Fans of the band Khruangbin often describe their music as one which crafts a vast world to delve into. Full of rich references to genres, languages, themes and often collaborations too, their devoted fanbase arguably enjoy their music because it feels part of something much larger – and you’re involved just by listening. For the band's most recent record release, Mordechai, Khruangbin also offer the same insane level of craft but in a visual sense, through a series of narrative-driven music videos, illustrated single covers and one bold record sleeve to tie it all together.
Driving this visual creative force is Laura Lee Ochoa, Khruangbin’s bass player and vocalist who, prior to joining the band, was pursuing a creative career. Spending a lot of her childhood drawing and painting, while in high school Laura mentored under Texan artist Michael Roque Collins, and initially went to architecture school. After switching major to history and art history, post graduation Laura spent four years working in different art museums and galleries, before moving to this side of the pond and taking a job at Wieden+Kennedy London. Now, she says, “Khruangbin is the one place where I can throw all of my skills into.”
As a result of this lead up to forming Khruangbin, Laura’s time in the curatorial world has led to the band’s music being visually translated into a range of disciplines, acting as “a reflection of our music,” Laura tells It’s Nice That. “It’s an opportunity to showcase the sentiments and moods poured into our music through a different medium – via colours and shapes and videos.” Constantly engaged in the visual world too, possible collaborators is something Laura always seems to have an eye on. “I’m always on the hunt through Instagram, sites like this one, and looking at illustrations in various newspapers for something that jumps out at me,” she explains. “Usually, I’m just trying to find designers and artists that don’t normally work with musicians. Not only does that make our artwork in its own universe, but these designers get super excited to make something they normally don’t get to do.”
For the release of Mordechai however, Laura particularly called upon old friends to collaborate with. “Since this album was a very family-oriented affair,” she tells us, “I chose my absolute nearest and dearest.” The first of which is Josh King, an old graduate of It’s Nice That’s, and Laura’s former colleague at Wieden+Kennedy. Directing the first release in the campaign, Time (You and I), the pair had previously collaborated on the brilliantly joyful video for Evan Finds the Third Room. “Josh and I used to have lunch together at a pub around the corner that had a £10 lunch that included a glass of wine and we would riff on silly ideas for music videos that didn’t exist yet,” Laura recalls. “Fast forward to today, where two of those ideas have come to life.” In this particular video the two protagonists meet and spend a day planting sandcastles in different parts of London – a weirdly specific and addictive watch. “No one has a brain like Josh’s, and his ideas are second to none in the weird and wonderful,” she adds. “I’m a huge fan.”
Next up is the release of So We Won’t Forget, a beautifully directed short in Japan, this time by Scott Dungage, Laura’s former boss (“I used to chase him around making sure he got to all of his meetings”). Always admiring Scott for “his craftsmanship and dedication to detail,” back when Laura was first leaving W+K to go on tour, the pair made Two Fish and an Elephant, for Khruangbin’s first record. “It was a huge labour of love, using Kickstarter to raise funds to make it, and So We Won’t Forget was an opportunity to go for a round two.” Developed from a brief from Laura, Scott wrote the video’s storyline which, while tonally different from Time (You and I), fits perfectly in the string of videos. Filmed against the backdrop of Tokyo’s cherry blossom season too, “if it was shot two days later it would have been stopped with Covid, and if it had been shot two days earlier, the cherry blossoms wouldn’t have been in bloom,” adds Laura. “It’s magic, and I can’t watch the video without crying.”
The final video release so far, and next in this line-up of videos is Pelota, a short written by Alvaro Sotomayor, a creative who “has been a huge part of Khruangbin’s life since the beginning.” Describing just speaking to the art director as like being “transported to a beautiful universe,” although introducing another medium of animation to the campaign: “It’s exactly what I thought it would be,” adds Laura.
Culminating each of these creative releases is of course the band’s record Mordechai, of which Laura worked with Secretly Group’s art director, Nate Utesch, on its sleeve. A collaboration between the pair, the bird which sits atop the record, was developed from original drawings of Laura’s “of what I saw in my head, and he [Nate] morphed it into the beautiful thing it is.” A much graphically bolder look from Khruangbin’s previous sleeves, it was the first time Laura had dipped her toe into the band’s visual output so directly, “and I wanted a challenge this time round,” she says.
Working at a record label as an art director is a dream job for many, and a privilege that is not lost on Secretly’s Nate. “It’s a wild thing to get to do this every day,” he tells It’s Nice That. It’s a challenging role however, working so closely with an artist on a project which is so inherently their’s, and learning to give up this power. “I’d love to be the hero on every record that comes across my face,” says Nate, while fully understanding that it’s his role “to absorb the language of the band and communicate it back to them in a way that makes them more proud of their record than they were before,” he explains. “Sometimes, that requires a lot more listening than acting.”
It’s this level of care and understanding that was clearly channelled into Mordechai’s release, with Laura describing the flow of creating its sleeve as “like water!” For Nate, this “layered complexity” which runs so deeply throughout Khruangbin’s output was the main visual detail to communicate, while keeping it “simple at first glance.”
The sixth release Nate has worked on with the band, but the first he collaborated so closely with Laura, it’s a move he describes as “such a natural evolution to level up so to speak in that way with them… My mind was focused on just simply following Laura’s lead and not losing sight of her story.” The album’s title and art direction, Nate explains, “is a direct reaction to a very literal story about her meeting Mordechai, the man and his sons”. Meeting the real life Mordechai while he led a hike Laura took following a long stint of touring, the meeting led to a “spiritual awakening and rebirth”. With this in mind, Nate followed his “‘communicate the band’s language back to them’ philosophy,” and presented some reworked ideas based on Laura’s original shape sketches, and the Mordechai cover was found.
Now released into the world, for Nate Mordechai’s visual release is one he hopes “all feels so overwhelmingly filled with joy,” he tells us. “Just a simple, hopeful, sense of joy. Yet under the surface proves so much more complex,” he concludes. Whereas finally, for Laura, she hopes viewers are simply able to take a further step into the band’s “universe of colour and emotion.”
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.