If there’s ever been a roundabout way of finding your feet as a producer, Mount Palomar knocks it out of the park. Beginning 20 years ago as a 19 year old hopeful faking his way into record meetings in London, his journey has been both bizarre and arresting. Despite an abundance of obstacles his career has gone from strength to strength in recent years with sets at AVA, London’s Printworks, Twitch Belfast and Panorama Bar under his belt. Shortly after releasing his debut EP Black Nights Tango on Lobster Records in February he has been chosen to take a coveted slot on the Boiler Room stage at this year’s AVA Festival in his home town of Belfast. With a second EP in the works to be released this summer it won’t be long until Europe’s dance floors will be abuzz with his synthy, nostalgic ruminations. We caught up with the producer to discuss his childhood in Belfast, his tumultuous relationship with music and his unlikely development into one of Ireland’s most exciting producers.
Black Knights Tango is about your early childhood, what music were you listening to around this time?
Nirvana and Guns and Roses really defined my youth. I loved Rage Against the Machine, Metallica, Faith No More – but to be honest the first two tracks I really remember being obsessed with were Gary Newman’s “Our Friends Electric” and Frankie Goes to Hollywood “Relax”; “Relax” was so provocative and dirty but that just went totally over our heads – in the playground we’d sing “relax, don’t do it, pick your nose and chew it.”
Can you remember your first contact with electronic music?
My older cousin had a computer that I would go over and play on and he used to go to illegal parties during the height of the early rave scene. He’d take the piss out of me for being this little metal-head and I’d say “that music you listen to is so repetitive.” The first record I remember him playing was “Experience” by The Prodigy and Leftfield’s “Leftism”, these incredibly influential records. I used to steal them for a few weeks and listen to them, that’s kind of how I discovered dance music, it was through him. I mean I discovered a lot of other stuff involved with rave culture too obviously – he was a bad influence without even realizing it.
When did you start wanting to make music yourself?
I must have been around 15-16 and my brother Conor a proper whiz kid; big into technology and computers, he had this software called Cool Edit Pro (now Adobe Audition) and he’d suggested I use it to write songs and stuff for my “band”. I wasn’t really interested to be honest I just wanted to learn how to play the solo from “Sweet Child Of Mine”. I started messing with the effects on it and getting really creative – I was fascinated. I loved how I could manipulate and modify the sound – I could make something that was unique, the idea of sitting around and writing an acoustic guitar song became way less appealing.
Was it something that you learned quickly? Or was it a long time before you started being able to make proper music?
I mean, it was 1995, there was no internet so learning how to use the software properly was really difficult, I didn’t want to sit around and read user manuals and it was really difficult to get your head around because it was so complex; I was phoning Germany and shit trying to get technical support. I know its cliche to say it but…. kids have it a lot easier these days; there were no YouTube tutorials. I do think its helped in my music output though because when I was learning how to make this stuff there was no set way of doing it, it was all so fresh and new that there was no box to think outside of.
Did you have an influence or mentor? Did anyone take you under their wing and show you the ropes?
I wasn’t influenced by anyone to be honest; I had no musical friends, no scene to reference and no one to learn from. It was a case of me making it up as I went along. I couldn’t google how to program a drum beat, you just had to figure it all out. Everything I’ve done creatively has never really been a conscious decision; I never studied music or art, or anything else really. I know this might make me sound like a shithead, but whenever I learned from someone else it was always so slow and tedious, so by the book. I think that was a generalized part of teaching in creative fields before the internet though – it was always so mundane and basic, so skill-heavy – it wasn’t for me. It just appealed more for me to learn from myself.
So was your growth as an artist quite isolating?
I think again, that is true to this day. I never had the urge to look over my shoulder and see what other people are doing and I still don’t, I definitely listen to other producers to enjoy the music but I don’t compare it to what I’m putting out there, I would actively try my best not to follow in other peoples footsteps.
Have you always been a bit of an introvert?
