I remember catching one of his remixes online which immediately caught my attention. Tracks like his was fairly new in the local music scene, his name made it even more intriguing. It was in the first year of Purveyr.com, around December of 2012 when we published Manila Killa’s remix of Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die. Electronic was only at it’s infancy stage locally then, most only knew and were into EDM, however, indie music was also growing exponentially.
This may have been the good fortune that Chris Gavino stumbled upon for Manila Killa. Taking famous pop and indie songs and turning it into works of electronic masterpieces. Not long after, he would get more attention from different music websites and big media outlets. This established his claim to become one of the select sought-after electronic artists in the global music industry. After four years, with tracks circulating in countless mixtapes and playlists, garnering more than five million plays for one of his remixes (listen to it below), and getting to perform around the States and other countries, it is safe to say that he’s achieved so much already.
We sat down with him a few days after his show in Black Market, where the line stretched from the entrance as early as 9pm. We wanted to know what’s on his mind, his experiences and stories. So we talked about his life, Manila Killa’s inception, the Internet and a few more about being an electronic producer and artist.
"..in one of those events I saw one person performing music off of his laptop. I had no idea that you could make music off of your laptop at the time. I guess that was sort of the start of my music producing, all because I found out you can make music on your own at home."
Interview and Photos by Marvin Conanan
You’re based in the U.S. now, but can you share to us your relationship with Manila? How long did you live here before moving?
I was born in Washington, DC in the States, but obviously my family’s from the Philippines, but they came over a while ago. Ever since I was born, I’ve gone back and forth between the States and overseas so I’ve spent some time in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, but mostly the Philippines. When I turned 2, I think that was the first time we came back to Manila, but eventually we moved back to the States and then went here again until I finished high school. After that, I went back to the States again to study in a university. I’m taking up Business Management and have one more semester to go before I graduate in December.
Wow! So you’ve been studying and pursuing Manila Killa full-time, how’s that experience?
I’ve sort of found a balance in that I don’t tour while I’m in school. So during the semesters I’m just in school studying and making sure I’m getting good grades. Then when I’m on break, that’s when I’m touring and stuff. It’s summer time for me right now so that’s why I get to go here in Manila. (laughs)
I'm curious, why did you choose the name Manila Killa?
I was actually pretty young when I chose it, I was like 15 or 16 then. I was trying to think of a name where I could put my music under. And because it was just a hobby at the time, I just used my recent experience of moving to the U.S. coming from the Philippines. I was like, “why don’t I just use Manila as the basis?” but it was too broad of a name, and people won’t be able to Google me. (laughs) So when I was talking to a friend one day, he recommended me to add something to it so that it can rhyme. The killa part came out of that conversation, something pretty simple, nothing too deep.
I remember the first time I stumbled upon your music and wrote about it on Purveyr.com in 2012, did you start around that time?
That year was the time when I started noticing that people were listening to my music, but I’ve been making music since 2007-2008, so it’s been a while.
Can you share to us what led you to produce music?
I’ve always been interested in music. I’ve played the cello before for a couple of years, and as well as the guitar and drums, but they were all nothing really serious. While I was attending school here in Manila there would be a Battle of the Bands event every year, and in one of those events I saw one person performing music off of his laptop. I had no idea that you could make music off of your laptop at the time. I was into the rock phase then, so seeing that type of music being produced through a laptop surprised me. I didn’t know you could do that, so that’s when I started researching about it. At the time he was using a program called Garageband on Mac, it's one of the reasons why I wanted to get a Mac so bad. (laughs) I guess that was sort of the start of my music producing, all because I found out you can make music on your own at home.
How would you describe your music? I’ve heard some people have put you in the Tropical House genre, what do you think about that?
I’m still trying to figure that out actually, I don’t think I have a particular style quite yet. I’m still exploring different things. But if I were to explain what my music sounds like, I guess it’s sort of a combination of pop music and underground.
And about the Tropical House genre, I know big names like Kygo popularized it, and I think I made music that sounded like that to people that’s why they sort of latched me into that group. It’s actually okay for me, I understand that it’s way easier to describe music when you can throw them into different groups. But I wouldn’t really say that my music is Tropical House, Manila Killa is more of under the indie electronic experimental area.
"I would owe all of my career to the Internet actually. If it wasn’t for the Internet, I doubt people would be listening to my music."
Who are your inspirations in music?
