Over coffee in a Peckham pub one recent afternoon, Kevin McAuley is grappling with one of his weaknesses: talking about himself. Earlier, in a nearby greasy spoon, he chatted freely about breakcore, gabber and a recent (rare) trip to HMV. But now we're getting down to the meat of things—namely his mix CD Fabriclive.73—and he's visibly struggling.
"I've never liked the spotlight being on me," he explains. "I'm pretty shy really. If the discussion is on a subject or something, then I can get quite into it. But as soon as the focus is on me, what I do and what I think and what was this about... I often find myself at a loss for words."
McAuley fills the spaces left by those words with exasperated looks, tired shrugs, sighs. Several times he begins a sentence at full velocity but, as he feels himself veering dangerously close to cliché, the words die in his throat, replaced by a look of violent self-recrimination. At one point he breaks off mid-sentence to declare, ruefully, "This is all shit."
It's not that he doesn't have anything worthwhile to say: McAuley is an eloquent, thoughtful interviewee. Nor is it that he doesn't want to be here. The guarded, faintly mistrustful expression he often wears in press photos—one that surfaces sometimes when he lapses into thoughtfulness—certainly doesn't square with his personality. It's more accurate to say that McCauley has a very diligent internal censor. In the age of internet-assisted sharing, he feels this is a good thing.
"It's almost like you constantly need to say stuff. I've got a Twitter feed, I've got to be tweeting stuff; I've got a Facebook page so I've got to say inane crap just to keep things moving or something. At the end of the day, it's completely vacuous, a lot of it. If people have got information to share then that's great—but I've never been particularly good at that. It's like, 'Well, do people need to know this? Or is it just me sort of trying to keep my head afloat in some way?'"
This sort of attitude feels expected from one third of a label-cum-collective renowned for its succinct presentation. The history of Hessle Audio is a lesson in how to say exactly what needs to be said and nothing more. Last year the label—run by McAuley, Ben "UFO" Thomson and David Kennedy, AKA Pearson Sound—put out just three records: Pev & Kowton's Raw Code, Joe's Slope and Kennedy's HES026. But in spite of this—and although the careers of the label's co-founders continue to follow divergent paths—Hessle remains as powerful a force as ever.
"Even if we don't put anything out for a year I'm still completely secure in what we're doing," McCauley says. "Because I think we all respect what we're doing individually. I'm not Ben, I'm not David—we're all different DJs and producers, it's just we came together to form the label. But I think that's our strength in a way. Strength in numbers, but strength in depth as well."
McAuley has at points lived in the shadow of his labelmates. Compared to Thomson the scene-defining DJ, or Kennedy and his acclaimed productions, McAuley's thornier soundworld and low-key press presence have made him a natural outlier. But last year marked a new phase in his career with the launch of his own label, Hadal. This wasn't an earth-shattering event, mind. As McAuley points out, Kennedy has self-released plenty of music before, and Thomson exercises his independence through managing Hessle's now-weekly Rinse FM slot. Here was McAuley stepping up to claim his own autonomous zone.
The Hadal debut, Viaduct, was significant musically, too. In contrast to 2012's expansive Release, these three tracks felt lean and dance floor-tooled, passing the abstracted London rudeness and sometimes bold melodicism of past Pangaea records through a gritty techno filter.
The record, McAuley says, was the result of a conscious change in approach. "I realised that some of my music, especially on Release, was very in this headspace-y zone. And I always find myself, on the dance floor—I always end up closing my eyes. I'm not even thinking about it, just instinctively I almost shut myself off. It becomes kind of inward. Everything I want to do now, I want to feel that it's stuff that I can drop mid-set."
McAuley's inward-facing approach to music probably dates back to his childhood. His techno revelation came to him early. He pinpoints hearing the Prodigy on the radio as a big moment. "I was listening to their tracks when I was seven or eight," he recalls. "I just heard it as sort of weird, energetic music. It was unnerving, scary. I didn't have any concept of people raving to it. It was just the music. Not any kind of association with it being music that people came together to."
