Post-Everything: Mount Kimbie's Kai Campos talks life beyond 'post-dubstep'
Newly signed to Warp and ready to release their staggeringly diverse second album, Mount Kimbie's Kai Campos discusses their myriad influences and creative recording techniques
If you dabble even casually in electronic music, you'll be aware that the proliferation of new micro-genres has gotten pretty ridiculous. A quick check on any of the major music hosting platforms such as SoundCloud will provide you with everything from Illbient to Trillwave. Mount Kimbie, a London-based duo comprised of Kai Campos and Dominic Maker, are often credited with being the originators of their own micro-genre – their first EP, 2009's Maybes was at that time something of a departure for Scuba's Hotflush label, with a minute and a half of muted, washed-out synth echoing out of the speakers, before dropping into a beat that bears all the defining signatures of what would become the post-dubstep sound – above all, a sense of space and dynamics that appeals to the brain first, and the dancefloor second.
Which isn't to say that you can't dance to Mount Kimbie – their early EPs helped push the boundaries of bass music, mutating it into something slicker, deeper and stranger, and they were embraced by DJs, clubbers and critics alike. Following the release of their debut album, 2010's Crooks & Lovers, they became known for their live performances, incorporating a Maschine control interface, live guitars and percussion, and heavily improvised sections that digressed wildly from the recorded tracks. James Blake, another important figure to emerge from the dope smoke haze of post-dubstep, was a touring member for a while, helping flesh out their vision.
Mount Kimbie and James Blake weren't the only ones blazing a trail – Four Tet's productions from that era, along with the more hip-hop oriented likes of Flying Lotus, were also hugely influential, as was the 'ghost garage' sound pioneered by Burial, embraced and imitated by many producers in the years since. But for Mount Kimbie, it seems the shine has come off post-dubstep. Speaking to the band's Kai Campos (who takes the lion's share of vocal duties on their sophomore album Cold Spring Fault Less Youth, making him an ideal spokesman), he admits that he simply doesn't listen to a lot of the music that falls under the banner these days. “I think in this scene, you listen to a lot of stuff that sounds like yourself, but I guess that the stuff that grabs you and shocks you is often the stuff that doesn’t come at you in the same way,” he says. Asked about dubstep's other mutations, such as trap, US-style 'brostep' (they prefer 'EDM'), and chillwave, he gives a guarded but positive response: “We’re interested in where all of that stuff is going, really.”
“THIS ALBUM WAS A MORE AMBITIOUS ENDEAVOUR FOR US. WE’VE GOT A LITTLE BIT MORE ON THE LINE CREATIVELY” – KAI CAMPOS
One thing's certain – on the evidence of their latest LP, there isn't a lot that Mount Kimbie haven't been listening to. It's a work of arcane twists and sudden turns, taking in moments of pie-eyed shoegaze and emotive house on Home Recording, punk-inflected hip-hop blues on You Took Your Time with King Krule, through to beatless classic synth patterns and indie surf pop on Break Well. That's just the first three tracks.
“The two records really are, for me, quite far apart, in that this one will be flawed in some ways, but it was a more ambitious endeavour for us,” says Kampos. “I feel like we’ve got a little bit more on the line creatively.” The album's ambitions are so mercurial, the sheer diversity of styles and approaches could put off some listeners, particularly those looking for a definitive statement on post-dubstep from two of its originators and innovators. But the recording techniques, the sonic depth of each track, mark them out unmistakably as the work of Mount Kimbie. Once you're over the shock of hearing Made To Stray, a techno-influenced, lo-fi jam with vulnerable lyrics sung by Campos, almost naked of effects, it all makes perfect sense – and it's a perfect fit for their new home in the Warp Records stable.
Asked if bringing his vocals to the fore was an intimidating step to take, Campos is philosophical: “It seemed natural, but at the same time it also felt very uncomfortable as well.” Starting to record vocals was a process of trial and error, “until I managed to find a voice of sorts, you know?”
