An Interview With Glasgow Underground Label Boss, Kevin McKay
As far as genre-driving influential names go, you will be hard-pressed to find someone that has contributed more to house music in the last half-decade than Glasgow Underground label boss, Kevin McKay.
Following the release of his latest album, we caught up with Kevin to talk about ‘Summer Of Love‘ as well as the current state of the scene and got to know him a little better along the way…
Kevin, thanks for joining us. It’s been a while since we last spoke. I believe you have churned out yet another weighty album since then. Tell us a little bit about ‘Summer of Love’ and the ethos behind it?
No worries, thanks for having me! Yes, “Summer of Love” came out at the beginning of September. Spotify recently started adding my remixes to my artist profile so that my followers get notified when I do a remix, just like they do with a new single of mine. Before that, labels used to add the remixer as an “artist” on the release so that could happen. Spotify, however, frown upon this and – if they caught the label out – would remove the remixer from the artist side. Now it seems like they have decided it’s a good idea and remixes now appear both on the artist & remixers profile. I love the fact that my remixes are seen as just as much “my music” as my artist singles. I also think it is cool that when someone I’m into remixes my song or track, it is also considered “my music”.
Albums are significant to me, and so when I started to think about one for this year, I was excited that it could involve my singles, remixes and the remixes of my tracks. When I looked at the pool of music on this list, I immediately thought of it like a DJ set and so put “Summer of Love” together. I hadn’t discovered (non-chart) house music during the first (dance music) “Summer of Love” in 1988 but I love the idea of house & techno first taking hold, rave after rave, and exploding over the summer months. The album is inspired by that thought.
Buy/Stream ‘Summer Of Love’: https://gu.lnk.to/summeroflove
Most artists seem to shy away from albums, but you quite clearly love them. Why is that? And do you think it takes a certain quality to produce an entire album that not everyone may possess?
I love singles, and I totally understand that we are in a singles culture right now. That said, I grew up on albums, and so feel much more at home listening to an artist album or a DJ mix album than I do singles one after another (or a curated playlist). I also make music as a DJ, and so create tracks that are designed to be blended with other songs. Often these kinds of things sound their best in a mix, or as part of a set playlist. As a DJ I also think that the order you listen to certain songs influences how you feel about those songs and the album format allows you to program in things that don’t always sound as strong on their own.
I have no idea why more people don’t make albums. I wish they would! I think the only quality you need as an artist to make an album is a love for the format. Playlists are great, but I can’t imagine them having the same emotional pull as an artist album in 20 years. Realistically, is a collection of current songs, programmed by someone in the music business, going to make me feel the same way as listening to Super Discount, Kruder & Dorfmeister’s DJ Kicks or St. Germain’s “Boulevard” at an after-party 20 years ago did? I doubt it.
What’s the best album you have listened to recently? Other than your own, of course!
A lot of the albums I buy now are from the past. There is a lot about music I’m still discovering and, for me, a lot of the coolest stuff is found on albums. It feels that is where artists get to express themselves outside of the pressure to make a “hit”.
In terms of new albums from dance music, I really like Franky Wah’s album “The Revival, Vol 1”. It’s the first time in a while I’ve seen someone sign to a big label (in this case Ministry of Sound / Sony) and release a dance album where every track isn’t focussed on the radio. It does have singles, but it really feels like an album that is rooted in club culture. I always found it bizarre that DJs & producers would make their name making (mainly instrumental) club music and then, if they got signed to a big label, released 10 full songs with featured vocalists that sounded nothing like their club hits.
In terms of pop music, the last albums I really liked were by Dua Lipa & Lizzo.
Was there one particular track that inspired your latest album, or did you set out to make one regardless?
Because of the current singles culture and the world’s short attention span, I don’t think it’s the best idea to release an album of previously unreleased music. It is too much for most people to consume in one go. So for this album, the idea to make it came together when a lot of the music was already out. I laid out those tracks to see how they would fit as an album, and that gave me some ideas of how I could finish it.
What are your thoughts on the current shutdown of our scene? Do you have any suggestions for artists that are struggling at the moment?
