Earlier this week Tim Sweeney’s record label Beats In Space released a stunning album by Kai Hugo aka Palmbomen II. The Dutch born producer moved to Los Angeles in 2014 and it seems that California was his destiny.
Kai chose the word “palmbomen” for his project, which means, “palm trees” in Dutch. Another sunny accent in his artistic path is the fact that his track Stock was featured on the soundtrack to Grand Theft Auto V.
Before relocating to the US in 2014, Kai lived in Berlin, following his attendance at RBMA Madrid (2011). Reasons were plenty for his shift to the US. Kai’s girlfriend lived there and so did his booker who is based in the Bay Area.
Kai also fell in love with the weather in California and quickly accommodated himself to the local music scene having already completed one US tour in the summer of 2013. I met up with the artist via Skype on a dark Wednesday evening in my Polish home city of Gdynia with Kai connected in midday from his apartment in sunny LA.
I’ve noticed that the weather is an essential factor for the Dutch producer, as he states: “What I love most about LA is the weather. You live in Poland and I spent a long time in Berlin so I know how dark and horrible it gets at this time of the year. What I enjoy here is also the space – I have a house with a garden in the middle of LA and my garden has an extra room. I also have a garage which is great for work.”
When I ask Kai about the reasons why he moved to the US, he replied – “It just felt good, it was good to have a change of scenery. What I really love about this place is the atmosphere and there are a lot of great artists. The club scene is not that big, but I appreciate things like my neighbourhood, which is full of people making great music.”
I tell Kai that I know Britt Brown and have heard many good words about Low End Theory. I often get the impression that the Bay Area is most often associated with the new beat scene and leftfield hip-hop, like the tumblr rap posse with artists such as Antwon and Pictureplane. In July last year XLR8R published a feature on LA suggesting that the dance scene on the East Coast has improved loads thanks to people such as Delroy Edwards with his LA Club Resource label and Amanda Brown’s 100% Silk.
Kai also mentions these people and remarks that he likes to have people around like Delroy Edwards and Suzanne Kraft or PPU Records‘ affiliate Benedek. It seems many of his favourite artists in LA are usually connected to the local esteemed radio station Dublab. After consideration Kai also states, “The night life here is a bit weird in a way. You don’t have standard clubs, most parties are always travelling between different venues.”
After hearing Kai’s thoughts on LA’s club scene I figure out it’s time to talk about Palmbomen II – his incredible sophomore album on Beats In Space. I ask him to explain how he crossed ways with the label and to discuss his relationship between Beats in Space and RVNG Intl.
Kai explains that both household names are connected to Matt Werth. Tim Sweeney is in charge of Beats In Space whereas Matt supports his releases through his label RVNG Intl, which apart from being an independent hub also acts as a back-end for Beats In Space, directing the business side of things.
This includes everything from pressing vinyl to connecting with the press and arranging artwork. Kai met Tim Sweeney through mutual friends who told the latter about Palmbomen. “I love Tim’s taste in music, and the guests he invites to his show. It all began a long time ago. When Tim was releasing the first record on Beats In Space, that was “Parfait Tirage” by Paradis, I heard some sketches ahead of the release date because it was a friend of a friend in Paris that made it. I’ve followed the label ever since.“
As you may have noticed “Palmbomen II” has been promoted in the media in quite an eccentric way. The vinyl was teased by two videos– “Leo Danzinger” and “Carina Sayles” – both directed by Hugo himself. These atmospheric shorts tell the stories of two individuals hypnotised by the music of “Palmbomen II”.
Before we met for the interview I had to wait for Kai to return from a local desert where he set off to record an album for a band. I thought he was making a video for them. “I just started with film recently. In the desert I was just recording a band but actually I’ll be going back very soon so I’m in the desert all the time now. The band is pretty straightforward – with a guitar, bass and drums. It fits my sound, I really like theirs and it’s a pleasure to work on this project. I’m recording their music, producing it all, I listen to their songs and advise them on how they should evolve.”
Kai explains that he loves directing films because they enable him to stay in charge of the whole process and that’s something he has always missed. He’s had music videos made for him before, which he always hated because they never got close to what he envisioned. I tell Kai that I like his videos for their slightly cheap VHS quality and the fact that the protagonists are somehow referencing Palmbomen’s music while talking about their own inner liberation.
The vibe also reminds me of visual works by Torn Hawk. Kai has a problem with going too lo-fi because he feels it’s a way for artists to hide something but then again he enjoys the fact that some elements stay hidden. “I don’t want to see super-sharp 4K HD videos. I want to see a general picture. It’s like when you paint, you always have to paint all the details and I don’t want that. I just want a blurry image. I would also love to shoot with the 16 mm but it’s too expensive. The only alternative I found is a high-end S-VHS video which is not like crappy VHS but the closest I can get to 16mm.” Kai mentions the premiere of a third video about “Palbomen II” which is out now, watch it on YouTube.
