Eight years in, Mountains albums arrive with certain expectations attached. There will be gently melancholy expanses of sound. There will be lapping-wave dissolves and cross fades caulked with spectral drone. There will be reed-rustling whispers and dry-heaving synthesizers. There will be the illusion, on the part of the listener, of being incrementally disconnected from his or her nerve endings and immediate surroundings. All of these things will seem to be continuing forever, and it will be awesome.
In a lot of senses, then, there’s nothing surprising about Centralia (Thrill Jockey); on the new album, machines and instruments manipulated by the Brooklyn duo of Koen Holtkamp and Brendon Anderegg gurgle, thrum, and rustle unreservedly, reveling in a dizzying, uncommon contentedness. But a new warmth has crept into their conflict-free melees, from the drizzling pinprick electronics defining “Liana” to the raspy, delirious shivers of “Sand” to the threshing, high-altitude head rush of “Propeller.”
In the weeks leading up to the release of Centralia, SOTC emailed with Holtkamp and Anderegg about their new album and the evolution of their sound.
How did the whole Centralia concept that surrounds this album originate? Is it symbolic of anything in particular, an island of the imagination, perhaps? It’s the second album title of yours in a row that seems to point, in a way, to a physical place.
Koen Holtkamp and Brendon Anderegg: That’s an interesting connection. While they’re both references to a physical space of some sort, they’re meant to be suggestive, leaving ample room for the listener’s interpretation. We were thinking of this record as expanding on what we’ve done in the past, but also combining many of the separate elements and working methods we’ve used on previous records. So Centralia as a central location or middle ground made a lot of sense.
While we were working on the album, thinking about possible record titles and covers, Koen opened up an old book and on the inside cover of the first page was the image we ended up using for the album cover, a really old stain. This image immediately invoked a map for us which worked naturally with the title Centralia. The title relates directly to the music but also could be seen as an imaginary location where the music comes from.
In terms of combining prior working methods from previous albums, is there a particular song on Centralia that stands out as a full realization of this synthesis?
KH: I think “Circular C” is the most unique in that respect. The track began as a simple piano line and a revolving modular synth sequence. We then played a lot of tracks over it: cymbals, acoustic guitar, cellos, and some more synth parts. While the palette is similar to some other things we’ve done, the working method and intention were somewhat different. When we were layering these various rhythmic and melodic elements, the piece began to almost blur. It’s fairly repetitive and hypnotic, so we mixed it with the intention of having individual instruments come in and out of focus and at times almost become one another. Waves of cello become a synth chord or acoustic guitar mimics the timing of the synth. We wanted to overlap these melodies and textures where they all had a very particular relationship to one another.
“Circular C” has a really interesting rhythmic flow – it’s like wandering through an eternal beaded curtain of sounds, with each disruption of a strand triggering a slightly different instrumental element. It’s a bit like being on a river, that sort of bobbing and dipping but still a sense of forward motion.
KH: You kinda nailed it in terms of what we were going for. The song started out perhaps midway through the making of the record. We were at a point when we could sort of start to see the larger picture of how the individual tracks we had at that point would start to fit together as an album. We really wanted this album to have a wide dynamic range, so I think “Circular C” just started out as us experimenting with the idea of creating poly rhythms by combining acoustic and electronic sounds one at a time. As we added more and more instruments the piece became intensely dizzying, so in the end we ended up scaling back and taking a few things away.
Mountains songs generally have a therapeutic, generative glow that surrounds them, this gentle din of layered washes and drones that are imbued with melodies but is nonetheless so hypnotic that it’s easy to just get lost in. When the two of you are writing, is that a perspective that you take into account? Or do you experience your music in a totally different way?
KH and BA: A lot of our music has been about subtle changes over long periods of time. This gradual development lends itself well to the kind of listening one can easily get lost in, but we try to include a lot of detail so even if on the surface it can seem quite simple there’s always a lot going on and things are actually changing quite a bit. We use a lot of layers moving different elements in and out of the foreground.
It’s when these sounds come together and react to one another that things start to get interesting. Something sounds one way alone but when you put a different tone or chord underneath it the entire melodic structure can change. We want our music to shift in a subtle way so it does become hypnotic because a lot of the shifts take along time to happen, but it’s very important to us that the music is always moving and evolving.
What’s the strangest or least expected response that others have had to a Mountains song or album?
