Notes and color

Chad McKinney is a talented graphic designer and musician from Marquette, Michigan. He describes his influences, his creation process, and the turn of the music industry into the digital realm. His knowledge in both graphic design and music makes him a formidable creative force in a city known for it’s artistic endeavors.

Can you tell me a bit about your history as a musical artist?

Well, I started recording in my parents basement when I was in middle school or high school just had a couple of old keyboards and a four track machine. I would just sit and record for hours and basically write songs. I had taken lessons when I was a kid. [I played] Trumpet and stuff but never written anything on my own up until high school. Basically fooled around for years as the years progressed. Better at recording. For a long time I’ve been just home recording and I played in a band downstate and contributed writing songs.

Describe the style of music you produce.

Its taken on many forms. I suppose when I started it was more synthpoppy when I first started writing my songs. I was probably influenced a bit to much by early Depechemode (Depechemode Official) and some of the really grimy synthpop of the early 80’s. Like Fad Gadget (Fad Gadget Official) and stuff. As this progressed I didn’t want to sing as much. I don’t really have anything to say anymore. So it’s become more of my influences are soundtrack work, avant-garde, noise, drone and experimental music. Though I tend to bring a little bit more of song structure then basic drums which sets myself apart a little bit.

Can you describe your creation process?

It used to be I would sit down and structure a song with a piece of paper and plan things out but now I go in with the most basic drum pattern then slowly build it from there. So it has become a bit more organic. I didn’t begin as organic. It has evolved.

What type of equipment do you use to record?

Couple of old 90’s digital synthesizers. I have a Moog Rogue synthesizer. A fairly big pedal board. I’m really into effects processing and stuff. A couple of old vintage drum machines. Surprisingly hand-held devices are becoming kind of a helpful tool these days. You can program drums on a plane, in a car. As long as your not driving I suppose. You can basically make things wherever you go. I occasionally use electric guitar but I like to process it a bit.

Can you give me a history of some of the musical projects you have been involved with?

I was in a band downstate with friends that were up here. A band called Spectral Mornings (Performance of the song, Sampler Gate at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2010). I wasn’t in the band when I lived in Marquette, I moved down there. That was basically based on friendship and we all knew we could play. It evolved into a collaborative process. It was fairly fruitful. I ended up moving back up here, so I ended up leaving the band. But it was really enthralling. I’ve also done a couple of soundtracks to friend’s movies periodically. I collaborated with [Videogamergal] for a song. (Videogamergal, Safe is the case)

What is the one song you have created that you are the most proud of?

A song from one of my 2009 EP’s called “Take it or leave it” it was the last song I ever sang on. I think my vocal delivery was probably pretty good. It was structured uniquely I thought it was fairly successful. It was catchy. I did have a couple of reviews on that EP. One of them described that song specifically. It was like Joy Division (Joy Division Official) remixed by Autechre (Autechre Official).

Why does your current music have no vocalization?

I kind of run out of things to say. I think. Or at least [I’m] not inspired to write anything lyrically. Maybe it’ll come back to me one day. I’m more interested in soundscapes. Mood music I guess.

You were a member of the band Spectral Mornings, I saw in an interview with Dan Streeting (Electronic Technique Interview) back in 2008 that you played bass, drums, and trumpet. How does being a multi-instrumentalist help create your work?

It expands the palette a little bit knowing that I can pull from a bunch of different things. It probably informs the way I structure a song. Knowing those instruments and knowing the capability I think, gives you a better perspective on various parts or melodies [and how they] can fit together.

I think being able to play drums gives you a rhythmic sense. It sets the mood for the entire song. Sometimes I do without a drum track, but it is a good impetus to begin a song. It’s funny how some of my songs evolve. I’ll begin with a drum track and then I’ll program another drum track that’s probably a bit more kinetic or chaotic over it. Then I’ll add the two together or I’ll add a third as the songs progress and different melodies or counter melodies weirdly evolve over time.

What other instruments can you play?

Keyboard, trumpet, guitar, bass, drums…maybe more then that? Was that five?

You had formal trumpet training, did you self teach yourself instruments as well?

With bass guitar I took lessons with Dave Ziegner (Dave Ziegner Website) in town when I was in high school. Which were very informative. Over time I kind of forgot all of my scales. Through lessons the thing I found more interesting and more important was when I brought songs to them to learn. It helped me learn how others structured songs, how to play them, or how to approach it. All of Dave’s lessons were invaluable. He’s an amazing teacher and an amazing performer. He probably taught me more then I can ever put into words. Just being a musician, I suppose.