I never used to be, I was always a happy-go-lucky kid. I was so loud, complete class clown. But I think people’s perception of me being this joker really began to affect me, the teachers would treat me differently and act like I was an attention seeker and disruptive, but I wasn’t a bad kid. The second EP references a lot of this; the first EP is more about my brother and the music we listened to in the ’80s, but the second is about the perils of youth. The first track on it is “Disruptive Attention Seeker” which was what I got called all the time by adults. One of my teachers smacked me over the head with one of the insoles of my shoes during a lesson at one point and she said: “empty cans make the most noise”. It stuck with me and I started to get this kind of complex, I’d repeat that line back to myself and I started to become really introverted. The second EP starts off with this metallic noise, its a synthesizer, and it sounds like a can being kicked down the street in an experimental way, and its because that line really stuck with me and it was the impetus for the EP; this period in my teens where I allowed other people’s perceptions of me to shape my behaviour. I think it was also that kids were getting to that age where the youthful bravado kicks in. I just lost interest, I didn’t want to pretend I was cool – and that just pushed me further away from everyone else, and more into music, which obviously in hindsight wasn’t a great idea, because it just made me obsessive. I wanted to go into music but this was the late 90’s in Northern Ireland, there wasn’t a clear path for me to do that so I went into tech.
How did this obsession manifest in your life? Has it ever affected your mental health?
I started to feel a bit odd – this was a time mental health wasn’t something people were aware of, I couldn’t really put a finger on why I was feeling the way I did. Looking back now there were massive red flags. I was impulsive, I’d get the bus into Castle Court shopping centre in Belfast and I’d sit there and smoke with my headphones on, and that was all that would comfort me. I was attracted to largely populated places with bright lights and a sense of surreal organised chaos like supermarkets, bus stations, hospitals and I would detach and watch people go about their business. I wanted to completely disconnect from the world around me but I needed to be in busy spaces full of people to do that. This went on for a while and then I basically dropped out of college and I didn’t know why I thought I was being an idiot – in retrospect, it was my mental health but I just didn’t understand it.
… and I’m assuming with all that free time on your hands you channelled everything into music?
Yeah, I became totally obsessive. It was a strange period, I turned 19 and I had complete tunnel vision. I’d stay up until 4am just working on tracks and to me, that was just my process, but it really affected my behaviour. I thought I was being this creative and this was me being more inspired at night, but I would wake up in the day and close my curtains, I’d get blankets and put them over literally no light could come into the room whatsoever and work in pitch-black for hours on end.
What was your first contact with the music industry outside of producing in your bedroom?
I went to a talk in Belfast with a guy from Raw Fish Records from Manchester. I walked up to him at the end and I said: “look I don’t know if you’ll like what I’m making here, but regardless you won’t be able to deny that I’m fucking good.” I was so young, I had no fear. He gave me his card so I phoned him and I said “I’m going to fly over to Manchester” and he said, “no just send me a demo that’s fine” and I refused “no, I’m bringing it in person.” I turned up there, he brought down these industry guys, like the former head of A&R for Colombia Records and like 6-7 others sitting in this room and I walked in with a CD with 6 tracks, 30 mins long. I pressed play and I just sat there and made them listen to every single second of it.
A meeting with a record label at 19 is impressive, did anything come of it?
It was a bit vague, to be honest, I think I was worried there were no guarantees in it, and I wasn’t really willing to sacrifice my own artistic licence just yet. The feedback was really positive and it spurred me on in a lot of ways, I don’t think they really understood what I was aiming for. My music then was this sort of dancey/hip-hop fusion stuff. They’d offered to put me up in a studio for a while in Manchester and see I could do, but when I went home my mental health was so bad I never followed it up. I had to go to the GP and admit that I wasn’t well, this was a period where the mental health support offered by the NHS was appalling and I didn’t really get any sort of guidance whatsoever on how to deal with my head. I had developed agoraphobia, I’d pretend to my parents that I was heading out with my friends when I wasn’t, I’d go to Shine where I knew that I could go and no one would realize I was on my own. I went for New Year’s Eve once and it was 12 o’clock and while everyone else embraced each other I just kind of stood there alone in the middle of the dance floor.
So did you take a break to work on your mental health for a while? or throw yourself back into it?
Ha, I did not. The really driven side of me kicked in again. Next thing I decided I was going to do was to go to London and try to get a record deal with an established label. I started phoning up all the labels, you know Virgin, Sony, EMI, Rough Trade, Polydor and pretend I was head of A&R for Capitol Records in the US. I got all the numbers from a book in the Central Library and I put on this shit American accent and say “hi I’m coming over to London with this new Irish artist we think you’d be interested in”. I shit you not, every single one of them said yes.
No way. How did the meetings go? What happened when they realized you weren’t who you said you were?
