Hailing from a remote locale in Pennsylvania, Kevin Yost has spent his twenty-plus year career in music feeling like an outsider within his own country. After receiving worldwide recognition for his debut album, One Starry Night in 1999, he set sail on a journey which has largely led him to being loved in Europe, and under-appreciated here in U.S.
I had the pleasure of speaking to him in detail about how his career has taken a upward trajectory (similar to that of Joeski) in the past year or two, and about the tragedies in life that led to a metamorphosis in his sound, and how he struggled through to find salvation in the one thing that’s always remained with him all these years: music.
Mr. Yost, thanks for taking the time out to speak with 5 Mag! How have you been?
You’re welcome. I’m doing good. It’s been a great start to the year!
Yes, it seems you’ve been the quite the worldly traveler as of late. You’ve just returned from Asia, correct?
Yes. I was over there for almost a month. I played dates in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. Most of my gigs are in Europe, so it was nice to go somewhere different for a change.
So most of your gigs are in Europe? Has it always been that way, or is this in recent years as it seems you’ve definitely been doing some strenuous touring overseas this year, especially.
Yes. I would say 85% of my gigs are in Europe, and have been since I started touring.
You’re from a relatively remote area in Pennsylvania. Would you attest receiving less U.S. gigs to being outside the big cities like New York, or Chicago? Or would you attribute Europe’s higher level of affinity toward you to your musical style?
I think it’s a little of both. The D.C./Baltimore scene was very much rave oriented back when I started, so there was not much of my kind of House Music being played, and if it was, it was in small back rooms. Also, I think I never really fit into any of the U.S. cities’ sounds. I guess I was close back when the Guidance releases came out in Chicago, but mostly I was an outsider. San Fran’ also had its own thing going on, as well as New York. I was doing a different sound that really never fit in as I wish it would have. I think (geographic isolation) helped me form my own sound, not having so much influence around me.
I’ve invested my entire life into music. There really is no turning back or “Plan B” in place.
Well, perhaps that’s why you’ve enjoyed the success you have. Your sound has always stood out, instead of fitting in with a certain trend or crowd.
I think it’s more that those places created their own scenes and sounds. I never really fit in with the whole Naked Music thing or the New York sound at the time. It was a good time for music, because you had these very specific sounds and styles coming from different cities.
It seems you’ve done a scarce number of collaborations over the years, with obscure artists like Peter Funk, for example. What’s your feelings on collaborations in general?
A lot of those names like Peter Funk are aliases I used, to step out of the box from the normal stuff I was doing. I didn’t want to alienate the supporters I had for my jazzy sound at the time, so using other names gave me a chance to experiment more.
Also, it’s not good to flood the market with too much music. I’m normally very productive and have lots of stuff to release, so using different aliases makes that more possible, without flooding (the market) with my name.
It’s hard for me to collaborate, ’cause I’ve been doing it so long on my own. I have my own way of doing things. One time I worked with someone who sat there – all day – playing out a bassline. It drove me crazy! I’m not against collaborations, but I really want to tell my story with my music. With a collaborative partner, you really have to give up some of that story in order to work with them.
I recall once seeing you mention finishing a crazy number of tracks while just sitting in your hotel room over a weekend, while on tour. Obviously after so many years you’ve mastered your workflow… but this type of output isn’t regular is it? Where do you find your greatest inspiration when writing a track?
There are times when I don’t feel an urge to create anything, and then eventually it builds up. I get this surge of energy and get into the zone and just go with it.
So many things can influence me. Being on the road is a big influence. I like to record the sounds of the places I go and make some tracks while I’m there. It’s almost like taking a musical picture of a memory of some place special. It’s nice to play that track and remember right where you were and how you felt.
And yes, I think life has influenced my sound over the years. My early stuff was so happy, free and optimistic. I think twenty years of doing this and all the changes in my life has made me a little more of a realist than I’d like to be. Being a dreamer is really important when creating, because then there are no limits.
Once they started shining the lights from the dance floor to the DJ booth, a lot was changed.
Are there any specific tracks you can mention which bring you back to that place and feeling based on a recording you used in it?
There are a few. One I remember very well is when I was in Panama for a gig and was staying in a nice house right on the beach. I had my stuff set up outside and as I was making music I just recorded the beach sounds live and there was a very unique bird making noise while I was recording.
Well, that sounds blissful. Can you recall that track title specifically? I’m sure our readers would love to hear an example of how you implement these recordings into your music. I know I am curious!
I’ll have to look. [pause] Ah, it’s called “Breakfast Sonica.” It’s unreleased actually, but what I can do is put it in as the first track on the mix I do for you guys!
