excursions in sound
EXCURSIONS IN SOUND
Subtle hymnal passages, the odd nod to P-Funk and disco, spacious laid-back grooves and the occasional world music quote. Can something that feels familiar in the best way possible actually address as something genuinely fresh and inspirational? Unequivocally, yes. Two years after globetrotting trio Khruangbin released their heavily acclaimed “The Universe Smiles Upon You“ - for which they united surf, soul, funk and summery psych to something highly unconventional yet very intuitive - they return with album number two, which sees them not only intensifying their trademark sound, but flirting with new musical territories as well. The result is a very confident one, a testimony of a band that’s now fully aware of its very potential. “Con Todo El Mundo“ again feels as if it isn’t particularly rooted in any time or place, it’s very unobtrusive in nature yet a very engaging and demanding affair delivered by a band that somehow managed the trick to sound entirely their own with their second album already. Lodown hooked up with Laura Lee, Mark Speer and Donald Johnson while they were touring the West Coast in mid-November, 2017.
You just told me that you’ll hardly play any new material besides your new single during your current US tour... isn’t that kinda frustrating for you as a band, consciously holding back the new gold that will be released in a few weeks already?
LL: It’s one of the big things I’ve learned over the past couple of years: Just because you’re ready to put something out, doesn’t mean it’s the right time. In terms of playing new material live, it’s better to wait and start playing it when the crowds have listened to the new record and can fully take in and connect with the new songs.
DJ: We currently have two or three songs in our live set that are from the new album. Touring doesn't leave a ton of time for practicing and working out the particulars of playing songs live, so I think we're in a great spot considering we've essentially already started performing 30% of the new album material.
Would you say that Khrunagbin already turned out to be bigger than you ever expected the band to be since “A Calf Born In Winter“ made it on Bonobo’s compilation?
MS: Oh yeah, I didn’t expect any of this. When we first started the band, we were just playing music for us. I didn’t know it would be anywhere past that. Here we are hundreds of shows later.
LL: I always believed it could be, but never expected it by any means.
DJ: Khruangbin surprises me every day, and continues to exceed all expectations.
With “Con Todo El Mundo“ you delivered a kind of paradox , well at least to me... on the one hand it offers the trademark Khruangbin sound, on the other hand though, it feels completely fresh and like so much more than just a logical progression. What’s the magic trick here?
DJ: I think the main thing the listeners will hear is the growth that happens when a band plays 100+ shows. We know each other better as musicians, and that makes for a tighter sound.
LL: Totally. We’re just stronger. I think the other thing to mention is my personal growth as a player, because the songs are essentially written around that growth. I’m the least musically experienced of the band - by a long shot. It’s literally impossible for me to ever catch up, but it works well because I approach music with a sense of naivety. The songs always start with bass lines, and the guys bring my playfulness to life. As I’m learning through playing in Khruangbin, I’m growing as a player, and as such, roots of the music are growing with me.
MS: When we wrote ‘Universe’, we followed a formula. Instead of exploring outside of the box, we explore what’s inside of our box. This album is an exploration of a different part of the box. The formula is still the same. We learned some new scales, listened to some new music, and threw that into the box.
Laura lived in London for quite a while... how hard was it to work and record new material this time around? Also, was working on the second album a bit of a scary thought somehow, now that you have to deal with expectations?
DJ: I'm now the geographical oddball.
LL: Haha, Mark and I now both live in Los Angeles, while DJ holds it down in Houston. Our publisher and new label are both in LA, and it seemed like the right move for Khruangbin. While we haven’t been able to spend too much time there because of touring, it was 100% the right decision.
MS: The new album was scary because I wasn’t sure if we were going to do it again. We tried to prepare for it, but it turned out all of our preparations were scrapped. And we did the entire thing in essentially two weeks.
LL: You approach it with an attitude of “this is going to be amazing”, but in truth that’s a façade to protect the immense levels of anxiety. But then… that anxiety subsides quickly for me when I look at the people I’m in a band with. My two best friends, the two best partners I can have, that I trust implicitly with music, as well as in life. So, of course it’s going to be beautiful, in whatever way that it comes out. It’s us. I trust what we have together, and I think at some point it’s about letting go in it.
You’ve been touring a lot lately, did you experience that your music is received very differently in different parts of the world? Are you perceived far more “exotic“ in the US than in Europe, where people tend to not care too much about labelling and genres?
