Interview: Best Available Technology

A few years back we spoke to Portland-based Kevin Palmer, aka Best Available Technology. An artist who’s been working for several decades, he only started to release under this name in 2012, with records and tapes for labels like Opal Tapes, Astro:Dynamics and Styles Upon Styles. He recently returned to the latter to release Exposure Therapy, a series of instrumental hip-hop joints inspired by his love of the genre, particularly the dusty boom-bap sounds of the early 90s. To say it’s a hip-hop record is a misnomer, however, as the sound features all the gloopy hallmarks of Palmer’s electronic manipulations, moving between ambient, dub and more. We had a catch-up with him over Google Hangouts, discussing his daily routine, the joys of travelling the world and the balance between motionless appreciation and getting people moving on the floor.

How are you Kevin? “Good good, I had to reconfigure my studio desk space to fit the laptop, super cramped in the newish house. Trying to be quiet, Rebeka is sleeping 5ft from me.” Oh no! “No biggie, it’s the usual situation. She says she doesn’t mind or really hear me making sounds at 4am but she is lying.” That’s sweet of her. “Love and partnership right.” Indeed. “Or just tolerance. She weighs all my faults and that’s the least of them.”

Haha! So can I ask why you’re up so early? “Just my routine. Up at 4 > coffee > sonics > get ready for work. Repeat.” And can I ask what work is? Or is that something you’d rather kept private? “I’m an open book Aidan, ask whatever you want, no mystery shit here.” That’s good to know. “I do brain in jury rehab. lol. Brain INJURY rehab. Not brains in a jury. Done it for the last 20 years, teaching basic living skills and behavioural shit to adults that have had some form of brain injury. ” I imagine that’s both draining and rewarding. “Yes brother, both. Done it for so long that now it’s on a sorta cycle where I can’t stand it and just want to have a job washing dishes or I’m overwhelmed with compassion and enthusiasm. Know what I mean?” Oh I do. “Helmets and seatbelts brother. Graduation rates are l o w for TBI [traumatic brain injury]. We are too fragile”

It’s scary stuff. So how does music fit in with that profession – is it an escape/release? Or am I looking for too easy a narrative here? “Nah I don’t think you’re looking for an easy narrative, I think sometimes that stuff is linked.” That makes sense. “There is an element of both escape and cathartic release in the moment/s of doing sounds; I never really notice it though. In my case I don’t think my job has any connection. I just clock in and out, try and leave it. But I’m sure it worms its way back into my home life at least subconsciously.”

You did a tour in Europe recently, that was certainly a break from routine. How was that? “Oh god yeah, typical massive pendulum swing break from my routine. Never an in between. The tour was incredible, loved every second of it.” All in. “Yes, no balance ever.” Are you making it an annual thing? “Yes I am trying to make it an annual thing, scared to say it out loud though, don’t want to jinx it. It’s just still so totally unreal. So corny but it’s a long-time dream come true. Used to daydream about it.”

I had a look at an old interview where you said you weren’t really into playing live. What changed? “Oof good question. Not sure really. I guess I learned to not overthink it. If somebody asks me to play they must have heard my shit so they know what to expect.” Do you still get scared? “I wouldn’t say scared, more like nerves. But I also determined that being nervous feels nearly identical to being excited, physiologically speaking, right?” Yes, absolutely. “So I just roll with it, I’m excited not nervous. Beyond that I just need a table, chair and monitors. Those little logistical things made a huge difference in how I feel and perform. Seated with ability to really hear what I’m doing. “

What’s your approach? How similar is it to messing around at home? “Very very similar. The gear I bring out is different though, just because my usual gear set up is big and old and not reasonable to travel with.” Oh yeah especially when you’re crossing the planet. “Yep. If someone wanted to front the cost of me bringing out the big old fragile stuff I would totally do it though lol. That would be a blast. Logistical nightmare as well. But back to your question about live approach. I still get in the same frame of mind, construction and deconstruction on the fly.”

