Kai Hugo explains how one bored summer watching The X-Files and laying down lo-fi, psychedelic house tracks formed his new album, 'Palmbomen II'.
A couple of summers back, Kai Hugo found himself stuck in a two-month limbo. Having previously been living in Berlin, he was now plotting a move to Los Angeles, and had returned to his mother's house in Holland while he waited for his visa to come through. Bored and, for the most part, alone, Hugo decided to move his arsenal of synthesizers and drum machines up to the attic, creating a makeshift studio in this confined space. He spent the remainder of his layover period up here doing two things: laying down lo-fi, psychedelic house tracks, and binge-watching The X-Files.
These two worlds collide on Hugo's new album as Palmbomen II. Every track on the album is named after a minor character from The X-Files, non-entities with names like 'Samuel Aboah', 'Gerd Thomas', or 'Vic Trevino' who would show up in a monster-of-the-week episode for a couple of scenes before meeting their grisly end at the hands of some supernatural force or cosmic fungus.
"Like everyone, I was crazy about Twin Peaks," Hugo explains over Skype, "I was always wondering what the relationship was between Twin Peaks and The X-Files. David Duchovny is also in Twin Peaks, and he also plays an FBI agent – but in Twin Peaks, he plays a female FBI agent. It was about the same time that they both started, so a lot of actors are the same. I made a note of the names [of the minor characters] and started using them as names for songs – and then, slowly, I started using more of them as names for songs."
In its earliest seasons, The X-Files was shot in Vancouver – it was cheaper to film there, and a raft of '90s TV shows use the city as a stand-in for other, more glamorous US locales – and most of the action takes place in gloomy forests, shady warehouses, and sterile hospital corridors. It's a uniquely dingy atmosphere that Hugo found himself enamoured with, and which filters into the 14 tracks that make up 'Palmbomen II'. "I really fell in love with the atmosphere, the colours, and the dark vibe that it has," Hugo explains, "As well as the music." The iconic, unsettling score, composed by Mark Snow, was played out on inexpensive '90s ROMpler synthesizers like the Korg Wavestation and Korg M1 – a synth style that Hugo occasionally utilises on the album.
Hugo, however, is wary of taking it all too seriously. "Now, it sounds a little like a concept album, or a joke, which I don't like about it," he explains, "For me, it's nice if a name opens up a whole world of images, and this doesn't do that. But it's funny."
Still, if this naming convention was a mistake, a spur-of-the-moment idea taken too far, then it's a mistake in keeping with the ethos of the album as a whole. All of 'Palmbomen II's tracks were recorded to tape in one take, with Hugo editing the jams – often 15 minutes or more in length – down to a more manageable length. Everything is done live – you can hear him changing drum patterns, messing up synth lines, and twisting knobs on the FX units in the music, as it happens.
"I worked for a maximum of one day on a song, instead of working for months on a bunch of songs," Hugo says, "This was just recording to tape – I can't change anything inside the song, and that's what I love. Sometimes the mixes are a little fucked up. I like to commit like this. With electronic music you learn to work in this Total Recall world, where you can always go back and do something different, so it's nice to not have that anymore."
Of course, working like this comes with its own set of problems: the past couple of years have seen a glut of straight-to-tape 808-plus-Juno jams that sound cool but lack any real purpose or distinguishing marks, something that Hugo is well aware of. "The hard thing is that you can hide things with it," he says, "I mean that negatively. You can have just one pad and put it on tape and it sounds amazing, so you have to challenge yourself to make good songs within it." What makes 'Palmbomen II' stand out is that Hugo is a seriously good musician, with a melodic sensibility that most of his peers lack. "For me, it's important to have harmonies and stuff," he says.
The self-imposed restrictions afforded Hugo a new creative freedom. His prior releases had been with his band-based project Palmbomen (just Palmbomen - no 'II' here. He released an excellent album called 'Night Flight Europa' under the name in 2013). "I wanted to split Palmbomen in two," Hugo explains, "It's a practical thing. In Palmbomen, I play with a band, and playing live, you have to cheat. I remember trying to emulate the sound with a band playing – we had a gigantic setup, but it was impossible. I thought that if I'm gonna play with a band, I wanna do it with a band – no electronics, no click track, no bullshit. On the other hand, if I want to do electronics, I just want a bunch of drum machines and synthesizers to play around with."
Hugo hopes that as his workflow gets faster, so will his rate of release. "I make a lot of music," he says, "I have a lot of shit ready. I want the chain to be as short as possible: make a song in a day, get an EP together in a month, and then release something. It's so much nicer to be working quickly."
Beats In Space records released 'Palmbomen II' on March 3rd 2015 (buy).