Words and photos by Ronny Kerr
Born in Houston and stewed in 1960's Thai funk, Khruangbin played a sold out show at the Independent in San Francisco this week (with support from Sugar Candy Mountain). Here are impressions and photos from the show.
Praise the universe: psychedelia never goes out of fashion.
Wednesday night’s opener was a good old fashioned psych rock group called Sugar Candy Mountain, whose bio is one short, sweet line: "If Brian Wilson had dropped acid on the beach in Brazil and decided to record an album with Os Mutantes and The Flaming Lips, it would sound like this.”
That’s not too far off, though during the extended, heavily syncopated closing jam, I perceived some serious prog rock vibes too. But with the fuzzed out synthesizers soaring overhead it sounded more like Boredoms than King Crimson.
The band's made up of six members (all dudes except for the one lady singing front and center) playing two electric guitars, bass, keyboard, drums, and vibraphone (though this last member also switched to guitar occasionally).
Overall, the crowd seemed to enjoy their half-hour set, complete with heavy bass, sinuous guitars, and gentle, almost whispered vocals. When they played the title track from their latest album 666, I remember thinking I’d never heard the words “six six six” sung so angelically.
Whereas Sugar Candy Mountain sounded just a little rough around the edges, Khruangbin was perfectly in the pocket from the first note, with their groovy, psychedelic funk washing over the crowd like a cloud of cool mist. And it wasn’t just us in love. The musicians themselves seemed to be having a good time, with bassist Laura Lee constantly donning a radiant smile—that unassailable evidence that she who creates the grooves is most one with them.
The first song was completely instrumental, initially tranquil before veering into heavy jamming territory, and then chilling out again. As Lee remarked later in the set, “it’s what Khruangbin does best: Take it down. Get sexy.”
We didn’t hear vocals until the second song, and even then very little, which is no accident. Khruangbin started out as a completely instrumental group, but their newest album The Universe Smiles Upon You features their first vocals.
“We never really thought of ourselves as having a ‘singer’ but we knew that we wanted a voice for Khruangbin,” reads their bio.
Everything about Khruangbin feels thoughtful. Their name, which I’d been pronouncing “KRANG-bin” all week, is actually pronounced something like “KRUNG-bin,” and in Thai literally means “engine fly.” That alone gives away the band's primary influences, which besides "Tarantino soundtracks and surf rock" are obscure pop rock and funk from 60s and 70s Thailand. They specifically credit the Monrakplengthai blog, which posts recordings from old Thai cassettes, with inspiring their sound.
Of course, given all the members are from Houston, there are some other ingredients at play here. At some point during the fourth song (which they admitted to be a “Texan number”), it sounded certifiably southern rock for a few moments until guitarist Mark Speer suddenly detuned his guitar, breaking the spell. Then they flew us back to Asia with a cover of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Firecracker, one of the Japanese electronic group’s biggest international hits.
Overall, the best part about Khruangbin’s performance was their realness, their energy—both between members and with the crowd. After just three songs, everyone was vibing and the air was filled with smoke.
“Y’all get it, and it smells good in here,” said Speer.
Whether the two guitarists were clinking cocktails in the middle of a drum solo, banging on empty 32 oz. beer bottles for percussive effect, or simply plucking away at their instruments, everything felt right. At some point, the music was put on pause for “story time with Laura Lee.” She told us the story of a song recorded in winter on a farm where there was a pregnant cow “about to burst.” As the calf ended up being a girl, she was named after Lee. In return, Khruangbin now has a song called Calf Born in Winter.
For the encore, Khruangbin enrolled the audience in Funk 101. It wasn’t branded that way, but after the first piece (a cover of a Thai song), they jumped into a funk groove that was the most James Brown they’d sounded all night. Or, as Speer referred to him every time, “the late great grandfather of funk, James Brown, peace be upon him.”
Speer first pulled the audience into a live demonstration of Bootsy Collins’ The One, showing just how essential that first beat is. Then they had the drummer Donald Johnson slow down his beat real, real slow so we could all recognize that rhythm—the Funky Drummer—ubiquitous across hip hop. And, at last, they demonstrated how to “hit it and quit it,” positively ending their show in funk and praise.