When Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival 2021 was heartbreakingly, but wisely cancelled last-minute—some 24 hours before the first campers were to roll in and set up in the flooded pastures of the property in Manchester, Tennessee—venues and promoters in Nashville scrambled to book some of the festival’s top acts to perform in town over that Labor Day holiday weekend.
One of the biggest “gets” was undoubtedly Brooklyn Bowl’s pick-up of Houston’s vibe-y, mostly instrumental indie-jam darlings Khruangbin for a Friday night blast-off. (Formerly local artist Liz Cooper shredded through an opening slot on her record release day.) I was otherwise engaged, but heard the evening was pretty epic. << This term is no longer overused, if you didn’t get the memo. A year+ without live music means we are clean-slating what’s epic and what’s not. I don’t make the rules.
Before this Bonnaroo weekend pivot—and actually before Khruangbin’s three band members and road “Khru” even left their separate nests to start the festival season in Lexington, Kentucky, at Railbird in late August—bass guitarist Laura Lee and percussionist Donald Ray “DJ” Johnson, Jr. joined me via Zoom to talk about the relaunch of live performance and lessons learned off the road.
This coming weekend, Khruangbin (which is Thai for “airplane”) jets back into Middle Tennessee for Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival in Franklin. On Sunday, September 26, they’ll perform before locals Cage The Elephant, no doubt wooing mega-fans, plus unsuspecting attendees who just happened to spread out a blanket among them, with songs from the trio’s 2020 full-length Mordechai.
Cheers to the opportunity to transport to another astral plane with the grooves laid down by Laura, DJ and guitarist Mark Speer. The wigs, chic attire and psychedelic video effects only add to the full audio-visual experience of catching this band live, TRUST ME.
On the Record: A Q&A With Laura & DJ of Khruangbin
Celia Gregory: You were quite busy before everything was shut down and had music in the can and ready to go. Will these be some of the first shows you’re doing where you’re able to play this newer music in front of an audience that’s also equally hungry for live music, again?
Laura Lee: Yes, indeed. These are the first shows where we are playing songs from our latest release [Mordechai], which we planned to tour quite extensively last year. We were really nervous to play them because we actually hadn’t even worked out a live arrangement for any of the songs until very recently, which felt terrifying. But I think we also had to remind ourselves that not only has nobody else been playing this entire time, but people also haven’t been seeing live music. So we can’t put too much pressure on ourselves to get it 100% right the first time.
CG: You all have been in a band together for 12 years now and touring pretty aggressively before everything last year. So would you care to share, relationally, how you all have gelled as a band or tried to continue to sync up before you could go back on the road during this extended period of not being together and performing all the time?
Donald Ray “DJ” Johnson, Jr.: We spent a lot of time away from each other over quarantine. It’s definitely the longest time we’ve been apart from each other since we started touring, so to speak. We went eight months without seeing each other. We made the best of it over Zoom, of course, a lot of Zoom chats. And over that time our album came out, so we were doing interviews like this basically every day, which we set up in the morning. So it became kind of like, “Grab a mug, go upstairs, do the thing.” It’s funny, over the course of doing interviews sometimes a question would come up and harken back to a time, remind us of the past so we could appreciate and enjoy each other. So yeah, we stayed in contact.
LL: As much as we can complain about Zoom for all the things it was, it was better than not, you know? And that was kind of what we found was no matter how frustrating it was to not be able to hug each other or whatever, it was so important for the three of us to connect on Zoom every week.
CG: Setting up this return to live music, you have a slew of festival dates. So that’s a different ballgame than your other shows, these huge shows you’re playing a lot of them outdoors. How have you prepared mentally, physically, maybe logistically for the time and space that we’re now in… or back in, as I should say?
LL: I can tell you, we have spent so much time logistically. Honestly, this week and last week, so much time with our team figuring out what the safest way is that we can do this. We’re having to take some pretty serious measures to be able to tour: no family, no friends, we can’t go watch other shows. We are having to stay in a bubble. I think it’s funny because at first it sounds like no fun, but actually, I think we’ll discover that it’s just in a different way. And now we’ll get to spend some really intimate time with our crew which, luckily, we love so much. So I think it’ll just be like an extended family hang for a little while in order to ensure that we can go out.
Because in every kind of situation where you’re weighing the pros and cons to things, the thing that is always going to outweigh all of them is that we want to be able to make this happen. And in order to do that, we’re having to spend more than we anticipated and we’re having to do all sorts of preparations that we weren’t planning on. But it’s all worth it if we can play our songs up there and connect with our community that we’ve missed over this time. I think there’s something really powerful about that.
CG: DJ, as you’re preparing to leave home again, is this sort of an interesting different approach to getting back out there, not just with the logistics, but, I don’t know, emotionally, mentally preparing to dive back in?
