One of dance music’s pioneers of sound returns with his ‘Goin’ Freak EP’ with some genius production
Interview : Dan Prince
Hey Kevin welcome back to DMCWORLD, where on planet earth are you right now?
“I’m at home in London.”
Another great moment you had on Pete Tong’s show on Friday night when he played your new ‘Goin Freak’ EP which is swinging our way on Off Recordings. Genius production on this one Kevin, talk us through the EP…
“Thanks! I met up with OFF label owner Andre Crom in Berlin when we did our label party @ Wilden Renate. I’m a big fan of what they do. His A&R is great and the label has a fantastic hit rate. Last summer I was making some tracks to play at Ubermax @ Dalston Supertore and “Club Trax” was one of the ones I made. I was looking to take some hip hop vocals and work them into a Chicago house style. I was really into the kind of hip-hop cut-up/bootlegs Radioslave made in the early 2000s and I wanted to do something like that but with some 90s Chi-town energy. Andre liked it but felt it was maybe a bit left-field for the OFF audience and so asked me to make something straighter for the A-side, giving me Lauren Lane “Cool Kids” and Paolo Rocco “People Say (Nic Fanciulli Remix)” as a reference – two records he’d been caning. I dug into some more hip-hop a cappellas and came up with “Goin’ Freak” and that signed the deal.”
Okay let’s kick back for minute. Your story that one day would lead you into the dance music hall of fame couldn’t have had a more diverse beginning. Your father was a minister and mother a teacher and there was no music in the house, you had to source your music via the mail order company the Britannia Music Club and your local library until thankfully university beckoned and boom – your digs were just around the corner from the world famous Sub Club. Can you remember what it felt like walking into that place for the first time?
“I can… just. But only because I almost didn’t get in! The Subby door staff were a bit like the fashion police back then and my wardrobe wasn’t exactly John Richmond. Thankfully I went there with a guy called Cris Biguzzi – a DJ from Bromley who lived in the room next door in my halls of residence. He’d been clubbing in London for a while and as well as looking the part, managed to talk us in. At the time I was really into the Balearic sound [FFRR’s Balearic Beats Volume 1 was never off my stereo] and so the music I heard that night was initially a bit of a disappointment – no Mandy Smith or Woodentops but Slam playing mostly Italian and NYC House music. But the venue was amazing: camouflage nets hanging from the already low ceiling making it feel properly intimate, Keith Haring style figures on the wall – all glowing in the neon lights – and then darkness everywhere but the dance floor (it was a real mission finding your mates). The atmosphere was incredible. It was so liberating dancing to music I’d never heard before but laid down by DJs who knew how to get on a groove and not let go. Soon enough I was up at the DJ box asking Stuart or Orde what a tune was and off to 23rd Precinct to try and get hold of it.”
The collecting of vinyl soon began and then the obvious move into DJing. First the obvious question, what did your parents think of this colossal fascination with music all of a sudden that was taking over your life all of a sudden?
“I’m not really sure. My parents split up when I was 14 and I didn’t have much contact with my Dad after that. He’s a bit of a snob and I know he didn’t think much of me going to anew university (Strathclyde had been a technical college when he went to university) and my engineering degree wasn’t law or medicine and he was pretty snooty about that too so God knows what he thought of me as a DJ. As to my Mum, it was even weirder with her. She doesn’t like music. She won’t listen to it at all, makes her feel all weird and uncomfortable. So genetics really worked some magic turning me into a dance music mad clubber!
