For our first Observer neighbor profile, we sat down in a very comfortable virtual chair and discussed fine audio with Joe Kievitt, who, along with Sammie Warren, formed the Munjoy Hill-based craft audio and vinyl boutique KMA. We hoped to shed some light on the vinyl revolution (pun intended) and what inspires Joe to do what he does.
KMA, soon to relocate from Munjoy St. to Romasco Ln., sells house-made handcrafted audio components including speakers, amplifiers and cabinets as well as a hyper-curated selection of vinyl records. According to the website: "KMA’s record selection primarily focuses on electronic, jazz, and world music with an emphasis on new releases and reissues. Whenever possible, we carry heavy weight, high quality pressings."
Joe brings to his audio craft a background in fine art as well as cabinetry and design. KMA even offers record cleaning and turntable setup services.
When did you move to the Hill and what drew you to the neighborhood?
I moved here in 2004 (first to Waterville St.). I've lived all over Portland (on and off) since 1989. In the mid 90s I lived on Howard St. and fell in love with the Promenade and the paths in the park and all of the sunshine Munjoy Hill is exposed to. So in 2004 I wanted all of that again.
A lot has changed over the past few years around Munjoy Hill, what would you say has stayed the same? What keeps you here?
The views and the proximity to the water has certainly stayed the same. And the feeling of being separated from the rest of the city while being so close. The general feeling/energy (architecture and its relationship to the landscape) is more or less the same but other than that it's changed a lot.
Since 2004 things have just gotten more gentrified and more urban (restaurants and more stores). There were more rough areas even as late as 2004 but since 1995 (and certainly since 1986 when I went to Cape Elizabeth High School in the 80s and used to drive up to Munjoy Hill to buy joints) it's changed immensely. One of the apartments in my building used to be a store and my neighbor’s garage was an auto mechanic shop. I wish it was more like that now.
I guess the same things that drew me here are what keep me here. My wife and I own an apartment building and we live in one of the units, so practically speaking, that keeps us here as well.
You are simultaneously an artist, a craftsman (and a scientist) in many ways. How do you reconcile those different strengths when it comes to focusing your energy and time?
I’m not making art these days and am happy to focus all my creative energy into making audio equipment and speakers. And I get my cultural fix by reading about and listening to a lot of music everyday. My art was getting more and more scientific in its making and the switch to building audio equipment felt natural at the time.
How did your interest in audio design develop?
It started when I was rebuilding a turntable. Then I built a tube amp from a kit and later a pair of speakers with full range drivers. I felt that there was a void in the audio market for mid priced equipment that wasn’t over designed.
Why is creating new products important to you rather than, say, restoring vintage audio gear?
With amps, we are interested in old designs, like the Western Electric 300B tube amp, but we would rather take an old design and make it new (as some tube amp designers are doing), instead of chasing after problems inherent in older pieces. This also gives us more control with the aesthetics we’re interested in. With speakers, I am just so excited about full range speakers and the sound they produce that, at least for now, we want to focus on making the best sounding and best looking speakers we can. We are also working on incorporating horns into our cabinets and we’re excited about that as well. With turntables, we want to make a simple, fantastic sounding, extremely well built record player for less money than what's available on the market.
Restoring vintage gear is great and I will continue to do that as well. Perhaps it will become part of KMA at some point. One thing at a time.
What are your hopes and dreams for KMA and your new physical space on Romasco St.?
KMA is a partnership between Sammie Warren and me. Sammie also lives on Munjoy Hill. We now have a newly designed wood shop in the first third of the space, and the back third is occupied by my wife Elizabeth Atterbury’s art studio.
The middle area (about 725 square feet) will be a listening room and a by-appointment store. We plan to hold record listening events (which is becoming popular in other cities), DJ events, and live performances. The space in unconventional and a little rough around the edges but it will be very comfortable and the music will sound fantastic.
How do you know when you have achieved Audio Nirvana? Or is it a never-ending journey?
I would say audio nirvana is when you become completely immersed in not only in the quality of the music, but the quality of the sound.
In some ways it is never ending because the more a person actively listens, the more one becomes sensitive to the nuances of sound. And the better the equipment, the more that is possible. That said, there is a point where the level of improvements starts to diminish.
Why is vinyl still important?
Listening to a record is a ritualistic act and because of that the listener is paying more attention and in turn it sounds better. Taking a record out of its jacket and sleeve, putting it on the record platter, and dropping the needle creates an experience of reverence. And I love the record as a physical object- looking at a CD or a computer screen is much less engaging than holding and looking at a record jacket.
Not all records sound better than digital but many, or even most, do. There are people/companies who are very good at mastering albums and pressing vinyl. This has always been the case and it's clear when you hear one of these records. There are also so many parts that affect the sound between the record and the stereo preamp: cartridge, headshell, tonearm, turntable, phono preamp, etc., all of which can be slowly improved upon.
What are some of your criteria for choosing what records will end up in your shop?
Genre is a big one - we are mostly interested in electronic music, jazz, world music, and new age.
We pay attention to a lot of specific record labels that are either working with new artists we love, or are digging up older, often forgotten releases of the past and reissuing them.
There have been so many incredible reissues in the past few years - many of which are vinyl only, from all over the world. Music that most people in the US have never heard that is so damn good. Its really exciting.