Both you and Dan Streeting are graphic designers as well. Did that further the creative process while you were with Spectral Mornings?

Perhaps. That’s a good question. We often joked that half the reason we keep making music was so we could design more album covers. It probably informed us in some way, but we were avid music nerds I suppose that connected over graphic design or vice versa.

With the incorporation of artwork within the music industry, seeing more production going directly online instead of print for album cases, do you think that has changed the industry? How has that changed your work?

I think it has on the consumer end. Now your just looking at a one inch square on a screen or device. Perhaps it’s good. It forces things to be more interactive and bold, but on the same token you’re not getting the experience of holding a piece of music. Holding a product. Holding something that connects you to that artist. I mean, you can’t even read liner notes anymore. I suppose some digital downloads come with them. Most don’t. Some just come with a cover and MP3s, WAV files, or FLAC files. For me, music packaging really informed me on what I liked musically and graphically. Some of the work from various bands influenced the bands I would eventually listen to because I loved their design work. People like, Peter Saville from Factory Records in the late 80’s. (Design Museum Article on Peter Saville) His work with New Order and Joy Division. Even people like Julian House who has done work for many bands. He also has his own label, Ghost box music. (Ghostbox Website) A label rooted in nostalgia. A nostalgia that never happened. It’s hard to describe. It’s funny how those two have influenced me. A push and pull between design and music and how they mesh together in one package.

How is designing commercial artwork different from creating artistic, visual music influenced pieces?

In a commercial sense, it has to be way more direct. You can’t speak in mystical terms as you can in music. Some of my favorite album packages never had the artists name or title on the cover. You couldn’t do that for a book or a map for a client or a brochure. You couldn’t just leave information off. I believe Peter Saville once talked about a concept of a mass market secret. Fans will know what it is and know what to expect from it. Just because their fans come to expect it. Some companies can work on that level but most cant. Creating commercial art definitely has to be more linear and structured. Music definitely can branch out into weirder avenues I suppose. Weirder ways of communicating concepts or ideas.

2014 Lake Superior Shore Run – Postcard and rack card design – Photo provided by Chad McKinney

How important is it to connect to your clients for commercial work?

I think its important to get to know them so you can properly convey what their business or organization is about. Visually you can make something pretty for anyone. To really make it successful design it needs to infuse some of those concepts no matter how blatant or subdued they are. I think knowing them and knowing their history and their background will pull everything together.

Can you remember the first musical piece you heard that inspired you to jump into music?

The first musical pieces I remember as a little kid… my dad would play acoustic guitar and play the House of the Rising Sun. I don’t remember the different variations but he was probably playing the version The Animals did. (Animals, House of the Rising Sun)

Representation of father and son. – Illustration by Selena Hautamaki

Songs…when I was little to consciously or subconsciously influence me were the Talking Heads, Burning Down the House (Talking Heads, Burning Down the House) when I was a little kid. The video kind of freaked me out. The song was just so mysterious. The Pet Shop Boys, West End Girls (Pet Shop Boys, West End Girls). The synth bass line just was so infectious even 6 year old me I remember being on vacation with my parents lying in the backseat listening to top 40 radio hearing that baseline come through. Years later when I started playing music, [I realized] that definitely had a huge influence on me.

What was the first musical instrument you picked up?

Probably trumpet. I had a friend in the neighborhood, when I was probably 8 or 9, that was a classically trained piano player. I would just kind of mess around, I wouldn’t quite include that as my main start. Trumpet would probably be my first instrument when I was about 12 in middle school. During the test I was told I should play clarinet. I kicked and screamed until I got to play trumpet. I didn’t want to play clarinet.

Living in Marquette, there is a wide array of musicians and artists. You have quite a bit of artistic and musically inclined friends as well. Does having a collective of creative friends change your music at times if you attend performances or showings?

Oh yeah. Just seeing people play can spark some kind of creativity. Sometimes you can see a group of friends play something you haven’t been into before or never thought of. It can blow your mind. Inspire you to do great things. A community definitely helps.

How would you describe the artistic and musical scene in Marquette?

