Stewart Walker’s Ivory Tower of creative freedom

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By the time US-born Stewart Walker performed his live Boiler Room set in September, where he showcased his new ‘Ivory Tower Broadcast’ album to a crowd in his adopted city of Berlin, it was the culmination of a lengthy process that had drawn him out of musical exile.

Though Walker has been releasing records since the mid-90s, when he put aside his extensive guitar training and rock star dreams to embrace the possibilities of techno and electronic music, he has kept a low profile since the release of his ‘Concentricity’ album in 2007.

“I needed time to figure out what I was trying to accomplish musically, and to gain the confidence that following my own direction was not only worthwhile, but also mandatory,” Walker told Data Transmission.

“Looking back, I think you can already hear a transition beginning with the final EPs I made on Persona Records,” he says of his label, which he folded in 2009 after a decade of releases.

The fiery desire that had begun to brew was a desire to transcend the restraints of modern electronic music, which Walker sees as rigidly adhering all too often to genre templates. And for Walker, one of the main ways this was achieved was by drawing on his noted strengths as a live performer, and by returning to his extensive early background in live instrumentation.   

The ‘Ivory Tower’ of the album’s title refers to a creative space that’s removed from limitations, expectations, boundaries, anything that might limit the creation of something fresh and new. In this tower that he built for himself, Walker found himself exploring the interaction between the physical and the electronic. Drawing on plenty more than just the guitars of his youth, he was drawn to a wide range of international instruments. The German zither, the Japanese koto, and beyond. 

“However, I don’t view it as a ‘performed’ album,” Walker told Data Transmission, emphasising that he used the live elements as if they were electronic textures. “My goal in playing all of these instruments is more about harvesting their timbres, than presenting myself as a ‘real musician’.”

‘Ivory Tower Broadcast’ is the result of a personal odyssey for Walker that stretched on for years. Here Data Transmission pries him for more details.

There was a sense you wanted to do something different here, what was driving you?

In general, I’ve seen electronic music build up these rote behaviors over the past 25 years.  Roland’s x0x boxes are still coveted, and used as bellwethers of authenticity. We’ve imbued them with these magical properties to the extent that Roland finally came out of their 20+ year ROM-pler coma to finally resuscitate the units to great acclaim, at the same time that 808 documentary is getting released, and I’m running around bitching to my friends that I’m living in fucking ‘Groundhog Day’.

The thing is, modern electronic music doesn’t have any restraints, or shouldn’t have. I’ll always love the stories about Juan Atkins reading Alvin Toffler’s ‘Future Shock’ and ‘The Third Wave’, and imagining his way into the future using a studio we’d consider primitive by today’s standards. Nowadays, I feel like dance music is presented like a college history course in which we study the classics and then choose our focus: Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage, Frankie Knuckles’s Warehouse, Detroit or Berlin? Which era/location do you want to represent? The artists of these historical movements transcended their own contemporary influences, so it seems completely backwards to now enshrine them and faithfully recreate the music as some stodgy academic exercise. 

I can’t count how many times people have repeated the “records are business cards” adage to me. Also, living in Berlin has inured me to the practice of DJs hiring “ghost producers” to make their records. As an artist, there’s no way to creatively vibe with these approaches. And I come from the old school where I want people to book me because I’m a great musician and performer, not because of some quid pro quo “I’ll scratch your back and you scratch mine.” At some point I realized that I’m not even in the same music industry in which I started. So it made sense to return to the drawing board and go back to the creative time when I making music primarily for myself and a small group of friends.

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Your previous ‘Concentricity’ album was released way back in 2007. Why such a gap between albums, and what encouraged you to return to making music?

I’ve been asked this question enough that I think I can almost break it down like a college thesis at this point…

The Creative: I needed time to figure out what I was trying to accomplish musically, and to gain the confidence that following my own direction was not only worthwhile, but also mandatory. Looking back, I think you can already hear a transition beginning with the final EPs I made on my Persona label (‘Druid Hills’, ‘Sandstorm’, ‘Powdered I Ching’) on which I added some live instrument timbres with more structure. But these pieces were transitional. They were no longer tracks, and they hadn’t yet become songs either. Then these changes became even more evident on the Son of Cataclysm releases from 2011, which had a wealth of live basslines and hand percussion. I was in a very nice studio space for the first time in my life and I found it just as easy to record my growing collection of instruments, as I did to sequence synthesizers and drum machines. Perhaps the main difference was that I was still channeling my sounds into something that might appeal to DJs. All of the tracks were still built on top of the big kick/snare backbone, no matter how melodic or textured the melodies and harmonies got. 

The Technique: Also during this period, I was heavily involved in two collaborative projects. I recorded the first project with Touane from the Persona Records days and we called it ‘Golden Parachutes… Into the Dark Grey Morning’. That was an afrobeat/fusion jazz project that really inspired my future technique, because Touane and I were both getting into recording. He was attending SAE to study engineering, and I had recently purchased a vintage mixer so together we were discovering how to record instruments and get them to sit in a mix. After my long history of working with synthesizers and drum machines with predictable dynamics, it took some time to learn the necessary compression, limiting and EQing techniques to not only tame the live recordings, but to make them sound sweet. My second project was an indie rock album that I made with Sam Rouanet (AKA Reynold) and it was much more freeform than ‘Golden Parachutes’. We’d record 10-minute jam sessions over some of my half-finished sequences, and then I’d spend the next 5 days listening to these performances, chopping out the best parts and then re-organizing them into more focused song structures. This process is slow as molasses, but simultaneously quite meditative and I love the moment when the chaos finally starts to come together and the motifs line up. ‘Ivory Tower Broadcast’ wouldn’t have been possible without these formative experiences. 

The Industry: I’ve spoken before on some of the difficulties of self-releasing records, but the main benefit of running your own label is that you can ensure your music actually gets released. Once you start relying on other labels, you need to be patient because they have their own goals and timelines. These days you can’t open Facebook without reading some new metric of the music industry’s decline and fall, so it should be pretty clear by now that releasing records is just challenging. It’s not enough to press the record and give it to distributors, you have to spend massive amounts of time selling the music. I’m imagining it like a video game here where each big boss you encounter is more difficult to overcome. As an artist you have to convince the label, then the distributor, then the press, then music stores, and ultimately the public that you deserve their attention and investment. And all of these victories have to occur in that order, within a relatively small timeframe.

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