Record of the Week: Khruangbin & Leon Bridges’ ‘Texas Moon’ EP

DJ Johnson and Laura Lee of Khruangbin talk Texas Moon

Texas Moon, the second collaborative project from Texas trio Khruangbin and Grammy-nominated artist Leon Bridges, picks up right where their first EP together, Texas Sun, left off. But there was a time when it looked like none of that music was going to be released.

Back in 2018, Bridges went on tour to support his second album Good Thing with Khruangbin opening. The two acts connected instantly, bonding over music and their home state of Texas.

“Of course, when you’re on tour with another artist, if the energy and vibe is right, you become friends,” said DJ Johnson, Khruangbin’s drummer. “We just had this energy that we developed on the road, and Leon is like a cousin now.”

The acts were in Missoula, Mont. to play a show at Big Sky Brewing Company when bassist Laura Lee sent Bridges some Khruangbin instrumentals and he sent back a recording of himself humming over the music. None of them knew it at the time, but that moment marked the birth of their EPs.

“When we think of Texas, it’s ‘Big Sky Country,’” Lee said. “That’s where we sent out the first egg. And now the projects are called Texas Sun and Texas Moon. So it was an easy fit.”

The original idea was to make a full-length album, but that got cut down to an EP. The musicians worried the project would be shelved altogether, since there were two different record labels involved. After Lee sent an email expressing how much the project meant to both acts, her plea was heard, and in 2020, they released Texas Sun.

That first collaboration was so successful that the decision was made to release the follow-up.

With the tracks “Father, Father,” “B-Side,” and “Doris” left over from earlier sessions, Khruangbin and Bridges got back into the studio to record “Chocolate Hills” and “Mariella” to make the moodiness of their second EP complete.

Although Bridges specializes in vintage soul while Khruangbin does instrumental, psychedelic rock, when they came together on Texas Moon, they married elements of those sounds in a unique showcase of their shared Texas heritage. 

On the Record: A Q&A with DJ Johnson and Laura Lee of Khruangbin

Marquis Munson: As a band that prides themselves on an amazing live performance, how does it feel to be back in the swing of things, performing these songs in front of an audience again?

DJ Johnson: It feels good to be back in front of real people in relatively close proximity, sharing the same air and just sharing live music. Not to say that we took it for granted before the pandemic, but we definitely had a different perspective on what it means coming out of it. So we’re really appreciative of what we’re able to do.

Laura Lee: The energy has been pretty spectacular out there. It always is, but I think absence makes the heart grow fonder in every aspect of life. I think people really felt missing live music. To be on the other side of that, I feel incredibly privileged. Not many people will understand what it feels like to play for people that have been deprived for two years. [Laughs]

MM: I saw your set at Railbird [Festival] in Kentucky. After that performance, I felt like I wanted more. So I had you guys circled on my Bonnaroo calendar, and then it gets canceled. You guys actually performed at Brooklyn Bowl Nashville. When did you find out about the Bonnaroo cancelation, and were you already in Tennessee?

LL: We were in Tennessee prepping for that show. I don’t know if you’ve seen pictures of our recent live show, but we have this new stage production, and the debut of that stage was supposed to be at Bonnaroo. So we had been in Tennessee prepping to learn how to use that thing for the good people of Bonnaroo. And we found out [about the festival being canceled] right before the world found out.

It was a shock, but then again it wasn’t. We were there and the storms were really bad. It wasn’t a COVID thing; this was another thing that we couldn’t control. We were here already, so we made the most of it and played Brooklyn Bowl.

MM: Before your set at Railbird, you talked to our very own Celia. You guys discussed the wigs. For those who’ve never seen a Khruangbin performance, you guys wear wigs [on stage] and sometimes you guys like to take those wigs off to blend in with the crowd at festivals. Can I confirm that?

LL: You can confirm that straight from the horse’s mouth. [Laughs] Yeah, I’m a festival goer. I really enjoy getting in there and experiencing not only the festival, but the way music feels at a festival specifically is different. The crowds are different. I like being inside of it. If I was going in there as Lizzy, I just wouldn’t be able to enjoy it as much as I can incognito.

MM: You were known as an instrumental band. What went into the decision to begin to experiment with adding vocals to your own music on your album Mordechai?

LL: So I will say everybody thinks it’s just me singing, but it’s all three of us. All three of us sing in unison. But I think my voice just sticks out a little bit.

