Khruangbin: Flip Your Wig

Khruangbin make music for the soul. Deep, trippy, playful, immersive music for the soul. At any point this head-spinning, globe-traversing, beguiling mix can take in Thai funk, Hawaiian folk, African desert blues and Persian pop before intriguingly segueing into covers of early-90s Eurodisco standards – not bad for a trio that primarily deal in instrumental soundscapes. Unsurprisingly, their contemplative sounds are the perfect balm for the morning after the long night before. As they tell Craig McLean: “We’re the ultimate comedown music.”

Somerset, June 2022. On Glastonbury’s Park Stage the weekend starts here as Khruangbin get their groove on. Towards the end of their hour-long sunset slot, the psychedelic dreamweaving Texan trio have slid into what will later be categorised by die-hard fans and pleasantly surprised drive-by ravers, not inaccurately, as an eight-minute-plus medley of TUNES. 

They begin with their own 2016 single ‘People Everywhere (Still Alive)’, that parenthetical element pretty much the sum total of the polyrhythmic country-funk track’s lyrics. Heading towards the three-minute mark they shift into something naggingly but incongruously familiar. That’s right, it’s ‘Rhythm is a Dancer’ by Snap!, everyone’s favourite early-90s German Eurodisco outfit. The crowd on the stage’s gentle slope lean in, matching virtuoso guitarist Mark Speer “speaking” the vocal hook on his instrument by chanting along. Friday night city-centre nitespot vibes in the area!

Two minutes later, a seamless transition and a flight to Washington DC for another 30-year-old dance monster: Crystal Waters’ ‘Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)’. Now Speer’s six-strings are evoking one of house music’s all-time great vocal hooks. Altogether now: ‘la da dee la dee da, la da dee la dee da…’

The briefest of breath-catching pauses leads to another imperceptible shift, another slip in time and place. We’re in Detroit in 1988 for an arm-waving, Brothers Cider-spilling cover of proto-house classic ‘Big Fun’ by Inner City. Then, to round things off, it’s back to a souped-up rerub of ‘People Everywhere (Still Alive)’, bass player and (very) occasional singer Laura Lee Ochoa and drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson locked in with Speer and racing to the finish. 

Up at the top of the Glastonbury site, night has fallen. Now, thanks to party-starting, wig-wearing, cape-favouring wizards Khruangbin, the festivities can truly begin.

New England, December 1970. At posho, WASPy Barton Academy, a student is forced to stay at the boarding school over the Christmas holidays. His companions: a strict-ass classics teacher and the head dinner lady, a single mum grieving for her son, recently graduated from the school and already dead in Vietnam. 

This is the premise of ‘The Holdovers’, the moody, melancholic, at times bitingly funny 2024 awards-season darling directed by Alexander Payne (‘Election’, ‘Sideways’) and starring newcomer Dominic Sessa as the kid, Paul Giamatti as the teacher and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as mother Mary. Nominated for five Oscars, it took home one, Randolph winning Best Supporting Actress.

Another of those nominations was for Best Original Score. It’s a period-specific wonder composed by Mark Orton. He and Payne took cues from the film ‘Harold and Maude’ and Carole King’s ‘Tapestry’, both masterpieces that were released in 1971. The film’s needle-drops are also carefully, precisely of-the-moment: ‘Venus’ by Shocking Blue (1969), ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed’ by The Allman Brothers (1970), Cat Stevens’ ‘The Wind’ (1971), ‘Knock Three Times’ by Tony Orlando & Dawn (1971), ‘Crying Laughing Loving Lying’ by Labi Siffre (1972) and ‘A Calf Born in Winter’ by… Khruangbin (2014) – the debut single by a band whose members weren’t even born in the year when ‘The Holdovers’ is set.

Welcome to the marvellous multiverse of kaleidoscopic Khruangbin: a time-travelling, world-skipping, costume-wearing, head-spinning band who can as readily fire the feet as soothe the soul as confuse the ears with their vintage-yet-progressive sounds. Now, four years after the release of breakthrough “party record” ‘Mordechai’ and in the wake of several collaborative projects, they’re back with their fourth album ‘A La Sala’: a glorious, gorgeous, transporting, 12-song set that, they say, evokes “the measured morning after”. 

