Khruangbin takes fans on a sonic journey to Thailand — and beyond

| September 1, 2016

Drummer Donald Johnson, left, bassist Laura Lee, center, and guitarist Mark Speer bonded over ’60s Thai funk as they formed Khruangbin. (Khruangbin)

Drummer Donald Johnson, left, bassist Laura Lee, center, and guitarist Mark Speer bonded over ’60s Thai funk as they formed Khruangbin. (Khruangbin)

The Texas-based trio Khruangbin wants to take listeners on a trip around the world.

“I think we’re going to travel, musically, going forward,” bassist Laura Lee says. “We named our band ‘airplane,’ so it kind of worked out.”

Khruangbin, which translates as “engine fly” (or “airplane”) in Thai, started out playing a style of music heavily influenced by obscure Thai funk from the 1960s.

The bulk of the band’s 2015 debut album, “The Universe Smiles Upon You,” owes a great debt to the genre. It’s hypnotic, jazzy and psychedelic — yet unlike anything you’ll hear elsewhere in America. It’s the kind of mostly instrumental, guitar- and bass-heavy music that could soundtrack a late-night chill session just as easily as it could a Quentin Tarantino movie.

But as Khruangbin begins work on a follow-up album — to be recorded after a U.S. and European tour that kicks off in D.C. on Tuesday — guitarist Mark Speer says the band’s sound is expanding to incorporate influences from across the globe. Middle Eastern music — specifically, Turkish and Iranian soul — has been a big reference point of late.

“I think I got on this kick because I was listening to music from west Ireland, which oddly enough has a lot of the same ornamentation as Arabic music,” Speer says. “There’s a lot of these little things that you don’t find in Western European music — you don’t hear these types of trills and ornamentation but you hear it all over really old, traditional Irish music.”

A self-professed world music nerd, Speer has “always really been into music from all over the world because I tend to like music that isn’t in English. It’s more fun for me to listen to.”

Still, he spent much of his time before Khruangbin doing session work and playing in R&B, hip-hop and gospel bands. Speer met drummer Donald Johnson when they played together in a gospel group at a church in Texas. Lee, who had been working at a museum, and Speer met in 2007 through a mutual friend.

“Someone I was working with lived with Mark so I went to their house on a lunch break and met Mark,” Lee says. “Mark was watching this documentary on Afghan music and I was like, ‘Who are you? Can we be friends, please?’ ”

Speer soon found himself teaching Lee how to play bass. (Lee had previously played piano and guitar.) The pair got a gig backing up DJ act Yppah on tour, and when they came back, “I just looked at Mark and was like, ‘I want to start a band,’ ” Lee says.

Through a blog they were obsessed with, Lee and Speer had been downloading and listening to tons of Thai funk together. The music seeped into what became the Khruangbin sound.

“We didn’t have any intention of what we were going to sound like or what kind of band we were going to be,” Lee says. “We just played and when we started to listen back to what we’d recorded, we could hear the influence.”

Another major influence: Speer’s family barn in Burton, Texas, which would become their practice and recording space.

“It’s the fourth member of the band,” Lee says. “There’s just a certain atmospheric quality it provides. No one else would know except for us, but there’s certain parts of the album where, because of the frequency of the playing, there’s a resonance in the barn where the barn kind of sings.”

Khruangbin recently spent some time working on new music in the barn, but Lee and Speer are unsure if they’ll play any of the material live. Most of the band’s songs come out of improvisation, anyway, which suits the live setting.

As they embark on a tour that will keep them occupied through November, neither Lee nor Speer has a proper place to call home.

“Right now I’m kind of a nomad,” Lee says. “We both are.”

Considering where they want to take people with their music, maybe it’s for the best.

DC9, 1940 Ninth St. NW; Tue., 9 p.m., $12-$15.