When Laura Lee met a man named Mordechai, little did she know he would change her life forever. Funk/instrumental band Khruangbin had just come off nearly four years of touring and were in desperate need of a recharge. So, they took a much-needed camping trip, invited a few London friends, and reconnected with nature. Following this emotional and physical reprieve, Mordechai, a friend of a friend, invited Lee into his home to meet his family.
“I had talked to him initially one day just about my struggle in not feeling grounded because I had been nomadic for the past couple of years at that point and been on tour for more than that,” recalls Lee over a phone call last month with American Songwriter.
The stranger’s invitation left an indelible imprint, almost immediately, on her life. “It was a really sweet gesture and exactly what I needed. It was a hug and a reminder how beautiful family is,” she remarks. Such a monumental marker has been a considerable talking point in the band’s new album promo cycle, and Lee has begun feeling the crushing weight of that alone, as the memory itself begins feeling cold and distant.
“It’s hard not to become disenchanted with my own experience of it. You say it so many times. It’s like when you say lyrics, they change meaning as they go on,” she explains. “I want to get back to that day. It was such a beautiful day. But it’s hard, I keep having to rewind. It was the simplicity of the day, and seeing the love of a family was really inspiring. While that might be something people see on a regular basis, I hadn’t seen it in a long time.”
Later on, Mordechai and his wife and two boys took Lee on a hiking excursion, winding throughout the countryside, and the group eventually beheld the beauty of a gushing waterfall. When urged to take the leap, quite literally, over the craggy edge, Lee obliged. That moment was baptismal in nature.
Lee has never been the same.
“A lot of big events that happen in people’s lives feel really big at the time. Then, there’s the real effect when all the dominoes fall, which can take months. Since that day, I definitely feel much more grounded,” says Lee. “Even in having felt loss within the context of my life leading up to it, I feel very grounded and like I would have made all the same choices that I did make. I just would have made them more consciously.”
When Lee returned, her bandmates noticed her transformation ⏤ and not only because she spilled out her heart to them. Lee’s presence had shifted, and her obsession with Post-It notes was evident. “Any time a friend is going through anything, whether it be a transition or coming out of a rough spell, the main thing you want to do is be there. I was personally really conscious of being there,” muses drummer DJ Johnson Jr. “One of the things we learned over the course of last year, especially touring around the world and constantly being together, is that it’s so important for us to make sure each of us is doing OK individually. We always check on each other no matter what’s going on. Your schedule can be super hectic, but it’s important to take time, slow down, and just just ask, ‘How are you?’” And really mean it when you say it.”
“Sometimes, I’ll ask, ‘Hey, how are you doing,’ and the knee-jerk response is, ‘I’m good.’ You ask again, ‘How are you doing?’” he continues. “Then, you’re able to get a real response and a real check-in with each other. It wasn’t anything to process for me. It was a time to be a friend.”
The trio were stronger than ever. As they began writing for their third album, the craft itself had taken an unexpected swerve, too. Aptly-titled Mordechai, recorded at their Burton, Texas studio, alongside co-producer Steve Christensen, the album delights with their sturdy funkadelic signatures, smooth grooves and perfectly-packaged instruments. Given the nature of the album’s themes (time, memory, and longing), lyrics, which didn’t come into frame until months later, further punctuate the emotional arc. They’d dabbled in specific imagery before, but there were new stories aching to be told.
“If we had more time, we could live forever / Just you and I,” they lament with “Time (You and I),” the glossy album lead-in. “We could be together, just you and I.”
Beneath time’s swinging pendulum, they long for youthful exuberance, innocence, and a return to simpler times. “We can play like children play / We can say like children say / Just you and I / Have we got the time,” they coo.
Entering their second decade together, Khruangbin, which also includes guitarist Mark Speer, have certainly evolved, but they’ve managed to remain loyal to their roots. They continue mining cool temperatures, sticky guitar work, and striking, immersive melodies ⏤ with lyrics now draping across in elegant, surprising shapes.
As they’ve grown together as human beings, learning hard lessons along the way, they’ve always kept a fierce hunger for living growling deep inside. “I always try to put myself in new situations sometimes in order to have that child-like feeling. You get it when you move to a new city or place or you’re in a new situation and meet a new friend,” Lee says. “There are all kinds of things like that that I think if you allow yourself that exploration for something new it ties you to that feeling. You’re approaching it blindly.”
