In a prolific stretch of new albums, collaborations, and sold-out tours, Leezy & Khruangbin are taking the world by storm
Onstage, Laura Lee Ochoa — better known as Leezy — has a larger-than-life persona. Her elaborate wardrobes of sparkling dresses and stiletto-heeled boots are as mesmerizing as her rolling bass lines and entrancing grooves. She’s become a modern icon of fashion, regularly gracing the covers of magazines while inspiring new trends, including hordes of people who dress as her for Halloween every year. As the focal point of her Houston-formed trio Khruangbin, she taps inspiration from James Jamerson and other bass greats while playing supremely catchy riffs with a recognizable sound. Everything about Leezy is bold, confident, flashy, and spotlight-ready. Her fanbase is constantly growing, as famous actors, musicians, and celebrities hit Khruangbin shows and wait to talk to the rising star.
Laura Lee, on the other hand, is a shy, quiet introvert with an insatiable passion for the arts, having worked as a math teacher right up to the point that she picked up her first bass. Modest and laconic by nature, there couldn’t be a vaster divide between her and her stage alter ego — but somehow they exist symbiotically, in perfect balance. Luckily for Laura, when the sequined outfits and the wigs come off, she gains all anonymity back and can go about her life exactly as she pleases. While on tour, the 36-year-old Texas native bides her free time by walking three to five miles every day, in whichever city she lands in, and not once has she been recognized in the streets.
Fans have every reason to recognize Leezy and her Khruangbin bandmates, guitarist Mark Speer and drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson. They’ve somehow taken their primarily instrumental psychedelic groove-rock to the top of mainstream music, as their songs are commonly heard in movies, television shows, and commercials, topping playlists and best-of lists in every direction. As the band reaches new heights of popularity, this is the time when most artists would lean into their appeal and write their poppiest and most accessible hits yet, but not Khruangbin. Instead, they teamed up with Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré to write Ali, a September-released tribute album to Touré’s father, one of Mali’s most celebrated guitarists, Ali Farka Touré. In sticking with their collaborative theme, earlier in the year they issued their second EP with soul singer Leon Bridges, Texas Moon.
Following a long run of touring in 2022, and the recent announcement that Laura is pregnant with her first child, the ever-prolific Khruangbin is planning to begin writing their fifth studio album after some much-needed time off. Laura’s home in Upstate New York, where she transplanted several years back, is a long journey from the small barn in Burton, Texas, where Khruangbin writes and records all of their material, but she knows she’ll find her way back there soon. As much as Laura Lee enjoys her quiet life outside of the spotlight, Leezy is always itching to return to it.
Since we last featured you, Khruangbin has surged to new heights of popularity, you’ve become a major influence in bass and fashion, you’ve toured the globe, and you’ve released four albums. That was only two years ago. How has life been?
I’ve mainly been on the road this whole time, so it’s like I’ve been seeing it, but through a different lens. It still takes me by surprise all the time. It’s been beautiful to tour after the hiatus, and it’s amazing that it’s still going so well. We’re definitely pinching ourselves. We’re coming to the end of this stretch right now, but I think it’s a good point for us to pause and write new music again. I’m craving feeling inspired and being able to see things without thinking about soundcheck and a tight road schedule.
Has anything been especially inspiring to you lately?
I’m looking for that right now. Sometimes it’s hard to find it when you’re on the merry-go-round. I’ve been doing my best to see shows and go to museums when I can. I booked a three-week adventure holiday for when this tour ends because I need to dig in and be immersed in some new sights, and not work, so that I can have that feeling again. There’s always stuff to be inspired by; I’ve been inspired by my team right now. We’ve gone through a lot of growing pains this year. Growth is change, and change is hard. We have some really beautiful people around us, and I’ve been inspired by the family we’ve created. It started with just the three of us, and then on tour it was four, and then five, and then seven, and now it’s 17. I’ve been truly grateful and inspired by them.
Back when you were a math teacher, before you ever even played bass, could you ever have fathomed that this would be your path?
No. Not one bit. When I was a teenager, my best friend and I made a promise that if we hit a certain age and our life still wasn’t what we wanted, we’d leave everything behind and do the thing we really wanted to do. Mine was to be a rock star. It happened.
