In 90s Portland, a bored skater's loop jams invented today. Sam Hockley-Smith meets him
Here's a few things that happened in music in 1992: Pavement released their debut album Slanted & Enchanted, Dr. Dre released The Chronic, the Beastie Boys mutated into a blunted funk band with Check Your Head, Rage Against the Machine turned political sloganeering into aggro anthems and got a lot of attention for it, and Aphex Twin released the sometimes soothing, sometimes difficult Selected Ambient Works: 85-92. These records don't exactly have a whole lot in common with each other, but they speak to a sort of wide-eyed world view. A selective, highly personal take on each artist's eclectic taste, as filtered through their own warped vision. The Chronic is not just a rap album. Check your Head is not just a funk album. And on and on.
Right around the same time, a young Kevin Palmer, aka Best Available Technology, was trying to figure out what to do with himself in Portland, Oregon. Coming from Southern California, he wasn't accustomed to the perma-damp winters and the massive hemlock trees with their dewy, Lynchian loom. It was too wet for him to skate regularly, which he loved doing. Most of the time, it was too wet for him to even walk around much. "I moved up to Portland with a couple guys who sold me on living up here because Burnside skate park had just been built. That's really all I wanted to do, just skate," he says. "Then I got up here and realized that you could probably skate outside ten days a year, when its sunny and dry. So I had to turn that energy into something else." So he started making music. "I traded a hat and like eighty bucks for this cool little short scale bass, just on a whim. My friend showed me how to play two bars of a Cure baseline. There are tons of pawnshops and second-hand gear stores, so I got this looping delay pedal with a sampling feature on it."
I got up here and realized that you could probably skate outside ten days a year [so] I traded a hat and like eighty bucks for this cool little short scale bass, just on a whim.
Without the now omnipotent presence of the internet, he was consuming music in a bubble: early Three-6 Mafia, classic dub, whatever caught his ear, really, it didn't matter. He just wanted to make music that sounded like the stuff he loved listening to and reading about. "I started fooling around, grabbing snippets off the radio, trying to figure out how to make beats because I had always loved hip-hop. It was super important to me. I was trying to approximate that, but I was totally naive, I had no idea how to really do it. I was trying to make what I was reading about. Mostly it was just imagining this super rich, varied world of sonics out there." He accumulated more cheap drum machines, cheap samplers, and dutifully recorded everything he did to cassette: mixes, abstract experiments, fully-fleshed out songs, whatever it was, it was on tape. He labeled a few and then put them in his closet. "It's totally ridiculous, but I love gear manuals. It's inspiring somehow…the potential. I can kind of hear what the machine is describing, what it does."
I was trying to figure out how to make beats because I had always loved hip-hop. It was super important to me. I was trying to approximate that, but I was totally naive, I had no idea how to really do it. Mostly it was just imagining this super rich, varied world of sonics out there.
Listening to Excavated Tapes: 1992-1999, the first in a projected series of reissues of this old cassette material on Astro:Dynamics, it's not hard to understand why he chose to drag the recordings back out. Though each piece sports an unwieldy title like "Trvlr TDK SA-X100," they, tape-hiss and all, sound like they might as well have been made by an incredibly talented Soundcloud lurker as recently as five minutes ago. It's forward thinking stuff—ranging from ambient washes of wobbly drone to bells that collide and knock into messy, natural rhythm. The main touchstone here is dub — sort of. It's actually not very close to what Palmer ended up with, but the tracks all meld together into an echoed rhythm. Cheap drum machines speed up, then slow down and plod steadily, tangling and clicking their way into psychedelic lockstep. Synths worm to the forefront and then shuffle backward just as quickly. It's not exactly improvised music, but it isn't completely controlled either. "I'm always a little sketched out to use the word improvise, because for some people I think it means that they know what they're doing. I do everything in one take because the sounds fit together better for me," he says. "I screw around, making loops in varying lengths, trying out different sequences."
The most striking track on the record is "Keys TDK SA-X100" for the way it predicts so much of what we hear now. There's a loungey verve to the feedback that fuzzes around the keys, and the drums echo (and occasionally pre-date) the wall of stumbling hornet's nest buzzes and clicks that Aphex Twin and Squarepusher would make their signature sound. Palmer isn't the first person to make music that sounds like this, but the humanness to what he does is key.
The music of Best Available Technology isn't pretentious, but it is experimental, and while those two things are often thought of as one-and-the-same, Palmer's music is so warmhearted and comfortable in its own skin that when he reminisces about making these tracks, he talks about them as if they were made by someone else. "It's not like I forgot I did them or anything," he says. "I had grocery bags and a couple boxes that were falling apart filled with tapes. I realized I had more stuff than I remembered doing. I thought it would be fun to start listening back to it and found some stuff that I liked."
Now Palmer is married and has a daughter. In-between making new music for labels like Opal Tapes, he meticulously goes through his archive—mostly this as exists as cassettes with one long jam—cutting each one up where he hears natural end points, essentially remixing and re-editing himself, before sending them off to Luke Owen, the man behind the Astro:Dynamics label. The Volume 1 aspect of the title is no joke, Palmer is sitting on hours of material.
There's something romantic in Palmer's music that has to do with how it sits in its own place in time, unmoored from what was going on around it. Disconnected from geography, disconnected from any music scene. It's just the product of one person's singular internal process. His attempt to understand.