Mount Kimbie on the secrets behind their debut album

Left to right: Kai Campos and Dominic Maker
Left to right: Kai Campos and Dominic Maker

"When we started making music we wanted to make dubstep," explains Dominic Maker, one half of Mount Kimbie - one of the UK's most exciting new electronic acts. "It was a total disaster. We just weren't any good at it. We made four or five tracks and they were terrible, we had no idea how to make bass."

Don't read too much into this admission of failure; Mount Kimbie are one of the most accomplished, unique sounding acts to have come out of the UK's ever diversifying electronic music scene of late. Their sample and loop driven music is packed with shifting moods and the kind of emotion that isn't always evident in computer-based music.

"It just felt fresh to have this palette of sounds which are totally your own."

Despite their initial difficulty with it, dubstep has become a key part of what Maker and collaborator Kai Campos do. Their stunning debut album, Crooks & Lovers, is released this week on one of the genre's most forward thinking labels, Hotflush Recordings, and the last year has seen the band winning numerous fans at raves and gigs alike.

Since their initial failed attempt at bass music back in 2006 Mount Kimbie have crafted out a unique sound that sits somewhere on the peripheries of dubstep. With its electronic beats, ambient field recordings, mutilated vocals and looped guitars Crooks & Lovers shares traits with the moody beats of Burial while incorporating live instruments and taking cues from the more left-field end of rock and the soulful moodiness of trip-hop.

Following on from two impressive EPs, Maybes and Sketch On Glass - both released last year - the album has certainly helped Mount Kimbie generate a lot of positive attention. Being the inquisitive types we are we just had to find out the secrets behind its creation.

"We've both got home studios which are really, really basic," Maker tells us. "Kai uses his front room, and I've got one downstairs in my garage. Kai's got a Mac and I just use a desktop PC, but we both use FruityLoops (these days known as FL Studio). We send clips and ideas back and forth to each other, so that if one person gets stuck the other person can take over."

The first proper tune the duo created was Maybes; a track undeniably dubstep in feel but based around a stretch-out guitar part and an unintelligible, yet hugely melodic, vocal line. The duo posted the track to dubstepforum looking for feedback and the only person who got back to them was Hotflush owner Scuba, who promptly signed them for an EP.

Yet it was the process of performing their music live that helped to shape the band beyond the realms of simple bedroom producers.

Maker talks us through the influence of the band's live setup: "The heart of the show is a Native Instruments Maschine, which we use to build loops and start samples. Linked to that is just a plain MIDI keyboard, for playing the keys parts. All that goes through a Korg Kaoss Pad pre-loaded with samples." This array of tools is then completed by a "rubbish, old guitar" fed through a Line 6 JM4 loop pedal plus a live snare and ride cymbal on the side.

"That loop pedal has changed the way I produce," he tells us. "It seems to free us up a bit and it gives you a bit more time to sit back and listen to something you've made. It's helped us to develop this idea of 'if it sounds good at the time, just press record and it's done, don't keep going over and over it'."

Keeping it simple

From chatting to Maker it becomes clear that fellow UK trail-blazers The xx - who Mount Kimbie have previously remixed and recently supported on tour - have had a profound effect on this simplistic approach.

"We'd heard about them very early on and have been listening to them since quite a while back," he explains. "I guess just seeing the simplicity of the way they record guitar and use vocals definitely had at least a subconscious effect on the way we recorded our guitar parts. Neither of us are very technically minded musicians so we feed off hearing bands like The xx purely in terms of the production being so clean and simple.

"As a total opposite of that I've been listening recently to things like Grouper and bands like Real Estate with those kind of reverb-soaked, dirty guitar parts - that almost 'recorded-in-a-toilet' kind of sound. I guess both have had a direct influence but in different ways."

Out in the field

Alongside their live instruments, the use of ambient samples and field recordings within Mount Kimbie's music give it a very natural sound that sets them further apart from their electronic contemporaries and dubstep label-mates.

"We're into a lot of interesting hip-hop, where sampling is a massive thing. It just felt fresh to have this palette of sounds which are totally your own and you've recorded. You can take a lot more pleasure in forming a drum beat out of those samples than dragging and dropping a kick drum, hi-hat and snare etc.

"When we first started thinking about field recordings it was back when we made the first EP, there was a track called William which was made of skateboarder and BMX sounds that we recorded on the South Bank," Dom tells us.

"Around two months into making the album we went down to a sort of wind-tunnel which is about 200 metres from my front door," he explains. "It's basically a tunnel running underneath a road and at the other end is the sea. It's got this amazing natural reverb, I think it resonates at a G or something, just a really unique sound.

"We sung down there, threw stones at the wall and recorded loads of claps."

"We went there with three microphones and we sung down there, threw stones at the wall and recorded loads of claps. We must have done it for about three hours and a lot of that material was used for the album. Maybe even the smallest little cracks and things like that have this nicer sort of reverb sound when compared to an electronic effect. There are two songs on the album, Adriatic and Tunnel Vision, which are mostly made out of samples from that tunnel."

Lost for words

Above all of these ambient sounds, Crooks & Lovers is led by the band's use of clipped and manipulated vocal samples. These high-pitched, unintelligible vocals have been an ever present feature in the band's music right from their first release.

"They're mainly just female vocal samples that we've cut up" explains Dom. "It's been interesting working with vocals in a way where it isn't so much about the lyrics as the actual sound of the melody, so we're using them more like a keyboard."

Even if their first attempts at dubstep were a failure, it seems it's certainly worked out for the best in the end. "Yeah, I think we've become more confident in being able to diversify the sound we're making, we're not afraid to try anything now," Dom agrees.

"We've got Paul [Scuba] to thank for that. If he hadn't got back to us I don't think we would have continued in the direction that we did. We needed that kick, to say 'ok, do more of this'. So thank you to him I guess…"

Yes, thank you indeed.

Crooks & Lovers is out now on Hotflush Recordings.

Si Truss

I'm Editor-in-Chief of Music Technology, working with Future Music, Computer Music, Electronic Musician and MusicRadar. I've been messing around with music tech in various forms for over two decades. I've also spent the last 10 years forgetting how to play guitar. Find me in the chillout room at raves complaining that it's past my bedtime.