“I really like sometimes when I listen back the next day and I really messed up a mix.”
Midway through Firewalker, the ninth episode of the second season of the X-Files, Peter Tanaka is introduced as a systems analyst and you just immediately know he’s going to die horribly. When the intrepid Mulder and Scully are out investigating some cosmic spores that doom anyone who inhales them, it’s not a good sign for a character whose first line is a cough. One of his only actual lines is the reassurance that “he’s fine” shortly before killer fungus bursts through his throat. The poor guy doesn’t even get the honor of being killed off by the villain of-the-week played by the always charming Bradley Whitford (who made a great return to this sort of thing as one of the operators in Cabin In The Woods).
Kai Hugo begins his faded, dreamy new album Palmbomen II with a song named after the doomed Tanaka (who at least had a happy afterlife considering actor Hiro Kanagawa is still getting plenty of work over 20 years later) and it’s followed by 13 other songs named after some other poor pieces of meat we briefly met on the X-Files (keyword: briefly). Each one says a lot about the album, but not because this is some sort of a tribute to redshirts or exercise in dramatizing these deaths (Hugo, who is as interested in sharing his thoughts on Michael Haneke’s Seventh Continent as he is hearing mine about Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, probably wouldn’t go for all that drama). The choice mostly came about as a lark, an in-the-moment decision that might have gone differently if he’d thought about it more. But that choice, which started as a joke, is really the heart and the beauty of the music Kai Hugo makes these days. It’s a process defined by planning a song out over a single day, recording live to tape and embracing those impulses. Mistakes aren’t just part of the process, they’re part of the fun.
Palmbomen II was born during a summer layover at Hugo’s mother’s home in Holland. Waiting for his visa to clear in order to move to Los Angeles and already moved out of his home in Berlin, the producer was left with spare time which he spent in two ways: binging on X-Files and making off-the-cuff recordings. That relaxed process brings a spontaneous brilliance that often feels like an unfiltered dose of Hugo’s personality which might not have been the same had he fussed over the tracks more. A song like ‘Cindy Savalas’ (S04E13, almost directed by Quentin Tarantino) hypnotizes, whereas ‘John Lee Roche’ (S04E10, one of the more haunting monster-of-the-weeks, written by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan) bounces with a playful charm. When you reach the heartbreaking finale ‘Leo Danzinger’ (S04E14) it doesn’t matter much that that character was so obscure they’re weren’t even credited. The only name that does feel significant here is Palmbomen and the “II” following it, because this album truly does sound the beginning of a whole new important chapter in the music of Kai Hugo.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with Hugo in his home studio in Los Angeles where he’s continued working in this style. As he showed me the set up he’ll be using in his live show this year we talked about his move to America, the fake palm trees (or “palmbomen”) that inspired his music, and, of course, The X-Files. Stream Palmbomen II and read our interview below.
When did you move to LA?
I moved here about 10 months ago.
What was that transition like?
It’s like a whole different world here. I imagine New York would be more similar to Berlin where I lived before, or maybe Amsterdam. But it’s so good to have the weather and the space. A lot of friends first think it’s very superficial, which it is. It has that side. When you first get here you go to Hollywood see the Walk of Fame, but it’s nice because it’s rough, especially compared to Europe. It’s rougher, but it never really feels that way because of the nice weather. Only when it rains it feels depressing here.
A bit before you announced your move you did your first US tour. Did you have a moment here where you decided you wanted to live here?
During that tour I already felt like I’d love to move to the US. I really love to change sceneries. I don’t like to get too attached to a place. When I did the tour it was really nice because you could see a lot of cities in a row. And you end up with really local people all the time that live there and they take you along. It’s pretty interesting, not as much of a “tourists tour”. It’s more of an intense tour, that’s really fun to see the country like that.
Were there any places that stood out to you?
One really random place was Savannah in Georgia. I really love that place. It’s like a non-touristy New Orleans and it’s really cheap there. It’s not like they have an amazing party scene, but you’d finish playing and just go out with locals who really know the area. It’s how I feel here [in LA]. It’s really fresh and there’s a lot of people wanting to do things.
When did you first start this new approach to music?
Not last summer, but the summer before. I stayed in Holland — in my mom’s attic. I sold a lot of stuff from Berlin, I gave away my place and I waited at my mom’s for my Visa to clear.
That must have made you feel very displaced.
Yeah. It’s weird though, being in that zone you can’t really do anything, but on the other hand you can also do a lot — you can make an album. So it was pretty nice. I painted the attic and made a studio in it, but I had to make it small because there wasn’t much space. It was fun to make a really compact setup. I’ve actually remade it as small as possible in this setup. I can fly with it and fit it all in a suitcase.