Growing up in a village of "maybe a thousand people" in the South West of England, there was scant opportunity for McCauley to find like minds. "You had one or two buses a day that went to Swindon. So you could get a bus there at like half nine in the morning and then come back at one in the afternoon, and that'd be enough time to go to HMV, or the other two record shops that existed at the time. And I didn't have friends who were into dance music or anything. It was just me and the music, really."
As such, McAuley's taste was shaped by what he heard on the radio and what the local shops stocked. Still, he was drawn to the more extreme end of things. "When I started buying records it was trance and hard house. I was really into, like, the hard trance. Just the energy behind it —that kind of trippiness where you can focus into the music. I was in my bedroom playing records at 145 BPM. Being really in it, yet never having been to a club."
"Trippiness" is a word McAuley uses often. You sense he's not happy about this (at one point he breaks off to ask, "Is there a better word than trippy?"). But when trying to discuss the elusive quality that makes a certain piece of music appeal to him, or outline the intention behind his own productions, again and again he bumps up against that same lexical obstacle. "I think with the best dance music you can either be—you can always be in certain states," he says, after another failed attempt to circumvent the word. "And sometimes you can be so battered or high that you can't actually physically dance at that point. But you can be listening to something and you can be lying down or sitting down, and you can just be so in it still."
I wonder, then, if drugs are an important part of his relationship with music? "In a way, no," he says. "When I was buying all these hard trance records when I was 16 I wasn't taking any drugs, it was just adrenaline. And I don't think my musical progression would've been what it was if I was taking drugs back when dubstep was starting. It wasn't a druggy thing, I didn't find. It was weed—I'd go out and smoke a lot of weed. You weren't expected to dance, because you're really stoned. It was just being in your headspace. And that was absolutely fine, that suited me perfectly."
This stoned solipsism is captured perfectly in McAuley's early output. The pale garage of 2007's "Coiled" comes with a dose of skunk paranoia; the following year's "You And I" lumbers on an enormous dubwise bassline geared towards heavy-lidded head-nod rather than full-body kinesis.
Where many people swap late-teens hedonism for a sedentary clubbing lifestyle as their 20s wear on, McAuley appears to have gone in the opposite direction. "I still go out," he says. "I think it's important in a way. If you stop doing that, then I wonder if some DJs lose touch with what people want when they go out—which is essentially to dance and have a good time. I remember at the start of the year I had a gig in Moscow. I had no sleep going there, no sleep coming back. And then Jeff Mills was playing [in London] the night I came back. It took everything in my power to get up and go out to see him play. I was so close to sacking it off, but I got up and I went out and it was great."
It's fitting that McAuley should mention Jeff Mills. It seems impossible to discuss his second wind in clubbing without talking about his newfound love for techno. This has been evident in his mixes for some time, and in the Hadal single, which channels the scratchy, compact grooves of early Surgeon.
But why techno? "Well what else is there these days? I've got to be honest: I'll buy and play house records, but it's not where my head's at at all. For a few years now it feels like there's been a lot of house around, especially in London. Techno ticks all the boxes for me. It's so similar to dubstep in where it was when I first got into it. Dubstep was just an open playing field. The premises were, it was about 140 BPM and it was subby. But rhythmically it was all over the place. You know, people were creating grooves."
"Creating grooves" is a mantra that would apply well to Fabriclive.73, McAuley's first commercial mix, and the best summation of his love affair with techno to date. Not just surface grooves (though there are plenty of those: McAuley's taste for swing, broken beats and unusual rhythms is as evident as ever) but a deep, tectonic groove, an unshakeable forward motion that overrides the more traditionally-Hessle moments of jump-cut disruption.