We played around with words on that album. I can’t say the next record we put out will necessarily have as many words. Maybe it will. I don’t want to commit either way. But traditionally, we were an instrumental band. So I think that’s where we’re comfortable, is behind our instruments. So I think allowing Leon to just take up all that space vocally makes us sit comfy.

MM: What was the creative process like when you guys were in the studio together with Bridges? Was it more like a jam session? Was it orchestrated ideas? Or was it a little bit of both?

DJ: It’s a little bit of both.

I remember specifically when we recorded “B-Side,” which was recorded [during] the Texas Sun session, the first block of studio sessions we did. We originally recorded just one song. Of course, when you release a record on vinyl, you need a “B-Side.” So that’s why it’s actually called “B-Side.”

We all sat down at our respective instruments and we started jamming out. This is how loose it was: I was on guitar, [Khruangbin guitarist] Mark [Speer] was on drums, Laura Lee was playing this bass six, which is a different type of bass that she typically doesn’t play. We were all just messing around. Leon had a microphone and he was just humming some words.

At some point, Mark got off the drums, I got on the drums, Mark picked up the guitar, our engineer Steve hit the record button and we just played for several minutes. Of course, through editing, we trimmed it down to something that made sense. Then Leon came back later and actually put words to the melodies that he was humming out. You can still hear some of the remnants of his original stuff that he was doing through the drum mics if you listen closely.

LL: I think it was really smart of us not put “B Side” on Texas Sun, because it was the nugget to get Texas Moon.

MM: How did you guys work out this collaboration from the business side, being on two different labels? 

DJ: I think being on two labels, the challenge was just getting the project out. It almost never happened. Had it not been for a last-second email from Laura Lee to the label and everybody CCed on it, pouring her heart out and really expressing how we felt about the EP…

Because it was originally supposed to be a full-length album. It was cut down to an EP, and eventually that kind of stuff gets shelved. With that last second plea, we got it through. Had it not been for that, I don’t think anyone would have ever had the opportunity to hear this collaboration. So we’re really thankful for that email, and thankful for whoever heard the plea and agreed to greenlight the project and eventually get it out into the world.

LL: In any capacity, when you have more cooks in the kitchen, it’s more opinions, more people to get it passed. So you’re talking about having two entire teams be on the same page, and that’s not necessarily an easy thing.

MM:  How did you decide which songs belonged on each EP? Was it the feel of the songs that made some fit the mood of Texas Moon a little bit more?

DJ: Yeah, funny story: So when we had Texas Sun, we got those songs out and we presented them. I think the label on Leon’s side decided that some of them weren’t strong enough. Those are the songs that ended up coming back to for the Texas Moon release.

We thought that “Doris” was a very good, heartfelt recording. It was one of our collective favorites. But like we mentioned earlier, when you’re dealing with a lot of different opinions, sometimes its like, “We need a hit. We need something that’ll play on radio. We need something that will make the kids dance.”

“Doris” was not that song. It’s something completely different. It’s introspective. It’s quiet. You have to listen. For that reason, or whatever reason, they felt that songs like that weren’t strong enough and they were shelved. When Texas Sun comes out and does what it does, those songs start looking and sounding a bit different.

LL: Yeah, so we’re like, “We’ve got ‘B-Side’ for you, but the deal is you have to let us put out ‘Doris’.”

The songs on the Texas Sun EP just fit together as a collection. For this one, we had “Father, Father,” “Doris,” and “B-Side” already done from that original recording session. We added “Chocolate Hills” and “Mariella,” because it felt like as a package, it needed those notes to make it feel complete.

I definitely feel like in the Texas Moon moodiness, it is more introspective. To me, it’s best listened to in my own head with earphones on.

MM:  Individually, the four of you each have unique sounds. Leon is more soul and retro R&B. You guys are instrumental, psychedelic rock. But when you come together, you seem to marry country and blues music with some elements of those other pieces, and center it around your Texas heritage. How do you guys see this collaboration reflecting Texas music?

DJ: I know a lot of times for people that are outside of the state, they hear the term “Texas music” and immediately think of Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, artists of that caliber. But Texas is a really big state and we have a lot of different genres to offer, from R&B, Zydeco, rock. It’s everything. It’s not just what’s perceived as country music, folk, singer-songwriter or music that most people would think it is. I hope that it sheds a light and changes the perception of what Texas music can be.

LL: I’m sure you feel that in Tennessee. Like, Tennessee is thought of in a similar vein, but it’s not to say that there aren’t giant rappers to come out of Tennessee.

