Since he hooked up with Richie Hawtin to assist in the production of the Plastikman show in the early noughties, Ambivalent aka Kevin McHugh has been closely involved with the Minus label and, in 2007, his debut release on the label – R U OK, blew up worldwide, propelling Ambivalent into the limelight. Now based in Berlin, we caught up with the man himself ahead of his set at Loft Studios presents Minus this Friday to chat about big breaks, new toys and being a fanatic….
You’re playing at one of London’s sweetest venues, Loft Studios, on the 12th October – what have been your favourite gigs in London to date and how well do you know the city?
I know the city just well enough to be dangerous. I lived in London as a student in 1995, so everything’s very familiar, but I often remember things just wrong enough to make me look like a fool. My favorite gigs in London kind of keep adding up. I learned to DJ when I lived in London, but didn’t visit much for a very long time. Now, each time I come back it feels extra special.
Your recent mix ‘Ground’ was fully focussed on showcasing the sounds of lesser known producers and unreleased tracks, what made you take this route?
I definitely feel like the role of a DJ is to give a voice and platform for good music. Listeners expect DJs to share a perspective on what’s out there, and the best way to do that is to offer them something that isn’t already available to them.
It came out on Minus off shoot Minus 12, what’s the specific remit for the sub label?
My sense is that Minus 12 is a place to do things that Minus can’t do from its position. I think it serves as a bit like a laboratory, where things don’t necessarily need to take off, but they can lead to other ideas. I’m being very abstract, I guess, because it’s not my concept, I just get to work with it…
Looking back over your career to date, what would you say have been your biggest breaks, the moments that pushed things onto the next level for you as an artist?
Certainly when my first Minus record came out, it changed a lot for me. I wasn’t prepared for the attention that would bring, but I tried to adapt the best way I could. Moving to Berlin was another big step, and I think since then it’s been much more about making small incremental steps rather than big defining moments.
You released your first record at the age of 31, how long had you been producing up to that point and how many productions deep were you before you arrived at that point?
I’d been making techno seriously for about 3 years at that point, but had been fiddling with synths and programs for maybe 7 years before then. There’s always that point where you stop toying around and say “alright, let’s try to make something legitimate.” Frankly, I’m not sure if I made anything particularly good until my 3rd or 4th release.
What is your current production setup and how has it changed since you first started making music?
I’ve definitely added more gear as I go. I started with an old Tascam console, a Novation synth and some plug-ins. Now it’s expanded to 5 more analog synths, an some Eventides, some Lexicons, a rack of tube pres, some pedals, mics and a mixer I’m about to swap out. As soon as I’ve gotten used to one setup, I always want to re-shape it into something else. It’s all an excuse to have more toys.
If you had to choose one piece of music making gear to take with you into the next world, what would it be and why?
My Universal 4-710. Tubes to keep me eternally warm.
What tools do you utilize in your DJ setup these days?
Right now, I’m using Traktor and Ableton together. I worked with the guys from Liine to make this custom module for the Lemur to use my iPad for controlling drums and effects. Then I’ve got the new Allen & Heath K2 controlling Traktor. It’s a bit complex, and lately I’m toying with the idea of dropping back to playing vinyl and skipping all the cables. Maybe for venues where I know the booth is well set up.
You’ve lived in both New York and Berlin, two big cities in the history and development of dance music, what inspiration do you take from both of these places – do you find one easier to live in than the other?
I always say that New York has my heart, and Berlin has my dreams. I’ll never get New York out of my blood, but the music I love has more of a home in Berlin. So it’s a push and pull. I think New York influences a bit of the grooves in my music, but Berlin always steers me towards the darker, mental sides.
What’s your take on the surge of interest in electronic music in the US mainstream, with the whole EDM movement – do you think it’s positive in that it may act as a kind of Trojan horse for good electronic music to get greater coverage, or are we heading towards another ‘disco sucks’ moment?
In the end, there will always be a gigantic difference between pop music and dance music. I started organizing parties in the late 90s, back when the US had another gold rush for anyone with a drum machine. It didn’t actually move anything forward. A few people got really rich, and there was afterwards the mass audience just moved on to the next trend. The difference is always going to be culture. Crowds might be more open to absorbing their music from a person standing behind a mixer, but the notion of how a 3-hour DJ set tells a story and what that means will be completely lost on the people listening for pop songs. Music produced with electronics has been on the top 40 since I was a child, so it’s not like the mainstream finally discovered it. It’s as significant as a wave of zombie movies. No one thinks that will produce a culture of horror afficionados, do they?
Apart from Minus, what would you say are your favourite labels of the moment, the ones you keep an eye on for forthcoming releases?
I religiously follow Rush Hour, Delsin, Dekmantel, It’s Not Over, Stabblo, Skudge, NonPlus, Clone, 4lux, Jiaolong and a bunch of others. I think there’s no point in being a DJ if you’re not a fanatic who desperately needs to catch everything out there.
Finally, What are your plans for the rest of 2012 and beyond?
Whether you want it or not, change will come, and it will always surprise. I like to think that the horizon always holds more freedom and fulfillment. But in the end, I guess that’s up to me to make true, isn’t it?
Ambivalent plays alongside Barem and Heartthrob at Loft Studios presents Minus on Friday 12th October. More info and tickets here.