Kevin McPhee considers himself an electronic newbie. The 22-year-old Toronto native got his ID in order to start going to clubs a scant three years ago. A couple of years before that, friends at university introduced him to drum & bass and dubstep. Otherwise, the closest he ever got was Radiohead, Björk, and the instrumental, hip-hop-esque beats he'd been making in his bedroom since he was 12. While none of this equates to outsider status, it does give him a viewpoint that's not tethered to a particular movement within electronic music.
His productions, which sit comfortably in the currently popular grey area between discerning bass music and shuffling techno, display both the foggy vocal refrains and polyrhythms of artists like Burial or Four Tet and, more recently at least, the leftfield dancefloor stomp of labels like Hessle Audio and Hotflush. They began popping up on specialty imprints like Naked Lunch and Idle Hands early last year and have been met by near-unanimous positivity, with journalists throwing around terms like "highly intricate and intimate," "truly stunning," and "mesmerizing" to describe McPhee's music.
That's pretty high praise for a guy who says, "I didn't even really think to start sending stuff out until maybe a year before my first record came out." McPhee's attitude toward his initial success as a producer is surprisingly casual. "It was never my intention to get signed," he continues. "Now, I can see sound-wise how it worked out. Basically, when I started, Naked Lunch was the only label I wanted to be on, so I aimed for them right away."
An English major who just graduated from Toronto's Ryerson University, McPhee's path as a producer is more heavily influenced by the record bin than the dancefloor. Never really one to go out, he says that he's only now coming to understand scenes and artists who stake a career on a singular sound, like house or techno. Instead, it is respected vinyl outpost Play De Record, located a stone's throw from campus, that is helping populate his musical world. "I would find myself justifying going to school just to go to the record store," he says. The fruits of these trips established his initial interest in drum & bass and vintage UK dubstep à la Digital Mystikz.
Surprisingly, as much as he gets compared to post-dubstep originator Burial, McPhee doesn't include him in his list of favorite discoveries. "I own one Burial record," he clarifies. "I moreso listened to it and then, as a result, got into the stuff that influenced [him]. That's had a bigger impact on me than him." He's even gone so far as to make conscious decisions in the studio to avoid undue comparisons. "I had a feeling, you know. Pitched vocals, swingy drums, apparently that's Burial and that's all it is. It's influential in the sense that it's gotten me into other stuff, but his sound, if anything, I'm trying to push away from that now."
You can hear it in his recent work for Tectonic and Hotflush, which has a much sturdier techno backbone. It's also less reliant on the tweaked-out R&B samples that were beginning to seem like a permanent trait. While his music is still predominantly sample based, it's mostly for his drum hits and textures. "For a while it was a crutch for me," he says of the vocal snippets. "I'd be like, 'Time to add that vocal.' Now, it's something I try to avoid. I think I've got that in a comfortable spot, so I'm trying to include more vocal samples again, but when it needs it, not just for the sake of it."
Late last month, he mixed an edition of Resident Advisor's podcast series. Featuring mostly original work, it's a pristine snapshot of McPhee's current sound. Ratcheting up from about 110 bpms to close to 135 bpm, it shows the more atmospheric, post-dubstep influence but places it in the 4/4 framework McPhee prefers these days. "My sound, if I can say that, is not stable yet because I'm still learning," he explains. "I'm still taking in a lot, so I'm not sure what I'm going to be doing next." As his popularity continues to grow, he's finding himself with more DJ gigs, where he likes to show off new material, which has more dancefloor appeal—and that he often sends off to the UK to be cut to dubplate. He's even starting a new monthly called Threshold with Grahmzilla (a.k.a. Nautiluss a.k.a. the production half of Thunderheist) and one-half of Fool's Gold duo Nacho Lovers.
"With music picking up, I'm going to pursue it to some degree for a bit, just to see where I can go with it," he says. He claims to already have accomplished more than he imagined he would, but when he set out to get his music signed he had three labels in mind: Naked Lunch, Brainmath, and Deep Medi. A 10" is in the pipeline with Brainmath, so there's still one to go. That said, he doesn't see himself plying the trade in the long run. "I don't want to speak too soon, but I'd rather get something set up here and if a gig pops up or I feel like creating some songs, I'll do it. Whatever."