Ambivalent

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We chat with Kevin McHugh about the reasons behind his departure from Richie Hawtin’s Minus collective and the development of his new alias Amber. Plus: an exclusive stream of ‘Waves Of Grain’, the title track from his new EP.

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For many producers, a long-term deal at a major independent label sounds like the holy grail: the security of an agreement to release all music on one imprint, the support of a consistent team and the strength in numbers which comes from being surrounded by high-profile artists all pulling in the same direction.

Those benefits are all true to some extent, but the reality isn’t always entirely positive.

Kevin McHugh had been associated with Richie Hawtin’s Minus label – and the broader collective of artists around it – for nearly a decade, having joined the fold through his work on the Plastikman live show. McHugh quietly left Minus to work with other labels and announced this month that he’s also leaving the Clonk booking agency (the closure of which was announced this week).

We grabbed Kevin for a chat about the reasons he no longer felt Minus was the best place for him, the pros and cons of being associated with such a high-profile label, and his new house-focused project, Amber (check out an exclusive stream of the new Amber material below).

Attack: Let’s kick off by discussing the fact that you’ve left Richie Hawtin’s Minus collective, which you’d been associated with for pretty much the whole of your career as Ambivalent. What were the reasons behind the move?

“The only way to work with other labels was to leave the core group... I didn't feel the need to announce it.”

Kevin McHugh: I actually left Minus at the end of 2012. With the structure the label had for many years, the only way to work with other labels was to leave the core group. I had agreed when I signed to the label in late 2006 to give music exclusively to Minus, in return for a management-type arrangement. When I left, I told Rich that I wasn’t going to go out and make a big show of leaving, I just simply opened the door to other labels.

It was a personal decision and I didn’t feel the need to announce that I was doing something most techno artists do, which is work with multiple labels. We decided I would continue with his booking agency as it just made sense for everyone. Since then, I’ve put out two EPs on Octopus, a collaborative EP with Michael L Penman on Ovum, a compilation track on Cocoon and remixes on Turbo, Octopus and Greta. A lot of it has built on what I was doing before I left the label, but lately I’m starting to expand into sounds and projects I couldn’t release before I left.

Was there something specific that spurred the decision or was it something you’d been considering for a while?

I’d been struggling for a while to balance my own artistic goals with the trajectory of the label. For a long time it still made sense to find the crossovers between what I wanted to make, and where Minus was going. But I seemed to keep missing the mark Rich wanted to hit, and ultimately I was scrapping a lot of my music in order to stay part of it. The label exists to represent Rich and his goals, and I understand that. When I first joined the group it seemed to be much more about developing the artists who’d been signed, but eventually I reached a point where it started to feel that I was forgoing too many other opportunities to stay with the group. I think one of the hardest parts of leaving has been separating from the other artists involved. Guys like Hobo, Matador and Gaiser have been some of my dearest friends and artists I deeply admire, and it was quite difficult to adjust to the idea that I won’t play shows with them much any more. But friendships last much longer than most things in the music business, so I’m sure I’ll see them a lot.

Were there times when you felt unfairly pigeonholed as a result of your association with Minus?

“Anyone who signs to a label that big should know they're trading a bit of their identity for a piece of a bigger platform.”

I’m not sure I can say it’s ‘unfair’ because anyone who signs to a label that big should know they’re trading a bit of their identity for a piece of a bigger platform, although I didn’t really think it would be so when I joined. Maybe that was naive, but it was also a different time then. But yeah, I often felt it was a struggle to get people to see my work on its own, instead of just seeing it as being authored by the label. I don’t think that’s a situation unique to me, or to Minus. I would imagine that if you spoke to artists on a lot of the more successful collective labels, you’d hear that they struggle with having joined to develop themselves as artists, and ultimately find they’re just a part of someone else’s larger vision.

I think it’s something that’s become a big focus of audiences, and it’s really particular to this music. When the drummer from Slayer plays a solo show, fans don’t say they’re going to a Slayer concert. In techno, there seems to be this focus on the branding and packaging of music so much that you see reviews of music saying things like “it’d be great if it wasn’t on [label]” or talking about a record as though it had been made by the label, barely even mentioning the artist.

Are there other downsides to being involved in such a major collective and label? Fitting into release schedules, for instance?

To focus only on the downsides would probably make it look like it’s completely negative. In truth, I grew a lot because of my involvement with Minus, and the negatives only outweighed the positives at the end of the story. But yes, there are a lot of things that aren’t apparent from the outside which become difficult, just as there are a lot of things going on behind the curtains in anyone’s life. Release schedules are difficult; projects get shelved or delayed, or a year’s release calendar can get filled before everyone has a chance to get on. It happens everywhere, but when that outlet is your only option, and when taking your music elsewhere would mean leaving your agency, your friends and everything else you’ve worked for, the pressure is rather strong. And a label with one person at the helm who is so busy with their own ambitious schedule can’t really look after the artists as well. A lot of these labels are steered by very successful artists themselves, and everyone associated with them will benefit, but everything in the group is directed up to the top of the chain. It’s just impossible to stay under that type of setup and call your own tune.

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  • Words: Greg Scarth. Photos: Seze Devres
  • Date: 21st January 2014
  • Aurimas Wrote:

    Great interview and tips (if i ever have a tiny bit chance of release and signing…) ! Followed on soundcloud. Never heard of Ambivalent, because never liked minus. Mobillee release is ace : – ). Wishing good luck in all future endeavours.

  • Danny C Wrote:

    Great interview, thanks :-)

  • GAR©ON Wrote:

    Great article. The story “between the lines” is also very interesting.
    Best of luck with the move.