Khruangbin :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Upon first learning that Khruangbin’s next album would be a dub version of their last album, I was confused. I already imagined Khruangbin as a dub version of some imaginary, intermediary group. That’s how otherworldly they seemed. But aside for some atmospheric overdubs, the entirety of their recorded output was recorded live as a trio in a barn in Texas. They’ve fixed that with this latest release, Hasta El Cielo, which finds their most recent album receiving a thorough dub-oscopy with no amount of echo, reverb or heavy low-end spared.

During a lengthy interview (which you can read in its entirety below) bassist Laura Lee explained why the band wouldn’t consider re-recording their songs after they’ve evolved while on tour: “I think you have to respect the process. It was perfect in the moment. And now it’s perfect because the moment is with other people.” So, in a way, with Hasta El Cielo, the band gets to have their cake and eat it too. They even enlisted their dub hero, Scientist, to provide his own dub versions of two tracks, “Como Te Quiero” and “Rules.”

But don’t expect some dub revelation like the first time you heard Dub Side of the Moon, Hasta El Cielo is far more subtle than that. These are more dub meditations. As dub is at its core, an interplay between bass and drums, the melodies and counterpoints take a back seat on this remix album, though you occasionally catch snippets of guitars, vocals and ambience echoing into infinity.

You tend to take away more than add, and I like that,” Mark said about (drummer) DJ Johnson’s process when adding his parts to their recordings. And that pretty much sums up the ethos of the band: what can we take away that will make the song stronger? The medium of dub reggae is inherently about reducing or eliminating certain tracks (vocals, melodies) and focusing on the rhythm track (while liberally applying effects along the way). This Khruangbin dub phenomena is not exactly new but a logical, natural and tour-bus conducive alternate expression of the band’s catalog. They’ve been sneaking out dub versions of their songs for years, but this marks the first proper dub album from the band.

Mark Speer and DJ Johnson met playing in the church band of St. Johns United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas. The below interview begins in media res with a history of how they first met . . .

Mark Speer: Most of the guys that were in the club that night were all church musicians, that’s very common in Houston, at least in the scene we were in.

D.J. Johnson: Not really jazz, I would say, R&B, soul, especially back in 2005. Really any given night of the week you could go into the Red Cat Jazz Cafe and there’d be musicians playing without a singer and someone would do a traditional set and then the last hour and a half would be an open-mic and just anybody in the room, some great musicians, would get a chance to get on the stage and just call out songs and just play whatever or make something up on the spot.

Aquarium Drunkard: Are you church-goers?

D.J. Johnson: I am, and I still play at the church when I’m home, I play organ at my church. Yeah, the church that Mark and I were at, St. Johns Church in Houston, Texas. Beyonce grew up there, she grew up singing there, in the church choir and Destiny’s child and . . . Coachella (hand clap, Laura laughs). Just like that, a couple steps, that’s all it took. That church is kinda special for talent in a way, a lot of people come through there and do things in the music industry. It’s a cool place.

AD: Was that a part of the attraction for you, knowing that legacy?

Mark Speer: No idea, I had no idea about that. I got called by Brian, um, Brian Courtney Wilson, and he called me up and said, there was a Saturday service and he needed a guitar player and then I started playing guitar on Saturdays and then the guitar player from Sunday morning quit or something, so they got me playing on Sundays as well. And for me, being a working musician, that’s a great job. It’s a paying gig and you’re playing with the best musicians in the city.

DJ Johnson: And the guy he just spoke of, Brian Courtney Wilson, is a huge gospel star now on Motown’s gospel label . .

Laura Lee: He’s got like a top record.

Mark Speer: But at the time, I just, I had no idea . .

DJ Johnson: He had to start using his middle name to disassociate [himself from the founder of the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson].

Laura Lee: It’s an amazing place and I started going to watch them play and I just started going because it’s awesome. Music is a huge part of their service and the energy in that building is super special. And watching them play and sing, it was such a good gig! A couple days work, really, and everything else was free.

