Three years ago we spoke to the “curious and grumpy” pairing of Kai Campos and Dom Maker. At the time they were bordering on insomnia having just finished their debut album, and on the verge of punching argumentative cab drivers. This time, on the café rooftop of their rented studio space, they’re talkative and less agitated, but no less forthright.
Click back to 2010 and Mount Kimbie were a duo in the process of gently shifting the post-dubstep mood and heading towards a tour schedule that would eventually span two years. It was no mean feat for the two former Southbank students who subsequently disrupted their studies to emerge with ‘Crooks and Lovers’, a debut that impressed as much as it perplexed. Billed as an album born from South London’s gritty, bass-heavy heart, Kai and Dom’s hazy alchemy hinted at something deeper than the wobble-aping sets being churned out across the capital. In a divisive genre already fiercely subdivided, the depth and subtlety of Mount Kimbie’s fragmented beats and exposed dance music went against the tub-thumping aggression of the archetypal dubstep sound. But while those rough and ready elements have swarmed with accelerated bacteria-speed, and infected further bastardisations of 2-step, garage, grime and dub ever since, Mount Kimbie’s slow return to the studio has only helped their debut album, and their own awkward place in proceedings, endure as one of dubstep’s most diffusive benchmarks.
“I think the last record has solidified its place in time probably because we didn’t put out anything so quickly after,” Kai agrees. “When we put the album out, we didn’t necessarily think there was a place for it, or that we were locked into a scene because the whole conversation normally is that electronic music is insecure about what real musicians think of it.
“From our perspective it was almost the other way round, like there was this inverse snobbery about us not being proper electronic musicians. We felt just as much outside of the loop then as we do now, so in that scenario, you can only really follow on your own ideas, rely on that confidence and hope there’ll be an audience for it.”
Back in 2013, the small-scale acclaim ‘Crooks and Lovers’ generated is a distant consideration for both Kai and Dom. While it’s inevitable that their debut played a formative role influencing their exploratory, chameleonic sound, Kai is keen to stress that that influence hasn’t necessarily translated into a natural continuation on forthcoming follow up, ‘Cold Spring Fault Less Youth’.
“‘Crooks and Lovers’ did well in the context of where it sat, but it’s not like it was a massive global success that took years to get over,” he states. “The hoo-ha around it is quite easy to take a step back from. Inevitably we wouldn’t have made this album [‘Cold Spring Fault Less Youth’] if the last album didn’t sound like it did. It’s a reaction, not against it, but because of it. In some ways we’re more confident about what we’re doing and the ideas we’re having and this gives us the time to explore things a bit deeper, and not be so worried about keeping people’s attention.
“The first record did us a lot of favours but at the same time we’re thinking of the new record independently and not as a continuation. The music we made on this record feels like the only record we could have made. If we finish something, it’s usually on the record. We stop a lot of ideas before they get finished and are just pretty slow at getting things done and there’s not much left over by the end of it.”
Taking a step back from writing and putting music out in favour of hitting the road was a move at odds with the duo’s previous dynamic. Away from the semi-prolific smatterings of EPs and remixes, touring unanimously allowed them to “become a better band” and definitively helped them play out their ‘Crooks and Lovers’ chapter. It did, however, make the return to the studio slightly more difficult than anticipated.
“Stopping was interesting,” Dom begins, “we tried writing on the road but it didn’t work out and we just didn’t have the right atmosphere. But when we sat down to do it, it felt like a fresh start…”
“…stopping was easy,” Kai adds. “I don’t think we’re the kind of people that need to be writing every day and it was interesting for us to just be on the road. There was definitely a period at the beginning where we’d forgotten everything and we weren’t even finishing songs or having the ideas that were getting us excited about making music, and there were a few low points, but about a year in to touring, we started trying out really early ideas and it was just a case of working out how to finish them from that.”
“You get used to being in your little bubble,” Dom continues, “and I think if we’d released something else quite quickly after [‘Crooks and Lovers’], I’m not convinced it would have been any good.”
The waiting period between records is an art in itself. Ride the wave and that momentum can take you anywhere but rush the material and the damage could be irreversible. Out of focus and out playing to anyone willing to listen, the time lapse also turned out to be a creatively disciplined one too. As well as overcoming the low points, it enabled the pair to use the time to do what they do best: explore.
“As soon as we finished it, we knew we’d said all we could with that particular sound, and maybe even said a little too much,” Kai admits. “We knew we wanted to try other stuff, and I don’t find the new album that surprising in terms of where it’s gone or that it sounds that different. It’d be weird if we made a record just like the first one and we’d got into certain habits of where to go to and how to make it sound. That break forced us to stop those habits.