That’s very clear in the latest tape, [Live At Take 5, which was recorded in Bristol last year]. You can hear themes and ideas come and go. “Accurate man, hope it’s in a good way for the listener. After hearing some recordings of live stuff from the recent tour (some folks recorded shit, I never do).” It is! For this one anyway. Also the live feel is nice. Crowd noises and that. “Oh yeah that No Corner tape is a fun one, fun probably not the right word but when I hear it, I’m back in Take5, it’s a nice time capsule. But yeah after hearing recent shows (fucking brutal truth be told, so hard to listen to my own stuff, all I hear is mistakes), I want to try and settle into longer headspaces, just to try it out. Make sense?” Do you mean playing longer sets? “If allowed, yes. But I mean longer sound pieces within a set. I want to do both in regards to sets though. Settle into a zone or something. But as the sets are mostly improvised, you never know.”

Of course. So you never play the hits, as it were. “Not really no, I mean I have just for the hell of it and because I’m just indulging myself, wanting to hear something loud and live.” That’s always a buzz. “I played some of the stuff from this last LP last year live. At the show where we met actually [at a show in Club Makossa in London]. When it was embryonic.” Do you mean the new Styles Upon Styles album, Exposure Therapy? “Yep. Kinda figured out that I don’t love to do that though, on this last tour I mean. Distracts from where I want my brain and attention.” Yeah. I guess you have to do it to know either way “Yeah exactly. As well during this last tour I played some stuff in Glasgow at the 12th Isle show that was way more ‘dancey’ -you know, my more 4×4 sonics – and that was a bit of a revelation, people moving and shit.” Rather than standing and nodding. “It was quite enjoyable, was really glad we talked about trying that out ahead of time, never done it like that before. Yeah yeah standing and nodding is crucial though. Arms folded, head down.” It’s my MO tbh. “Me too. I just want to do opposite end of the spectrum sets. Candlelit seated or cramped sweaty movers. But I’m seated with good monitors at both. Nodding of course.”

So how did the new SUS thing come about. “They asked me for an LP of stuff kinda like the ‘Ash’ side of the BASH EP we did a while ago.” Oh yeah. (I’m listening to that now actually.) “It was a perfect avenue for what I’ve been wanting to do forever.” The beats? “Yeah. Something like hearing an imagined hip-hop LP from a series of passing cars, trunks rattling, half-heard melodies, its foggy maybe, you’re wandering around lost. Corny right?” Not at all. “lol you’re being nice. The timing just worked out great for it to happen with SUS. I was in a place to get it recorded.” Phil seems like a great guy too. “Oh god they are the best. And the context for doing with fellow heads from the part of the world that imagined the sound into being. I always wanted to do it for an NYC label, it was just perfect to do it with Phil and Cam, they get it. The little Bleep shop write-up was sooo crazy on point, how they mentioned the car thing. I have never talked about that little corny fantasy with anybody, they just fucking heard it. Wild.” That’s nice. “That felt really amazing to get something from inside my head/heart out into the world.”

Can you talk about the titles? “Points in time. Milestones, events. Births deaths regrets shit like that.” The numbers? “Dates. Ahh conceptually, all your life events as one big exposure therapy session. It all adds up. Or something like that. Sigh… More corniness.” Ah stop. “lol sorry. We came up with it after. It is related and relevant but I don’t go into recording with a concept in mind, ya know?” I see. “Even if I did you just get lost in the moment of creating. I do anyway. In that sculpting/carving zone, you just cross your fingers and hope the emotional content translates.” Where the result is more important that what it’s called. “Yes Aidan exactly, sonics over title.”

I wanted to ask about your use of the word sonics actually. “Haha. scared to call it music.” And it’s not just noise. “No way. Noise is unwanted right? To me anyway.” I don’t know. “Block that shit out.” Everything is noise. Sound. “True true.” Oh wow. Oxford says: A sound, especially one that is loud or unpleasant or that causes disturbance. That’s me told. “I never want to do either. Not intentionally anyway. Be unpleasant or disturb, guess it just comes out sometimes. One those grimacing artsy farsty clowns. ‘Oh this so heavy.'”

Best Available Technology – Exposure Therapy is out now on Styles Upon Styles. Buy here.

Aidan Hanratty

Dublin ...