Khruangbin’s Laura Lee reveals her journey behind their third album 'Mordechai,' and explains how mid-show wardrobe changes have become her calling card.
Since bursting onto the scene and captivating listeners with their 2015 debut, The Universe Smiles Upon You, three-piece Khruangbin (pronounced krung-bin) have become a breakout success thanks to their world-music influences that stem from places far from the band’s Texas roots like Thailand, Spain, Iran, and Ethiopia. With such a global palate, it’s surprising to learn that the band’s multicultural music has all been composed and recorded in a small barn in the 300-person town of Burton, Texas. But being pigeonholed or singled out for any similarities tied to a particular region is the last thing the band wants. Apart from any ethnic comparison, their music is often labeled as soul, funk, psychedelic, or stoner rock — but the truth is, the members of Khruangbin are just playing what they feel, and that seems to vary frequently.
Reigning from Houston, guitarist Mark Speer, drummer Donald Ray “DJ” Johnson, and Laura Lee assembled in 2009 after bonding over their musical similarities. In hindsight, perhaps they would have chosen a catchier and more easily pronounceable band name had they predicted their future success. Yet, convention takes a backseat to conviction for the three — especially Lee, who has become the band’s figurehead. Donning a black wig, runway stilettos, elaborate dresses, and chic outfits that are changed multiple times per set, Lee has created a stage persona for herself that differs greatly from her demeanor away from the spotlight. In contrast to the mellow presence of DJ and Speer, Lee’s stage persona, “Leezy,” commands the audience while dancing and vibing with the music. She’s a long way from Lee’s offstage demeanor.
Leezy’s visual persona matches her sonic role in Khruangbin, whose music is heavily dominated by her bass lines that groove and roll, reminiscent of James Jamerson’s iconic playing on countless Motown classics. Solid in foundation and locked in with DJ’s simple pocket drumming, LL’s focus on rhythm allows Speer to cover a lot of ground on guitar, as his lead work soars with equal parts melodicism and heavy riffing. Preferring her tone to boast more midrange than low end, LL has possessed only one bass since she first started playing in 2009, coinciding with the formation of the band. Her SX Jazz Bass was a gift from Speer, and not only is she proud that she’s never changed its strings, she also smiles while confessing that its buttercream color matches all of her outfits.
Fashion aside, the group’s focus of late has been their third album, Mordechai, which was released in June immediately following their collaborative EP with Leon Bridges, Texas Sun . Building on the sound of their previous two albums, Mordechai touches on the cornerstones of their style while showing musical growth from all three players — even adding lead vocals to their repertoire. LL’s grooves are more commanding than before, with dance-inducing lines on “Time (You and I),” “Pelota,” “So We Won’t Forget,” and “Shida.” Her confidence is evident on the new material, as is her progression as a bass player who is embracing her identity as a songwriter. And like their previous efforts, Khruangbin’s new album keeps listeners guessing what will come next, as the trio continues to change genres and styles more often than LL changes outfits. One thing she won’t change is her conviction to remain authentic to herself … and also to her strings.
You had been touring non-stop since the 2018 release of Con Todo El Mundo. What led to the new album?
It felt like it was time for us to write because we’d been touring for so long, and we needed a change. The initial writing session was in May 2019. We always lay out the music on bass, guitar, and drums, and then everything else gets added on top of it later. When we started, there was no intention of how we wanted things to sound. We wrote a lot of the music, and then we had several months away from the project when we were touring; so we went back into the studio in November after a lot of time had passed, which was really valuable to this process. I call it “being up the butthole” of the project, when you’re in it too deep for too long. It’s healthy to walk away from something and come back to it to hear it with fresh ears. In the in-between periods there were new things that happened to us that changed our perspective. Being on the road impacts me so much, and I was nearing a burnout phase. I just needed time away to reflect on it.
Did your burnout have any impact on the new material when you went back to it?
It definitely did, but in a good way. I was feeling so burnt out that after the ten weeks of touring, I went camping with some friends and some of their friends, one of them being a guy named Mordechai. On that trip I was talking about how I had been on that big tour and I was questioning a lot of things, and wondering who I am outside of the band. The costumes come off, the lights go down, and then it’s just me — and I hadn’t hung out with that person in a while. Mordechai intuitively saw that I needed a friend, and he called me the next week and asked if I wanted to go to California to stay with him and his family. It was much needed, as I hadn’t spent time with a family in quite a while, so I agreed. I went on a hike with him and his kids, and we got into a deep conversation about life being the journey and death being the destination. It really resonated with me. We got to a waterfall and we were at the very top of it. I looked at Mordechai and realized he invited me to California to be baptized in a way. So I took the leap and jumped down the waterfall, and it felt amazing. I hadn’t experienced anything like it. He didn’t know who I was or who Khruangbin is, and he just knew I was a friend of a friend and he wanted to help me, and he didn’t want anything in return. I felt much better when I went back home; I was refreshed to start working on the music again.
