From the club to the coffee shop: Crooks & Lovers and a coming of age for post-dubstep
Mount Kimbie can’t exactly remember how they signed to Hotflush.
Kai says Dom reached out to label boss Paul Rose – AKA Scuba – with a cold email: “I would never send anything out, nothing was ever finished”. Dom thinks Paul hit them up after they’d posted on dubstepforum.com: “I don’t think we knew what we were doing”. Dig back far enough and you can still read those early posts – and the reaction to the two fresh-faced newcomers bursting onto the scene. As fans and industry insiders poured over the latest spoils of dubstep’s legacy, one 2008 post from Rob Booth reads, “the nearest music to mount kimbie is mount kimbie… totally original, totally amazing, totally mount kimbie !!!”
It was a simpler time for the club community, and for the UK’s youth – pre-student riots, on the precipice of ten years of tory rule. (In the US, Obama was busy promoting a campaign of hope.) You could buy a pint in London for £3, and go to clubs like Plastic People. The memories are hazy, but the scene felt alive. Following the explosion of dubstep around 2006, UK producers were still taking the fragments from the fallout in new directions – with varying results. As wobble found its way to the US, and more aggressive strains thrashed it out in the UK’s student circuit, in 2008 producers were finding fresh momentum as a new lightness cleared the air. The “post-dubstep” label got tired quickly, but it sounded – garage and house-inflected, pitch-shifted vocals, some misty-eyed piano stabs – like wide-eyed enthusiasm. Between 2008-10 the scene crystallised, fueled by a restless creativity Mount Kimbie would define with its touchstone album, Crooks & Lovers.
“What was so great about that period was that it didn’t feel like a big deal that we were so different”
Dominic Maker and Kai Campos met as students at Southbank University, and started making music together in their home in Peckham. They were embraced by the dance music scene, but always were slightly left of the action. “We started as stereotypical fans, rather than being behind the booth with everyone,” Maker says, as we look back on the album over ten years on.
It was around this time that their manager Hiroki remembers watching them play in London to an audience of three people, including Rose and Hiroki. They were three on stage too, with Maker and Campos joined by James Blake on vocals. “Shoreditch was really thriving with new music,” Hiroki says. “It was the epicentre of new bands playing in all these small spaces, club nights all the time. For some reason, Mount Kimbie play this reggae festival at Cargo on Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. I thought it was one of the best things I’d ever seen. Obviously, the prophecy was true.”
“What was so great about that period was that it didn’t feel like a big deal that we were so different,” Maker says. In a genre defined by its newness, they widened its scope further, a meeting point between Electronic Explorations and acts like Xui Xui and The Books. “The indie world is much more about using how little you know about recording to create a sound,” Campos says. “That’s closer to what we were doing than thinking about club sonics.” And in the lineage of dubstep, it made sense. “Which could be difficult to understand as far away as we are now,” says Rose, who became a mentor for the duo in those years. “In 2008-10 it was very creative. And Mount Kimbie were absolutely at the forefront of exciting talent to come out of that. It got my attention because it was so unusual. I was sent so much great music, all the time. But sounds that had been established. Dom and Kai were doing a lot more off the wall, almost avant-garde stuff.”
Mary Anne Hobbs, who had launched the careers of dubstep producers in the years before, also saw the potential in those early recordings. “When I first heard Mount Kimbie, I felt they inhabited a similar space to James Blake,” Hobbs says. “You could hear the spectrum of influences in their sound, but they were refracted through the MK prism in a unique and mysterious way, so those early tracks sounded like pop-sketches made out of air.”
Following two EPs on Hotflush – a label now celebrating its 20th anniversary with a string of parties and mixes – Crooks & Lovers was feverishly thrown together in 2009. “What makes it cohesive is that sounding-like-you-ness to it,” Campos says. “We made stuff in a short amount of time and were desperate to get it out.” They worked on it wherever they could. Their old kitchen table in Peckham. On tour pit stops up and down the UK. Dom’s parents’ place in Brighton. On one Brighton trip, they recorded the guitar loop they would use in Adriatic in a tunnel stretching down to the seafront. “It was freezing down there,” Maker recalls. “We were walking down to go to the sea, clapping hands, making noises, singing different harmonies. It had a resonant frequency, so we came back to record my brother playing guitar.”
They couldn’t have imagined that the scene would influence Chance the Rapper, whose Justin Bieber-featuring Juke Jam samples the loop – just one of the many places Crooks & Lovers’ influence cropped up in the years since. The album had an unexpected power, taking post-dubstep in a new direction. It signalled a wider turn to musicality and set the emotionality that grew from the scene in motion (see also: James Blake). You can trace its influence across the band’s many collaborators since, artists like Mica Levi and King Krule. When asked about Crooks & Lovers, King Krule’s ArchyMarshall wrote: “When I first heard their music I was ripped open and filled with something I could not bear to imagine, exposed to the purest indifference to wonder, what kind of three-dimensional scope of music could be elevating me across cityscapes and bad situations. What kind of being lives without knowledge of something that could curve you into a higher place. We owe a lot to this and will forever be welcoming.”
Mount Kimbie may have snuck Crooks & Lovers in from the fringes, but with it, they changed the game. “It was by far the biggest release we had, I was totally unprepared for it,” Rose says. “It certainly changed people’s perceptions of the label. And probably of the genre more widely, in terms of how serious it was – rather than being ‘silly club music’ or whatever. People got that message as soon as they heard Carbonated, you knew it was something special.”
Fast forward to more recent times and confessional songwriter Arlo Parks is reflecting on the soothing atmosphere generate on the album. “To me Crooks & Lovers feels warm, intentional and enveloping – I feel a beautiful sense of calm when I listen to it, especially Tunnelvision with that gorgeous guitar. This record feels like something I’ve always known but each listen brings on new discoveries.”
“I don't think there’s been a more exciting time since then, frankly”
While Crooks & Lovers merely flirted with the dancefloors it was influenced by, it captured that moment. Using samples, live instruments and field recordings, it built an evocative world from chipmunked vocals, plinking drums, hazy melancholia and IDM meltdowns. For former Collections cover star Loraine James, this was a revelatory moment – “Crooks & Lovers was my first time hearing field recordings in music, which really inspired me.”
Soundtracking the club, the comedown, and the coffee shop. Where dubstep had Burial’s Untrue, post-dubstep had Crooks & Lovers – a crossover album that threw a different light on the sound. And just as Untrue was concerned with a sort of death of rave, likewise Crooks & Lovers takes on a similar shade when revisited a decade on from its release: a representation of a scene that shone brightly, before burning out.
“I don’t think there’s been a more exciting time in UK [dance] music since then, frankly,” says Rose. “But you could argue that I would say that [laughs]. It was a moment in time which really passed quite quickly – and I can’t really describe why that is. We’d climbed to the top of a hill, and everyone went down a different way.”
Listening back now, you can hear that velocity, the sound of an era that would change the course of electronic music – and an energy that’s missed today. “It’s the first time since then,” Maker reflects, “that the album has started to infiltrate our conversations about what we want to do next. I don’t think it’s a sound thing – it’s the feeling around that time of being pretty much carefree and not weighed down by concerns. A very free way of expressing yourself.”
“The conversation was always about what you were doing next – it was always about pushing something in another direction,” Campos says. “It felt like the horizon kept moving back and we kept moving forward.”