Or: you say tomato, I say Balearic.

They are, in the loosest sense of the term, a guitar trio who abhor a genre – and, generally, lyrics – like nature abhors a vacuum. A Houston-formed triumvirate named after the Thai word for aeroplane, picked, they said very early on, because “it symbolises the international set of influences that shaped our music”. Who generally record in a no-mod-cons “hill country” cow shed (The Barn) 90 minutes outside Houston but have roots in UK club culture. 

Championed early on by Bonobo (long before the song’s Hollywood co-sign, and even before the track had been officially released, he picked ‘A Calf Born In Winter’ for his 2013 ‘Late Night Tales’ comp), they’ve collaborated with London jazz saxophonist Nubya Garcia, recorded two EPs with Texan soulman Leon Bridges, and helped celebrate Malian legend Ali Farka Touré with his son Vieux on the album ‘Ali’. Border-free and imagination-rich voyagers now based in three different corners of the US, they’re as at home in contemporary British festival fields as they are in a fuzzy Massachusetts 50 years gone.

Explaining that dance music medley that was a standout of their last global jaunt, in support of ‘Mordechai’, Johnson says that it’s simple: it’s “something that happens over the course of touring. We’re always trying to keep things fresh – for the audience, first and foremost. We play sometimes multiple shows in the same city, and we have special people who come out to multiple shows. You don’t want to give them the same thing both nights, or sometimes all three nights. So, how can we make this show different from the last? What can we do that no one else is doing?” 

That, in part, means those wigs, a permanent fixture for two-thirds of Khruangbin (Johnson prefers a custom-made hat, either a flat brim or cowboy shape, by Texan milliner Kennimer). And nightly costume changes for Ochoa, two per show, with no outfit ever repeated. It also means digging in their personal crates. 

“What are we listening to backstage that we love?” continues 40-year-old Johnson from his home studio in Houston, the man who suggested the band cover Kool & The Gang’s ‘Summer Madness’ for their own ‘Late Night Tales’ (2020). “Those songs were a reflection of that.”

Specifically, ‘Gypsy Woman’ came into the mix in Austin, Texas, “organically,” according to Ochoa. “Mark will be playing on guitar, and sometimes he’ll hear something in his mind and he’ll play a riff. Then we all start to follow him. 

“‘Big Fun’ happened I believe in Detroit. In Chicago and Detroit, we tend to lean into the legacy in those cities. Snap!, I don’t know where that started!” Ochoa says with a laugh. “But I will tell you that it is crazy how it does not go off in America and it really goes off in Europe. It’s night and day.”

So, Khruangbin changed up the medley for their US shows, swapping out ‘Rhythm is a Dancer’ for Haddaway’s ‘What Is Love’. It’s another early-90s juggernaut that was German in origin, “but Americans actually know it because it was used in a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit,” says the bassist, 37, who’s now mother to a nine-month-old baby. “So, it worked. It had the same feel generally we [wanted to] create. It had that lift – that feeling when you’re around people and you’re like: ‘Wait, wait, I know this song, you know this song!’”

In terms of the movie sync, too, Ochoa couldn’t be happier. It’s proof of concept of everything she, Johnson and Speer (44 and now based in California) set out to do over a decade ago.

“We had, especially at that time, because we were so young in our existence as the band, a real dream to be timeless,” the band’s nominal frontwoman says from the new apartment she’s busy moving into in Brooklyn. “So, to know that a song that was intended to be that way, actually was, is great.

“I didn’t know anything about ‘The Holdovers’ until I watched it,” she continues, barefoot, cross-legged on a polished wooden floor and – as she and Speer always are onstage – bewigged. “And before the song comes in, I was like, well, all of the other songs are era-specific. Then ours came on. It really warmed my heart that they made room for it. I’ve heard from a writer friend of mine, who knows the director, that he felt very strongly about needing to include it.”

Indeed, he did. “There’s something about ‘A Calf Born In Winter’ that goes with many different natural rhythms of life,” Alexander Payne tells me. “You can listen to it when you’re sad or when you’re giddy, when alone or with others, or when – as happens in the montage in ‘The Holdovers’ that it accompanies – two people are falling in love.”