You quickly became interested in making music, but you had a very clear idea that you wanted to explore…it was how a house record would sound if modulated in a certain style, how you could improve it. Can you elaborate on that…
“It’s where a lot of my ideas come from with regards to making music. I’m always looking for something new to do. As a DJ, I’m not so into nostalgia – unless that’s the whole focus of the party – I’ve always liked to play new music. However there aren’t always the records you want out there. For example, I’m really into what Dixon and Tale of Us are doing right now – I love that hypnotic, emotional, tripped-out feel – but I find their records can sometimes be a bit linear and so I’ll do my own version of that sound but with more breakdowns and drama. I took that approach on a mix I’ve just done on Romanthony’s “Floorpiece”. Another thing I’m really into is the 90s Wild Pitch / DJ Pierre / DJ Duke sound but I find a lot of the original records don’t stand up on modern sound systems like Funktion One. So when I hooked up with Anu from Freeform Five to remix Romanthony’s “Trust” we looked to do a mix that had that elongated, constantly morphing feel but with a 2014 kick drum and drums production.”
Strathclyde University Students Union 1991. You were DJing, a lad tapped you on your shoulder, explained he loved your music and wanted to make stuff like it and handed you a tape. That guy was Andy Carrick. Can you remember anything about that tape he handed you whilst you were DJing?
“I remember it had a lot of pianos on it (Andy is a classically trained pianist) and it also had a lot of ideas going on (sometimes enough for 3 tracks in 1!) and also that I liked the music but stylistically it was all over the place. It felt like music that was good but wouldn’t fit in anywhere. I was a bit of a dance music snob at the time so I guess I was the right guy to channel all that creativity into a specific niche.”
Fact or fiction : You went to The Princes Trust to get £2000 to put your first EP out?
“Yup, that’s true. I was out the night before the interview seeing Oscar & Harri at the Voodoo Room in Glasgow and got totally trashed. I’d arrived at the club by car and parked on double yellows outside thinking I’d just stay for one. As you do. Next morning I wake up at my mate Gavin’s flat with an hour to get my shit together and get to the interview in Irvine and realised that my car could be getting towed. I just saved it from the pound thanks to a very kind traffic warden. One of the panelists interviewing me was Geo Benedetti, father of the virtuoso violinist Nicola. At they end of the grilling they said I could have my £2000, they just had one question for me: why didn’t I ask for more? I was so wet-behind-the-ears business wise I just asked for what I thought I needed. Apparently I could have had up to £5,000!”
Where were some of your favourite clubs you enjoyed rocking in the 90s?
“There were loads of places I played that were fantastic parties (Basics, DiY, Stealth, Sir Henry’s) but I think back then I wasn’t the best DJ when I was guesting somewhere. I always worried a bit too much about how cool my music was. As a result the best times I had were in clubs in Glasgow where I held down a residency. You couldn’t afford to be too cool for school if you wanted to keep your gig. The Sub Club and the Voodoo Room in Glasgow, Swell in Largs and Detox in Greenock were some of my favourite places.”
An interesting thing you said recently when discussing the amount of music that is out now…“Even someone like myself who knows many people in the industry, I still find it difficult to get people to listen to my music.” Is it really that hard out there…?
“It is. I’m sure it’s easier for me than for someone just starting out but it’s still very difficult. Sometimes I really have to chase people down if I want an opinion (on a new act for example) and often – because most influencers are swamped with music – being that kind of person a lot means you can become unpopular. You have to choose your moments wisely. It’s also true that people in this industry like to make up their mind about you quite early on and it’s very difficult to change that view. As such it can still be hard to get your music heard because some people assume they know what you are sending sounds like.”
