Exploring the Depths with Ambivalent

Having released new EP Shimmer last month, Kevin McHugh, aka Ambivalent, discusses his collaboration with Michael L Penman, repetition, and the ‘V’ word…

Feature by Calum Sutherland | 04 Sep 2013

Kevin McHugh is a master of understatement. Ever-present in the world of underground electronic music yet never known to seek the limelight, his output since the 2006 debut EP Roomies has seen the producer go from strength to strength, consistently maintaining a solid groove of stripped down funk and hard hitting minimalism.

Anyone familiar with the M_nus back catalogue will undoubtedly be aware of Ambivalent as one of the more subtle proponents of the techno behemoth’s sound. From 2007’s R U OK to the _ground mix album of last year, McHugh’s delivery of sleek, stripped back, yet fully immersive soundscapes are exemplary of one of the most inventive, thoughtful and self aware electronic artists working in this particular branch of dance music today.

In more recent years, the US born producer's style and sound have evolved into a dark, grooving and often revelatory approach to modern techno, which solidifies his live sets and infects his productions. His latest outing, a collaboration with Michael L Penman, sees a continuation of this path paired with the young Scottish producer’s own inimitable sound.

The London-based artist and sound designer has been bubbling just underneath the surface for some years now. With a trickle of releases on the Slovakian minimal imprint Leporelo, Penman has recently been receiving airplay from the likes of Dubfire and Richie Hawtin, who utilised his Wa track to devastating effect on his most recent Essential Mix for Radio 1. Previously lending his considerable production talents to, amongst others, Gwen Stefani, Switch and Photek, Penman’s decision to depart from more mainstream climes is a statement which he can be assured was right and just. Anyone who has had the pleasure of hearing one of his wall-bending sets would surely testify not only to the unique and intoxicating environment which he creates but also the sense that there is so much more yet to come.

And so Shimmer arrived last month, glistening with hypnotic monochrome grooves and enrapturing percussion, held together by a solid structural framework of no-holds-barred bass punches and impeccable production. It is a three-track statement of intent, which traverses genre with nods to the past, present and future. Taken individually, all three track stands out in their own right – jostling for position, each track is unique in its approach and ambitions.

How did your relationship with Michael come about and what led to the decision to release an EP together?

I found Michael’s music on Soundcloud about three years ago, and I was really impressed. There’s a level of skill in his production that was really a cut above a lot of what I was hearing. I reached out to him and he started sending me music pretty regularly. I included a number of his tracks on a mix CD last year, and at one point he was in Berlin so I invited him to my studio. Collaboration is such a weird chemistry experiment –it can take off and go wonderfully, or it can flatline. But he and I shared a really common language and things went really well.

There’s a distinct divergence between the three tracks: Shimmer, Memogram, and Chevalier. Was this intentional or a natural occurrence? Could you say that the individual nature of each of the tracks almost sets them against each other?  

I’m a firm believer in approaching any piece of music on its own terms. Particularly in dance music and electronic music, people select individual tracks to play in DJ sets, so they don’t have to relate to each other too much the way they might on an album. To me, they do have a heavy common reference to 90s techno, which, as the old guy in the pair, is probably more my fault!

After listening to the EP for the first time, I felt like I was almost lulled into a false sense of security. I ended up hearing Memogram last, and imagined I’d just been clubbed over the head by it. With the other two tracks (and the previous question) in mind, what do you think about that?

Well, I think there’s something there in the relationship between the tracks that has more to do with approaching production as DJs. Both Michael and I have broad interests, and our sets tend to span a number of influences. As a DJ, you can often have a much wider remit, and that can definitely make its way into your production if you let it. I really like that aspect, truthfully. I’d rather buy a record with three distinct ideas over one idea that’s repeated to varying success.

Your recent remix of Sian’s The Policeman Inside You was another particularly heavy cut. One of the things I like so much about your work is that you never repeat yourself, despite producing so many winning formulas –do you intentionally adhere to this or am I making stuff up here?

It’s nice to hear that, and yes you’re on to something. I wouldn’t claim that I’ve never repeated myself, but I’ve never been willing to make the easy answer. If I have repeated myself, it’s generally been a matter of coming back to something I’d previously turned off. I’d much prefer to surprise and disappoint than always play to type.

You’ve been DJing and producing for over a decade now, how has your approach to performance changed over the years, and how do you feel about getting closer to being considered a ‘veteran’ (relatively speaking!) of the scene?

Yikes! The 'V' word! Well, I’ve never fought in a war, and I like to think I’m not so terribly old yet, but I guess I’ve seen some things come and go. I think it does help to have seen some big waves pass by, because people tend to believe that what’s hot now will never go cold, and it inevitably does.

What are your most significant non-musical influences, and why?

Well, I would say history, particularly the history of art. I think it’s always a good roadmap to understanding how ideas and artists move through history. The pace on everything has sped up recently, and I think we all feel it. What happened three months ago becomes ancient so quickly, and it’s edifying to see how culture moved and adapted in past centuries. We see history in hyperspeed anyway, so it helps when we’re living in such high-speed times now.

I remember reading somewhere that you used to be involved in making multimedia art installations? What was it you were doing and when did you decide to stick with electronic music as your chosen medium?

I was working for an organization called Creative Time that produced artists’ works in public spaces all over New York City. They were sometimes multimedia pieces, and sometimes I programmed electronic music events to coincide with the installations. It definitely helped form a different set of ideas for me about how electronic music functions outside club culture. In the end, I guess choosing music as my focus was a matter of finding the thing that had the most immediate satisfaction for me.

In an interview with The Quietus recently, Robert Hood was talking about how electronic music has its own category at The Grammys now, and what the ‘mainstream’ perception of dance music is. With the emergence of, for lack of a better term, ‘EDM’ how have you observed this change in the US in recent years?

Here’s where I am with this at the moment: I’m old enough to remember seeing this story repeat itself a few times. In the late 80s and early 90s, there was a wave of pop music adopting the voice of underground club culture. That was when music like Technotronic, Snap, and C&C Music Factory was making its way into productions by pop artists like Paula Abdul and Madonna and others. A few years later everyone would giggle at how 'dated' that stuff sounded. Then there was another try at it in '97 and '98 where suddenly Fatboy Slim, the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers were on MTV and mainstream radio, and just as quickly they were out of the spotlight. But none of those things were ever capable of relating the feeling of your fourth hour in a pumping dark room with incredible music you’ve never heard before taking you on a massive adventure. There is no Grammy award for the people in those scenarios. Mainstream celebrity culture will always be looking to catch its next quick high, and yet the core experience will never be touched. It’s almost as if that mass pop culture is a fisher picking out what it can find and moving on, but never seeing the whole ecology that exists on the ocean floor. I’m perfectly happy down here, and have no fear of what’s up above.


Ambivalent's collaboration with Michael L Penman, Shimmer, is out now