Khruangbin Compromised Nothing in Toronto

History, May 31

Photo: Matt Forsythe

BY Alex HudsonPublished Jun 1, 2024

Khruangbin are a fascinating case study in how to become a popular band without compromising anything. They're a mostly-instrumental surf-funk trio without any huge radio hits, and they do big streaming numbers at least in part because they're good background music — when I went to a dinner party a couple weeks ago, the hosts played Khruangbin's catalogue on shuffle for the entire time. And yet they definitely aren't one of those bands that's only well-known online — something they proved by selling out three consecutive nights at Toronto's History.

The atmosphere in History was a bit like that of an opium den: belching fog machines meant that a heavy mist was hanging over the entire room, which was dimly lit by deep blues and reds while bassist Laura Lee, guitarist Mark Speer and drummer DJ Johnson eased their way into a series of heady psych jams. The crowd packed onto the floor gently bopped and nodded along, seemingly lulled into dreamy oblivion.

Khruangbin performed against a backdrop of large arched windows, like the ones in their photo shoots for new album A LA SALA. These gave a glimpse onto scenes of changing weather — flashes of lightning during dark moments, blue skies and white fluffy clouds during breezy jams — with the band members often appearing as dim silhouettes amidst the fog and backlighting.

Perhaps the low lighting is why the guy in front of me took out his phone and, with the brightness on max, starting googling photos of Laura Lee to show his friends. He then, I kid you not, started shopping for tickets to see Engelbert Humperdinck. I swear I didn't want to snoop, but the retina-searing glow of his phone was magnitudes brighter than the moody scene on stage.

I couldn't entirely blame him for getting restless. As great as Khruangbin sounded, it became difficult to distinguish one vibey track from the next, an effect intensified by the extremely short pauses between songs and a near-complete lack of banter from the musicians. They left the stage briefly for a mid-set intermission, exiting without a word while rain and thunder sounds played for a couple of minutes, before returning just as quietly.

The group embraced their minimalism, rather than try to wow anyone with gimmicks (other than Speer and Lee's ever-present Cleopatra-esque wigs). Johnson's drumming was laser-precise yet restrained, with a light touch and fills kept to a minimum, while Speer alternated between choppy funk strums and noodling leads, his reverb-y tones meaning that his guitar often became a wash of wobbly noise. I'm not sure that I've ever seen a famous touring band where the guitarist didn't change instruments a single time, but Speer hung onto his wood-finished Fender Stratocaster for the whole show.

This meant that the focus was mostly on bassist Lee, whose funky four-string pierced through the mix, acting almost like a lead instrument. She also had the most stage presence, as she side-stepped, strutted and shimmied, her extremely wide-legged pants drawing extra attention to her moves. Occasionally, her and Speer coordinated their routines — a wiggle of the hips here, a deep bend of the knee there — which happened often enough to be a fun recurring trick, but rarely enough to be surprising whenever they did it. They had wireless guitar packs, allowing them free rein to explore every cranny of the large stage.

As the roughly two-hour set neared its end, Khruangbin shifted up a gear, playing a string of their most upbeat and vocally-driven songs: the harmonized guitar-bass interplay of "María También," followed by funky one-two punch of "Evan Finds the Third Room" (which had Lee declaring "Yes!" every second bar) and "Time (You and I)."

It was enough to suggest that they have to potential to be party band if they wanted — but, rather than zhuzh up their sound with higher tempos and vocal refrains, they continue to operate at their own pace, only throwing in a traditional pop hook when it moves them. And if their commitment to sticking with what works means that casual onlookers end up shopping for Engelbert Humperdinck tickets on their phones, so be it.

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