Khruangbin has always been multilingual, weaving far-flung musical languages like East Asian surf-rock, Persian funk, and Jamaican dub into mellifluous harmony. But on its third album, it’s finally speaking out loud. Mordechai features vocals prominently on nearly every song, a first for the mostly instrumental band. It’s a shift that rewards the risk, reorienting Khruangbin’s transportive sound toward a new sense of emotional directness, without losing the spirit of nomadic wandering that’s always defined it. And it all started with them coming home.
By the summer of 2019, the Houston group—bassist Laura Lee, guitarist Mark Speer, drummer DJ Johnson—had been on tour for nearly three-and-a-half years, playing to audiences across North and South America, Europe, and southeast Asia behind its acclaimed albums The Universe Smiles Upon You and Con Todo El Mundo. They returned to their farmhouse studio in Burton, Texas, ready to begin work on their third album. But they were also determined to slow down, to take their time and luxuriate in building something together.
It’s a lesson Lee had recently learned with the help of a new friend, a near-stranger who had reached out when she was feeling particularly unmoored, inviting her to come hiking with his family. That day, as they’d all made their way toward the distant promise of a waterfall, Lee had felt a dawning clarity about the importance of appreciating the journey, rather than rushing headlong toward the next destination—something she’d almost lost sight of during the band’s whirlwind rise. When they reached the waterfall at last, Lee’s friend urged her to jump, a leap she likens to a baptism. As she did, he screamed her name—her full name, the one she’d recently taken from her grandfather. In that instant, Laura Lee Ochoa was reborn. She emerged feeling liberated, grateful for what her friend had shown her. His name was Mordechai.
Ochoa’s rejuvenation found its expression in words—hundreds of pages’ worth, which she’d filled over a self-imposed day of silence. As Khruangbin began putting together the songs that would make up the next record, discovering in them spaces it seemed like only vocals could fill, they turned to those notebooks. Khruangbin had worked with lyrics before: the love-letter poetry of “Friday Morning,” the ghosts of conversations gone by in “Cómo Te Quiero.” But this time Ochoa had found she had something to say—and so did the songs. They needed each other. And letting those words ring out gave Khruangbin’s cavernous music a new thematic depth.
Chief among those themes is memory—holding onto it, letting it go, naming it before it disappears. Again and again the songs play on those notions, from the sun-dappled disco of lead single “Time (You And I)”—which evinces the feeling of a festival winding down to its final blowout hours—to the lilting “So We Won’t Forget,” which finds Ochoa filling her apartment with memories she’s scrawled on Post-Its to prevent them slipping away. It’s there, too, in “Dearest Alfred,” which was inspired by a trove of letters Ochoa’s grandfather wrote to his twin brother, as well as “If There Is No Question,” a metaphysical devotional (by way of Marvin Gaye) that harkens back to Johnson and Speer’s earliest days in a church band. And those same nostalgic wisps curl all around “Connaissais De Face,” a Middle Eastern vamp by way of Serge Gainsbourg that evokes all the ruminative romance of a French New Wave film, layered with its own tender dialogue of reminiscence.
Musically, the band’s ever-restless ear saw it pulling reference points from Pakistan, Korea, and West Africa, incorporating strains of Indian chanting boxes and Congolese syncopated guitar. But more than anything, the album became a celebration of Houston, the eclectic city that had nurtured them, and a cultural nexus where you can check out country and zydeco, trap rap, or avant-garde opera on any given night. The Roy Ayers funk of opener “First Class” created a lush bed for the band to stretch out on, singing wryly about popping champagne while jet-setting all over the world. But in the end, those brags are revealed to be a shoutout to the home that made all this possible, a love that’s evident in its hands-in-the-air refrain of “H-Town.”
In those years away from that home, Khruangbin’s members often felt like they were swimming underwater, unsure of where they were going, or why they were going there. But Mordechai leads them gently back to the surface, allowing them to take a breath, look around, and find itself again. It is a snapshot taken along a larger journey—a moment all the more beautiful for its impermanence. And it’s a memory to revisit again and again, speaking to us now more clearly than ever
It’s 2021, time for the Return of Pachyman, Puerto Rico’s emerging master of rub-a-dub style. The Caribbean island’s paradisiacal lure as a mecca of Afro-Caribbean music is usually expressed through upbeat genres like salsa and reggaetón. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a place for skanking guitars and echoing fat beats, conjuring up massive walls of sound.
As a young, university-trained musician looking to find his way in this tropical space, Pachy García (a/k/a Pachyman) became obsessed with old Jamaican dub records like the ones from King Tubby and Scientist and is determined to re-create the vibe in his own way. “The recordings of the early roots stuff really got to me, the raw-ness of the sound and how the distortion and the drive that come out of these recordings come out sounding like the root of the sound,” said García. “They were kind of like the old Delta blues recordings, like super-raw, people and their instruments rehearse this song and it sounds so perfect.”