Your recent album collaboration with Vieux Farka Touré is fantastic. How did the concept of Ali come about?
It was a very “universe smiles upon you” situation, and I’m so happy we had the honor of making this record. Vieux’s management approached us and wanted to find a collaborator to bring Ali’s music to a different audience. With Khruangbin’s hand in global music, we seemed like a fit. He came and watched us play in London and liked it, and then we hung out and tried to figure out if we got along. I don’t want to work with people I don’t vibe with, but it instantly felt good. Vieux has great energy, and musically, he’s a total shredder. We decided to make it happen — he flew from Mali to Houston, and we had about five days in the studio. It was a beautiful and challenging experience.
What was it like working with Vieux?
He’s a total joy of a person. The guy just radiates joy; he has a giant smile and a deep laugh that took over the studio. He came in and dug in with us in our space. The furniture in our engineer’s studio is some of our old furniture from when we lived in Houston — there’s cat hair everywhere, and it’s a very homey place. That always helps us, and it’s always up to our guests to see how they fit in. Vieux was so lovely and totally got in the groove with us, and he was very encouraging. He would bring us food every day. He would show up with fish and vegetables and rice that were homemade. We would eat, and he would tell us to eat more, and then the session would be over.
How is Malian music different rhythmically to what you’re used to playing?
It’s very different in both cadence and how it moves. The phrasing is super interesting. It was helpful that we went back in the studio to track everything after the initial session. We wrote those songs and recorded the live session we did in 2019, and then we came back at the end of 2020 to finish. The time apart from it was good because I almost didn’t remember what we did. Any time I’m writing, Mark encourages me to find my gaps and to play at different times than he is, because it creates a more full and interesting palette.
What was it like taking on this music from a bass standpoint?
In the actual live sessions when we recorded, I mainly played roots and rhythm bass, so to speak. His rhythm is so different to mine, and he didn’t want us to listen to the music ahead of time or know what songs we would be playing. So I played roots, 5ths … very basic parts in the moment. I knew I wanted to sound like myself on this album, so I wanted to write my parts on my own, apart from the others.
How do you typically write your bass lines?
When I write I need to go deeply into my head, and I prefer that nobody else is around. In our engineer’s studio there’s a separate room that he sets me up in, so that I have my own Leezy station where I can write all of my bass lines. It doesn’t take me long, but I just have to be by myself when I write. Some people can write on the spot and in the moment, but I don’t want anyone to hear me because I’m discovering the music. I wanted to find a way to put melodic bass lines into this music, which was hard because there was already so much melody happening. But it ended up working because Mark came up with these ethereal, spatial guitar parts, and with my melodic bass lines we slowed down the parts and let them groove and breathe.
Having a background in math, do you visualize your bass lines as equations or more so as patterns and shapes?
Usually it’s a visual thing for me — that works with what makes sense for my hands. It’s typically a root pattern that is easy, and then it’s the additions and continuation of the line that I find from fun places for my hand to go. I started out playing without knowing what I was doing, musically, and I know more now, but I still play with the same feeling of discovering what’s next. What you write should always be fun to play, and some people like to shred and go really fast, but that’s not fun for me. I like being able to dance and move around, which translates to our live performances. That’s how I want to feel when I’m playing bass and dub music, and grooves like [James] Jamerson played that fit into that category.
Do you feel like that sense of discovery helps keep your writing fresh?
It definitely plays a role in my style. But when there are jazz people around, I get so nervous, like they’re going to find me out. However, Christian McBride has become a good friend and a huge supporter of mine. He messages me once a month in all caps saying “BASS SOLO!” He’s such a master. We’ve been playing the same circuits as Thundercat for a while, and I saw him over the summer, along with Flea, and we had this beautiful bass moment. Afterwards I started crying to Stephen [Thundercat], and I was like, this is so much. He looked at me and said, “Hey, you deserve to be here.” Coming from him it was huge, because when I watch him I don’t understand anything that he’s doing [laughs]. I love that guy so much.