This album definitely has an evolved sound from your previous work. Were you inspired by anything in particular?
When we were out at the farm where we record, we pushed for the music not to sound like it was from any particular part of the world. Our first record was talked about as being a Thai-funk record, which we didn’t think was fair because we’re not Thai. The second album was viewed as our Middle Eastern record, which isn’t wrong because I can hear that, but we’ve never wanted to be labeled as one particular thing. Musically, we’ve started to make sure there is more than one reference point to the style of each song. We pulled from everywhere on this album. In an effort to sound like the world, we were hoping to sound like Houston because it’s multicultural here, and this is where we live.
How big of a role did you have in writing the songs?
Our process is always a very collaborative one. In the beginning of the band, the writing was heavily on Mark and myself. I’ll freestyle bass over a drum loop, and Mark will pick the parts that he likes, and then we’ll develop them from there. Sometimes Mark will even put my bass lines in Ableton and will move around their placement and feel, so they land on the beat differently. He’ll curate my bass lines in a way sometimes, but I also curate his playing. He’s an encyclopedia of what you can do on guitar; his knowledge is infinite. Because of that, a lot of times he won’t know where to go. So he’ll put my bass lines on a loop and he’ll play with them until I stop him and pick out something he’s doing. And then DJ comes in and helps to arrange and finalize the ideas. He does a lot of production work; that stuff comes easy for him.
This is your first album to prominently feature vocals. How does it feel to take more of a frontwoman role?
It’s a bit of a misconception, because I’m singing as much as Mark is singing. I think my voice is heard a little more. I remember in the studio asking if I was too loud, and they said they could hear everyone. But I think the audience will pick my voice out more. I believe it’s the psychological element of seeing the girl with the bass and liking her first. I’ve found that people will like me first as a high-heel-wearing, bass-playing girl, and then they like Mark because he’s the shredder. And then they like DJ because he’s the foundation. I like that progression, because I remember falling in love with every Beatle at different times, and I know how that feels. Mark and DJ are much more introverted, so I naturally have taken on the frontwoman side. I feel proud of Leezy. Because it’s a costume situation, she has her own persona. Leezy is her own thing. It helps me separate from her and it helps me emotionally to put it on her, so I let her take on all of the pressure.
That must be fun to have the stage alter ego of Leezy.
It definitely is. And it’s funny to look at the bigger picture, especially in the music world. People think my social media feed is what my real life is like at all times, but those pictures are carefully taken and selected in the moments that lend themselves to them. Nothing is actually that fabulous all the time. When I do costume changes throughout our sets I imagine people picture me running backstage and lifting my arms up like a diva and having multiple people dress me. In truth, I’m running back there hoping I don’t break my ankle, and then I’m frantically changing my clothes awkwardly in the short time I have. It’s not glamorous, trust me.
How natural is it for you to sing and play at the same time?
It’s definitely not natural for me. It’s like rubbing your belly and patting your head. I have to sit with the songs for a long time. It’s a good thing and a problematic thing that the music comes first, because then I have to go back and learn everything. In the studio when we record, Mark will look at me and ask if I’m sure I want to do this because it’ll be complicated to pull it off live. My response is always that I want to make the music for the record and then deal with the live translation when we get there. It’s always doable; it’s just hard. I’ll sit in Ableton and will slow down the track so that I can learn how to sing and play the parts slowly, and then I’ll speed it all up. Like anything, you have to fake it until you make it, and then it’ll happen.
“Connaissais de Face” has a great shuffle groove. How did that come about?
We were in Barcelona at a soundcheck when we came up with that; the drums and bass came out very Ethiopian-driven. We jammed that and DJ turned his recorder on. We listened to it when we were back in the studio after that tour, and decided it sounded too Ethiopian-influenced, so we put it in the discard pile. It wasn’t on the chopping block for the album, and when we were deciding on the order of songs on the album, DJ wanted to go back to listen to the song files that we had been storing up. That one came up, and we wanted to figure out a way to make it sound not too Ethiopian without changing the playing, so we decided to try doing some chatting vocals on top of it, which felt kind of Serge Gainsbourg-esque to me. It completely changed the song’s aesthetic, and gave it the vibe we were going for.
“Pelota” has an almost cumbia feel from your bass line. Do you consciously incorporate world music influences into your writing?
Our world music influences are way more subconscious than they are conscious. There are only a couple of times when I’ve wanted to reference something. With the first two records we were listening to a lot of Thai music when we went in, and I was still such a baby player that I didn’t think about it. You’re naturally going to pick up things the more you play and the more you listen. I lived in London for a few years, and all of a sudden I had a different inflection in the way I spoke. I wasn’t trying to sound British; it just sort of happened. More than anything, that’s what happens to us in this band. Mark is constantly digging for music from around the world, and the music we listen to backstage and on the bus is stuff that he finds. It gets in our heads and comes out in our playing.
