With Mark Speer, Laura Lee Ochoa, and Donald Johnson, aka DJ, scattered all across the US in the time of the pandemic, it was hard to get ahold of Khruangbin. At last, we caught DJ and Mark in a conference call to chat about the forthcoming record, canceled travel plans, and so many different languages.
Khruangbin means ‘airplane’ in Thai. The trio made their name their motto and have traveled across the globe relentlessly touring over the past couple of years. But how does a band, who is always on the move cope with coming to a halt, with things standing still for a moment? ‘It is a big change. This has been the longest time I have not seen and airport’, drummer DJ says. ‘But I wouldn’t call it hard. It is different. There are things I miss about travel and things I do not miss about travel.’
Mark and DJ both feel lucky to be in the situation they are in during this pandemic. Their work has paid off and they have achieved stability even in times of crisis. ‘I hate that I enjoy this, the way I do because some people have to fear for their lives and jobs. To me, being in one place for a little bit longer is something I missed. Cooking or not cooking, playing the guitar, or not playing the guitar, just reading and not having too many responsibilities feels nice. We are very lucky and blessed to be able to take something good out of this horrible situation,’ Mark adds.
Connecting Through Language
During their travels they have not picked up Thai as their name might give off, but instead got inspired by the music and the language of the country. Mordechai, especially, incorporates more vocals than they were used to before and on Time their travel experience payed off. The song fades out on ‘That’s life’ sung by Laura in many different languages from Hebrew to Hungarian. ‘We chose languages in which we know people who speak them. This way it was a lot easier for us to record something in another language. We had our friends guide us,’ Mark tells me about the challenge they faced with the idea. So, a lot of calling friends and asking them for voice recordings of their native tongue was involved to make the song happen.
That is how the song Time came to hold a special message for all those people who speak the languages that made it onto the track. ‘Most people will not know what it means but to the people who listen to it and do speak the language, it will feel like we are personally saying hi to them. That is the point. We want to connect to different audiences and people from all around the globe.’ With Time Khruangbin achieve that not only musically, but also lyrically. Where previously flares of their travels reflected into the Thai funk-inspired grooves, the West African Percussions, and Pakistani riffs, the band is now greeting their friends and fans personally. The idea came when listening to Japanese Pop, Mark tells me. ‘The songs are mainly in Japanese and then you suddenly have one line in English. I love the intersections of language and how that includes different audiences.’
The Space Between the Words
Mark has had a long fascination with the sound and phonetics of languages foreign to him. When you do not understand the lyrics, you feel the emotion sometimes even more clearly. The color and rhythm of the language turn the vocals almost into an instrument of its own. ‘I also love english as a second language music,’ the guitarist adds. ‘It is awesome to listen to someone learning a language approaching it from such a different angle and perspective than a native speaker. That just creates another space for meaning and words and emotion to meet. And it creates a story behind the words and what brought them there.’
This is obviously something Mark has spent a lot of time thinking about and drawing inspiration from. ‘If I take a phrase like –“ I am going to the store to buy milk” and put it in a translator and translate that over and over again, I will probably end up with something entirely else when I translate it back to English. Now there is all this space, this flexibility and room for words to connect differently. Especially colloquialisms fascinate me. The stuff that makes sense in one language or place but not in another.’
Language Shapes the Music
‘The language a song is sung in shapes its melody, the tonalites, the mood. The intonations are so different depending on the language. I think that massively reflects into the instrumental parts of songwriting as well.’ The quality of the language is formed and molded by the musicians’ direct surroundings, the home ground, native tongue, the places they are locals at, the bars they know the friends they talk to. Even in very small circles it is easy to notice how fast slang can catch on. The personality of language creates music. ‘It sometimes dictates the music because in many languages the meaning changes depending on the intonation and pronunciation of the word.’
‘I love the concept of adapting what you are saying to the way you are speaking – or singing. It is the same with the instruments. For example, something that sounds great on piano does not on guitar. It speaks another language. You need to translate that first and fit it into the rhythm of the other instrument’s language.’
Leaving Room For Interpretation
On Mordechai, Khruangbin weave more lyrics into the composition than usual but by keeping the vocals to a minimum the band maintain the instrumental energy they are famous for. ‘It is a different way of finding our narrative’, Mark says. Even though he admits that he does not like learning words and is ‘terrified’ of writing lyrics, he gladly worked with Laura on her ideas for the tracks. ‘We edited the lyrics together. It was easy once Laura knew the story she wanted to tell.’
