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KHRUANGBIN AUSTRALIAN TOUR INTERVIEW: DONALD RAY ‘DJ’ JOHNSON JR

There’s something very special about trios in contemporary rock and pop music. The sum of the parts always seems much greater than what you’d expect from three individual musicians. It’s about the space in between the notes and the freedom to stretch out, improvise and experiment in that zone that a fourth member would normally occupy. Cream and Jimi Hendrix Experience showed us the way. The Police, ZZ Top, Rush, Motorhead and Nirvana followed. Australia too has had it’s fair share of talented trios including Something for Kate, Silverchair, The Living End, Wolfmother and Spiderbait. It takes a certain skill level and a willingness to listen and to react for a trio to rise above the rest.

For the last 8 years, Texas based trio Khruangbin have been the obvious torch bearers of the “power trio” format, carrying on that spirit of musical adventure but far from imitating anyone, they’ve paved a path of their own. Mark Speer (guitars), Laura Lee (bass), and Donald ‘DJ’ Johnson (drums) play a curious blend of soul, funk, dub, rock and psychedelia, infusing Motown, Stax and jazz rhythms with South East Asian music. It’s music to soothe the mind as much as it’s inclined to move your feet. Australian audiences have fallen in love with Khruangbin over several successful tours here. They were due to tour again back in 2020 before the pandemic hit. Finally after two years of border closure, the Texan Three are coming back to Australia and New Zealand in November/December this year, their Melbourne headline show also part of VIC Govt’s ALWAYS LIVE program.

Ahead of the tour Australian Musician editor Greg Phillips (in Melbourne) spoke with Khruangbin drummer Donald ‘DJ’ Johnson (in Paris) about the band’s career, his gear and the upcoming Australian trip.

GP: Hi DJ, I believe you are now in Paris?
DJ: Just got here late yesterday. We played here exactly 847 days ago. Paris was the last show before the big shutdown. We played here September of 2019, so it was very special to come back to where we left off.

Yes, it’s great that you are finally out and about playing and coming to Australia later this year. How did you cope during the pandemic? Were you able to keep your chin up?
I wouldn’t say I coped. We did as best we could, kept the hopes high. Just like everyone else back in March, April 2020, things looked pretty bleak.

Were there moments where you thought that maybe you wouldn’t play again?
I think everyone had that thought. I mean previously, we all had the freedom to roam the world and do whatever we wanted and then the whole world had to collectively have a seat. Everyone shut all their borders. You can’t go there, you can’t come here and we didn’t see a real end in sight for a while but definitely grateful to break out the passports and travel through airports, get on airplanes … things that we took for granted before. The simplest things are now like, wow… an airplane, a really exciting thing.

The good news for us is that you are coming back to Australia in November. You are playing the Sydney Opera House for the first time (3 shows there at time of interview). How are you feeling about playing that venue?
It’s a dream come true. It’s one of those iconic venues. Being from the States, when you type Australia into Google, it’s one of the images that comes up. To be afforded the opportunity to step into that venue and play music, it’s really humbling and a dream come true. We’re really looking forward to doing that and in the same way I mentioned about Paris being the last show before the shutdown, we were also set to go to Australia in April 2020. That was the first thing cancelled, so it’s going to be really special making the full circle back.

You will be touring Australia on some date with Kamasi Washington. Have you guys worked with Kamasi before? Do you go back a way with him?
No we haven’t worked with Kamasi at all but we are acquaintances of Kamasi. We have bumped into each other at festival backstages quite a few times and said hello but we haven’t had the chance to work together but we’d love to. We’re very happy to be sharing the stage with him down in Australia.

Speaking of other artists, how did the collaboration with Leon Bridges come about for the Texas Moon and Texas Sun EPs?
We went on tour with Leon back in 2018, while supporting his second album at the time… The Good Thing tour. Touring with Leon was a dream. Him and his entire crew all became family, really great friends very quickly. Somewhere along the way we sent Leon an instrumental that we’d worked on. The next day he sent it back with some lyrics on it and that was essentially the birth of those two EPs. We went into the studio with the initial plan of recording that one song but we said, well we need a b-side. We recorded a b-side and from there it just kept going along and we ended up with two beautiful releases out of the original thought. The funny thing being that the original song we sent that started the whole thing, did not make those two releases but it was the jumping off point that we needed that got the ball rolling, so we thank him for that.