The filmmaker’s love for the band, like it often does with this trio with a particularly ardent fanbase, goes deep.

“I’ve been listening to Khruangbin ever since I first heard a tune of theirs used as theme music on a haunting podcast about Robert Kennedy. Their vibe is infinitely groovy and listenable – eternal in a way. It’s as though their music is the same temperature as your body. And like with Jimi Hendrix’s Experience, one can’t believe they make all that beautiful sound as just a trio.”


Ochoa, Speer and Johnson met on the vibrant Houston music scene, coming together as Khruangbin in 2013. But just as they were forming, Ochoa moved to London, “initially for romance”. She stayed for four years.

“When I knew I was moving, we went into The Barn and recorded as much as we could on the very low budget we had. And we took one picture of ourselves. So, I came to London with one picture and 14 songs. And somehow it worked during that time.

“Being in London made me feel more confident about putting our music out,” she continues, “and that there was an audience for it – in a way that maybe felt alien to us in Houston. Especially being instrumental and downtempo. It’s like: how are you going to compete with everything else? But [being in the UK], I felt like it was more achievable somehow.”

Living in Hackney, Ochoa dived into east London club culture. During one Halloween night out, at The Pickle Factory in Bethnal Green, the American got talking in the toilets to a woman named Megan Boyes. She was a stylist who’d worked on ‘The X Factor’ and at ‘Tatler’. A friendship, and a working collaboration, was forged. When I speak to Ochoa, Boyes is due to fly in from the UK, so the pair can start plotting the musician’s multiple looks for the upcoming world tour (Latitude, here they come).

“I’m still plugged in to [what I listened to] when I lived in London – I’m a Gilles Peterson flag-wearing [fan],” says Ochoa of another element of Khruangbin’s deep-seated, global-roaming influences that also include Thai funk, Hawaiian folk and soul from pre-Revolutionary Iran. “There’s this scene in London that appreciates live music, instrumental music and jazz music… It’s championed in this way in London that it’s somehow cool. And current. Sometimes that doesn’t happen in America. 

“Also, I remember when I lived there, Chic would be playing in a restaurant. That just doesn’t happen in America! You can tell because, at festivals in the UK, if Nile Rodgers is playing, he’s one of the headliners. If he’s playing Coachella or some other American festival, it’s much smaller. 

“So, whatever that is, I really appreciate London’s championing of artists like that. I assume that’s where I found out about Nubya,” she says of the jazz musician who supported Khruangbin on the ‘Mordechai’ tour and with whom they worked on ‘Live At Radio City Music Hall’, one of the concert albums this ceaselessly busy band released last year.

“They mentioned that they had checked out my music – they listen to so much music,” Garcia says, an artist who also plays (in every sense) in multiple genres. “We had lots of conversations about it.” On tour, she had a support artist’s eye’s view of Khruangbin’s typical audience response: crowds dancing “every… single… night!” she says with feeling. “And I saw lots of the same people come to lots of different shows. They have an incredible fanbase, including all kinds of ages, that was really beautiful to witness.”

She also expresses appreciative amazement for the Americans’ holistic approach to band aesthetics. “I always think about these things as an artist that’s up-and-coming in comparison to where they are. The music is connected to the poster is connected to the styling is connected to the lighting is connected to who they are. Their audience is absolutely supportive of all that. They had spaceships on stage! It was just incredible to witness.”

Ultimately, those formative UK experiences, and the dance music Ochoa heard in London, were distilled into ‘Mordechai’. But that album came out during the pandemic, a period in which the three bandmates had been away from each other for the longest they’d ever been apart. Then, back on tour, from one extreme to the other: Khruangbin were playing the biggest stages they’d ever played, and for longer. 

“Things felt a little more out of our grasp than they ever had,” reflects Ochoa of a giddy but draining time in which they played some 160 shows and landed prestige gigs like their second-from-headline Glastonbury slot and remixing Paul McCartney’s ‘Pretty Boys’, from his own lockdown album, ‘McCartney III’. “So, there was a desire to return to a simpler time in our band career.”