As rhythmic as your playing is, your bass lines are very lyrical and melodic. How would you describe the role of the bass in Khruangbin?
Bass is a huge part. It’s integral on both the rhythmic and melodic sides. There are only three instruments, so before we started doing vocals, the melody was carried as a conversation between the guitar and bass. Obviously I’m holding it down with DJ, so I’m the connector between the two. In the beginning I would write and play as if I was humming. That’s how I view the bass, so it was all about what felt good to hum would probably feel good to play. I also play for the way that I would want to dance to the song, even if that’s just a sway. I like a groove. When I was learning James Jamerson’s bass lines and found out he played with one finger, I started playing those songs with one finger, and that changed the whole feel for me. And then I would stand up and start moving with the lines, and it made me move like that.
How did you accomplish your tone in the studio?
I always just mic my amp, and I always use tube amps. Our engineer will tell you that I’m 95% fingers when it comes to my tone. I put foam in front of the bridge of my bass, so that impacts my sound. Then I run a lot of mids, and I fully open my tone knob. There’s something about the midrange of bass that I just love. I always ask the sound people to turn down my low end at every venue, and they look at me puzzled, because that’s bass. But I like it when it cuts through and just sits right with everything. I don’t use a lot of pedals outside of a tuner and occasional compression; I haven’t ventured into effects much yet.
You’ve always played the SX Jazz Bass. What is it that you love about it?
My SX bass was a gift from Mark when I graduated college. It has a lot of sentimental value, and I love the color. It goes with all of my outfits, which is really important [laughs]. And I’ve never changed the strings on it! I got it in 2009, so for 11 years it’s had the same set. The strings are so much of the bass tone, and the flats I have on there are part of my sound. I’ve played vintage basses strung with old roundwounds, and they almost become like flatwounds because there’s so much gunk on the strings. That’s when they sound amazing to me, but it requires wearing them in for a lot of years.
I’m in the process of getting a new bass because I finally found my ultimate tone. The bass tone on Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg [Fontana, 1969, with Dave Richmond on bass] is my absolute favorite. It’s like peanut butter. I played a Fender Bass VI with a pick on a lot of the songs with Leon Bridges, and now Mark is hard at work building me one; he was a luthier and guitar tech for a long time.
Which bass players have influenced your playing the most?
James Jamerson for sure — I mean, I still pretty much only play pentatonic. In the same way that I learned he used one finger to pluck, I’m not savvy with my fretting hand. My ring finger and my pinkie act as one because I haven’t spent enough time drilling myself to use all four fingers. But I took a page out of the book that there isn’t a right way to play. Because I only fret with three fingers, it sounds different. I hear players playing my bass lines on Instagram, and they’re playing with better technique than me, and it doesn’t sound as groovy in a way. I would be lying if I didn’t include Paul McCartney on my list; he’s an amazing bass player and is super melodic. Roots Radics bass master Errol “Flabba” Holt is big for me, too. Mark taught me a lot about the bass, so he’s definitely on my list.
When did you first start playing bass?
I played piano as a kid, and I tried to play guitar in high school, but it didn’t stick. In 2009, while I was still in school, I wanted to play piano again, and I asked Mark for some help. His lesson to me was that when I was listening to a song, I needed to follow the bass. I don’t think I ever thought about listening to or focusing on the bass before then; I always felt it, but I never truly listened to it with my ears. Somehow that conversation led me to picking up his bass and wanting to know what it was all about. When I played bass, it made sense. Certain things come naturally, and the bass was that for me, within music. I was willing to put in the time to hurt my fingers and get them ready. Mark planted the seed, and he was encouraging and excited to see where it went. I graduated and I was teaching third-grade math. I loved teaching, but I hated the job. Mark landed a tour opening for Bonobo, playing with a band called Yppah. They needed a bass player, and he wanted me to take the gig. I did that for six months and I was terrified. I quit my job and went on tour, and it was five of us sleeping in one hotel room. My amp wouldn’t fit in the van, so I went DI every night, and it was all very grassroots. But when we finished that tour I knew I wanted to start a band, and I started Khruangbin.
What’s the best advice about bass you’ve ever been given?
When in doubt, subtract. As I’ve become better at playing, there’s a tendency to play more notes because you know the math better and you have the ability to do those things. But once you take out a few notes, all of a sudden it sounds way cooler and groovier. –BM
Hear Her On: Khruangbin, Mordechai [2020, Dead Oceans]
Bass Fender SX Jazz Bass
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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Photos by Peter Wallace, Wallyography