The creation of Khruangbin and Leon Bridges’ Texas Moon EP was a four-year-long journey, starting when the then-strangers embarked on their 2018 cross-country tour. Their agents played matchmaker with the artists, and after living for months as troubadours, the two seemingly disparate acts were close friends, plotting to make an album together that would center on their shared Texas heritage.
With the Khruangbin trio – Laura Lee (bass), Mark Speer (guitar) and Donald “DJ” Johnson (drums) – hailing from Houston and Bridges from Fort Worth, the foursome found they gushed “over all the same types of music,” says Bridges. “I grew up really digging chopped-n-screwed music, and that’s from Houston. Eventually it made sense to us to get together and try something.”
First, the collaboration was meant to be a two-sided single; then an album; then one EP; and now, finally they have settled on two EPs. “We were really grappling with the industry’s wants and needs from it,” explains Lee. “I’m actually happy it all turned out this way in the end, it’s nice to have two sibling pieces.”
But the whole concept of a collaborative project was almost shelved altogether right before its release. “It took a very persuasive email from Laura Lee in the ninth hour to get it out,” explains Johnson. “I don’t think anyone saw the success of Texas Sun coming, especially not the label.”
A joint release on Dead Oceans and Columbia Records, 2020’s Texas Sun was their first EP, named for the record’s feel-good single of the same title. A warm, easygoing ode to the lone star state, the single became a summery respite during an otherwise dreary pandemic year, and peaked at No. 17 on Billboard’s Adult Alternative Airplay charts nationwide. “It was interesting that people very far from Texas loved it so much,” Lee notes. “I once heard the song playing in a restaurant in Bristol, England and the servers were singing all the words.”
Texas Moon, the troupe’s second collaborative EP due out on Friday (Feb. 18), acts as a sultrier, cooler yin to Texas Sun’s yang. Beginning with the Bridges-led track “Doris,” the tone shift is palpable immediately from Speer’s eerie opening riff: written from the perspective of Bridges’ father about his final moments with Bridges’ grandmother, the track is so dear to the singer that he can’t help but get choked up while talking about it, even years after its initial writing. “It just honors that memory,” he says, “and that’s what music’s supposed to be about, you know?”
The track was supposed to be on Texas Sun, but was cut because, as Speer puts it, “the label said it wasn’t strong enough.” Johnson adds, “it’s truly a sacred song for Leon and to his family as well. Thankfully, now it’s the first thing you hear when you drop the needle on Texas Moon. What was once ‘not strong enough’ is our first statement.”
Respecting the groove of their songs is one of the main reasons why Khruangbin is such a magnetic trio. It’s a simple, but often ignored, skill: if one player is taking the lead, soloing or showing off, other players should fall back and act as its support. The group adds bells and whistles only when they serve the song, not when they want to prove to you they are three of the best players on the road today. “I don’t like the idea of false epicn-ess in songs,” asserts Speer. Even with barely any vocals throughout their discography, the group’s instinctual style and control within their work has made Khruangbin a breakthrough success that defies any genre signifier.
“We do get lots of genre names put on us,” explains Lee, including psychedelic, funk, soul, and rock. “But I don’t think we’ve ever been called R&B, so to have Leon’s vocals, it gives us this nice, new layer. And it makes it even more Texas.”
Meanwhile, Bridges says his goal these days is to “find unprecedented territory within R&B and find elements that are unique to Texas and put them into my music.” For Bridges, instilling his home state pride into his work is crucial: “I want to redefine what Texas music is.”
To get even more granular, Bridges – who still lives in Fort Worth – also draws inspiration from the history of music of his hometown. “I feel like kind of a speck, a part of a dope lineage of musicians to come out of Fort Worth, including Townes Van Zandt,” a no-frills folk songwriter Bridges has listened to since he first picked up the guitar. “I can’t hold a candle to Townes, but his storytelling subconsciously works its way into my music.”
This sense of storytelling is most apparent in “Doris” and “Mariella,” the EP’s bookends, but the middle portion of the record is composed of a few looser cuts which are more akin to Khruangbin jams than Bridges’ storytelling. “B-Side” (a prequel to Texas Sun’s “C-Side”) has an ad-libbed quality which fits perfectly with its title. Overall, this gives Texas Moon a remarkable sense of balance between the two disparate musical acts, united by this desire to capture the spirit of their home state.
With Texas Moon, the foursome attempts to find a definition of Texas music and culture outside of the accepted canon, and succeeds at expanding its scope. To say lone star music is simply songs made for a honky tonk is a gross misunderstanding, after hearing the state through the eyes and ears of Texas Moon. In Khruangbin and Bridges’ Texas, the music sounds as elusive as the cowboy, as spiritual as a Sunday morning service, as diverse as the city of Houston, and as familiar as family blood.
When asked if there might ever be a third project in the future, Speer laughs and says, “If there’s any more, we have to come up with more Texas Blank titles.”
“It’s a big state,” Lee chimes in. “We’ll figure it out!”