Festival Chat: Machinedrum at Field Day
North Carolina-born artist Travis Stewart, known as Machinedrum, occupies a perhaps unique place in US electronic music. A pioneer and a populariser, a restless and relentless seeker, Stewart brings together coasts and continents in projects which are both conceptual and heartfelt, clever and banging. He has produced and composed over a dozen albums under various aliases since his first independent release in 1999. Covering an astonishing variety of styles with ease, through solo Machinedrum work and with collaborative projects Sepalcure, JETS, Dream Continuum, or other mutations, Stewart has established himself as electronic music’s true Renaissance man. His debut as Machinedrum, Now You Know, was released in 2001 on pioneering Miami-based Merck Records and gained worldwide attention and praise from musicians, fans and critics. Having a strong background in both acoustic and electronic instrumentation, he was quickly able to navigate those various elements on his early releases, from field recording and vintage synth-laden Urban Biology to his seminal production and mixing of This Charming Mixtape with MC Theophilus London and his critically acclaimed 2009 album Want To 1 2?
Perhaps his boldest release came in the form of the full-length LP Vapor City on Ninja Tune, a conceptual universe which included an interactive website, digital citizenship program for fans, and an art exhibit in NYC that launched with the album. With subsequent EPs, exclusive remixes from a series of heavyweights including dBridge and Om Unit, and a critically-acclaimed world tour, Vapor City carried on his rich exploration of multimedia arts and music. Since that record’s release, he has collaborated with Jimmy Edgar (as JETS) on The Chants EP; released Movin’ Forward, a tribute EP in memory of (and using unfinished collaborations with) footwork legend DJ Rashad; revisited his long-running collaboration with Braille as Sepalcure on the LP Folding Time, as well as delivered a bunch of superb remixes for acts including Rudimental and Daktyl.
Stewart puts his unique signature on everything he touches, carving out a career as a world-class producer on top of releasing solo material and remixes. In addition to the likes of Azealia Banks, Jamie Liddell and Jesse Boykins III, in the past few years Machinedrum has produced for English singer-songwriter Obenewa, and many heavy-hitting tracks with the hotly-tipped Dawn Richard (AKA D∆WN).
We chatted to him recently at Field Day after he played on the Resident Advisor stage, here’s what went down!
So you’ve just finished up your set at the RA stage. How did it go?
An amazing crowd for 4pm. Didn’t know if the crowd would be up for crazy, energetic, high-tempo music but yeah they were down. It was awesome.
You’re from North Carolina. What was it like growing up there? What’s the music scene out there like?
I haven’t lived there for about 17 years but when I was living there, there wasn’t much of a music scene other than country music, bluegrass and folk music.
So how did you work your way into the electronic music spectrum?
I was an MTV kid. So I found out about a lot of music through MTV and the internet. I was on IRC (internet relay chat for the young ones) all the time and met a bunch of people through there. I would go to channel skinny puppy or channel Aphex Twin and find other people online that were into the same kind of music and then pick their brains. People were constantly sharing different music. I had to seek it out really.
Your latest album ‘Human Energy’ was released in September 2016 on Ninja Tune who have described it as a career-defining album, one which will take you from best-kept-secret of the electronic music cognoscenti to breakout star of the US music scene. Tell us a bit about how it came together? What was your artistic process this time round?
The album came together when I decided to scrap two albums that I’d been working on previously for a couple of years that sounded a little too similar to my older material Vapor City and Room(s). I felt like I really wanted to go a different direction and tried to do something that I’ve never really been able to do before. I took about 3 months off from shows, from travelling, from even listening to any other music. I just stayed in the studio. Started on the album from scratch and tried to finish it from inception to mixing, to mastering, everything, all in 3 months.
That’s a very tight deadline for an album!?
Having that crazy deadline really just forced me to work hard and come up with a formula with how I would make the tracks. I’d make a template on Ableton so every time I would start a new track I would have the same sort of instruments in front of me. Everything is a blur during that period. It all came together so fast but I was super inspired. Trying not to use samples anymore, so a lot of it came from songwriting and just like building my own synth patches and creating everything from the ground up. Rather than searching around on my hard drive for samples that were inspiring. So yeah it was a completely new way of writing for me which I hadn’t done before. And I think by doing that it created a lot of inspiration for me which resulted in a good 25 tracks that I wrote within that time that I then narrowed down to 15 which are on the album.
