Pangaea is embracing the fun of it - Features - Mixmag

Pangaea is embracing the fun of it

Kevin McAuley's latest record is the culmination of a change in mindset, working with his peers and bouncing off the club

  • Words: Tibor Heskett | Photos: Brian Whar & Rob Jones
  • 6 October 2023

Pangaea AKA Kevin McAuley has been a fixture of forward-thinking club music for the last 15 years, whether it's through his work as a DJ and producer or as a member of the Hessle Audio triumvirate who have had an irrevocable effect on dancefloors in the UK and beyond. It is no mean feat to have had the club wrapped around your finger for such a stretch, with highlights of his discography including sophomore Hessle effort 'Router', the other-wordly 'Hex' on Hemlock and releases through his solo imprint Hadal like 'Bear Witness', 'Stimulant Dub' and 'You Know What's Up' to name a few.

While the success of his early works is undeniable, in true Hessle fashion, Pangaea was still looking to create something greater. The last five years have seen him step up both his writing and engineering game to a level which puts himself amongst the very best in dance music.

In this time the producer has garnered a reputation as a summer-banger specialist, a product of 2020's lockdown highlight 'Like This', 2022's 'Fuzzy Logic' and this year's sizzling 'Installation', the lead single from new album 'Changing Channels'. The seven-track LP is his proudest and most club-ready work to date, with each track primed for dancefloor damage. It also portrays a lighter, happier side to McAuley, albeit still dipping into a murky and mangled side that has become a signature of Pangaea productions.

To mark its release, we sat with down with McAuley to talk about how the album reflects a DJ and producer who has never felt more confident about his work and where it sits within contemporary dance music.

So 'Changing Channels', the title’s suggesting a transition. And this is reiterated with the ‘I’m changing’ sample going on in the title-track right?

Yeah, I think over the last few years since COVID I've discovered some ways of getting into a different mind state and into thinking different ways. That's been quite powerful for me. ‘Changing Channels’ is actually one of the first chapters in Patti Smith’s biography that I was reading and it just stuck with me and it stuck with my general realisation that you can switch to thinking in different ways.

So it's a change of outlook.

Yeah, it's a change of outlook. I think the music in the album is quite positive. When I look back at some of the music from my early days, some of it is quite negative to me. I think there's a lot more light and joy being let into my head, and also in the tracks. That's not to say that there’s no darkness in these tracks, I love that tension between darkness and light.

I always like that idea of darkness not being a negative thing. You can be at night in the dark, you can be with a crowd of people in the dark, but it can be a very happy, joyous thing. I like the interplay of that.

What would you say has triggered this change?

Without going too deep into it, psychedelics, but that is just a tool as well as meditation. It's just a way of changing outlook and being able to reset the brain a little bit.

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I wanted to talk about the first single, ‘Installation’, which even Fox Weathermen are calling the track of the summer.

Yeah, that was just mind-boggling when I saw that. It’s so random. I think that the news reporter went to a Hessle show, or maybe a show that Ben was doing and heard ‘Installation’. He was clearly having a bit of an in-joke with his cousin on air about it and then the cousin sent it over and I was like "wow, okay, this is pretty mad."

Beyond Fox News it’s also taken over festival season.

Yeah, it’s really nice to see. I never really have too many expectations for my music, but it's definitely done well that one. People are making edits, I think you know you've made a good track if people are making their own edits and bending it to 160 and all those kind of things.

It's a sing-along tune. When I hear it played out everyone's shouting "Pum Pum Esso Esso".

It's really funny. I remember when I made 'Hex' and the same thing happening years ago, and people would just be like "Madmadmadmadmadmadmad"

I wasn't going for the same thing but when I was chopping up the vocal, I thought, okay this is a bit like that, but it's in a different space. It's just me mangling around with vocals and having a bit of fun with it really.

It's like you're making your own language.

Yeah, exactly. You're kind of twisting the words to be an expression of yourself through a sample in a way. But then you want to make sure it doesn't go over the top because then it can become something that isn't catchy, and at the same time you want it to be a bit mangled and a bit weird.

You mentioned it's the same sort of technique that you used in 'Hex'. Is there a reason that you use that technique with such refrain given its success?

It just worked with the sample, I think. You just take the syllables and swap them around and with some samples that works. All you do is just play around and then when you hit on something you know you've got it. You just have that little moment where that bassline works. It's the same with the grinding of the vocal. It's finding those little bits that are a hook in itself.