McAuley's sets have been heading in this direction for a couple of years. When, in the late' 00s, the arrival of UK funky caused tempos to drop from dubstep's 140 BPM to 130, a whole new musical vista—house and techno—opened up. DJs like McAuley and his labelmates responded by mixing in a spirit of discovery, taking an energetic, cross-genre approach that celebrated the unlikely connections between disparate things. This was arguably the era in which Hessle Audio made their greatest headway, but McAuley seems to look back on it as a time of
"For a while it was quite crude," he says. "I suppose my  FACT mix is quite a good example. I flicked through that the other day. I'm playing STL and that sort of headier house, and by the end I'm playing techno, but then I'd go into an Addison Groove record, and then dubstep. It was a bit more disjointed. I suppose what's happened with techno is that, being more in one kind of world, it's more cohesive. Which I think is quite important when you're talking about playing a set. The whole post-dubstep thing was an interesting time, but I don't know how much of it was rooted, really, for raves."
These days, McCauley's approach has changed. He's not pulling an array of rhythmic forms together to create something with surprising coherence, but launching from the readymade coherence of a single form—techno—in search of surprise. For example, he refers to a moment in the Fabriclive mix where a twinkling New Age synth track by Imaginary Softwoods is laid over the driving techno of Pfirter and Alex Falk. "I remember really zoning out to that track and thinking, well, if I layer that up with something that's incredibly forceful, then... you've got the best of both, in a way. There's a line you tread that tries to do the two things: tries to keep things interesting and doesn't get too self-indulgent. It's got to satisfy that criteria, where you're still in it mentally and physically at the same time. If the groove isn't there or it gets a bit too complex—that's when it starts shifting into that whole IDM thing a little bit. And I don't know where that line is. That's a difficult line I think, sometimes."
McAuley's use of the term IDM reminds me of veteran music writer Simon Reynolds, who has compressed his criticism of Hessle Audio and the post-dubstep scene at large into a single coinage: "nu-IDM." Writing about the music of Hessle affiliates Objekt, Untold and Elgato, Reynolds has talked about the revival of an "art-techno" ethos, an approach that involves a "renunciation of what works [on the dancefloor] in the name of 'freedom.'"
Anybody who has enjoyed, say, Objekt's "Cactus" in a club will recognise an error in Reynolds' argument. Still, looking at the exceptionally sparse release schedules and ever-mutating styles of many Hessle artists (Pangaea included) it's tempting to see some truth in Reynolds' suggestion that, in this part of the scene, "the artist is encouraged to endlessly differ from himself." And when your selling point is the ever-escalating uniqueness of your productions, sooner or later you're going to reach an impasse.
"I feel like I should release more stuff. I mean I'm not quick," McCauley says. "If I was just making sort of rolling tech house, or something—if I was at that level where I could just roll out stuff that did a certain thing, then maybe it'd be easier. Because you know exactly what to do. It's almost like cooking." In past interviews McCauley has talked about starting a sideline in more functional DJ tools. Is that something he still wants to do? "I do, I still want to. Good techno tools are timeless. They will always get played." There's a tone of wistfulness, almost, in his voice.
"I'd like to get to that point, where I could just make some interesting tools. But I can't really do that. Whenever I've tried to make something straight it just ends up mangled. Or if it is an interesting idea then maybe I'll get locked into this thing where it's got to be more perfect than it is. I'm getting better at it, I think I am. If I ever figure out the formula I'll probably be banging out..." he tails off. But maybe, I suggest, the formula is that there is no formula? "Yeah. And if I did have a formula, would the music even be as good as I'd think it would be? Maybe not. Especially when you're known as someone who does something a bit different. I think if I started making straight techno tools, that might not be interesting to most people, because it's like, 'Why are you doing that?' I don't think I've made my name off the basis of that."
This, then, is where McCauley finds himself: feeling closer to a sense of common purpose than he has since the glory days of dubstep, but unable to fully relinquish his loner status. He seems perfectly comfortable there. The press release for the fabric mix quotes him as saying that he's "never been happier with where I am and where I'm going as an artist." I ask him to expand. "Because I now feel settled down into an area—which is techno. And there's a lot of space for creativity. I think there's an appetite for interesting, open-minded dance music. I'm just quite happy with the idea of making techno in my own way."