Khruangbin: Crossing Genres To The Top Of ‘El Mundo’

Peter Wallace
– Khruangbin
Khruangbin performs at Red Rocks May 9, 2019.

Although Paradigm’s John Bongiorno and Ethan Berlin both became “absolutely obsessed” with Khruangbin’s 2015 debut album, The Universe Smiles Upon You, they initially hesitated to represent the Houston three-piece. 

“There were so many things about the band that went against your intuition as an agent to jump into on a business level,” Bongiorno  said. “They’re an instrumental band, they have a band name that nobody can pronounce, we didn’t know who the team was.”

But the agents, who were at The Windish Agency at the time, went all in after catching Khruangbin’s first stateside show outside of Texas, a sold-out March 2016 gig at Rough Trade in Brooklyn, N.Y. (314 tickets, $3,768 grossed) – and hearing that 100 tickets were sold within the first hour of the onsale.

“Before the show happened, we met [the band] and I remember Ethan and I having a casual conversation about, ‘Oh man, are they going to keep that name? Do they really wear wigs?’ We were trying to make it fit into what we thought was how to be successful without knowing that they were kind of wormholing their own path,” Bongiorno says. “And then we saw the show and that was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life. That show was just amazing. I walked out of there and I don’t think I could sleep that night.”

Berlin notes that the Rough Trade audience reflected the wide appeal of Khruangbin (whose name translates to “engine fly” in Thai), including world music fans, “jam band kids with Grateful Dead shirts and record collector kids nerding out on music.”

Adds Berlin, “They’re certainly one of the only bands that could have played Coachella on Friday and then played with Trey Anastasio from Phish on Saturday [in April 2019]. And done dates [in 2018] with Leon Bridges.” 

While many of Khruangbin’s songs lack vocals, that doesn’t stop fans from moving their hips to the band’s unique mix of soul, funk, psychedelia and surf rock, which draws on global styles from locations across the globe including Iran, Thailand and the French Antilles, and influences such as The Isley Brothers, Prince, Persian guitarist Kourosh Yaghmaei and Italian composer Ennio Morricone.

The trio’s live show easily connects with audiences, thanks to the stage presence of bassist Laura Lee and guitarist Mark Speer, who share frontperson duties, and Donald “DJ” Johnson on drums. 

“They’re communicating physically and they’re doing it all the time without necessarily talking or having lyrics,” says manager Annie McIntyre of AND Artist Management. She adds that there are some key moments and “performance-based stuff” in the live set, like Lee answering a landline phone during the song “Evan Finds The Third Room,” off the band’s 2018 album, Con Todo El Mundo.
“The first time they went onstage, in a room of 120 people, they were complete pros from day one,” McIntyre says. “Even in those early days they treated the shows with absolute professionalism in how you look and how you perform, to think deeply about every detail.” 
Lee explains that she made a bold statement when Khruangbin started by committing to wearing a different outfit every show, with up-and-coming designers loaning her clothes. The guys have also developed their own style, with Speer favoring metallic suits and Johnson sporting custom ponchos and cowboy boots.
“I think in the beginning, because we didn’t have any production, it felt like a visual thing we could do – especially being an instrumental band,” Lee says. “We want to put on a show and the whole visual aspect of the band when you are playing festivals like South by Southwest and people are seeing 40 bands a day, it really helped people stop by our stage because it’s like, ‘Who are these dudes?’”  

Andrew Cotterill
– Khruangbin
Khruangbin has worked with McIntyre since 2014, shortly after the band started receiving attention when its first single, “A Calf Born In Winter,” was featured on British producer Bonobo’s 2013 Late Night Tales compilation. Prior to forming Khruangbin, Lee and Speer toured as members of electronic/rock musician Yppah’s band in support of Bonobo’s 2010 tour.
The trio’s fanbase initially developed in the U.K., due in part to the Bonobo boost and subsequent signing to U.K.-based Late Night Tales label Night Time Stories, as well as their manager being based in London.  
An appearance on BBC Radio 4 the same day the program was hosting Father John Misty led him to invite them to support his 2016 U.K. and European tour.
Khruangbin has steadily grown its fanbase by word of mouth, attracting fans partly for the same reasons that Bongiorno and Berlin initially saw as liabilities. 
“People walk around thinking that they’re the only one that knows about this band until they get in a discussion at their yoga class or coffee shop,” Berlin says. “And then they start talking about how to pronounce the name or whatever. The secrecy of it is adding to the popularity.” 
As for the lack of vocals, Speer says, “I think that being mainly instrumental has helped us a lot in different markets across the world because there’s no language barrier. It’s not something that was intentional, it’s just been the effect of it.”
McIntyre sums it up: “It comes down to their love of music from all over the world, which is a huge part of who they are and how they play.”
While Khruangbin’s U.S. fanbase has now caught up and surpassed the U.K.’s in terms of album sales and venue sizes, the band’s international profile has been growing simultaneously.  
“The record [Con Todo El Mundo] came out last January and from there the band toured the U.S. three different times, moving up from mid-size clubs to large clubs and small theatres while the same thing was happening in Europe,” Berlin says. “And then they had the opportunity to explore Asia and Australia in March, and all the success we were having, moving up to 1,500-, 2,000-cap rooms we were seeing there as well.”
With venue sizes being upped and extra days added, Berlin says, “It’s becoming a completely global story.”
Recent Pollstar Boxoffice reports include the State Theatre in Portland, Maine, June 21, with 1,937 tickets sold and $48,635 grossed; and two nights at The Croxton Bandroom in Thornbury, Australia, March 12-13 with 2,047 tickets sold and $81,361 grossed (A$114,220).
Plans are in the works for a follow-up album in 2020, which Berlin says will be accompanied by a tour with even bigger venues. 
“We’re going to be putting them in probably 3,000-cap at the smallest to probably up to small sheds across the country and probably the same elsewhere around the world.”
McIntyre notes while the band’s fanbase is expanding exponentially, it’s about careful curation and choosing the right opportunities.
“Usually, from an agency’s perspective, the end game is monetary gain but I think [Bongiorno and Berlin] really care about us as a band and as people,” Johnson says. “They don’t just take everything that’s thrown our way. They have a good sense of what we would want to do.”
Lee adds, “The strength of Khruangbin is in our team.”