How Mount Kimbie Learned to Let Go and Thrive
The electronic duo have come a long way since being labelled ‘post-dubstep’ in 2009 – and they’re sounding more confident than ever.
Kai Campos, sinistra, e Dom Maker dei Mount Kimbie. Fotografia di Frank Lebon.
On one of those August mornings that you silently hope will bloom into a blisteringly sunny day, Dom Maker – one half of now-transatlantic electronic duo Mount Kimbie – sits quietly in a pretty nondescript industrial park. Well, that makes it sound more moody and serious than the situation warrants. You may imagine him to be perched alone on a chair in a stark room, gazing off into the middle distance surrounded by concrete but in fact he's waiting for me in one of the many recording and rehearsal studios nestled into this north London cluster of warehouse spaces. Walk off an Overground train at Seven Sisters, stroll past the corner shop awnings dusted in a thin layer of grime and you'll find yourself down a street that makes you suddenly aware that pedestrians aren't really meant to be here. The road widens while the pavement narrows, massive trucks trundle along tarmac pocked with potholes and the scale of the buildings – a cheerily named waste disposal business, a joiners, a Carpet City further down – seem immediately boosted. I'll state the obvious: you could easily miss it, and wouldn't naturally think, 'ah yes, of course, creative types must be making sweet sweet music here.'
Then again, there are two fancy-looking coffee shops about 20 paces from each other across that noisy road, complete with requisite pendant lights, subway tiles and houseplants. They hint at nooks devoted to more than the whirr and crush of huge machines. "This place is insane," Dom says, once we're settled into the studio room he and bandmate Kai Campos have recently occupied. "There's about 50 studios here, behind us, and we keep bumping into random people. We saw Big Narstie the other day, one of the guys from JLS." He laughs. "It's such a weird mix of people. Then you've got all the PC Music lot, Gold Panda, Julio Bashmore. I haven't been here on a Saturday, but apparently it's mental: a club, bar, the studios. Who'd have known? Down this weird little road." Ah, so it isn't just me. He also gets that it's hardly the sort of place you'd immediately associate with the band's latest, stunning album of clattering cymbals, looped synth samples and affecting guest vocal appearances.
But they made the bulk of Love What Survives here, in another studio around the corner. They pulled it off with both halves of the band working on opposite sides of the ocean, too. In the years since Mount Kimbie's second album, 2013's Cold Spring Fault Less Youth, Dom moved to Los Angeles to live with his girlfriend while Kai has stayed in London. It's 2017 and the internet exists, though, so that hasn't really affected how this record was made. "I think it's one of those things that gets put in a press release and seems like a nice story and stuff," Kai says to me later, of the band's city split, "but it hasn't really for us felt like much of a leap. It's really been picked up on," he adds, with a laugh. Beyond a solid story to entice journalists, the transatlantic setup just let each band member get on with it. They worked on various songs individually, sending each other snippets and samples and sketches, which they would then patch together when Dom would return to the UK from time to time, or Kai would fly over to the US.
The results are some of the band's most "organic-sounding" music yet – live drums, crashed and tapped by Micachu and the Shapes' drummer Marc Pell, and the cascading wonky piano on "How We Get By" are just some of the elements that play a large part in that. Love What Survives sounds like the comforting after-party to the darkened club sounds of Dom and Kai's first two albums; it recalls the fuzzy warmth of riding out the last few hours of a pill while swaddled in someone else's hoodie on your best friend's couch. Dom and Kai roped in fellow Londoners Mica Levi AKA Micachu, James Blake and Archy Marshall of King Krule plus touring band member Andrea Balency, to sing on a smattering of songs that particularly hit on the album's emotive strengths. With those live vocals taking centre stage, going beyond the usual chopped and rewound samples or sung lines from the band themselves, it also feels like the duo's most intimate work so far. Unlike Cold Spring or 2010 debut Crooks & Lovers, Love What Survives whispers or growls directly into your ear; the voices you hear can skip from cracking into falsetto then belting out with a defiant clarity.
A fair amount of that energy, transplanted from the 2AM dancefloor to the living room at sunrise, stems from the album's collaborations. King Krule-featuring single "Blue Train Lines", Dom remembers with a laugh, was built from a crackling late-night flash of inspiration. "The idea for that song had been around in various forms. At that time, it was a minute-long loop, and Kai met up with Archy to play him a load of stuff that we were doing. Archy picked out that one as being something he wanted to try. Kai then got a voicemail at 4AM or 5AM, and it was literally Archy with the track playing in the background, just screaming and shouting. Really, just screaming. And obviously the first thought was … 'right, when can you come into the studio?'" He laughs uproariously. "'When can we get this onto tape?'" He was gutted to miss that particular session, because he knows that Archy's delivery is so instantaneous. "It's like a guy going into a room and shedding loads of stuff off his back, and he comes out a little bit lighter."