How do you turn all the things you’ve listened to and have been influenced by in your life into the distinct Machinedrum sound we all know you for? I’ve always associated you as being on the cusp of what’s next. Moving things forward. Being on the edge of the futuristic wave must be difficult I imagine?
It is. The more I think about it, the harder it is to make music. Every time I write music it’s more of a natural kind of thing. It’s less about, ‘hey I want to make this kind of track today’. I don’t think about everything I’ve ever listened to and consciously funnel that into a track. Some tracks I make may be more reminiscent of this sound, or this artist, or something I grew up listening to. Whereas another track might sound super fresh and very now. Then another track might not sound like any of that and might sound like something…not necessarily that’s not been heard before, but something that’s kind of coming from its own world. I can never say that anything is ever genuinely original. I don’t think anyone can because sub-consciously you’ve always got those influences bouncing around. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to copy someone’s style. Maybe even something that you heard someone do that you don’t like can be an influence. It influences you to not do that in your own music you know. It’s very complicated and like I said the more you consciously think about it when writing the music, the harder it is to actually make it happen.
I was speaking with Dark Sky the other day and they were saying with their recent album Othona they just didn’t listen to music for like 6 months or something. They didn’t want to be influenced by what was currently being put out. They wanted their own album to sound as completely as them as possible. I imagine it would be very difficult to do that!?
I did the same thing for Human Energy. It was 3 months. But it’d be impossible to say it was devoid of influence. I mean it’s always swimming around there. All the music you’ve listened to growing up. Even up to the point where you stop listening to other music that’s out there.
Talk about Human Energy. For you, are there any standout tracks? That touched you personally or meant something strongly to you. Or even in the way you produced it that really stands out to you.
Morphogene was one of the first tracks that I wrote for the album. It was the discovery of the sonic palate that I was going to use going forward. Just the creation of that track was a discovery and led to the other tracks being made more or less.
Touching on what you were saying earlier about super fresh. The last time I saw you was at the Boiler Room in London at Shapes, before it got shut down, with Dawn and the Local Action crew. Obviously, you’ve been collaborating a lot with Dawn recently and she’s one of those super exciting artists on the scene at the moment. Talk a bit about how that relationship is going?
Dawn’s amazing. She’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with. She’s just a workhorse. She’s just constantly going. It’s sometimes hard to keep up with her. She’s moving so fast and starting new things all the time. Working on a virtual reality video, working on a remix project or a new version of a song. It was really motivating being around her and I was actually working on her album at the same time as Human Energy more or less. It was really cool being able to have someone who was super motivated to be there and to be working on music with her at the same time as Human Energy. I always like to surround myself with motivational people and people on the top of their game and she’s definitely one of those people. Even now, after working with her over the last couple of years, I’m still in awe of her and everything that she does.
You’ve recently moved out to LA. How’s that been?
It’s been good. I mean I don’t really go out too much but there’s always amazing stuff going on if I do want to go out. There’s Low-End Theory which is hugely influential. They’re constantly bringing some of the best producers in the world out to their parties and also some of the most unknown, underground, next, up and coming artists which I think is amazing. They give so many people a spotlight for them to be able to do what they do and showcase their work. LA has been a great balance for me and my wife. We moved there from Brooklyn where there is just this constantly fast pace kind of lifestyle and no real relaxing. Whereas in LA there is a bit of both. There are people on their grind but people know how to relax. Having BBQs all the time. Everyone hangs out. No-one’s that mad if you’re running a little bit late for a session. You know it’s like everything is chilled. It’s exactly what I needed. The perfect balance. Even the environment. Nature and city. Having access to both those things all the time is really inspiring.
In an idyllic world, what would be your perfect relaxation day?
Definitely love camping. A big reason I moved to LA was to be in California. There are so many different things to do a short drive away. I can be at the beach in 45 minutes or I can be on a snow covered mountain in 1.5 hours. Being able to do all those things and go out into nature. That’s really important to me. To have that kind of balance in my life.
