As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Musician Kai Hugo on conspiracy theorists, cassette tapes, and video confabulations.
Palmbomen II, the recent release on RVNG / Tim Sweeney’s Beats In Space label, is the latest electronic incarnation of the LA-based musician Kai Hugo. The amorphous, shape-shifting collection of synths and rhythms could have soundtracked a dream you had dancing in a nachtclub in Zandaam around the time Ross Perot was running for president. And “lo-fi” it is not; one could easily picture these tunes accompanying a Neil DeGrasse Tyson narration at a planetarium, or perhaps an early ’80s Michael Mann film. An alternate introduction to this record could be the tracklist: oddly enough, each song is named for a faceless, incidental X-Files character (e.g., Peter Tanaka, Cindy Savalas, Lorraine Kelleher, Carina Sayles, etc.), and Hugo creates the tense and driving tunes through this array of anonymous characters, detaching them from their original context and creating them anew in a series of SVHS videos.
Palmbomen, or “palm trees” in Dutch, is actually a reference to the fake palm trees that Hugo would encounter in his youth in often freezing Holland, and this record mostly speaks to the longing for a romantic escape to warmer environs. With that in mind, Hugo’s relocation to Los Angeles can at first seem like a paradox, but upon further listening, the record couldn’t have been created anywhere else. There is a pervasive dry heat that runs through it, whether on a Venice Beach pier or in the lobby of the L. Ron Hubbard Life Exhibition on Hollywood Boulevard. Palmbomen II is ultimately an entirely unique experience from start to finish. I chatted with Kai Hugo recently about this paradox, his interest in film, and the future of artificial intelligence.
Gary Canino I know you’re a fan of Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent, you’ve said that it was a big influence on you and your work.
Kai Hugo Yes, absolutely, particularly the aesthetics of it.
GC You’ve mentioned a sort of “longing” in the film, and I can really see how that might transpose itself over to your music.
KH For sure. I love that in the movie, though it’s such a dark longing.
GC I know it’s his first film, and I was shocked by how deliberate every single shot is. There are all of these scenes of mundane activities that repeat, such as a shoelace tying twice, a garage door opening twice… Everything appears and repeats in such a specific way.
KH I recently watched it again with a friend, on a big screen in the dark. And yeah, for the first twenty minutes of the film, you don’t even see a face. It’s so distant. I love how he has these specific shots that explain everything.
I remember watching children’s television as a child in Holland and seeing these process films, like showing how cookies were made in a factory. And you’d see all the little steps that are needed to create those cookies: the flour that goes into big bags in a kettle, the milk being added, etc. I feel like Haneke came from a history of doing that, just because of the way his shots explain what it is that is happening. The daughter goes to an optometrist, and you see all the steps of how people do things, and it’s really explaining the process in a way, like in a kid’s movie. I love those tripod shots where you see every picture, but you have to go through it. The end of the film is a bit dramatic, and I don’t like that per se, but I like the concept that carries everything throughout.
GC I love these three short films you made for the album. I feel as if the “nostalgia sunshine” thing is such a played out, empty concept that people talk about these days, especially when it comes to modern music made on tape, but I love how the concept of Palmbomen sort of transcends that. You’ve even said that the name, which means “palm trees,” reminds you of fake plastic palm trees of your hometown.
KH Back home, we have this program called TV Oranje, and you can’t find it so easily because even in Holland you can only access it with certain TV providers. It’s a station where they only show really cheesy music, maybe made by people in their attics with keyboards where you can create a total song on it, then layer your own voice on top. People also make their own home videos to go with the music. And you can see it as cheesy as hell, but on the other hand, it’s people without any pretension. They’re not afraid to be pretentious, and they just do whatever they want to do, and it’s great. I love to watch it with friends. It’s so inspiring.