It turns out Kai still has that recording – he thinks it was a voice memo, he says, rather than a voicemail. "We'd gone out drinking after he'd come round to the studio and then he sent me the memo. And at the time it sounded kind of incoherent but I found it the other day, went back and listened to it and it's pretty much the same as the song." He chuckles. When you play the song now, you can hear that rawness come through. It's not difficult to imagine Archy roaring some of the lyrics – "I might have drowned her / I caught her plate number / And yeah, I might have seen it all" – into a phone while walking home in the drizzle. He'd already recorded with the band on the last record, but this time round there's a less spiky texture to the album's overall sound. Light winks through the breaks in Mica's voice on "Marilyn" and beams brightly in the synths and ride cymbal that race each other to the end of instrumental "Delta". There are downtempo moments, don't get me wrong, but they make you want to fall backward into their synth pads rather than look over your shoulder with a sense of creeping unease. To me, at least, the album feels steeped in an optimism and reflection on growing up.
Musically, Dom puts that down to shaving off the extra frills, highlighting "the simplicity of having a drum beat that's just endless, then filling the space around it. That's the thing we were trying to do: keep the rhythm pretty simple then see what we could do outside of it. It forces you to really believe in the idea you have melodically, rather than washing everything in reverb or playing with delays or using tricks. It was way more straight down the line: 'we believe in this music, we're going to pursue it'." He's the first to admit that he wasn't always this sure of his ideas. Music only ever felt like a hobby when he was younger, he tells me, growing up with his parents working as teachers and a family "very much orientated on academia. Originally Kai wanted me to sing on some of his stuff. When we first met – I was about 19, 20 – he'd been producing for years, but didn't really have any confidence in what he was doing. And I think that's why we made music together – neither of us had the confidence to do it on our own. There was too much doubting in taking a step to push it out there to people."
When they did collaborate, they both realised that one could take on parts of a role that filled a gap for the other. Dom's less of a technical musician, and more someone who uses his ear to feel his way through a song. Kai, on the other hand, grew up learning music in a house where his father used to play the saxophone and guitar. "Music was always around," he tell me. "I was writing for as long as I can remember – little songs on the guitar – so it's just something that I've carried with me." Kai had a regular music teacher, and growing up in "a really small rural area in Cornwall – would you even call it a town?" he played in bands with friends from the age of about 13.
"My music teacher taught me how to multi-track with tape," he remembers. "And when she showed me you could rewind the tape and record another instrument over it I found that idea really interesting. More than playing, I like the idea of making something physical that you had and you played back. As I found a way to record, that was it for me. I kind of lost interest in becoming better at playing exclusively and got into that side." And that's where the band's penchant for samples and found sounds comes in, which they weave into such compelling melodies.
Individually, they may have never reached this stage of international tours, a dedicated fanbase and a sound coalescing into its most cohesive self. But together, it just worked. Looking around at people like James Blake, who came up at a similar time to Mount Kimbie in London, you can see how far they've come from a scene that was once clumsily labelled "post-dubstep" and has now morphed into something else entirely. Since working together almost a decade ago, then losing each other for a bit, Dom now reckons James is "in a similar headspace to Kai and I – starting to lose the anxieties of being younger, and celebrate the freedom he has in his own mind".
And that's really what this album is about. Unlike Cold Fault, which Dom says "just sounds completely unfinished to me", Love What Survives centres on coming to terms with yourself, and the relationships and transitions that have molded who you are. This album feels like a musical manifestation of the change you can start to see in yourself, sometimes in your late twenties to early thirties, when you glide from pounding out your excesses and energies and joys in any manner of clubs to "going out" less frenetically. When I say so, Dom nods, scratching absentmindedly at his beard a little. "Yeah, I think that's exactly where we're at." A long pause. "Age just slowwwly starts to catch up with you; it takes three days rather than half a day to get over a hangover," he says, laughing from deep in his belly. "I can only really speak from our perspective but I think we've found a lot of comfort in getting older, and you can probably hear that in the music. I think it's a lot more at peace with itself rather than …" His voice tails off. "I don't know, you know when you're younger – I certainly had this – you're trying to be someone that you feel you should be. That's absolutely what Mount Kimbie was for us for a while. I think when you get older you start to accept completely who you are. You can almost define each album by age."
Sloughing off pretence and the parts of yourself that you hold onto in order to please others turns you into the true version of yourself. Anyone who has looked back on how they were treated by their peers as a teenager, views they held as an adolescent, the lines they let other people cross, will know what this album distills. It's about getting rid of the noise until you're left with what nourishes you. Sitting across from Dom in that little soundproofed room, I mention how, in my early twenties, one of my aunts told me about the power in living life for yourself – and in loving yourself as a result. What sounds like selfishness can actually save you. "Again, that's exactly what that title's about," Dom says. "You lose things along the way – and that can be anything, so many different parts of who you are – and you grow to love what remains. You love what survives."
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Love What Survives is out now on Warp Records.