Ever since I got into electronic music, that’s mostly what I’ve been listening to, but I also enjoy bands and indie artists like Daughter, Bon Iver, etc. But for electronic music, Porter Robinson has been my number one inspiration ever since he put out his album, Worlds. I’ve been listening to him beforehand but that album got me playing his music everyday. And aside from him, I really like this group called Soul from Australia, they’re really amazing. Then Daft Punk of course, Justice, and all those guys.
Outside music, where do you take inspiration from?
I would say most of my inspirations aren’t really from other music but from more of the experiences I have with other people, those I come across in my life, and even people that I dated. Then from places too, because I’ve been doing a bit of traveling lately, especially all over the States. Plus, I just came from Australia and then here in Manila. I sort of take in everything and try to channel that into my music.
I get the feeling that the Internet is essential for you, how important is it for your music and career?
Huge! I would owe all of my career to the Internet actually. If it wasn’t for the Internet, I doubt people would be listening to my music. And I definitely owe a lot to Soundcloud too, I got in it pretty early. Not a lot of people knew it when I was putting my stuff in there, but I just kept putting it there because it was so easy to host music. At the time I loved doing remixes, mashups and all these weird things. That was sort of the site that I stuck to right after Myspace. I think in this day and age, the Internet can really let you do anything, especially in the music industry where most of the platforms exist on our phones and laptops. The Internet is like everything. (laughs)
I definitely agree! But like anyone else, we all used the Internet a little differently in the past, what were your earliest memories of it and when did you transition to using it solely for music?
Just like everyone else, I was using it to play video games. As a kid I was playing Miniclip, World of Warcraft, and the like. I was huge on games before I got into music. Then of course, downloading music from Limewire and Frostwire was big as well. Risking getting a virus on your computer just so you can hear new album and tracks. Then outside that I also had a bunch of other hobbies such as basketball, dancing, and playing the drums and guitar. But I guess when I found out about music being this whole other world, I just sort of dropped everything. When I started downloading programs to make music through the laptop, suddenly I wasn’t big on video games anymore, I don’t dance, and everything changed very quickly. That’s all I wanted to do.
While achieving success in music through the Internet, do you still think where an artist lives matter?
No, it doesn’t matter anymore. You can be anywhere in the world and make great music. For example, Flume is from a surf town in Australia, north of Sydney, but now he’s selling out shows in the States and Canada. All thanks to the internet, really. I’m sort of the same because I live in a suburb in Virginia right outside of DC where there is not much of a music scene. I’m far from where most artists move to, like LA and NY to make it in the music industry. But weirdly enough, that’s where I’ve made my best music. Although I’m not saying it’s not important to be in LA or NY, it definitely helps to be there to make connections, but I don’t think it’s not really necessary anymore.
But what if you’re located in Manila, do you think it would be the same?
I don’t know actually, I haven’t really thought about it that way, but I would say it might be a little more difficult to be overseas. A lot of the operations of the global music industry, including tours and shows, happen in the States. I think it’s just hard to garner fans or make connections from the Philippines. But because I do spend a lot of time on the Internet, I think I would still be able to make a few connections in the States, though I wouldn’t know if I would get to move and play anywhere else if I wasn’t located in the States.
"When I started downloading programs to make music through the laptop, suddenly I wasn’t big on video games anymore, I don’t dance, and everything changed very quickly. That’s all I wanted to do."
Even though you’re located in the U.S. already, I’m sure getting attention wasn’t easy, what did you do differently compared to other aspiring artists?
I think a lot of aspiring artists get lost in this idea that there’s a certain kind of sound that you need to pursue in order to make it big. They start copying songs of other artists that blow up, thinking it will do the same for them, but the problem with it is that someone has already done it so listeners will not be interested in you anymore. They will be more interested in the artist who pioneered that sound. So I think what I’ve been trying to do lately is sort of get away from that idea, and just more of make what I really want.
Speaking of owning a sound, do you think artists should work as hard in presenting themselves out there as they do with their music? Maybe owning an identity as well?
A lot of people argue that all you need is good music, but I believe that if you want to succeed in this industry you need more than just music, you need a brand. It’s something that people can latch onto. A great example of this is Odesza, they have an iconic logo and this mysterious aura around them, and I think that’s what makes them so attractive. Not only is their music incredible, they also give off this aura of a world they live in, which is inviting and intriguing to see them live. The same goes with Porter Robinson, other than his amazing music, he sort of built this entire world behind his music that people can really connect to, using anime stuff and all the visuals. So I definitely think that if these aspiring artists want to make it, they have to make more than just music, they have to create an experience for the people.
