Khruangbin’s Mark Speer Talks Indian Influences and New Album ‘Mordechai’
The Texas alternative/psychedelic group’s latest record features more vocals and disco-funk flavors over their quintessential pillowing sound
Growing up in Houston, American psychedelic band Khruangbin’s guitarist Mark Speer took in all the multiculturalism that the city provided over the years, including traditions of Indian and Pakistani communities. “There’s a whole district, which they recently named the Mahatma Gandhi District, which is funny in itself,” Speer says with a slight laugh.
Speer, along with a friend, used to frequent a shop in that district called Worldwide Records and Tapes to purchase music. “It’s all written in like Hindi or one of the other scripts, so I don’t understand what any of it says. You just kind of pick it up and you just look at the album cover. You’re like, ‘Oh, this looks like fun.’” He particularly enjoyed Carnatic music. “I remember really, really enjoying [late vocal legend] M.S. Subbulakshmi. I really love that stuff. It almost sounds like they [her vocals] are double tracked but I think it’s her and maybe her sister or something, singing almost the exact same way at the same time,” Speer says.
He points to his understanding of Indian classical music being more about melodies and how he often hears “a drone” for “really compelling” melodies and raagas. “Because it’s just a drone, you can’t just get by with having some really boring melody. It has to make you feel,” he says.
It’s what inspired them to write a song like “One To Remember,” off their just-released third album Mordechai. Speer’s wandering fretplay goes over drummer Donald Johnson’s unwavering drum work and bassist-vocalist Laura Lee Ochoa’s fist-tight grooves and spectral delivery. It’s unhurried and elegant yet bearing the allure of a solid rhythm, arguably the signature Khruangbin sound that’s taken them around the same globe whose sounds they draw from.
Khruangbin – who have supported everyone, including electronic artist Bonobo, plus hit up festivals including Glastonbury – have found their way to India at least a couple of times as performers. The trio performed at Magnetic Fields Festival in 2017 and played two shows in Mumbai and New Delhi in May 2018. Speer recounts how he was in Goa around December 2017 and his friend bought him a speaker box which played devotional songs on repeat. It reminded him of dub, creating a connection of how Indians migrated to the Caribbean and possibly influenced reggae rhythms. “On ‘One To Remember,’ I’m trying to do my best to emulate Lata Mangeshkar in my best possible way on a guitar,” Speer says.
The way Speer talks about Iranian, Pakistani and Afghani music, or the fact that Khruangbin takes its name from the Thai word for “airplane” or that Ochoa sings in Spanish and multiple languages on Mordechai is testament to why they’re one of the most deservedly acclaimed bands in the world right now. They’ve got fans in Jay-Z, who picked up their 2018 record Con Todo El Mundo soon after it released.
Thai funk, Spanish lyrics, Indian film music (the band covered “Khuda Bhi Aasman Se,” from 1970 movie Dharti) – is there ever such a thing as an unlikely influence for Khruangbin? Speer chuckles, “Everything is just as unlikely or likely as anything else, honestly.” In a chat with Rolling Stone India, Speer talks about the new album (released on June 26th via American indie label Dead Oceans), record shopping in Mumbai and what they’ve noticed since playing around the globe. Excerpts:
A noticeable aspect of Mordechai that everyone is talking about is how Laura Lee is singing more on this. Was it a natural progression?
We kind of came about doing vocals on this record by chance. We had been on the road for so long. And when it came time to record, they were telling us, ‘You’ll have more time than you’ve ever had before to work on this album!’ I’m like, ‘Oh, awesome. I can’t wait, this sounds great!’
But what they ended up doing was scheduling us to record really soon after tour, so we had all this time after the recording session, which kind of didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I’d rather take the time before recording to write music. So we didn’t really come to the session with a whole lot prepared.
We had some little snippets, some small bits that we’d collected over the years like recordings off phone or soundcheck stuff. But no actually finished arranged tunes. So what ended up happening during the sessions… we kind of decided to focus most of our energy on really refining the bass and drum parts. I was just gonna play rhythm guitar, and I’ll go back later and I’ll replace my rhythm guitar parts with something more Khruangbin-like, to be more melodic and whatnot.
But in between the time that we recorded the initial tracks and came back, me and Laura Lee spent time writing words and coming up with melodies. She had gone through a big, kind of an awakening moment in her life. So that kind of determined what the words were going to be about. She had a whole notebook full of words. So what I did was just take these words and put them into a song form.
When “So We Won’t Forget” was out, the lyrics and even the music video really spoke to people. I saw a comment that said ‘Came here to listen to a chill new Khruangbin tune and left crying.’
