Listening to Khruangbin for the first time is sort of like visiting your traditional American grandfather to talk about baseball and barbequed meats, only to discover your grandfather now speaks fluent Thai and would prefer to discuss far-east folklore. The Houston-bred trio have all the tonal qualities of a 1960s psychedelic surf-rock outfit – Mark Speer’s Stratocaster played through a tube amp without much distortion other than a heavy dose of reverb, Laura Lee’s muted four-string bass locked in with Donald “DJ” Johnson’s less-is-more kick-snare combos. Their instruments sound familiar, but the melodies and ultimately the music, does not.
“Khruangbin” is Thai for “airplane.” That name makes sense after a quick listen to the band’s stirring debut The Universe Smiles Upon You. Speer’s scales are steeped in oriental tones, and immediately jump out as foreign to the western listener. The “airplane” part of the equation makes sense too, given the unavoidable psychedelic tinge that keeps this music suspended in air. Khruangbin’s sound is at once massive and miniscule, soaring and grounded.
Most of the folks packed into Club Dada in Dallas’ historic Deep Ellum neighborhood, seemed to already know of this dichotomy – they already had that pleasantly jarring first listen to The Universe Smiles Upon You out of the way by the time Khruangbin took the stage at 9:45. They anticipated song structures from the show-opening “August Twelve,” cheering as the band transitioned to that tune’s gorgeous outro. The trio seemed relieved to be back amongst Texans for the first night of a Dallas-Austin-Houston run. “It’s nice to be back in a place where I can say, ‘Hey, y’all,’” Speer admitted.
And with that, they kicked into “Mr. White,” the first track on Universe Smiles. What’s really striking about this song and much of Khruangbin’s catalog, aside from the copious use of eastern scales and melodies, is the simplicity of it all. The instruments all have a sterling clarity about them and the playing is oh-so delicate. Even at their loudest, Khruangbin never urged me to take the earplugs out of my pocket. And, at their lightest – in hushed tip-tappings – the band displayed a masterful control of their volume.
Next, Speer and Lee tip-tapped empty bottles of booze with drumsticks for a percussive accent to Johnson’s modest foundation on drums. In a cover of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s late-70s “Firecracker,” Johnson led the band through several air-tight tempo changes, before taking a so-called “anti-drum solo.” During this, Speer and Lee stopped playing so that Johnson’s minimalist backbeats were highlighted. This would be the time most other drummers would have gone flailing around the drums. But, as Speer told the crowd, only other drummers care to hear drum solos. Instead, Johnson held down the beat in perfect meter until the rest of the band rejoined the groove.
Before this show, I wouldn’t have guessed Khruangbin were big stage banterers. But they were chatty in the same way you might expect someone to be when they finally returned home from a long journey in a strange land. Before jumping into the dancey “People Everywhere (Still Alive),” the Laura Lee dedicated the song to a young calf on a farm in the South-Central Texas Hill Country where the trio recorded their debut album. The band was sure that the calf, who had also been named Laura Lee, was destined to become hamburger meat. Alas, when they returned to their studio some time later, Laura Lee the cow was alive and well – a triumphant tale which gave the “still alive” vocal refrains some extra meaning.
Coincidentally, the windswept “A Calf Born in Winter” came soon after, following a subtle iteration of “White Glove.” Khruangbin then finished their 80-minute set with a few crowd-pleasing hip hop snippets, including covers of Naughty By Nature’s “O.P.P” and “Whatta Man” by Salt-N-Pepa.
To call Khruangbin’s performance “eclectic” would be a grand understatement. In less than 90 minutes, they managed to play most of the debut album that the crowd came to hear, and squeezed in covers ranging from early-90s hip hop to 1970s Japanese electro-groove. It’s the kind of music that takes the listener around the world, and according to one guy standing back by the bar, “back in time.” For Khruangbin, this music has literally taken them around the world – and for at least one autumn night in Dallas, back home to Texas.