by / February 9th, 2018 /

Interview: Mount Palomar

In something of a tasty twist on our usual editorial routine, we’ve handed the reigns over to NI’s premier party-throwers, Twitch, to get contextual with Belfast analog fancier Neil Kerr. Neil, under the guise of his creatively poignant and sonically stirring Mount Palomar project, will support Or:la tomorrow night, Saturday 10th March, in the Menagerie. Promising an original live set instrumented by an impressive array of noisemaking machines, the roof shall, indeed, be raised.

Tell us about your experiences in music that have led to Mount Palomar, where did it begin?

I’ve been making music since I was a kid, I got one of those cheap, weirdly named guitars for doing my eleven plus, a Hondo H76, sounds like a moped, as did my guitar playing in those early days. By my late teens I was music obsessed and went to London, Manchester and Dublin, blagging my way in to about 20 or so major label offices alongside indies such as XL and Rough Trade. I got signed on a development deal to a major label, however, I soon found being in larger cities at a fairly young age on my own, a bit overwhelming and lonely. Also, the label soon suggested that I write songs in the vein of Teenage Dirtbag so that was the end of that.

For quite some time afterwards I was confused as to what I wanted to do and whether I was even the kind of person who would enjoy the music industry, being alone in hotels, touring etc… For the next number of years I branched out in to filmmaking, photography, accidentally became an art dealer for a few years and took part in several other random endeavours. I always considered myself a musician first and foremost though, I just couldn’t get my head in the game when it came to the realities of the music industry, I had just lost my way I suppose.

So how about now? Tell us a bit about the origins of Mount Palomar.

A chance meeting with Timmy Stewart in 2016 was a bit of a wake up call and in many ways started me on this new path to Mount Palomar. I had met Timmy through screenprinting Night Institute merch and he had heard that I had a modular and an odd analog synth collection and said about coming to the studio some day. He came over one afternoon and I played him bits and pieces of some of the mass of largely unfinished tracks on my computer and that was pretty much when he started trying to convince me to get work out there. As I started to mix more with other local producers, promoters and DJs, more people started to hear what I was working on and the positive feedback I got helped push me to regain some of the self-belief that I had lost, to stop questioning myself so much.

The name Mount Palomar itself came from one of dozens of old astronomy books that I had bought as reference material for a body of visual work that I had begun in 2014 as a coping mechanism for losing my brother, Conor, to a brain tumour at the age of 34. I was 32 at the time and needless to say losing Conor was absolutely devastating and has undoubtedly had a large impact on the music I am making and the path I find myself taking with Mount Palomar. Regarding the name, I was sitting eating cereal one morning and lifted one of the astronomy books to flick through. On the first page I opened, the name Mount Palomar caught my eye and when I then read it was a mountain in San Diego where the Hale telescope was I loved it even more so. I ran it by Timmy as I trust in his judgement and he was as equally enthusiastic about the name and personal connection to Conor, so that was really how Mount Palomar began. In 2016 when I went to LA to shoot a skate video and see my sister, I visited Mount Palomar and it is undoubtedly one of the most peaceful and serene places I have ever been. Since then and with the connection to my brother, it has become a project that I am wholly committed to and determined to make work.

You are involved in various other projects including video work and visual art, how much of your time is music-focused and how do you balance everything?

At the minute I am trying not to get distracted by too much else. In the past I had a tendency to work on 12 different things at once and then I’d end up exhausted, drained and pack it all in. I’m now making sure Mount Palomar is my focus and so I am channelling all my idiocy in to it. I have shot a few videos on expired super 8 and am currently buying up loads of old home movies on film reels from around the world. The plan is to chop them all up and then glue bits of different reels back together and create an experimental video for one of the upcoming EPs. It’s going to be time consuming so I just have to make sure I don’t end up spending two years making some 54 minute long abstract film with about 3000 clips all spliced together. I also have some stop motion animation stuff in the works and then I’ll bring the Polaroid photography and screenprinting into the branding, sleeve designs etc… It’s nice to have a focus and one that I care so much about.

What music are you listening to at the minute?

I usually listen to a few things over and over again for a number of months then move on to a set of different tracks or albums and do the same. At the minute Soundgarden’s Superunknown has been on constant rotation, it was one of my favourite albums as a kid and the death of Chris Cornell has made what was already an incredible piece of work even more poignant. On a less melancholic note, the new Black Bones tracks are sounding sweet and have had a good few plays on the bus home. Chris Nez’s Computer Controlled mixes are usually my screenprinting soundtrack and Classic FM comes on when the techno has my brain battered and in need of a massage.

Let’s get the horrible technical geeky question out of the way (there’s only one, I promise), tell us about your live setup.

It’s actually pretty straightforward. After spending a good bit of time last year trying to work out the right set-up for what I wanted to achieve, I have temporarily settled on the Octatrack for sequencing and a small amount of sampling, the Rytm as my main drum machine, the Moog Minitaur for bass in most of the tracks, the Arp Odyssey for leads and the Vermona Perfourmer used as a three different voices; I’m using the first two oscillators combined for a bass sound and the third and fourth oscillators separately for two more lead voices. Then just some guitar pedals for effects. I have had to leave the modular for this gig as I wouldn’t have had room for it alongside Orlagh’s decks but it’ll be back in the live rig later this year.

