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Chosen One: Mountains

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Interview with Koen Holtkamp, Mountains.

“I see collecting instruments somewhat in the same regard as collecting sounds for a piece. I started out experimenting with radios, computers, electronics etc and was just particularly taken with the richness and intimacy of acoustic instruments so initially I came at it from a sonic perspective.”

—Koen Holtkamp, Mountains

Words: Mark & Craig Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry


Mountains comprise of the duo Koen Holtkamp and Brendon Anderegg. Based in Brooklyn, the pair have been responsible for some of independent music’s most treasured music over the last decade or so. This year marks the release of ‘Centralia’ (on the Chicago-based Thrill Jockey label), the band’s fifth album and follow-up to 2011’s ‘Air Museum.’

As we’ve come to expect from Mountains, the music on ‘Centralia’ is spellbinding; wonderfully crafted sonic textures effortlessly fuse together to create an otherworldly sound. ‘Centralia’ itself is named from the town of Centralia in Pennsylvania, which was the site of a tragic mine fire in 1962, which lead to the town’s abandonment. Ghosts of Centralia can be heard throughout the LP, where ambient drone passages and nuanced textural details (such as a softly strummed acoustic guitar, an uplifting cello, or a melodica) create a magical atmosphere – sometimes haunting, other times truly uplifting – but always utterly compelling and imaginative.

‘Sand’ opens the album and sets the tone for what’s to come perfectly. This gorgeous piece begins with a drone intro where gradual layers of manipulated sounds overlay together to create an expansive, vast soundscape. The piece echoes Stars of the Lid, where it feels as if no mere mortal could create such beauty. There is also a wonderful balance of contrast on the piece, there is always sufficient amounts of light and dark present in a Mountains composition. One of my personal highlights of any Mountains album comes in the passage beginning at the eight minute mark of ‘Sand’. Here we are immersed in a drone passage, gradually getting denser in texture while achieving quite an ominous and foreboding mood. Then, as if a ray of light has shone forth on proceedings, a magical cello line drifts in, beautifully shifting the composition to its glorious conclusion at the ten-minute mark.

Of course, instrumentation is also a key part of the Mountains oeuvre, the pair never rely solely on what technology can bring to proceedings. The range of instruments used by Holtkamp and Anderegg serves to add a myriad of tones and textures to their palette. It’s clear that the pair soak up influences from everywhere, not simply in the drone/ambient sphere but also in classical realms and folk music traditions. Like Mountains’s classic “Choral” (Thrill Jockey, 2009) the pair have the exquisite ability and musical understanding to know exactly what arrangements to call for and when exactly to adopt a particular instrument. Take, for example, the second piece ‘Identical Ship’ a beautiful folk-inspired acoustic guitar-led composition where piano notes are added to the arrangement to mesmerizing effect. It recalls, for me, the “magic” of seeing Warren Ellis play piano live last year with The Dirty Three, his piano notes rising from the depths of Turner and White’s blissful noise.

Mountains are not only real artists (their artistry is apparent across any of their records) but also master craftsmen. Holtkamp and Anderegg recorded Centralia (mostly at Telescope Recording in Brooklyn) as well as completing editing and mixing duties. No stone is left unturned. In a similar painstaking fashion to the recorded output of Jason Pierce’s Spiritualized, we can immediately ‘hear’ the sheer work and attention to detail at all times in the finished compositions. A true labour of love from start to finish.

‘Circular C’ demonstrates wonderfully how Mountains can combine both organic and synthetic sounds so seamlessly. Yet the effect that’s created is wholly natural: It feels like we’re atop wide open, boundless plains, savouring everything nature can show us. The ten minutes therein is simply life-affirming. The six-minute acoustic guitar-led ‘Tilt’ is sequenced halfway and is – like everything else – perfectly sequenced. The song is more sparse than other pieces, and the guitar work recalls such luminaries as William Tyler (particularly his ‘Behold The Spirit’ album). Subtlety is also paramount. The field recordings, piano and the digitally altered sounds all add to the piece greatly, yet never threaten to override the flow of the piece or detract from the divine acoustic guitar playing. An ebbing tide recording comprises the outro of ‘Tilt’, the ebb and flow majestically reinforcing the true beauty inherent in the music of Mountains.