I ask him whether there’s a connection between the protagonists. “In a way, I guess, like an album is a story. Different songs don’t have direct connections but there’s a bigger story and I’m inventing these videos on the go. I film for two or three days and then edit the video for another two or three days. I just wrote the script for the next one, which is taking place in the desert. It’s like a little world I create. I actually made a mistake, well maybe not a mistake but I used names of minor characters from the X-Files for the titles which I just wrote down as I binged the series and now it’s very hard for me to identify one track from another. I can’t tell them apart because there’s no picture associated with these title names but at least these videos add at least some kind of a face to them.“
Knowing Palmbomen’s passion for vintage gear, you won’t be surprised that he recorded “Palmbomen II” using only seasoned hardware. “The whole concept of the album is that I worked on every track just for one day and then recorded it to monotape so I couldn’t really change anything afterwards. I edited it sometimes like when I did a fifteen-minute jam and picked my favourite five minutes but I did nothing in-between. I love the limitation of these things. It’s the same with VHS. I need to use it or just throw it away.”
As Kai talks about this comfort of limitation I comment that many artists seem to be over-stressed by the abundance of possibilities offered by Ableton and similar software. It can block the creative process. He agrees that people get lost in tweaking their kick drums for days on end and he just can’t stand it. For Kai it’s all about the sounds and harmonies. Kai creates really fast and it looks as though the artist put substantial effort to arrive at this sort of sound but it’s just his favourite work mode.
Some songs on the LP don’t have a perfect mix; he’d love to take something out. Kai finished some of the tracks at 6 AM so their quality reflects that time of the day. “You know, nowadays not many people work like that anymore and in the arts it’s normal – to work in this sketchy manner. There’s a lot of great stuff being made but I don’t like when music is super pre-planned, I prefer when it’s loose.”
I was afraid to compare Kai to other artists because I know people hate it. But my immediate impression was a similarity to the vibe of acts like Blondes, Huerco S. or The Cyclist. “Palmbomen II” offers a similarly saturated feel. Kai affirms that he enjoys Huerco S.’ sound, but maybe not so much harmony-wise, but he’s also been a fan of The Cyclist. I tell Kai that his album reminds me of “Bones In Motion” and he suddenly remembers that he once picked up The Cyclist’s record as Buz Ludzha published last year by All City and found it almost too lo-fi but really beautiful.
I jump to the subject of Kai’s musical background curious about the influences of his teenage years and whether he went to the infamous gabber parties in the Netherlands. “I was never a club kid, definitely more into buying records. I never went to gabber gigs but I love our history of Dutch dance music, hardcore and stuff like that. I respect Flamman & Abraxas who were really big, but was never into the whole gabber thing. I guess I was always more of a band kid but bought electronic and house records too, early Bunker stuff and all.”
“Actually, I like pop a lot, melodies and harmonies – I studied composing so it’s important to me. I graduated from a musical conservatory. And I always focused on drum machines and synthesizers. Since I was very young I concentrated on buying records and just didn’t want to waste money on parties. I wanted to buy synthesizers. I got myself a studio pretty fast which allowed me to start producing music.“
After just a few minutes on Skype I knew that Kai was not your average club producer. His artistic approach, driven by a spontaneous attitude makes him a a producer hard to classify. He shared that as a kid he was obsessed with music from the ’80s – not as a cool period in music and culture but because artists from those days made albums a lot more spontaneously than nowadays.
“You get a drum machine and a synthesizer, make them work together and that’s it. I really love early stuff from Chicago and Detroit. I mean people like Steve Poindexter and Jamal Moss. They did a great project together called Africans With Mainframes. Especially Jamal Moss, I admire his loose style, it’s spontaneous and just playful but also quite messy. They both seem so but they’re really worked out, you can hear everything and I love that.”
When I ask Kai about possible collaborations, he explains that from the start he wanted to separate his experimental band project Palmbomen I with no synthesizers from his solo output as Palmbomen II focused on his personal intuitions. Kai mentions Pinkman Records as a favourite Dutch label, especially the “Odessa” EP by his friends Antenna. They’re coming to LA soon and he’s looking forward to jamming with them. It’s a small group of people in Holland Kai trusts and they’re showing each other their first drafts. The busy man discloses to me that he’s also working on his next group release as Palmbomen I.
Kai is celebrating the launch of his album this Friday in San Francisco and Saturday in Los Angeles playing with Beats In Space’ Tim Sweeney, Peaking Lights and many others guests (RSVP on Facebook). He also assures me that he’s coming to Europe in late March.He’ll be here for some time, playing a bunch of shows as well as visiting friends in Holland and Berlin. “I mainly play live because all my set-up is hardware. I built a lot of these modules with readymade elements, mostly for effects. It’s all very spontaneous and it’s really my studio that I travel with. I make all these songs with my live set.”
Photo by Camila Saldarriaga.