Kai Campos doesn’t want your labels.
The British producer and multi-instrumentalist, who makes up one half of electronic art pop duo Mount Kimbie, understands the urge to frame his music in reference to others. But it doesn’t mean he agrees with it.
“We were very lucky at the beginning that it it felt like there was a whole infrastructure of a scene around us that we weren’t necessarily part of, but it gave people this context of where we were,” Campos shares over the phone from Seattle, where the band is due to give their fifth performance of their latest North American tour. Emerging from London at a time when dubstep was king, Mount Kimbie made their way onto listeners’ radars with sidewinding, shuffling electronic beats that cracked open musical expectations and laid all the ingredients on the table. Titled “post-dubstep” by the famously imaginative English press, the band was immediately put in a box that Campos recognizes as useful, if currently irrelevant.
“I think it was really helpful for us in terms of people getting on board. Where we were coming from, in terms of our sound, was so obvious, just because of where we were from and what record label it was coming out on.” Ten years and three radically different albums later, Campos remains determined to keep evolving.
“The whole idea of a post dub step scene has become kind of nonexistent and also less relevant to what we’re doing.”
Mount Kimbie plays Washington DC’s Black Cat on May 24, and Brooklyn Steel in New York on May 25. Love What Survives is out now on Warp Records.
Brightest Young Things: I saw your show last June at U Street Music Hall, here in D.C. I picked up one of your tour t-shirts – I love the design, and I get a lot of compliments on it.
Kai Campos: Which one was it?
BYT: The white shirt with the two intertwined figures in red and the tour dates on the back. Do you guys design the artwork for the merch? Who does that?
Campos: We actually were working with a friend of ours called Frank Lebon and he has everything to do with the visual aesthetics for that last record – so like the videos, the artwork, the record, and then the t-shirts and stuff like that. It was all Frank, really. He’s really cool; a very young guy doing interesting stuff in London
BYT: Have you noticed any distinct change in the audience to your shows over the years, particularly as you’ve moved away from “post dubstep”?
Campos: Yeah, it’s a funny one. I think when you start out you always see the same people – when you start playing gigs, you’re usually playing to your friends in the place that you live in, and then it starts extending slightly beyond that to people that your friends bring to the gig or whatever. [Laughs] Maybe you play outside of London, but you’re still in the UK, you know? And it keeps on going, so as it goes on longer, the people are further removed from you. Still, it’s just a strange thing; I don’t know who the audience is anymore, and it’s not in a bad way. It’s just when it starts out it’s all people that look like your friends and then now we’ve been doing it for awhile it’s like we’re not really sure who the audience is. [Laughs] We’re not like an up and coming band anymore, so it’s such a range of people that come to the show now – really of all ages, which is very cool.
BYT: You played a couple of the songs off of Love What Survives at that show, a few weeks before the record was officially out. What was the reception to that album as compared to previous records?
Campos: I really tried to remove myself from what we had done before. The second album we did felt like a stepping stone, in a way, and you always kind of feel like there’s so much I would like to change about whatever you’ve done, looking back on it. Once you’ve done it, it’s like I tried to remove myself from the situation as much as possible and carry on writing you know? I tend to find that if I’m checking social media I find that I don’t enjoy it as much and it takes me longer to get back into work mode, ’cause you kind of can get this fear of being judged all of the time.
I was really happy that it felt like on this record we’ve picked up people that haven’t listened to us before and when we started doing shows it was noticeable how much more the “normal” people would come and say that they’ve never heard us before and they were just kind of coming because their friend told them to, but they were really into it. It’s quite fun to play those gigs where someone’s never heard you and they come to the gig and they like it – it feels good because you know they didn’t have a bias going in that they wanted to like it. It’s definitely shifted as we’ve changed, I think.
BYT: Mount Kimbie have always incorporated live instruments on your records but it sounds a lot more obvious on Love What Survives. The live drums, and the bass, and the guitar are much more in the foreground of the mix. What inspired the decision to bring those up front and what has guided that sonic evolution?
Campos: I always get fed up with processes once I fully understand how to do it or where it’s coming from. [Laughs] It feels phony to do it again. So, I don’t know – all my teenage years I had been kind of been really interested in manipulating sounds in a way that was unnatural and kind of zooming into sounds and turning them into something else. I always found that to be a really good shortcut into coming up with musical ideas.
At some point after the second record or around the second record I just completely lost interest in that and I’ve wanted to shift the focus completely to something else. I thought what would the musical idea be if I wrote in a much more simple, simple way and try to kind of restrict thematically the process I was doing it in and any kind of trickery I had learned along the way. My original idea for the record was to use the same drum beat as a starting point. The same drum beat from a drum machine called the Korg DDM-110 – it’s kind of a nasty sounding thing which meant to sound like a real drum kit. I had an idea to make a record where every song had the same drum beat, which is a slightly stupid idea you have when you don’t have any ideas, but it was a good way to start, you know? [Laughs] But that was the ethos – if I can do every thing with this one drum machine and this one synth, then I can take all of that energy that I’m normally putting into the production side of things and completely bypass that then the energy’s going to go somewhere else – hopefully into songwriting in a different way, and the results can be kind of different.