With that being said, what is the persona of Manila Killa?
For Manila Killa it’s kinda tough, because I don’t really have the mysterious aura that Odesza has, I don’t have an iconic logo, and I don’t really have the anime thing or visuals that Porter Robinson has going on. But I think Manila Killa represents me as a person, my personality as Chris and Manila Killa is the same. Like I’ve just been completely honest with my fans, I share my thoughts and experiences with them. I guess it’s the personal relationship I have with them and they have with me.
Let’s go back to your music, it seemed like you were known for some of the best remixes out there when you were starting to get attention, what made you pursue that before putting out your own music?
Honestly, remixes just came naturally. Every time I heard a song I really like at the time, I felt like I can add something to it. And that’s sort of what happened, and then I found out that when you’re an emerging artist, remixes do way better than originals because no one wants to listen to someone they don’t know. People want to latch onto something they are familiar with. So if I remix a song by Lana del Rey, her fans would be more open to listening to it because they see her name and they know the song. Eventually it got to the point where I realized that I don’t have to do remixes anymore, I have enough leverage on my own as Manila Killa, and that’s when I started making originals.
Other than having your remixes spread everywhere, what else do you think played a part in getting your name and music out there?
Before I got my manager/publicist, I was doing all the blog work myself. Every time I put out a song, I would have a list of emails and just write an email to every single one. So I would write around 200 emails a night just to have a feature on their blogs. There was a time they would respond, but most of the time there were only a few that would.
Then the YouTube channels; MrRevillz, Majestic and all those guys were huge. What I didn’t realize is that there’s a huge population that follows those channels that don’t really interact with you. You won’t really see that those people are listening to your music until you go to the channels. So I think those guys also played a huge part in promoting my music along other music blogs like Hype Machine.
In this age of “collaboration” how important is collaborating with other artists for you?
I think it’s really important. What I’ve always had in mind about collaborations is that if you can make a doper song with the help of someone else, then why not, right? I know a lot of artists are kind of iffy about that because they want their own name to be in the light, but honestly, I just want to make the best music. And if that means collaborating with two or three other people, I’m down to do it.
"I think sharing my music and what I do with my family is the most memorable."
Getting more attention as an artist means getting more invitations to perform live, any memorable ones you would like to share to us?
Last year in April we had a showcase in Washington, DC, near where I live. At the the time my mom haven’t seen me perform yet, she’s just seen my stuff online. So I brought her to the show and brought her on stage. Before that she was iffy about this whole music thing, but I think after seeing me play she sort of understood what I was doing. I think that’s definitely the most memorable show of my life because I was able to share with my mom what I do. Then last Friday at Black Market, I brought my dad out. That was the first time he saw me play as well. I think sharing my music and what I do with my family is the most memorable.
Then there are also a few cool performances that I’ve had. I just played Coachella last April as Hotel Garuda, and it’s incredible because Coachella is my dream festival, you know. I made this promise to myself a few years ago that I will only go to Coachella if I’m playing in it. And it finally happened this year, so that was super special to me. Also, EDC happened last year, it was crazy. Those are my top performing experiences so far.
You mentioned Hotel Garuda, can you explain what it is briefly and also share some other things you do musically besides Manila Killa?
Hotel Garuda is another project of mine that I started with a friend who I met in Indonesia while in middle school. We reconnected around 2014, and at the time we were interested in the same kind of music. He knew I was making music then, and he wanted to learn how to make music, so he asked if we can collaborate or something. Eventually we decided to start an entirely new project, and two days later we made a song under the name Hotel Garuda. It found its way to a blog and it sort of built up from there.
Then Moving Castle started as a collective between me and a couple of friends, it was sort of a way to package our music together into one brand easily. It was me, Aobeats, Robokid and Hunt for the Breeze who founded it. It has evolved, and now we turned it into a record label. We had our first release in January, and now we don’t just exclusively release our own music, but we take demos as well.
And lastly, let’s go a little cheesy, what’s the most valuable lesson that you’ve had in the musical journey of Manila Killa?
Wow, that’s a big question. (laughs) Honestly, I think it’s just that don’t be afraid to be myself, and be accepting of who I am and what kind of music I want to make. Try not to live up to other people’s standards, do my own thing, and don’t feel bad when people hate or whatever, because people will always have something to talk about. So what I need to do is be as positive as possible and just follow my heart, really be just who I am and be comfortable in what I do.
You can know more about Manila Killa through his online pages; Soundcloud, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.