At first listen, his drumming sounds simple. But his tone, touch, timing, and focused parts make the indie-world trio Khruangbin’s trance-like music groove hard in a way a lesser drummer would easily muck up and mire.
Houston, Texas–based trio Khruangbin are like the slyest streaming service you’ve ever heard. Tagged as purveyors of a retro “Thai rock” sound, the trio—bassist Laura Lee, guitarist Mark Speer, and drummer Donald Ray “DJ” Johnson—amalgamate styles as diverse as East Asian surf-rock, Persian funk, Indonesian guitar pop, and Jamaican dub into nuggets of bite-sized bliss that go down easy, regardless of your age.
The thirty-six-year-old Johnson comes from the Texas church tradition, where he learned to not only serve the music on drums but play various other instruments. An alumnus of Texas All-State Jazz Ensembles and orchestral percussion studies with instructor Jim Whitfield, he brings his beautiful pulse to Khruangbin’s albums The Universe Smiles Upon You, Con Todo El Mundo, Hasta El Cielo, and their latest, sky-spanning, brain-dripping, mostly instrumental epic, Mordechai.
Johnson’s alter-ID producer project, Beanz N Kornbread, has released many albums including its Nawfside series, which pays trippy tribute to the Houston streets Johnson still calls home. Surreal and spacey, Beanz N Kornbread radiates from deep inside DJ Johnson’s groove-woozy brain.
MD: What is the chemistry that creates the unusual but familiar-sounding music of Khruangbin?
DJ: We all have different tastes in music, and when those three things come together, of all the things that we agree on, that’s the Khruangbin sound. When there’s three people in the band, it makes it easier because it’s always an uneven vote. But the best things happen when all three of us agree that a song is good.
MD: In the Khruangbin context, your drumming sounds like a mellower version of Bernard Purdie. You’re very relaxed, but the groove is consistently popping.
DJ: I was never a chops-oriented drummer. I focused on drum breaks or breakbeats. I would mimic those as closely as possible, down to the tone of the drum or the opening or tone of the hi-hat. What’s making it sound like this, or what makes it feel the way that it feels? I studied the nuances of a groove as opposed to its surface. To get it right, I learned how to mix myself on the kit, like you would behind a console. When you’re thinking about everything from that approach, it may look like you’re not there, but a ton of things are going through my head while I’m playing.
MD: Who influenced your drumming style in Khruangbin?
DJ: Clyde Stubblefield and Jabo Starks, Bernard Purdie, James Gadson, Ed Greene’s Barry White cuts, JR Robinson, Al Jackson. Ernie Isley—a big influence. Buddy Miles. Sade’s drummers, Dave Early and Martin Ditcham. Jeff Porcaro. Earl Palmer on David Axelrod’s recordings like the track “The Dr. and the Diamond” and the albums Song of Innocence, Songs of Experience, and Earth Rot. And the reggae drummers Carlton Barrett and Style Scott.
MD: Live, you appear to be “in the zone.”
DJ: That comes from playing in church. In church it’s not about you; you disappear and let God play through you, become a vessel. I’m serving the music. Am I being consistent in my tempo? Am I where I need to be? Am I too loud? Am I not loud enough? I’m concentrating on all those things.
MD: Your touch is superb.
DJ: Thanks, it’s super intentional. As a band, everything is very intentional, especially on the recordings. Our recording process is to record the foundational stuff together, at the same time. We write our parts individually, and when we come together, we play them for the first time. We split songwriting credits equally among the three of us.
MD: Even now, Khruangbin plays the source songs to some hip-hop classics live.
DJ: We play a few things, including Warren G’s “Regulate,” which is Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’,” with drumming by Jeff Porcaro. I had to learn to play the keyboard part in my left hand while playing Porcaro’s part at the same time. Basically, splitting my brain in two. We play Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” which was sampled by Deadmau5 and Soul Clap. “Summer Madness” by Kool & the Gang, which was sampled by DJ Jazzy Jeff, Gang Starr, and Ice Cube. Depending on what city we’re in, we’ll play a song by an artist appropriate to that city.
MD: Do you always play a snare drum rimshot, or do you sometimes play the head dead center without a rim shot?
DJ: All the options. I use a leather strip on the head, which drops the drum in pitch. So it allows me to play a piccolo snare everywhere I go. The leather doesn’t cover the entire head, just a portion of it, including the center.
MD: What’s the key to playing as relaxed as you do?
DJ: Sometimes it’s not how you’re playing, it’s how everyone else is playing relative to what you’re playing. If I were a metronome, it would sound like the metronome is slightly ahead of the people playing with it, or slightly behind. We never use a click on anything. The biggest thing about our band is we’re basically just a group of listeners. We all listen to each other.
MD: What do you credit for Khruangbin’s massive popularity?
DJ: Our music has influences from all around the world, and that influences what we listen to. Whatever you listen to is going to come out in your art. That’s what people are keying into. No matter where we go, people say, “That sounds like our music.” People are hearing all the influences.
Tools of the Trade
DJ Johnson plays a 3×13 Diamond Drum Co. maple snare drum, a 14×14 Gretsch floor tom, and a 14×20 Gretsch bass drum. His cymbals are 14″ CB Percussion MX series hi-hats and an 18″ Meinl Byzance Dark crash. He uses Promark DJ Johnson signature sticks and plays (left-handed) a Yamaha reface keyboard live with Khruangbin.
Story by Ken Micallef