The decision to re-start Glasgow Underground came about with the emergence of great house music again and also some great feedback from some of your DJ friends. The idea was to do a modern version of what you did in the 90s and noughties. What are the biggest changes in the industry between then and now…
“The biggest change has to be technology and the Internet. It had democratised the music world and meant that everyone has the means to make music and has access to marketplace. But in doing so it has turned the world of available music into this huge sea of shit that it takes even great artists much longer for to rise above. In terms of the business, it has allowed piracy to become commonplace. In the 90s and 00s, my business was virtually unaffected by it – the odd Russian bootleg CD but nothing major. Nowadays 95% of all music downloads are illegal. Labels are all fighting for that 5% of customers who’s first response after hearing a tune they like isn’t to Google the name of that tune plus “zippy” after it and try and grab it for free. I’ve been amazed at our government’s response to it. I released the Audiojack & Motor City Drum Ensemble mixes of Romanthony’s “Trust” a week past Monday and by the Tuesday there were more than 20 sites offering links to over 30 download hosts (Zippyshare, Novafile, Uploaded etc.) where people can download those files for free. The fact that is a totally normal occurrence and none of the owners of these sites will get into the slightest trouble for it should be shocking. But it isn’t. It is “business” as usual if you’re trying to exploit a music copyright. Imagine someone set up a massive stall on Oxford Street, walked in to Top Shop, took 95% of their stock and then gave it away at the stall, selling ad revenue on the building. They’d be arrested and put away.”
What is coming out next from the label?
“Next up are some more remixes of Romanthony’s “Trust” (myself and Freeform Five, Mia Dora and Daniel Trim), then a collaboration from two of Glasgow’s most exciting new talents; Illyus & Barrientos who’ve put together one of those tracks that could be contender for this years Miami/Ibiza anthem.”
What is the current top 10 you are spinning…
“What I play really depends on where I am and what style the party is so I guess the best thing to do it go through the track-listing for my recent Off Podcast. That’s a pretty good indication of what I play. Here it is in order of warm-up – peak-time rather than in order of my favourites…
1. Romanthony “Trust 2014” (Mia Dora Remix) [Glasgow Underground] 2. Filthy Rich “Hussle Up” [OFF Recordings] 3. Illyus & Barrientos “The Times We Shared” [Glasgow Underground] 4. Format B “Magic Button” [Formatik] 5. Brett Gould “Rhythm Drop” [Glasgow Underground] 6. Illyus & Barrientos “Do Anything You Wanna” [Glasgow Underground] 7. Kevin McKay “Goin’ Freak” [OFF Recordings] 8. Jimi Jules & Oliver $ “Earl” (Original_Mix) [Hive Audio] 9. Eelke Kleijn “Rampestampe” [Lost & Found] 10. Loquai “Soul of My” [Shiva Audio] 11. Him Self Her “Heartstopper” (Andre_Crom & Chi Thanh Remix) [OFF Recordings] 12. Romanthony “Floorpiece” (Kevin McKay Remix) [Glasgow Underground]
You have lived through the dance music story right from the start, through the dancing in the fields in dungarees, the musical diversity that ensued, the superclub phase, the lull when rock appeared again and now the huge explosion around the world. What do you make of the scene in America for instance?
“I always love going to the US to DJ. I was surprised that dance music wasn’t more successful there first time around. That was until I signed the Mylo record to RCA over there and found out how difficult it was to break new artists in the states – mainly down to communicating en masse with your audience. There just wasn’t a way for dance artists to do that. If labels and clubs in the 90s had been able to engage with their target audience over the Internet there would have been scenes popping up all over the US and we would have seen a similar explosion in dance music to the one we are seeing now. Without that and with just the likes of print magazines and indie record stores to spread the word of dance music the scene seemed restricted to the key east and west coast cities in the 90s. That said, what went on might have been smaller, but there were still some fantastic places to get messed up and go dancing.”
Tell us about some shit hot producers we should be looking out for in 2014…
“I don’t think I spend enough time going through new music to give you a definitive guide but I recently discovered Loquai and Detlef and really like what they’re doing. In terms of my artists on GU, this year should be a big year for Illyus & Barrientos, Daniel Trim and Mermaids [they have this one song that could be one of the tunes of the year].”
You once said that whenever you heard a new Grum record it would hit you right in the chest, a feeling you loved. When was the last time a record gave you that feeling?
“Grum always does that to me. However that Grum feeling is pretty unique to him. He has this ability to make you feel warm and sunny and air-punchingly happy when you’re on the dancefloor – all at the same time. His forthcoming remix for Dirty Vegas is so good. Outside of Grum, the last track that really melted me inside was “Odet” from the new Daniel Trim EP. It is one of the most gorgeous house records if heard in ages.”
