Peaks and valleys: Mountains’ Koen Holtkamp discusses the duo’s dramatic songcraft

“We’re not trying to just be a ‘modular synth band,’ said Mountains’ Koen Holtkamp (left). The masters of instrument manipulation are touring in support of current release, Centralia. Image: Hisham Bharoocha “We’re not trying to just be a ‘modular synth band,’ said Mountains’ Koen Holtkamp (left). The masters of instrument manipulation are touring in support of current release, Centralia. Image: Hisham Bharoocha

Since 2004, the Brooklyn-based duo of Koen Holtkamp and Brendon Anderegg have recorded and performed together as Mountains. Their initial efforts were gentle albums that perfectly balanced delicate acoustic instrumentation with field recordings and thick washes of electronic sound, self-released on their Apestaartje label. The more recent records, on the long-running Thrill Jockey label, are far more dense, integrating those disparate elements into a thick, droning sound that is occasionally monolithic but always pleasant and inviting.

“I think we’re interested in blurring the lines between instruments,” Holtkamp said. “So a cello will become a synth, or a guitar will sound like something else.” While early shows relied on laptops running software to process their performances, the band’s current set-up utilizes a complex array of loop pedals, into which it can add any sound, including acoustic string instruments, keyboards, and 1970’s-style modular synthesizers—screenless machines manipulated through a complex series of dials and plugs.

“We’re both playing electric guitar at the moment. We tend to sample and layer that,” Holtkamp said. “I basically have four different streams, or ‘voices.’ There’s the guitar, which I loop and layer, so that I can put it down and it’s still ‘playing.’ Then there’s the modular synth, with oscillators and filters. That’s not looped, but a lot of the sounds are continuous. And I’m also playing a synth, which is also being looped. Brendon has pretty much a similar setup.”

The duo’s albums are just as impressive as their live act; their fifth proper full-length Centralia, released in January, is perhaps their most fully-realized work. “Our live sets are sketches for the next record,” Holtkamp said. “Particularly with the new one, we thought a lot about what we’d done in the past. It started to happen this way naturally, which got us thinking about it—we wanted to include some things that were more like the earlier records, where we focused on acoustic guitar, or organ, rather that everything at once. So there’s a balance.”

The result is a success, encompassing both the cohesive fullness of recent albums with the delicate range of their earlier work. “That balance is really important to us,” he said. “With a record that, presumably, people might listen to more than once…as much as it can be drone-y, we really are interested in dynamics.”

Hearing Mountains live can be a revelation, a chance to dissect the discrete elements that make up its dense wall of sound. Though the volume can be overwhelming, there’s very little on stage movement or communication; Holtkamp and Anderegg seemingly share a psychic bond that lets them know where they’re headed next, based on careful listening and years of working together.

“We’ve been friends since middle school, although we didn’t start playing together until later,” Holtkamp said. “We met skateboarding, when we were about 13. We both went to the Art Institute of Chicago in the ’90s. I went there for film, and Brendon went there for painting, but we ended up doing sound stuff. After that I was in New York, then Brendon moved there in 2002, and we decided to start this, with more of a focus on being a live band.”

“We haven’t used laptops in a few years,” Holtkamp said. “I don’t have anything against them, we did it for a long time, but I got sick of staring at a screen. This way we’re doing something physical, rather than just moving a mouse around.”

Mountains is not the only group to pick up modular synthesizers recently; in the past half-decade, dozens of experienced electronic, experimental, and underground musicians have embraced the instruments, generating an endless stream of CD-R and tape-releases that range from brilliant compositions to pointless technical exercises. “It does seem like it’s really become much more prevalent,” Holtkamp said. “Just from going to shows and playing with people; ‘oh look, that guy’s got a modular synth, too.’”

Might this be a reaction to the popularity of laptops in live performances a decade ago? “I think it started that way for some people,” he said. “But there’s just so much possibility, it’s a very active and still-living scene. People are building new stuff every day, pushing the possibilities of what that stuff can do. That’s exciting for a lot of people, myself included.”

While some musicians have focused on the instrument almost to exclusivity, for Mountains the modular synthesizer adds to its stream of sound. “That’s an element of what we do,” Holtkamp said. “I love that stuff, and I can geek out on it for hours. It’s one of the ingredients in what we’re doing, but it’s important to us to have balance, to balance that out with other sounds and instruments.”

Mountains/Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar/February 18

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