You certainly deserve to be here. Your bass on the Ali album has seriously deep dub feels going on.
Dub is always there for me. It’s home base when I write music. The first song on the album, “Savanne,” took me a while to work out, and I wanted to be childlike and experimental with what I played. But I had to pull back a bit, because I first wrote lines that were a little too syncopated for Vieux’s taste. He felt like it took the groove too far away from what it was. I was using phrasing from Khurangbin songs and finding the right notes [to go] in them. Usually, I write my bass lines first, so I never have to compete with anybody, but this was very different. What I ended up with had a definite dub feel.
That’s such a grooving bass line on “Tongo Barra.”
That song came from the live sessions. I was kind of mimicking Vieux. When we went back to listen, it seemed like that was what the song needed. That bass line gave the song a little push, and I tried to place everything to accomplish that. It has the nice repetitive groove that I love playing in songs.
What is it that you love about ostinato bass lines?
This is so nerdy, but I just really like patterns. I love creating patterns and then slightly modifying them in the smallest way. It’s a very mathy way to be, but it has a heavy impact on the song. Plus, I love dancing when I play, and when the audience dances, too. Repeating bass lines definitely entrance people into moving.
Tell us about Texas Moon, your second album with Leon Bridges.
Three of the five songs were already done [from the Texas Sun sessions]. “B-Side” is interesting because it’s the only time I’ve ever used my Fender Bass VI [6-string tuned like a guitar but down an octave]; we were fresh off touring, so I was feeling very confident. I listen to it now and think, Damn, I had a good day. It came from a jam session, and my playing stuck for the record. Leon is definitely a brother and we love working with him. He feels like he’s at the same level of figuring himself out in that space as we are. “B-Side” was my favorite song of the original recording sessions for Texas Sun, and I was bummed that it didn’t make that record. “Mariella” was a big win for me as far as my bass lines go; it’s a repetitive, simple bass melody, but it kind of carries the song. I knew I was going to crack the code. Usually I find that cracking the code happens by going with the simplest thing that was there the whole time.
Your shell pink Bass VI is a thing of beauty. How do you approach playing it differently than your 4-string?
It’s actually not shell pink, it’s pink champagne [laughs]. It’s funny because there is an old ad for a Fender Bass VI from when they first came out that had a pink champagne finish, and I thought it looked great and I knew I wanted that for a bass at some point. Then when Mark creatively directed the instrument and got all of the pieces, he sent me an envelope with different colors of sparkle and he asked me, which was pink champagne to me. That was the finish we used. But to answer your question, I’m still such a total novice about knowing anything technical, and because I only play a 4-string, with the same tuning and the strings the same distance apart, having the 5th and 6th strings tuned like a guitar changes something for me. I’m still going to play one note at a time, but it definitely makes me approach that instrument differently.
Thanks for the finish clarification. We would have gotten eaten alive online. Can we expect that to get some use on the new Khruangbin material?
I’m excited to explore it for our next record, whether or not it’s what I use when we actually record. But it’s a good method for me to think outside the box and approach songs a little differently. I write totally differently on it. I do come up with a lot of our songs and I do write melodically, so Mark always says I should just play guitar. I’m excited to see what playing on that instrument might open up for me, creatively.
You’ve always embraced so many styles of world music. How do you authentically take on such diverse music with such deep roots?
It’s tricky because you want to be respectful of the music by not copying it directly but also by not butchering it. The work comes in finding the middle ground. You know as an artist when something sounds too on-the-nose. You don’t want to do something exactly as it’s been done before or replicate it note-for-note. It doesn’t feel original or respectful when that happens. It’s all about actively listening. And it’s also about homing in and picking out certain things. A lot of times I’ll focus on the vocal melody rather than the bass or the rhythm, and then I’ll try to write from there.
Music and fashion have always gone hand-in-hand, and you’ve embraced both and become a trendsetter in each. How does it feel to be a fashion trendsetter?
I love it because it’s easier to see myself as an artist than it is seeing myself as a bass player, so living in that space of multiple art forms mixed into one is easier for me. Those two things give me the means to express myself in a way that I never did before. I’m grateful for them individually and in coming together.