Obviously, you work with a lot of artists under various aliases: JETS with Jimmy Edgar, Dream Continuum with Om Unit and Sepalcure with Braille (Praveen Sharma). How are those projects going? Are they moving forward?
Sepalcure we put out an album last year called Folding Time on Hot Flush Recordings. We did a little bit of touring for that. Both of us are very career driven so Praveen is working at Apple right now. I’m doing my own thing with music. It’s difficult not only to write tracks but to be able to tour and support albums and stuff like that. For us it’s mainly a fun project. Whenever we get a chance to get together and make tracks it’s just more for fun. Inception of the whole project was to have fun together. With JETS me and Jimmy are still working on music. We’re doing a lot of production work for singers and songwriters so we will continue to do that. We’re working with Rochelle Jordan, Dawn, Roses Gabor, Kevin Hussein and a few other artists I can’t really mention right now. Dream Continuum we haven’t really done anything since our one-off Reworkz EP back in 2012.
Quite an interesting one though. Jungle and Footwork. Jungle will always have its roots in rave history. But Footwork is having a bit of a comeback. Been rising steadily in recent times. Origins in the gay, black, voguing scene no?
Footwork stems from Juke and Ghetto House which come from Chicago and Detroit. They morphed into Footwork more as a dance battle kind of music where the tracks are made for different crews. Less about the gay vogue thing and more about keeping kids off the streets. More akin to breakdancing.
Quite unique and niche though. If you speak to people about it, some just don’t know about it at all. It’s still one of those underground music genres.
Yeah definitely. The reason Jungle and Footwork are kindred spirits is definitely the tempo. The poly-rhythmic nature of it. Syncopated rhythms.
It’s very hard hitting stuff, isn’t it? If you drop it correctly the whole crowd goes wild or they just don’t understand it at all.
Well, the thing is a lot of traditional footwork isn’t meant to be played at festivals. It was meant to trip up the other crew because they didn’t know the track. They didn’t know that this weird change was going to happen. Or the snare was going to be moved over. Whereas the dancers from the other crew would know that track and they’d do their thing as they knew the intricacies of it.
Are you going to be doing more of that kind of music with Om Unit?
Well, we haven’t done anything in a while but I would love to continue making music with him. For me doing online collaborations is really difficult unless it’s with a vocalist that’s already got a pre-written song or if it’s a remix or something. I really prefer in the studio collaboration. That’s where JETS, Sepalcure and Dream Continuum came from.
Your 4 monikers have released music from across the spectrum. Do you have a favourite genre that you can’t wait to get in the studio and start pounding out?
No favourite. I listen to so much music and am influenced by so much music. Just the process of creating music is enough for me. That’s really it.
Where do you see music going moving forward?
Everything comes and goes at this point. There’s not a lot of ground that hasn’t already been broken as far as genres go. A lot of things are being thrown back to the 90s right now. We see this all the time. The 2010s saw music from the 80s like Italo Disco and Electro being really popular. Even 80s kind of fashion was popular in the 2000s. Every 20 years you see this kind of time warp going on. It’s hard to say what in the 2020s people are going to do that references the 2000s. I guess maybe a return of IDM. Maybe more experimental music. Definitely something I’ve noticed in pop trends and music on the radio is that music’s getting a bit weirder. People are taking more risks. Even though there’s a lot of obvious formulaic stuff going on, there are people that are thinking outside of the box and getting a lot of recognition for that. So hopefully people continue to do that and music keeps on getting weirder.
Planet Mu owner Mike Paradinas aka µ-Ziq is still is my go to for the weird and wonderful. I reckon Trance will have a comeback. More slower, melodic, organic builds. People will tire of the constant drop.
I think it depends where you’re talking about. I think in Europe a lot of slower, progressive music has always been more popular. Cities like Berlin where techno parties are going on and people are playing 5 hour sets and letting tracks ride for a full 5 minutes or even longer sometimes. Whereas in America everyone is definitely more into the harder, faster, now, need the drop, cut to the chase, it’s all about the drop type stuff. I go back and forth between the slower, progressive stuff that influences me but also American kind of ADD style. Both have merits. It’s hard to say if one is going to trump the other. We will see. I think it depends where you are talking about geographically.
