Mark Speer (left) and bassist Laura Lee (middle) started Khruangbin after discovering a trove of Thai music through a blog, then added drummer Donald Johnson (right) after booking their first live gig. Photo by Mary Kang
The most unique and intriguing players often travel a very unconventional musical path. Mark Speer, sole guitarist of the reverb-drenched instrumental trio Khruangbin, is such a musician. He dodges rock ’n’ roll’s influence, prefers crafting his compositions on bass and drums, and continues to nurture a place in his heart for music in foreign languages. He, along with bassist Laura Lee and drummer Donald Johnson (aka D.J.), has managed to mold a slew of non-guitar influences into a 6-string style that makes Khruangbin’s sophomore release, Con Todo El Mundo, an extremely fascinating listen for fans of instrumental guitar music as well as anyone who appreciates loungy, old-school grooves and exquisitely crafted melodies.
On Khruangbin’s debut album, The Universe Smiles Upon You, the melodic concepts and phrasing of Thai funk played a premier role in shaping the sound.
As if to illustrate Khruangbin’s globe-trotting character, when Premier Guitar caught up with Speer, he was enjoying a day off in India before beginning a tour through Europe. And through our conversation it became extremely apparent why Con Todo El Mundo, which translates as With All the World, is a fitting way to describe Speer’s musical journey, his band’s surf-and funk-tinged sound, and why Khruangbin still records in a dirt-floor barn outside of Houston, Texas.
What were your first musical inspirations?
I was born in 1979, so I came to consciousness about the time MTV was in its first couple years. The first video I remember seeing on MTV was Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message.” Hearing the Sylvia Robinson production on that tune was, like, “What is this? This is amazing! How do you make sounds like that?” But I was not, not into rock ’n’ roll. I thought it was terrible.
With your early attraction to hip-hop and aversion to rock, what initially inspired you to pick up the guitar?
To be honest, I wanted to play drums because drums just looked like so much fun. But I couldn’t afford drums, so I played bass. At a certain point, a friend’s dad let me borrow a 4-track cassette recorder. I was making songs and tracks with Casio drums, playing them with my fingers. I wanted to have chords on them, but I didn’t have a guitar. I would slow the tape down and play them on bass, then speed the tape back up.
So I borrowed my buddy’s guitar and learned some chords. I wanted to play big jazz chords, like fusion-jazz type chords. So those were the first chords I learned. I didn’t know how to play power chords or use distortion or anything like that. That came much, much later.
You have a unique guitar sound and style. It’s amazing you came to it from such a pragmatic standpoint.
Yeah, I just wanted to make chords.
So how did you transition from reluctantly playing guitar to putting Khruangbin together?
I used to play bass, but I got more work playing guitar, and I had to pay my bills. Then I got better at that tool, I guess. Then, Laura Lee started playing bass through insomnia. She’d wake up in the middle of the night and start playing bass. She was like, “I want to start a band.” So we started jamming. I wanted to play drums again, so I’d play the kit and she’d play bass. And we’d record everything thinking that we’d find a guitar player. But eventually we decided I should play guitar.
Then we got a gig, and it was like, “We need a drummer, and we need a name for a band!” So we asked D.J. He was an organist, but he could play anything onstage: organ, bass, drums, whatever. I told him, “It’s basically just classic breakbeats. Just keep it simple and keep it moving.”
TIDBIT: Khruangbin records most of their albums in a barn in Burton, Texas, and then do overdubs at Houston’s SugarHill Recording Studios.
You had a bass player who had just learned to play, a guitar player who wanted to play drums, and a drummer who was an organist. That’s a strange recipe.
Yes. That is correct. [Laughs.]
The band is now on its second album, Con Todo El Mundo. How do you feel you have progressed since your debut?
We were listening to a lot more stuff. A lot of people like to call us Thai funk, which is kind of funny. Because in no way are we playing strictly Thai funk. We’re not playing strict luk thung or strict mor lam or any of those regional styles. We try to piece together all the different types of music that we like into this big synergistic thing. And that’s what The Universe Smiles Upon You was.
But for Con Todo El Mundo, we’re adding even more stuff that we’ve been listening to. The new record is much more influenced by music from the Middle East, North Africa, Spain, and even the Western Coast of Ireland. That’s what we’re pulling from. A lot of the scales and grooves that we’re pulling from are Iranian and Persian in nature, but share a lot of tonality with North African, Mediterranean, Spanish, and Irish music.