Khruangbin's Vibrant 'Con Todo El Mundo' Is Drawn From Life
Instrumental music speaks. Like a look from a lover or the clench of a fist, there is sometimes more (e)motion in the flick of a riff or the hum of an organ than words can supply. The Texas-based trio Khruangbin got its start digging on '60s and '70s Thai funk, gospel, R&B, surf, psychedelic rock and dub, creating chill instrumentals seemingly tailor-made for groove-seeking beatmakers and blissful dancers at outdoor festivals. Somewhere along the way, Laura Lee's soulfully funky bass lines, Mark Speer's lyrical, liquid guitar and Donald "DJ" Johnson's superbly crispy drumming gave Khruangbin's songs narrative shapes — not "cinematic," the trait often ascribed to post-rock bands, but vibrantly drawn from life, with elastic sketches that vibrate off the page.
On Con Todo El Mundo, the band's second album, Khruangbin expands its international reach at a moment when so much of the world seems intent on closing borders. There's the pre-Revolution Iran boogie of "Maria También," the slithering cool of "Rule" (inspired by Persian guitarist Kourosh Yeghmai) and the breakbeat chop of "Evan Finds The Third Room," a tribute to the late-'70s proto-zouk coming out of the French Antilles.
But this being Khruangbin, a global soul swirls all around these songs like disparate frequencies in search of a jam. That the three members put all of themselves into Con Todo El Mundobecomes even more apparent as they share the stories behind each song. From the loving kindness of Lee's Mexican-American grandfather and the bickering couples in Clueless and Romancing the Stone to a group of breakdancers who gave "Maria También" its beat, it's a record that draws from memories and makes them present. The band tells that story here in their own words.
1. "Cómo Me Quieres"
This song was named for Laura Lee's grandfather. When she was a little girl, her grandfather would always ask her, "How much do you love me?" or "Cómo me quieres?" And the only answer he would accept was, "With all the world," or "Con todo el mundo."
He was an extraordinary influence on her life, so this song is a tribute to him. We hope it captures the melancholic nostalgia of missing someone deeply. Since we're primarily an instrumental band, we try to convey our emotions through the music rather than words, but we also try to leave enough space to let our songs reflect the listener's own feelings, rather than forcing our own meaning upon others.
Despite the connection to Laura Lee's grandfather, the music on this track was primarily written by DJ. We think that's what makes our sound unique; all three of us come from such different backgrounds, it's the balance between us and what we contribute that creates something new.
2. "Lady And Man"
The remote Texas farm where we record has only an old VHS player for entertainment, so we often end up watching the same few movies on repeat while we're writing music. One of those tapes is the '90's cinematic masterpiece Clueless, and one day, while listening to the argument between [characters] Dionne and Murray, Mark started playing a little call-and-response guitar over it. We thought it sounded cool, so we started messing around with it, then added a few melodic tones from an argument in Romancing the Stone. And the song sort of became this ode to bickering couples.
Our creation process is actually quite similar to improvised dialogue. Usually we start with a drum loop, then Laura Lee freestyles some bass over it, then Mark comes in and riffs on guitar over that. So there can be a natural conversational element to our music sometimes, because the songs usually are sort of a conversation between the three of us.
3. "Maria También"
This was the first song we wrote for this album. And, like most tracks born after a long dry spell of writer's block, it's one of our favorites.
Our first album, The Universe Smiles Upon You, was a musical reflection of our total obsession at the time with Thai funk. We were eating, sleeping and breathing it when we wrote that album. But this time around, we wanted to draw from more of our obsessions. So what you're hearing in this song is a reflection of Middle-Eastern music, particularly from pre-Revolution Iran.
The breakbeat influence in this, for those hip-hop heads in the audience, is just straight up "Apache." Mark used to run the sound at a youth center in Houston, where a crew of breakdancers would teach young kids how to B-boy. Basically, "Apache" has been stuck in his head ever since.
4. "August 10"
The first song we ever wrote as Khruangbin was a song called "August 12," off our debut album. It's a really meaningful song for us, and we wanted something of the spirit of it to come with us into this second album. So we listened to it backwards, learned to play it in reverse, then added a few new ideas into it that reflected who we are as a band now.
We recorded it nearly exactly six years later, and it's become this connective tissue between the two records, a kind of reminder to us about how far we've come together.
