Kevin McKay, the founder of Glasgow Underground, recently released the label’s 20th anniversary compilation, a potpourri of tracks from artists that have shaped the label’s history but also of electronic music. Shortly after the release of ‘The Underground Sound of Glasgow 2017’ Kevin found the time to sit down with Torture the Artist to deliver some insights of his personal life, the struggles he had to deal with as an artist as well as a label manager over the years, his relationship to Romanthony, the future of the Glasgow Underground and about Scottish people drinking at the airport, just to name a few topics.
Torture the Artist: Hi Kevin, tell us something about your day so far?
Kevin McKay: Today I have been finalising the Glasgow Underground releases that are coming out over Xmas and into the first few weeks of January. Beatport has a content freeze over Xmas so everything for the next month or so has to be delivered by Friday. Xmas is when we release all of our compilations and with our huge 100-track 20 year compilation in there, there’s a lot to do!
There’s something incredible that happens to Scottish people in airports; it’s almost impossible for us to be in one and not start drinking.
Torture the Artist: What made you move to London?
Kevin McKay: I was living in Glasgow in 2004 when I launched the Mylo project and released his album. By the beginning of 2005 we had had 2 top 40 singles on our own and I was having to fly down to London so often for meetings that sometimes I would be on the first flight out of Glasgow at 6am and back on the last flight from London at 9pm, three times a week. I think that might have been bearable if it weren’t for my Glaswegian roots. There’s something incredible that happens to Scottish people in airports; it’s almost impossible for us to be in one and not start drinking. So I was becoming increasingly tired, fed-up of travelling and it certainly wasn’t doing my liver any favours! My only option was to move to London. Thankfully it turned out well. When you’ve lived on the incredibly wet West Coast of Scotland all your life, the warm dry weather you experience living this far south is like being on holiday every day.
‘God, this weather sucks!’ and I have to escape!
Torture the Artist: What aspects make you call a place your home and is there a track that sums up that feeling for you?
Kevin McKay: That’s a great question! The incredible expansion of London in the last 15 years or so has meant that the options I have living here in terms of food & wine, music & sport (all the things I love) make it the place I want to live. It’s sad but on those levels, Scotland does not compete. That said, I do love Scotland and whenever I go back there, there is a deep feeling in my soul that everything is right with the world. But the longer I stay up there the more I think, ‘God, this weather sucks!’ and I have to escape!
Torture the Artist: What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about the launch of Glasgow Underground 20 years ago?
Kevin McKay: I’m not sure I was really thinking too much to be honest. My distributor had told me that my then label, Muzique Tropique, was getting boring because it only had one artist (me and my then studio partner, Andy Carrick) and I needed to spice it up or my time with them was looking bleak! I couldn’t get the people I want to record for that label so set up a new one instead so it was more something I needed to do rather than something I had conceived. One thing I do remember is that I was still trying to work out what kind of artist I was and what kind of records I could make (and how successful those different types would be) and so I was very focussed on making music and driven to do as much of that as I could.
[…] but success does strange things to your brain.
Torture the Artist: Which ideas and visions regarding the label have you been able to put into practice and are there any notable ones that have failed over the years?
Kevin McKay: In the beginning I was quite inexperienced business wise. I created the label out of a need and – to be honest – as long as the label was fulfilling the need, I didn’t challenge it too much. I took a lot of advice from my label manager at Vital Distribution at the time. Without him I’m not sure how the label would have developed! Because of a lack of vision on my part, the label started to fail in 2002. For some pretty foolish reason I had also stopped DJ-ing. I got more into buying music to listen to rather than music to make people dance and started releasing the kind of left-field chill out stuff that I liked on the label. I was into people like DJ Shadow, RJD2, Kruder & Dorfmeister and I wanted the label to become more like a lifestyle brand. I didn’t have much experience in that area and it was pretty arrogant of me to think that I could do it. I knew a lot about underground house and that had certainly served GU well. Why I thought I could just change direction and it would work is a bit of a mystery to me but success (and the adulations / sycophancy that comes with it) does strange things to your brain. Safe to say those records didn’t set the world on fire.
Alongside this, because I wasn’t DJ-ing, the house music I was releasing (because I needed to – to keep the company going – rather than because it was worth it) wasn’t really cutting it either and the label was slowly degenerating. In the end my distributor at the time pulled a fly trick to save its directors a lot of debt and left all its labels without their last quarter sales in 2003. That was about £40,000 to GU and that meant I had to put the label into hibernation for a bit and concentrate on launching Mylo. I was determined the same fate wouldn’t befall this new project so I spent a lot of time on strategy and studying the business side of things.
After a couple of years on Mylo, the bruises I felt from GU’s failure had subsided and I started putting music out again. When I did I wanted to avoid becoming typecast as a deep house label (as had happened in 2002). Dance music is ever evolving and I love that about it so much that the fact I created a label that was effectively stuck in the mud was a hard pill to swallow. I was determined to have the label going forward represent anything I would play as a DJ regardless of genre.
When people like Eric Prydz, Paul Woolford, Fourtet or Cajmere use a different name, it still sounds like them. It’s the same with labels; I think that sub-labels (or sister labels) in dance music are a bit of a waste of time.
Torture the Artist: What are the biggest lessons you’ve learnt over the years from running a label?
