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Interview: Laura Lee of Khruangbin - New Zealand Show

Interview: Laura Lee of Khruangbin - New Zealand Show

Interview by Ali Nicholls / C.C. / Tuesday 12th April, 2022 1:25PM

Genre-melting Texan superstars Khruangbin are heading our way in December for their first ever Aotearoa headline event, performing at Tāmaki Makaurau's Spark Arena with special guest US jazz icon Kamasi Washington. Presently touring the UK and scooping up rave reviews, for both their latest album Mordechai and a pair of collaborative EPs with Leon Bridges, Khruangbin bassist Laura Lee aka Leezy kindly spared the time to get on the blower with Ali Nicholls for a wide-ranging chat. They spoke about the trio's return to playing live shows following the pandemic pause on gigs, how Khruangbin balance a diversity of sounds and cultural influences in their music, Laura Lee's melodic approach to playing bass, post-tour travel plans and more...

Undertheradar proudly presents...

with special guest Kamasi Washington
Tuesday 6th December - Spark Arena, Tāmaki Makaurau / Auckland (all ages)
General public tickets available via Ticketmaster

Ali Nicholls: How are you doing Laura?

Laura Lee: I just got to England for the first time since before the world changed. It's really weird!

Is it different?

No, but I used to live here and I haven't been here in so long, or it feels like so long, and I just like... It's all the little things I forgot about, and I felt emotional but in a good way walking around.

I guess it's kind of like a blast from the past to another era of life.

Yeah! But it's also this strange feeling because it's not like I've chosen to not come, I couldn't come you know? ... the pandemic has changed everything.

It must be such an interesting time to be making music.

It's been really interesting. We put out Mordechai in 2020, really just a few months after the pandemic set in, and that was weird. Cause we had no idea how the album was going! You could read the internet, but that kind of doesn't do any good. Then we came back to playing shows last year and our shows had greatly increased in size cause the album had done well, but we just didn't know.

Was it a surprise that there was so much more engagement from people?

It was amazing playing last year. I don't necessarily wish the pandemic on any other time, but how many musicians get to experience what it's like to play for people after they haven't seen a show in two years? It was really euphoric.

And that's kind of the stage that we're at now with you guys coming over. Is it your first time coming to New Zealand?

It is. I'm so excited.

It's gonna be really cool! And I think a similar experience here with that kind of euphoria of that release. I imagine when you're performing live, that the energy of the crowd has such an influence on how you gauge the audience and how you get to express?

Oh yeah, it's a conversation. We always talk about how soundcheck is so much more draining, because we're putting out energy and it's not being reflected back. Whereas the show goes by so fast cause there's so much energy in the room. But I'm so excited to play in New Zealand! It was one of the first countries to show us love weirdly. I remember way back seeing an article in the New Zealand Herald, and it's the very last stop on this giant tour. We literally will be on the other side of the planet, and we can say 'We toured the whole world!' [laughs].

It's gonna be really cool, especially in a stadium setting. I'd only ever really imagined it to be quite like an intimate setting for a show because the music has such an intimacy about it. What kind of stuff are we expecting

The live show does not sound like our albums. I think it's somehow way more energy.

I've had a look online at some of the images from your shows and the looks are so powerful, and there's so much visual emphasis and I feel like the energy would be so sexy and groovy.

There's a time and a place for the intimate, slower songs. And because that's how we got started, that's our bread and butter. But I think those songs are really introspective in a way. So we tend to play bigger crowd pleasers. It's not to say that we don't dip into those! But I think it'd be a little weird if I wore shiny knee high boots and a tutu playing a really slow [laughs].

Do you feel like now that you're getting more of a traction in terms of the scale of the live performances and the shows you're able to put on, do you think that's gonna have an influence on your music in the future?

I do. It had an impact on this last record cause I think there was an intention for these songs to be a little more uptempo than albums prior, cause we knew that we would eventually be playing them live and we wanted to have that feeling. It's, in the three of us, it's in our DNA. It's not hard for us to pump out a more downtempo number, that's sort of easy. It's harder to write music in a barn with cows walking around, thinking about playing it at a festival. You know, I think that's why the slower songs come so easy, cause we're out there.