Perfect! We really appreciate you’re doing that. So, going back to your sentiments on the evolution of your sound: Do you feel that your music has grown darker and less optimistic over the years? Is this what led up to last summer’s signing on with Mobilee, for instance? How did you link up? Did you just make something you felt would fit and send it over, or did your inclusion into the Mobilee camp derive through more organic means?
Yeah, I think my stuff is much darker these days, but I like to say it’s “optimistically dark.” [laughs] Over a year ago, I was still releasing most of my music on iRecords, but I decided to branch out a little, because not everything I was making had that iRecords sound. So I talked to Ralph, who was a friend on Facebook for awhile, and sent him some tracks. He and Anja were interested, so it was a nice fit for the sound I have. Plus, their reputation as a great label really opened up new ears to the music I’ve been doing.
How much impact do you think your work on Mobilee and Leena has had on your popularity, or do you think it was relatively the same in Europe before?
I think it opened a lot of different ears for me. Labels like iRecords, Mobilee, Poker Flat, all have their own following, so people who follow iRecords may not be into that Mobilee sound and vice-versa. Not everyone is open to all kinds of music, so releasing on Leena and Mobilee really opened up a lot of new ears. It took me some time to show people that I don’t just play the real jazzy stuff like I use to. It’s like an actor being pigeon-holed into a certain role. So I had to show and prove that I’m not just a “jazzy laidback guy,” I also like to play more aggressive stuff as well.
All I had was my music after all of this, and it is what got me through that winter. it still helps me through the bad times.
When you’re producing a track or an album, do you consider your storytelling to be more “abstract art” which tells your story and releases it into music form for the listener to arrive at their own conclusions, or do you wish to deliver a very concise story in which you may bring in vocalists or use relevant samples to help tell the precise story you have in your mind?
It really depends. Some tracks are just a groove you go with and others comes from a well thought-out idea. Everyone has a different opinion of what they hear or feel when they hear music, so it’s interesting to hear what the music is to them. I try to keep it very broad so the listener can be part of what the song is supposed to be.
I’m not very big on vocals. I normally use vocals like I do any instrument when making a song. I want the vocals to be minimal and blended nicely with the music. So remixes can be difficult because I really have to like the vocals in order to do something special with the remix. Like I said before, I like instrumental music where I can create my own image from it. I think a full on vocal really focuses on a specific feeling and I have always been able to express those feelings using a minimal amount of vocals.
I see. So you’re truly a purist as far as the instrumental side of music. Seeing as how you’re very selective over vocal tracks you choose to remix, can you give us one or two examples of two of your favorite remixes that come to mind, in which the vocal stood out for you so strongly that you had to take the project on?
I remember really loving remixing “Five Fathoms” by Everything But The Girl. [Tracy Thorn] has such a great voice, and for my sound back then it was a great fit. Another one I really enjoyed doing was Phonique’s “Teenage Love,” with vocals by Liora.
Your first album, One Starry Night, released back 1999, sold over 50,000 physical units pretty quickly upon it’s release and helped launched your career for the most part. According to discogs, the last LP you released was in 2008, bringing you to nine total albums, including compilations and “collaborations.” When can we expect the tenth album? Any ideas floating about?
I think very soon. There are a lot of ideas, I just need to sit down and figure it out, as I have a different focus (on an album) than I do when make regular tracks.
So when you sit down and focus on a new album, what’s your process like? Do you set out for a certain mood, or have a particular storyline involved?
One Starry Night was mostly songs I’d already released as EPs to the DJ market, which back then was small considered to how it is now. So the music seemed to become popular because DJs were playing it and getting a good response. I think once those songs came out as an album and were available for the regular music-buying public, it became a listening album as well as an album DJs would play. That was my intention with the earlier stuff: to make something quality you can dance to, but also sit down to listen to and enjoy.
The second album, Road Less Traveled, was a little different. A few tracks were already done but a few were made specifically for that album. The next album Future Flashback was completely thought-out as an album.
After this, sites like iTunes really changed the dynamics of the artist album. Now people could pick what they liked and didn’t like and generally not get the whole concept of the album. For me it’s really sad that putting so much thought into an overall album that tells a story seem to be lost because of this.
But on the next album, I want to ignore all of that and just be free to say what I want to say in a complete package, even though many will pick which songs they like and disregard the others and completely miss out on the overall concept.
Interesting sentiments, for sure. There is always the “album only” option which may begrudgingly force someone to buy the whole LP – do you see that as being something useful in order to get people to buy the package?
