort of the crossing over barriers part.”
Khruangbin is scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday, November 2 on the lawn at White Oak Music Hall, 2915 N. Main. All ages, $29.50-$35.