Locals Only: : Unlike a Virgin

Local scene Indie Renaissance man Sammy McKee juggles a label, several music projects and family life with little sleep and a lot of moxie

Aug 20, 2003 at 2:06 pm
Dale M. Johnson

Sammmy McKee

It is early on a Saturday evening and I am having coffee with one of Cincinnati's busiest men — Sammy McKee. When he isn't performing in his solo electronic project, Fotos, he can be found drumming for Hyperstatic, masterminding the comeback of his band Viewfinder, running the Unlike record label, and — oh, yeah — raising his two kids, a 6-year-old and a 7-month-old.

The first thing I ask is, "How do you balance it all?" His answer, "I don't sleep much."

The lack of sleep doesn't seem to hurt his drive or dedication to music, however. For some musicians, one project is enough. Not so for McKee. This article was supposed to be about his group Viewfinder, but they split up before I could interview them. Why? "Drummer issues," McKee tells me. Bassist Mike Detmer of The Spectacular Fantastic also left the group.

One would think McKee would be relieved to have just two projects, but he is already forming a new Viewfinder lineup.

Likewise, for some musicians, one instrument is enough. But, again, McKee is happier playing guitar, drums, bass and keyboards. "Everything but horns. Guitar players want to play everything so they can record themselves," he says.

And McKee, as head of the Unlike label (which he runs 95 percent on his own — "Sometimes my wife helps with mailings"), knows plenty about recording. In addition to the annual compilation disc the label puts out, Unlike also records and releases many other groups' albums.

"I had a lot of friends that were making music that really needed to be heard, and it wasn't being heard," McKee says, explaining why he started the label. "The idea was, and still is, to put out CDs, and then hopefully they go from there and move on to something else bigger and better. The goal of the label isn't to be huge or anything like that. It's just to put out CDs I like and try and help (my friends) out as much as I can."

Judging by the Unlike's stable of artists, who come from all over North America, McKee has a lot of friends. How does he find all the bands? A combination of the Internet, friends' recommendations and artists' submissions.

The Unlike has five CDs coming out this year by Robert Schipul, RPD158 from North Carolina, Linger Effect from Canada, Hyperstatic and Fotos.

I ask McKee's thoughts on the Cincinnati music scene. McKee says, "I think that there are a lot of bands here that could do whatever they want to do, as far as moving on to major independent labels or major labels, if they want to do it and they dedicate themselves to doing that. I can think of 10 bands here that could do that. And it's never been like that here.

"There's no reason why they haven't moved on ... that's what I want to see people do. That's the whole reason why I'm still doing this label thing. I hope that some of the bands that are associated with what I'm doing eventually will push themselves to the next level."

I stick around to listen to Fotos, which is McKee, his guitar, his laptop and a Korg analog synthesizer.

Fotos' songs call to mind the music of '80s groups like 808 State and Joy Division, but they have a sharper edge for the '00s. They're also not without a sense of humor, as is evidenced by a song that takes a few jabs at the hubris of Metallica.

"I've always loved electronic music, and I've never understood why because it doesn't really fit in with the other stuff that I like, the Indie Rock stuff," McKee tells me. "But I've always had a soft spot for it. There was a lot of (electronic) stuff I didn't like, but I listened to it to understand how people did it, to try to understand how they put it together."

And McKee has no plans to slow down. "I love recording and I love music," he says. "It's a passion for me."

FOTOS plays the O'Bryonville Animal Rescue benefit at the Southgate House (on the Parlour stage) on Friday.