Words are really important. I really love lyrics but that’s not something that I always focused on. When I was first playing guitar or first playing bass or whatever instrument, I’d listen to the song and go, ‘Oh, that sounds like a really cool bass part.’ For a long time, I didn’t listen to songs holistically or listen to the words. But in the past, I don’t know, 10 or 15 years or so, I’ve really been focusing on listening to the words.
I don’t feel like I’m very good at writing words at all. But I know what I like to hear. So usually Laura Lee will come up with words and I’ll just figure out how to put them into a context that sounds good to me. That’s generally how it works. ‘White Gloves’ was written… that was a hard one to write. ‘So We Won’t Forget’ was also kind of hard to write, in the same way.
The other thing I like about words, at least the words that we write, is they’re meant to be open for interpretation. I don’t want to tell anyone what the songs are actually about. Because that ruins the experience. I want the listener to come up with their own scenario.
In terms of sequencing and tracklisting, what kind of thought went into the way this album flows?
If you’re doing a DJ set, what you try to do is build energy; start slow tempo and slow intensity and build to like a higher tempo and higher intensity, just to bring the audience to that place and then break it down again. And then bring it back up for the last part of that set. But for an album, you don’t really want to just go, ‘up, up, up, up, up,’ and then down, up again. You want to have mountains and valleys.
Sequencing is very important. We sequence albums for the vinyl experience, so that when you listen to the first side, it’s a complete sentence. And then when you flip the record over and put on the next side, that’s kind of a new awakening. You could put a slow song at the end of side A, and then put a banger as the first song on side B.
The band’s influences have always been so wide-ranging. Are there still moments when you hear something and go, ‘This might be an unlikely influence.’
[Laughs]. Everything is just as unlikely or likely as anything else, honestly.
I found myself wanting to incorporate this sort of like Caribbean/Haitian/Dominican/Martinique, Guadeloupe kind of [music] style with really intricate guitar parts. I was like, ‘Wow, I really like this.’ I wanted to figure out a way to incorporate it. And I ended up trying something like it on ‘Pelota.’ What it ended up sounding to me was kind of like Northern Mexican music today. Almost Tex Mex sounding melodies. Even though I can try to like emulate or incorporate different influences, it all comes back to the fact that I’m from Houston, and the things that I grew up hearing in Houston will find their way into what I play, because that’s… you can’t get away from it.
That’s that Indian influence. That’s that west African influence, that’s that northern Mexican influence. That’s zydeco, French Creole stuff. It’s all in there. There’s a massive East Asian population as well [in Houston] and that’s a huge reason why we sound the way we do.
What have your India experiences been like, considering you spent a bunch of time in the country between the performances?
I mean, every country is different. But in a lot of ways, at least the live music scene, you can come from the West and have an assumption of what you think it’s going to be [like performing] in another country. But it’s almost like the youth culture is so similar all across the world.
The people that go to these venues are so like the people you go to venues with in the States or in Europe or anywhere else. It’s youth, man. Youth culture wants to get down and have fun and they’re going to listen to music from wherever. They want to feel it. They want to hear what’s happening now and I just love that.
Donald [Johnson, drummer] mentioned in our last interview that you would go look for records for Mumbai. How did that go?
I did look for some records, man. I went to this shop and you know how you’re not supposed to stack records, end on end, like vertically? I went to a shop and all the records were stacked flat, like 50 records high.
I’m sitting here thinking this is cool, but we should maybe check out another shop or whatever. The guy [at the shop] was like, ‘Well, are you looking for anything in particular?’ I told him I was looking for [1986 Bollywood film] Janbaaz, the soundtrack to it. And he was like, ‘Oh, do you mean this?’ Then he pulls it out. It’s in pristine condition. It’s like, he knew I was coming. Of course I was going to get it but my friend said, ‘You have to haggle with him.’ Then I ask, ‘Do you have [Biddu-produced soundtrack to 1980 film] Qurbani?’ He’s like ‘Oh do you mean this?’ and he pulls out another pristine copy of Qurbani. Where are you keeping these? It was on the same street where you get all the parts for your scooter.
What else is coming up through 2020? How are you guys taking this pandemic and planning the record?
I’m trying to take it day by day. Like you said, there’s no telling what’s gonna happen and when. It’s hard to schedule anything right now because of how unsure everything is. But as far as being off the road, I’m actually really, really enjoying it. I haven’t been in one spot for more than two weeks in the past four years. It’s actually really nice. I’ve found myself settling right into a routine.
Listen to ‘Mordechai’ below. Stream on more platforms here.