KH: On three separate occasions, people have mentioned giving birth while listening to one of our albums which I think is a huge compliment, but also kind of a bizarre surprise. A couple bought a CD from us in Toulouse – I think it was a tour cdr we made at the time which ended up being released later in LP format as Etching – and explained that they wanted to have it for while the woman was in labor. A few months later, they emailed thanking us and saying that the whole process was wonderful.
This is certainly not a function I ever imagined the music having, but it’s kind of amazing that some people felt like it was the soundtrack they wanted for such an intensely personal and significant moment.
I think that gives you the right to brand yourselves as “amnio-drone” or even “amnio-core.” Are you fans of solo guitarists? Your approach involves a lot of layers and parts, but on this album – particularly on “Tilt” – there’s a strong John Fahey/Jack Rose feel to the composition and performance that I hadn’t noticed before in your work.
KH: For sure. We’re huge fans of a lot of solo acoustic guitarists and have spent a good chunk of time over the years listening to LPs by Fahey as well as many other folks, such as Sandy Bull, Robbie Basho, Suni Mcgrath, and Michael Chapman.
Prior to the new record, this influence probably comes across most obviously on “Down Under The Manhattan Bridge Overpass” from Mountains, which is a long piece which revolves mainly around finger-picked acoustic guitar. The title is a personal reference but was meant to be somewhat of a nod to Fahey in the way it references place somewhat like many of his titles. I’m thinking of “The Great Santa Barbara Oil Slick” or “The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party.”
What do you guys do for day jobs?
KH: We both work mostly freelance at the moment. Brendon does soundtrack work for documentaries as well as recording and post production at his studio, Telescope Recording. I worked in record stores and at a reissue label for a long time but recently have been mostly doing audio work for some film and art projects as well as selling some records and gear online.
Are Mountains albums representative of particular compositional periods, or do you guys find yourselves developing, revising, and adding to pieces for years prior to deciding that something is “complete” or finished and ready to appear on a record?KH: Generally, I think the pieces are representative of the time period in which they were made, though there are individual sounds or ways of working that end up as a jumping-off point later on. We’re always trying to revise and develop our overall sound, so that involves both looking forward as well as back to elements we’d used before. With Centralia in particular we talked a lot about what we’d done previously and consciously revisited and expanded on some working methods or combinations of instruments that we’d used in the past.
Given the wide range of instruments and sound generators you use, is it difficult to answer when people ask you what your role in the band is, or “what you play?” Do either of you view your contribution to Mountains in such terms, or do you see the parts you play in a less black and white way?
KH: It’s kinda unavoidable to have to break down what you do in literal terms sometimes. If someone finds out you’re a musician, the natural question is what do you play. Usually if I don’t know someone I’d probably say electronics, guitar and keyboards but I wouldn’t really refer to myself as a “guitarist” or “keyboard player.”
Perhaps because we focus on a range of instruments and ways to extend and manipulate them rather then on one specific thing, I sort of see the studio as being our main instrument. But I’m not sure that totally fits being that a large part of our focus is on performance. We’ve been doing this long enough that I don’t really question these aspects of it much. For us, it’s less about the individual ingredients and more about how they combine together and what that creates.
“Down Under The Manhattan Bridge Overpass”
“Propeller” is by far my favorite song on Centralia, and it embodies its title fully, and vice versa – just this massive, body massage hum crossed with a vague but persistent sense of helicopters, machinery, and to some extent sci-fi. It’s like the beating heart of an album that feels very, very warm and welcoming. All Mountains records have that inviting dissociation vibe happening, but on this one I think you succeeded in kicking it up a few notches somehow. How was the sort of centrifugal melodic effect achieved on “Propeller”?
KH: Like most of the titles on Centralia, the title came after the track was done. It’s a recording of a live performance. We basically took the beginning and end of a live set from a few months after Air Museum came out put them together and added a few little details.
“Liana,” the track after “Propeller,” was the middle section of the same show but we thought it worked better for the album on its own. In performance, we tend to do a lot of live sampling and layering of various instruments at different lengths so the melodies are constantly changing in the way in which they overlap with one another.
A lot of the hypnotic, cyclical quality of “Propeller” came out of this process of looping and layering different elements and then slowly shifting the mix over time to focus in on the different details within the whole.
Mountains new album Centralia is out now.