Garcia, perhaps best known as the drummer/vocalist for the L.A.-based band Prettiest Eyes, a unique pop-noise project that reflects his other formative interest, synth punk. He thinks of his new recording, called The Return of Pachyman, the way King Tubby would, an “x-ray” of reggae music, breaking it down to its bare bones. Originally a guitarist, he moved to Los Angeles in the early 2010s and developed his passion for dub. From there, he started recording bass, drums, and piano and collecting recording equipment in his basement studio, which he calls 333 House.
As a teenager, García was drawn to guitar as a fan of bands like Nirvana, hardcore Dischord label bands, and Puerto Rican hardcore pioneers Tropiezo and Juventud Crasa. Yet he was also busily imbibing electronic dance music, drum and bass, and, at Universidad Interamericana, jazz, fusion, and Wes Montgomery. “At the same time, I was discovering the Wailers, The Easy All Stars from New York—when they did that Dub Side of the Moon Thing [dub versions of Pink Floyd classics] it was a big thing for me,” said García.
In the early 2000s, Cultura Profética was the dominant force in Puerto Rican reggae, and García was drawn like a moth to the flame. “When their third record came, it was a live one, and it was all over the radio,” said García. He credits Cultura’s song “Tempestad Tranquila,” with its unconventional Moog riff high in the mix, as the one that got him into reggae. From there it was off to a weekly scene called El Patio, in the mountain town of Aguas Buenas, where he cut his teeth listening to and playing with a number of pick up bands.
After moving to LA, García found a niche group called Dub Club and started crate-diving classic records, old microphones and reel to reel tape machines in his quest to achieve an old school reggae sound. “I started recording myself and trying to emulate those old school recordings, filming my recording process and that’s where all the videos stemmed out of,” said García. Both In Dub, released in 2019, and The Return of Pachyman are entirely self-produced albums featuring García on vocals, guitar, drum, bass, and keyboards, with a couple of guest appearances by old friends like Benson Pagán, who currently plays with reggaetón crooner Ozuna’s live band.
The Return of Pachyman is a supernatural force from a brave new world that’s a little bit San Juan, a little L.A., and a whole lot of Channel One in Kingston, Jamaica. Designed to be a resurrection of sound systems from the past through which we can celebrate a post-Trump future, the record shows that blasting off into reggae’s deep space has never gone out of style. It’s a high-flying journey into a different kind of dub vibe, as García tells it, by composing songs “in major keys, which is not as common with reggae nowadays.”
You can hear this right away on the first track, “Big Energy,” which García describes as coming from “Roots Radics, the band that inspired me to start the Pachyman project. The sound I was going for was the way they made those reverbs flow like in space.” All the hallmarks are here—the skittering guitar skanks melting into echoing astral messages, the bass pumping a subversive melody, a distant keyboard flourish. Ground control has never seemed so far away.
Like breaking news streamed from a rogue satellite, “Destroy the Empire” is a mad echo-chamber of primitive video-game revenge on a certain ex-president. “It came from King Tubby, Prince Jammy Destroys the Space Invaders or Scientist Meets the Space Invaders and destroys them,” said García. Pachyman’s planet is a world between worlds, where exiled multi-instrument basement studio composers stand and deliver.
“I’m a Puerto Rican living in an empire that has done horrible things to its citizens,” said García, who spent a big chunk of the Trump era working on this album. “Being on an island that revolves around music that’s danceable and for people to feel good stems from the fact that slaves were brought here 400 years ago from Africa and they introduced percussion and dances; it’s a cultural thing. But I also wanted Pachyman to be overtly political. I’m in LA as an immigrant, even though I’m a citizen, which is a weird situation.”
With “El Benson,” featuring Benson Pagán, and “Sunset Sound,” García is trying to capture melodic strands of lover’s rock, with its roots in jazz, r&b, and post-disco, in a way that points to future Pachyman projects. “I’ve always had a huge interest in capturing the whole lover’s rock vibe because the chord structure is completely different from early roots reggae,” said García. Speckled with jazzy chords and brightly layered synth and organ riffs, “El Benson” is the ultimate early-summer anthem, a tone-poem for when the sun finally breaks through the clouds.
“Sunset Sound” features more of the same airy take on speculative emotion, following a straight line from electric organ to Moog-ish mashup, harking back to the Vapor Wave fad of the early 2010s. “I bought a synthesizer and I started doing a bunch of chords, trying to do songs that were really lo-fi and had chord structures that again come from 80s easy listening jazz,” said García. “They had really dope chord structures despite the fact that they’re so easy listening! There’s not enough of the sexy/jazzy shit that happened in the 70s and I was like I want to try to tap into that and create my own.”
With The Return of Pachyman, García wants to show how the Caribbean flow is transnational, a vibe that resounds from Jamaica to San Juan to Southern California. “With this project, I was looking to make positive music and radiate good energy; something to kinda disconnect from the negative things that were happening at the moment,” Garcia explains. “I am trying to make this project a service for humanity in the sense that I just wanted to shine a positive light.”