The idea of a footwork concept album might seem at odds with the stuttering functionality of its Chicago roots, but then Machinedrum, aka US-born Travis Stewart, has always used its 170bpm tempo as a template for more otherworldly experiments.
Though often working in dreamy textures, his second album, 'Vapor City', released by Ninja Tune on 23rd September, was inspired by an actual recurring dream and resonates with this hazy aesthetic. In turns beautiful and dark, and often both, it draws themes from his musical make-up and combines them into new forms that defy easy exposition. Hardcore stabs sit alongside laidback hip-hop breaks, slow-burning electronica underneath restless jungle snares, creating a parallel universe where the concept of fast or slow is smudged and indistinct.
Previously living in New York, where he was part of the Percussion Lab collective and resident at seminal club Cassette NYC (alongside Praveen, aka Braille, who he records with as Sepalcure, and Jimmy Edgar, the other half of his most recent project, JETS), Travis now resides in Berlin.
We delved deeper into the mind that laid the blueprint for 'Vapor City'...
You're from Eden in North Carolina. There's more electronic music coming from there now but it's still not seen as a particularly big place for it. How did you first get exposed to electronic music and fall in love with it?
“I was born in Eden but only lived there for a year or two. I spent most of my life in Hickory, NC [North Carolina]. My first experience was probably MTV. I saw the video for Ministry ‘N.W.O.’ and instantly fell in love. I started watching MTV Amp, which also turned me on to tons of new electronic music in the ‘90s. Other than that there were certain channels on IRC that I found out about loads of new music from. There was a small record shop in my hometown Hickory called Selector Records that, every now and then, had some cool stuff in the used section. Otherwise I didn't really know anyone that I grew up with that really knew much about electronic music outside of Nine Inch Nails and Daft Punk.”
Did you feel like an outsider in terms of your musical taste?
“Definitely. That's what led to me spending hours online becoming friends with people all over the world, and not only learning about new music but also how to make it. There were huge communities of electronic music producers I traded files with — software, samples, sessions etc.”
When did you start making electronic stuff?
“Depends on your definition. I was tinkering around with Casios, FX pedals and tape machines as early as ten years old. I started making music on the computer around thirteen.”
You moved to New York later. What necessitated the move? Did you want to be closer to like-minded musicians?
“Ha, that’s skipping way ahead after I started making electronic music, but OK. I moved to NYC after I finished getting my Associates of Science degree at Full Sail University in Orlando, Florida. I always had my eyes set on New York City since the first time I forced my family to visit it when I was 15 or so. When I actually ended up moving, I met a lot of artists that lived there and wanted to pursue working with them. I wanted to start making my own version of pop music, and NYC seemed the best place for it at the time.”
Of all your monikers and different collaborations, one thing that seems to tie them together is a love for UK breakbeat culture: hardcore, jungle, two-step garage. What made you gravitate towards that?
“That’s kind of close, but I think what I've always strived for was finding some middle ground between electronic music and hip-hop. When I started Machinedrum back in high school, I was really into the idea of trying to combine the rhythms of jungle with the boom bap hip-hop sound of underground hip-hop.”
Were you worried about being perceived as a dilettante within those styles, being geographically separate from them? Or does the internet eliminate those concerns in the way it connects people remotely?
“Being from North Carolina, especially during a time of almost complete absence of any electronic scene, or even hip-hop for that matter, I grew up getting used to pulling in my influences from around the world, via the internet and people I met through traveling. I feel like geographic location isn't as important as it used to be in regards to influence, though it definitely does play a role if you live in a place that has a rich history in certain styles of music.”
Your take is completely different to anything conventionally within those genres, though. Did you find it necessary to combine those jungle breaks with other sound sources to create something authentically you?
“I never planned anything, really. It was all natural. If a song started one way and ended another, that’s just how it was meant to be. I love a lot of music and it tends to all come together in my songs. Sometimes one genre outshines the others, but I guess it just depends where my head’s at when I get in the studio.”
Did juke and footwork, with its similar tempo, offer a new way of working? The hybrid you created between them seems to very much minted by you.
“Yeah, it seemed obvious to me since the tempos and feel were so similar, and the usage of 808s for basslines really tied it all in together for me. I was just excited to have a reason to make jungle again, since I hadn't really since the '90s or early 2000s.”
What role did the Percussion Lab crew and Cassette NYC have to play in you finding your own sound and getting your music out there?
“The underground and illegal party scene in NYC was a big reason I wanted to move there. It was really my first experience in DJing consistently in a place where I could experiment and kind of find my place in that world. Before then, I just considered myself more of a live performer and less of a DJ. Cassette NYC and Percussion Lab allowed me to really blossom as a DJ and learn how to work a crowd in a club.”
Sepalcure is arguably the first project that really put you in the spotlight. What is it you like about working with Praveen? How does it differ from Machinedrum?
“Yes, it could be argued it more-so put me in the spotlight in the UK, really. But either way, it was exciting to get recognition for something that was really just a fun project for me and Praveen. We never intended it to go anywhere, so the very quick hype we gained from 'Love Pressure' was definitely exciting for both of us. Working with Praveen was different from Machinedrum simply in that it was a collaboration. Two heads instead of one tends to lead in different directions and decisions than you would make on your own.”
You've signed to Ninja for 'Vapor City'. How did that come about?
“Ninja Tune expressed interest in signing me to their label. I already had an album and concept more or less finished by the time we started talking.”
What's the meaning behind the title of the album? And what's the concept behind it?
“Vapor City is the name given to a fictional city based on recurring dreams I was having while writing the songs for the album. I decided each song on the album would represent a different district in this city.”
It seems to nod to the atmospheres of science fiction. Do you like to conjure images in the mind's eye with your music?
“I feel like the images come after the song. When I write songs, I go into a sort of trance that I eventually come out of, and the image and sound sort of presents itself at that moment.”
'Don't 1 2 Lose U' seems to operate on two levels, like a lot of your music, and like a lot of drum & bass. The ravey, dark stabs are in double-time but the beat is a slow roll. Is this a key element of your work? That simultaneous cruising slow tempo and hyperspeed rush?
“Yeah, that's been a focus of mine since the beginning of Machinedrum. I set out to find the relationship between hip-hop and jungle when I started Machinedrum in the late '90s. I was listening to some random jungle tune on vinyl and put the needle down halfway through the beat and started listening to it where the one was switched, so the snares landed on the three instead of two and four. I love the tension created with fast-paced percussion set on top of slow-rolling snares and kicks.”
'Center Your Love' is pretty anthemic and very summery. Did you set out to make a big uplifting single with that cut?
“I started that song from a rough vocal cut that Angelica Bess sent me. The song sort of presented itself from there. It ended up being very anthemic, maybe based on the simplicity of the vocal and message. It was the last song written for the album and kind of summed everything up for me. I wanted it to be the lead single but Ninja Tune felt 'Eyesdontlie' was a more powerful statement, I guess.”
'Eyesdontlie' does seem like something very new, a kind of new bass record that doesn't have a label (yet), but there's still that big euphoric breakdown, reminiscent of classic d&b. What was your aim with that track?
“I never really have any aims when making a track. The bpm kind of dictates a lot, however. I started the track at 176bpm and the rest came organically. I think I originally started making an ambient tune, and then slowly as drums started getting added to it the song took a whole new form that wasn’t originally intended, but felt perfect at the time. It's definitely some sort of marriage between classic d&b and dirty south rap beats.”
'Gunshotta' is one of our favourites. Again it has that kind of elegant madness to it, the grimy dancehall ragga vocal mixed with those contemplative keys. What was your drive in creating that? Is that sense of conflict, abrasion, the rough with the smooth, important to you?
“It's really hard for me to lay back with beats. I get a kick out of making beats that make you nod your head uncontrollably. Bass is definitely something I have grown more confident with in the past few years and has become an integral part of my tunes. At the same time, I'm a sucker for ethereal melodies and soothing textures. I think the contrast between both just happens naturally when I'm creating a song because I love exploring happy mediums. I feel like these contrasts and worlds colliding are where you can find truly innovative ideas.”
You've produced for other artists, most notably Azealia Banks. Is it enjoyable working with others, and with vocals? How does it differ?
“I do love working with vocalists, especially new vocalists in their raw form untainted by the music industry. It's definitely a challenge working with vocalists, but I enjoy it. I prefer to work on songs with vocalists in the studio, however, as the results are way more gratifying. I find that if I send zips of music to vocalists and they record separately from me, something gets lost, and nine times out of ten you end up with a song that isn't as focused as it could be.”
You live in Berlin now. Why did you move there? Is it as creative and convivial for electronic producers as they say?
“I moved to Berlin for several reasons, but the biggest one was a huge surge in European gigs. I was making more money and playing more enjoyable shows in Europe than in the States at the time. I felt like Berlin was not only perfect geographically, but also for living expenses. It also helped that I have a load of friends here who are incredibly talented and influential to me. Berlin is also quite nice because there's this balance between relaxation and a hard-working mentality that I enjoy, and kind of needed after living in NYC for five years.”
What's happening with your JETS project?
“Jimmy and I have started our own label called Ultramajic, which we are both extremely excited about. Expect to see JETS collaborations in one form or another appearing on the label.”
You're very prolific. Do you find making music easy? Is it a compulsion?
“I have found that making music has always been easy, especially now that I've been doing it for most of my life. I feel lost when I haven't written new music for more than a week. It's a basic need for me, right up there with food and sex!”