In a year where the return of live music was comparable to a game of red light, green light, one Houston band defied the odds with their non stop touring schedule.
Khruangbin has been on tour for most of the year and they are wrapping it up with a special hometown performance on New Year's Eve and the newly opened 713 Music Hall.
“It started off much like 2020, not busy.” says guitarist Mark Speer of the band's surprising year. “Then it became very busy real fast.”
“I think it's surreal to look back on the year, which I have been since we are approaching the end of the year,” says bassist Laura Lee as she describes the eerie feeling of practicing non stop for shows that were not guaranteed to happen while simultaneously selling out large venues across the country.
“Every show we have to celebrate that it's happening in this time. I’m so proud to look back and realize that we have been so lucky that we've gotten to play so much this year and in the capacity that we have.”
Their homecoming show will be the first time the band has played a New Years Eve gig and something they didn’t expect they’d ever do as they previously perceived themselves as a “chill band.”
“We were not that kind of band,” says Speer. “But at this point we've kind of put together some danceable bangers so maybe it's about that time.”
This year treated Khruangbin well as they released Mordechai Remixes, were tapped by Paul McCartney to remix “Pretty Boys” on his McCartney III Imagined album and recently released the first single “B-Side” off their upcoming EP with Leon Bridges, Texas Moon, due out next February.
Simultaneously celebrating the end of an eventful year while marking the start of a new one with a hometown return is a perfect combination for the band. “It feels great,” says drummer DJ Johnson, “It’s good to come back home.”
Though they began in Houston and all members are native Houstonians, their rise in popularity has kept them out of the city for the past two years. Though only Johnson still resides in Houston, all three consider the city home. “We could never outgrow Houston, no way,” assures Speer.
Speer and Johnson met while playing music at St. John’s Methodist Church 17 years ago. “We were hired guns,” says Lee. “That's a very common thing in Houston.” The two would also take part in jams at the now defunct Red Cat Jazz Cafe, an experience which helped cement their ability to freely explore sounds without adhering to genre rules.
Speer and Lee later met through friends and bonded over their shared love of Afghan music. They both toured with Yppah and from that experience decided to form their own band where Speer immediately suggested they contact Johnson.
“It didn't take much recruiting,” laughs Speer. “I’d been hanging out with Mark and DJ for three years and I only knew DJ as an organ player and key player. Mark was like, ‘I never heard DJ play drums but I know he's going to play drums exactly like we want someone to play drums.”
“We asked him one fateful day and he said yes so that lucked out and we've been taking him on a wild ride,” adds Speer. The band’s sound and lineup is a perfect reflection of Houston’s diversity and strong musical history spanning all genres.
“I think we are lucky that people since the beginning kind of questioned how we became a band because we are such a diverse band, just the three of us,” says Speer. “What's really cool to watch is that our audience is more and more a reflection of what we are and if we are a reflection of Houston, then our audience is a reflection of us. It's a very cool mirrored effect of diversity.”
Khruangbin has captured the attention and imagination of audiences with songs that often play more like an experience than a story as the music overpowers the lyrics and is usually what's remembered.
“What's really cool to watch is that our audience is more and more a reflection of what we are and if we are a reflection of Houston, then our audience is a reflection of us. It's a very cool mirrored effect of diversity.”
“For us the music always comes first,” says Speer. “The music is the most important thing. I don't know how most people write, I don't even know if there's rules or whatever, but it seems to be that a lot of folks tend to write words first and then maybe put the words to a melody and frame the song structure around these things so the last thing that people will sometimes think about are the bass and drums.”
“To me, that's the most important part. I want to get the bass and drums to be really, really good because that inspires me to write beautiful melodies.”
Khruangbin has consistently tapped into sounds from all over the globe and spanned many decades in their influences. Each album carries with it distinct cultural elements and lyrics in other languages, something the band says they will continue to explore in future projects.
"In "Time" we tried to put as many different ways of saying that's life because every culture and every language has one of those sayings, says Speer describing how the band reached out to friends from all over receiving voice memos with contributions to their list of phrases.
“I love music in languages that I don't understand but I can feel it because of the melody or how they are singing it. I try to do that same thing on the guitar,” says Speer.