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Fond of clear and delicate soundscapes, Mountains’ Brendon Anderegg and Koen Holtkamp have been gathering praises since the release of their debut album last year. With respective solo projects and a record label under their belt, the pair could have taken it easy, but, following a first live collaboration, they decided instead to join forces. With their second album, Sewn, just out, we took the opportunity to chat with them both about combining acoustic and electronic instruments, playing live and choosing a name that relates to their work.

How did you get together, and what made you decide to start a record label?
Well we’ve been friends for quite a while. We met at school when we were both about 12 or 13 years old. Had some interests in common: art, music, skateboarding etc. We stayed friends over the years and both ended up going to college in Chicago, which is where Apestaartje got started.

After starting out in different areas, being music geeks we both inevitably gravitated towards the sound department. After a while we started trading CDRs and playing together a bit and I really liked one particular piece that Brendon had done so I told him I wanted to start a label to put it out because I thought more people should hear it. He responded with the idea of putting together a small compilation with a few different projects that we were doing. We all chipped in and that’s basically how the label came about.

Brendon: The two of us have known each other for a long time. We went to middle school together and kept in touch. Then we both ended up at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and started playing music together. Koen wanted to put out a 3” with a track each of us had done and that was the beginning of the label.

You’ve released music that is quite experimental and is often the result of a combination of acoustic and electronic instrumentation. Is that an aspect that interests you particularly, and how did you come to get into that kind of music?
Brendon: I’ve always played music but it wasn’t until going to the Art Institute that I became familiar with what you can do with a computer. It was really exciting being able to record and manipulate sound that way, it gave me a lot of ideas. Before that, I never really knew too much about effects. I was mostly an acoustic guitar player and I listened to a lot of folk music. I guess that’s where the combination comes from. I think it gives the music some form of balance to have both natural sounds and electronics.

Koen: That’s definitely an aspect of what we focus on. Initially it was not a pre-planned aesthetic but I can hear the beginning of what we’re doing now in the first CDs we put out and I think that it is sort of interesting. Acoustic instruments just have a sonic character that really appeals to me. For example: I really love the sound of the acoustic guitar. It has a warmth and familiar intimacy that I sincerely enjoy. We’re very particular about the production aspects of our work and I think that with a combination of acoustic and electronic elements we’re able to create a more real sense of warmth then through using purely digital or even electric instruments. Also I really enjoy the hands-on feeling of holding a resonating object in my hands versus simply hitting computer keys or twisting knobs. Don’t get me wrong we use computers and electronics quite a bit as well but it’s important to us to have some sort of instrumental core to work with.

You’ve released the debut album from French sound artist Sebastien Roux. How did you become aware of his work?
He sent us a demo which I really liked, some of which ended up on the Object Set & Motion compilation. We happened to be going to Paris to perform shortly thereafter so I dropped him a line and we met up and it seemed like we had quite a bit in common so asked him to do an album.

Is there anyone you would really like to work with and release their work?
There are many folks that I could fantasize about working with (Sparks!, Eliane Radigue etc.) but generally I prefer to just work with friends. I have some collaborations that have been pending for a little while because everyone’s been busy but I look forward to catching up on that in the next year or so. In terms of release: Akio Suzuki, Michael Chapman. We’re putting out the next album by Australian sound artist M.Rosner called Morning Tones, which I’m really excited about. He has an amazing way of always leaving just enough to keep things interesting.

You both release music as part of solo projects (Aero and Anderegg). What made you want to start working together on Mountains, and how working together differs from working on your own?
Koen: Well Mountains was initially conceived as a way for us to perform live. We had both done some shows solo, together and in some other groupings both improvised and composed and to me it never felt quite right sitting behind a laptop trying to recreate this more studio oriented work in front of an audience. I have no problem with pure laptop performances; it just wasn’t fun for me. So with Mountains the idea was to start with the idea of the performance. That’s when we started to get more into real time processing and that’s sort of how the acoustic elements have become more of a focus. Or perhaps our use of them is just a bit more obvious. Very little of the sounds we use are initially sourced from an electronic device. They are often being processed to varying degrees but most of the sounds we have used since we started putting out CDs at least originate from acoustic elements.

Brendon: The first time we did a tour was with Minamo in Europe a few years ago. I found it particularly difficult to transfer my compositions into a live format. Koen and I played together one of the shows and I thought it went really well. It was a lot more fun than getting up on stage and performing alone. We started playing together a lot and incorporating more and more live instrumentation. Mountains became our main focus. We’re both really picky about what sounds to use and effects settings and such but we trust each other’s opinions enough to meet somewhere in the middle. In the end it always yields unexpected results and really keeps me from falling too far into my own habits.

