Epitonic met up with ambient music duo Mountains at the end of the first day of their February 2012 tour with This Will Destroy You and Amen Dunes. We discussed how they produce their soundscapes live and in the studio, and Keon Holtkamp went on to explain the duo's involvement in various international music scenes.
Thrill Jockey's website makes it sound like you were trying to avoid using computers on stage.
Brendon Anderegg: Well, I wouldn't say trying to avoid. I had two computers die pretty close together. You know, one computer died, and then my wife spilled coffee on my computer and that one died, and we had to leave to go on tour. We were just basically using computers to re-sample, and we felt like we had so many pedals we were ready to not necessarily need them.
There are a lot of things you can do with a computer in terms of using a lot of plug-ins. Guitar pedals don't necessarily sound that way sometimes. [And] how [do you look] to the audience? Are you looking at a computer the whole time?
Keon Holtkamp: It creates a certain disconnect.
If you were playing your instruments without the processing, would you be playing differently?
KH: I think our natural style has developed within using these things. I think that is our natural style, but if we didn't have that it would sound extremely different, you know?
BA: I do a lot of finger-picking and stuff, but certain things just don't sound that good when you're using a lot of effects. I play an acoustic guitar on stage, so if I'm playing the acoustic guitar sometimes the high notes come out a lot better than the low notes. So, if I was playing a really fast arpeggio, on a microphone it would sound really good, but [with the processing] all you hear are these plingy notes and nothing else because there's so much other stuff going on. It's about trying to find ways of keeping everything even where you can hear what's going on, but it's also like a big mass of sound.
What other instruments have you played with that are non-synthesized?
BA: Harmonicas, melodicas, a shruti box -- which is like a traveler's harmonium. We use pretty much everything we have at our disposal when we're recording, and then live we do use mics sometimes, but it's hard to rely on that because some venues [have a feedback situation] because of the amount of effects we use.
What were your first artistic mediums?
KH: When I was really young, painting and drawing. When I was more seriously thinking about what I wanted to do, it was film and video. I started focusing on the soundtracks, and getting really into that and then stopped doing the visual aspects and that was my introduction to working with sound. In my early 20s I was obsessed with music but I wasn't in bands as a teenager. I started kind of late, whereas Brendan has played music since he was seven and took lessons growing up and stuff.
Are you influenced by soundtrack music?
KH: I wouldn't say exclusively soundtrack music but the Puplava [and] Herzog stuff is pretty amazing and something that both of us have spent a lot of time with.
Keon, how did your album with Chris Forsyth come about?
KH: We've known each other for a while. I lived in Philly for a year, and he moved to Philly maybe 6 months before that and [we] just started playing together in my space and hit it off immediately. [We] decided to work more with that project and did a few shows.
Brendan actually recorded [my record with Chris]. We did it at his studio in Brooklyn. It's really different for me – [it’s more] rock. I really enjoy playing with him; it's really natural and pretty free, and in some ways it's my chance to kind of rock out, which is fun and very different from this. It’s a nice contrast.
Is your international label/collective Apestaartje still active?
KH: It's not, no. At a certain point I felt like I was half doing a label and half making music. I felt like both of them were not getting my full attention or I wasn't doing them as well as I could. I decided to focus on making music. We haven't [released] a record for three or four years and I have nothing planned but I think some things will happen in the future.
Was Brendan involved in the label?
KH: Yeah, somewhat. I was the person basically curating it and dealing with distribution and all those sort of things.
Who are some of the artists you were involved with and where were they from?
KH: We did a few records with a [Japanese] band called Minamo. Kind of like acoustic and electronic stuff mixed. That's probably my favorite record we put out. We also did a record by the guitarist from Minamo under the name Fourcolor, and an artist from Australia called M. Rosner. We reissued the first Town and Country record. We did some compilations that included people from all over the world. It wasn't so much, “This is our local scene and this is what we're representing.” It was more finding like-minded artists all over the place.
Is that why you call it a collective as well as a label?
KH: Yeah. It started out as Brendan and I and [two other guys], Joshua and Colin. We did a field recording series as well, [which included] a recording of ice melting from inside the ice. It was very much a collective in spirit, and we actually performed as a collective a few times as well.
I saw that you were involved in Emmanuel Witzthum's Dissolving Localities project. What was that exactly?
KH: That was three artists from the US: myself, Greg Davis, and Rafael Anton Irisarri. We went to Jerusalem for a week, and [met up with] three artists from Israel. We spent a week making field recordings, going to various historic sites and through the markets and then compiled those things and had two nights of performances in a gallery space. It was kind of half performance/ half installation. Each artist was in a separate room with their own PA, and it was open so it was meant for people to walk through the space and the sounds bled into each other. We made these recordings and we were processing them live, and [played according to] a thematic chapter-based composition. It would be like focusing on religious sites, people, those sorts of things.
Definitely the most different place I've ever been -- and such a rich history. I was there for a week and we were working the entire time [but] it felt like I was there for five hours. It went by super quick. It's just a very different day-to-day existence and different history. [The whole project] was basically bringing these two different cultures together, reacting to Jerusalem and interpreting that in different ways.
More recently, Mountains contributed a track to the Benefit for the Recovery in Japan album. It sounded like Thrill Jockey put that together?
KH: They distributed it and hosted it. It was mainly Antiopic, this label that used to be based in New York. [Antiopic founder] David Daniell was an old friend, and [thanks to] working with Minamo and bands in Japan, we had these connections and people we were close to or have known for years. It's a great cause and a really well put together collection, so it was nice to be a part of that.
What have your foreign touring experience with Mountains been like?
KH: We've been to Europe a couple of times. I played in Japan solo once. We've been to Europe a bunch of times, and it's very different from here. You get treated a little better and financially it's a bit easier. It's been great to be able to go to Prague, Barcelona, all these places that I probably would never have had a chance to see. We don't really get to spend that much time [in each place] but I feel really lucky to be able to have seen these places and meet so many different kinds of people.
Do you have any places -- a venue or a city -- outside the US that stood out to you?
KH: In terms of venues…in Montreal, Casa Del Popolo is one of my favorite venues. We've played there a bunch of times [and] we're playing there in a few days. Montreal's a great city. People tend to come out and we always have a nice time. It's a really tight knit scene.
We went to Porto last year, and we were there for like a night, but we played outside in a beautiful park, and we were done by nine and sat by the water. That city really struck me -- seemed like a really good quality of life and also fairly affordable. Prague, we went to on that trip as well. The history is so amazing. It wasn't touched at all in the wars, so you have these really old buildings and some of them are a little dilapidated but still it's just ornate. Toulouse, we've been to actually a number of times, and I really like southern France. It's sort of like borderline-Spain. Things are a little mellower down there. Paris is great, but it's a different kind of energy.
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