FOUNDED IN HOUSTON in 2010 by guitarist Mark Speer, bassist Laura Lee, and drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson, Khruangbin is a rock band Miles Davis would have loved to have played with, for space is the key to their interlocking, antiphonal ambience.
It’s (mostly) instrumental music you can listen to alone, or enjoy with a few thousand of your closest friends. At press time, Khruangbin is scheduled to play a packed show at 713 Music Hall in early May before heading out on tour across the U.S., Europe and, later this year, Australia and New Zealand.
The trio’s visual flair is as distinctive and exotic as its groove-centric music, and while Johnson admits his own fashion choices onstage have become bolder over the years, offstage, he prefers to keep things simple. “By nature, I try not to stand out or be seen,” says Johnson, who at 38 still seems surprised by the worldwide popularity of the band. “I much prefer to be on the sidelines, kind of out of the limelight. But life has a funny way of working itself out sometimes!”
While Johnson remains firmly rooted in Houston, Lee and Speer now live on the East and West Coasts, respectively. But when it comes time to record, the three friends return to their studio barn in Burton, Texas to track new material, before inviting other musicians to add their magic to the mix. Most recently, Khruangbin — whose name means “engine fly” in Thai — traveled to Houston to record two groovy EPs with Fort Worth-based soul man Leon Bridges. The trio also appears on legendary Chicago house DJ Ron Trent’s upcoming album, WARM – What do the stars say to you.
When not recording or on the road, Johnson enjoys the simple pleasures of playing basketball and returning to the church he grew up attending, where his grandfather was the pastor until 2001. Johnson’s uncle now oversees the congregation. “It’s really small,” says Johnson. “Family vibes. I play organ there.”
When asked how he handles Khruangbin’s formidable workload, which requires extended time away from home, Johnson’s answer is succinct. “I consider myself a person of faith,” says Johnson. “So, wherever I go, no matter what’s going on, things just kind of remain the same. I have that to keep me grounded.”