Cue the album that became ‘A La Sala’: exquisitely textured, laidback in the extreme, the barest of vocal elements, a transporting psych-blues songscape that’s destined for even more of the chill-based playlists into which the algorithms crush Khruangbin. A record you will be hearing a lot of – and giving thanks for – this coming summer, most likely at sunset and sunrise. This is music to slow your heart down. Who doesn’t need that right now?

“We were longing to get back to what we were doing when we first released ‘A Calf…’ and the simplicity of [that],” says Johnson, echoing Ochoa’s sentiment. “As you grow as a band, sonically and personally, things evolve and change. You add some things. Things get layered and layered, one after another. Then you take a step back and you realise, wow, this has really turned into something else from what it started from. 

“When you get to that point, you go: ‘Ok, let’s bring it back to the basics and see where we go.’ That’s what ‘A La Sala’ represents: a sonic return to where we started.”

True to the quasi-mysterious, cult-like aura around the band, Mark Speer was initially available to talk to Disco Pogo for this feature, and then he wasn’t. What do readers need to know about him? 

“Mark is kind of our vocalist,” says Johnson. “The guitar is playing the melodic content, especially in a lot of our earlier material… He’s a musical encyclopaedia, so knowledgeable about so many things.”

“Mark is infinitely searching for the gem,” says Ochoa. “He’s constantly trying to find the sound that hasn’t been heard. He’s on an infinite quest… On this record especially, we really wanted Mark to sing on his guitar. The last record, he’d been a little stifled because there was so much other stuff going on that... we didn’t talk about it. It was unspoken. But I think DJ and I both knew that we wanted to play supportive roles on this record, to Mark’s guitar, whether Mark knows it or not.”

It is, though, the magical interplay between the three members of Khruangbin that matters. Ochoa, better than most, understands that alchemical geometry: she was a maths teacher for six years. Trigonometry is her favourite “math”, which she’s previously described as “essentially advanced geometry”. (We knew that, right?) “Triangles,” she adds. “There’s a lot about triangular relationships.”

This might not add up, but one assumes she was speaking about her band there as well. So, what is it about the triangular relationship of a three-piece, Khruangbin’s three-piece, that makes it such a creative hotbed? Mercifully, she doesn’t send us to the back of the class.

“It’s just diverse enough for something,” she answers. “When you’re playing a game with your best friend, you know each other so well, you’re going back and forth, you know each other’s tricks. But with a third, it throws everything off! In the right way. 

“It’s also great because there’s always a tiebreaker,” she adds. “We have a rule: the best idea wins. We ultimately don’t need a tiebreaker because we all usually know what the best idea is. But in the event that there needs to be one, there is one!”

So Khruangbin can’t get bogged down in the stalemate of a duo or a four-piece because they’re an odd number. Some decision has to result. She nods. “It’s slightly complicated. And triangles are complicated. A bit wonky.”

Almost as wonky, some pointy-headed dancefloor refuseniks might say: Khruangbin on the cover of this magazine. Why are they worthy of that slot?

“That’s a really good question! Humbly, I’m surprised that we’re even in the magazine to begin with!” replies Donald “DJ” Johnson, gamely and gratefully. “But: we do listen to and draw influences from the genre that is electronic dance. We spend a lot of time listening to and studying that music. It’s not just a genre to us. People live this music. It really can become a lifestyle. It’s the music that we live our lives to. We’re happy to be a part of the lineage.”

“We’re the ultimate comedown music,” acknowledges Laura Lee Ochoa. “We played this festival back in the day, Love International, on the sea, on the rocks, in Croatia,” she says of their 2018 set. “It was 6am, after the club let out. Anybody who was there talks about that morning like it was one of the most magical mornings that they ever had.

“Mark had a very stripped-down kit. We were all sitting on rocks playing and everyone was, like, spannered, and spread out, coming down. It’s the equivalent of having chicken soup or something. How am I supposed to come down from this night? You either keep going. Or you go down. And somehow it was healing. I kind of think that maybe nobody does that better than us.”

This article first appeared in issue 5 of Disco Pogo magazine. Which you can buy here.

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