Seated in a Greenpoint sushi restaurant known less for its cuts of sashimi and more for the free sake that flows all night long, the two members of Mountains are flummoxed by the gentle yet cloying music that wafts overhead. Brendon Anderegg, who splits duties on acoustic guitar, synthesizer, and effects with Koen Holtkamp, takes a stab at describing it: “Pokémon Takes a Nap.”
It might be easy to try and couch the group’s sound in similarly gentle terms. Anderegg and Holtkamp have spent the last decade-plus creating five albums filled with cinematic yet abstract arabesques. That their warm, beatific music emanates from the industrial confines of Brooklyn is fitting; the band’s music often melds the natural and the synthetic. “Having something be very recognizable, like an acoustic guitar, and have it become abstracted into something else—I think that such alchemy was always our goal,” says Holtkamp.
Holtkamp and Anderegg have known each other since they went to middle school and skateboarded together in suburban Connecticut; they later reconnected while attending the Art Institute of Chicago. Anderegg entered the school as a painter, while Holtkamp focused on video, but both soon wound up working in the sound department, helping each other on their own individual projects. By 2000, they ventured into playing shows, but the results were ultimately unsatisfying to them. “It just wasn’t that exciting to re-create these pieces live,” remembers Holtkamp.
The two soon joined forces on a project in which they teased the sounds of acoustic guitars into new shapes via Max/MSP software, and they performed at places like the now-defunct Tonic. “But it wasn’t showing the audience the process of creation,” says Anderegg. “That was a big issue I had with using a computer.” After Anderegg’s laptop died on him—twice—Mountains shifted their focus to instrument playing and sound processing in real-time, with no software involved. “It’s more fun to feel a resonant instrument in your hands than stare at a computer screen and dial in a filter,” says Holtkamp. “It feels so much more alive.”
Mountains’ earliest albums were a sublime mixture of field recordings, tactful acoustic guitar lines, and computer-chewed drones; they staked out territory somewhere between the sounds of Terry Riley, John Fahey, and Christian Fennesz, yet sounded unfamiliar and new at the same time. “For me, that’s always been what’s attracted me to sound,” says Anderegg. “Getting to the point where it didn’t really matter what the source material was is my goal.”
So gorgeous were Mountains’ older albums that I once gave their music to a masseuse friend. When I tell them they made the perfect spa soundtrack, however, the two noticeably wince. “We get many references to ‘ambient,’ ” Holtkamp replies. “Three people have told us that they’ve given birth to our music,” Anderegg says, deadpan. “So . . . that’s something we’re trying to get away from.”
On their new full-length Air Museum (Thrill Jockey), they’ve moved beyond the realms of heated stones and delivery rooms. The sounds of gurgling streams and birds that once coursed through their music are eradicated; the once tell-tale guitar lines have seemingly vanished. “Actually, the things that sound electric on the record are processed acoustic guitars,” explains Holtkamp. But the album feels far more visceral than their previous efforts, with saw-toothed sine waves and aggressive electronic pulsations foregrounded and intensified. “We wanted to push it a bit, so that the music was more in your face,” says Anderegg. Adding to the pressure was Holtkamp’s attempt to move back to Brooklyn from Philadelphia while also finishing the album. “We would work seven hours a day for weeks in the dead of January,” says Anderegg. “And for music like this, it’s extremely hard to focus when it’s so abstract.”
Alien analog throbs propel a piece like “Thousand Square,” while the arpeggiations of “Sequel” pressurize and redouble their efforts until a drone finally overtakes the track and offers release. Closer “Live at the Triple Door” grows into a great oceanic swell of luminous if unidentifiable sound. “We still use standard parts, like guitar and synthesizer, but for me that unknown quantity of sound was what got me excited about music in the first place,” Anderegg says long after our Pokémon soundtrack has been turned off. “My goal is always: I want to be able to make a sound that I’ve never heard before.”