How would you describe Mountains to someone who’s never heard your work?
Depends on who that someone is. I really don’t have a good generalized overview.

Your compositions seem very detailed and precise, and there’s something very organic about your music. How do you work on a particular track?
It’s a combination of things. We spent a long time developing a ‘sound’ of sorts and I think what we do is try to expand from there. We have a very particular aesthetic but how we go about working within that changes. In terms of the actual working process I would say this fluctuates a lot as our living situations seem to change somewhat frequently. When we made the first record we’d just spent eight months or so trying to play live as much as possible and Brendon had a pretty decent place where we could play and record at night so that one developed quite gradually. The new record is different for a few reasons but I think mainly because it came from just a couple of periods of intense and secluded activity. Aside from a few rounds of tennis this is all we did for about a three weeks.

Also our approach to playing live has changed quite a bit as well and I think that it somewhat affected the new record. In the beginning we would basically start with a set of notes and perhaps a few sounds but it was pretty improvised. Now our live sets are much more planned, with specific parts that go in a particular order. But the duration of the parts and what we do within them is fairly open.

Brendon: Usually we have some sounds that we have been working on individually that we listen to. Sometimes a loop or sound could be a good jumping-off point to work with. Otherwise we just play and see what happens. We usually record our practice sessions and if there are things we really like, parts we played or certain combinations of sounds, we go back and learn those parts. Eventually we get an entire set together. Then we practice it a lot, making adjustments here and there.

You combine electronics, acoustic instrumentation and field recordings in your records. What is your musical background and what/who influenced you to do what you are doing now?
I’ve always played instruments. I started with violin, then drums and eventually guitar. Once I started working with electronic sounds I realized that a lot of them really sounded like things one would hear in the world outside computers. I started recording people playing tennis and coffeemakers and all sorts of other sounds and manipulating them and then combining the source and manipulated sound. I like blurring the lines between environmental sounds and those that are digital. I’ve been into electronic music for a few years, listening to everything from Morton Subotnick to Janek Schaefer and other contemporary artists. I’ve always been really into singer songwriter music too. Listening to people like Jackson C. Frank, Burt Jansch and other singer songwriters has always made me want to improve my own skills.

Koen: I came to sound initially as a listener. I’m not a trained musician of any sort. Brendon is more the proper musician in the group. In terms of the acoustic stuff, it’s just a sound I’ve always been attracted to. I probably have more acoustic guitar records than anything else. I started out using field recordings and radio static and all that sort of stuff before I ever seriously sat down with an instrument so it’s very natural for me to include these elements. I spent a lot of time listening to musique concrète pieces by folks like Pierre Henry, Luc Ferrari, Bernard Parmegiani etc, and was definitely influenced by a lot of stuff that labels like Selektion were doing in the mid to late 90s with folks like Bernard Gunter, Francisco Lopez and Steve Roden just to list a couple of examples.

I was listening to Michael Chapman’s Rainmaker LP the other day and was surprised to hear how similar his use of rain in the title track was to some of the stuff we have done. The Australian ‘folk’ band Extradition used a lot of interesting water sounds as well. It all creeps in there.

Your work is often being compared to people like Brian Eno, Jan Jelinek or Fennesz. Do you feel particular connections with these artists, and how does it feel to be associated with these?
I’ve always felt a bit hesitant about comparisons as we usually get compared to folks in the electronic music world and while I can certainly understand why, it constitutes a very little part of the music I listen to. That said, Brian Eno is a huge influence. Discreet Music is one of my all time favourite records. And I think both Fennesz and Jan Jelinek have a very personal aesthetic, which is something that I admire. They’re both artists who have a highly developed vision in terms of production and the kinds of sounds they are working with and I think they continue to find new ways to work within that.

Brendon: It’s very flattering to be associated with these artists. I have listened to all of them a lot. I don’t think they have strongly influenced my playing or ideas directly but are very important artists.

Sewn was released less than a year after your debut, which seems very quick, especially with your other projects. How did the album take shape?
We knew we wanted to get a record out this year and I was moving to Phoenix for six months so we had to do it over the summer. Instead of just working on music once or twice a week we decided to set aside some time to work on the record. It took a couple of weeks for things to really take shape but once it started going in a certain direction I think we both got very excited and it became a lot easier to get ideas out.