Do you think the creative process you guys have worked with for the past few albums is going to evolve as well?

No [laughs]. I mean, maybe. It's just funny. Every record I've thought it was gonna be different, and you kind of get there and actually each of us is exactly who we are. This is where we intersect. And this is what works, I think. The thing that evolves is us as humans.

Even though that's more of a gentle evolution, there definitely is kind of a trajectory with your music whether you're leaning more into the psychedelia or the funk or the downtempo stuff but it all seems to have this fluidity. Where it's never, 'Oh this is gonna be our disco record'. It's always seamlessly the Khruangbin sound. Do you think that just comes from experience?

I think it's actually just letting go a little bit. There's definitely no intention in that sense... if we ever come out and say 'This is our blah record', I think we'll need to check ourselves. It's always been that each of us writes organically and they take shape. I mean the only thing we've tried to do is cross pollinate different countries in a way. I wrote a bass line over a rhythm that was very Ethiopian, but we wanted to make sure that it didn't sound like an 'Ethiopian' song, so then we kind of took this French approach on top of it and it created something that feels new. And then we did a dub Indian song... I remember there was an intention to see if we could mix traditions, to create more of a sense of it being global rather than reminiscent of one place.

Our first record was written about us as being a Thai record, and the second record was written up as being Middle Eastern. We wanted to make sure that this one wasn't written up as... 'inspired' by one particular place, because that didn't feel true to who we are.

You seem like people who get your references from so many different mediums and so many different places, that it would kind of be a disservice to all of the influences that you're taking on board.

Exactly. 100%. That was exactly how we felt. With the first record it was like 'You're a Thai funk band', but we're not Thai. There's really great Thai bands and we were feeling like, if you were in a Thai funk band in Thailand that you might hear that and feel something negative, which we would have never wanted.

My mate teaches music, and he always recommends his students listen to Khruangbin. Because it doesn't matter what music you're into, you can find something in there to follow and inspire you because of that kind of blend of flavours. It's like a really delicious dish!

Yeah, agreed! We talk about food a lot when we make. Like with a curry. It's delicious and savoury and you know, creamy and spicy or however you've made it. But when you put lime, or fish sauce, or something, then all of a sudden everything comes alive! So sometimes we'll have a song and be like, 'Where's the fish sauce! We need the fish sauce!' [laughs].

The music you play is complex, but the foundation is a pretty simple mix of drums, bass, guitar and now a little bit of vocals. And your way of playing the bass is so expressive, kind of wandering around the bass and exploring all of the tones you can get from it. What is it about the bass that's particular to you? Because you don't play it like many bassists I've encountered.

I like melodic basslines. I really like humming! And it feels like I'm humming, because it's just one note at a time, and so I think you can really dig into the melody of something, because it's just one note. Which is also, I remember when I first started playing bass and I had my first show with Khruangbin, somebody said 'Bass is great cause it's one note at a time, but if you play the wrong note then it sounds really wrong.'

It's a lot of responsibility!

Yeah! I think, yeah when I hear my basslines I can hear a sense of melody in them that allows you to kind of attach yourself to the bassline if you wanted. Obviously you can zoom out and listen to the whole song and that's the complete thing, but if you wanted to zoom in on the bass, it should give you enough meat to kind of have just in the bassline. I think because we're just three instruments, the success of the songs is based on the interplay between Mark (Speer) and me.

I'm so excited that you guys are coming to New Zealand and also playing with Kamasi! Wow, huge.

Oh my god I know! We were like, 'We follow Kamasi?! Have you seen him play?!' It's gonna be amazing. I'm definitely staying in New Zealand for a while after.

You gonna kick it here for a bit?

Yeah I think I might rent an RV and just drive around.

You really do get to see some places where it feels like it's just you and the rest of the earth.

I think after touring that feels like what I'll need!


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Tue 6th Dec 6:00pm
Spark Arena, Auckland