Chris Gavino, 23, graduated from George Mason University on the dean’s list in December. However, he doesn't plan on ever using his degree. He completed his higher education as a compromise with his Filipino parents that awarded him the ability to pursue a music career once the cap and gown were hung up, and he’s ready to prove that he got the upper hand in the exchange.
A career in entertainment is a risky move made by many young people flocking West with big eyes and bigger ambitions. But the next time Gavino, stage name Manila Killa, sets foot in Los Angeles, it will be to play to a sold-out crowd at the El Rey Theatre. His first L.A. gig as a headliner on July 7 sold out so quickly — in less than 24 hours — that his team added another show on July 5, which also sold out. He has another show on July 8 in San Francisco; that one's sold out, as well.
Manila Killa is jabbing his way through the vast horde of electronic music producers by riding the popularity of future bass. The heavy yet melodic sound had its mainstream moment earlier this year with The Chainsmokers’ hit “Closer” and now its beats are knocking on every festival stage in the country.
His music is often characterized by conflict and triumph. Upcoming single “I Want You,” a collaboration with El Rey showmate Robotaki, is a classic story of yearning for romance that is out of reach. The tension built by singer Matthew Kurz’s pleading vocals is juxtaposed with a hopeful topline melody that brings a seemingly dire situation back to a jubilant resolution.
The emotive nature of Gavino's music has its origins in his peripatetic upbringing, which saw him split time between Fairfax County in Northern Virginia and international schools in Southeast Asia.
His father, a government contractor who worked in developing third-world countries, raised Gavino and his two siblings in Western culture but was unable to completely relinquish his Filipino conservatism.
“As a typical Asian kid, I had to get into orchestra,” Gavino says of his parents’ initial pushing him to learn a classical instrument. Rigid cello lessons deflated his interest in performing music, but writing drum patterns eventually became the cathartic release that got him through a childhood riddled with passport stamps.
After spending freshman and sophomore years at an English-speaking international school in Manila, Gavino was transplanted back in the United States to finish high school and navigate the teenage trenches in an unfamiliar setting.
“That year I found a lot of trouble trying to fit in with the kids [in America],” Gavino says. “I think the reason why is that far into high school, especially in the States, when you’re a junior in high school, you’ve already found your friend group. You’ve found who you are comfortable with. And for me to come from the Philippines and break into a group in the States was really difficult. Not only because kids were kind of hesitant to let a new kid in their group, but also I was still attached to the Philippines. ... That’s [when] I turned to music. Instead of continually putting my energy into finding a group of people to connect with, I put my energy into creating music. That was the silver lining.”
By forgoing a vibrant social life in his formative teenage years, he was able to develop creative skills that have attracted millions of plays across Spotify, YouTube and SoundCloud. This eventually helped him develop a new kind of social circle in the electronic music community: the artist collective.
Manila Killa is a founding member of Moving Castle, a group of independent musicians who throw parties, release music and design clothing around the brand’s indie aesthetic.
“I feel like collectives are just an informal term for a record label,” says Gavino. “Honestly, I think a lot of these collectives that are popping up are the future of the music industry. And I think the reason why is because the internet sort of broke all the rules when it comes to pursuing a career in entertainment. Years ago it was a huge deal to be signed to a major label. That’s when you know you made it. These days you don’t need all that.”
Collectives are putting the future of the music industry back into the hands of the artists. Social media has allowed artists to distribute and promote their own music without being tied to an unfavorable contract with a corporate label.
“I even consider our fans to be part of the collective,” says Brett Blackman, manager of Manila Killa and Moving Castle. “The biggest difference between Moving Castle and a traditional record label is it is run by the artists and the people associated with the artists. A traditional record label is run by certain business people whose focus is to make money and break records. And the way we work is by creating culture.”
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The success of Moving Castle, the Manila Killa project and his house duo Hotel Garuda has finally convinced Gavino's parents to cede their influence on his projected path and accept his work’s impact.
“After [a past show] when we were driving home, [my mom] told me this one kid came up to her and was like, 'Your son’s music helped me through a lot of hard times and I want to thank you for letting him pursue that.' At the time my parents were still kind of sketchy about it. I wasn’t completely pursuing it. But after someone said that to my mom, she understood it better.”
Manila Killa vs. Robotaki hit the El Rey on Wednesday, July 5, and Friday, July 7.
As of this writing, limited tickets for the July 5 show are still available at theelrey.com.
[Correction: An earlier version of this article described Manila Killa's El Rey shows as his first headlining dates, when in fact they are just his first solo headlining dates in Los Angeles. We regret the error.]