I won't do it all the time. I don't want to make it a signature that everything I make is mangled vocals. But I mean, I've always enjoyed using vocals.

I guess it's just trial and error...

Yeah, totally. It's complete trial and error; just trying different acapellas, different samples, trying different patches. Once you know that something works together, then you can just make the track.

I think there can be a misconception that producers sit down in the studio and, three or four hours later, they've got a banger. There's tracks that were scrapped from the album that weren't strong enough, but I spent a lot of time on.

There's a massive range of sort of sounds and genres on the album. You can hear pop with 'Installation' and 'If', there's Latin influences with 'The Slip' and 'Squid', a bit of UK garage with 'Hole Away'...

I know. There's a bit of everything, isn't there? I don't know if it's a good thing necessarily, some people might see it as a positive but for me I've always thought it'd be easier if I am a bit linear. If I am just doing techno or I am just doing tech-house, but it doesn't seem to work for me.

I always end up with this massive broad range of everything that kind of sounds like me but also has a lot of influences. I'm just going to embrace it as a positive I think.

Does it just naturally lend itself from what you've been listening to and what you've been playing in the club?

It does lend itself. Normally if I'm downloading music or buying records and it's really good, it instantly makes me want to go make something. It could be that I want to go and make a big room techno tune and then I start to do that but it very quickly becomes something else. I'm going in with the intention to make a big room techno tune or make something a bit more garagey, but then something gets twisted and I just go off on a path with it. I think that's why things end up so disparate and eclectic; I get led off into other ideas.

From the outside, it looks like you're working with more freedom now. I remember reading in the lead-up to your first album that you said that you wanted to make something more techno-aligned compared to your previous works like the double EP 'Release', where you said didn't really know where your sound was.

Yeah, I think I'm always saying that. I'm not sure where I am or what I'm doing. It's a strange one. With this record, I can say that I wasn't trying to be anything, but with the other projects I wanted them to be a bit more techno. I listen back to it and it really doesn't sound that techno to me, compared to a lot of functional stuff.

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It's interesting, like I really do want to go down a path where I'm sitting alongside a techno artist or someone who's making tech-house, but it always ends up a bit mangled. I'm embracing that more and acknowledging that that's my strength; the ability to do these things should be taken as a positive.

That's also a reflection of the scene as it is now. I think dance music is in a good place because there is so much variety and different genres are sitting a lot closer together than they were back into 2016 when there was quite a difference between the techno scene and the 160, jungle sort of stuff. I think now the whole UK vibe is being embraced a lot more and that's made me happy. It's allowed me to let things go in terms of sticking to a genre and just have fun with it.

Speaking of 160, let's talk about 'Bad Lines'. You've mentioned that it's inspired by your '90s happy hardcore and makina running playlists. The track's definitely more of a hundred metre sprint than a marathon. It seems like you have quite long dating relationship with happy hardcore, I remember that Ben [UFO] said he can hear a bit of it in everything that you make.

It's a funny one because I never liked it at the time. When I was growing up in the '90s, the happy hardcore stuff was proper cheese ball and didn't have the depth or the soul of jungle. The happy hardcore that I'm referring to is that mid '90s sound when it was four-four and the breaks were still there.

The thing I appreciate about it is the fun of it and the lack of pretension because that's what I'm enjoying about music at the moment. Even though it sometimes does go the other way where you're just getting pop edits of everything, when I listen back to some of the tracks from the 2016 era, they're really quite grey and monotonous.

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I like the lack of pretension, the feeling that you don't have to dress up in a certain way or behave in a certain way. Maybe that's because of where I grew up and the type of music I was listening to. I was buying hard house, trance records stuff like that and I never thought that this is music that you had to dress up for.

Even with dubstep, there was a welcoming environment. When you get to techno scenes where people are dressing up in black and everything, and it gets a little bit posery... I've never been into that whatsoever.

I was never into garage in the same way because it seemed like a posery scene where people were dressing up, drinking champagne. Fuck that. That's what not I'm into. I don't think that people that listen to garage in clubs are doing the same thing now though. It's just about the vibe and the groove and everything, but I think it's what's attached with the scene.

I hate pretension. I just like the idea that anybody can be a part of it and have fun rather than being in an exclusive club.