AD: Were you playing organ?

DJ Johnson: At first it was just a traditional Hammond B-3 organ and then there was a flood that came through or hurricane, or something, and a bunch of stuff got messed up and they replaced it with the keyboard version of the church organ, and I wasn’t really happy about that to be honest, because I liked the old thing, but it wasn’t my call.

AD: So, have you been playing drums forever?

DJ Johnson: Yeah, I started playing drums when I was, like three, and when I was, like seventeen, eighteen years old I stopped playing because there were so many great drummers in Houston, there was a lot of competition so I went off and started keyboards, so I really didn’t start playing again until Mark and Laura asked me one night when we were hanging out, ‘you wanna be in our band?’ And I said, ‘OK.’ And I started playing drums.

AD: How did you come into the mix, Laura?

Laura Lee: I met [Mark] through our mutual friend Lucas, who I worked with and Mark was roommates with. We went over to Lucas’ place on our lunch break and Mark was laid out watching this documentary about music from Afghanistan and I was studying art from the same period and it was just such a weird coincidence on such a niche topic, so I thought we were going to be friends. He gave me a book, which is all I had from him and so I found him on MySpace and sent him my phone number and said ‘let’s hang out’ and then I think two-weeks later I was at a museum with some friends, I remember exactly where I was when, I got a text from an unknown number that said, ‘The Universe Smiles Upon You’ and I was like, ‘that’s Mark.’ And then he told me he was going to be meeting DJ, and this is pretty close after I met Mark, and I go meet DJ for dinner after the church rehearsal, I crash their hang and I kept crashing it for years. Literally, the three of us were hanging out every single Tuesday pretty much without fail.

AD: How did you go from hanging out to forming a band?

Laura Lee: I was teaching, I had just graduated and I had just started teaching elementary school math, I wasn’t sure what I was gonna do, but I was not happy. I love teaching. I love kids. I love math. But it wasn’t the right the gig and Mark was going on tour with a band capped Yppah who was opening for Bonobo and I was really jealous and I’d just started to play bass and Mark thought I could play bass in this band, though I definitely didn’t think I could, and I came home every day after school to practice and he taught me how to play all the songs and then I met Yppah and played them for him and he was like, ‘you’re in the band!’ . . . It was enough for me to quit my job, to decide to start tutoring, take a note from these guys who support themselves, and then have time to have my creative endeavors. I went on that tour and was thrown in the deep end and I was terrified , but I also finished the tour and I was like, ‘I wanna start a band!’ I decided that if that was an option for me, that was the life I wanted.

We were looking for a rehearsal space, which was really hard and then there was the barn, which was in Mark’s family which was available to us, so we started going out and playing . . .

AD: How far out of town is that?

Mark Speer: Oh, maybe about an hour and a half . . .

Laura Lee: Worth it. 

Mark Speer: Because rehearsal spaces in Houston were really grimy and nasty and you’d be playing next to a really loud band, so either you had to just be LOUD or you’re just wasting your rent, basically . . .

Laura Lee: And Mark was playing drums originally in the barn . . .

Mark Speer: I wanted to play drums, initially, in the band, because I’d never played drums in a band and I’d always wanted to . . .

Laura Lee: Because initially, I’d play bass and Mark would play drums and we’d record it and then Mark would play guitar over it and then it was gonna be impossible to find guitar players to play these parts like Mark and then we talked about Deej joining the band and I didn’t know he played drums and Mark was like, ‘Deej is totally the man for the job,’ and we’d been hanging out for years so it seemed like a nice situation for the three of us to be in a band. And we seem so casual about it now, but you look back on that moment and it really changed everything.

AD: So, it’s fair to say you were friends before the band?

Laura Lee: Definitely, but I will say that our friendship existed in a bubble. We only hung out on those Tuesday nights. It wasn’t like we hung out in other contexts. We wouldn’t all go out on a Friday night, or a Saturday night, or have brunch on Sundays . . . our friendship was just this Tuesday thing, just the three of us.