DJ: It is. When I was talking to my mother the other day and she was mentioning coming out to our show in Austin and I had to tell her, “It’s not going to be like it has been. There’s no backstage. I can’t come out and say hello and do the whole thing I normally do because we’re in a bubble.” So, yeah, it’s definitely a different approach. I went and got my COVID test yesterday. To piggyback on what Laura said, I mean, it’s necessary to ensure that we’re able to do what we ultimately love to do, which is play the shows.
CG: How do you all prepare differently for a festival? As you just said, there’s a lot more preparation going into this festival season. But in general, in the past, what are maybe your favorite things about festivals different than other performances on the schedule?
LL: I am a festival fan. I love the concentration of being able to be inspired by so many other players and also the inspiration I get from being immersed in the festival community. Luckily, because I have an anonymous character that I live in outside of this hair, I can actually feel free to roam around festivals and not be Laura Leezy from Khruangbin. So it’s a unique thing that I get to experience and I like to get in there. I get so much out of that. And if it’s possible to go to shows leading up to our show at the festival, I totally do. I get such a buzz watching other people play. And it really inspires my own performance, I find.
DJ: Yeah. I mean,sometimes you get to see a show before the show. It is super inspiring. You don’t really get to do that when you’re playing a venue tour. Every night is a pretty regimented procedure. You do soundcheck, you go back and then play the show. But a festival, you kind of land in and there’s music playing. There are people already in it. It’s kind of like the Golden Corral.
LL: Rarely do you get to go to a show after you play a show like when venue touring. But [at festivals] you get to go watch shows after you play, which is the best place to put your adrenaline high. It’s watching somebody else deal with their adrenaline high.
CG: I’ve never really thought about that and also hadn’t thought about you, Laura, getting to be sort of anonymous up in there. I did have a question about your personas, because earlier in the year I was able to attend the virtual streaming event for Backline about building mental health awareness and resources for folks in the music industry, specifically. I thought it was a really well done event because there were so many perspectives from the industry. Your testimony really touched me because it seemed very authentic. But also it was a lengthy description of what had happened over the years and had led to near burnout for you and feeling like you have to just keep it all together on stage when you are Laura Leezy. And what does that do to one’s person when they have to uphold a certain image? Can you tell me how even being able to talk about that more openly has changed the performance aspect in this dual persona thing for you?
LL: I feel more connected to my human, if that makes sense. I love the Backline.Care guys. I love what they’ve done over COVID for everyone. They held Zooms every single week for band and crew and management, and they went on the entire time if they’re not still going on. And I think it’s been really interesting over the past year, I feel like the pandemic has really allowed people to talk about it. I’ve seen it a lot. You know, in the athletic industry, obviously, Simone Biles just came out. But quite a few documentaries have come out recently showcasing how difficult it is for people in the limelight. And that’s not necessarily why people do what they do.
You know, we didn’t start a band to become celebrities. We started a band to make music. I think some people set out to become a celebrity, and that’s awesome. But that wasn’t our intention. And I think it’s interesting, like for me, as soon as you take the elephant in the room and you put it on the table and you just name the elephant, all of a sudden it’s not this weird thing in the room anymore. And so I felt like the opportunity to talk about the struggles on the road from a mental health perspective was really like that for me.
CG: Talking about it and having time away from it, right, maybe both/and? Like you said, feeling more “in your human”—it comes with risks, but it’s who we are before we are any job, right? I thought that was really humbling to hear you talk about and I wanted to thank you for that and also know if and when you’re feeling better about going back out.
LL: Oh, I am. I actually feel so anchored right now. I’ve had 18 months to build my nest and nest. And now it’s incredibly exciting for me to go out on the road knowing that I have this to come back to, not only physically but emotionally.
CG: You are two-thirds of Khruangbin, which is like a perfect triangle. You guys are the rhythm section, but it’s all three of you that make the sound up. So is there a song that you’ve worked out first for these new shows coming up that you’re especially excited to play?
DJ: I really like “Time (You and I).” It’s got energy and it was a bit of a challenge for us, you know, learning where all of those different—I mean, we say “that’s life” in multiple languages and getting those synced and lined up and to kind of scale back what we did production-wise in the studio to play it live was also a challenge. But it’s always exciting to watch that transition happen.
LL: Same. Saying it was a struggle to figure out how to play it live is an understatement. I mean, there were tears from this corner of the triangle.
CG: But I saw in Bass Magazine, Laura, I think you said “Let’s just do everything we can on the record for the record and then we’ll figure it out live later.”
LL: Oh, I ate all my words. But I ate them proudly because I did say that and I do believe that it’s true. And we did figure it out. It just took a while because there are so many parts in that song and we can’t accomplish what we did on the record. But you don’t really want to. Live should be what it is. And we just had to try a bunch of stuff before we figured it out. Thinking about playing that song, especially the end of it, makes me really excited.