The group finished mixing the record in January, and two months later, “quarantine happened,” as Johnson points out. “Fast forward to March and April, all around me in my neighborhood, I’m watching grown people playing like children play, riding bicycles outside. Everyone all of a sudden has his new-found time to spend and reconnect,” he says. “Those lyrics [from ‘Time (You and I)’] kept playing in my head every time I’d see it. I was seeing 60-70 year olds riding bikes. These things wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t been afforded the time altogether to stay indoors or stay close to home.”
Such emotional clarity brings the album into a sharper focus, too. And it runs as hot steam throughout the entire record, from “Connaissais De Face” to “Dear Alfred” and “So We Won’t Forget.” In taking ample time to bask in the moment’s intoxicating glow, they also observe time and memory in their own lives, expressing sorrow, hope, and enlightenment.
“Have you ever seen sand mandalas? They’re these sand paintings that monks do, and they make these ornate pieces of art of sand. It’s completely fleeting. It blows away in a day. There’s something really beautiful about that. You’re making something for the moment, and if it blows away, that’s exactly what it is going to do,” Speer takes a moment to reflect upon life’s ultimate intangibility through it all. “Nothing lasts forever. Everything will change. This world seems so tangible and present. Right now, we’re being incinerated by the sun… in about four million years, maybe less. The only thing you have is this moment. It’s all right now. Especially when you’re touring as much as we do, time is really hard to follow.”
“January seems like eons ago, and that’s January. Ask me about last summer when we were on the road all the time. It seems like a different dimension,” he adds, with a laugh.
In life, if you’re lucky, you collect a trunk-full of cherished memories, and if you don’t write them down, you risk losing them forever, even in your own memory. “The moments you don’t write down are the ones you don’t capture and maybe are the hardest to hold onto,” chimes in Johnson. “There are significant milestones and checkpoints we reach in life, like your wedding day, graduation, and birthdays. Those are big things, but there are other things that happen that might seem insignificant at the time, but they could possibly set you on a course for the rest of your life.”
“I was sitting in a bar one night, and my two friends asked me to be in a band. I didn’t know it at the time, but that completely changed the course of my life. I don’t remember exactly what day that was because I didn’t write it down. At the time, it seemed like such a… not insignificant… but it didn’t seem like a defining moment. But it was.”
“Dearest Alfred,” inspired by letters Lee’s grandfather wrote to his twin brother, is perhaps the album’s most moving and provocative. “Can you imagine my joy I received / Your wonderful letter / Your letter is the best gift,” they warble in unison. The simplicity of their words is hypnotic, unfurling with a silky, magnificent ambience, and in that way, they relay universal truths about companionship and family.
“My grandfather’s spirit will forever have this mystical side to him. I was thinking about him earlier when DJ was talking about memories and writing them down. My grandfather was obsessed with numbers, specifically dates,” recalls Lee. “He was constantly writing things down, and on a tissue box, he would write DOP (which meant date of purchase) and then DOR (date of refill). He would write down every day he refilled it. He was obsessed with this idea of time and cycles and seeing where patterns happen. In doing that, he always saved everything. Every picture had a date on it. He saved every newspaper he ever had.”
“He always wrote letters to his family members. And the box of letters that were found that he’d written to Alfred were super special,” she says. “It was like finding a time capsule of somebody’s life written from a very particular perspective.”
While the letters depicted “mundane, everyday events,” it was “the sentiment of the whole thing was so sweet to uncover. It felt like the right thing to do to carry on from our last record to still have part of my grandfather’s thumbprint on this one.”
Khruangbin’s Mordcechai (out this Friday, June 26) arrives at a time in history when the world is still reeling from COVID-19, police brutality, and rallying cries for racial justice. 10 tracks wash over the listener, a sincere and poetic reminder of the sheer power of music. It’s a welcome escape, if only for a moment. When all is said and done, the band have gained renewed sense of purpose and vitality in life.
“I’m much more focused on enjoying the process of anything, including life. Rather than being focused on the result. Of course, the end result of an album is a beautiful thing,” Lee concludes. “We’ll hug it forever. But the thing I really respect and hug and say thank you to was the process. That’s where the real gusto was.”
Photo Credit: Tamsin Isaacs