Post ‘Tilt’ feels as if we’re onto side two of ‘Centralia’, as more abstract and ambient-minded compositions take hold of the senses from now on. ‘Propeller’ takes its cue from more classical/ambient spheres. The piece is as breathtaking as Steve Reich’s ‘Phases’, as the track seems to create a life of its own; It’s twenty-minute mastery is worth the price of the album on its own. Both ‘Liana’ and ‘Living Lens’ are equally compelling (the keys on the former creates a surreal dream-like passage; the latter echoes the film score works of Cave & Ellis) and confirms (as if anyone needed confirmation in the first place) Mountains as independent music’s most beloved and cherished of acts making music today.


‘Centralia’ is out now on Thrill Jockey. 

Mountains play The Black Mariah, Triskel, Cork on 8 May, tickets €12/10 are available from Plugd Records and Triskel, Cork.  (Facebook Event page here)


Interview with Koen Holtkamp, Mountains.

The title for ‘Centralia’ is a reference to Centralia, Pennsylvania, the site of a mine fire in 1962, which lead to the town’s abandonment. Can you please discuss the inspiration that the town of Centralia had on your ‘Centralia’ record?

It’s actually not meant to be a direct reference to the town in Pennsylvania though we were aware that some people would probably make that connection. There are quite a few towns in the US with the name Centralia one of which we came across while on tour on the West Coast and the name kind of stuck with us. As we were working on the record we started to think of it as somewhat of a culmination of everything we’d done in the past so Centralia as a central location or middle ground made sense. On one level there’s this more literal connection but we also thought of it worked nicely as an imaginary location for the music to come from.


From the gorgeous opener ‘Sand’ onwards, ‘Centralia’ really seems a culmination of all previous Mountains records. I didn’t think it would ever be possible to better “Choral” but you’ve done it already with “Centralia”, a truly life-affirming record. What kind of a record were you both hoping to create with ‘Centralia?’ For you both, how is this record a departure?

Thanks! With this album we were really trying to make something dynamic that was a combination of all the different approaches that we’d used in the past while still trying to move forward and develop some new ideas and approaches at the same time. I think this approach was able to develop fairly naturally because we decided to take our time with the record allowing for more experimentation in the studio and letting things find their place versus having a preconceived notion of what we wanted to do beforehand.


I am always struck by the sheer range of instruments Mountains will use in their arrangements – creating such a magnificent spectrum of sounds – acoustic guitars, melodica, accordion, bells, cello, field recordings and so much more. When did you begin “collecting” musical instruments? What are your most-prized possessions? Anything on your wish list you are yet to find?

I see collecting instruments somewhat in the same regard as collecting sounds for a piece. I started out experimenting with radios, computers, electronics etc and was just particularly taken with the richness and intimacy of acoustic instruments so initially I came at it from a sonic perspective rather than as a ‘guitarist’ for example. This was about thirteen years or so ago so I guess we’ve been putting together a small collection of sound making devices for quite awhile. As far as favorites go at the moment I would probably have to say my harmonium as it’s the instrument I can most easily get lost in and my modular synthesizer as I’ve spent the last few years researching and slowly amassing a very personalized group of modules that I put a lot of thought and time into so it’s very much specifically tailored to my own approach.


In terms of organic and synthetic sounds, Mountains seem to really wholeheartedly embrace both worlds of sounds. Yet the Mountains “sound” is always so organic and real. What are your thoughts on music and technology, its impact and advancements it has had on you both?

While we use some modern technology we’re predominantly interested in it for it’s sound making possibilities rather than any sort of overtly technological concept or approach. We are naturally drawn to the richness of acoustic instrumentation but also utilize electronics both as a compliment and extension of what an acoustic instrument can do. Processing instruments allows for a greater range of sounds and can also blur the lines between whats coming from a resonating object (instrument) for example and what’s coming from a machine (electronics). We’ve been fascinated by this combination since the beginning and it continues to be a theme.


Regarding the decision-making process for what constitutes the final cut of a Mountains record; Is there a specific plan you both will agree on from the outset (do you discuss the particular themes, arrangements or avenues beforehand, prior to the recording of material), or is it very much a case of sitting down and letting the music do the talking and taking it from there?

It’s a little of both. We often have preconceived ideas of an approach or melody but these things can mutate and change quite a bit during the process. We also record most of our practices and quite a few improvisations so we generally have a good number of recordings to work with prior to the point when we decide to start formulating the material into tracks for an album. Usually things become clearer with the individual pieces when we start to put them next to each other and think about the larger relationships of how they relate to one another in the context of an album and this is generally where we start to really get into the specifics.