DJ Johnson: You were asking if we were friends before we started the band, we were friends before Laura started playing bass!

AD: How long was it from when you first started crashing their dinner to when you started learning bass?

Laura Lee: I think it was about two years . . . I’d always been around it [music]. It was always a huge part of my life.

AD: I’ve read somewhere about your process where Mark comes up with drums which are sent to Laura who adds bass, and then Mark adds guitar, and then it’s all sent back to DJ to re-interpret the drum part to his liking . . . is that still how you do it?

Mark Speer: It’s generally how it’s made. There’s a big bank of drum breaks that I found  . . .

Laura Lee: And I’m playing over some classic drum breaks 

Mark Speer: And it feels good, and when we send it to Deej, it’s not like I want him to play exactly, ‘I mean, don’t play the break just do what you would do, just aim for the same line-tone, the same feel . . .’ 

AD: And what’s that like for you, DJ? How do you interpret that?

DJ Johnson: Sometimes I don’t. When it gets to me, I hear what I like and I try to stick to it . . . this feels good, I don’t need to add, so I just kinda do that. Sometimes, very rarely, I’ll think it feels better with this [thing] or real subtle elements . . .

Mark Speer: You tend to take away more than add and I like that, ‘yeah, this break doesn’t need that . . .’

AD: Given the trends in contemporary pop music of maxing out all the levels, are you conscious of your stance in quieting the levels? Using layers within your music; I appreciate its boldness.

Laura Lee: I don’t think of it as going against the grain, I just think we play what we like and try to make it sound the way we like . . . but I know that maxed out thing is really hard for me, for me in an Uber, in a shopping mall, it makes me wanna put a hoodie on and feel some comfort.

Mark Speer: The kind of music I listen to isn’t maxed out. It is as high-fidelity as it could have been for its time, but the loudness wars hadn’t reached the point where it is now, so no need to max it out, because there were no digital limiters.

Laura Lee: In anything in life, in any medium, as new technology or ideas become available I think the natural thing is to push them all the way, because they are available for you to push, so I GET why the things are maxed out, because it’s there, but I think you will see a wave of people pulling back from that, because that’s the natural human cycle of things . . .

Mark Speer: Also, when we were coming up in the scene in Houston I lot of the bands were rock at least in the clubs we were playing at and they were LOUD and we weren’t loud or at least not trying to play loud . . .

Laura Lee: There’s a video of us playing 11/11/11 on YouTube and it’s a lot more rocky . .

AD: Was it the style of your playing that made it sound rockier?

DJ Johnson: I was playing harder, which is not really my style anyways . . . at that point I hadn’t really put much thought into, ‘what would happen if I didn’t?’ . . . and then when you’re in the barn, it really takes you there and things don’t really sound good when you play loud inside a barn especially if there’s these peaceful cows walking around and then there’s this huge open field and our engineer Steve Christenson does a great job mic-ing everything up and getting everything to sound super clean and creating that space that you hear on the records and so we go in there and nothing about that space says, ‘AAAAGGGHHHHH!!!’.

Mark Speer: In recording studios it’s usually pretty dead quiet so you feel the need to fill up that silence, but in the barn it’s quiet, but there’s still noise, like there’s bees, there’s wind, there’s cows, there’s all  kinds of stuff and you kinda end up being like, ‘let’s let the bees take this measure . . .’

Laura Lee: And then we had our first real show after Universe came out. I think of our first real show being in Bristol, it was a festival and we played in sort of an atrium area in this big hall. By that point, people who liked our music liked it for the chill thing it was, so we didn’t need to go the rock route so we played really quiet and we used dynamics in that particular set from loud to quiet, loud to quiet and the audience really engaged and really got it and these guys [pointing at her own eyeballs] were in tears afterwards . . .

Mark Speer: I had no idea . . .

Laura Lee: It’s really powerful when all of a sudden people are receiving the thing that you’re naturally born to give.

