You know in the 2000 movie High Fidelity when John Cusack is picturing his ex-girlfriend with Tim Robbins and he disdainfully assumes that Robbins' character loves world music? Why the negative connotation? Why that majorly topical intro? It could have something to do with record label Putumayo's presence in Starbucks and the (ahem) inherent whiteness that goes along with that, but there's a sad distilling of an entire planet's non-American music that simply must stop—and a new guard of band that's doing just that.
"In America, what else do you call music that's not in English?" Mark Speer asks SFR jokingly. It's mid-morning in Texas and Speer has just wrapped breakfast when we speak on the phone. "Americans don't wanna get specific enough to say 'Oh, I love music from Cameroon,' so they just call it 'world music.' But if I go into a record store, I'm going to that world music section."
Speer is co-founder and guitarist of Khruangbin, a Houston, Texas-based trio that embraces the music of the world in a non-Starbucks fashion, adding bits of rock and funk to the mix for an almost hip-hop-meets-psych-meets-funk style. You'll be shocked at the full sound given the band's only a three-piece (and doesn't loop or use laptops onstage), and Speer, a consummate session musician who's dabbled in projects from gospel to rock, lends a wide-eyed love of practically all musical styles to the project.
"When I was a teenager, the world stuff was, like, traditional Trinidadian steel bands or the sound of the Japanese flute; these very old-school, traditional—beautiful—music styles that were almost more for the intellectual," he says. "Listening to ancient Indigenous sounds, that's cool, but I was always looking for more funky stuff; jamming music."
Bassist Laura Lee agrees and expands. "The first world music that I was exposed to was exactly that Starbucks series. I had those, my mom had those, they were also in the library," Lee recalls. "But the thing is, if that's what people's intro [to world music] is, it is that—but I think that's also cool about the feeling of what people are getting from the world music we're presenting: It's a little bit deeper."
Khruangbin absolutely is deep, as well. Often misidentified solely as Thai soul—both Speer and Lee say the band is not just that, even if they're sometimes inspired by it, and that perhaps music writers just found it easier to assign them that label—the band is more like a roving music class in what is musically made outside of America and how it might influence a band's entire catalogue. This can mean anything from Budos Band-esque throwback jams with sexy, thumping basslines to head-bobbers in the vein of Swedish psych bands like Dungen. Surf and R&B elements wind their way in as well, and Latin beats from drummer Donald "DJ" Johnson make subtle appearances as does that Motown hotness. But they won't be pigeonholed. "We keep a really playful approach," Lee explains, "and as soon as you put a level of expectation on what it's supposed to sound like, it makes me feel trapped."
Thus, Khruangbin is anything it wants to be, and it's not unusual to hear a transition from an Afro-Caribbean moment to something more Middle Eastern or Indian, or maybe a quieter breakdown leading up to an atmospheric whirlwind of sounds. Still, among the globe-trotting bits and pieces lies a distinct personality all their own, and while there are certain comparisons to draw, once you know Khruangbin, you surely won't mistake them for other bands.
For best results, start with Khruangbin's newest release, Con Todo el Mundo, their most focused effort to date and an endlessly listenable achievement. This may be their most accessible work, or at least a fantastic primer to other Khruangbin releases. Once you're familiar, pick up tickets for the band's Meow Wolf performance on Tuesday.
"Usually we just say 'we listen to world music and make music in a barn in the countryside,'" Lee quips. "You should check it out." She ain't wrong.
7 pm Tuesday March 27. $14-$16.
152 Rufina Circle,