I’m not sure. This younger generation is so use to disposable music that they are forced to like. Yet now that I think of it, it’s kind of similar as when I would buy 45s, but not the whole album when I was younger. So I think it really depends on how the music speaks to each individual. Music is art, so it can be perceived how ever you want. Meaning: even if you have this complex story to tell in an album, the listener will most likely get something different from it. And I’m okay with that. Once the music enters your ears, it’s yours to feel however you feel from it.
So, it’s clear that you’re enjoying a lot of success again. That’s got to feel great, but let’s rewind things back a few years to a time we all remember, when the digital revolution began flexing it’s grip on the music industry. How did this period affect you, was it something that discouraged you? Was there ever a point where you felt the music thing may not pan out – especially during the whole digital transition?
Oh, yes! I think all of us from the old-school times went through that “What the Fuck?!” phase. Things changed very fast and it was like a carousel spinning. You really had to run to get back on and remain alive, in order to continue doing all the work you had been doing. My main problem was feeling that it would really bring about bad “copy and paste” music. And as we can clearly see, that has happened. However, it also gave a lot of talented people a chance to be heard.
Since then, I’ve come a long way with how I feel about everything (digitally). I really try to see the positives in things now. I’m still very well alive, doing what I’ve done for over twenty years, and there are some very talented people that started before me that don’t get the credit they are due because of the carousel I mentioned. Also, people who knew me from back in the day, they really have a clear picture of where I came from, and where I want to go next. Once they started shining the lights from the dance floor to the DJ booth, a lot was changed.
This is one of the reasons we’re speaking. So many prominent DJs and producers from the ’90s and early 2000s faded into the 9-to-5 lifestyle, never to return. Have you ever imagined yourself in any other profession? If you woke up tomorrow and forgot how to match a beat and everything you’ve known and learned about music – what other skill or vocation do you have passion for that you feel you would excel in as you have in music, or at least well enough to pay the bills without taking an odd job?
Well over the years, I really branched out to doing other things with music. The main one is music for film. I think it’s important at least for me to have different outlets to create in. Doing music for film is worlds different than DJing and producing House Music.
As far as what I would do besides something musical? I would say it would have to be something where I’m able to be creative, but anything artistic is always a risk. The rewards are great when things are good, but depression is hard when they are not going well. If you get to the point of falling off that carousel, it’s very hard to get back on. For me it’s all or nothing. I’ve invested my entire life into music, so there is really no turning back or “Plan B” in place.
You’ve found the ways to make your living doing what you love, despite the up and down motions that occur in life, including depression. Hearing you bring up this topic leads me to recall a specific moment last year, in which you opened up in a very honest way on your Facebook page, describing some personal tragedies that you endured, and how they ended up sparking a period of intense creativity for you. Could you divulge a bit into what occurred, if it’s not too sensitive a topic to touch upon?
Well, the last three years were difficult. I had to step back a little with the gigs and music because I was taking care of my mother, who was fighting cancer. It was a long two years of fighting that ultimately ended with my number one supporter and probably the only person that understood me passing away.
Then, right after my mother’s passing, a great relationship I was in for two and half years ended, badly. It was a very lonely time, and I really didn’t know what my future looked like. All I had was my music after all of this, and it’s what got me through that winter, and still helps me through the bad times. I lost a lot of time and things were not good musically at that time, so I just went into a zone where I had to make things happen, and they did. tracks like “Don’t Give In” and “Empty House” were just a few of the songs that came from that time.
Wow, I’m sorry for your loss – it sounds like you’ve made it through with a healthy and hopeful outlook, and made amazing music in the recovery process. That’s a lot to deal with at once.
Yeah, there still is a lot of healing to be done, but it’s a process.
Are there any specific artists you consider “go-to” when it comes to DJing, outside of your own music, which artists or labels do you play most?
There are too many to name. There is a lot of talent out there, both DJs and producers alike. I support other artists by buying their music and doing charts, but for DJing, I’ve been playing all original sets now for about twelve years. DJing is a very personal thing for me and I see it like being a storyteller. I think I can tell my true story with my own music better than playing other people’s music. There is a lot of great stuff that I love and support but until I stop making music or stop making music that I think fits my DJ sets, the all-original music format works best for me.
That must feel good, artistically speaking, to be able to DJ using your own music exclusively. I’m sure I am not the only one to be glad that you’re still doing it – and doing it just as well as ever!
Thanks to you as well and for the great questions!
It’s Time: originally published in 5 Magazine Issue 147 featuring Kevin Yost, Jenifa Mayanja and Sound Warrior, Gavin Hardkiss, why music got cheap and gear got expensive (and it’s mostly your fault) and more. Become a member of 5 Magazine for First & Full Access to Real House Music for only $2 per month!