The producer behind one of the albums of the year tells us about his relationship with oldschool rave and the benefits of illegal warehouse parties.
Let’s cut right to the chase: Machinedrum AKA Travis Stewart can do very little wrong in our eyes. His consistently dazzling output on consistently amazing labels like Planet Mu has dismantled our objectivity to a point where any kind of journalistic integrity has long since gone out the window. We’re biased. And for that reason, pretending that this is an altogether impartial piece would, quite frankly, be totally messed up.
In this case, we’re content with settling for taking our place among the much derided group of writer lemmings known as the ‘hype machine’. If that’s what it takes to expose more people to Machinedrum’s deliciously intricate but stirringly soulful beats, then so be it. Readers looking for evaluating dissections of this particular producer should probably go somewhere where the fan-boy quotient is lower.
The reason we dig his work has a lot to do with consistency and timing; for the better part of a decade, the Machinedrum moniker has been a reliable go-to for uncompromising, progressive experimentation. But in 2011 his ‘Room(s)’ LP and work as one half of Sepalchure seemed to reach giddy, new heights. After a decade of rampant Retromania, this novel, sonic balance between raw emotion and unyielding innovation, zeitgeist-y production and idiosyncratic personality came together in a way that was exceptionally fresh – and also made it impossible not to take notice. Travis Stewart was in the house. And if he plans on one-upping ‘Room(s)’ the roof could very well soon be on fire.
Here’s what the American producer had to say about technology, the footwork genre and the inspirations behind one of the albums of the year.
AIAIAI: Hey Travis, how’s the tour going?
Machinedrum: I'm not really touring, depends on what your definition of it is. If touring means playing more than 10 shows a month then yes, I'm touring. Touring to me means playing around 4 shows a week and not going home in between shows. I tend to be gone on weekends and back in Berlin during the week. Is that a complicated enough of an answer or what?
A: What are you listening to at the moment?
TS: At this exact moment some demos passed to me from different people at shows from the past month. More active listening has been given to Oneohtrix Point Never, Vladislav Delay, Om Unit, Fracture, Braille, Daedelus, lots of old school hardcore and jungle, XI, DJ Clap and Scuba.
A: We’re slowly but surely getting convinced that Room(s) is one of the – if not the - best album of 2011. Could you talk a bit about the thoughts and inspirations that went into making it?
TS: Thank you very much. Room(s) was conceived for the most part while on the road. On trains and planes, in hotel rooms and parks, basically whenever I could find time to write a new tune. I then took a lot of these ideas that were more or less finished songs and gave them a proper studio treatment. The songs tend to have a hectic nature to them due to the hectic and stressful life of constant travelling and gigging, but there is also a sense of calming euphoria that sneaks its way into the tunes as sort of a "cry for help", I guess. People have been making comparisons to Footwork in almost every instance, and they're not wrong per-say. To me there’s a lot of influence that went in to making the album. I was revisiting a lot of early 90s hardcore, rave and jungle while writing the songs so there’s that. Also a lot of the UK bass stuff that I had been experimenting with in my project Sepalcure was in the mix. I'm also playing guitar and singing on some tracks so there’s some psych-folk influence there as well. I've been listening to Juke and Footwork for a good 5-6 years if not more. For a while when I was living in NYC I didn't really focus on releasing any of my juke or footwork tracks as there was no active scene for it there at all, and I was more focused on making pop records or something. Room(s) was a response to the over-thinking I had previously had a problem with when making records. Room(s) was an experiment in letting go of the songs before I beat them to death with ideas, mixing sessions, reworking, etc., etc. Conceptually Room(s) is the idea that an album is a collection of songs or "rooms" contained within one larger room, thus someone can look at the album as one room or many rooms.
A: What kind of equipment/instruments do you use?
TS: Not much really. Laptop, midi keyboard, guitar, internal mic on laptop. I have a huge collection of all the samples I've either recorded,
bought, downloaded or been given from friends that include acoustic instruments, synthesizers, accapellas, field recordings, sound design, drum machines and loads of other things from the past 10-12 years.
A: When writing music, do you start out with a set idea or do you make it up
as you go along?
TS: Sometimes I have an idea in my head but the final output rarely represents that original idea. I'm not worried about that, though, as
the original idea is more or less just a spark to get me going. I typically just make it up as I go along, in an almost meditative way.
I'm not exactly sure what I'm making until I listen back to it the next day. I get in very trance-induced states when writing songs and often
have to step back and "wake up" in a way like I've just come out of a dream.
A: How much would you say that you rely on technology to complete your overall
TS: It’s definitely essential in creating the kind of music I'm making now - I mean you can't exactly make footwork-influenced atmospheric jungle with acoustic instruments now can you? OK, maybe you could, but it'd probably sound really cheesy. If I didn't have a laptop or "technology" I'd just be playing guitar and piano all the time, probably would be drawing more and doing more visual arts. I don't need technology or big studios or anything like that to be creative, in fact I think the more technology you have the less creative it
makes you. Some of my best ideas have been born out of limitations
A: You recently played an amazing show at Dunkel here in Copenhagen, a club that might actually be closing due to lack of funding. Any words of support for this fine, forward-thinking establishment?
TS: That’s really a shame to hear about it closing, I had no idea! It's really unfortunate that a place that supports forward thinking artists
could potentially not exist. If you live in Copenhagen or Denmark pay attention to what artists Dunkel is hosting and support! It seriously
was one of my favorite shows this year. I saw this same kind of thing happen all the time in New York, innovative and boundary-pushing
venues getting shut down due to raising mortgage and other costs. It's a real kick in the gut to those who are trying to do something
new and can be slightly discouraging. If Dunkel does in fact close, I hope they find a new home soon!
A: What’s the best venue you’ve ever played and why?
TS: That's a tough question. To be honest my favorite shows have been in illegal or non official spaces like warehouses, rooftops and house parties. When people go to clubs or proper venues they tend to act a certain way and expectations are made. When people go to non venues they seem to let their guard down a bit more and have more fun as they are in a more relaxed environment that has no or less rules than a club would. Also the greatness of quality of a venue can be overshadowed by a bad crowd or bad line-up of music and vice versa.
A: What do you think the most interesting developments are within
contemporary dance music?
TS: The producers that I'm more interested in are those that tend to throw genre limitations out the window and focus on combining all of their influences together. I like it when I can't describe an artist without listing multiple influences. It shows me that person listens
to a lot of music and doesn't confine themselves to one sound.
A: How would you describe your music to someone living a 100 years ago?
TS: I can barely describe my music to someone living now so I doubt I'd be able to do that successfully. Magic music?
A: Upcoming projects?
TS: There’s a new project with Om Unit called Dream Continuum that hopefully will come out in March 2012 on Planet Mu, a new EP on Lucky Me in January and I'm finishing two albums at the moment.