A quote from one of our favourite producers…“I don’t think it’s necessary these days to actually be a good DJ like it was 15 years ago at the start of my career. These days you can get away with pressing play on a laptop.” Discuss…
“I think that is a bit unfair on DJing. That would be true if all you had to do was beat-match records together – but its not. Unless you’re one of those DJs that plans out a “set” and delivers the same thing regardless of the crowd the track selection is as important as keeping the beats flowing. Fair enough, there are some DJs where being a really tight mixer is part of their style – Domenic from the Sub Club is one of the best DJs I’ve heard mixing house and techno – and it is now easier to do what he has always done running mixes that go on for 1 or 2 minutes at a time if you have everything locked in Ableton. But you still have to pick the right records to go next to each other and having a laptop doesn’t make that any easier. Regardless of what you use to deliver music to the crowd you can be boring or creative, entertaining or dull. And I don’t think that has changed one bit.”
Fact or fiction : You came up with the pseudonym Kevin Kennedy when you were working on the Mylo project because you were scared of being associated with Glasgow Underground?
“It is true that I came up with the pseudonym and used it on all the records I did for Breastfed but it’s not exactly true that I was scared of Mylo being associated with Glasgow Underground. I actually signed Mylo to do an album for Glasgow Underground (albeit under a different name) at the same time as I set up Breastfed and he recorded a track as Station for Glasgow Underground Volume 6. At the time though Glasgow Underground was a well-established house label and I’d tried to do some other styles on the label and not had much success. I felt a lot of that was to do with the preconceptions that I discussed earlier. I also felt that it would be much fresher to start something brand new and bring Mylo through as part of that. It was down to that universal truism that you only get one chance to make a first impression. I wanted to control exactly what people thought when they first discovered Mylo and I wanted that thought to be, “This is amazing. Who the fuck is it?” I didn’t want someone looking at sleeve notes and saying, “Oh, right this has been produced & mixed by Kevin from Glasgow Underground”. I wanted it to be all about this kid from Skye who created this fantastic album in his bedroom. Of course it wasn’t strictly true but everyone loved that romantic idea and there were no Discogs obsessives out there to spoil the party!”
Who are some of the big name producers out there you are giving high fives to at the moment?
“I’m not sure if these are all “big names” to everyone else but they are to me!
Sasha Claptone Andre Crom Tiga Stefano Ritteri Dixon Take Of Us Eelke Kleijn Kruse & Nuernberg
You produce, DJ, run a label and are now a father, congratulations with that one dude! How though does Kevin McKay chill out, what do you do to switch off from all of the music?
“To be honest my life involves so much not listening to music (the business side of running the label, being a Dad) or listening to music for work (writing, production, A&R, editing, label audio work) that I still get loads of pleasure from just switching on my ipod and listening to something I love. Outside of music, its either 5-a-side or going for walks with the family and our dog.”
Away from dance music, who are some of the artists you are listening to at the moment?
“I go through phases of listening to non-dance music. At the moment I’m fully back in love with dance music so I’m not listening to a lot away from it. When I do, its stuff like Prince, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye & John Martyn. At the moment my only non-dance music comes when I have Absolute 80s Rock on the digital radio in my kitchen for some pure sing-a-long cheese to entertain my son. Other than that my other half has the new Katy Perry album on as a guilty pleasure now and again and I do love that song where she sings, “So let me get you in your birthday suit. It’s time to bring out the big balloons…”
And finally, what is coming out next from you studio wise…
“I recently reconnected with Anu from Freeform Five (he recorded a single for Glasgow Underground in ’98 and worked on the Mylo album) and we’re working on an album project together. On one of our sessions we spent some time remixing Romanthony’s Trust and that’s due out in February. After that I have remixed Roman’s “Floorpiece” and also have a new single due out on Stefano Ritteri’s Congaloid label.”