AD: And you were rehearsing already performing in this slower, softer style?

Laura Lee: I don’t think we rehearsed!

Mark Speer: We rehearsed our parts individually and I think as a band we had a rehearsal . . . just to make sure we played well together

AD: The instrumental nature of your work, it seems like the second album has more vocal textures than the first, is this a trend? Should we expect to hear more vocals on the next album?

Mark Speer: We’re an instrumental band and we have a couple songs with words in them.

Laura Lee: I think on the first record we were scared to put vocals on because we never used vocals, but then we broke through so then I think, on this one [Con Todo El Mundo], we were putting vocals on, so we were like let’s put them on all the songs, let’s see what happens on all the songs.

Mark Speer: Put vocals on everything and then we just start taking things away . . .

Laura Lee: I think it’s one of those things where we can’t promise anything . . . It could be that there’s more vocals, it could be that there are none and it’s just really hard to know until you’re in it.

Mark Speer: We all had these grandiose ideas of what our second record was going to sound like and when it came down to it, we did the same thing we did last time, which was get to the barn and do our process: give Laura Lee a drum loop, let her hang out on that loop for awhile and find her thing, send it back to me, I start cutting things up, add my guitar to it, send it to Deej and that’s just how we do it. And then we get together in the barn together to play it for the first time and what you hear on the record is maybe the second or third take.

AD: Playing live together?

Laura Lee: Yes, and they’re always pretty fresh in terms of they’re the first time we’ve played these songs [together, live].

Mark Speer: We built them in a recording program on a computer program just to sketch them out and then we learn it and play it together and that’s it.

Laura Lee: There’s a naivety thing in those takes and they’ll never be that way again. If we were to record those songs again now, they’d be different, we’ve changed them.

AD: Do you think they are they better now? Do you ever think, I wish we’d recorded it later after we added this part?

Laura Lee: I think you have to respect the process. It was perfect in the moment. And now it’s perfect because the moment is with other people.

AD: In your live sets you’re known for doing a medley of classic hip-hop breaks, were you influenced by El Michel’s Affair’s take on the Wu-Tang breaks [Enter the 37th Chamber]?

Laura Lee: I mean, we all like hip-hop . . .

Mark Speer: Indeed

DJ Johnson: I mean, I’ve been influenced by most of the stuff that hip hop sampled, like James Brown, the Isley Brothers, all of that stuff, that’s what I’m into.

Laura Lee: If we’re referencing any breaks or samples there’s a question mark about what we’re sampling, because most of the crowd, we assume, thinks we’re playing whatever came out in the nineties, but really there’s another step back [to the original songs that the hip-hop track sampled], which is really nice because we get different generations to come to our shows. The age gap is kinda wide so it’s kinda cool ‘cause you can hit people . . .

Mark Speer: Some people will be like, ‘that’s this,’ and someone younger will be like, ‘no it’s not, it’s Ice Cube,’ and they’re like, ‘oh, youngin’ . . .’ But, speaking on modern bands, I guess, intentionally making music to sample to, it’s just not what I listen to. I listen to old music, because it just sounds like that. I’m not really interested in music that is trying to sound old. I don’t think that Khruangbin tries to sound old. 

Laura Lee: There’s not an intention to sound old.

Mark Speer: We don’t even use tape.

Laura Lee: We record live and we record in a barn so it’s gonna have natural elements that make it feel like its not [digital] . . . both of the basses I play are knock-off basses that Mark’s found and made to be great and I feel like that’s the thing! If you can find the perfect vintage instrument to achieve the thing, or finding the pawn shop version of something and fixing it to make it have that same thing is almost cooler for us. It feels practical.

Mark Speer: If you bought a vintage instrument, a 1966 Jazz bass and you put a fresh set of strings on it, guess what? It’s not gonna sound like a vintage instrument because it’s got brand new strings on it. It’s gonna sound like every other jazz bass you’ve heard your entire life, but her bass, she’s been playing the same strings for like the past eight years, so it sounds like warm and broken-in and familiar and old and yummy and yeah it feels like a nice comfy old sweater.