One of the things that I liked about 'Bad Lines' was that it seems like DJs are taking to the track just how you've intended it to be on the album, they're using it as a closer.

I definitely have to thank Ben on that one. Ben and David have helped with arrangement ideas. That's something that has been really useful over the past few years, to have each other as springboards. Ben said "this sounds like closer" and when I initially made it just finished; it was bang, bang, bang then stop.

He thought "what about bringing in the pads or the melodies again at the end?" and I was like "yep, let's do that".

Of course, he then plays it as his last tune at Dekmantel and I see the videos of it popping off.

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You seem quite at ease with Ben and David working with you and making suggestions on arrangement and mixing as well, was this always the case or is this something that you've become more relaxed with over time?

I think if I'd go back 10 years more, it was it was just me and my ideas. 'Changing Channels' is about changing perspectives about what's going to be best for you or what is going to be the best outcome for the music. It's about letting in other ideas and perspectives. It's been really important to have those two as a springboard for ideas, in a way that I wasn't receptive to around that 2016 era. I listen back to some of my early music and think that it could have been so much better if I had been open to criticism.

That's what we do as a label as well. We want to work with people who are open to having things critiqued In a positive, constructive way. We're not gonna rubbish it, it's just that we can hear potential and we know what we can do to make it better.

You're dealing with really fine margins with good music, there's so many tracks that are almost there but could be so much better with a slightly better mix or with just an element that comes in or doesn't come in. These details take it from something that you would play out to something that you wouldn't, or something that you'd play out a couple of times and it'd last in your crate for three months to something that is always there.

I think I've got more of an appreciation for that now. Sometimes it's worth not releasing a track, taking your time and refining it a bit more, which can be very frustrating. You can get sick of something, you'll just want to get it out there if you've spent that much time on it already, when all it needs is some other opinion, or a little bit of breathing space to come back to it. Maybe two months later and you'll realise that it still sounds great but that a bit you liked isn't as good as you thought it was. Those little fine margins can really make or break something.

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Would you say that collaboration and positive criticism, between the three of you, is crucial to making that next step?

Yeah, absolutely. I think that's why we've been successful as a label because for the three of us to be really happy with something, it has to tick a lot of boxes. There could be one or two of us, that really likes something, but the other one's like "it's alright" or "I'm not so into it". You give it a week or two and you realise they were right.

That's also really important in terms of how we built up and what we've been successful with; it's trusting each other.

Going back to arrangement, how did you decide on where to place the tracks?

I didn't have too much of an idea. Again, it was using Ben and David as an external perspective. You get so locked into your tracks, spending hundreds of hours on things and then you almost can't hear them anymore or how they relate to each other. You need someone that you can trust to be like "I think this works better here or that 'If' track is the only broken one, so it should come earlier in the record so it would flow a bit better".

I was quite keen on it being a split EP, because it is club music. I think, especially with the price of vinyl being as expensive as it is, if people are collecting vinyl and like one track off of it, they'll want to buy one record instead of spending a ton of money on a double pack album. If people want to buy both, that's really good too.

It's quite a short album, isn't it?

It is very short. It was going to be eight tracks but Ben and David didn't think the other one was strong enough, and they were correct. Instead of writing another one, it just worked as seven tracks. I'd rather have a short album that's to the point with every track of a decent standard than fill it with material that I know isn't quite there, but you can just stick it on as a B2.

I'm quite keen to keep the quality high, especially now where you've got floods of music out there. Everything's so skippable and people take one or two tracks from an album and put it in their own playlists.

Even though it's on the very cusp of being what you class an album, because it is so short, I think you can call it an album. It feels like one to me.

You've described your previous works as the product of a feedback loop between the studio and the club. While your work can vary in style, tempo and intensity, it always feels like it's made in relation to the club. Do you ever think you'll make music which isn't for the dancefloor?

Yeah, definitely. Only in the last four or five years can I say that I've actually been happy with the tracks as club music. I'd say the last five years have been quite strong in terms of being more in terms of my writing and engineering. I feel like this record is maybe the culmination in that it's functional music but it also does sound like me. I am genuinely really happy with it and I think the natural extension is to dial things back a bit, maybe not to try and write "bangers", although, as a DJ, you just love that feedback.

It's one of the best feelings when you've worked so hard on something and it pops off. I'll always love that but I think in order to keep things interesting it is good to broaden horizons a little bit. Don't hold me to that though, I might end up just writing another functional 140 record.

