In the last few years, a scene of no scenes has emerged from the U.K. music underground. Musicians like James Blake, The xx, Actress, the LuckyMe collective and Micachu and the Shapes are all in their 20s. All make electronic pop and dance music with large amounts of emotion and otherworldliness mixed in. The British duo Mount Kimbie, made up of producers and multi-instrumentalists Kai Campos and Dom Maker, may not have the name recognition of some of their peers, but the group's innovations are on par: Campos and Maker helped invent a style critics called "post-dubstep," and mixed live electric guitars with techno and instrumental hip-hop. Their music hasn't broken through to a wider audience, probably because there's no lead singer or strong public image associated with it. They just make ideal stuff for listening to on headphones in a coffee shop while the world swirls around.
Their last album, Crooks & Lovers, grooved like R&B but was structured like interior-sounding electronic music — instead of climaxing with a big beat, songs built and then peaked with odd bits of tunefulness and texture. Micachu (Mica Levi) is a fan, and describes their sound via email: "They make intimate electronic music which is rare I think — ruff & ready and unnormalised. It's an unmistakable sound. It sounds like they've been on holiday. It's lovely."
The new Mount Kimbie album, Cold Spring Fault Less Youth, has plenty of that trademark loveliness to it. But as if saying, "And now for my next trick," there is also a harsh and severe quality. Kimbie is doing something new.
There was no concrete goal when Campos and Maker took a break from touring and promoting Crooks and Lovers last year to start recording this album. Except to be original, Campos tells me, on Skype from Switzerland, before playing a show with the electronic musician/Hyperdub Records owner Kode9.
"We wanted to do something that was a step in a different direction and interesting to us," he says. "In terms of having a plan, it's not something we've ever done, really. If you're just doing stuff that you believe in, I think naturally it's going to fit together somehow."
But, then, for many months of recording, nothing did fit. Music was made, but it wasn't any good. Or at least the Kimbie guys weren't feeling it. Campos and Maker play a lot of the same instruments, so that process looked like them picking up guitars, samplers, synthesizers, drum sticks and jamming for a while in their former studio in South Bermondsey ("They charged us extortionate rates.") — then admitting that it wasn't working.
"At times it was a question of, 'Have we got another record in us?'," says Campos. It even got a little existential.
"I think you as a person and your art are one and the same thing. I know it's not the same for other people necessarily, in terms of having a distance between their art and presenting a character, or telling a story that is not their own. But I feel like I'm still trying to figure myself out. And music's what I'm best at. So to think you're not any good at it. ... It was pretty bleak."
The exact thing that pulled Kimbie out of musical depression was "Break Well," an instrumental track on the album that sounds smoked-out and vaguely angelic. The first part of the song consists of arpeggios that spiral upwards. The second part breaks into a drum pattern. Campos says he created the specific sound of the arpeggios by applying analog processing to a digital signal.
"I sampled one single note," he says. "I don't know which instrument it was from. And then on the little OP-1 synth, it's got this fantastic sequencer arpeggio thing, so I ran the arpeggio from that. And you can put in notes, and build five or six different versions of it. Then I recorded all the sequences to this little four-track tape recorder machine, all on different channels. But, because it's a manual record button, and it's tape, they're all slightly out of time from each other. And I was fading between them, and running it all through a reverb pedal. It was quite an enjoyable process. It sounds like tape. It sounds like f---ing old tape. That was one where we sat down afterwards and thought, 'OK, I'm saying something different and it's a challenge for us to make it, and for people to see where it's coming from, considering what we've done before.' But we also thought it was just good, as well. A lot of keyboard parts [on the album] got a certain amount of grit to them going through that tape player."
After that came a series of recording breakthroughs, all of which diverged from what they'd done on Crooks & Lovers. It was Campos' idea to start singing on songs, which he does on "Blood and Form," "Home Recording," and several others on Cold Spring Fault Less Youth, but he had to force himself.
"It's just not a tool I'd thought about using before, but the songs were coming with a space for a vocal melody," he says.
After singing on stage at Dimensions Festival in Croatia, he suddenly realized he liked what he was doing. He still didn't feel qualified to do it, but nobody else would be right for the job.
"It was a moment of realization about being a little older, and thinking, if it feels a bit uncomfortable and scary, it's probably a good thing. And there's no reason not to, apart from fear. And if I'm not going to face up to it when I'm 27, when am I going to do it?"
And then there is the vocalist King Krule (Archie Marshall), who makes his mark on the new album with permanence and ownership — a 19-year-old half-rapper, half-singer with a baritone voice and hard South East London accent. As for working with Marshall, that was also about taking a chance and facing a challenge.
"He's the most exciting person making music that we know," says Campos.
Marshall takes a star turn on song two, "You Took Your Time," snarling the memorable rhymes "pile of bones" and "silent drones," and then as the track gets louder, shouting about some unnamed awfulness.
Campos says he got the raw delivery out of Marshall by trying an experiment in the studio. "Archie was singing, kind of improvising," he says, "and we found that if we were in the same room and I was playing drums, his vocal got so much more aggressive. So we did that, and then we took the drums away. And you're left with this vocal."
The first part of "You Took Your Time" was recorded at Kimbie's studio on electronics with digital drums. The parts where Marshall is going hard on vocals happen in the second part of the song, which was recorded at Andy Ramsay's studio (Ramsay is the drummer in the alternative band Stereolab).
"Archie is an exceptional talent and a pleasure to record," Ramsay says. "I think he made an enormous contribution to the Kimbie tracks he worked on. And I'm glad they brought him — he came back a few weeks later to finish up his own album."
In Ramsay's space, Campos and Maker stepped back and let Ramsay do all the engineering, which allowed the duo to free associate. Creativity flourished. Ramsay's studio has a Harmonium organ on hand. These are common in beat-up condition, but Ramsay's was pristine, and made a warm and richly textured sound that excited Campos and Maker to no end — they briefly considered recording an all-Harmonium version of the album. "You Took Your Time" ended up being part electronic bedroom studio music, part wheezing organ, drum set, yelling man. The goal was to make it all come together.
With the inspiration flowing, Cold Spring Fault Less Youth came together fast, with songs written and rewritten during the mixing process. That final burst of creativity took place at Trinity Buoy Wharf, a multipurpose arts community on the docks by the Thames River, where old shipping containers have been retrofitted as studios. It was crawling with like-minded musicians.
"Micachu's down there," Campos says. "She was next door. She's like one of my favorite artists of all time. Kwes is down there."
Mount Kimbie hired Dilip Harris, who rents a studio at Trinity Buoy Wharf, to mix the album. "His influence on the record is very clear," Campos said. "I didn't think we would have anyone else mix the record, and then within 10 minutes of Dilip mixing I realized how dumb I was being. He opened my eyes to the whole thing. We ended up recording the vocal for 'Blood and Form' there, which is why the vocal sounds so good. It's in a ridiculously nice microphone, in a fantastic studio."
Harris sent me an email: "I think the most important element of our work together was for Kai and Dom to be able to reflect analytically on their work-in-progress in an environment where change and consolidation was possible. It was evident from their material and their processes that they had journeyed to get to that point. And I'm sure that journey will continue as they take the album on the road."
Campos said he's happy with the way Cold Spring Fault Less Youth came out, and in the future he thinks there will be more Mount Kimbie/King Krule music. But right now he's just happy the album is finished, and that he likes it, and he has something he to verify his image of himself as an artist.
"There are worse struggles, but it's definitely a struggle at times," he says. "More than anything else, I think you learn about yourself as a person by the end of it. Now that the album's done, it's a relief."