I’m sitting on a wall outside Southwark Cathedral on a hot July afternoon. It is tourist season in London; behind me a French couple and their child are feeding pigeons the scraps of their lunch. A few tour groups wander past, led by their guides, snapping pictures of the resplendent English Gothic spires and arches, before they shuffle on. I’m half an hour early, and between smoking a few cigarettes I start to think about the interview I’m about to conduct. Mount Kimbie are one of the most exciting and innovative electronic acts around, you know the drill; feted by the shady underworld of music blogs and those ‘in the know’ followed by a rapid rise into the consciousness of the general public with the release of their first two EPS, ‘Maybes’ and ‘Sketch On Glass’, then cementing their place in the musical vanguard with their first full length album, ‘Crooks and Lovers’ earlier this year.
What is this musical vanguard though? Through the haze of hype and the blog love in Mount Kimbie have been lumped in with a diverse group of British operators under the hazy term of ‘post-dubstep.’ Nothing, it seems, is allowed to exist on its own, to explore and disregard as it sees fit, free of the constraints of generic conventions. And yet this is what Mount Kimbie do; when I heard their debut EP for the first time, the track William instantly moved me into another realm; I was twelve again and driving home through the night with my family, through the rain, through London, down the M23, orange streetlight dissolving on wet tarmac. The haunting vocal a radiophonic déjà vu only just made out through half asleep ears.
Their follow up, Sketch On Glass, was an other-worldly glitching anti-dancefloor filler. But then the b-side 50 Mile View was, like William, so defiantly rooted in the organics of place, of an analogue nostalgia for 2-Step and UK Garage that terms like post-dubstep seemed to just melt into a background nothingness; I was again transported to somewhere else, somewhere beautiful and faultless.
I am here, primarily, to sit in on a field recording that Mount Kimbie are going to conduct in the cathedral. Field recordings have an interesting history; one of the most famous practitioners being John Lomax and his ‘Archive of the American Folk Song’ – Lomax wanted to document the traditional, largely unheard music of the marginalised peoples of America. To do this he explored the world of African-American song by visiting prisons and recording the prisoners’ work songs on the chain gangs (this led to the ‘discovery’ of Leadbelly). The field recording allowed him to record these people in their environment, and thus allowed the listener to experience these songs replete with the acoustics of the environment they were originally performed in. Then we have Pierre Schaeffer and Musique Concrete; the technological innovations that had allowed Lomax to conduct his recording were expanded and morphed by Schaeffer into something else entirely. In his first composition, Etude Aux Chemins Du Fer, part of ‘Cinq Etudes de Bruin’, he edited the field recordings he had conducted of trains and at stations, forming intricate looping patterns and bellowing rhythmically fluctuating abstract ambient noises; it was the first truly environmental music.
The Musique Concrete group also developed the first sampler; through experimentation with record players and magnetic tapes they created an analogue musical computer capable of looping, transposing and editing. These technological innovations allowed the group to find forms for their ides to develop in. Dubstep, basically, relies on the same premise. The rise of the home computer, and programmes like Ableton, Pro Tools, etc, have had a huge influence on what is possible in popular music now, especially with electronic music, it has opened it up to anyone who owns a laptop, has an ear and can work out what they are doing – three mouse buttons and the truth. Mount Kimbie occupies a land somewhere in between Dubstep and Musique Concrete, overlapping the technological innovations of the past and the present.
Then Dominic and Kai stroll round the corner towards me, licking at melting ice creams, mercifully unaware of my meandering brain patterns. We quickly dip inside the Cathedral, away from the late afternoon throngs of London Bridge, fading light means pictures must be taken quickly. I bring up the subject of dubstep, technology, and the rise of the bedroom electronic avant-garde. ‘The ease with which you can make music now,’ begins Dominic ‘and the access people have to music has had such a huge impact.’ ‘The technology and the ease with which people can make music now, it’s a really positive thing.’ adds Kai, quietly. Sentences are left unfinished, hanging in the air, tiptoeing around conversations, shyness betraying the delicate nature of their music, ‘as long as people can get inside the technology they are using and put a piece of themselves there, and not be dictated too by it – then yeah . . .’ With the church bells ringing out and the trains rumbling overhead from London Bridge, seated comfortably, we begin, properly – dictaphone on.