MM: You guys also grew up on gospel music. I was reading an interview you did with Uproxx where DJ makes a good point about being in service to the music and not calling attention to yourselves, because who you are comes out in your instruments. On the EP, especially on the track “Father, Father,” you guys seem to use that concept playing behind Bridges.

DJ: The goal for me a lot of times is just to stay out of the way. Especially on “Father, Father,” Laura Lee and myself, we’re essentially just playing a loop and that’s all it’s supposed to be. The more we can disappear into the tapestry of a song like that, the better. Granted, there are other songs where our parts may stand out a little bit more and we can put a little bit more creativity into it. But sometimes all you need as a drummer is just “one, two, three and four,” and you just hold that there.

That song was meant to be kind of a mantra or meditative. Anything like that is usually something that is repetitive and it’s a circle, essentially. We just try not to break the circle.

LL: I think at some point you graduate from feeling that you need to have heart in every song where it’s a “look at me” moment. It’s about the song; it’s not about your individual part, or you. Unless you’re a solo artist, and then it could be about whatever you want. But we’re not that way. If Mark has a really beautiful part that he’s playing, then we need to honor the thing that he’s doing and vice versa.

MM: One of the deepest songs on the project is “Doris,” where Bridges discusses the final moments with his grandmother from his father’s perspective. What was the approach you guys wanted to take sonically to make this song special?

DJ: So when we were in our sessions, at random moments Leon will be on a chair with an acoustic guitar, just playing and singing to himself. There wasn’t like, “Okay, we’re going to sit down and write the song.” We heard him playing it and it was like a “What’s that?” moment. Thankfully, our engineer Steve always puts up a mic and captures those moments, so we can go back and review them at later times. We had a collection of those, and “Doris” was one of them.

With a subject matter like that, my thing was just stay out of the way. It’s a very somber, quiet moment, speaking to someone transitioning and having a conversation from Leon’s father to his father’s mother. You want to honor that moment. If you picture it in your mind, it doesn’t sound like a loud room. It’s not a lot going on. It’s very quiet and reserved, and I thought the music should reflect that.

LL: I think what’s cool about collaborations is that you get to pull each other into different worlds. One place I don’t really hear Leon is in a psychedelic world musically. We fit into that pocket a little bit. To me, it was the most psychedelic song that we’ve done together. And because of the way that he talks about Doris, it’s like she’s going to the other side. And those are the words he uses. So it felt like a moment to play on the ghostly eeriness and psychedelia.

MM: Sonically, you take a different approach on the track “Chocolate Hills.” What was the process for making that song?

LL: It’s another one where he played on guitar and we captured it. This was a Mark arrangement. Right before we went to the studio, he sends us this arrangement that was so cool and spacious. It feels like each of our individual personalities on it. “Chocolate Hills” has its own note on this record. This was like a new territory sonically.

MM: Are there any plans for you and Leon to go on tour together again? You both were on the bill at Railbird and Bonnaroo last year. You both performed at Brooklyn Bowl on the same weekend. Leon will be in Nashville in May. I’m just hoping that one day we can get you guys back together.

DJ: It’s not out of the realm of possibility. But as two artists in two different situations, its really more difficult than people realize for us to get things together. Honestly, I think that’s why it’s so magical when we do happen to cross paths. We played Hinterland and Leon happened to be there at the same time and we performed together. There was another time recently where we were stopping through Dallas and Leon popped up because he happened to be there. I think when those moments happen, it is magical because of that, because it is so hard to get two artists in two different places on the same page.

LL: I know it’s heartbreaking, because I get what it looks like from the outside. It’s like, “They’re here Friday and you’re there on Sunday.” Two days is a long time in touring time. You can be on the other side of the world by then.

MM: You guys have another very big show coming up, performing back to back nights at the Ryman Auditorium on March 14th and 15th. What can fans expect?

DJ: Well, you know what? I’ve learned that coming out with no expectations and seeing what happens creates a beautiful experience. If I were to just tell you what you can expect, who’s to say that you wouldn’t be let down when you got there? They’d be like, “Oh, this wasn’t what he said it was.”

I think it’s going to be a great show. The Ryman is iconic and we’re really looking forward to playing that. It’s always a beautiful time when we get to come through Nashville. It’s going to be fun.

LL: Yeah, I’m sending my email plea out to Nashville: “Just come on down. See what happens.”