4 July 2011
Articles | Interviews

Interview: Machinedrum

Travis Stewart on what links juke with jungle, and why macho dubstep's the grossest thing ever

Words Louise Brailey

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There are some folks whose body of work has incalculable implications on shaping the amorphous mass of that thing we know as music. Yet, their destiny isn’t retrospectives or Legacy Editions, hell, it’s sweaty clubs filled with people In The Know. This is particularly true within electronic music, where passionate music geeks are able to quietly obliterate boundaries without the mainstream ever chucking terms like ‘game changer!’ in their faces.

Travis Stewart is one of them. Growing up in North Carolina, he studied audio engineering before heading to NYC to make it, ostensibly, as a producer of other people’s music. He changed tack when the egos got in the way of the polyrhythms. “It’s a persona I don’t really relate to,” he tells me, over cornflakes in a cafe in Berlin’s Friedrichshain, his grown-out bowlcut and clear plastic spectacles standing out in a city that capitulates to a shades-and-shorts version of cool.

Now, as Machinedrum he’s cited as inspiration for a new wave of artists. His 2001 debut Now You Know harnessed two imperatives: hip hop’s rawness and the cerebral, synthetic textures of IDM. Since then he’s refused to remain loyal to any particular sound, preferring to thrash out his own, extremely prolific, path. 2011 sees him slap bang in the middle of a purple patch: Sepalcure, his Hotflush-affiliated future garage project with Praveen Sharma, is a big deal on both sides of the Atlantic, while releases on Scotland’s tastemaking LuckyMe, including a recent white label of illegal remixes only prove his relevance more than ever.

Still, it’s new full-length Room(s) on Planet Mu which might just be Machinedrum’s most potent work to date. It’s a work where super-modern street genres like footwork and juke, with their currency of frantic, jagged bursts of percussion, find apposite parallel in unstemmable flow of ‘90s jungle. Where the ecstasy implicit in the acapellas of old diva house vocals are autotuned and augmented by alien rush of rave stabs.

To put it another way, it’s the kind of exercise in dancefloor hybridity that many attempt, but few have the knowledge, the chops, the balls to get right.

* * *

You’ve released music on labels from Miami’s Merck to Scotland’s LuckyMe, Your influence is as strong as ever yet your music exists in stylistic flux. Who is Machinedrum?

Asking that is like asking how do I categorise my tastes in music. I feel like I listen to so much music that ends up coming out in music I create. Maybe I’ll be listening to a lot of styles at one point and that’ll influence one record and then totally get into something else at another. I think the anchor in most of the Machinedrum material is hip hop or urban music, even if it’s not, in some songs, as obvious.

So each album is like a snapshot?

Not only a snapshot of what I’m listening to but what I was feeling, the stress I was going through. Some of my favourite tracks I’ve made when I was in a fit of depression and trying to pull myself out.

Was there a moment — a record, even — that you can isolate as the moment you wanted to make music?

Yeah, I think a lot of the stuff that was coming out on Warp records. I was really into Autechre’s earlier records because they had this hip hop influence but they were changing its sound. It was at that point that I had this revelation that hip hop was electronic music, using the same gear. You had a lot of these people from Europe that were into hip hop but they had more of a background in electronic music. I really related to that.

Room(s) feels incredibly urgent compared to your last record. It was recorded quite quickly, right?

Yeah. I was listening to a lot of Chicago juke and footwork… Detroit Ghettotech. But at the same time I was revisiting a lot of ‘90s hardcore, jungle and rave that I hadn’t really listened to in years, just resurfacing all this nostalgic stuff that I’d forgotten about. I was thinking that this is the same exact tempo as this other stuff I’m listening to. I’d be working on a track that was very 808-heavy, some pretty legitimate juke or whatever and then I’d instantly go to my breakbeats folder and then start chopping up stuff.

What’s striking is how the sonic elements influenced by juke and jungle really gel. Yet, these are genres distanced by both time and geography — is it possible there’s a relationship between the two that runs deeper than BPM?

It’s BPM but it’s also rooted in urban culture — juke is an urban sound from Chicago, jungle, especially a lot of ragga jungle from the early ‘90s, that was the UK’s gangsta rap in a way. It was black music.

I read the album was recorded while on the road?

Kinda. I had this discovery while travelling that I could bang out a track in this three-hour train ride and I’d basically more or less have a finished track. Just the fact I could do that made me not labour so much over things.

I wonder if it’s easier to create hybrid music when divorced from a particular environment, say while travelling.

I’ve been having a discussion with lots of people recently. People ask me ‘what would you define as the New York sound?’ Apart from sounds that’ve been already established, like New York has always had this deep house sound, Detroit had techno, Chicago had house, we’ve reached this apex of information technology where being able to find about new sounds as soon as they’re out means they’re becoming less localised. The only time it’s true is within urban scenes. Juke and footwork are relatively new compared to a lot of other local music scenes and it’s literally just urban dance music. They’re not even concerned what the rest of the world thinks of it, it’s about them, it’s about their dance circles.

What about the concept of purists, of people who want to protect a local music from contamination. Can such a notion even exist anymore?

I feel that even those types of people have become more open. I have old friends who grew up in the ‘90s rave scene who, when rave was making a resurgence in the mid-2000s were like, “they don’t understand what rave culture is! I’m never going to give up my records! I’m never going to rip it to mp3!” Now the same people are making high quality rips and putting them online. They want to be part of it. Obviously it’s upsetting when something so specific becomes a trend, when you have people making half-assed versions of it.

Like mid-range dubstep a few years back…

It’s so testosterone driven. I’m more drawn to an androgynous music. If there are no girls dancing who are the boys going to dance with? Then they just take their shirts off and start fist-pumping! *does macho dubstep fist pump* That’s the grossest shit! [laughs]

Have you always been drawn to complex rhythms?

I grew up as a percussionist, I played marching snare for four years in high school, at the same time I was part of a community-based percussion ensemble. I was also in an African ensemble for six years, playing djembe. I was very interested in polyrhythms — I was obsessed with polyrhythms at one point. I felt like it was a unique way of transforming a song into something different. People could listen to the rhythms one way, and people could listen to it another way.

I never thought of it like that.

It’s just very interesting to me, still is!

Catch Machinedrum play his album launch show at London’s Rhythm Factory on July 23 with Ossie, interviewed here.

Photography by Noor One

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