Khruangbin and Bill Brewster Talk the Joy of Messing Around in the Studio

Guitarist Mark Speer and the DJ-slash-author dive deep on ska, post-punk, and their recording processes.

Mark Speer is the guitarist of the Houston-based psychedelic rock band Khruangbin; Bill Brewster is one-half of the DJ duo Mang Dynasty and the author of books like Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. Bill wrote the liner notes for Khruangbin’s forthcoming remix album, Mordechai Remixes — out Friday via Dead Oceans — and contributed a remix of their song “So We Won’t Forget,” so to celebrate the release, the two hopped on the phone to catch up.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Mark Speer: Hey, Bill, how’s it going? 

Bill Brewster: Not bad, mate, how are you? 

Mark: Oh, man, I’m pretty good. Back in the swing of things. We’re rehearsing for the first upcoming shows. 

Bill: When is your first live show?

Mark: Next week. We’re playing Newport Jazz Festival, which should be interesting. We did the folk one a couple years back, so we’re honored they’d have us back for the jazz category. It’s wild, I don’t know if we’re folk or jazz, or both or neither. 

Bill: I think the definitions of genres are quite elastic these days

Mark: I suppose so. But if I was gonna ask you, I would say you’re probably very well-educated and adept at sorting out and organizing into boxes that you can kind of digest.

I love your books, dude. I read them a lot. 

Bill: Thank you. 

Mark: I was just at my buddy’s house yesterday, and he’s got a copy of Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, and I was like, “Did you finish the whole book?” He was like, “Nah, not yet,” and I was like, “Dude, get back into it!”

Bill: [Laughs.] It’s amazing to hear that. I mean, we wrote that 20 years ago, and people still talk about it now, so it’s very well. How’s it feel going out on the road, having been cooped up for the last year or so? It must have been a strange year for you guys, because you’re so committed to touring.

Mark: Yeah, I mean, I was definitely looking forward to having a break, but this isn’t exactly the break that I thought I was going to get. But you take it as it comes, I supposed. But, yeah, it’s making me feel a little insane because, you know, you spend a year-and-a-half off the road and you fall into these patterns and different schedules for your day. I was used to getting up at certain hours, staying up to a certain time — you fall into the routine of touring, and I really like it, but I do enjoy sleeping in a bed and I like getting up early. 

Bill: Yeah, over the past six, eight months I’ve been getting up really early in the morning and kind of living a completely different schedule of life to what I normally do. I’ve just been enjoying being up around when the sun comes up and walking in the local cemetery with my dog, and how peaceful it is early in the morning when there’s no people around.

Mark: So where are you right now?

Bill: I live in a small town called Bedford, which is around 60 miles north of London. It’s a kind of a small commuter town, a lot of people here just commute into London everyday.

When are you guys coming over to the UK to play again? 

Mark: Oh, I don’t know. As soon as possible. I’m champing at the bit, I really miss being over there. I really want to get back to Bristol. We always have a little cover, sample section in our set, and over quarantine I was just starting to learn some of these some of these cuts — it’s funny how, when I was a kid listening to music in my mid-teens, so much Bristol music was in my ears without me even realizing it, like Portishead and Massive Attack, Squarepusher. That realm is where I was musically. When we get back there, I want to put some of that stuff into the medley section. I can’t wait to get out there. 

Bill: Yeah. I started DJing again a week-and-a-half ago, after having not played for 16 months. It’s kind of nice to be back in the saddle, playing in front of people. 

Mark: For me, I’m like, Can I still play guitar? Is it the same kind of thing, like, “Do I still know to do this?”

Bill: I did a lot of live streams in my living room during the lockdown. So I kind of did keep my hand in it, but obviously it’s not the same thing at all because you don’t have a crowd. But it’s strange, [DJing live again] just felt nice and normal. It’s just so nice being in front of people who were really appreciating the music — all of those things you take for granted because you’ve been doing it week after week for decades.

Where are you right now, in New York? 

Mark: Right now I’m in New York because we’re rehearsing, and we thought it’d be a good idea if we were not only in the same place, but a place separated from our home life. But I’ve been living in Oakland for the past year and a half. There’s lots of places to go hike and be in nature and enjoy the outdoors, which I think has probably saved my sanity a little. I tend to be an indoor person, just blinders on and focused and obsessed about playing something or programming. It’s a very indoor situation, being a musician and being a studio guy. You’re relegated to sitting in a  chair twiddling knobs. I don’t know if I really like that physically, but the brain workout is great. But it’s just too sedentary. 