I think the thing that’s tough about doing that is that it all this micro-editing and production stuff – I’ve been focusing on that for more than ten years, really. I got good at it and when I started doing this, it sucked. The music sucked. So, it was a little bit daunting, because you think, “well, maybe i’m not good at this.” It’s the the process of keeping going and trying to be okay with stuff sucking, and carrying on going, and trying to find my lane in that way of working. Some of the live frustrations of playing live in the beginning and limitations that we were pushed up – that helped us realize that most of the time it doesn’t really matter how you do something, on the technical side of things. Once the record is done it just really doesn’t matter. If you feel good about the music and the music sounds good, that’s what counts. It was basically about stripping back all of those weird rules that I placed on myself and replacing them with new ones. [Laughs]
BYT: I can understand the frustration or maybe the instinct to fall back on old techniques and old habits when you’re hitting a wall with a new approach.
The focus on simplicity works for Mount Kimbie as a sonic style. Do you think you’re going to stick to these new arbitrarily imposed rules for the next record or are you going to twist?
Campos: I always feel ready to go back to the first record now. [Laughs] I’ve spent so long kind of really disliking the process of working on a computer it and spent ages and lots of effort going into making a studio that doesn’t really rely on a computer, and a process that’s heavily based on music technology like how i mostly write. It’s all outboard analog gear. And now I’m suddenly realizing the incredible power of the laptop, you know? I used to tour and drag a couple of hardware synths over and have them on the bus all the time, right now – on this one – I just brought the laptop and a mini keyboard. You know, you can make good music with that as well; I just haven’t done it for so long. I’m bizarrely interested in going back to how we made music right at the beginning, in a way.
Whatever you do, you always realize you haven’t figured it out. Sometimes you think you’ve figured it out, and you just never have. This last record wasn’t the answer to anything – it was just what I needed to keep on making stuff at that time, and that’s the main thing: do whatever it takes to make you feel excited about doing it everyday. So, I’m kind of ready to go back into a more electronic territory at the moment and this is the kind of thing I was talking about earlier with the drum beat thing – it always starts off as one thing and then ends up somewhere.
BYT: You’ve gone from being somewhat reluctant to working with outside vocalists to employing quite a few on the last record. What do you look for when considering inviting someone into your creative process?
Campos: Being a good singer really is not that much about singing, in my opinion, you know what I mean? [Laughs] People have good voices and people have bad voices – my voice personally is something that I don’t connect with; I don’t feel like I express myself through it, and I don’t particularly enjoy singing. It’s not because it’s out of tune or whatever – it just doesn’t feel like my instrument at all, and it’s always a struggle to fully express myself. But I do feel like a large part of being a good singer, or musician in general, is being able to listen and understand music in a more holistic, way I guess and zooming out of it to see slightly more. I think that’s quite an unconscious process that goes on, and then you use your instinct to fill in where necessary.
All of the people we worked with on this record – it’s more the vision, really, than a particular vocal styling, and we tend to work with them from when the songs are very early on so it could go in a number of ways. I don’t think we would’ve finished a track, decided it needed vocals and got somebody in to do something over the top of it which I think is common.
BYT: A lot of people do it that way.
Campos: It’s maybe even harder. Archy [Marshall, aka King Krule] – I always felt like his compositions in some way were this missing jigsaw piece in ours, even before I met him. I heard his music and I just knew it would work – there was just something about the way he wrote a song that made me think it would work. It’s like I got it, but also like I didn’t get it, so it was kind of perfect.
Andrea [Balency] is part of the live band she sang on “You Look Certain”, and she has a certain delivery that I thought would really kind of slide into that track really well. I started that song and it had a very Stereolab feel to it.
Who else is on there? [Pauses] James [Blake] and us – we go way back and we’ve always been trying to do stuff together, but it was actually the first time our schedules worked out so we could spend a bit of time getting something done. And Mica Levi – she was one of the main inspirations for us from day one, really, as a band. Micachu and The Shapes is a big deal for us – compositionally, I respect her so much. And aside from everything, she’s one of my favorite vocalists in the world, and although she would never describe herself as a vocalist, I think she’s just incredible.
BYT: This band has been together for ten years and this is the first real year you’ve been working remotely. Obviously, the Internet plays a huge part in making this happen, but how do you and Dominic [Maker, other half of the band] ensure that the partnership and the friendship at the core of Mount Kimbie remains healthy and fertile despite the distance?
Campos: It’s not easy. I don’t think it’s ever been easy over the past ten years, you know? Sometimes when it should be easy creatively it’s not, and sometimes it comes to you with a lot less effort than you anticipated. It’s about judging which kind of situation you’re in whether it’s a situation where it should be easy and we’re not doing this for the right reasons or it’s something that’s not easy because we’re trying to do something new and we should persevere and we’re doing for the right reasons, kind of thing.
We live on different sides of the world probably about half of the year. It’s just about using the positives about that, really – we’re off doing other things and appreciating other things and your head gets shaped by the stuff that you’re seeing everyday or listening to or whatever. The fact that we’re seeing quite different things can be really interesting to come back to. Actually, what helped a lot is when we did the radio show on NTS. We kind of had to start turning what was a fairly open platform that could’ve gone in a lot of different ways and trying to turn that into something that made sense to us, and in the process of that getting clear as to what areas and roads we were getting excited by.
A new path or a new way of working starts to emerge from the mess of it in the beginning. It’s the kind of stuff you get better at doing as you get older – communicating with each other, as well. For every possible negative I think there’s also like loads of benefits that come from trying to maintain creative partnership. It’s something that changes all of the time and it’s always interesting – at the moment, anyway.