1945 in an unnamed studio in NYC, Dizzy Gillespie recorded the Be-Bop anthem 'Salt Peanuts' for Guild Records. A full decade before the advent of multi-track recording, the session was recorded straight to tape through a single overhead microphone that was clearly struggling to capture the sheer energy in the room as some of the genre’s finest charged, full steam ahead, through the track.
I was sitting in the departures lounge, listening to the latest release by the Canadian producer Kevin McPhee on my headphones, when, no word of a lie, Salt Peanuts came on straight afterwards courtesy of the shuffle function. The drums on the lead side of the latest Idle Hands record share similar sonic qualities as Gillespie's masterpiece. This young Candian producer throws all the tedious conventions and standards of clean mixdowns and clinical processing out the window to create his deliciously organic sound, in a manner not too dissimilar to the be-bop explosion of the mid 40s.
His music is a lot of fun to listen to, the dense layers of muted vocals and rickety drums clatter around each track until they eventually, but uneasily, settle on a groove. It’s the deciphering of these patterns that keep the listener going back for more. Each track (and he has a whole gang of them) feels as if its part of an ongoing experiment as he digs deeper into house music's rich and diverse history and forges his own sound. It's clear from the very high quality of his few existing releases that the best is yet to come.
The awkward start-stop intro of 'House 44' uneasily gives way to a dusty hi-hat pattern that sounds like it's being knocked out on a old kit that's been locked away for years in a musty basement -
'I like to think that my session drummer was out a bit too late and is a bit off time or is hitting things soft to save himself from the pain of his hangover, little stories like this make sitting in front of a computer a lot more enjoyable,' McPhee relays to me via email. 'I use about 90% samples and the rest is stuff I record with my mic in my room, whether it be claps or just chatter. Adding a human feel to a beat is something I always strive to do. If something sounds too perfect I try to make it sound a bit off'.
There has been much talk recently of 'knackered house', a term coined, I believe, by Sonic Router when describing Andy Stotts latest album, Passed Me By. The parallels between this and House 44 are obvious but I would argue that McPhee has taken the aesthetic even further and to a more immediately gratifying effect for the Idle Hands release, which is perhaps a little less 'polite' than the [Nakedlunch] record released earlier this year. It sounds all the better for its unapologetic rejection of conventions.
So how did he get into making tracks?
'It wasn't really a specific artist or anything that got me really into producing, I just started mucking about when I was younger because I wanted to try to make backing tracks for my guitar. I was into drum and bass briefly before I got into dubstep, but I really only started to seriously collect records and DJ after I began listening to dubstep'.
While the dubstep scene is largely at the hands of daytime Radio 1 and pop charts these days, it's low-slung, bass heavy and ganja smoked roots have gone on to spawn some of the most interesting mutations in the Hardcore Continuum. As I mentioned in a piece at the start of the year, 2011 was the year that the bright light that was dubstep smashed, leaving many producers scrabbling around in the dark looking for new direction.
As we near the end of the year the results are available for all to hear. And McPhee’s house mutations are easily some of the finest. His modest description of his idiosyncratic and unpretentious studio setup go some way to explaining why his music sounds the way it does. 'I use Logic for the most part and occasionally I use guitar pedals and sometimes I record loops and bits onto cassette. I have a nice little collection of blank cassettes that I bought when I went to visit the girlfriend's grandparents. They live in the middle of nowhere so their town's yet to catch up on newer technology'.
Having a debut release on the prestigious Naked Lunch and swiftly following it up on the equally faultless Idle Hands is no mean feat and sees Kevin's tracks alongside some of the finest producers to have ever pressed tracks to wax, Dj Stingray, TRG, Instra:mental to name just a few. Having his first 2 records out on these labels is testament to the outstanding quality and above all, uniqueness of his music. Deeply layered and complex arrangements that will stand the test of time.
What is it then, that influences his production and work ethic?
