You'd be hard-pressed to find a more prolific and innovative producer on the American electronic music scene today than Travis Stewart, AKA Machinedrum. Taking his cues from the U.K. sonic tradition, he's responsible for some of the most forward-thinking future bass sounds this side of the pond.
2013's critically acclaimed Vapor City was an especially ambitious effort, expanding on the conventional album release format with an interactive website offering fans exclusive audiovisual content. And of course Stewart is one half of Sepalcure with Praveen Sharma, the esteemed duo which pushed garage to the next evolutionary level with its blissful post-dubstep productions at the turn of the decade.
Ahead of an intimate performance at Bardot on Saturday, we chatted with Stewart about his musical upbringing, upcoming Machinedrum collaboration projects and the scoop on Sepalcure's new album in the works.
New Times: Word has it you made your very first musical recordings around the age of five. What can you tell us about your earliest experiences making music?
Travis Stewart: I grew up with a baby grand piano in the house, so I guess that would be the earliest memory. I didn't have any formal training, I would just play by ear. My grandpa was then, and still is, in a country band, so I also had his rehearsal room at my disposal from a very early age. I would go to his house and play guitar, mess around with his drum machine, effects pedals and tape machine. My first song was about my babysitter, I think.
How did you first get exposed and drawn to electronic music? Are there any particular artists, records, or general styles of electronic music you consider most formative to your development as a producer?
I was an MTV kid. I learned about so much music from watching it as a child. I was into punk, metal, and hip hop when I was little, even some reggae. Then around 10-years-old, I remember seeing Ministry's "NWO" and Nine Inch Nails' "Head Like A Hole" videos and falling in love, especially with Ministry. I got heavily into industrial music, which eventually lead to me discovering Aphex Twin, which kinda changed everything. At that point, I started seeking out music that came close to that sound — anything that wasn't repetitive or simple. I wanted crazy, spastic genius music. I think the most repetitive thing I was listening to at the time was Underworld. Discovering Warp Records around 1996 was a huge moment as well. I started paying attention to labels and their artists heavily from that point. Warp, Astralwerks, Skam, Ninja Tune, Metropolis, Nothing, Schematic, Matador, and Thrill Jockey — to name a few — became labels I paid a lot of attention to. I would buy a lot of records without hearing them based on what label they were on.
Sepalcure has been a major force in the "post-dubstep" and future bass movement since the first EP. How did this collaborative project come about? What sort of creative avenue does Sepalcure offer you that differs from what you do as Machinedrum?
Sepalcure started after years of being close friends with Praveen Sharma. At one point, we decided to stop jamming in the studio and to actually write and arrange full songs together — that's the short answer. Like most collaborations, Sepalcure is a meeting of influence and music production experience. You can hear both of us in the music. Also when collaborating, you are allowed to listen more and have a different perspective on what you are doing. When I make Machinedrum tracks, it's sometimes harder to take a step back and hear it for what it really is, as I form a personal connection to it. With collaboration you're able to take breaks and just listen while the other person is working.
What is the status of Sepalcure? Can we expect future material?
We are still making music. Expect a new album very soon. Yes, you heard it here first!
Your sound defies easy categorization, blending elements of techno, breaks, bass music, ambient and more. What is your creative process typically like in the studio? Do you normally start off with compositions or musical sketches in mind, or do your productions emerge through improvisation and jamming?
My creative process is constantly changing from album to album. I get bored having one approach for too long. At the moment, my tracks start on the piano or MIDI keyboard. It starts very melodic, and then the beat comes later.
Vapor City was quite an ambitious interactive multimedia project, beyond the album itself. Do you have any plans for other concept albums along those lines down the road?
I love making albums that give something more than just music as the experience. It is possible though that the next album might be a bit more music-focused and less about an overlying concept. But who knows, at this point? Anything could happen.
Being signed to Ninja Tune puts you in the company of some major electronic trailblazers, like Amon Tobin, Coldcut, and Bonobo. How did you first hook up with this iconic label?
It's an absolute honor to be on such an influential label, one that has been an inspiration since I started making electronic music. In a similar way that I hooked up with Planet Mu, I also connected with Ninja. I had been sending music to Ninja Tune, but it was Drew Lustman, AKA Falty DL, who gave me a contact. I had plenty of other connections to them as well, including my management, so it was natural that we started working together. They've been incredible working with!
Back in April, you released the Movin Forward EP as a tribute to the late DJ Rashad, who passed away in 2014. Can you tell us a little about your intentions behind this release? What was your connection with Rashad as a fan and fellow artist?
Movin Forward is my tribute to the late and great Rashad Harden, whom I'm lucky to have known, toured, and even collaborated with. I wanted to release our collaborations, and tracks inspired by him and the Teklife crew. I decided to make the tribute a charity comp and for the proceeds to go towards his family and his son Chad, as it was the only right thing to do. All of the footwork and juke producers in Chicago are amazing, but it was Rashad who really intrigued and inspired me like no other. He was so excited about music and spreading the sound of Chicago around the world, even if people didn't get it. He and DJ Spinn are responsible for exposing so many people to the sounds of footwork. I miss him every day.
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So what's next for you on the production front? Any forthcoming projects, collaborations and releases we can look forward to?
I've been working with these dudes from Melbourne, Australia, called SK Simeon and Yaw Faso on some fresh dancehall tunes. We have a project coming soon on Big Dada, so stay tuned. Other than that, I've been working on new music with Rosie Lowe, Rochelle Jordan, Roses Gabor (Ro Ro Ro I know!), Kieron McIntosh, Angelica Bess, and MeLo-X, who are all amazing singer/songwriters. Once I get through this summer, I'm gonna be ready to work on my next album.
We're looking forward to your show at Bardot Miami, a small room renowned for its intimate artist performance. What can we expect? What is your live M.O. and how does your studio material translate live?
To be honest, after doing Vapor City Live (like my last show at Bardot) it's hard to call what I do now "live." I mean, it's not a traditional DJ set, as I'm using MIDI controllers to drop drums and loops over tracks, but I do end up playing a lot of new music I'm working on plus tunes made by my friends. I guess you could call it a live/DJ hybrid. I like to call it my "club" set, as it's the kind of set I would want to hear played out!