I was in Thailand last year and everybody there is obsessed with EDM. Same in the US. Personally, it’s not my cup of tea but…
Here’s my thing with the States and Asia. EDM is the entry point for a lot of people that would have otherwise not have even tried to listen to electronic music. Right now I’m able to get booked way more in the US than I used to be able to and I attribute that a lot to EDM. Not that I’m making it. But because once people get tired of the cheesy, formulaic EDM stuff eventually they develop a taste and want to explore more. They then go looking for more underground stuff and that’s where me and my homies come in. The same thing is happening in Asia. There’s an electronic scene spreading everywhere. There are huge EDM clubs but there are also a lot of smaller underground clubs popping up that weren’t there before. I think a lot of that has to do with the EDM culture. It has cultivated all these young kids’ tastes and influences and once they get a bit older, into there 20s and 30s, they’re searching for something that’s a bit more creative and experimental.
Absolutely. I always end with a few silly questions. What’s your favourite food?
Lasagne. Can’t you tell? Haha.
Wish we could all be Garfield right. Away from the music do you have any other sources of inspiration; poetry, artwork or fashion designers that you relate to?
I do. My wife, Alexis Stewart, is into fashion design and styling. She’s in the middle of starting her own brand but for now, she’s doing a lot of styling in LA and NY. She’s really influenced me into paying more attention to fashion. It’s really fascinating how hard people work on that stuff and the history behind it. There’s this whole other world. The thing that makes it stand out from music and other creative work is that a lot of fashion, in theory, is created just to be sold for people to wear. Whereas with most other creative work, there’s this idea you’re not making music or art to be sold, even though at the end of the day if you’re trying to make a living that’s essentially what you’re doing. It’s interesting to see the difference between aesthetics of designers who don’t consider themselves artists and feel like they’re purely there to make a product and make sure they sell as many of it as possible and other fashion designers that are making pure art like Iris van Herpen. Her work looks like it’s coming from another planet. It’s hard to imagine people wearing her stuff down the street but I think it’s important to have those voices out there. I think there are a lot of parallels between that world and music. There are people that do music that’s kind of soulless but is going to sell a lot of units and maybe be forgotten in 5 years just like fashion trends. Then there’s music that stands the test of time. Instant classics or whatever. I think fashion can be in that same realm as well.
Being on tour all the time. How do you find balance?
It is difficult. I try as much as I can to have some sort of routine. Waking up and meditating. Trying to exercise when I can. If I can’t at least have some sort of activity like walking around in the city I’m in. Trying not to party too much these days. I’m in my mid-30s now. I’m surrounded by party culture. Clubs late at night. It’s difficult for me to envelope myself from that culture. But at the same time, I’m in it. So it takes a lot of self-control. It really just comes down to routine and sticking to it.
If you could give advice to an 18 year old version of yourself what would that be?
I’d hate to say that anything I’ve done is a waste of time because I think it’s all accumulated to making me who I am today but yeah I guess stick to what you’re doing, get to the point, don’t fuck around and don’t party too much haha.
And finally the workout. You ready? First track that stood out to you when you were a kid?
I was really into metal because my cousin was sneaking me tapes of Metallica and Megadeth when I was little. A lot of that stuff really stuck with me but something that really jumped out at me was Ministry’s N.W.O (New World Order). I saw the video for it on MTV and it turned my world upside down. It was metal but it was electronic and I just didn’t know there was music like that. So yeah it pretty much blew my young mind haha.
Track that you’ve been digging recently?
The track I’m going to choose is by EPROM, one of my favourite producers right now. He has a new EP coming out this Summer. And the track I’m going to choose from that is called BFG.
All time favourite track?
So many are popping up in my head right now. This is an impossible feat to attempt but one that just came to me is TNT by Tortoise. Just an amazing track.
Track that you wish you’d written?
Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians.
Finally, one question I’ve always wanted to know. Why Machinedrum?
Just some stupid name I came up with at high school in the 90s haha.