From speaking with a lot of music producers who are producers first and live performers or DJs as a result of that, how do you find the transition between the studio and the club?

This is the first time I have ever actively had to consider how the tracks will work in a club environment, which has been a bit weird but actually pretty exciting as it’s new to me. I hate formulaic writing and so avoid writing tracks thinking about how djs will play them. I just write what I feel like writing at the time, a few of the tracks on the first EP are about 14 minutes long but I didn’t plan it, that’s just the way they worked best in my head as I was working on them.

Music is a fluid artform, I think it’s dull to sit and think ‘ok, here are my 16 lead in bars, then here’s is my build-up or whatever.’ My priority isn’t to make ‘bangers’, it’s to make something different and something that I feel is in some way representative of what I’m thinking or how I’m feeling. Actually, that’s not entirely true, I also want to make some bangers but disguise them in odd ways. The title track of the first EP, Black Knight’s Tango, was entirely written from old tango midi files I sourced from the early days of the internet. I found all these old sites where tango classes would share cheesy midi backing tracks. I grabbed a load of them, chopped them up, mangled them and then rearranged different bits of different tracks into a 14 minute long banging techno tango. That sounds awful but the track is pretty class.

Who are your biggest influences in electronic music?

I’m going to sound like a complete nerd but my biggest influences are the people who make the gear that I use. We tend to attribute inspiration and laud praise on other producers and musicians almost exclusively but, for me, my real heroes are people like Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of Roland, Bob Moog, Alan Pearlman and Dennis Colin from ARP and a load of new Eurorack builders like Tony Rolando of Make Noise and Olivier Gillet of Mutable Instruments…there are way too many to list. These people who have pretty much dedicated their lives to making machines that, in the hands of anyone with a bit of creativity and commitment, can make unreal music, are my biggest influence. If you had just an Arp Odyssey and a LXR Drum machine or Analog Rytm and you can’t make a class track then you’re doing something wrong.

You’ve worked with AVA the last few years, how have you found the modular workshops and performances there?

When I did the first AVA modular workshops, that was the first time I had ever stepped out of my studio with my synth gear. I was stressed in the run up to it and wrote a new body of work, about six new tracks to demo at it, which was beyond daft as I scrapped them all after it. I didn’t know who anyone was really, though I figured Juan Atkins wasn’t from Twinbrook as he stood with his sunglasses on, videoing my synth noodling. Overall, it proved to be a good platform to meet artists, other local producers and DJs and was a pretty big deal for me in some ways as it forced me to stop being so cut off in my studio, ignoring what was going on in the outside world to a large extent.

The live modular performance last year was actually the first time I had ever performed any of my electronic music in public and the first time I had played out in over 10 years. Hearing the tracks on the AVA sound system was sweet and it was a good opportunity to see what worked and what could be improved upon.

Being asked back this year as, I believe, the only Irish live act is class. I have been working my ass off to make sure I am bringing something different to the table. When on a bill with so many people playing professionally mixed and mastered records one after another, it’s important for me that the live set stands up to whatever is on before or after me. It’s also my aim to make sure there is a rawness to the live set, I have no interest in just standing up there and trying to recreate an exact replica of something I have written in the studio, a live set should feel and sound like a live set, otherwise what’s the point?

What’s on your food and drink rider for the 10th?

Whispas and vodka.

You are sharing the bill with Or:la in The Menagerie, are you a fan of her music?

Absolutely, When I heard her first EP I was immediately intrigued and impressed. The track ‘Limbosoup’ in particular caught my ear and had me hooked. I love when you hear a track by a producer and you’re not sure how they created the sounds you’re hearing. Further releases have all been tasty. She is also really sound and displays no sense of ego which is always refreshing.

What should we expect from the live set on 10th February?

Me trying to remember how to play an hour of brand new music I’ve just written these past three or four weeks.

I had planned on starting writing the new set in early December but I bought a secondhand Octatrack and Rytm and there must have been spiders living in one of them who then went on holiday in the other piece of gear. It took me about a month to kill all the little shits so between that and a horrendous flu after Christmas I have only had a few weeks to write and learn this new material. It’ll be sweet though, I have kept the head down and am confident the set will go down a treat.

As for how it sounds, seeing as I have left the modular out for this set, I have gone for more of an electro feel. I’ve also brought in some Asian and Indian influences on a couple of the tracks as I’m a big fan of less obvious instrumentation and have a tasty collection of a lot of odd, world instruments. The main priority of this set though is to have people dancing like loons and having the time of their life. And to not hit the stop button accidentally or pull out a plug.

You can find out more and listen in on Neil’s Mount Palomar project here. Twitch’s next event will feature none other Hunee, and takes place in Queen’s Student Union, Belfast, on the 10th of March. Peep it here.