5. "Cómo Te Quiero"
This song was originally called "Neighbors." It was an ode to Laura Lee's grandpa calling everyone he met "neighbor." Hey neighbor! How ya doin'? That was his thing. He was a neighborhood postman, so he'd say it to everyone he met. He was that kind of guy: He lived life slowly, always made time for conversations with people.
When Laura Lee first moved to London from Texas, she'd walk to work and say hello to the people she passed. But London wasn't the kind of place you'd often get a hello back. So she started making up conversations in her head as if the person had responded. One day, she turned one of these one-sided conversations into a melody, then added in lyrics from a letter she wrote to her grandpa after he passed.
When we got together to play it for the first time, we slowed it way way down from the original, and realized it's kind of our version of a gospel song. So when we recorded it, we ran the vocals through a Leslie speaker, which is usually used on a church organ.
6. "Shades Of Man"
Mark's got this thing where he disappears for days, sometimes a week at a time. Nobody ever knows where he is; he doesn't answer his phone or talk to anybody. It usually means he's gotten really obsessed with something and can't focus on anything else, like organizing his songs by city of origin, or finding the essential funk records from China.
On this track, you're hearing a product of a Mark-cave hole, which was the time he got obsessed with re-creating an Electone organ in Ableton. He spent a week programming it himself, trying to get it exactly right. Luckily it turned out pretty good for us, even if we couldn't get a hold of him for days.
At the end of the track is an interlude between two Iranian women figuring out how to say our band name. Figured at some point it was helpful for us to have it said correctly on at least one our records.
7. "Evan Finds The Third Room"
As far as the lyrics go, this song is basically one big pile of inside jokes. When we first wrote the three different parts, we were playing around with it, jamming to it, and Laura Lee started freestyling in lines she knew we'd find funny. We always meant to go back and write more sensical lyrics, but over time, we got attached to our initial version. We've decided it's okay if it only really makes sense to us.
Musically, this track is inspired by Mark's obsession with the late-'70s proto-zouk coming out of the French Antilles. He's basically mixing that sort of chordal rhythmic chopping with the lead lines in "People Everywhere," which is off the first record.
8. "A Hymn"
Mark wrote this song while playing guitar at St. John's Church in Houston. It's where he and DJ first met 13 years ago, playing together in the church band every Sunday. Part of their gig was to play music while the pastor blessed the morning service, so they'd usually vibe on a slow, meditative vamp, while the candles were lit.
This song is an ode to that time, with a guitar melody on top inspired by two of Mark's favorite guitarists, Julian Bream and Prince Rogers Nelson, and based the progressions on Baroque composers like Bach and Handel.
This is also the song that's pretty much guaranteed to make Laura Lee cry. She thinks it's a reflection of all the deep, emotional things Mark can't say. (He thinks it's just a nice song.)
Laura Lee's really good at following the rules; Mark's really good at breaking them. It's what's at the heart of our musical progression together: she brings order and structure to his playing, he encourages freedom and experimentation in hers.
This song is probably the most perfect encapsulation of that balance. While at the farm, Laura Lee was practicing playing without the rules and wrote this tough-as-nails, doesn't-give-a-s*** bass line. Mark played some scales and phrasing on top, inspired by Kourosh Yaghmaei, the incredible Persian guitar wizard, and we laid some badass Ennio Morricone-inspired vocals on top. Et voila.
10. "Friday Morning"
"Friday Morning" is the first love song we've ever written. It's about risk-taking in relationships, that feeling of vulnerability when you choose to jump in head-first and trust another person. Towards the end of the song, you can hear the faint traces of Laura Lee reading aloud from old love letters, which she had to take about three shots of tequila to get through.
Musically, some people have scratched their heads and asked why this song reminds them of Ice Cube's "It Was A Good Day." The reason is because they're hearing Mark's obsession with Ernie Isley of the Isley Brothers, one of the most sampled artists of all time and another of Mark's favorite guitarists. His tone in this song definitely gets Isley-esque.
As a group, this is our favorite song. There's something about it that's really satisfying to play. Maybe because it's a "feel" song, the kind of song you have to feel to play. You can't just space out and rely on autopilot. You have to be in it to keep up with it. Sort of like love itself.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.