Concerts

Khruangbin’s Laura Lee Knows How to Bring People Together

Mark Speer (left) and Laura Lee of Khruangbin
Mark Speer (left) and Laura Lee of Khruangbin Photo by Jackie Lee Young
Laura Lee spent eight months in Miami during the pandemic. It was quite the shift from the usually “nomadic” lifestyle she lives as the bassist for the genre-bending, Houston-based music trio Khruangbin.

Where the past ten-plus years with Khruangbin had been mainly spent on the road or in the studio, Lee used her extended stay in Miami to enjoy quality time outdoors and more or less unwind. During her downtime, she walked through the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, kayaked on the Oleta River, and dined at Boia De (which she cites as a favorite).

Now, Lee is back on the road along with guitarist Mark Speer and drummer Donald Johnson, Jr., and set to return to the city she says holds a “special place in my heart” for two performances on Saturday, May 7, and Sunday, May 8, at the Fillmore Miami Beach. The back-to-back shows come after a few weeks spent touring in Europe for the first time since the pandemic set in and are part of the North American leg of the trio’s expansive 2022 tour.

It also marks the first time Khruangbin will perform in Miami outside of a music festival setting.

While Lee insists that “there's nothing better or worse about either thing,” she allows that “there's something about the whole [headlining] show that feels like, ‘This is Khruangbin.’ And it's nice to be able to give the full scope of it to Miami.”

The tour is in support of the band’s last album, 2020’s critically acclaimed Mordechai. The album was primarily based on Lee’s personal experiences and, in many ways, marked a shift for Khruangbin.

“With every single album, the challenge that I always give myself is, 'How deep can I go in myself and pull out whatever that thing is? What am I discovering as a human being that's worth sharing emotionally and creatively?” Lee explains.
That motivation is on full display in Mordechai, which was created during a period of “grounding” and realignment for the bassist. The ten-song project, written collaboratively and recorded in a rural Texas farmhouse, is as thematically mature as it is sonically arresting.

For a band known to spend most of its time playing nonstop shows for its worldwide fanbase (Khruangbin aptly translates to “airplane” in Thai), the pandemic was quite the interruption to business-as-usual. Yet Lee maintains that the break it provided was needed after a particularly grueling year filled to the brim with touring, a new album, and collaborative projects with soul singer Leon Bridges and others.

“We're sort of grateful for it,” Lee says of Khruangbin's pandemic-imposed respite, adding that having gone without performing for so long had the effect of making the band “really appreciate what live music really is.”

“I think the time away definitely made the heart grow fonder,” she says of the experience of playing consistent live shows again. New to the past year’s shows is the addition of people at every performance for whom a Khruangbin concert is their first show since 2020. “It's a really beautiful thing to kind of experience that from outside,” Lee adds.

This added significance for many fans has had some effect on how Khruangbin now approaches its concerts. In the past, the band focused on making each show as different from the last as possible, in order to cater to the superfans — or, as they are affectionately called, "Khrus" — who go to multiple shows back-to-back. But the band’s priorities have since shifted.

"The challenge that I always give myself is, 'How deep can I go in myself and pull out whatever that thing is?'"

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“The focus has been less on making every show so specifically different [and more on] just trying to make the show as dynamic as possible,” Lee says of the current tour.

The funk-inspired trio has also changed its approach to Khruangbin in other ways. The musicians have grown to appreciate the “bubble” style of touring, which means closing the band’s backstage area to visitors so they can focus all their energy on what happens on stage instead. And Lee is especially attuned to how Khruangbin’s music translates across stages, performances, and countries.

“People here might know the lyrics more, and people over there might hum the bassline — more like seeing how different people react,” Lee explains. “But I definitely left every show feeling like I'm still in love with music.”

She cites this growth in how she sees Khruangbin's music as something that happened alongside the rest of the band. It's a collective decision to step back and allow their “songs [to] become this sort of living, breathing, evolving thing” when they’re performed and reflected back by the audience.

These translations are essential to Lee — especially given Khruangbin’s international slant — both in their vast influences, ranging from Thai funk to Middle-Eastern music and Latin beats, and in the band's far-reaching fanbase.

“There's something really magical about watching the same music that you play at home translate overseas,” she says. “Because it kind of shows how universal music is, and the way it changes.”
click to enlarge Laura Lee says Khruangbin has shifted its approaches to its concerts. - PHOTO BY JACKIE LEE YOUNG
Laura Lee says Khruangbin has shifted its approaches to its concerts.
Photo by Jackie Lee Young
The trio formed because of Lee and Speer’s shared love of Afghan music, so it only makes sense that the band’s music spans such broad influences to the point of being virtually borderless in terms of genre.

Indeed, Khruangbin is inherently international. Lee sees it as an issue of inclusivity as well as the band’s capacity for innovation. That is, in essence, the driving force behind the trio’s creative work.

“Every time we're asked kind of what our intention is or what the story is that we're trying to tell, I don't know if it's so much as a narrative,” she says. “I think the narrative is just that, in a time where the world can feel really divided, music is one of those things that you can sing along to with your neighbor regardless of whether you look like him or believe the same things as him.”

In addition to Khruangbin's already linguistically diverse songs, like Mordechai’s “Time (You and I),” the band makes a lot of Spanish-language music, such as “Pelota,” off the same album. In part owing to Lee’s experience growing up in a Mexican-American household, Spanish allows the band to linguistically cross borders as deftly as its music crosses sonic ones.

“Music is very big and universal and nuanced, and I think limiting ourselves to just English words just doesn't feel like a limitation we have to use,” Lee says. She also cites the existing limitations inherent to the trio format, saying she sees the ability to use other languages as a “loophole” to escape from the restrictions that come with only having three instruments. “We tend to listen to music in other languages the vast majority of the time, so it feels pretty natural,” she adds.

While Lee looks forward to the upcoming year of near-constant touring, the Miami show is poised to be uniquely special. “It feels like Miami is one of my homes,” she says. Plenty of her friends and family friends will be attending the Fillmore shows.

And after the tour?

“When the whole thing's over, I look forward to writing,” she says. “I think I'll always continue diving in my emotional well to see what I can pull out for the next one, but we're never going to write the same album again. You kind of have to let the rest just happen the way that it happens. Maybe there will be words, maybe there won't. But in terms of what the inspiration will be, or how we'll get there, that's for the next album to decide.”

Khruangbin. With Toro y Moi. 8 p.m. Saturday, May 7, and Sunday, May 8, at the Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-673-7300; fillmoremb.com. Tickets cost $49.50 to $65 via livenation.com.
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Sofia Andrade is a journalist and undergraduate at Harvard University. A Miami native with roots in Ecuador, she often writes about issues of gender, migration and Latinidad in arts, culture, and politics. Along with the New Times, her work has appeared in Slate, the New York Times, and the Harvard Crimson.
Contact: Sofia Andrade