“I feel like the last record became like a cultural status or commodity where people latched onto it where with the new record I’d welcome people to listen to it and be like ‘Errrr?’ because I think that’s a good sign. I think with the last record it was one you could put on at any time but you just don’t want to be that guy making background music… the amount of people who write about revising to our fucking music… it’s like a back-handed compliment but I hope the new record isn’t one you’d want to revise to. We might just corner the GCSE market, giving the album away with term books,” Kai laughs.
“This record’s more of a grower purely because the ideas are more convoluted,” he says, “and it takes time to adjust to the language of it and the reference points. All in all I think it’s more of a challenging record which is what we wanted to do.”
The album in question, ‘Cold Spring Fault Less Youth’, certainly gets a reaction. Rich with the same accomplished complexity, it doesn’t hit hard initially but left to worm its way in it carries the aloof genius of its predecessor. Crank it up and the itchy scuttle of ‘Made to Stray’ goes from skittering Four Tet beat to ragga banger; the glazed melodies of ‘Home Recording’ warm like a good whiskey and the deep, world-weary drawl of King Krule’s cameos make more sense with every reverberation. But while it makes brilliant sense on record, now that they’ve had the time to dig into its details, Dom and Kai are already focused on how ‘Cold Spring Fault Less Youth’ will come to life on stage.
“For me personally, I’ve just always felt like we could make a really powerful live show,” Dom states. “I think it’s one thing replicating the songs but live has allowed us to be creative and embellish on the ideas we have and that’s just fun. I’m glad we’re not just DJing because it feels right for the music we make.”
Kai agrees: “I think we struck a good balance taking the energy of being on stage and touring but not relying on it too much in the studio. There are a few songs we made that we’re never going to play live because they won’t work in that context or they’ll be physically impossible. We certainly don’t want to make a record for the sake of playing festivals or making a song for a small club…I think the better thing to do is to figure out how to contextualise what you’ve done afterwards. We spent ages thinking how best to present everything because we were just playing in clubs between DJs and it just wasn’t working.”
The amount of time spent on tour has undoubtedly had an influence, but there’s also a determination to move Mount Kimbie beyond being more than DJs and more than producers. In the same way they aren’t content to set up camp in specific genres, the theme of constantly digging into the details of every element of the band dynamic is a further sign of the duo growing more comfortable and confident. Ultimately, it’s a simple desire for freedom, isn’t it?
“Yeah, definitely,” says Dom. “We’ve got a friend of ours on drums, and he’s decent on keyboards and does a bit of singing, so that’s just freed us up and allowed us to replicate the songs naturally with the live drums and the layers we might have just disregarded or sequenced…”
Kai jumps in: “…and I think sometimes when there was just the two of us, there was this sense that this was the best we could do with two people on stage. That’s not the best attitude to have because you want to be as good as anyone else and it’s not an excuse to say “oh they’re producers and they’re not meant to do it as live music”. Having the extra people means we can be more ambitious with what we want to achieve sonically.”
It’s also a desire that goes beyond simply replicating the record. Last year’s raging EDM debate eloquently (and not so eloquently) covered most of the ground but where listening to an album is an experience that can be turned on and off at will, to Kai, the live show is all about the connection.
“I think the actual dynamic of triggering samples pales in comparison to someone plucking a string,” he muses. “You can see the amount of force, the speed it’s played… it’s just something humans connect with. Some people do stuff with technology on stage, and if you know what they’re doing it’s impressive but I don’t think that’s a very admirable goal. What’s impressive is what you’ve done in the studio and I think what you need to be doing live has to be as expressive as what you do in the studio. Having that space on either side is also important because it has to be able to go wrong and you have to be able to abuse it in some way. Anyone that’s seen us before six months ago knows it can go wrong in a big way,” he smiles.
Self-deprecating, focused and serious, it’s easy to see how Dom and Kai mirror the music they make. Sure there’s reservation and a distance but there’s an affable realism and a determination to downplay their successes so far. After the debut whirlwind, they feel like a band in control; a band as sure of their next step as they were of this one. Ducking the easy momentum was the move of a young duo unsure of what they wanted to do next but certain of how they wanted to do it. You know, quietly.
“I think with ‘Crooks and Lovers’, we felt more comfortable with it but with this record, there’s more of a risk,” says Dom. “We’ve put more of ourselves into it. There’s definitely more on the line.”