Koen: We’d written some pieces for performances so we both had a few parts ready to go when we began recording. I moved to the middle of nowhere in upstate New York for a few months in August and Brendon came up for a week or so at one point so we could make the record. We didn’t really even get close to finishing but we recorded some parts and most of the field recordings up there then met a couple of weeks later in Connecticut for two weeks and finished everything.

Your debut album as Mountains featured four long tracks, while on the new album the compositions are overall shorter. Was it a conscious effort on your side to apply what you had developed over long compositions to more compact pieces, and how do you think it worked?
It somewhat naturally started to come out that way but also I think we both very consciously wanted to try to do something different. We could have very easily made that first record again but that wasn’t the most interesting option for us. There’s a piece that we ended up making into a tour CDR and we both really love the track but it’s this really long somewhat ferocious piece that’s a lot of fun to play live but it really didn’t fit well on the record.

Brendon: I think our main focus was on doing something a little different from the previous record. We were both really happy with the way the first record came out and didn’t have a preconceived notion of what we wanted out of the second. Getting started was difficult. We just worked a lot and ran through all kinds of ideas. Eventually tracks started to develop and the album took form. It was very exciting for both of us. I like the length of the tracks on this record and I think overall it works really well. It’s got a very different feel from the first record in my opinion. For one thing it was recorded in the summer, July and August. I really hear this in the music. Koen also got some great field recordings (while being eaten alive by mosquitoes) while we were in upstate New York that I think were really good to work with.

The new album feels a lot more mature and achieved. Is it something you were conscious of when working on it, or was it just a natural process for you?
Koen: We’ve played live together quite a lot at this point. I think it’s made a huge difference in terms of our ability to connect musically speaking. You just become more in tune.

Brendon: I think the compositions are a bit more concise on this record. Also, the recordings were all done in the same couple of weeks so there is definitely a consistency to this new record was not as apparent on the first.

Your music also feels very cinematic, and there is definitely a narrative aspect in each of the tracks on the album. Would you like to get involved with film music, and for what kind of films?
Koen: I would love to get involved in film music, as that’s somewhat how I came to working with sound. We both watch a lot of films. We actually did a soundtrack for a friend’s short film, which turned out kinda nice. Ideally I would like to do something a little on the longer side as with short pieces it often feels too much like a music video and that’s not really something that interests me. I made a very slow and long video that we performed with at a film festival in Utrecht recently.

Space seems a very important element of your work. Is it, and the name you’ve chosen, a reaction to the urban aspect of New York?
Koen: Reaction is such a strong word. I’m hesitant to call it that but I think we do make an effort to focus on a different kind of listening that’s often undernourished in a huge urban environment like NYC.

Brendon: We chose the name Mountains because we felt it related well to the form of the compositions, slowly and naturally evolving. I also like the name because it references nature and puts an emphasis on the acoustic side of the music rather than the digital.

Do you intend to take Mountains on the road, and if yes, how do you envisage to transfer your music to the live environment?
Koen: Most of our pieces are initially written for performances and we record them after playing them for a while so what we do live is actually quite similar to the records though perhaps a bit louder at times.

Brendon: We went on a tour in the U.S. for the month of November. Playing live is essential for us. We really like playing live and creating our compositions in front of an audience.

The web has become an essential tool for artists and labels to promote their work. What is your view on both legal and illegal downloads, and do you think traditional record labels still have a future?
Brendon: It’s hard to say. I still buy records and CDs, and I don’t have an iPod. Lately it seems that more and more people are saying “why buy music when you can get it for free” but there will always be people buying music. I think for a label like Apestaartje it’s not as big a deal as with major labels marketing their music for the mainstream public. Labels like that spend so much money promoting bands and recording albums that they really need to sell a lot of records to sustain their businesses.

Koen: I have no idea if traditional record labels still have a future. Though I can see certain advantages I’m somewhat hesitant to offer our releases as download purchases as to me the packaging and object are part of the album. Illegal downloads are slightly frustrating on one level but when it comes down to it I am happy that people are hearing the work.

When you’re not busy with the band, the solo projects and the label, what do you like doing?
Friends, films, drawing, taking pictures, records, walking & eating.

Brendon: I spend most of my time making music or working with other artists

What is next in your diary?
Work. Followed closely by play.

Email interview March 2006
Thank you to Koen, Robert and Sonia.

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