Khruangbin on “Mordechai” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Thursday, April 18th, 2024  

L to R: Donald "DJ" Johnson, Laura Lee Ochoa, Mark Speer

Khruangbin on “Mordechai”

Texas Trifold

Jan 14, 2021 Photography by Tamsin Isaacs Issue #67 - Phoebe Bridgers and Moses Sumney
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There is a one-of-a-kind, universally intriguing musical product that is generated when Khruangbin’s guitarist Mark Speer, bassist Laura Lee Ochoa, and drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson come together. A student of the world, Ochoa is a cultural anthropology enthusiast. It was her learning Thai that led to the band’s name, which loosely means “airplane.” It was her interest in Afghani art that sparked her connection with Speer, who was watching a documentary on the music of Afghanistan when they met through his roommate.

Speer directed Ochoa’s attention to the cross-pollination in music. His approach to Khruangbin’s amalgamation of sounds is not so much to be authentic to the styles he is inspired by, but to appreciate them. Instead of trying to become an expert on indigenous instruments, he internalizes the way they sound and applies those to how he plays guitar.

“If you understand how you’re supposed to play these instruments,” he explains, “if you learn the relationships between the different notes and modes and scales, then you can apply those to a Western instrument.”

These sounds are heard in psych-rock jams of Khruangbin’s primarily instrumental music. The Houston, Texas trio’s first two albums are only slight shifts away from each other, while Mordechai, their latest, diverges a bit more. This is partially due to the inclusion of vocals and lyrics. These can be traced back to Ochoa, who, after the conclusion of a seemingly unending tour for Con Todo El Mundo, went through an acute withdrawal.

“Touring is a drug,” she says. “You play a show, there’s adrenaline rushing around. You wake up the next morning with your comedown and you play another show. If you’re on a 10-week tour, you’re talking about a major comedown. That’s not taking into consideration the emotional aspect of 70% of your interactions on the road being with people who are approaching you as the person in this band, this person that’s on stage, not the person that goes to sleep at night. It’s distorting. I hadn’t realized how much all that had affected me until last year [2019].”

The album’s title and decision to write lyrics this time was inspired by a camping trip Ochoa took with old friends. Through them, she met a man named Mordechai and his two sons. She hiked with him to the top of a waterfall, which she jumped in. “I felt it washed me of something,” says Ochoa. “I was having all these thoughts about everything. It felt nice to have a symbolic moment where I was jumping into letting go in a way.

“Mordechai and his family are orthodox Jews and they take Sabbath every week. After I came back to Houston, I basically took one. I spent 24 hours in silence. It’s not exactly what they do, but it was my own version. I didn’t listen to anything. I tried to not talk to myself in my head. I just wrote. That was really therapeutic. We’ve never been a lyrical band. Most of the time we didn’t know what to write about. When I started writing, I realized, there’s plenty.”

Speer formalized Ochoa’s writings into lyrics that are representative of all three members. This is yet another example of Khruangbin’s many unconventional moves that has worked out for the trio. As Johnson says, “We are the band that did everything wrong. The bass player hadn’t played bass before. The band name that no one could pronounce. We record in a barn. We don’t record to a click track. One of the members doesn’t look like the other two members. We’re a band of misfits. We’re three totally different people. That’s the beauty of us. Our three unique influences and styles come into what Khruangbin ultimately is.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 67 of Under the Radar’s print magazine, which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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