Why Everyone in Houston Needs to Know Khruangbin
Last weekend Houstonians had the opportunity to see the Black Pumas, an Austin band that has been racking up hits and tour dates since their 2019 debut. While Austin and Dallas/Fort Worth have been known for producing alternative acts like Leon Bridges, Gary Clark Jr. and the Black Pumas, Houston is not viewed in the same light when it comes to music. We may be known for Hip-Hop like the S.U.C (Screwed Up Click) and Swishahouse, pop like Lizzo, and genre-defining artistry like Beyoncé, but the city’s name doesn’t get thrown around a lot when it comes to other styles. Which is sad because one of the top groups in psychedelic rock is from right here in the Bayou City.
Khruangbin recently released Live at Sydney Opera House, part of a collection of live albums from various locations including Stubb’s, Radio City Music Hall, RBC Echo Beach, and the Fillmore Miami. They’ve been sampled by Jay-Z and Jay Electronica, released albums with Leon Bridges and Vieux Farka Touré, and their music has appeared in Miller Lite and Corona commercials. The group’s reach is far, and their sounds have appeared in all types of media but there is a huge problem.
Houston is not championing Khruangbin enough.
This would be the part where fans, and they have a lot of fans, jump in, and say they have. The band was here back in 2019 for a sold-out show at White Oak Music Hall and returned last May for another sold-out show at 713 Music Hall. A quick search online has multiple comments that their shows are nearly perfect and must be seen in person. Even still, it’s not enough. So, while I try to highlight at least a couple of artists from Houston each column, this week is solely devoted to the band from the H that everyone should hear at least once.
I say once because, in my experience, once is all you need to become a fan. Back in 2018 I stumbled on Con Todo el Mundo. From the opening tap of the drum in “Como Me Quieres” to the airy, guitar strums of “Friday Morning” the album had me hooked. I played it for my brother and his immediate, excited response was “This sounds like the music RZA would sample to make a Wu-Tang album.”
I had no idea it was their second album. I had no idea they were already beginning to achieve commercial success. I had no idea their drummer, Donald “DJ” Johnson Jr. was one half of the production duo Beanz N Kornbread; a group whose music I was already familiar with for their work with artists like Slim Thug, Mac Miller, Z-Ro, George Clinton, Lil Keke, Shaquille O’Neal, Paul Wall and Devin the Dude. I had no idea their name was the Thai word for airplane, let alone how to pronounce it. I just knew that more people should hear their music.
The group, composed of Laura Lee Ochoa, Mark Speer, and Donald “DJ” Johnson Jr., released Mordechai in 2020, adding to their catalog that has allowed them to tour the world. Their music leans more on instrumentation with Speer on lead guitar, Ochoa driving the music forward on the bass, and Johnson keeping everything together on drums. The lyrics are weaved throughout a tapestry of soul, dub, rock, and psychedelia resulting in a funky, “surfer rock” style. The influence of musical styles from all over can be heard throughout their albums giving them a worldwide appeal.
Last September the trio teamed up with Malian singer, Vieux Farka Touré, and recorded the album, Ali, which covered songs from Vieux’s father, legendary musician Ali Farka Touré. Ali Farka Touré, referred to as one of Africa’s most internationally known musicians, was ranked at number 76 by the Rolling Stone on their list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Vieux saw the group’s live show in London and tapped them to do the tribute to his late father. Like I said, you only need to hear them once to become a fan.
The fanfare is not just abroad, with acts stateside making sure to collaborate with the Houston natives. In October of 2019, the group appeared alongside Wu-Tang Clan at Desert Daze and performed selections from the legendary Staten Island group’s debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). They have steadily been releasing a string of live albums, remixes of old albums, and EPs. In 2020 and 2022, they joined with Leon Bridges to release Texas Sun and Texas Moon. The whole point is, for a band that dropped their first album in 2015, there is plenty of music to get a feel for the group. I would recommend starting with Con Todo el Mundo.
For all the success I still go back to the original issue. Everyone knows about Khruangbin and yet they still feel like a secret here in Houston. The point of this column is to point you in the direction of Houston music and, for me, Khruangbin is a no-brainer. The city needs to be known for all the styles of music it produces and the trio is at the forefront of one of those styles. So go listen to Khruangbin.