Bill: Yeah, there’s such an obsessive element about getting a sound right, or creating a song or whatever, when it comes to production. You can sit in the house for 14 hours without realizing it sometimes. You get somehow hypnotized. 

Mark: Yeah, absolutely. What is your production process like? You made this amazing remix for us, which we are so thankful and honored to have you on. When it came back we were like, “This is really frickin’ good!” Do you do a lot of playing or sequencing or sampling? I only know of you from the context of being a DJ expert, not necessarily as a musician. 

Bill: Well, I mean, my background is, I was originally in a post-punk group in the early ‘80s, I was the singer and percussionist. So I was originally playing in bands. Then I switched to DJing, because it just suited me more. As much as I liked being in a band — one of the bands I was in was an eight-piece with a brass section, and a band with that amount of people and that amount of ego is quite wearing you almost need to be a social worker to keep a band that big.

Mark: [Laughs.] Absolutely.

Bill: What I loved about DJing was, you’re basically a benign dictator. You’re the person controlling the show and controlling the dancefloor, but it’s very much a symbiotic relationship between you and the dancefloor. I don’t want to have to negotiate with the bass player about what we should be doing next. That’s what’s really great about DJing, it’s a conversation between you and the dancefloor.

My first experiences in the studio were in proper old school studios, with quarter-inch tape and trying to do dubs by using the board, and mixing that way. So going from that to a studio where we were just making electronic music, it was a bit of a revelation, really. Everything was so much simpler. [Laughs.] 

The great thing about electronic music — and it’s also because of electronic music — is it’s very easy to mix sounds. It’s also really easy to make terrible sounds, there are lots of really terrible electronic records that come out. But, yeah, we don’t tend to sample that much when we’re doing a remix. We do try and use as many of the parts as we can to as much effect as we can. 

For [“So We Won’t Forget”], it was kind of a sub-bass sound — you can only hear it slightly in the original version, but in our version, we brought it up in the mix a little bit. 

Mark: And added the little snare track.

Bill: Right, that’s it. And then obviously the guitar part’s amazing and the vocals are amazing, so we just tried to incorporate those as much as possible and make it a little more obviously dancefloor friendly. 

Mark: It certainly does that. When I first heard it, I was like, Oh, this is so killer. I like that you kind of replaced the bass with a MIDI-sounding bass.

Bill: We tried to use the original bass, but it just wasn’t working in the framework that’d we’d created.

Mark: I liked it though, because what you ended up doing kind of reharm-ed it, just a little bit, and it pushed it into — what’s the Madonna song, “Like A Prayer”? It reminded me of that, and I was like, This is awesome, I love that song and I love this song. [Laughs.] If I was a DJ, I’d try to mix them together.

Bill: I didn’t think of that, but I see what you mean, actually. 

Mark: I love that kind of stuff. I love when you’re in the mix and trying stuff, and maybe you make a mistake and are like, Actually that’s really great, let’s do that. Using the “real stuff” — the boards and the outboard gear — lets you do that because you can make mistakes really easily. It’s kind of harder to do that inside of a DAW, unless you set it up in a way where those mistake can happen. 

Bill: Yeah, I agree. A lot of the more interesting sounds I remember finding is when we’d been plugging in a bit of outboard gear, and just hitting random notes. Suddenly, you hit the perfect note and the perfect sound without even trying, and you’re like, Woah, hold on a minute! That’s the joy of messing around in the studio, I suppose. 

Mark: You say you came up playing in post-punk band which, I mean, what a cool era — coming out of the disco thing, but mixing it with this edgier sort of punk element, but funky. I just started getting into it. I’m just wondering if you’d ended up doing sampling yet, when you were in your post-punk phase?

Bill: No, we didn’t. We were hugely influenced by other post-punk bands at the time, especially A Certain Ratio, Gang of Four, 23 Skidoo. Also Bill Laswell’s group Material was another band we were really into as well. Sampling didn’t really exist then — I’m talking about end of ‘81, is when we started the group. So we were very much rehearsing in my living room with a very basic set-up. We were just writing songs on piano and guitar at the time, and then building out from there. We had a really great brass section, so they’d score the band once we’d come up with a groove or an idea. It was much more of a traditional songwriting process, I suppose. What I like about the more digital way of writing is, ideas can come just from drums sometimes — you get a sort of melodic idea just from the way you’ve arranged the drums. We never really worked like that, we were much more nailing some sort of melody or lyrical idea first and then building out from there. 

