Have you ever flown to a foreign country and wanted to listen to that country’s music as you were zipping through the skies?
That was kind of the idea behind the “curated playlists” that Houston, Texas trio Khruangbin set up last summer on their website, calling it “Air Khruang.” You can generate a Spotify playlist of their recommendation based on your city of departure and your destination.
These playlists tell you everything you need to know about the band. The mostly instrumental laid-back trio mixes surf, funk, soul and psych-rock with diverse global elements, so it’s kind of a creative way for them to share cool, obscure music of the world while also pointing a big shiny finger at their influences.
The idea came up because the band got a lot of press when they released their debut album The Universe Smiles Upon You in 2015. They cited ’60s Thai music as an influence, earning them the label of “Thai funk” from music journalists. Last summer, they had some time off from touring and thought it would be fun to curate some global music playlists.
“I wanted to find a way to connect with our audience in a period where we weren’t out connecting with them physically,” says bassist Laura Lee. “They’d ask us, ‘How do we find Thai music and music from all around the world?’ We decided to use this.”
Not only do most people in the U.S. not know what “Thai funk” sounds like, but the group also wasn’t really playing Thai music, per say. It just happened that they were listening to a lot of vintage Thai music when they formed, and it seeped into their songs. You’d have to understand the nuances of the rhythms and note choices of Thai music to even understand that influence.
“It’s kind of weird for people to keep calling us that,” says guitarist Mark Speer. “It’s like, ‘Dude, you should probably go listen to some actual Thai music, because although we are influenced by it, we aren’t Thai. We are from Houston, Texas. We like playing music that we like.”
For their second record, Con Todo El Mundo, released earlier this year, the influences broadened. The band members were digging a lot of Middle Eastern funk, soul and garage rock. Those elements come into play on this new record, but it’s not a major shift.
“Mark is always researching to find new music,” Lee says. “I think because I knew the effect of listening to a certain type of music and what it has on your subconscious, we were listening to a particular playlist a lot before we went into recording.”
The band’s music is difficult to define, and as more and more people listen to global music on Spotify, it’s going to be more challenging to use the traditional genre labels to categorize musicians.
“Streaming is based on moods,” says drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson. “You go to whatever streaming platform you’re on and you can basically select the mood based on however you’re feeling. Moving into this next phase of how people consume music, that’s only going to become more prevalent.”
Thinking about the vibe the music creates leads to a more clear through-line of Khruangbin’s sound. The band’s songs drift in soft grooves with spacious atmosphere and paints surreal desert landscape images with its tender textures. Speer’s guitar lines are used as de facto vocals.
“A lot of times with the things he’s playing, he’s trying to sound like singers in a foreign language, and the particular inflections that they have melodically on their vocals,” Johnson says.
Khruangbin plays at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 13 at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $25. 423-1338.