I met Laurence Tureaud (Mr. T) three years ago at a music studio in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles. We were on a deck listening to a stereo and I turned him onto the instrumental hip hop of Madlib’s Beat Konducta Vol. 3 & 4: India. He loved the Bollywood samples, and the lumbering, squared off beats. Those slowed and mashing Madlib beats, like Godzilla grazing through the city of New Delhi. Now, two or three times a year, Mr. T emails me asking for music suggestions. He wants to know good music to listen to. Occasionally, he refers to me as “Lemonhead.” Sometimes T will call, while listening to the music I’ve pointed him to. He’ll say, “Lemonhead, what is this? Explain this music.”
A week ago, I told Mr. T to get the instrumental albums Sewn and Choral by Mountains. Mountains is the Brooklyn based duo of Koen Holtkamp and Brendon Anderegg. They raise acoustic, ambient soundscapes. The compositions are poised, elongated, and close to experimental. Melodies picked on acoustic guitar cycle over cirrus beds of analog synths. Field recordings of creeks and rain and waves wash in and out. Anderegg and Holtkamp don’t play their instruments as much as they cultivate them. Through delays and modulations, sections of the songs are more arrived at than performed. This coming January 22nd, Mountains release their next album Centralia on Thrill Jockey Records. With it, they continue to hone and sculpt the planes of their sound.
I explained this to Mr. T, but he didn’t like it. He said, “No Lemonhead, what’s it really about? None of this blah blah blah stuff.” So I told him to call me back the next day at the same time from a place where he could see the sky. Twenty-four hours later he called back from his convertible with Mountains cued up on his stereo, and said clouds were rolling by overhead. I had something prepared. He said, “Let it happen, Lemon.” I told him to play Sewn’s “Sewn Two.” And I read him the following:
If these words were anything else, they’d be a basin. Then they’d be the road you just drove. Embedded and taken. This road goes. Sun rips through wing shapes in the clouds and you see things. Your favorite gold chain there becomes a snake, but instead of being charmed, it charms you. The chain-snake cloud combs the curves of the day, then it says the day is listening. Down to the roots, these words, drinking in and releasing worlds.
Mr. T audibly breathed, “I like worlds. I gave my favorite chain to Stallone. Oh well. I’m fully reclined by the way, Lemonhead. This car has 12 little Bose speakers. The Mountains sound rich. I see leaves falling from trees. I see a lake that’s still. I see a frozen dragon. You don’t want to know how much I paid a lot for these speakers either.” I continued –
The chain snake expands until it becomes a desert. An Arabian desert. A caravan there was moving over sand. Dunes and desert forever. The caravan is traveling an incense route. From Shabwah in Hadhramaut, the easternmost kingdom of South Arabia, to Gaza. A route the camels know well, harsh and long, but worth it in reward and spice. The caravan leader has nine year-old twins who go with him, always. A girl named Alima, and a boy Imam. On the third day of the third desert crossing of the year, the twins find an abandoned hawk’s nest with three unhatched eggs inside.
Alima insists on taking the eggs in and incubating them, despite everyone in the caravan telling her it’s too late to save what’s inside. She mothers them with constant vigilance. She speaks to them and breathes on them for hours. Weeks later, in Gaza, after the caravan arrives, the eggs hatch. Everyone’s bewildered. It shouldn’t have happened. There was no life in those eggs. But Alima knew, never doubted, and thus, three baby hawks were born to the desert world. And each hawk with emerald eyes. Green, light filled emerald eyes.
Mr. T, “What happened to the cloud snake?”
Me, “The snake became the desert. Now put on “Add Infinity” from Choral.”
The hawks are female. Alima names them Abia, Asima, and Anjum, meaning ‘great’, ‘protector’, and ‘stars’. She and her brother raise them, care for them, and train them. They wear thick leather bracelets on both their wrists at all times, as the hawks become permanent fixtures. Flight is taken to quickly by the birds. Alima and Imam love them endlessly. These hawks with emerald eyes become perfect caravan companions. Caravan pets. Darts through the air, playing in the updrafts like kittens with talons. Flying from rider to rider for treats of meat. Fetching falling items. Delivering messages on ankle bracelets. Providing pest control, and posting on the upper slats of the sedans to clean their feathers.
