The last time Khruangbin was in Omaha, it wasn’t to play a show.
The Houston trio was passing through town on tour in 2016 and saw lines on the South 13th Street sidewalk waiting to get into The Bohemian Cafe, which was in its last week of business. The band stopped for a bite, and the experience left a lasting impression. Khruangbin returns to Omaha this Saturday to headline Maha Music Festival, and to commemorate the performance, the band commissioned show posters with Bohemian Cafe-inspired designs.
Omaha is the second stop on Khruangbin’s first tour in over a year, meaning they’ll be playing the songs from their 2020 LP Mordechai in front of live audiences for the first time. The record was written and recorded in the band’s home-base barn in Burton, Texas, a village about 85 miles west of Houston. Such a rural setting stands in contrast to the band’s ascent in Houston, a metropolis with the most diverse population in America. But both are significant components in Mordechai’s palate, which at once feels worldly and like it was performed with cattle staring back under a night sky.
The Reader chatted with Khruangbin’s Laura Lee, Mark Speer and Donald “DJ” Johnson ahead of Maha and touched on being regarded as ‘overnight successes’ in interviews, the true story behind the wigs they wear on stage, and the legacy of The Bohemian Cafe.
This interview has been edited slightly for brevity.
Well, how does it feel to be coming back from COVID and getting ready for tour?
Laura Lee: It feels like a lot in Khruangbin world. You know, we’re out of practice, and we haven’t played on a stage in a long time. And we have a whole new album of songs that we’ve never played live to add to that. It’s like playing in a new world and playing in our new world. It feels like a lot to take on. But I think once we’re out there in the deep end, it’ll be amazing.
When you’re preparing for a long tour like this, what are you trying to deliver to the crowd? What are you rehearsing for beyond just rehearsing the songs?
LL: We’re going into rehearsal next week, and I think we’re gonna suss out what feels good, what sounds good. And starting with all the new songs, finding the live form of those songs and what shape they’re going to take. And then building a set around that, around what feels good in that way. And Omaha will be our second one. So it’s sort of like, how can we craft the best possible show for our second show?
This will be your first time in Omaha, right?
DJ Johnson: We’ve been to Omaha, but we didn’t play there. Yeah, we were just kind of passing through. We caught the last week of The Bohemian [Cafe] before they closed.
LL: So we have fond memories of eating there in Omaha. It was a stop in between something and something and one of those beautiful moments on the road that only happens on the road.
Mark Speer: When you find a restaurant like that, that has such a history in the community is closing its doors, you got to go and visit. We’d already eaten dinner, but we passed by that spot and we thought, well, we gotta eat here, too!
How did you hear about it?
MS: Actually, we didn’t! We just kind of rolled by, and it was there. I think there was a line of people out front because everyone was kind of sad that they were closing their doors. So we turned the van around, and we parked and went in.
LL: We have T-shirts from there, and we made our own poster for the Maha Festival, and we asked artists to use The Bohemian Cafe as inspiration for the artwork. So, it goes deep!
Is there anything different in the way you approach this album live as opposed to other releases?
LL: It’s much more complex than our other albums, so there’s just more to learn. There’s a lot of singing and playing at the same time that, for me, personally, has been difficult to crack the code in figuring out how to make the muscle memory do what it does, naturally. But, yeah, we’re just gonna get in there and have fun and do what feels good, you know?
MS: We approach it like any other live show or any other cycle. We have to learn the songs that we made in the studio, because, generally, we just do it, and we don’t think about how we’re going to perform it live until much later. So we’re in that stage of like, harsh reality — you got to figure out how to do it.
LL: But the songs reveal themselves, and it’s the same way with the live show. It’s like, you know, sometimes you’ll do something by accident that sounds good. Or you have to break apart a song and change the way you approach it for the live show. But we always find the way. We just have to play and figure it out.
I know you do most of your writing and rehearsing in the barn — is that where you record, too?
LL: Yes, it is. We’ve recorded all of our albums in the barn. I think, potentially every single album cycle, we’ve thought about recording somewhere else, but it just always seems to end up being that we record in the barn, because it feels like home. And now at this point, it feels like it’s such a part of our sound. And also, there’s so much to be said for how much your environment impacts how you’re feeling and the music you create. So playing in the countryside with cows looking at you, and rolling hills, and having the barn doors wide open is really inspiring. Nobody else has our specific barn where it is, so it kind of adds to what feels like makes Khruangbin uniquely Khruangbin. It doesn’t sound like a particular studio. It sounds like the barn.
