As one-half of the New York drone music duo Mountains, Brendon Anderegg creates what most listeners would call "soundscapes": complex melodic tapestries that weave in and out of focus, expanding and contracting for what seem like endless stretches of time. But Anderegg isn't fond of that term or any of its synonyms.
"It's not supposed to be background music," he says. "I understand that our music sounds ‘ambient,' but it's also a lot about texture and melodic content and how different sounds relate to one another, rather than just making a wash of abstract sound. It's about things poking out here and having layers that recede into the background and come into the foreground so you notice them."
As Mountains, Anderegg and Koen Holtkamp have been tinkering with that template for nearly a decade, blending acoustic guitars and cellos with massive electronics and loop-pedal layering and frequently blurring the line between what's played, programmed, processed, or sampled. They've found their own niche in the ambient and indie-rock communities, but Anderegg and Holtkamp were surprised by the chilly critical reception for their fourth album, 2011's Air Museum, on which they ditched their laptops in favor of a more energetic, live-in-the-room atmosphere.
"Previous to Air Museum, people had usually been very positive," Anderegg says. "With that album, it wasn't too negative, but there was a good amount of criticism. You have to take it with a grain of salt, but on some level, we wanted to use the best of what people were responding to out of everything we'd done and combine it in a way that may work a little better than the last record."
The result is this year's Centralia, a warmer, more dynamic, and more carefully considered album.
"We did spend a lot of time working on it," Anderegg says. "The last record we did in one month, and this one we spent, like, four months on. We did it really slowly. We would sit there all day, just doing a couple overdubs, so it was a much longer process. But it was basically about combining everything we'd done in the past and trying to fit it together in such a way that it gave a little more to everyone, maybe more than some of our previous material had."
Centralia isn't exactly a departure from the band's trademark style, and it isn't exactly a bid for indie-rock stardom. The mid-album heavyweight "Propeller" stretches out to a grand 20 minutes, piling massive organs and guitars into one distilled moment of sunshine; opener "Sand" takes a similar approach, with ambient tones swirling in oceans of delay, climaxing in a wave of extended cello notes. But, as Anderegg notes, there's a sense of construction and forward motion on display that sets the music apart.
"I don't really listen to that much ambient music, really," he says. "There are certain things that are about not going anywhere, like [multimedia artist] Thomas Koner. It's almost inaudible, like listening to wind or something. Music that's just one tone for a really long time can be interesting, but if it's like someone fell asleep on a keyboard, I feel like it can get pretty boring."
For Mountains, the challenge has always been to make ambient-sounding music that isn't really ambient. And achieving that particular style is a messy process, filled with false starts and long dialogue, file-swapping, and addition and subtraction.
"It's a lot of back and forth," Anderegg says. "It's very easy to pile things on top of each other. I might get attached to something, and he might get attached to a certain sound as well. But there's a really fine line between too much and not enough."
And both Anderegg and Holtkamp are conscious about how to translate their shape-shifting music onstage, making this immersive, slow-moving music work on a more physical, visceral level.
"Because we play live so much, there's a really big difference between our music live and on the record," Anderegg says. "You can't really do it the way that the record sounds live in a lot of contexts. I don't think it would work. Our music is quite loud when we play live—not painfully loud, but enough that if you're talking, you can't hear it.
"It's not like we're just standing behind a laptop," he adds. "We're playing guitar a lot. It's like a rock show, but from a band that's not playing rock music, I guess."