Where are you at with the next recording, do you have some material written?
We haven’t started. I don’t think we have really had time to focus on writing. In the last few months we have been gearing up to go back on the road and play shows. As you know, playing shows and being in the studio and writing and recording are two different mind sets and head spaces you have to be in. We learned that early on ‘cos there are times in the past where we tried to fit both in at the same time and we learned from that we need to give ourselves more space and time to let things happen. I believe that is going to happen at some point next year.

I wanted to chat a bit about your drumming. I can hear Motown and Stax influences in your playing. How would you describe your style of drumming?
That’s a really good question. My style of drumming I would say is simple. I try to be … my whole philosophy life wise is … in geometry the first thing you learn is the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. That is my approach to drumming in a sense. What is the shortest distance and most efficient pattern to play … what fits? What is the most economic thing you can play without getting tired and wearing yourself out? You have to play it for a long time so I would say my focus starts there and I build everything I am doing from that approach.

The relationship between a drummer and bass player in a band is always special, especially if they’ve been playing together for a long time like you and Laura. How intuitive does the playing get between you on stage.
Really now it is just second nature. It helps if you are really good friends, which we are on stage and off stage. Laura is my sister, love her to death and there’s a synergy that happens like you said between bass and drums and if the bass and drums aren’t on the same page, you can throw the entire thing in the bin. Yeah, there’s a synergy that happens on stage. She tends to know where I am going without communicating and I know where she is going without communicating. At this point we have played so many shows together and you put in so many hours practising together and you kind of start to share a mind, a musical mind in that sense.

I wanted to ask you about your current kit. What is it and how long did it take to get to a set up you were satisfied with?
It was a Gretsch Catalina but recently, the summer of last year I had new shells made in the same dimensions in Nashville. So the dimensions stayed the same, 18” kick drum, 13’ piccolo, which is custom made by Diamond Drum Company and a 14” floor tom. That’s pretty much the kit. Depending on what I am going for with hi hats on the road, lately I have been using some 15” Meinl hi hats because I just like the shimmer that they give me. They are brighter than what I was using in the past and I’m using an 18” Meinl crash cymbal that is also brighter than what I’d been using. A lot of what I am selecting comes from economy as well, from that aspect because I found myself having to dig in a lot more than I felt I needed to, to get what I was getting out of it and I needed to use a different tool. When you get the right tool for the job, the job becomes a little bit easier and you don’t have to work as hard to get what you need out of it to get the end result.

You’re the king of the rimshot, you get a fabulous snare sound. How much experimentation of miking your snare had you done before you were happy with the sound?
Before any mic experimentation happens, there’s a lot of practice that goes into the actual playing of it. I know at a certain point many, many years ago, I spent a lot of time just working on how to get consistent sounds out of a drum. A lot of that was spent just playing one note over and over til each note begins to sound the same and a lot of that goes into it. It’s based on where you are hitting the drum, the sensitivity of where you are hitting the drum and if you can do that consistently, then the sound is consistent and that lends itself to whatever mic you put next to it to get the sound you want. You’re going to be getting a good sound. I don’t think a lot of people realise that. If you are paying attention to the detail of striking something in the same spot, at the same velocity each time, it is going to sound consistent. Once you find that sweet spot, you just replicate it over and over … that’s the sound.

Because you guys lock into such a tight groove throughout a gig, is the choice of the first track you play at a show important? Are there certain tracks you’d never open with for instance?
The first song that we play at a live show is the most important. We change it from time to time based on where we are and how we’re feeling or what room we are going in, just the overall mood that we want to set for the evening. Yeah, it’s all important. Every single choice you make leads up to the final big picture that you present. It is very important because at a show people are going to remember the first song you are going to play and the last song, how you start, how you finish. That’s not saying that stuff that happens in between isn’t important but those are usually the things that you remember. Eventually that’s what’s on your obituary … date of birth and the dismount, so it’s really important.

Whats the grand plan for Khruangbin?
The grand plan is to make art. We want to make art and continue to be true to who we are as individuals and as a collective and to bring the world together through this beautiful gift of music and to highlight our similarities more than our differences. That’s the goal.

https://www.khruangbin.com/

KHRUANGBIN ‘First Class’ Australia/NZ tour
With special guests Kamasi Washington (Melbourne/Auckland only) and Mildlife (Fremantle/Brisbane/Melbourne)
Tickets via – https://www.frontiertouring.com/khruangbin