That voice is a fine one – and perhaps gives a clue to the fact that Campos lists his recent influences as Tame Impala, Ariel Pink, White Denim, and Micachu and the Shapes. “There’s been so much since the first album came out that we’ve spent time listening to and got really excited about,” he enthuses. “These people are still really inspiring us, and making music today around us.” Prolific techno stalwart Actress is also cited as a big influence, along with a healthy diet of hip-hop and bass music.
“It wasn’t really a decision to make a vocal album,” Campos admits, but that is what Cold Spring Fault Less Youth is – his vocals, with occasional contributions from Dominic Maker, and the bass-heavy counterpoint of King Krule, anchor the album, connecting it to their previous work with a purely emotional thread. The album was finished quickly, according to Campos. He and Maker “hadn’t had time to stew on it before other people’s opinions started coming in,” which he says was “a good thing.”
Campos describes the duo's working method as “remarkably similar” to how they started out. “Back then we were still sat in the same room just showing each other what we’d been doing that week,” he says. “It's kind of similar now. The main difference is that we’ve just got a bit more time and some freedom to explore stuff, which is obviously something that’s really nice and helps us develop.”
They worked with producer and Stereolab drummer Andy Ramsay – a little of Stereolab's lo-fi pop aesthetic can be detected in CSFLY's DNA. “We got to use all of his gear that he’s amassed over a much longer career than ours, so he has a lot of old drum machines which we spent time recording, and kind of mangling in our own way,” says Campos. “We were doing stuff that he wouldn’t have thought of, and he was showing us stuff that we wouldn’t have thought of, so that was really interesting.”
A big element of the Mount Kimbie sound is rooted in musique concrète – the use of synthesised sounds alongside sampled sounds from nature, and the ambient atmospherics created by recording in locations with different electroacoustic properties, layered into the mix. This played a part on the new album too, but with a difference: “Instead of degrading the sound before we had even recorded it, we were recording stuff clean, and then doing stuff to it afterwards, which was different for us,” Campos explains. “It freed up a whole world of different options."
Field recordings were not as much of a focus as the music and the songwriting however: “I don’t think we actually did a single session of going outside and walking around like we have done in the past; but we’ve always kind of not really defined too much of a difference between recording outside with a dictaphone or in the studio,” says Campos. “I’m just using sound, wherever it comes from.”
The collaborations with King Krule came about after Campos saw his video for Out Getting Ribs: “I just sent a note to Dom, saying, 'You’ve gotta check this out, because it’s breathtakingly good,'” he recalls. “I instantly thought he had a similar songwriting style to ours, in a way, in that he was doing quite a lot with quite few elements, and leaving quite a lot of space.”
Campos caught up with him at a gig, and when a collaboration was suggested, “he was very keen, and he was a fan. He came in to listen to what we were working on quite early on, and he was pretty keen on a few bits. When he went away, they were all half finished, so he was very much involved in the writing of those songs as well, which was kind of how we wanted it to be. It was a really natural process for us, he came and played around with a lot of ideas and he was open to suggestions. I don’t think either of us are too precious about what we’re doing so it was really, really enjoyable, and I learned a lot from watching him write lyrics. We both bounced ideas off each other quite a lot.”
They plan to work with him again in future, and the possibility of live collaboration at a few festivals this year may well be in the offing: “If we try and put the effort in, I think we can do something really good,” Campos says. That is the band's next move – prepping for a busy year and a half of live shows. This time round, is the record a little closer to what we'll hear live? In rehearsals, says Campos, “the starting point has been the recorded version of the songs.”
Thus far, “they’re fairly close” to the album tracks, says Campos. “These songs seem to lend themselves a lot better to being played live as well: they’re easier to kind of get inside, whereas the last ones were such studio creations that it was like we really had to breathe new life in to them.” The addition of drummer Tony Kus to their live setup “has really opened up what we can do.” But improvisation and evolution are still on the cards for these tracks: “It’s early days, so by the end of the summer they’ll probably be completely different,” Campos speculates.
