Austra’s Katie Stelmanis talks to Kai Campos of Mount Kimbie
In this feature taken from our new Summer, 2013 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, we arranged a meeting of post-dubstep and electro-goth minds. Above: Austra (left) and Mount Kimbie (L-R: Kai Campos and Dominic Maker) both photographed by Hans Martin Sewcz in Berlin.
Second albums: with very few exceptions, respectable musicians have to make them. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, especially not for acts whose debut releases have critics’ expectations for follow-ups sky-high. For Kai Campos of post-dubstep reformers Mount Kimbie and Katie Stelmanis of shadowy electro-goths Austra, however, the hype has been less of a double- edged sword than for most. Keeping their safe distance from the flighty sensibilities of their respective scenes, both have managed to make impressively unself-conscious second LPs with a focus on analog electronics. In the case of Mount Kimbie’s Cold Spring Fault Less Youth, this has meant moving away from the limitations of exclusively computer-based composition and plug-in abuse towards a poetics of imperfection offered by electric instruments and hissy outboard gear. Oh yeah, and the human voice—an instrument whose potential for perfection the classically trained vocalist Katie Stelmanis has actively sought to temper on Austra’s recently released Olympia. Here, the two let us know where they’re at and how they got there.
Katie Stelmanis: Kai, in terms of the UK music scene, dubsteb and garage belong to a culture I’ve been watching and glorifying from afar and obsessing over—especially growing up in a place like Toronto and coming from a classical music background. I’d be interested in knowing how much of the music you make derives from being part of a scene. Or is it a more independent thing?
Kai Campos: I grew up in a really rural part of England where there was no real music scene of any kind. So most of my alternative music education came from the radio, especially John Peel and Gilles Peterson. I would always tape them—especially John Peel because he played such a diverse collection of music. In a sense I took it for granted that people listen to music like that. But I think, by definition, you make music to fit a certain context. The thing is, our music never really worked in clubs, so you wouldn’t hear it in places we went to. We’ve only been in London since late 2006, so that was kind of the start of the end of what was interesting in dubstep. When we made our first LP, we were starting to lose interest, really. We actually decided to stop playing club shows for that very reason: playing before or after a DJ just sucked every single time. We just had to recontextualize what we were doing. It had nothing to do with what was going on around us. And since we’ve started Mount Kimbie, we’ve not been at home so much, so I’m not so clued up as to what goes on. We’re good friends with musicians, but there’s not much of a sense of community. Or rather, there is a community, but it doesn’t have much to do with what we do artistically.
KS: I’m curious to know what it was like making your second record, as that one’s always associated with certain difficulties. I know I didn’t feel any pressure making Olympia, because there were so many things I wanted to change from the first one.
KC: It’s remarkably similar for us actually. We finished Crooks and Lovers what feels like ages ago and then we felt like we were done with that kind of music; we’d said about as much as we’d wanted to say, really. And then we toured it and that was the longest I’d ever gone without writing music. When we stopped touring we dropped off the radar a bit, which was good for us. We didn’t have a label because our deal with Hotflush was over at the time—after two EPs and an album. It was a very amicable thing. But I will say that dealing with hype isn’t always easy. We want people to like the music and for it to be a success and to have this as our jobs. It’s important to make good decisions. But it’s all stuff that comes after you’ve made the record.
KS: I don’t think Austra ever really got too hyped. That’s why I never felt like we had to live up to hype or some idea. With Olympia, we just wanted to do something bigger. We toured Feel It Break for so long that the songs became something very different on the road, which was a good thing.
KC: I think being onstage is sometimes the only place where you can hear how other people hear you music.
KS: That’s true, because you also rarely know what format people are listening to you on. I’m imagining people listening with headphones . . .
KC: If you’re lucky! I think most people do it over laptop speakers and only listen for thirty seconds before, like, making a comment about it on Facebook or Soundcloud.