I think they just thought I had balls to be honest and went along with it. I didn’t care, I had no fear, I was in my early 20’s at this stage and I was tall and skinny with long hair – I was obviously not this record exec. Polydor asked me to come on board writing for other people, which was mad but it wasn’t what I wanted. XL was my proper aim – they had The Prodigy. But with every opportunity, I got from labels it always ended up where I wasn’t going to be able to make exactly what I wanted to, along with that and my mental health problems and I turned my back on music for a while. I got into film, art collecting, dealing, screen printing; I went to work in a call centre and I think I lost faith in the idea that I was ever going to create something substantial and utilize my talents. The recession hit and I had money from selling art that I used to hire my own studio, which was class and it felt good to be creating something again, but it was in this industrial park and it had no windows. It was this breeze-block prison, and I would sleep in it at the weekend.
You have mentioned that Black Knights tango is a response to the loss of your brother Conor, How did he inspire you?
Conor had been the driving force behind my creativity always, he’d taught me how to use programes, even all the music stuff – Photoshop, he was so supportive and patient with what I was doing and as he got sicker and sicker – he was a computer programmer. He was clever, selfless and just this like, really fucking good guy. He ended up losing vision in one of his eyes he lost so much weight, he was battling so hard and then one afternoon when I was working on music in my studio I got a call from my dad who was sobbing uncontrollably. We had all been with Conor a few days prior watching a film and eating ice cream so I wasn’t at all prepared to hear my dad tell that Conor was gone. In an instant, my whole world fell apart.
Was his illness the driving force behind rediscovering music again?
He was diagnosed with a brain tumour around the same point I got the studio; It had been left undetected for years, he’d had headaches and stuff, me and my parents feel a lot of guilt now because the signs were there. When they found it we were all so relieved because they had identified the problem and it could be fixed, he was so strong that he instilled in us this sense that everything was going to be OK. The doctors managed to rid of it at first, but then it came back and then it really hit us. I think after that I really started to think that I need to get my shit in order, that if I was able to make a success of myself I could get Conor to the right people, it was this stupid sense of “I can do this”. His health started to deteriorate and I turned 30, and it was this really tumultuous period, because he was going through that, and I also was coming to terms with my sexuality.
Grappling with your sexuality and dealing your brothers illness must have been difficult.
Yeah, it really was. I’d always known that I wasn’t straight, but I didn’t want to go to the gay scene, I wasn’t into gay clubs so I didn’t feel like I fell into that particular box, so I never acted on it. I think because I was lonely again, and I didn’t have any friends I just wanted companionship. One night I went to The Kremlin, which is a gay bar in Belfast, and once I took that step and going there, even though the music was shit, everyone was so friendly and everyone would talk to me and I could go by myself. I met a guy, Michal, and were very different personality-wise but we liked each other. We were both in really shit places and it was comforting.
When did you come out?
On my 31st birthday. My parents aren’t homophobic but I think for them they were so distraught, and I think for them they thought I was going to meet someone and have kids and have grandkids and that is all gone, you’re going to get abuse from people possibly, and they were so concerned, especially as they were faced with the possibility of losing my brother too. I told them that I was moving in with Michal and they just didn’t really know how to deal with it. I’d been dating him for 6 weeks and I was suddenly living with him. My mum couldn’t speak to me because she was so hurt, she thought I’d lost my mind. I essentially then had to tell her about what had gone on with being agoraphobic and I think for her it broke her heart because we were so close and she couldn’t understand why I’d gone through this completely alone. On top of this my brother was deteriorating and it was so chaotic.
Did getting back into music help you deal with Conor’s loss?
Not really to be honest – I still haven’t come to terms with losing him but clubbing provided a sense of escapism that I really needed. I could go to a nightclub and talk to people and blend in, it was a temporary solution to the pain I was feeling – I could go to the club, take some drugs and not have to think about the loss.
How did Mount Palomar come about? when did it transition from you being a member of the crowd to playing the crowd?
I was screen printing at the time and I ended up connecting with Timmy Stewart from the Night Institute hit me up, and he found out I made music. He asked to hear some stuff and I told him that I literally don’t have anything anywhere, but he was insistent, so he came over to the studio and I showed him my music and he just sat there like “are you fucking kidding me why aren’t you doing anything with any of this” and I didn’t really have an answer, to be honest. People then started to pick up on what I was doing at the right time, then the Twitch guys heard it and basically said the same thing. It was during this point where I was clubbing again and suddenly I had friends and I was rediscovering this part of myself – but also meeting all these people in Belfast who were also so passionate about what they were doing. There was a year and it was the first year of AVA started and I was desperate to go but I was skint, I ended up in a market nearby selling screen prints and I could hear the music, and I regretted it so much – I missed the festival and I made £15.
You attended the next year though right?