One thing that Campos tries not to worry about is the quality of the kit used for home listening: “We’ve uploaded two songs quite recently, in the last couple of weeks, and the reaction’s so instant now that you wonder how people are hearing this: is it on their phone, or is it, at best, on their laptop speakers, or something like that? I don’t think there’s really much you can do, I think it’s a bit pompous to lecture people about how they should be listening to it.”
As a producer, he can't afford to take that into account: “You can’t sit there and think, 'Oh, we should make this sound good for laptop speakers,' because there’s definitely stuff, parts of songs that you can’t even *hear* on laptop speakers. As with most music, you would think, it sounds a lot better, or sounds like how we heard it when we were making it, on a nice stereo... Hopefully enough people hear it that way, and if not, then hopefully people will come to the show themselves.”
One topic that their friend and former colleague James Blake has not been shy of sharing his opinion on in recent months is the future of the music industry, which Blake compared to a sinking ship. Undoubtedly, scraping a living is hard for touring, album-releasing musicians on Blake's level, and getting harder. Asked for his views on the music industry, Campos says: “I’m not sure anyone knows what that term even means anymore; but I think that there will always be music and there will always be an audience for music, so you have to figure out a way to make a living out of that.” In some ways, he agrees with Blake, saying: “It’s not easy – but people have probably had it too easy in the past.”
Mount Kimbie have had there fair share of problems with online leaks, and with the promotion of their music, but “it’s kind of so hard to draw a line between the good that’s been done by the same kind of mechanisms,” Campos says, ever the pragmatist. “We wouldn’t be able to tour the world while being such a small band without half of this stuff… you just have to assess the environment that you’re in and do the best work that you can in that environment.”
Returning to the subject of influence, something Campos once said about Mount Kimbie's origins gets repeated – that they started out attempting to replicate forms of music they liked, such as dubstep, and their failure to replicate it accurately was how they found their style. Would he recommend this as an approach for artists who are just starting out? “I think that is the basis all creative endeavours,” he says. “That's how they begin. Even now, every song that we do is started from something happening when you’re listening to either music, or sound. I would say not to be too concerned about it, if that’s what you feel like doing, but it’s good to hold back on sharing and pushing your music until you feel like you’re saying something that you want to say.”
It also helps to have a broad set of influences, unlike many emerging dance music producers, who focus narrowly on their own scene or sound. Campos, who grew up in “a rural area” with “no discernible music scene” listening to Gilles Peterson and John Peel on the radio, has never had a narrow set of influences. “It’s just not something I’ve ever considered. From the beginnings of making music it was always kind of an amalgamation of stuff that I was hearing on the radio. A lot of my favourite records come from all different places.” Mount Kimbie as a duo could never focus solely on one style: “I don’t think we’d be able to do it even if we wanted to,” says Campos.
The title of the album, Cold Spring Fault Less Youth, was arrived at late in the game: “It was really quite close to the end of the process, so we had all the songs together, and for me there wasn’t a defining theme of the record,” Campos recalls. “In contrast to the last record, which was very easy to put a track list together for, this one was quite difficult because the songs felt like they were coming from different places. It wasn’t easy to come up with something that really encapsulated that. I felt like there had to be more than three words in the title, and I strongly felt that there had to be five words; I don’t know why. They can kind of be read together, or by themselves, and they have their own connotations. If you just look at two words then they have certain connotations, and you can kind of mix them up. We kind of talked about it as though they were like those fridge magnets of words that you get in little boxes.”
Campos quit his university degree to make a go of Mount Kimbie. A few years down the line, with two albums under his belt, does he have any regrets? “It wasn’t right for me,” he says. “I wasn’t particularly enjoying my education.” As for his experiences with Mount Kimbie, Campos says: “It’s been very fulfilling.” He laughs. “Hopefully I won’t regret it any time soon.”