How do you guys approach things? Do you just jam until you come up with an idea? 

Mark: It’s funny, we don’t really do any jamming until there’s already sort of an idea put in. We’ll tend to start with drums and bass — we have a big bank of drum breaks, as you do, during production. Laura Lee will pull up a drum break she likes and she’ll start playing bass on it on her own time, at home in her own zone. Then she’ll send it to me and I’ll start cutting things up making a really barebones arrangement. I might play guitar on it and send it to DJ [drummer/keyboardist Donald Johnson], he might do some stuff on it, and we’ll move things around. We reach a point where there’s an arrangement, then we come to the studio and play that arrangement. We might jam on that arrangement, but it’s not usually like, “OK guys, let’s get in the room and just jam!” It’s like, here’s the song, here’s the arrangement, here’s the melody. It’ll find itself if you just keep playing 

Bill: So when you’re doing the final version of it, you guys are playing together to create that.

Mark: Yes. We always play together. The demoing, it can be as cut up as you want. We’ll flip things backwards, we’ll change the keys — we’ll sample ourselves, basically. The past couple years, DJ started making a bank of drum breaks of him playing, so we have them around. We’ll just flip things out and be like, “OK, I’m gonna take all these pieces, throw ‘em on the floor and put ‘em on the board and see what order they go in.” There’s a good amount of that kind of Brian Eno-esque, “Let’s reconceptualize this in a way so that we can use these different methods to get creative.” 

Bill: That’s interesting. It’s almost like you’re using tracing paper to create a framework idea, and then kind of putting the proper colors in when you’re all in the studio. 

Mark: Yeah, kind of! Sometimes we’re, like, tracing ourselves. “August 10” is basically “August Twelve,” but we just play it backwards. I love doing that. I love going in and kind of referencing, sampling ourselves, but being really irreverent with it. You know, if I was trying to use a sample, I don’t want use exactly what was on the record, I want to flip it so I don’t get sued. [Laughs.] So I just try to do that with us, and what comes out the other end usually sounds like something we would play, but warped and distorted. But it’s still something we’d be able to perform live with traditional three-piece instruments. 

Bill: Would you ever consider augmenting your lineup to include other musicians?

Mark: I mean, I like being able to do what we do with three people. If that means we have to work really hard to do it, then that’s one thing. I definitely like playing music that’s simple and doesn’t require a whole lot of extra stuff. When we first started doing this band, I specifically did not want to use looping pedals or a bunch of extra crap — you know, no laptop on stage, no backing tracks, none of that stuff. So that kind of philosophy comes to mind. But also, we are a lean and mean group. As soon as you start touring with another person, you’ve gotta pay that person — everyone has to get paid! And it’s another personality. 

I would love to have a percussionist play with us all the time. Will Van Horn is a musician who’s been pretty much on every release we’ve done — he’s amazing, and I’d to have him on the road all the time too. But when it comes down to it, we need to be able to do it with three people; just us, this is it. Because it’s actually precious. I like to be like, Yo, we’re doing all this with three people. That’s it

Bill: Also, the other thing is — it’s one thing I really love about the band — it’s got a super distinctive sound. A lot of that is because of the fact that it is a trio. 

Mark: I’m with that. As much as I’d love to have extra people, would that augment or hinder production of the sound that we’re known for, or that we don’t want to stray too far away from? 

Bill: When you first started the band, did you specifically form the band to pursue that particular direction, or was that just kind of one of the influences? 

Mark: That was one of many influences. Of course, we named the band a Thai word — we just liked that word, and we love Thai pop and all these different styles. I was kind of blown away by this surf guitar vibe — do you know about Shadow music? 

Bill: Yeah.

Mark: Getting into the whole history behind that opened up the possibilities of like, Gee, this is just Thailand’s interpretation of The Shadows, one of the first bands out of the UK to tour the world. These psych rock scenes started popping up all over the world, and the original influence was things like that. It’s really wild, I love that stuff. You could say some of the most influential musicians worldwide are James Brown and The Shadows. I would put Bob Marley right after them. 

We definitely didn’t set out to make this a global band as far as touring a lot. We just wanted to play music. We were just trying to pull together all the influences that we grew up with living in Houston, a super international city. It’s funny that a lot of music journalists latched onto the Thai funk thing and started calling us a Thai funk band, which I don’t know if I agree with. 

Bill: Is there such a thing as a defining musical characteristic of Texas? 