Laura, you’ve said before that you wanted Mordechai to sound like the world, and in doing that, to sound like Houston. I know the barn isn’t in Houston, but is that what you meant by that?
LL: We get asked a lot about where we’re from. Certainly, when we kind of first broke, it was in Europe, and people were kind of like, “How is it that a band like you comes from Texas?” And then we frequently get pigeonholed as a band from Austin, because, I guess, the majority of bands that come from Texas are from Austin. But we really try to hammer home the fact that we are from Houston, we’re really proud to be from Houston, and we would never be who we are without it. Houston’s the most diverse city in America, and you really feel it when you’re there. There’s no other city that feels like Houston in the way that it’s diverse, to me. And I’ve traveled a lot at this point. So I think the idea was that if we try to pull from so many different worldly sounds and influences, that it would actually, in theory, sound like Houston, because that is what Houston is as a city.
You guys have been doing this for a little over 10 years now. Does that feel like a long time to you?
DJ: There’s so much that happens in that amount of time. I remember doing a lot of interviews during the [Mordechai] album campaign, and I heard a couple people say that we were “overnight successes.” And I was like, “Well, that’s a long night.” But yeah, looking back, we have been doing this for awhile. And when you think about it, we definitely have paid some dues. We’ve gone through it and kind of earned our stripes. We’re really, really grateful for the fact that we stuck with it and that we didn’t let it go. We sought to finish what we started.
Did you have these kinds of dreams? Or were you just starting a band in the first place to make music and have fun?
MS: The latter. I never expected to get this far. It’s kind of weird.
LL: It is nuts! And we very frequently check in with each other to voice how weird it is. It’s amazing and so rewarding, infinitely and in a million ways. Just the aspect of having a band, which is a giant relationship that I’ve now been in for 10 years. We’ve been with each other through evolutions of ourselves and who we are as a band, and it’s a really special thing to be a part of and experience. If it weren’t for our strong, sort of, family unit bond, I think it would be even more crazy. But I know that no matter what stage we’re headlining, that it’s actually just these dudes with me on a stage, you know, just like at the barn.
I know people dislike the term “world music,” but what got you into music from Thailand and Iraq and the Middle East? How do you get into that music and want to incorporate that into your sound?
MS: I think one of the major things besides living in Houston, which is an international city, and going to Half Price Books and buying like the cheapest records, which were usually in the world music section, was Microsoft Encarta, which was like this CD ROM encyclopedia that had all kinds of different music from all over the world in tiny 20-second snippets. I remember distinctly just getting lost in that for hours and hours and hours, thinking, “Wow, this is so cool.” The funny thing is, I haven’t had that Microsoft Encarta since like ’95 or whatever, but I still find myself finding songs that were on that disk now in my travels and finding, “Oh, here’s this record. Oh, damn! This was that song!” I’ll be listening to a song for two-and-a-half minutes, and then, here comes this 20-second snippet that they used on the Encarta, and “Oh, shit, it was this!” That still blows my mind. I think that had a huge impact.
I didn’t realize Houston was the most diverse city in the country. That makes a lot more sense how you would be exposed to more of these sounds, too, just growing up in such a diverse place.
MS: I really didn’t think that that was weird growing up. That wasn’t strange to me. But apparently it is.
LL: There’s houses in Houston — there’s the Mahatma Gandhi District, which is primarily an Indian neighborhood. And there’s a Korean part of town, a Vietnamese part of town, etc. I got into Korean dramas, like TV shows, and there’s a mall for that in Houston. So, when I couldn’t find what I needed, I went to that mall where I could find the Korean TV shows I wanted, which also had a bunch of Korean CD’s that I could find … That was something that was available in Houston to me. It didn’t feel weird. It was cool that there was a place for that.
I have to ask about the wigs. Legend has it you started wearing them to avoid being recognized on the way to the merch booth after a show?
LL: I’m not sure where that came from; I think it’s like on our Wikipedia or something. So I feel like that particular opinion has come up quite a bit for us. But that was not the thing! We wanted to put on a show. We were in Houston, and we didn’t want everybody to know who we were, necessarily, on stage. And it created an identity for the band, of who we are without actually being, you know, Laura Lee, Mark Speer and DJ. Nobody knew if we were from Houston or not because nobody knew who we were. It’s all so fun!
MS: That was really the point, was it was fun.
LL: I don’t know. Khruangbin looks like Khruangbin, in part, because of the wigs.
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Read The Reader’s interview with Maha headliner Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast.