Growing up, you are constantly told to never judge a book by its cover, a metaphorical phrase everyone should follow. But I will say that upon seeing Palmbomen’s artwork prior to listening to his music, I felt that I had a good idea of what I was about to hear―and I was right. Lo-fi, dreamlike, and washed-out are elements that come to mind upon skimming through cover art of the Dutch producer’s catalog. While many artists out here on the West Coast of the USA are all about creating a tropical escape from the mundane, Palmbomen pushes aside the overly polished, glittery sounds for something real. Palmbomen means “palm trees” in Dutch, a tree that doesn’t exist on that side of the world, something he never saw until his first American tour, about three years ago. It was only natural for 25-year-old Kai Hugo to use it as his alias, with which he creates another world based on grainy VHS memories, constant longing for paradise, and a way out of the cold, concrete jungle. If you take a listen though his last album, Night Flight Europa, you will be immediately transported to that one place you’ll never be able to actually visit; it serves as a heavy dose of nostalgia for whenever you may need an escape. As Kai continues working as Palmbomen at a rapid pace, his live shows and DJ sets display the same level of sound obsession as his recordings. Rather than conveying a particular message with his songs, he sets out to provide an atmosphere and vibe inspired by his love of Italo records, 60s and 70s psychedelia, memories of simpler times, and, of course, all the vintage gear he meticulously programs at home. Although his music, often filled with high-pitched vocals and field recordings of playgrounds, may sound joyous, Kai insists that there’s a bittersweet twist within this magical world in which his music creates. It’s dark and light all at once. It’s the mind of Palmbomen―and it doesn’t need a massive low-end or a fat four-to-the-floor kick to make you feel something.
Hey Kai, how have you been?
Hey Cooper! I’m good. I’m kind of tired from playing last weekend and also really busy finishing stuff before going to the U.S. And it’s my birthday today, too (25). But I enjoy all this!
Let’s start with your life before Palmbomen began. Tell me a bit about your hometown and the setting, and the lifestyle that comes with it.
Yes, it basically started with just friends in Amsterdam who wanted to release music. We formed a label―NON Records―and, at that time, I created this thing, which is now Palmbomen. It was all very spontaneous without a clear plan and then I got picked up by Kitsuné and Soulwax/2manyDJs. We grew up with some small good local really gay parties like Italo Elite, which was a nice Italo party by four main Amsterdam guys. On the other hand, we have our own “west coast”―The Hague―historic label, Bunker, with one of our biggest inspirations, Legowelt, and others. Legowelt now also releases for your NY-based L.I.E.S., which I love, too. Also one of our biggest inspirations is a local bon vivant librarian from the east of Holland. His name is Wilco Meutstege. At night he goes out and/or DJs. His vision of music is always consistent and I discover so much great music through him.
Growing up at home with your family, were you turned onto any records as a kid that may have influenced your work as a musician? What kind of music were you listening to around the house from your parents?
Mmm, I don’t have any specific records from my parents that really influenced me as a kid. Well, I had this 80s Sesame Street record in Dutch with our local Sesame Street characters singing and rapping over this Italo/breakdance song, which is pretty cool still. But we also really had the gabber and (happy) hardcore around us. This stuff was huge when we grew up. We had the Smurfs singing all the big happy hardcore hits in Dutch. It was crazy. There was a duo called Flamman and Abraxas (the latter is actually American) who produced all the hits back then, for their own house act Fierce Ruling Diva, but also for other acts like the Party Animals. We actually recently had them play at a party of ours, too. What still stands is their songwriting. It’s good.
I read that your mother gave you a Casio keyboard as a gift when you were very young. Was your mother always involved in music, or did she just hope you’d like it? When you first received that keyboard, did you immediately decide that you wanted to learn to play and write music? Or did it grow on you later on?
Yeah, for sure. My mom played piano and taught me to love and look around for art and other interesting stuff. From my father’s side, I inherited a lot of Cure records, and he loved Nirvana, too, which is still relevant for me. The Casio story was a bit of a joke. It was funny to play with. But my real interest started when I had a computer and used ReBirth. That’s actually how I learned to use a 303 and could work easy with it instantly when I got an x0xb0x, a cheaper 303 remake.
Around the time you began collecting gear after your Casio gift, what were your main musical influences? How did you discover italo, 60s pop, etc.? Did you dig for those records or did friends introduce you to them?
I don’t know. I always loved the roughness of old recordings and always missed that in modern music and in computer programs and plugins. I just tried to buy all the old stuff I could find until I kind of had a museum of synths, but I hardly made music. But I was trying it all out. After I got really into music, I sold a lot of stuff and I’m now discovering the cheap, easy-to-get stuff is the best. I just bought a $100 Korg Wavestation that sounds amazing after you put that on your cheap tape machine. Discovered a lot of old disco and Italo music because I started “collecting” records when I was really young. But, most of the time, what I could find and afford back then were a lot of “ultimate disco collection” records because they were cheap. But they had some fun stuff on them. I guess all fun starts when stuff is cheap!
Did you have many opportunities to see live music growing up, or did that come later? Are there any bands or DJs that you’ve experienced that you recall as inspiring moments?
No, actually not. My parents took me to some classical concerts and stuff, but hardly to any modern music. My mom just told me story that she went with me in her belly to a concert in Rotterdam of Jo Lemaire―my mom is French―and they played this song, which I love.
Would you say that your fascination for the whole dreamy / summery / light / psychedelic sound is due to the lack of a tropical environment? Is your music truly a product of your imagination? Or is there a strong layer of nostalgia breathing into your production?
Yeah, for sure… it’s because of a lack of tropical environment. It’s all about the “longing.” I like that word. It has something really sad in it. It’s a world you can never reach. And will always be in your mind. And, yeah, this goes together with nostalgia for me. I guess also because this is part of the “longing” to the times you grew up and things we’re easier or something? Another world you can never reach again. And I think those worlds are the best. You will never see how good or bad they really are because you will never get there.
I asked that last question because your music really gives a feeling of warmth and paints a picture in my mind…the album art for the Black Safarisingle is a good way to describe it. How would you explain your overall goal with your music apart from using it as a personal escape?
I think the main thing I want to do is create an atmosphere, to create a world. With bird sounds and tapes of my sisters and me layered with melodies and harmonies. I guess it’s because I work very visually. When I want to make music, I love to watch movies or see some good photos. I love to translate the visual aesthetics into audio. And, for me, this longing is kind of my theme. It has such a bittersweet, romantic thing in it. I really love Michael Haneke’s Der Siebente Kontinent for that matter. It’s been a really big inspiration. It’s really gray and built around a really heavy subject. But it’s also romantic in some weird way, for me at least.
Prior to starting the Palmbomen project, were you in any bands or DJing at all? Was the music you were making years before similar to what you do now?
No I was keeping this museum, kind of trying stuff out. I studied composition, but hardly finished a song before Palmbomen.
It seems that with your music, you focus more on the atmosphere and feeling to do with sound, rather than making a huge banging dance track. How does this thought process come into play in the studio? Explain the process of creating the last album and the biggest things you learned about yourself during it.
Like I said, it’s really visual. The main thing I learned from this album is that I have to start and end a song in a day, to stay in this atmosphere in this momentum. That way I make all my decisions in this same flow. Preferably to record the master to tape so I can’t change anything anymore. I was sculpting for a longer time on some songs and it only made it worse. Now I’m working on an album where I make a song every day and mix it and record it to tape so I can’t change anything. I also don’t want to go back into these songs to change anything or redo them. It just is how it is. If the mix is not good or anything it’s just too bad. I can make another new song the next day. This makes the process really fun for me.
Tell me about some of the most crucial pieces of gear in your studio and how they play a vital role in your music, such as the VHS player and tape recorder.
Yeah, I love the VHS recorders I have. But, at this moment, I work more with 1/4″ tape. I found some good sounds with that. I still have some “boutique” machines like the ARP 2600 and Jupiter 4. But I love the “cheap machines” at least as much… like the DX7 and Wavestation etc. Those are actually the only machines you’ll ever need, together with some tape. I can always sell the “boutique” machines when I’m out of money or something. It’s not worth all that money.
Your tape recorder element is especially unique, and it seems like a lot of the background sounds on your last album came from this. Do you bring the recorder everywhere you go?
Yeah, I record a lot, but also on my phone. But I’ve been walking around in Berlin, which is where I lived at that moment, with a little tape recorder to record Chinese kids in the subways, and the birds in my garden, etc.
How did you come together with the NON records family and what sort of role do they play in your life? It seems that they really work as a closely-knit team with all the artwork done in the house etc. Was teaming up with like-minded artists a beneficial thing for yourself?
Most of us have a visual background and half the artists are designers, too. Like I said, it’s really a friends thing, so it felt logical to keep it in-house.
Apart from other people’s music, what are some of the biggest influences of Palmbomen’s music and DJ sets?
Next to movies and series like Twin Peaks, I really love X-Files! I’ve watched all seasons twice because of the whole atmosphere. The music is made by a Korg Wavestation, too, by the way.
Now that you’ve been touring both as a live act and a DJ, you probably feel a bit more comfortable in a live setting. Can we expect a similar vibe as your productions from your upcoming DJ sets?
Yeah, playing live and DJing are things I’ve been doing from the start. In fact, I started DJing before I made music. I like the freedom of DJing. I play music with the same atmosphere as my own music. The same textures and fidelity. It’s just a bit more danceable, and I made a lot of edits of songs I like so that I can DJ them. I can hardly play my own songs. They are too “harsh” in the mids when vocals kick in; it’s just not made for that. I’m actually now making a record for my DJ sets. It’s more based on the crossover period from Italo to house; Ron Hardy and Virgo Four and some early Trax records. I like this because I can finally play a lot of my own songs. I’m making songs on my own demand. Songs in BPMs and paces that I would like to have but don’t have. It’s not going to be an official Palmbomen record, but is more something of an in-between project for me. It works really fast. One day, one song.
This next tour is all DJ dates; have you been DJing for a while? And do you find it refreshing or important to have a balance of both live gigs and DJ gigs? What are some of your favorite parts about the DJ side of things?
Yeah, the balance is super good. I play with a band and lights that respond to us playing live. It’s fun, but a hassle. DJing is nice because it’s so free and easy. I guess the hardest thing is the traveling. But that’s nothing compared to touring with a band.
Do you still apply the same mindset toward DJing that you do in terms of producing? Are you still focusing on creating a Palmbomen atmosphere rather than playing the hits?
Yeah, for sure. For me it’s about the atmosphere. I hardly play any modern music. I like the aesthetics of older music. I make a lot of edits; I try not to do too much to the sound but make it a bit more stable and make the pace more solid, or remove horrible guitar solos that some beautiful records seem to have.
Even though this might be easy to guess, how about you describe the most ideal dream setting for a Palmbomen show.
I like to play for larger audiences, but I also like the small capacity warehouse/basement clubs, where sweat drips off from the walls; it’s great to create such an atmosphere there. I also don’t think it’s good to receive what you wish for.
What are you looking forward to most on this upcoming tour? What kinds of things can we expect to hear from your selections?
I think to hear what I do is displayed pretty well in a mixtape I made for Modular records a year ago. Shows I look forward to: I always like Miami; Le Bain in New York is fun, and also A Club Called Rhonda in L.A. is great. I like the traveling to play new places… I like to discover.
Looking toward the future, what else is in the works for you?
Like I said, it’s my record that I’m finishing now, which is only music for my DJ sets. I’m also really playing with the thought of moving to L.A. I’ll have to see what comes up in the coming months.
Alright Kai, that does it for now, looking forward to seeing you in L.A.! Any words for aspiring producers?
Ha yes; leave the expensive boutique stuff. Use cheap stuff! And try to limit your use of computers.
Thanks, Kai! See you in L.A. soon.