Yes, I asked Sarah McBriar if I could conduct some of the modular workshops and she said yes. It was so huge, the first time I’d committed to something musically where I was in public and actually doing something – not in my studio, not in a record office – it was in front of other people. I got such an amazing response and I started to think, maybe I can be strong enough to really do this now. The year after Sarah asked me to play; my debut gig as a musician was at AVA on the main stage – I mean I was on like the second act so there were 10 people there – but the sound system, the experience was so fucking class, then I played again last year on the Red Bull stage – and I’m going to be playing Boiler Room this year which is pretty surreal.
You’ve also played Panorama Bar recently, was that your first time at Berghain?
No actually, when I went to Berghain for the first time I had no idea what it was or its reputation. I’d googled “clubs in Berlin” – seriously. I didn’t read any articles, I didn’t know what to expect and I turned up, queued in the pouring rain at 1am and when I got to the front the bouncer shook his head. Unsurprising really, I’m this guy from Belfast in a woolly hat, gloves, scarf and winter coat and I’m like “excuse me, what?” and he said you’re not going in, and I said “are you fucking kidding me, it’s raining, its nearly 2 o’clock in the morning and you’re telling me I can’t go into the club for no particular reason. Sven came over and said “is there a problem” and I started to moan about not getting in and the fact it was raining and freezing. I managed to remember one of the DJ’s names from the listing and said I had been waiting to see whoever the hell this DJ was for ages and Sven said: “it’s fine, go ahead”. Next thing I’m in Panorama Bar and I very quickly realized I needed to put my scarf and gloves in the cloakroom. A guy sat beside me and he said “you have no idea where you are, do you?” and I said, “lol not really”. I was dressed in a jumper and jeans and I’d go to the toilet and all the leather-clad party-goers were grabbing my cheek and saying “awww” I stuck out like a sore fucking thumb honestly. It was only when I’d got home and put up a Facebook status like “Berlin was class, and Berghain is pretty sweet” and everyone started commenting like “as if you got into Berghain Neil!”.
I ended up managing to accidentally book to go Berlin the weekend of the infamous FC Snax United party and at midnight on Sunday, after the most insane night of my life, I went to see the closing set in Panorama Bar. By chance, Avalon Emerson was playing with ND Baumecker and Roi Perez. We had met earlier that year at Twitch and she was wearing a Computer Controlled Records T-shirt I had screen-printed. We chatted for a couple of minutes then I danced non stop for about 10 hours. I was exhausted as I hadn’t seen any daylight since Thursday but the atmosphere was incredible and the music was unreal. At about 10am on Monday morning, Nd_baumecker came out from behind the decks and said “thanks for hanging around, it looked like you were enjoying yourself” We chatted for a bit and when I got back home he added me on Facebook to stay in touch. When he found out I made music he was baffled why I hadn’t said anything but I didn’t know who he was and had no idea he was the Berghain booker for years actually.
When did you find out you had been booked to play Berghain/Panorama Bar? was that your first club gig?
No actually – the Twitch guys booked me to play alongside Or:la in February 2018. It’ll always be one of my favourite gigs as the crowd were insane and the atmosphere in The Menagerie was so rowdy it was actually a bit overwhelming at times. The support from the crowd at that very first gig meant so much because it had been such a struggle a lot of the time for me to work up the self-belief that I could follow through and not just quit the music altogether. A couple of days after the gig, I was sitting on a bus into the city centre an I got a message from ND Baumecker asking me to record my set at Twitch, I told him it was too late as I had already played and asked what for. He casually said because he wants to book me to play at Berghain. My second gig; in Berghain. It was the best bus journey of my life.
Does Berghain/Panorama Bar hold significance for you now?
Definitely, to have gotten to play in Berghain at the Revolting party in Lab.Oratory and twice in Panorama Bar within the first 11 months of starting back at the music is beyond surreal and I have developed a real connection with Berghain and the punters inside. The sense of escapism and detachment from the real world feels quite homely and comforting for me, it taps right into the very character traits that defined my teen and probably a good deal of who I am as a person to this day.
What can we expect from you next?
Next up is the Boiler Room at AVA, which I’m really excited about. It still feels so weird because I have gone from such a low when my brother died to these fairly huge highs and now things are finally falling into place after years – decades even – of setback after setback. I’ve just finished off the second EP, got signed on a publishing deal, have received multiple offers of management and agency requests and am preparing to move to Berlin. It’s surreal to think it has been 20 years since I first went to London with the music and now, I finally feel like I can do this like I’m finally ready to follow through with the music and enjoy where it’ll take me.