Mr. T, “I had nice leather bracelets too. But gave those to Dolph Lundgren. He probably didn’t even wear them. They should have had me be in Expendables.”
Through the years the hawks remain with the caravan. They learn and ingrain the route in their aerial brains, keeping look out for thieves and places where travel would be impossible. Imam makes them special perches on one of the wagons. The hawks maintain a caravan watch. Giving warning, spotting water in the distance, reading weather, warding off enemies and hyenas. Communicating with different whistles and screams.
At night, with their emerald eyes glowing, they’re easy to find and see - weaving green lines around the countless desert stars. The caravan of the three hawks never strays. Abia, Asima, and Anjum. Keen bolts. Guarding. Springing their green lit eyes through the darkness. There, and banking turns, like they’ve always been.
Mr. T was silent in his breathing for a few seconds then said, “Shaquille O’neal has a daughter named Amirah. Did you ever listen to his rap albums? I had Shaq Fu: Da Return, with the song, “Biological Didn’t Bother.” I like the Mountains. I’m calm now. It’s like time travel, Lemonhead. Except with falconry. I feel like I know how snowflakes are made now too. I should get that chain back from Stallone.
An hour later, I spoke with Mountains’ Koen Holtkamp. There was no talk of hawks, and he didn’t know that Mr. T was sitting in a car, staring at clouds, listening to his music.
VICE: What’s Mountains’ process for writing? How do the songs come together?
Koen Holtkamp: Depends on the situation. Sewn was done over a short period of time in relative seclusion from the outside world. We went to the country for a couple weeks to make a record with some loose structures we had performed live, and a lot of instruments. Choral was done a few nights a week over a period of months while we both had full time jobs and plenty of other outside stimuli to focus on. We took our time with Centralia, piecing it together layer by layer. Pretty much everything we’ve done starts with some aspect of improvisation. We'll explore different tunings and the composition starts to take form when we settle on one. We use performance as part of the compositional process. The more we perform something, the more composed it becomes.
How do you approach your live shows?
I think playing live is the most important part of the process for us. Usually we compose a piece to be performed live and then perform that for a tour or certain group of shows. As the tour goes on we’ll try different approaches or directions within the overall piece until we reach a place where it seems right. Then after we've played it a number of times, we’ll record a definitive version and then move on to the next thing. So what we perform live is more of a work in progress most of the time, rather than something from an album we have already finished.
What do you use to record your nature sounds?
Most of the field recordings I’ve done have been with binaural in ear microphones. I like using binaural mics because they focus on listening and capture sound as an ear would hear. With binaurals, there’s a hyperdimensional sense of space created by the way in which they capture motion.
Have you ever fallen in the stream you’re recording? What are some crazy field recordings you’ve made? Have you ever recorded a speed-eating contest? Like that Kobayashi guy? He can eat fifteen hotdogs in eight seconds.
Nothing too dramatic. No speed-eating. I’ve recorded mosquitoes in upstate NY. The police under the Queensboro Bridge. Children singing on a fake beach in Amsterdam.
Do you know beforehand which sounds will go with what songs? Do you think, "Ooh, this song needs a stream?”
No. Not at all. We collect sounds that we like and figure out later what they will go with compositionally.
What are you drawn to musically?
There’s a certain warmth that’s a natural characteristic of many acoustic instruments we are drawn to. Electronically, those elements allow us to manipulate and expand the temporal possibilities of the instruments. We also tend to focus on detail and a very gradual sense of timing, which has a big impact on what we do.
What music do you listen to? What informs Mountains’ sound?
My list could go on for a while. I think we take elements of a lot of the music we love, whether it be Popol Vuh, Charlemagne Palestine, early music, Indian classical music, Steve Roden, the Incredible String Band, Microstoria, Cluster, Psych, Country. It all sneaks in there.