DJ and music producer Chris Gavino remembers one specific show out of the several he played last year.
It took place in Washington D.C.’s bustling club scene. In the middle of his set, he brought his mom Rosemarie — who was initially nervous about the idea — on the stage. At that point, she hadn’t even seen music as more than a hobby for her son.
“I wanted her to see from my point of view what it was like to share my music with everybody,” Gavino told NBC News. “After that night, I saw a change in her heart — she realized that music was a real thing for me.”
With his family and friends’ support, things seemed to take off for the 23-year-old artist — whose love of music, creative collaboration, and his Filipino heritage and upbringing has brought him to the forefront of electronic music as “Manila Killa.”
“After that night, I saw a change in her heart—she realized that music was a real thing for me.”
Originally from D.C., Gavino grew up on two different continents. His father’s job as a traveling consultant had his family moving every few years between the Philippines, Indonesia, and the U.S., so Gavino attended international schools, trying to make consistent friends and pursuing hobbies like the cello, drawing, and break-dancing.
“I would always lose interest [in hobbies] within 2 or 3 years,” he said. “I thought this music thing would be a phase that I would do for fun, and then I’ll go find something else.”
Growing up Filipino both in his Manila hometown and in the U.S., Gavino is rooted in cultural traditions, and noticed stark differences living in both countries early on.
“At the international school [in Manila], I felt really at home,” Gavino, who speaks conversational Tagalog, said. “I always had that sense of being Filipino, and I didn’t realize it until those times moving away. I sort of missed ‘my people’ — I really appreciated the culture, food and all that, but having that strong cultural identity is not as apparent where I’m from in the States.”
“A lot of my Filipino friends back home [in the Philippines] also truly understood what it was like growing up with strict parents,” he added.
It was while living in Manila that Gavino discovered electronic dance and house music during a school-wide Battle of the Bands competition.
“There was an artist who performed songs he produced on his laptop,” Gavino said. “He would perform and sing over the tracks, and I was in the crowd watching, like, ‘Wait, I didn’t know you could do that. I didn’t know you could make full songs from your laptop.’ It was crazy to me.”
At 14, he was following music blogs and studying various DJs and producers in the early EDM scene, including French duos Daft Punk and Justice.
After a few years at International School Manila and finding a core group of friends, Gavino moved back to Virginia for high school. While that devastated him, it also gave him time to focus on his music.
“I discovered what I really wanted to do,” he said. “Moving back to the States was a blessing in disguise, because that’s when I really understood and found a passion for electronic music.”
His father’s job later brought the family back to the Philippines. Gavino spent his senior year at the International School Manila, graduating in 2011, and returned to the U.S. to pursue business management; first at Radford University, and later at George Mason University in Virginia, where he is expected to graduate in December.
His focus in business has given him insight on how to deal with people, especially fellow artists.
“I can apply these concepts to my music, to my record label, to the artist world,” Gavino said. “Education is my number one priority, and I definitely owe it to my parents, who have given me a reason to graduate.”
“Moving back to the States was a blessing in disguise, because that’s when I really understood and found a passion for electronic music.”
Gavino’s family has been more supportive as his music career has progressed.
“When I first started getting really into it, [my parents, Carlos and Rosemarie] first saw it as a hobby. I’m the only one in my immediate family pursuing an art career,” he said. “But when I eventually started opening up about where this was going, and the kind of shows I was playing, they saw how serious it suddenly became.”
As a student, Gavino spends his days studying and his nights as his own talent scout scavenging the internet’s underground electronic scene, while also creating music. He played his earliest gigs at birthday and fraternity parties — all while maintaining his academic status on the Dean’s List.
“The awesome thing was that I could do it all from my computer,” Gavino said. “I didn’t have to rent out a studio, or even instruments. With the computer program, you’re able to lay down different beats, loops, chord progressions, vocal tracks — I keep layering it on and on, building it up to the drop, and once I’ve found the most exciting part of the song, everything else comes really naturally.”
The whole process of making a track can take him anywhere from a few days to six months, Gavino said.
As a solo producer, Gavino began to upload his “future bass” remixes on SoundCloud, gaining widespread attention from music blogs and enthusiasts. He credits the site for being a creative platform to freely introduce his sound to the world.
“I think, because of the internet, we’ve been able to see rapid growth in a very diverse music culture and community,” he said.
Today, Manila Killa has close to 90,000 followers on SoundCloud, with some of his tracks garnering millions of plays.
While he has stepped into a few studios, Gavino said he prefers creating in an isolated environment, like his home bedroom.
“I’ve come to find that I make my best music and my best art when I’m sort of separated from everybody,” he admitted. “I feel like my best ideas come when I’m in a comfortable space, where I can make mistakes.”
But despite not favoring the studio, Gavino is a fan of collaboration, whether it’s with vocalists he meets online, or with his friends in the industry. In 2013, he and a friend from Jakarta International School, Aseem Mangaokar (who goes by the moniker Candle Weather) worked together to form house music duo, Hotel Garuda, and dropped their first song within days of the project, garnering attention from music blogs.
Along with Hotel Garuda, Gavino also joined with DJ-producer friends AObeats, Robokid, and Hunt for the Breeze to form music collective, record label, and fashion brand Moving Castle — a reference to the Hayao Miyazaki animated classic, “Howl’s Moving Castle.”
“We’re a mix of everything; races, sounds and styles,” Gavino said. “We want to get as big as possible, for as many people to hear our music, but to still keep our integrity and stay true to our house roots.”
Performing as both Hotel Garuda and Manila Killa, the 23-year-old (who still, he admitted, has jitters before every set) has seen worldwide stages, from Firefly in Delaware, Electronic Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, Hard Summer and Coachella Music Festival in California, and back home in the Philippines.
“We want to get as big as possible, for as many people to hear our music, but to still keep our integrity and stay true to our house roots.”
Often compared to EDM “tropical house” favorites such as Kygo and Thomas Jack, Manila Killa describes his own sound as “constantly evolving,” from fist-bumping beats and eclectic mash-ups, to a futuristic blend of underground, trap, and pop music.
“I’ve been trying to figure out my sound for the past for years — but what I can say is that it’s down-tempo electronic; it’s chill, but still danceable if you heard it live, Gavino said. “You can study to it, but you can also party to it.”
“I’m always figuring out, how can I make a sound that’s indescribable? I don’t want to be boxed into a certain sound; I wanted to make my own.”
After graduating in December, Gavino’s upcoming shows as Manila Killa include the New Year’s Eve Snow Globe music festival in Lake Tahoe, California, and a set aboard a Norwegian Cruise Line, Holy Ship, in January.
Gavino said he looks forward to positive change ahead for hard-working Asian-American artists like himself, but agrees that more representation is needed.
He also tells aspiring music producers and artists to, first and foremost, never give up.
“You’re going to have people tell you that your music isn’t good or that it will ever reach a bigger level —you’ll get a lot of disappointment, not only from other people, but especially from yourself…You’re not going to see the results right away," Gavino said. "So patience and persevering is a very important thing. Keep your relationships strong, and follow whatever it is you want to do in your heart — the only way you’ll succeed in anything for yourself, is if you’re really passionate about it.”