It’s pretty cold in Holland, and when you go to a café you’ll often hear this specific local music. I guess the US version of this would be country music. But for us, its people singing about their lost loves, but also about how they want to go drink with their friends. And half the songs are actually about taking a trip to South American, or going to Spain or Mexico, because that’s the big dream for everyone. Once a year, you can go into the ocean, feel the warmth, and be among the palm trees, and I’m drawn to this darker side of longing, where everything is perfect for these people who live in this cold Northern/Northwest European environment, except for the weather. People are always looking for an escape.
GC So naturally you moved to Los Angeles, which has perfect weather every day.
KH (laughter) Yeah, it kind of contradicts the whole thing, but it’s really nice here.
GC My older brother lives in the Pacific Northwest, and there’s this pervasive cold wet rain for about 80% of the year. So, whenever I visit him, I make sure to go in July or August because that’s the one time of the year where everything is perfect and green.
KH The most north in the US that I’ve been is Portland. We don’t even have that one or two months of nice weather in Holland. Germany and Holland are two parts of the world with the most awful summers, it’s just rainy all the time, and if you’re lucky, it’s a bit hot. If there’s one good day, you have to go to the beach, because you have no other chances. I was actually going to go there soon because my girlfriend has some family there.
GC So, in these videos, Palmbomen is presented as this poison that courses through the veins of the suburbs. It sort of reminded me of a throwback 1950s rock n’ roll thing. I thought of the lyric: “I crawl like a viper through these suburban streets,” from Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues.”
KH (laughter) Well, my bandmate’s dad was in Steely Dan.
GC That means that he was really good, and also fired at some point.
KH Yeah, for sure. He played shortly with them. (laughter)
GC Again, back to these videos. Some of the characters don’t like Palmbomen’s music—in one or more of the videos someone states that they don’t like how it’s recorded.
KH I think it’s because I got those kinds of comments a lot. The first video that we did was kind of made really spontaneously—the one with the girl and the makeup. We were doing test shots with the makeup artists, and she was so into the music that we actually added that interview part.
I once had a review in a magazine where they said something like, “We really like the music, but it would have been so much better if”—and that’s already a really weird statement for a review—“if it didn’t sound like it was recorded through a phone onto a cassette.” So, I wanted to create these characters in these videos and have them say that already, so it’s out in the world, and no one will say it anymore, because it’s kind of tiring!
I find it a bit annoying, I guess. I understand that I’m working in a region of pop music, and people have expectations, but on the other hand, it is still art. A sculptor can work with rough materials and work roughly. I make music roughly, and I like tape in that sense. I don’t think about mixing, because it’s a quick process, and I like that it’s spontaneous. I feel like that’s a strength of what I’m doing, that that is my process. It’s just how I work, and I wanted to poke fun at those comments.
GC Is it a cassette 4-track that you’re working with?
KH I do everything on a mono tape recorder actually. I work on a song all day, and at night I record and jam a song on it for about twenty minutes. The only thing I can do afterward is cut it up. I can’t really do much else, and I like that process. I make it, and I can’t really change anything anymore. It makes things so that I can’t endlessly tweak and re-tweak it.
GC I play in a band, and we record everything live in that way, too. I mean, back in the day, bands would record vocals live, in the same room as the rest of the band playing.
KH I find it to be such a good process. I record bands in LA, too. With the first iteration of Palmbomen, it was sort of a band, and it was important to do everything at the same time. It’s a reaction of how I worked before that, with layers. It was so tiring. It’s so important to record the momentum, because then it can translate live, too. You don’t have to cheat the audience. You can do something at home, then you can translate it to wherever you’re playing.
GC In the second video, the character Carina Sayles says, “It teaches me how to become more comfortable with who I am as a person.” It reminded me of the Miles Davis quote: “Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.”
KH I think that’s totally true. Those characters are not, per se, reflecting myself, but I do think that I feel comfortable, and you do have to feel comfortable working this way. Because you can’t go back. You just record the moment. I’m happy with what I’m doing, and you have to be sure about that.
GC The third video, “Cindy Savalas,” is very intense.
KH It was actually based on a presentation by Lloyd Pye called “Everything You Know Is Wrong.”
