Ambivalent India Tour 2012
On the eve of his India tour, we look back at our interview with Ambivalent from October 2011Featured Artist, Features May 01, 2012
Listeners certainly haven’t been ambivalent about Kevin McHugh. Being a part of Richie Hawtin’s iconic M-nus label and its stellar repertoire of artists may be one of the contributing factors to his success. They’re a close band of richly talented individuals whose definitive sounds have captured the attention of discerning ears across continents. What they all have in common is the consensus that McHugh aka Ambivalent’s sound has definitely set him apart – a distinctly intelligent blend of dramatic, cerebral and unerringly textured tech.
It all started when Ambivalent moved to New York from Washington DC in the late Nineties and started working for a public multimedia art organisation. Fuelled creatively by the events and ideas around him at the time, he found himself really taken with the re-emergence of trends from Sixties minimalism within art and music. At the centre of all this was Plastikman’s [Richie Hawtin’s] Consumed album. “I remember talking to a colleague and saying ‘we really ought to try talking to this guy about doing something unique with him’. I started by contacting any address or fax number I could find on the back of the record. That’s what you did back then. If you wanted to book an artist or talk to them, you had to get their fax number,” he recalls. Providentially, it turned out that Hawtin had already been looking to do something around the area McHugh was programming. “We eventually struck up a friendship and started hanging out when he was in New York”, he added. “Not too long after that, he asked me to help him produce this multimedia live performance for Plastikman. In a way, it was what I’d imagined doing with him years before we’d even met. Later, when I was focused on my own music, he became a big supporter, and I wound up putting music out on his label.”
A couple of other fortuitous incidents also led to the creation of Ambivalent simultaneously. Jesse Siminiski – also a part of M-nus under the moniker Heartthrob – was one of his roommates in New York. Another was Camea Hoffman; owner of the label Clink. Siminiski was one of the people who pointed out how often McHugh used the word “ambivalent” while describing situations, leading to his adoption of the alias. His first EP Roomies, was released on Clink, with Jesse doing a remix. Camea and Ambivalent also teamed up on an idea, which turned into a cult East Village radio show called The Nerd Tank. They both handled it until Camea moved to Berlin after which McHugh held the reins for a year, until he moved to Berlin himself. He explains the move, “It was a choice to focus completely on music and give it a full shot. Otherwise, staying in NY would have meant balancing music with a day job, and never betting all my chips on one thing.” Consider the time frame of this decision, as well, he added, “In the late Nineties, the whole digital studio didn’t exist yet, so it required a lot of investment in gear and space. That was pretty tough to pull off in a city as claustrophobic and expensive as New York.”
It’s a move that definitely paid off, even though it was a risky one, regardless of his relationship with M-nus and Hawtin. “A lot of artists can tell you, that’s not an instant formula for success”, he validated. Straddling two cities and travelling the world, while constantly striving to be on top of your game isn’t easy either. But in the last couple of years he’s churned out tracks that have embedded themselves in clubber’s consciousnesses, like, ‘R UOK,’ ‘Rumours’ and ‘Down’. It’s hard to describe the visceral quality of these productions. He prefers leaving them open to interpretation as well saying, “I prefer to encourage people to decide what they think before sharing my own ideas about my music. I’m a firm believer in the idea that once you put music out into the world, it stops being under your control to say what it means.”
Is this a result of ambivalence? Perhaps, but what it does reveal is McHugh’s innate ability to see every side of a coin. It’s a quality that translates into his construction of tracks, manifesting in those fine details and layers that listeners consider his signature. And there’s no danger of stagnation either, even this deep into a very successful career. He reiterates that he believes in individualism especially in the face of the ‘is it underground or commercial?’ debate. “It’s a false dichotomy. Anyone who truly believes in the music they’re making wants people to hear it and like it. Maybe you’re focused on a particular audience with the same musical reference points as you, and that makes it seem more specific to that audience. People tend to call that “underground.” But it doesn’t mean that someone who wants to make something broadly listenable is doing it for financial or commercial reasons. If I made a record that was tailor made for fans of my music, and it happened to become a top 40 radio hit, would that be commercial?”
Ambivalent’s latest EP Jackson effectively lets the music do all the talking. Released on Plus 8 Records (“the more dancefloor, high-energy sibling to M-nus”) each track is the essence of groove considering, “it was actually inspired by how I tend to play as a DJ – with a bit more energy and drama.” Audiences are responding in kind and the EP’s already making waves. Soulful and techy, when asked where the sounds generated from considering his sensibilities stretch over half the globe now, he says, “I definitely think there are some things in the new EP that have very New York reminiscent sounds. But some of them are also very influenced by old Chicago house, too. It’s hard to separate the tendrils of all the things that get into your brain musically.” Degrees of separation are gradually growing smaller as well, he reckons, saying, “Maybe the danger is in trying to put a geographic location to music. We – and the music – move around so much these days, any city having an identifiable sound is starting to disappear.” Doesn’t sound like a person whose outlook is ambivalent in the least. “Ask me again in two hours and then you’ll see the other side,” he grins.
Ambivalent will play two shows (with Jalebee Cartel’s Ash Roy) in India:
4 May, Friday @Blue Frog, Delhi
5 May, Saturday @ Blue Frog, Mumbai