Laura Lee: It is. I think we mainly listen to stuff from older times so I think it would be natural for us emulate a song from a previous time, but I think you run into trouble when you’re really trying to be a retro thing in anything you do, be it clothes or art or music, because then where do you go?

Mark Speer: We’re not trying to sound like anything in particular.

Laura Lee: Because if we were a band in the sixties or seventies, we’d naturally evolve with time, but if you’re a retro band . . .?

AD: Is there stuff on the horizon, current, modern music that does appeal to you, or is your band mostly backward looking in looking for inspiration?

DJ Johnson: I think we reach back to look forward, that’s what we try to do. We check out the newer stuff, but you gotta be careful with that because if you listen to too much new music you end up sounding like someone else, but it’s always cooler to listen to things that inspire you from the past that you can pay homage to instead of ripping off the latest trends. Because if you’re trying to keep up, you’re never gonna keep up. It’s almost better to go back and get the stuff that people forgotten about.

Mark Speer: Or never heard in the first place!

DJ Johnson:  . . . and bring that to the forefront and then to modern ears its something fresh and new.

Laura Lee: And Mark’s always finding new music. He’s a master at digging and there’s so many untouched treasures waiting to be used as inspiration and that have just been forgotten or not heard at all. And it feels special that way to find (what feels like a treasure) and have that be the source of your inspiration, it feels good.

AD: Do you all like the same songs and sounds?

Laura Lee: There will be songs that will come up on the road that we all kind of agree on and they will go into a bank of songs that we’ll kind of listen to together more often and you’ll see the ones that kinda work for everybody . . . I remember when Mark found a CD (this was before the band) a Baile Funk CD and I was really into it and he heard it and Deej was like, ‘please burn a copy of this.’ So, you can feel when we’re all into something . . .

Mark Speer: The crazy thing is that a lot of songs on that CD, only now the records are being reissued. I originally discovered it when it came up on a Pandora station.

Laura Lee: And then we found the CDs [volume 1 & 2 of Baile Funk, compiled by DJs Greg Caz & Sean Marquand] on and the songs we couldn’t find when trying to buy Brazilian records later . . . was ‘Onda’ [by Cassiano] on there? Now that song is sampled in an Anderson .Paak song, which is crazy cause for us we had to get it on a bootleg copy on ebay! We played one show in Rio and we covered that song, we played ‘Onda,’ and they got it!

Mark Speer: We also played an Arthur Verocai song: ‘Dedicada a Ela.’

AD: The first album to me has that strong SE Asia influence with your band name from the Thai language and the reference to Thai funk tapes. The second album, it feels like the influences are more widespread across international flavors, is the album title a direct nod to that?

Laura Lee/Mark Speer: No.

Laura Lee: I think there’s an intention to connect with more people

Mark Speer: I still think it’s odd that people think the first record sounded so Thai. To me, the second album is the exact same thing that we’ve been doing.

Laura Lee: I don’t think people are very knowledgeable about Thai funk, I think it was the thing that came out with our music and people are like, ‘this is what Thai funk sounds like.’

Mark Speer: And that’s unfortunate.

AD: With the second album, I guess what I’m picking up on is the additional rhythmic elements, the percussion, the shakers . . . Do you feel like you were drawing from wider sources?

Laura Lee: There’s some percussion on there that’s not on the first one. Charlie [Perez] came in and played some stuff. 

AD: Your visual aesthetic feels very specific and intentional from your appearance on stage to your videos and album artwork. What are your inspirations visually, stylistically?

Mark Speer: But it’s show business man, that’s the whole point. Everybody’s so worried about being real and sharing every little personal detail about their life, well now there’s no mystery.

Laura Lee: It’s fun! We saw Bootsy Collins when I first started playing bass and he had like six costume changes, it was rad!