You’ve been grouped together, along with the likes of Joy Orbison, James Blake and Jam City as part of this post-dubstep scene, even though, on the surface you’re all doing very different things with electronic music. How do you react to that?
Dom: Well we’re all variations of the same sound, and similar things have influenced us all, even though we may not sound very alike. The way I see it is that there are two sides to it – a dancier side, and then people like us, who are rooted in something more ambient.
Kai: When you’re young and something excites you . . . well there’s this new sound and you want to start pushing it forwards.
How about the term post-dubstep that people are using to describe the music you’re making?
Kai: We get asked about this ‘post-dubstep’ thing a lot, and we don’t really mind, we’re not against it . . .
Dom: It doesn’t really mean anything.
I mean I hear a lot more of the influences of stuff like Drone / Noise / Post-Rock, it doesn’t really fit into this idea of a sound rooted in dubstep?
Kai: My flatmate used to listen to a lot of post-rock, so it’d filter through into my room, that’s where I started to listen to it really. I guess you don’t realise how stuff influences you . . . it just sort of creeps into it.
“With dubstep you’ve got a lot more time and space within beats and tracks – you’ve got room to use totally different techniques and different patterns to what people have tried out before in things like Drum and Bass and Jungle – Dubstep gives you the freedom and room to manoeuvre.” – Dom
Dom: With dubstep you’ve got a lot more time and space within beats and tracks – you’ve got room to use totally different techniques and different patterns to what people have tried out before in things like Drum and Bass and Jungle – Dubstep gives you the freedom and room to manoeuvre.
You’ve got a really organic, analogue element to your music; I guess something like conducting a field recording in a church feeds into that?
Dom: I was thinking about this today actually, I suppose it forced us to adopt the rhythms of an environment, and to think about how we build those rhythms, and why we are using them . . . the first time we came down here with a field mic, we were just recording the sound of my bike and then we went to the Southbank and recorded the sounds of skateboarders there, which we used on the album.
Kai: It has to stand up as a part of what we do and not just be ‘we’re gonna go and record some noises in a church.’
Do you do a lot of field recordings?
Dom: We carry the mic around with us when we tour but its not like we plan to go out and do it – the Southbank stuff was probably the most intense field recording stuff we’ve done. We also did a session with James Blake in a tunnel near where I live in Brighton, it was midway through recording the album; we recorded the noises of us throwing stones against a wall and James singing. We’ve only sampled about three minutes of the three hours we did down there – but its nice to have these banks of sound that you can use and draw upon.
“We also did a session with James Blake in a tunnel near where I live in Brighton, it was midway through recording the album; we recorded the noises of us throwing stones against a wall and James singing.” – Dom
Kai: We tend to do a lot in one go then take everything that we’ve done over a period of time and go through it to see what we’ve got and how we can use it. We don’t record for a certain purpose, or with a motive, its more to see what comes out of it . . . its never the noises you think are going to work that do though, which keeps it interesting. I’ve been meaning to record the sounds of a church for awhile now. I want to capture the sound, when its really quiet – I want to get the sound of a person kneeling on the wooden bit in front of the pew . . . I’ve wanted to capture that for ages.
I guess that feeds into this feeling of environment in your music, the idea of capturing an environment and transcribing and abstracting it into music.
Kai: You always want to try and be relevant to an actual place – not specifically one place but just trying to keep it rooted in reality – its very easy with electronic music and the processes involved to be distanced from reality and emotion and experience, you can end up making stuff that’s very …
Kai: Yeah, cold, but not to take anything away from cold music, because it has its purpose, but to have no real place, to have no grounding and for it to be all processes is something we want to avoid.
I wanted to talk about nostalgia too, how that ties into place; in ‘Crooks and Lovers’ it feels like there’s a nostalgic longing for a place, there’s this organic analogue world conjured up by your music.