It’s interesting because on hearing about the inspiration from the Centralia mine fire in Pennsylvania, I immediately thought of Bill Morrison’s ‘The Miner Hymns’ film and its accompanying score by Jóhann Jóhannsson where the music matches the poetic beauty inherent in the film footage. Apologies if this question may be a little “lazy”, but I would love to hear whether there are filmmakers you both would love to collaborate with? Or, indeed which filmmakers and films that you admire? (As a Mountains fan, there seems to be a magical kinship in your patient, intricate and heavenly music with that of Terrence Malick for instance).

A Terrence Malick film would certainly be amazing. An obvious choice perhaps, but getting to work on a Werner Herzog project would be a dream. In terms of younger director/filmmakers I really enjoyed the pacing and acting in Jeff Nichols first two films and Paul Clipson’s Super 8 work is exceptionally beautiful. Working on something that was on the more narrative side could be an interesting challenge being that what we do is somewhat abstract.


It must be very enriching and proud being responsible for such a significant body of work you have both created over the last decade, creating such divine music which really impacts on the lives of your listeners and fans. It must also be enriching considering the other artists you have a kinship with (Stars of the lid, a winged victory for the sullen, Tape on the Hapna label, Gentleman Losers, to name a few). Are there bands you’d love to collaborate with? Which bands/artists do you admire making music today?

We’ve toured with Tape a few times, they’re wonderful people and I have a lot of respect for their music. As far as collaborations go generally I prefer to work with friends or people I have some connection to outside of just the fact that we both make somewhat similar music. I’m looking forward to making another duo record with Philadelphia based guitarist Chris Forsyth when we get back from tour and have a few other collaborative things in the works. We’ve talked about doing an album with ‘guests’ but we’re so particular I think Mountains will predominantly just be us.


Often, on listening to your music, I feel there must be a world of influences you guys must soak up all the time. Everything from ambient and electronic music to classical and folk and all points in between. There must be an unbelievable record collection at Mountains HQ! What bands would you both consider the most influential and inspirational for you both? I would love if you could give a list of albums that you both hold close to your hearts and you find yourselves coming back to again and again?

Perhaps it’s easier to list a few artists/genres vs albums. In no particular order Charlemagne Palestine, Microstoria, Terry Riley, John Fahey, Don Cherry, Henry Flynt, Early Music, Franco Battiato, Heldon, Popul Vuh, Gastr Del Sol, Roberto Capagglia, Richard Youngs, Indian classical music, North African music, Gavin Bryars, Giancarlo Scelsi, The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Stephan Mathieu, David Behrman, Alvin Lucier, Canned Heat, Pandit Pran Nath, Luc Ferrari, Keith Hudson, Steve Lacy, Alvin Curran, Howlin Wolf, Luciano Cilio, Oren Ambarchi, Suni Mcgrath, Nuno Caravaro, Ornette Coleman, Neil Young, Mighty Baby, Jimi Hendrix, Bernard Parmegiani, Roscoe Holcomb, Mantronix, Hamza El Din, Catherine Ribeiro + Alpes, Roy Harper, Francis Bebey, Bill Fay, Laurie Spiegel etc etc etc


The wonderful photographer Alec Soth has often talked about how an artist – no matter how diverse or innovative their work – is often “condensed” to one sentence which is ultimately what they will be remembered for (“the shorthand summation everyone uses to describe a particular person.”) Sorry for the difficult task but I would be curious to hear how you would describe the music of Mountains; what would this “sentence” be? What thread binds the music of Mountains?

I don’t really feel right in summarizing what we do in a one liner but I’ll try in two words. Gradual music. While we certainly don’t adhere to every aspect of it’s concept I appreciate Steve Reich’s approach in his essay ‘Music as a Gradual Process’.


What’s been on your reading list lately for you both?

I tend to read a few things at once. Currently Herzog’s ‘Conquest of The Useless’ Neil Young’s ‘Waging Heavy Peace’ and Dub : Soundscapes and Songs in Jamaican Reggae. Also just picked up Raymond Chandlers ‘The Long Goodbye’ for the upcoming tour.



Mountains play The Black Mariah, Triskel, Cork on 8 May, tickets €12/10 are available from Plugd Records and Triskel, Cork.  (Facebook Event page here)


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April 18, 2013 at 2:06 pm

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