His theory is that humans were actually successors of Neanderthals, who were put on Earth by aliens, to mine gold. And Cindy Savalas is the only one who knows. That was my main idea for that video. It’s hard to watch, and I can’t believe those conspiracy theories, but they’re fun. That those ideas are shifting under or above our mainstream tastes in the world is inspiring.
Pye also mentions that, with religions, all the signs that came from God, or life in heaven, are all from aliens and based on spaceships. It was Jesus that actually talked to them. So, I actually compare her to Jesus, fitting in that same theme.
GC When she says “the whole world cries for my suffering,” I couldn’t help thinking of HAL being dismantled at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film you’ve also mentioned as a favorite.
KH Yeah, when they’re removing his cartridges. That scene is beautiful. This weekend I saw Ex Machina. And I liked it, but I’m getting a little tired of the AI plots, because it’s just kind of the same theme. You know, killing the AI because it becomes smart enough to be harmful to us, etc. The themes are now stretched thin.
I’m doing the music for a video game now for Sony, and we have executive say. They want to do a lot about AI, and I’m having them over this coming weekend. We have a lot of discussions about the theme of the game, and I say the same thing to them—that I’m a bit tired of the AI stuff because I’ve seen so much of it. It’s hard to get surprised about these theories anymore.
Elon Musk posted a link to a poll of AI scientists, asking them to estimate how soon it’ll be until an AI is as smart as we are, because from that moment on, they will quickly become smarter and smarter. And they estimated, among one-hundred AI scientists, that the median was ten years from now, that it would most probably be in twenty-two years, and, at the latest, it’ll happen in thirty years. Elon Musk also started a foundation to actually make sure that no AI will ever be smarter than us, just to sort of keep watch, to make sure they’ll never supercede us.
GC While I was researching Palmbomen, both the concept of fake palm trees and the music itself made me think of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. And then I saw that you actually had a song in the soundtrack for GTA V!
KH Yeah man, I love that game. For me, GTA is almost a document of the time. You can almost send it into space in a golden disc, because it has all these moments of culture. I loved being a part of it.
GC My favorite song on the album is “Leo Danzinger.” It’s an elegiac final track that breaks apart from the rest. It’s also a part of a recent mix you made, in which the assertion “No Beats” appeared. What’s the significance of “No Beats” to you?
KH Well, electronic music is supposed to have these beats. You’re expected to have them. And that’s bullshit—you don’t have to use beats. But then again, you want to play live, and if you play live, you want to have some dancing elements. But, I also like to make these pieces that are really melancholic, which speak more to my film side. So, that mix has no rhythms I suppose, or drums rather.
GC Most of the track titles are named after incidental X-Files characters, but a few, like “John Lee Roche” or “Teena Mulder,” are named after more significant characters. Is there a distinction here?
KH I don’t even know most characters anymore. I kind of knew “John Lee Roche,” but not really. As I binge-watched, I would hear a character’s name, and write it down. I didn’t know that people were gonna find out about this X-Files thing, so I deliberately chose small names, but now it’s all too obvious.
GC And now, six months later, you’re stuck talking to me about it!
KH It’s definitely part of it. I just chose small characters that I didn’t expect to have a significance. I just liked their names aesthetically. Maybe I watched that episode with that character on that day, but with some tracks I switched the titles around afterward, because I liked one for a specific track more than another. It was a problem at first to tell them apart. The first and last names don’t mean anything to me; it was impossible. The names have so little meaning to most people. That’s why I made those videos, to give them a face. When you give something a name, normally, that kind of gives an idea or creates a little world that you feel this song is connected to, but now, because of these names, it doesn’t really have that. People have researched where the names come from, and they have their own theories, but for me, I sort of lost the connection. I can’t even remember some of the names without the tracklist, so I wanted to make some videos to curate faces to them. Now I know Leo Danzinger, now I knowSavalas, now I know Carina.
Gary Canino is a musician and writer based in New York City.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.