I was fascinated by how every song on Palmbomen II is named after minor characters on the X-Files. What do you like about the X-Files
I love the concept of the X-Files, but I also love the colors and the music. To see Scully run in this grey trench coat, with red hair, and these grey pastel backgrounds — I love that whole atmosphere, it really draws me. So as a joke I had these names of minor characters that have one line or that get killed instantly, but I found it funny and I just jotted these little names. I kind of regret it in a way, because I like when a song draws a picture and there’s a name that helps you remember the song better. So there are all of these anonymous faces. I’ve liked making videos, because it can give them a proper face. With those videos I can make kind of a portrait of that person.
So was a typical day when you were working on the album kind of split between watching X-Files and recording?
Yeah, I changed my routine so I would make the songs in one day. What I like to do is [start at] the beginning of the day and do little sketches, like little things, make a melody, and by night when I have dinner I want to have different elements that fit good together. Really late at night I’ll work until 4am, 5am, then when I have it all together I’ll jam it directly on tape and I can’t change anything anymore. And that’s what I love … anything I do is final. I really like sometimes when I listen back the next day and I really messed up a mix or something. So then it’s a choice, I’m either going to leave it like this or just throw it away. And that keeps it fresh for me.
Maybe it’s just because we’re sitting under some, but what is the significance of palm trees? That’s what Palmbomen means right?
Palmbomen was never really about palm trees, it’s about fake palms in our … we have these “swimming paradises”, we call them. It smells like chlorine and it’s all white tiles and then there’s these fake palm trees and fake plants everywhere. It’s like a fake resort. It’s just like this sad version of reality. And that kind of for me was the reason to call it that. We had this amazing swimming paradise for me and my friends, it was an important swimming pool called Tropicana in Rotterdam. It also had a discoteque. It was amazing — big and tropical and a lot of plants and a lot of slides. Those places are like our youth. A lot of more popular music in Holland is really tropical based. Really Mexican influenced, really South American influenced. They sing about going to their Casa Del Sol or the Spanish beaches and stuff. It’s escapism for everybody — to escape from the cold or something. And now I went here in a reality … it kind of like ruins my project [laughs].
Are you going to try to bring a lot of this to a live setting.
For me that’s my main thing. I like this because I always had this really big collection of instruments and big mixers. This is the first time — see, I made all these things with ropes and I can just fold it up and build it up in 10 minutes. And I have my studio with me and I really like love it. I love to play live. It doesn’t have a laptop which you can kind of cheat with a backing track and playing something on top. Everything you hear is really coming out. You’re just creating live and it’s really free, no samples or backing tracks. It’s really what I wanted. But it’s hard too, because everything is live. Same on the record, every echo you hear — I do live. It’s all handwork and it’s sometimes hard to do live, to do so much at once. So I want to play live too, just to make it better and better every time.
Your Visa issues remind of a story I was writing recently about this festival put together by the guy from Ducktails. He had a lot of friends from Belgium come play. He said part of why he wanted to do that was because it was easy for him to go play in Europe but it’s hard for his friends from Europe to come over to the US and play. What have your experiences been with that? Have you had troubles?
Oh yeah, I’ve seen it here too. With friends from the US, they’ll fill something out and they know they can go next month or something. For us it’s kind of like a process of months and months and a lot of money and and still you could get rejected in the end. So nothing is sure. I had a tour last year and had to cancel all my US shows and I spent so much extra money to have them look at the case again and they did not accept the case again because this package you send needs to have a lot of stuff in it. One of the things that it needed was an “important person in the music industry” had to write a letter about you. For us, it was the music director of SXSW. They wrote a letter that said what my position was in music and they rejected the letter because they didn’t see his importance in the music industry. Everything can feel so random and it’s really unfair. So I lost a lot of money on it and had to wait a longer and I missed all of SXSW and a bunch of shows. It’s hard because you want to rebook them, but the people are unsure because they don’t know if you’re really going to come, but if you don’t have shows you can’t come to the US, so it’s a catch 22. It’s annoying. It’s been a really annoying thing. It’s pretty unfair.
What are some of the things you’ve been working on lately?
I’ve done the same thing here, I’ve made a lot of music. Right now, I don’t want to release another album but I want to release a bunch of EPs. The hard thing with an album is that it takes so long to get out because people want to plan and find the right time for it. It’s so much easier with EPs. I kind of have a new album together, but I want to cut it up into EPs and just release it so it just drips slowly.
Yeah, I think with an album there are so many expectations. Like us talking right now, there’s interviews, tours, but with doing EPs … it’s a bit more “chill”, to put it the California way.
Yeah, and timing-wise it doesn’t really matter when it comes out. There’s not as much attention. I have a few EPs ready now so we’ll see when those come out.
So has this new environment influenced those recordings.?
Yeah, but — the good weather influences me, but it’s more like I get really productive here. My friends live around here so I can bike there. It feels really fresh. So yeah it influences me — but it’s not like I’m getting inspiration from palm trees.