KS: At least you have good radio. I’m very jealous of the radio you have in the UK.
KC: They do their best to make it worse. Was radio an important thing for you growing up?
KS: Well, I came to making electronic music by accident when I was nineteen or twenty. I came out of the classical world and wanted to write orchestral music, which I then started to do with MIDI. But in Toronto, nobody was doing that. There was an insane amount of pressure from people to play “real” instruments. All I heard was, “Your voice would sound so pretty on these types of sounds.” But there’s been this massive cultural shift since then.
KC: I was playing in bands for a while until around sixteen when I had a really good teacher who taught me about multi- track recording on a little tape deck. From that point on, after I figured out how to overdub, I asked myself, “Why would
I ever be in a band again?” Then I started making really, really bad electronic music for around the next ten years. Now it’s come back full circle. By the way, I hope I didn’t disappoint you before about the “scene” in London . . .
KS: It makes me happy, because now I don’t have to be jealous. But I feel like I would never even be part of it anyway because
I’m not super into club culture. I’m a homebody. I love dance music and electronic music but I rarely experience it in a club.
KC: There are a lot of people like that—especially DJs and producers over here. DJs obviously have to go to the clubs to work, but a lot of them wouldn’t be there if they weren’t working.
KS: Are you guys into mostly analogue stuff or do you do a lot of programming and plug-in work?
KC: Our first set-up was almost all digital, but with this album, all the mixing and mastering was analogue. I think before you make the leap, the difference is not something you hear that much. But then you notice them in certain contexts. And even if there’s only, say, a ten percent difference when using digital, I wonder why anybody would sacrifice that ten percent.
KS: It’s one thing to sacrifice ten percent of a sound for a single instrument. It’s an entirely different thing when you do that for all instruments.
KC: Yeah. And lots of software today leaves little to no room for it to be misused. Loads of moments on our last record were just accidents. We were abusing our equipment—pushing it to do things it wasn’t designed to do and that’s when you find your own unique voice.
KS: I feel like there’s been a big shift towards analogue recording methods recently, at least amongst artists I’ve talked to. Five years ago they were like, “I can do everything on my computer in GarageBand! It’s amazing!” And now, suddenly, they’re feeling very different about the sounds they use. Now everybody has access to a laptop, so you have to try harder to make something different.
KC: These things really do go in circles. When you’re younger you end up making sweeping statements about what you’re never going to do, but I try not to do that anymore.
KS: Ten years ago I used to say I could never identify with folk music. But these days I absolutely love it.
KC: What do you love about it?
KS: The songwriting and the way that artists are really communicating a story, like the last Perfume Genius record, Put Your Back N 2 It. I used to pay much less attention to lyrics, but now it’s become an important part of what I focus on as an artist.
KC: There have been times in the past where I could sing along to an entire album and still not really know any of the lyrics. When we were writing the songs for this album, there was a lot of space where the vocals should be, but we didn’t want to have an album featuring a bunch of different people. I had all these ideas for the vocal parts and because I’m a bit of a control freak, I just ended up doing it myself. That was quite a new thing. It wasn’t particularly scary because it felt like the right thing to do. I felt like with this record we just had to put more on the line. Honestly, I really enjoy the vocal performances where people can’t sing. Even though I sometimes wish I had gone for singing lessons before. But it is what it is. Now I know that for the next time.
KS: I love non-singers, though I come from the opposite end of the spectrum, and I’ve been criticized for singing “effortlessly”. That’s an aspect I’ve also heard in other singers: great voices that do absolutely nothing for me.
KC: It’s like with equipment: when people don’t know how to use it, it’s interesting. I like using something before I’ve read the manual. It’s like a route to . . . yourself.~
Read the entire issue of the Summer 2013 edition of EB Magazine below, and watch a video of Austra’s performance from EB Festival Cologne 2012. Read Daniel Jones’ review of Olympia here.
Published July 03, 2013.