Photos By Ben Montemayor
Around this time last year, I was feeling particularly lost in the world and I spent a month’s rent on a record player so that I could listen to the wax magic of a Texan Thai funk band whose name I couldn’t pronounce. A year later, I still haven’t totally figured out how to pronounce their name, but I come back to Khruangbin’s albums again and again to transform the loneliness of existence into a gift.
Given this history, it felt especially apropos when guitarist Mark Speer invoked the title of the band’s first full length, The Universe Smiles Upon You, at their LA debut Tuesday night: “Somehow, against all odds, we’re alive. We’re all here tonight. And the universe smiles upon us.”
The eclectic Houston-via-1970s-Bankok three piece kicked off their Teragram Ballroom set with “August Twelve,” my favorite cut from TUSUY. Laura Lee, resplendent in a floor-length white lace gown, played with her face bent gently over her bass, coaxing out every note with the protective attention of a loving parent. Speer’s eyes were closed and concentrating behind long, unruly hair, the loose ends of his expansive guitar lines swept up in Donald Johnson’s soft, dependable snares. There’s not a lot of fanfare to their performance, but what the band lacks in face melting solos or a seizure-inducing light show they make up for in charisma and a serene confidence.
Midway through the set, Speer introduced a track from the band’s 2015 Record Store Day EP, History Of Flight. “Here’s an obscure track – well, this is LA, so maybe not so obscure,” he chuckled. “It’s called Ha Fang Kheng Kan.” The room went wild. Even Speer seemed a little dazed by the response. Applause was so thunderous after uptempo jam “People Everywhere (Still Alive)” that the band could hardly continue. It was heartening to see talented artists get such a warm welcome in a city notorious for its tough crowds.
The trio records their music in a barn in rural Texas. Birds, crickets, thunderstorms, distant cowbells, and the stray evening frog often make appearances on their records. And although the Teragram was distinctly cricket-less on Tuesday night, you could hear the Texas farm in small, intimate details – Speer’s charming drawl, certain guitar flourishes that felt homey and familiar like a late night AM radio station, the glass beer bottles he and Lee played on in “The Infamous Bill.”
As the show went on, Speer opened up, showing a warm, goofy sense of humor. “We’re called Khruangbin. That’s KRUNG-ben,” he reiterated, playing up his Southern twang for effect. “Or Kroong-bing. Or green bean.” He laughed. “We get called a lot of crazy things.” The clarification was welcome; I’d taken to muttering the band’s name incoherently under my breath and hoping no one asked me to repeat myself.
Laura Lee is a quieter figure onstage but my favorite moment of the show was when she told us a story about a cow: Their early single, “A Calf Born In Winter,” was recorded when there was a pregnant cow on the farm and Lee was so excited about the mother-to-be that when the calf was born, the farm owner named it after her. Years later, they returned to record their LP and the band jokingly speculated about where Laura Lee the cow had ended up (a burger? a handbag?) but were surprised to learn that she’d just given birth to her first calf. The unlikely tale of bovine survival inspired “People Everywhere (Still Alive)”.
As the band closed out with a soulful, several-song encore that channeled James Brown, this metaphor of renewal stayed with me and I went home with a calm assurance that the universe was, indeed, smiling.