On “First Class,” the sultry, mellow opener from Khruangbin’s third album, Mordechai, the track takes us home. Or rather, it takes Khruangbin home.
Almost free-associating, the Texas psyche rock band sings the lyrics “First class / Champagne” and “White suit / On ice all day” with the same funky familiarity we’ve come to laud them for. At one point they sing “H-Town,” the nickname for Houston, over and over, elongating the word. It’s not exactly the same kind of energetic shoutout that Beyoncé would give for her hometown — or Megan Thee Stallion or Travis Scott for that matter, some of the most popular Houston stars of the moment. But it’s a similar, if more intimate claim, of the place that raised and influenced them.
Since their emergence in 2014, Khruangbin has been known for bringing influences from around the world into their music. Many have, as guitarist Mark Speer tells me with a small sigh, classified them as a Thai funk band instead of a rock band that pulls inspiration from the Thai funk records he, along with bassist Laura Lee and drummer DJ Johnson, love themselves. “It's a way for people to put us into a category, he says. “But we've been doing that kind of mixture gumbo — throwing it all into a pot like it's simmering. We're always trying to put everything we can into it no matter what.”
That mixture has placed Khruangbin’s sound across different genres, decades and countries — leaving the band at risk of being called “world music” without discerning what that generic, awful phrase really means. Rather, their music is unique and ultimately feels personal because of how they craft a mood with the sounds they select. Andrea Domanick for Noisey wrote of their debut, The Universe Smiles Upon You, that “the resulting album doesn't sound rooted in any one place or time, but instead feels more universal — a self-contained sense of home.” And that sentiment appears in its fullest, most complete form on Mordechai.
Mordechai, out via Dead Oceans/Night Time Stories, comes after the band took a bit of a break after years of nonstop output. In the last six years, Khruangbin released two records, toured the world a few times over, and made a Texas-centric EP with homestate touring mate, Leon Bridges. At some point, that energy needed to shift from volume-focused to more considered.
“I think I speak for all of us here but I know for me personally, I've been learning how the journey is the most important thing,” says Lee. “Rather than thinking about what the album ends up being or how it ends up doing in terms of people listening to it, it is really about enjoying the making of it. And I can say that I had the best time making it. No doubt I had my creative frustration and a lot of struggle, but I felt really euphoric making it and listening to it for the first time with everyone.”
There is another shift on Mordechai: the group used lyrics and vocals more than any of their other records across the 10 tracks on this record, which Lee admits didn’t happen as a result of some decision. Rather, what would come to be Mordechai simply presented itself as a lyrical album.
“I wrote quite a bit in my journal prior to us going into the studio to record vocals. I wrote basically word vomit. There was no lyrical presentation to what I was writing. I was just writing down memories and stories that I had at the top of mind. So I had pages of words to kind of refer to,” she says. “Then we went to the studio. They put on a song and I flipped through my pages to see if any particular words stuck out or any sentiments. It would just resonate with the feeling of the song and we kind of go from there, piece it together.”
Khruangbin wrote this album at their familiar Burton, TX farm. Lee says the musical parts are always written first, no matter the record — that’s just their process. Then lyrics or words are added, selected to fit with the mood of the track. “You know, ‘champagne/ first class,’” Lee says of the first song, laughing, “it totally works! It wouldn't work on any other song. It's interesting, and I really appreciate the whole process of it.” She adds: “That's one of the beauties and also challenges of writing the way we do because the music comes before anything else. When you're writing words to fit music, then you kind of have to take that into consideration.”
One of the record’s primary themes centers around memory. We hear it explicitly on the groovy single “Time (You And I),” “If There Is No Question,” “One to Remember,” and the smooth, effervescent jewel of this record, “So We Don’t Forget.” Lee mentions a few times during our interview that she wrote memories in her journals and would say words or phrases in sessions. “When you go back and flip through the pages of your mind and land on a memory, it's going to bring up nostalgia or happiness or sadness or all the above. I was looking at my memories for a mood and and listening to the songs, saying single words, thinking ‘does this word feel like the song?’” she says.
Mordechai, though their press release says it bears influence from Pakistan, West Africa, and South Korea, is fundamentally a record born out of the offerings of Houston’s rich music scene. Johnson says, yes, they pull from everywhere around the globe, but the globe in and of itself resides in Houston, too. “The record ends up sounding like Houston because Houston contains all of those influences. There are so many different people from different places that gather here and live here. And we're influenced by all of it.”
Some of those influences include, of course, hip-hop and trap, but R&B, zydeco, country, gospel, funk, and psychedelic rock, make a home here as well. For their vocals, which is a duty shared by all three in unison, not a singular lead vocalist, Speer says they pulled influence from Santana and War. This approach, he says, means it “doesn't matter if you're a good singer or not. When you have that many people singing in unison, it sounds like a group or a party.”
Johnson notes Houston’s versatility in its creative output, but it’s more than that. “We don't just take all of our influences from the people that surround us. We all hang out together. We eat together. We dance together,” he says.
There is something special, even devotional, about tapping into that energy especially when the world is bleak and confusing, isolating, fiery and emboldened, too.
Lee ends our conversation with a memory. “Most musicians in Houston either make it in Houston or they go out and make it big outside Houston. Travis Scott and Beyoncé, you know, it's not like they were performing three nights a week before they made it big. They took a different route. We had our big homecoming show at the end of last year, and it was then that we felt like we earned the title of being a Houston band.”
Sarah MacDonald is a culture and music writer and editor based in Toronto. Her work can be seen in Hazlitt, VICE, Noisey, Elle Canada, and The Globe and Mail, and more.