Khruangbin (pronounced croong-bin), translates as “airplane” in Thai, and this group certainly takes listeners on a trip. The trio of 30-something-year-old musicians hail from Houston, but their music is a fusion of global influences anchored to a deep embrace of 1950-60s Thai rock, psychedelia, funk and soul.
Guitarist Mark Speer and bassist Laura Lee had toured together in 2010 with electronic-psych-rock artist Yppah, in support of British musician-DJ Bonobo. When the two returned, they began making and recording their own songs, using a barn – located on the Speer family farm in Burton, Texas – as a studio.
To complement the duo’s evolving, exotic, vintage-reverb vision – in part a distillation of Houston’s big-city-melting-pot-milieu – they brought in drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson, who had played with Speer for many years at St. John’s United Methodist Church.
“That church is famously known because Beyoncé grew up there, and her mother still attends weekly,” Johnson said in a recent conference call that included all of his bandmates. “We played in that church for many years and forged a really tight friendship, and I think that laid a solid foundation to what we do and how we communicate musically now.”
Speer said he initially worried that adding a drummer would make the band too “drum centric,” but was pleased with how seamlessly Johnson meshed with the group’s sound.
“I really never considered adding more people to the band,” Speer explained. “Initially, it was like me and Laura Lee would go out to the barn, and I was kind of like playing drums, and she would make up bass lines, and then we would come back to Houston and (add) guitar to it, and yeah, it (sounded) pretty good. And then it came time to actually play it (live.)”
Johnson, Speer said, instantly understood the band’s vibe, that “there is no one focus on any individual instrument. The focus is on the music. I like that a lot. I think we’ve got the best trio for that purpose.”
The barn also functioned as a sort of fourth band member, providing the trio a nearly 90-minute round trip from Houston during which they would listen to and talk about sonic inspiration. “Everything we hear, no matter what it is, I try to figure how to take something from it,” Speer said. “Why not? That’s what art is supposed to be.”
The barn doors could be opened, exposing the band to the countryside and big sky where city noises and distractions are replaced with sounds of cows, birds and wind in the tall grass. That expansive, spatial quality creeps into the Khruangbin’s recordings, though some of that chill factor is replaced with funkier groove elements during live performances.
The group’s 2015 debut full album “The Universe Smiles Upon You” certainly reflects a lean ensemble approach. The melodies and grooves conjure up images of deserted jungle-fringed beaches, light tropical rains and humid open-air cocktail lounges. Vocals are used sparingly, more as texture than stories, mirroring the less-is-more philosophy of the music.
Khruangbin this month dropped the Mideastern-flavored single “Maria También” as a teaser for their next album, “Con Todo El Mundo,” which is scheduled for January release and partly dedicated to Lee’s Mexican-American grandfather.
The video for the single is a montage of Iranian female artists, dancers and singers who are shown performing before being silenced by the Iranian Revolution of 1979. As the video plays, a man pushes a studio control room button and the women are systematically erased from each scene, leaving only empty stages.
“For me, the thing that music does that no other art form does is it allows me to dream.” Lee said. “I think when I listen to music, and I go into my own head while listening to it, I can be in whatever place I want to be, and for me that’s the thing that separates it.”
Speer said that true to its name, Khruangbin and its music definitely are designed “to transport.”
“I don’t want to picture a band in the studio when I (hear a) song,” he said. “I think that is so boring. I want to picture being somewhere, something. I don’t want to picture the singer behind a microphone with their hand over their earphones. Man, that is so lame. So the goal is to try and put the audience somewhere.”
“I actually think the hand over the earphone works for ‘We Are the World,’ ” Johnson said, making his companions laugh. “So I don’t agree.”
When: 9 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11
Where: Harlow’s, 2708 J St., Sacramento
Cost: $15 and $18