Mark: People tend to categorize Texas music as country. There’s definitely that, but I think think our Texas influence is definitely that we’re from an international city, and all these different musics are there. To just keep playing country music — cool, I love country music, but that doesn’t really reflect the people that live there so much. It reflects maybe a couple groups, but there are a lot of different people living in Houston and Texas. I feel like what we do is very Texan. I wanna share that with the world — it’s not just jazz and country and gospel and zydeco… There’s a Nigerian community, an Indian community, there’s a massive Vietnamese community, and all these different groups bringing their food, their culture, their art, their ways of life to Houston. 

Bill: It’s kind of like the Afro-Caribbean influences in Bristol, how it’s produced a specifically different sound to anywhere else. One of the things that struck me about post-punk at the time, because I was in my late teens when it first started happening, was that you could really hear in all of it was the huge influence reggae had on the white kids in the UK. We’d grown up among Black communities in Manchester, Bristol, Leeds, and Sheffield and Birmingham and London, that were all of these very vibrant Black communities that had their own reggae bands and reggae sound systems. It started filtering through in the late-’70s in a lot of the music that was coming out of the UK, and I think it’s probably the defining characteristic of post-punk, the influence of the West Indies on white British music. You can hear it quite clearly. 

Mark: They had a huge influence on us Stateside, too. I was in ska bands when I was a kid, and the stuff we listened to was The Specials, Madness, and all these UK Two-tone bands. They weren’t just one cultural thing, it was a mixture of all these different things together, and that’s what kind of made it awesome. Growing up, when they said “skinhead,” obviously they meant a nationalist, far-right racist asshole, but then, where it comes from — to discover that a skinhead is literally a worker from the West Indies who shaves his head and wears very utilitarian clothing because he’s working in a factory next to his white British counterpart — like, yeah man, that’s what it is! Far fucking out! Shit like skinhead music — like, bro, that’s not white music.

Bill: No, absolutely not. And all of the early skinheads in the UK, before it became associated with right-wing politics, were mainly the ones that were mixing very closely with young Afro-Caribbean kids, and were hugely inspired by ska music and soul, and all kinds of different things. Was Two-tone a big thing in the US? Did those bands cross over, or was it more of a cult thing?

Mark: I’d say it was more of a cult thing. By the time I was into it was the mid-’90s anyway, so it was a good number of years after its heyday. But if you’re playing in a band in high school and you had a bunch of friends who were in band, who played brass and played things like that, you probably played in a ska band. It was very underground, it was very high energy — no one was playing traditional ska music, it was obviously a fusion of a lot of different things. But because Two-tone was Two-tone, that was OK. Two-tone mixes a lot of different things and puts them all together, and the American way of doing that is becoming even more diffused. By the mid-’90s it was like, Is this really ska music, or is it a fusion of all these different things that happens to have horns or upbeat guitar? But that’s kind of the only rule that applied, and I thought that was really cool. What a wild thing. 

Bill: I loved how groups like The Specials were producing a slightly more angry version of ska. It definitely had a punk element to it. I saw them at their very first gig in the UK, in London when they supported Gang of Four. They brought two coachloads down from Coventry, and it was just like being hit with a brick. They were just so amazing straight away. 

Mark: I’ve seen some footage of The Specials in their prime, and it’s fucking mind blowing how high energy they are, and so tight and so amazing. You just can imagine being there. It reminds me of how it was in the ‘90s when we were doing this kind of stuff — it was high energy and it was fast, the dancers wanted to dance quickly. And then with traditional [ska], in the States all the dancers were like, “How are we supposed to dance to this? This is so slow compared to what we’ve been doing.” [Laughs.]

Bill: The other thing I loved about them as well was how confrontational they were. There were quite a lot of National Front activists who’d turn up at these Two-tone gigs in the UK in the early years, and I remember the two main singers, Terry [Hall] and Neville Staple diving into the crowd to confront them in the middle of their set. They just took no prisoners. And I loved the fact that they were a multi-racial band, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with each other, especially in the period we had in the UK where there was a big riot in support for the National Front at that time.

Mark: Yeah, man. I think that’s another thing that appealed to us in Houston about the band, the music was multi-racial. That spoke to us. It’s really hard to be just one thing. Like, not in this world! [Laughs.] 

(Photo Credit: left, Tasmin Isaacs; right, Bella Fenning)


Mark Speer is the guitarist and a founding member of the Houston, TX-based trio Khruangbin. Their latest album, Mordechai Remixes, is out August 2021 via Dead Oceans/Night Time Stories Ltd.

(Photo Credit: Tasmin Isaacs)