Khruangbin, “Two Fish and an Elephant”

Blake Gillespie

Houston-based thai-funk band Khruangbin see little disconnect or appropriation in their regional sound. Ask what’s the relation to Texas and Thailand and they are quick to point out the climate similarities and the international community within their city. Naturally, the Internet plays an integral role as well.

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With a name that means “engine fly”, a 22-hour flight is the difference between Houston and Thailand. But, Khruangbin never had to make that journey to immerse themselves within the sound of Thai-funk. Through the Monrakplengthai blog the band discovered the sound that would shape their inspiration beyond the gospel they performed in church. (More on that later.) The singles leading up to the group’s debut The Universe Smiles Upon You on Late Night Tales showcase range that explores beyond the Thai-funk tableau and that diverse sound adds a face with “Two Fish and an Elephant”.

The mostly instrumental track brings the sound full circle as American blues once heavily formed the Thai-funk sound, with Khruangbin’s “Two Fish and an Elephant” it journeys back stateside. There is heat coming off the track in its veritable connection to the blues and as it arrives at the bridge a catharsis takes hold that sends an ocean breeze through the instrumentation. It’s harmonious in the use of la-la-lahs in that no singular region or country can stake claim over the incantation, nor should it. The la-la-lahs should be our universal mantra of jubilation.

Immediately I’m curious how a band with a bio that says it got its start in the church and is from the countryside of Texas found its way to Thai-funk. What were some defining moments that led to the discovery of this music and more importantly defining records that made a last impression?

We’ve always been into digging for music that makes us feel something. We’d really been into Brazilian funk, Dub, Ethiopian chika chika, Bollywood soundtracks, the list goes on…

Mark and DJ played together at a church in downtown Houston for 10 years. It’s where they met, and found that they shared a similar love for searching out great music, regardless of genre. We’d discovered Monrakplengthai, and it jump started our interest in the music scene of 60’s and 70’s Thailand. We were blown away and immediately obsessed with this unusual, yet very familiar sound. Soon, a series of Thai-funk compilations started to appear at our local record shops around 2008-2009. It seemed to be that sense of collective consciousness, or the universe trying to tell us something.

Crucial Albums:
Dao Bandon, Chan Di Khi Foi
Sutrak Aksonthong, Rak Rop Ramphan
Chatri Sichon, Chom Nang
The Impossibles, Raroeng Chon

How did you discover the Monrakplengthai blog? Has the Internet in general played an influential role in gaining a familiarity with thai-funk?

The connectivity of the Internet has helped not only to spread new ideas and artforms to disparate parts of the world, but also serves to archive these works for future generations. Although living in a culturally diverse city can introduce you to new sounds and sights, the internet allows one to dig deeper. It’s safe to say that Monrakplengthai has played the influential role in our discovery for Thai music. Outside of a handful of Thai-funk compilations, it remains the largest and most comprehensive resource of this material for non-Thai language speakers, giving background and context to the music and the incredible stories of the artists who created it. We love it.

Geographically and culturally, it’s tough to see there being much of a connection between Thailand and Texas. Did that ever strike you as a disconnect in playing this music? In what ways were you able connect and relate to this music?

Disconnect? It may be a strange phenomenon to have a Texan band play music inspired by music that existed 30-something years ago, and in a country a 22-hour flight away, but there’s way more in common than you might think. Thailand is hot & humid . Houston is hot & humid. We have hurricanes; they get typhoons. We both love incredibly spicy food. The funk is there, the grooves are solid. Our favorite era of Thai music comes from the 1970’s, when Thai music was being directly influenced in part by American funk, rock, disco, etc. They would take these new influences and merge them with local sounds, melodies and instruments and make something new. What we in the west call “Thai-funk” probably has more in common with our country/folk music. It shares many of the same scales, the same subject matter in the songs. The biggest difference is the language, which, being a tonal-based language, also determines the melodies.

Houston is an incredibly diverse, international city, regardless of what you might have heard. There exists a quite substantial Southeast Asian community in and around Houston, and they brought with them their culture, music, and especially their food. We love food. Go to any amazing Thai restaurant and you might be lucky to hear some killer music, unless they are playing Top-40 for their American clientele.

How did you link up with Night Time Stories?

In 2010, Mark and Laura Lee were in the touring band for Yppah (Ninja Tune) who was supporting Bonobo on his North American tour. It was an incredible experience, and we made friends with Bonobo and his amazing band. The next year, he came through Houston and we had a chance to catch up on the bus, and gave him some of our first recordings of what would become Khruangbin. When Laura Lee moved to London, they hooked up, she sent him some of our new material, and Bonobo included our track “A Calf Born in Winter” on his Late Night Tales compilation. Shortly after, LNT offered us a home. The rest is history.

The Barn in Burton looks like a very inspiring place. Creatively what has that place meant to the band and how has it guided your exploration of the sound?

It’s single-handedly the most important aspect of our sound. It’s out in the middle of the Texas hill country, far away from any noise, city lights, and modern distractions. We are able to explore a sound and a feeling that we just cannot get inside the city. It creates a sense of spaciousness, serenity, and creative freedom. It’s a crucial member of the band.

Khruangbin’s The Universe Smiles Upon You is out November 6 on Night Time Stories.

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