'My musical Influences tend to change from track to track. I rarely sit down with the idea that I’ll be making a track at x or y tempo, but rather, I tend to note certain things in songs I enjoy and see how I could rework them into something of my own. I’ve been really into old disco and soul records lately as I feel there’s just so much to learn from non-electronic music when it comes to making the most out of what sounds you’re using. The way an old delta blues/bluegrass record can fill a room with little more than a fly-on-the-wall mic really inspires me to try new things when it comes time to make a new song. I’ve still got a lot to learn.'
Taking into account the massive distances between the Idle Hands base in Stokes Croft and his native Toronto I was curious to find out how the link was made. 'The connection with Idle Hands came about through Kowton. I’d sent him an email after hearing his fantastic RA mix. I wanted to learn more about his music, seeing as we used the same cutting house [Dub Studio], I figured he’d be up for a chat. After a little while, we swapped some tunes and I believe he was playing some of my tracks in Rooted and I guess they grabbed Chris’ attention. From here Chris and I began to chat and he ended up signing Sleep and House 44. This was back in Sept-Oct of last year, if I recall correctly.’
The mix he put together for Futureproofing earlier this year was comprised largely of his own productions and showed Kevin to be quite the dubplate fiend, again, a very unusual stance for a younger DJ to take in the era of the CDJ and Serato box and even more so now that most clubs have let their Technics fall into shameful disrepair.
What is it, then, that draws him to the acetate disc? Everyone’s heard stories from the D&B golden days when cutting houses served as a meeting place for DJs and producers to swap music and ideas.
It’s a fairly unique set of events that led to him linking with Kowton and the Idle Hands gang, a sort of updated version where the cutting house you use gives you a common ground with users of the same facility - (albeit in a digital fashion).
'Cutting dubplates has been a big part of DJ-ing for me. I started cutting dubs a few years ago, and continue to do so when the wallet allows me. Personally, I find the process of finalising a mixdown before cutting to result in an overall better product. For this reason specifically, I’d recommend others to give it a try. When you’ve got your own money invested in your music, I feel you’d be more inclined to spend more time finalising the end product. Everyone’s different though, and for some people this may not be the case, this is just what works for me.
In the end, however, I continue to play records/dubplates because I find it a lot more enjoyable. I could argue the merits in sound, but I really don’t know enough about that side of things to take a firm stance on it. I also feel I’m more creative when I mix records.
'When I began DJ-ing, Serato was very much the standard. I had not been to a proper club before I began DJ-ing, however, so the idea of mixing vinyl, to me, was just how it was done. I also told myself when I began DJ-ing that I’d learn how to mix on vinyl first and eventually work my way towards serato/cds, simply because I wanted to “earn” it (for the longest time I thought serato/cd did everything for you). That said, I knew pretty early on that I’d be sticking with vinyl. I’ve used CDs at shows before when turntables were not available, but I couldn’t find myself really getting into it.
I want to stress, however, that I don’t really think there is a wrong way to dj. I look at it like any other instrument-- sure there might be a more traditional approach to playing an instrument, but at the end of the day it’s all about the product you present, not the means by which you choose to present it.'
I had heard through a trusted 'source' behind the Idle Hands counter, that Kevin's high work rate was fuelled by coffee and that he had supposedly been known to stay up for days at a time on track writing binges - 'Haha oh man this made me laugh. The "staying up for days" bit isn't quite true. I actually tend to go to bed early and wake up early (6am morning type of guy). That being said, I tend to down a few pots a day, regardless of how late it is.' Do you have a favourite blend or any recommendations for other caffeine fiends out there i ask?
'I honestly dont have a huge preference [for a favourite coffee], I tend to just drink whatever is around the house, but honestly, I just buy big tubs of the generic stuff. I'm not sure how well that'll look in the writeup but feel free to mention my low standards when it comes to coffee.
Hell, I drink the shit cold….'
And to finish things off - a selection of his 5 current favourite records (in no particular order)
1) Burial/Fourtet - Moth
2) Roz Ryan - Boy, Where Have You Been (Long Mix)
3) Fruity Loops Workshop - It's Okay to Creep
4) Theo Parrish - I Can Take it
5) Patrice Scott - Do You Feel Me
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