Khruangbin lets the remix lead the way

In advance of a new EP with Leon Bridges and a show at Express Live, the band talks about its recent remix project and taking a pandemic breather

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Khruangbin with (far right) Leon Bridges

When Khruangbin was making its 2020 album, Mordechai, drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson created an intricate drum part for the song “Pelota.” 

“The kick pattern changes from section to section, and there's more accents here and there,” Johnson said.  

Then in August, the band released Mordechai Remixes, which features a reworked version of “Pelota” courtesy of Quantic. “We get this banging remix that's just four to the floor, and it's like, oh, that's what I should be playing,” Johnson said. “We were playing it [live] the way it is on the record when we did our first run of shows, and it just wasn't landing like we thought it should. And then we flipped the switch on that, and it's like, oh, here it is.” 

In that way, the remix album has been more than a one-off project in between bigger releases for the Houston-born, globally inspired funk-rock band, which has seen its audience grow each year since the trio of Johnson, Mark Speer (guitar) and Laura Lee (bass/vocals) released its psychedelic, Thai-influenced debut, The Universe Smiles Upon You, in 2015. The remix record has proved to be instructive live, including on the band’s current tour, which stops at Express Live on Saturday, Dec. 11

“The energy feels higher than ever because people are so happy to be seeing live music again,” Lee said of the band's recent shows. “When I'm looking at the crowd, the crowd doesn't look anxious; the crowd looks grateful. … It feels palpable.” 

Since Khruangbin (pronounced KRUNG-bin) released Mordechai early on in the pandemic (June 2020), the band wasn’t initially hungry to make another record quite yet. “We were just on pause, and I think most of our time was spent enjoying the pause,” said Lee, who spent the pandemic in New York City while Johnson was in Houston and Speer was in Oakland.  

“I didn't really work on new Khruangbin material during that time. It was nice to have a breath,” Speer said. “I was messing around with some drum machines and an eight-track cassette recorder and not playing guitar, playing keyboards, and I ended up making a bunch of ambient songs. … I was aware of ambient music and enjoyed some of it, but I didn't take a deep dive until the pandemic. I was just like, ‘What do I want to listen to? I think I'll listen to this Don Slepian record again. This Steve Roach is going to be the soundtrack of my nighttime sleeping.’ It just stays on. I don't turn it off.” 

Lee, meanwhile, took on a visual arts pandemic project, transforming a shabby bunkhouse in the middle of the woods with sequined fabric and ornate chandeliers made from tomato cages. “I have a hard time calling myself a musician. I have an easier time calling myself an artist, because I don't necessarily just think sonically,” said Lee, who has become a fashion icon. Performing in Khruangbin, Lee has never worn the same outfit twice onstage. (Most of the clothing is returned to the designers.) 

While a new Khruangbin album is likely more than a year away, the band just announced, Texas Moon, a new EP with fellow Texan Leon Bridges and a companion release to the group’s previous collaboration with the soul singer, Texas Sun. The creative partnership came after the band toured with Bridges in 2018 and Lee began sending him instrumental tracks. 

For Texas Moon, Lee said she made adjustments to her bass approach based on the first EP. “Because I wasn't used to playing with a singer on the first record, I was much more static in what I was playing because I wanted to make sure that the singing was the focal point,” she said. “But somewhere in Texas Moon, I found a way to have both things happen and play more melodically while also not being a focal point.”