I think that there's potential to be like "I've written two big tunes in two years, I've gotta make a third for next summer" or whatever. I'll end up writing something a bit formulaic and not very good.

I like the idea of dialling things back and doing some different things. Like I said earlier, when I go in with an idea, it gets twisted quite easily. I think this record's laid up the path to make some quite interesting music that may or may not be for the club, or for different times of the club night as well.

Not just music for one, two am, I'm open to making some slower stuff, as well as faster stuff.

I'm still waiting for a jungle track.

I know! It's funny, 'If' is an amen track. But, yeah, it got mashed into something that doesn't resemble jungle, really.

I hear a bit of Overmono in that one.

Yeah, people have said that. Maybe it's the pads. It wasn't my intention but I think people always get inspired from each other whether they realise it or not like. I might have been playing Overmono tracks last year which subconsciously led me to make that track with that kind of vocal in it.

To me, that track is one of the most old-school Pangaea sounding tracks in the album. That lightly, sad vocal is so 2010 for me. I think that's why I think the record has quite a range because there's stuff that sounds like it's from the 'Router' 2010 era all the way up to stuff I've never done before.

Hessle Audio has a reputation as a label that's been at the forefront of dance music for the past 15 years. With that in mind, what sounds particularly interesting to you at the moment and what do you predict will become prominent in the future? We've seen the rise of the Latin and Miami bass sounds recently.

The Latin influence is huge and I can really appreciate that. As someone who always likes to play around with rhythms, it's just perfectly compatible especially when it is designed as dance music instead of just experimental rhythms. You want rhythms to be functional and danceable instead of "I'm messing around with this because I'm able to."

Apart from the Latin, Miami sound I wouldn't name another specific thing. It will probably just come at you with a single record. It's how a producer interprets things; if they come through with a riff or a melody that's just a little bit different, catches your ear and you can hear potential with then that's always great. But I can't say I can predict the future of the scene. Fortunately it's this organic thing with people influencing one another, long may that continue.

Is there any genre of dance music which you consider out of bounds, something that you wouldn't either play or make?

I guess I'm just always keen not to get too IDM with it. That was in quite a big influence on my early years, when I was buying Nucleus and Tidy Trax records and then discovered Aphex Twin.

Not to say his stuff isn't functional, but it was the 'Drukqs' era and it blew my mind… it was incredible. I'd go to a Venetian Snares gig in Leeds, and just like Aphex it wasn't dance music in the same way. It was just a lot of boys just nerding out.

There's that tension as a DJ between playing to the heads and making music enjoyable for everyone.

Yeah, I definitely hear that. I always come back to this in interviews: I want my tracks to be more like tech-house or a techno track and then I let it get pulled in different directions. I want that tension between accessibility and weirdness. That's what I love, when weirdness becomes accessible. It gets really exciting because when it gets to larger audiences, people are having their minds opened.

You've always got tread that line between accessibility and experimentation, I suppose. You might have 15% of people walk out because it's not for them, and that's fine. You can't please everybody but I would say I don't want to start making super headsy, IDM stuff. That's never been of interest to me at all.

Are you enjoying DJing at the moment? It's been a pretty busy year with 15 years of Hessle, festival season etc.

Yeah, it's been great. I've never felt better as a DJ. I know where I'm at more and I feel confident in my abilities. I guess that feeds in from the music, the feeling of confidence.

This month is busy. I'm trying to get the balance right between DJing and giving myself time for writing music. I've done some studio sessions with some other people, but in terms of my own stuff, since the album I haven't worked on anything and it's difficult when you're busy with DJing as well.

Is there any places that you particularly enjoyed playing at?

I enjoyed my America tour which was a few weeks ago. I think there's just a great vibe out there in the moment. I've been going out there occasionally for quite a few years now and even with the smaller shows I've discovered a really great vibe and the bigger ones have been great as well. It was a really nice variety shows out there on my last run so, yeah, it was a really positive tour for sure.

Also, playing at Lux in Lisbon, that was a big closing set. I can honestly say I've enjoyed a lot of my shows for the last 12 months or so. I think it's been really good and the crowds have been great as well.

'Changing Channels' is out now on Hessle Audio, buy the album here

Tibor Heskett is Mixmag's Digital Intern, follow him on Twitter

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