Kevin McKay: There are so many situations in dance music where people create different personas for different genres. Sometimes they work but I think they are the exception. Most of the time, despite the genres being different, the artist’s sound is so strong that it still sounds like them. When people like Eric Prydz, Paul Woolford, Fourtet or Cajmere use a different name, it still sounds like them. It’s the same with labels; I think that sub-labels (or sister labels) in dance music are a bit of a waste of time. They are often set up out of a desire to grow the business and release more music but, more often than not, they aren’t distinct enough to merit their own existence. People get frightened about what “other people might think” if they released a different genre on their label. I can understand that if they went from Tech House to Mathcore but from Tech House to Deep House (or even worse, Tech House to Deep Tech House!) I’m just thinking, ‘Come on! Really?’
One of my favourite DJs is Francois Kevorkian and one of the best sets I saw him play was when I booked him for a party at the Sub Club. That night (in 1996) he played everything from Masters at Work to Busta Rhymes, 4 Hero to the deep dubby house of his own FK releases on Wave. It all flowed. It all sounded like him. Labels can be like that too, if the A&Rs and/or owners are passionate enough about the music they are releasing. If they love it that much a common thread will run through the releases whether they are Deep house or Techno.
In the last 5 years I’ve tried as much as possible to put out whatever I wanted across as many genres as I’ve wanted on Glasgow Underground and I think – and the feedback I’ve received has said that – it has worked.
I just find a lot of pop has been put together by people interested in what can sell rather than its artistic merit.
Torture the Artist: What makes ‘Glasgow Underground’ underground?
Kevin McKay: To me, the underground is what happens underneath the mainstream. That’s what I’m interested in and why the label has that tag (although I am sure that to some people that tag is underserving!) I am not anti-pop, I just find a lot of pop has been put together by people interested in what can sell rather than its artistic merit. In the underground on the other hand, I’ve found that because money is not generally easy to come by, people are doing what they love and believe in. Sometimes that happens in pop and I think it shines through and sometimes records made in the underground hit the zeitgeist and go on to become pop. I’m generally a fan of these records too.
Torture the Artist: Are there any artists you wish you could sign to your label?
Kevin McKay: Yes! There are loads! Here are some people that have made records I love that have either briefly featured or are yet to feature on the label; Camelphat (but probably for another music record like ‘The Quad’ or ‘Constellations’ rather than a tech-house banger), Paride Saraceni, Reinier Zonneveld, Township Rebellion, Dennis Cruz, Audiojack, Eelke Kleijn (but for something deeper like ‘Rampestamper’), Nick Muir, Gabriel Ananda, John Digweed, Green Velvet, Slam, Mat.Joe, Superlover, Roberto Capuano, Bicep, Kenny Dope (I could go on and on!)…
Torture the Artist: What track do you wish you released on the label?
Kevin McKay: OK, here are some records from recent times that I would have loved to have released:
- Paride Saraceni – Twenty-Ten [Terminal M]
- Isaac Tichaeur – Higher Level (Bicep Remix) [Loft]
- Eric Prydz – Allein [Pryda]
- DJ Mes – Lonely Nights [Salted Music]
- Jon Hopkins – Open Eye Signal (George Fitzgerald Remix) [Domino]
And from the past:
- Frankie Knuckles – Your Love [Trax]
- Norma Jean Bell – I’m The Baddest Bitch (In The Room) (Moodymann Mix) [F Comm]
- The Untouchables – Lil Louie’s Anthem [Strictly Rhythm]
- Round Two – New Day [Mainstreet]
- The Believers – Who Dares To Believe In Me [Strictly Rhythm]
- Mood II Swing – All Night Long [Groove On]
- 51 Days – Paper Moon [Touche]
Torture the Artist: What has been your favourite release on the label?
Kevin McKay: Oh, God! That’s a tough one. We’re heading on for 1000 tracks this last 20 years. To pick one… arrghhh! I’m going with the first one that came into my head and that is Neon Heights – Are We Thru (Larry Heard’s Underground Vibe Mix). Larry Heard is a proper legend and a lovely guy too. When I was organising this mix I couldn’t quite believe he was doing it (I had him do a few others at the same time just to make sure!) On this mix he takes Neon Heights indie-ish ‘Are We Thru’ on a spooky journey through oddball chords and shimmering electronics. It is an absolutely sunning remix and typifies everything I love about him; how he has managed to avoid fame, stardom and platinum albums is a complete mystery to me.
I loved working with him [editor’s note: Romanthony]. I’ve never met anyone who was so adept at writing house music on the fly.
Torture the Artist: Are there any artists whose music has left an impression on you both personally and musically?
Kevin McKay: I think if there is one artist that has done that it would be Romanthony. It is so sad that he is not around anymore. When I met him I firmly believed he could become like a house music version of Prince and if it hadn’t been for some unfortunate personal circumstances and the fact he made an absolute fortune from ‘One More Time‘ he probably could. I loved working with him. I’ve never met anyone who was so adept at writing house music on the fly. Regardless of what we were doing, he could pick up a guitar or bass or sit down at a keyboard and say, ‘What this needs is something like…’ and then play something completely brilliant that fitted the gap in the production perfectly. It was hard keeping my mouth from being permanently gaping at his talent. But as much as he had talent he also had his own demons to deal with and sometimes he was a hard person to be a friend to. Looking back I wish I knew more about the things I found out about him later in life and that I’d had more experience to help him through the changes that ‘One More Time’ brought.
I have a really great bunch of artists working hard to create really exciting club records and I would love to take those guys all the way to the top.
Torture the Artist: What do you hope to achieve with Glasgow Underground in the next five years?
Kevin McKay: I am getting to a place with the label where I have a really great bunch of artists working hard to create really exciting club records and I would love to take those guys all the way to the top. That’s the ambition anyway. The reality will be as it always has been; I’ll be delighted to still wake up, be doing what I love and not having to get on the tube to a ‘proper job’.
Get your copy of ‘The Underground Sound of Glasgow 2017’ here: