Intercontinental riffs

Khruangbin jams on a world of undiscovered funk and soul

Khruangbin: (from left) Mark Speer, Laura Lee and Donald “DJ” Johnson.

Khruangbin: (from left) Mark Speer, Laura Lee and Donald “DJ” Johnson.

Photo by Mary Kang

Folkyeah presents Khruangbin Wednesday, Nov. 14, 8 p.m. (doors 7 p.m.). Will Van Horn opens.
Tickets: $25, available at
El Rey Theater
230 W. Second St.

In the golden age of rock ’n’ roll, instrumental-only songs such as Rush’s “YYZ,” the Allman Brothers’ “Jessica” and Average White Band’s chart-topping “Pick Up the Pieces” received significant radio airplay and introduced iconic melodies to the broader culture. They weren’t just fodder for movie and TV show soundtracks.

But pop music has become overwhelmingly singer-centric in recent decades. In fact, Baauer’s 2013 viral sensation “Harlem Shake” is the only instrumental song other than Kenny G’s rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” (2000) to crack the top-10 this century. These days, if it doesn’t have vocals, it’s background music.

That’s an unwelcome development for the three members of Houston, Texas-based rock band Khruangbin. Speaking to the CN&R ahead of their show at El Rey Theater on Wednesday (Nov. 14), the trio of Donald Johnson (drums), Mark Speer (guitar) and Laura Lee (bass) argued that strong melodies transcend context, and a human voice isn’t the only instrument capable of capturing listeners’ attention.

But hooks are necessary, and in Khruangbin’s case, they’re delivered by the guitar. “The way we’ve structured it, Mark is the vocalist for the band,” Johnson said. “The guitar sings.”

“When I’m playing guitar, I’m definitely trying to take the place of a vocalist and play really strong, distinctive melodies you can hum along with,” Speer agreed. “Sometimes we’ll play a show and the entire crowd is singing along to a song that has no words, which is really abstract to me, but awesome.”

Khruangbin’s music isn’t entirely instrumental. Every so often, wispy vocal melodies drift through the mix like incense smoke, but never take center stage. The funky soundscapes on the most recent album, Con Todo el Mundo, are influenced by a wide range of underground funk and soul sounds born outside the Americas—the Mediterranean, Middle East and especially 1960s and ’70s Thailand. And the songs flow, sounding almost free-form, though in fact they are meticulously arranged. Johnson stays in the pocket, holding down the backbeat; Lee’s basswork is precise and mathematical. Speer, the only member of the band who dabbles in improvisation, is prone to ripping extended and inventive guitar solos. The guitarist consistently amazes his bandmates, even though they play roughly 150 shows a year. “I see Mark do something different every night,” Lee said.

The trio’s songwriting process goes like this: Johnson creates a drum loop and then Lee riffs on bass, sometimes for an hour or more. Once the foundation of a melody and a groove is established, Speer chops up the pieces he likes using a digital audio workstation, arranges them into a song structure, and then plays guitar over it. The group treats the earliest version of a song as a demo; nothing is set in stone before the three of them get together to work on things in an old barn they converted into a rehearsal space.

“There’s definitely some magic that happens when we have to learn it and play it together,” Lee said. “There are mistakes that happen and there are things that lock in.”

Like most instrumental music, Khruangbin’s style of atmospheric rock is open-ended. And there’s no lyricist telling the listener how to feel. Emotions are communicated by the melody, shifting dynamics and each player’s individual expression.

“Most classical instrumental music is instrumental, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any vocal music that is as emotive as that stuff, at least in the Western world,” Speer said. “By nature, classical music—especially impressionistic classical music—creates a mood and a feeling. That’s definitely something we take as influence, in that respect.”