Moving on to lyrics for this LP came naturally, they tell me. ‘Vocals are just a different way of incorporating melodies into the songs. We tried to keep it to a minimum and to not go into too much detail because what we love so much about instrumental music is this openness and freedom of interpretation. If you go into too much detail with the vocals and lyrics, you can lose that,’ DJ adds. The melodic and repetitive quality of the lyrics makes the message easy to understand and does not distract from the music still providing the base.
‘We wanted to leave space for the listener’s imagination.’
Vocals and Melodies
On the instrumental tracks, it was often Mark’s guitar that took the lead when it came to melody. Now he is sharing the stage with the vocals bringing a new layer into the mix. ‘It is part of working as a band that sometimes you have to step behind each other. Everything has to be in its place. This time the melodic focus is on the vocals,’ Mark explains. His beloved melodies are still right there, he points out. They are encompassed in every track; it is never a solo effort, so all the band members reflect their creativity into the outcome.
‘My melodies are still right there; they are just not played by the guitar.’
By incorporating different languages like French and Spanish and, of course, the myriad on Time into the work, the band opens up the lyrical spectrum. Different linguistic rhythms bring different possibilities for the songs to take shape. Laura Lee’s vocals at some point even seem to be an instrument of their own. They provide the silver lining, the melody to the tracks but leave a certain openness to interpretation and emotion.
What Should We Call It?
Unlike before, where it was mostly instrumentals, we now have lyrics to relate to. On instrumental tracks, the title carries a special weight because most people are prone to words to something they can read and hold on to. To me personally, whenever I listen to an instrumental track, the title stays with me for the entire duration of it and it can shift the way I perceive the music, the associations I make, and the way I feel. ‘Picking a title is hard but lyrics are harder’, the band jokes.
‘When you have some sort of title, it sets up a vision for the experience of the music to be placed on. Even titles as stupid as” The Number 3” do that. Just by giving it the title, you will probably think of the mythical connotations of the number.’ So, when lyrics came into play that was hard on its own, but it did take a little bit off the pressure of naming a song because the chorus often provides an easy way out.
‘With instrumental music, a bigger focus lies on the title. That is the only thing the listener can hold onto, there are no other distractions and words coming. Usually, the title comes in the process. You cannot stress out about titling a song – get it done and get on with your life!’
Anecdotes From the Road
‘What I probably miss the most about touring is the food,’ DJ laughs. Mark agrees, ‘I don’t think I would enjoy being on tour this much if I didn’t love food!’ During their extended globe-trotting the band has tried everything from real Japanese sushi to homemade Italian pizza. ‘The first thing that comes to my mind when we get a tour booked in Japan is what I am going to eat and the friends I will meet!’ Mark reminisces. I definitely hit a soft spot asking about their tour memories. Mark and DJ could go on ages chatting about the amazing dishes they tried on the road.
‘Every place has its unique cuisine that just no one else can get really right.’
Whenever they come back from tour, DJ tells me, the first he does is talk to his wife about the food they ate. ‘It does not even have to be fancy at all. Like in Japan I got a cookie at 7/11 filled with cream or something and it was the absolute best! You can only get them there!!’ The excitement seeps through the phone when the two members ramble on about other things, they tired. It seems like they cannot wait to get back out on the road again – of course not only to eat but also to perform their new record (yet the priorities seem to be clear).
Meanwhile, the three musicians like most of us are still confined to staying more or less in one place, but Khruangbin have found a special way to travel the world. The website AirKhruang run by the band curates Spotify playlist based on the destinations you want to visit. So, you can go ahead right now and book a flight from your hometown to wherever – no matter the pandemic – and get a personalized playlist inspired by the destinations you entered! Mordechai itself is already a trip but if you feel like you want to travel further and dig behind the influences and inspirations of the band – all aboard the Airkhruang!
Mordechai is out on the 26th of June via Dead Oceans.
Collage design by Clara Castiel with all proceeds going to Black solidarity funds. Our contribution went to activist, writer, educator, and founder of Loveland Foundation providing free therapy for Black Women, Rachel Cargle. Follow the links to check out the amazing work she does and reach out to Clara via Instagram to get a collage yourself!