If you weren’t a performing musician, would fashion still be a passion of yours?
I’m not sure if I would have gotten into fashion, specifically. I’ve always been into art. I’ve worked in art museums, I went to architecture school and then switched to art history and worked in that world for a long time. I’ve always drawn and painted throughout my life. When I found bass, I instantly realized that it was the medium for me, and then the fashion part and the over-arching thing that it creates does it for me. I like that world. I like the Grace Jones, Bowie, Prince, Bjork place. It’s the whole picture and thinking about performance as all of the senses coming together.
You rock some high stilettos, boots, and heels when you perform. Most players would trip over their own feet wearing comfy sneakers.
I have two wonderful people on my team who spend time every day making sure that the stages we play don’t have any holes in them. We have different techniques we use for different kinds of stage holes. If there are gaps, they put neon tape around them, which is helpful. There are certain shoes that are more comfortable than others, and I have to make notes on all of them. The uncomfy ones I can’t wear multiple days in a row. I can deal with them for a day, but that’s it. I wear the main look for that night at soundcheck, to make sure there are no unforeseen hazards, because things do happen. I remember one of our very first shows, my earring got caught onto my dress and I was playing with my head attached to my shoulder for a song. Now I can suss out anything going on ahead of time. I remember at one or two shows my dress would ride up too high and I’d have to run over to the sound engineers and yell for them to pull it down. But now we’ve worked out those kinds of problems.
You also pull off multiple wardrobe changes throughout the course of a show. How difficult is that?
Costume changes are great — a fun show element and reveal. I have people to help me backstage, making it pretty seamless at this point — no pun. I love Ru Paul’s Drag Race, so I’m always watching what they’re doing. When I saw Bootsy Collins, he changed four times, Elton John changed multiple times, so why shouldn’t I change? It breaks up the set for me and makes it feel different.
How does it feel to have a lot of people all over the globe dressing up as you for Halloween?
I love it and I honestly can’t believe it. The options of female bass players to dress up as are somewhat limited in the sense of having an obvious look. It’s so funny because one of my style icons from the start was Cassandra from Wayne’s World [Tia Carrere as bassist Cassandra Wong], and I feel like I did her proud. But it is so flattering and surreal to have people dressing up as me. There’s also a separation from me because it’s not what I look like normally. They’re actually dressing up as the person that I dress up as. Lately it’s not just girls dressing up as Leezy, which I love so much — anyone can be Leezy. I like it because it feels natural and fun, and I like that it’s inclusive because we want to make music for everybody, especially people who don’t play music. If you want to come and wear sparkles and a wig and feel like you’re in, you are in. Everyone is welcome.
You started playing bass when you formed Khruangbin. How has your playing evolved?
The main thing that has changed over time is confidence. In my opinion I haven’t peaked yet, and I still have a lot to do and a lot of growth. But I know who I am more, and I’m happy with who that is. When I first started out, I wasn’t sure who I was, and I definitely wasn’t sure if I should be up there. It has never felt fully comfortable, but now I’m much more confident.
How much of your stage confidence is genuine, and how much is fabricated?
It varies day-to-day. Sometimes places just feel comfy, or sometimes I’ll have a lot of my home team out there supporting me and it’s easy to find a confident space. It makes me want to make them proud. Other times I’ll find out that there’s somebody at the show, like David Byrne, who attended recently, and I’m so thankful that I didn’t know he was there because I would have completely been in my own head the whole night. There is a certain confidence that I get from getting into that character. It’s a switch, like the one for drag queens, when I put on the clothes and all of a sudden I stand a little different, and I feel a little more proud, and I have a little more confidence because I have the shield of Leezy around me. It’s like changing into my other persona. –BM
Hear Her On
Khruangbin, Ali (Vieux Farka Touré and Khruangbin album) [2022, Dead Oceans]
Texas Moon (with Leon Bridges) 
Bass SX Jazz Bass, Custom Bass VI
Rig 1972 Fender Bassman 10, Ampeg B-15, SVT 8×10
Pedals Demeter Compulator, Acme Motown DI
Strings D’Addario Chromes (.045–.100)
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