Who is Machinedrum? Despite a stellar ten-year track record of recording under the name, Travis Stewart’s many faces, names and records remain gratifyingly obscure. The New York resident has spent his years flitting between a number of well-respected labels that include Merck, Normrex and LuckyMe, and lately his musical palette has expanded to include an even wider array of sounds and projects. Having spent 2011 holed up in the studio involved in constructing some of the year’s most well-received releases, it seems an opportune time for the man to take the production gear down to Australia to show audiences exactly what he’s spent his time working on recently, and the questions I email off to Stewart in anticipation of such an event are received a week later, with decidedly short and to the point answers – nothing most wouldn’t have expected from one of the scene’s most industrious yet elusive producers.
Stewart began his interest in electronic music during school, and the list of influences Stewart has cited are dizzyingly varied – spanning hip hop and scratch DJs to industrial and the sounds of IDM that run through a lot of his work – Stewart points to Warp Records artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre as his first experiences of electronic music. A loner in terms of the music he found himself interested in, Stewart turned to the world of online communication to find friends and colleagues to discuss his interests with.
“I’m not as much on an internet nerd now as in the past,” he says. “But I grew up in the middle of nowhere so I relied on the internet to find out about new music, art and movies, and I met a lot of friends that way. I think we're all a bit of internet nerds now”.
One could feasibly point to this as an explanation of how eclectic Stewart’s experiments with music are. The number of aliases Stewart produces and releases music under are manifold, traversing almost every end of the electronic music spectrum – from fast-paced, jungle-inspired rhythms to moments of ambience and alluring and inviting, bass-heavy productions. Syndrome, Tstewart, and Sepalcure are all names associated with his output, and he explains these as a necessity. “Music is therapy for me,” he explains. “It's my favourite thing to do. So why not do it a lot?
These days, Stewart’s approach to production is as curious as the music that results from it. To some, it appears unconventional on the surface – attempting to write tracks in as little time as possible, with little time for drawn-out, laboured experimentation and timewasting, yet it’s a direct and to the point process that lends the results a sense of honesty, as he explains. “The result of the process is a more clear vision rather than a muddled one, and I feel that everyone benefits from this,” he explains. “The more you sit with it the longer it festers and becomes something else. That’s how Room(s) was made.”
The sense of emotion to his music might seem a surprising result to those not versed in Stewart’s ways, but it makes perfect sense to him. “Inspiring ideas come in moments and then are gone quickly after,” he says. “To try to revisit that same idea later and expect a continuation of that to be successful is like waking up from a beautiful dream and expecting to go right back in to it the next night – it’s impossible.”
Room(s) was not the only project that Stewart saw to completion during 2011 – equally as well-received was his work with long-time friend Praveen Sharma of Percussion Lab and Braille under the name Sepalcure – the self-titled LP being a colourful mix of influences from bass music and ‘90s house that was released through the well-respected Hotflush Recordings. The time spent holed up in the studio resulted in two of the year’s most well-received records, and Stewart describes it as a difficult, but ultimately enjoyable experience. “Juggling those was stressful, but a good stress,” he says, simply. “Inspiring.”
With so many different means of self-expression, one might wonder whether Stewart looks to something as defining his musical identity – something that unites all of the work he does, despite its many different variants. He’s elusive about such a thing – “that’s for others to decide,” he says. “I just make music naturally without thinking about it so much.”
The Machinedrum live performance is one that is frequently looked to as a shining example of how live electronic music should work – combining the use of a sequencer on his laptop with live instrumentation and VSTs, allowing him room to play with the boundaries of his music, expanding and reappropriating them for the live context. I spoke to Jacques Greene on the phone this morning for another interview, and he pointed to Stewart’s performance as a proper example of how to make electronic music performed in an engaging way. Despite the praise, however, Stewart remains pragmatic about the live show. “It’s a way to connect with fans. It's also a way to make money.”
Go on, Machinedrum – take all of my money. You damn well deserve it.
BY MIKI MCLAY
Machinedrum [USA] plays alongside Jacques Greene [CAN], Mr. Dibiase [USA] and more at Roxanne Parlour on Sunday April 8.