Diverse. It is certainly diverse in Marquette. You get so many weird things. You go to bigger cities and you can get a big group of bands that just sound the same. Maybe one or two that don’t but Marquette is diverse.

Do you think that being so isolated up north influences the people in the area to become so artistic?

I think that definitely has an influence. You run out of things to do in the winter. Go skiing? Do things outside? Drink coffee? Drink beer? Then you get board. You figure out something else to do. So why not do something constructive and creative.

Can you name some specific musicians and artists in the Marquette area that you find influential? Or even some musicians that started up here?

On a personal level, Sah (Sah on Bandcamp) and Manray 19. Getting to know Kent and Jesse and everyone. It was an inspiration knowing I could do it. Do things myself. Why not do it. I very much liked that punk attitude that anyone can play, why can’t you. Just do it. They were the first ones that made me think, yeah I can do that. Watching Jesse’s various bands and Kent’s various projects. Even though Kent’s not in the area anymore. Sycamore Smith (Sycamore Smith Official Website), always influential. His various bands. The Muldoons. I was listening to the Muldoons when I was younger too. Random people that I’ve met here that play the weirdest [expletive] you can imagine. Just some people into noise and jazz. Like I said Dave Ziegner was influential. Watching him play jazz guitar, even solos [were] worth it. Meeting Dan [Streeting] and Trevor [Edmonds] (of Spectral Mornings) influenced how I would approach or be involved with music for probably the rest of my life.

Sah performance, 2004

How come you don’t play live anymore?

Trying to sort out the live element. I’ve never been one to fully figure out how to arrange a song in a live setting. Getting multiple people to play. I think most of my stuff is to layered to do it on my own. I could play some sort of backing track but I want it to be more of a live experience, like multiple people playing. I think it tends to feel more engaging. It’s like watching Depechemode performances from the late 80’s or early 80’s. In the early days when they were actually playing analogue synthesizers it was far more engaging to me. Knowing that they are creating it in real time… warts and all. Bum notes, out of tune analogue synthesizers is kind of inspiring. I would definitely like to do that again. It’s something I kind of miss.

If you had advice for someone who wanted to be a musician, what would you tell them?

Find an instrument you really like. Find a way to record it. Just play. Whatever you want. You will evolve from there. Just start doing it. I think it’s really that simple. I never learned to play guitar. I eventually came to be OK at it. I still didn’t know what I was doing. Just get out there and do it. Never stop having a thirst for new stuff. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do something or that your doing it wrong. Just do it.

If you had advice for someone who wanted to be a graphic designer, what would it be?

Graphic design is like, pulling elements together. Graphic design is typography. It’s laying out, its packaging. It’s two dimensional, its three dimensional. It’s textural. It’s information. It’s more conceptual then other forms of art. I have always said I’d prefer to see a museum full of cereal boxes then a museum full of paintings. Commercial art speaks to me. For it to be a successful piece it has to work at what it is. It has to convey information to a group of people or a population. Instead of just speaking to 5 people you have to speak to 10,000 people. Somehow I feel success is more measurable in graphic design then painting or even photography. I think that drives my will to stick with it. I don’t know if it’s even the money or doing. Eventually, maybe I’ll do a project that can be seen on a wider audience. Convey a sort of influence.

Where do you see yourself in the future as a designer?

It’s funny most of the things I love are dead mediums. Album covers. That was my goal when I was younger. If I could just design a REM album cover or a U2 album cover, when I was a kid thinking that. That would be awesome. That was all I wanted to do. No one does that anymore. Well, they still do but at a much smaller scale. It probably will not equal that much money. I’d say I’d still love to have a gig like that to get a piece of mind out. Where I actually see myself? I’d like to do more identity work. More branding identity. I’m really captivated by doing the entire system on down from logo to the entire style guide of a business or businesses or corporation even.

Where do you see your future as a musician?

I would love to do a soundtrack for a film if I can. A proper film maybe. An hour or a half. Putting together a full score is something I would want to do. Regardless of whether any of my music ends up reaching a wider audience at some day. I would probably end up doing this for the rest of my life. Just to make music. Making noise. I love recording it. I like the process of doing it. The things you learn about yourself doing it. By doing it, the people you encounter is awesome.

Originally published on

Aug. 3, 2015

Recent Posts


© 2021 Selena Potila


  • Instagram - Black Circle
  • Facebook - Black Circle