“It depends on the day and the experience,” says Khruangbin bassist Laura Lee from a break on tour. “There is some merit that you can take the edge off a little bit and put yourself in a place where you can feel free and in the zone, but equally I think it can also make you nervous that you’re not as in-control.”
The Houston-born trio with the Thai name for "airplane" (pronounced krung-bin) is scheduled to make a stop at The Factory in Deep Ellum with special guest Nick Hakim on Dec. 17.
“I don’t drink,” adds drummer Donald Ray “DJ” Johnson. “When I did, I wouldn’t do it during gigs because I wanted to be alert and prescient. But I can’t speak for all musicians.”
“I used to drink at every show pretty much up until this year,” Lee says. “But we were playing more rock ‘n’ roll-type clubs so the atmosphere just sort of called for it. I don’t really have any desire to play the Greek Theatre [in California] hammered.”
Khruangbin is certainly intoxicating as a musical group, admired worldwide for their own wide admiration of the world as a dazzling and ultimately genreless trio that blends elements of every style of music they can get their hands on. The worldliness of Khruangbin is not just one of the band’s hallmarks, it’s their defining feature.
The members' radically diverse interests are essential to the band’s style and their reach. Lee attended a Montessori school in her youth, a type of school that encourages students to develop their own natural interests as opposed to using traditional teaching methods.
“I am so grateful that I went to a Montessori school,” Lee says. “It teaches you to learn in your own way, and I believe the way I learned how to play music fits into that category. I couldn’t study anyone else’s way to learn music. I think it’s nice to compete with nobody but yourself, and to approach things however you would like to.”
The band recently wrapped up a three-night stint at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, a previously unthinkable achievement for such a shape-shifting band. If you had gone up to them after their first gig in 2011 and told them that in a decade they’d be doing three nights at a large venue in L.A., they would have been perplexed to say the least.
“I feel very split on it,” Lee says. “One hundred percent I didn’t expect to be where we’re at and do the things that we can do, but on the other side I always fully believe in what we make and have believed in it enough to have worked my butt off all those years ago to try and get it out to the world.”
"I couldn’t study anyone else’s way to learn music. I think it’s nice to compete with nobody but yourself, and to approach things however you would like to.” –Khruangbin's Laura Lee
“I probably would have said ‘What’s the Greek Theater?’” says Johnson, whose steady, go-with-the-flow attitude and style of playing have anchored Lee and guitarist Mark Speer’s colorful extemporizations for the entirety of that decade. “A lot of the time, I don’t really realize how significant our gigs are until later. Once, Laura called me super excited and said ‘DJ, we just got booked to play Glastonbury!’ and I was just like, ‘Oh, cool,’” he says laughing. “I think I may have burst her bubble with that.”
As Lee finishes laughing with Johnson, she too admits, “Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have known what the Greek Theater was at the time, either. Either that or I would have been like ‘Bring it on!’”
Despite their ballooning popularity and wide-ranging fanbase, Khruangbin doesn’t engineer its music to be as widely appealing as possible; they simply consume as much music from as many different places as possible.
“You only put out what you put in,” Johnson says. “Mark, for example, is always listening to music that is specifically not in English. He’s always had a taste for what they call ‘world music’ or ‘Earth music,’ which is music that happens on Earth. So, when he plays a melody, it’s going to come out different than a person who only listens to classical music or rock. We all have our different voices, and they’re determined by what we put into them.”
“We definitely want to be as inclusive as possible,” Lee adds. “It’s not about ‘reaching the masses’ as much as it is making everyone feel welcome. I think we’ve always wanted to be an ‘Earth’ band in that sense.”