It’s obviously a very tough and distressing time for most. It is especially shocking as we have been used to a settled life of peace and prosperity for so long. It is really hard, but the only thing we can do in the face of adversity is to look for the silver lining in the cloud. Looking back at previous pandemics, they generally last 2-3 years and, given how bad nightclub conditions are for transmission of the virus, we have to imagine that clubs will be shut until the virus runs out or there is a vaccine. If you make your money from DJ-ing in these venues then, for the next 1-2 years I think you will need to find an alternative source of income, or restructure your life to cope with the reduction in income.
I’ve been in a similar position myself before when my label’s distributors went bust owing my company around £40K. I had to sell my flat, get a job playing pop music in a 30-something’s pick-up club and start again from scratch with a new music project. I lot of things I had paid people to do before, I had to learn how to do myself. It was hard going, working flat out on my label to make next to nothing in the beginning and working until 3am 4 nights a week to pay the bills, but it was worth it. I came out the other side with a new entity, more skills and a determination not to be in that position again. As soon as I could, I started a second business outside of music and built up an emergency fund I could use if something like that happened again.
In terms of what people struggling can do now, I’ve seen a few opportunities. I think the growth in online learning has meant that there are things creative people can do there and with sites like patreon.com you don’t need to be a technical mastermind to set things up. I think there will also be opportunities for small, socially distanced festivals next summer. With big events out of the question for some time, and people’s appetite for events only getting stronger, I think it would be possible to put together a line-up that could sell, say 400 tickets, without including any big names.
What are you doing to stay motivated and make music at the moment?
I love making music, so I’ve not needed much motivation! I spend some of my time on my other business and some of my time running the label, and so I maybe get 2-3 days a week in the studio and so they are very precious to me.
What does a day in the life of Kevin McKay look like?
I wake up early; usually, about 6am. I normally have about an hour before my kids get up and so I use that to catch up on news & sport or read a book. Then it’s making breakfast for the family & taking my son to school. Then I start work around 9am. What I do in the day varies. When I’m working on the label, I’ll be discussing new music with my A&Rs Sam Dexter & Tom Caruso, setting the release schedule, creating the artwork, or working on the legal & accountancy side of things. When I’m making music, I’ll be working on whatever project I’ve got going on in Ableton of my own, or helping the other artists with arrangement or production issues.
Do you have any big plans for the label going forward?
I have loads of things I would love to be doing with the label, but I don’t want to get into a situation where I’m looking for investment or borrowing big to grow and so the development is happening slowly. My main focus at the moment is building a solid group of artists that love being part of the label so we can all work together to help propel each other forward.
I would consider GU to be a benchmark brand, as such, with a solid visual presence and refined acoustic direction. How hard is it to get that right?
Thank you! I think it is hard to get right. When I relaunched GU in 2011 after my years with Mylo, I put a lot of thought into incorporating those things in the new version of the label. I wanted the label to have a strong enough look that DJs would recognise a release in the stores without it having to have some kind of logo or similar type on every release. I’m fairly confident that I’ve done that now although it took a few design iterations and some help from an amazing art director (https://www.samuelmuir.com/) before I was happy. In terms of the sound, I wanted to make sure that the label wasn’t pigeon-holed. I felt that, in the vinyl days, the fact most people had us down as “just a deep house label” really held us back. I made sure that, this time around, I released whatever I wanted to, whenever I wanted to. If I played it as a DJ, I would release it on GU, regardless of whether it fitted with what people might describe GU as.
Lastly, if you could pick any artist (present or past) to collaborate with; who would it be and why?
I would love to work with some classic old school songwriters (just for the experience!). In terms of artists, producers & musicians, I would love to work or have worked with any of these people; Prince, Stevie Wonder, Mood II Swing, Roland Clark, Quincy Jones, Christine McVie, Sade, ABBA, Nile Rodgers, Kenny Dope, Loleatta Holloway, Gamble & Huff.
Kevin’s ‘Summer Of Love‘ album is out now and available to buy/stream on all major platforms – including Spotify, Apple Music and Beatport.