DJ: I've enjoyed playing both over the past year. In my opinion, the US has just as many people with an eclectic taste as Europe does. The main difference between the two audiences is UK/European audiences tend to listen more, and US audiences are more interactive. Both are equally satisfying as a musician. We have a general rule: Always play to the room. If people wanna listen, we'll get really dynamic. If they wanna party, we'll party.
LL: Couldn’t have said it better myself. Also, I should add that Europeans tend to find our ‘Texan’ thing to be way more exotic than we imagined.
How many discussions did you have within the band about the sound for “Con Todo El Mundo“? Since “White Gloves“ was so well received, I was wondering if you had to fight the impulse to do an album that was heavy on vocals? I’m very glad that it isn’t, by the way...
MS: Haha, I don’t really like singing or writing lyrics. So, there will never be the problem of having too many vocals. I’m so glad that “White Gloves“ was so well received, but we can’t remake that song over and over again. It doesn’t represent everything that we’re trying to do.
LL: Vocals are always the very last thing to be added to a Khruangbin song. Songs have a way of writing themselves sometimes, as cheesy as that sounds. You listen to what they need. And unless the songs really need that additional element, we don’t add them. I think it’s really nice to have a balance of vocals and instrumentation.
DJ: Khruangbin definitely has a formula, and if we do something that strays too far away from that formula, we'll simplify it, or just scrap it altogether.
I find it also very fascinating, that the Khruangbin sound was getting richer with your second album, yet it seems to be a lot more personal and introspective - but that’s just my point of view, obviously. It seems as if there’s a lot more yearning and sadness involved...
DJ: I think the scales and chord progressions this album naturally lend themselves to invoking those emotions.
MS: I think the making of and the reception of ‘Universe’ made us realize that we could express ourselves fully. We made the last record not thinking anything would happen, and then something did. So, in this next one, you either recreate what it was, or you think about what made it successful - the personal touch of the record - and you try to do that again.
LL: I think I personally dug deeper. There’s aspects of the album that are more personal. The title of the record for example, Con Todo El Mundo is named for my grandfather. The artwork was put together by Mark and myself. There are more pictures of us and the farm involved in the presentation of it. I’ve had a heavy hand in the videos for this record as well. I think I felt that with the opportunity of a second record, I wanted to give everything I possibly could and lay it all out there. There’s a higher level of exposure and vulnerability for me.
The album adds quite a few influences from music from the Middle East to the mix... what do you find the most fascinating aspect of this kind of music?
LL: I love how it balances a toughness with romanticism. It’s delicate and heavy at the same time.
DJ: I personally like the scales used in Middle Eastern music. Growing up in the US, I was first introduced to that sound through the hip-hop production of Timbaland.
MS: For me, something about the scales and how it’s played is so emotive - in a lot of ways, more so than Western music, because in Western music we’re tied down by equal temperament and standard tuning, and any sort of “off notes” get auto-tuned away. But in music from other parts of the world, those small pitch changes and vibrato can add so much emotion and feeling, and it keeps me listening over and over.
Speaking of which: the vid for your first single “Maria Tambien“ is made from archival footage from Iran, showing how liberal and free the women once were during the years before the revolution changed everything. What made you decide to tell this story?
LL: I worked on this video together with Sanam Petri, a first-generation Persian American Creative Director, whose parents moved to the United States during the Iranian Revolution in 1979. When we showed her the song and talked about our musical influences on the new record, she discussed always wanting to tell the story of Iran that she knew, though had never seen in person - the story of Iran with women dancing freely in color. When we started looking through footage and researching famous Persian actresses, scouring through their IMDB pages, it was a heavy feeling to discover that their incredible careers all abruptly ended in 1978 or 1979. With that discovery, we decided to alter the narrative. Not just footage of women dancing, but to bring attention to their fate as artists, of having to either leave their homeland or be silenced. In terms of any political statements with regards to the world today, it’s impossible to not be affected by the outside world, but our mission in this instance is more about presenting history... rather than an opinion.
How did your live shows evolve during the last three years? Do you have discussions about adding (an)other musician at this point?
DJ: The live show has evolved immensely. I think we've become a lot more comfortable in front of an audience. Again, playing 200+ shows made us tighter, and we're able to communicate with each other often, without ever looking at/speaking to each other. Although there's new instrumental textures introduced on this record, nothing that was added was made to be the focal point of any of the arrangements, so we can still pull them off as a trio live, and the listener shouldn't miss much. I feel the great part of what Khruangbin does live, is finding how much we can create within the framework of a trio. That concept tends to leave a lot of open space for each of us to explore different melodies and rhythms in a live context.
Con Todo El Mundo / album / Night Time Stories