AD: For your video to “Friday Morning,” I read the explanation and I was moved by how vulnerable of a thing that was to do and in such an intimate way . . . emotion came up a lot in your NPR interview. Can you talk a little about this video and then how emotion plays into the band?

Laura Lee: I was working on a video idea for that song for a long time. Even before there were words for it when we all finished that song, we were like, ‘that’s the song.’ It was the last song from the album and I think it was the band-favorite and we all felt proud with what we accomplished with that song. Mark and I went to figure out lyrics for that song and it was hard, but it sounded like a love song and so you write about love, because the song feels like its about love and the video I wanted to also be about a love of the band, a love of all kinds of things.

And it’s really hard to say something about love, because its a subject that’s been sung about forever and demonstrated through film so I was trying to come up with something that felt genuine. I don’t want to act in a music video because it just doesn’t feel like me and it doesn’t feel like them and we’re usually not a face-to-camera band.

So, we thought about the farm as being part of the video, because the farm is the heart of the band and the farm [represents] love in that way, but we still couldn’t crack it . . . It’s not at all what our video looks like, but I was thinking about the D’Angelo “Untitled” video and he looks amazing and it’s just a one-shot video and he looks really vulnerable in it because he’s evoking so much emotion in it, so I was thinking about that as a reference point, but how do you have us on screen have us not be faking any emotions and then it came as an idea to get all of our closest friends to record messages and listen to them for the first time and whatever you’re feeling is gonna come out . . .

DJ Johnson: And I did not want to do that and Laura wore me down, ‘come on, Deej, its gonna be great, I promise,’ and only because I love Laura I showed up and she worked on it for real! She called my wife, and so my wife was like, ‘you should do it, it’s gonna be great.’ So they teamed up together and I look back at it and I’m glad I did it.

Laura Lee: It was a ride. I knew what I was getting myself into and it was a still a ride, to be in a room for an hour plus just hearing messages to you from all sorts of people in your life was really intense . . .

DJ Johnson: It was hard.

LL: It was really intense and I don’t think anyone expected to come out of it the way we did, but it was a beautiful thing to be a part of, so thanks guys, and you’re welcome!

DJ Johnson: And we never have to do that again!

AD: How did you film it? Just one of you in the room with a camera person…

DJ Johnson: No, there was no one else in the room just audio of messages playing and that’s it.

AD: As an instrumental band, how do you hook people, how do you evoke emotions? Do you intentionally conjure an emotion with a song?

Mark Speer: Sometimes, but it’s not necessarily emotion, it’s a feeling. Classical music is primarily vocal-less, but I’d argue it’s the most emotional and feeling-music, like, ever. There’s plenty of songs out now with tons of words, plenty of words, but I feel nothing. But some songs have very few words and they mean a lot and I really feel it, so it doesn’t really matter if its vocal music or instrumental music, just what’s the intention, does it make feel or doesn’t it. Like there’s that R&B song about a dog, I think it’s called ‘Brandy’ but I can’t remember who does it . . .

Laura Lee: I think Mark listens to a lot of powerful singers who evoke a lot of emotion in their voice and Mark tends to play like singers, so I think in some subconscious way, that plays into it . . .

Mark Speer: And I tend to listen to music that’s not in English, so I don’t know what they’re saying, I’m just listening to what they’re singing and how they’re singing. There’s this R&B song about a dog . . . I can’t think of the name . . .

[Mark pulls up the video on his phone of The O’Jays “Brandy” and shows Laura and D.J.]

DJ Johnson: That was about a dog??

Mark Speer: The name of the song is called “Brandy” by the O’Jays. I can’t listen to that song because I will bawl out . . . Old Yeller ain’t got nothing on Brandy!

Interview recorded and produced by Allen Thayer at Revolution Hall in Portland, OR — April, 2018, shortly after the release of Con Todo El Mundo.

Related: Khruangbin :: Beyond Con Todo El Mundo (The Influences)

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