Dom: I get what you mean, the way you describe the album, because its very visual I think, dreamy almost. Each track is very different from the others, they all stay within this frame, and within each track itself it’s like a dream, going on and on.
Kai: At the time of recording the album we found this record by a guy named William Basinsky, he had gone through a loft and collected old tapes and made this album based on the recordings he’d found. I guess that was a pretty important record for us, as in that sense he was looking back at something and creating something new with it.
So how do you move from having an idea – to recording it – to playing it live – what sort of processes do you go through trying to achieve that?
Dom: I think it’s very impulsive,
Kai: It’s very rare that we’ll actually have an idea, sit down, record it, and it’ll come through exactly as you imagined it would.
Dom: We have ideas all the time but we can never actually create them, and then you’ll have a spare moment and sit down and you’ll end up writing something – it’s not a considered thing. But there’s this process we are going through at the moment, with me living in Brighton and Kai up in London, we find we are constantly sending each other things back and forth so it gives us time to think about it again then reflect and re-approach it in three months time or whatever – you start to think ‘I can’t believe I made that – how did I make that?’ It really fed into the overall sound of the album. The way things are constantly progressing and changing within the tracks was due to the fact that we were constantly revisiting and changing things that we’d come up with ages ago.
Do you think about how you’re going to approach it live when you’re recording it?
Kai: Not really, when we started playing live I sat down and had to really think about it, though even before that when we started to write music together I’d end up thinking about how we’d end up doing it live. It just wasn’t a very positive influence though, because you don’t want to have anything else as a condition affecting how you actually make the music.
Do you see them as being separate things?
Kai: The live stuff has started to take over really; when we started out it wasn’t something that we really thought about or tried to think about, so the process has been very challenging at times. When you’re sitting down, working out how to play all this music you’ve written it really helps you think about what you’ve been trying to do with it. I find it finishes off a lot of songs too, working out how we are going to play them live. For example in a few songs they’ll be one part and we think, ‘when we are doing it live we should do it like this instead’ and it ended up that way on the record. On one of the tracks off the album, Field, there was just this very long loop before, and then in the live version we put the guitar over it, and then we used that for the record as well.
“You don’t want to have anything else as a condition affecting how you actually make the music.” – Kai
Dom: It’s quite nice to have the opportunity to do that with tracks when we are playing live, it becomes a whole separate writing process just for the live show. We’re not just sitting down in front of a computer making music any more you know.
Do you think it’ll have an influence on how you’re going to approach the things you do in the future?
Dom: I think its opened up my eyes to the actual possibilities that recording instruments can entail. Just having something there to play manually makes you appreciate the sounds you’re using more.
Kai: We’ve really enjoyed the physical aspect of playing live; part of it is getting on stage to perform these songs we’ve been making at home together. It makes you think about the physicality of your music – and if you’re working with a song live then that tends to really come through. I guess we’d like to try and work with that more, the physical side of electronic music, and trying to make that come through when we’re recording it.
So what do you see yourselves doing?
Kai: In terms of the technology we use we’ve tried to put more and more limits upon ourselves, using more analogue gear, and taking a step back from having every option available . . . Maybe it’ll get simpler in a sense?
Dom: Obviously the priority at the moment is to keep playing live and pushing that forwards.
Kai: We’re playing a lot this summer.
Dom: It is incredibly time consuming – you might go away for three days – be exhausted – come home and the last thing you want to be near is a computer . . . So we’re going to wait till we’ve got a bit of time, and maybe take a few months out from everything and get back to writing things. We also want to develop the live show a lot more, maybe even bring in another pair of hands. We’ve been getting offers for producing people too, but we’re just waiting, not putting ourselves under pressure, just taking it easy.
And then I guess the obvious thing is how you approach making a second album?
Kai: Once we’d finished the first record there was a feeling of freedom, this sense that we’d done it and we can start on something new now.
Dom: Getting the record done was like reaching the pinnacle of the sound we were trying to achieve when we started out making music together, and now we’re just really looking forward to doing something completely different.
Kai: The album’s taken up a lot of time, you’ve just got to wait for it all to be over and then you can start again, challenging yourself again and trying to do things you didn’t expect to do.