Ableton’s Loop Summit takes place this weekend in Berlin at the historic East German recording space, Funkhaus. The three day event combines workshops, performances, and discussions - with an emphasis on collaboration and the exchange of ideas between creatives. Ahead of the event, Japanese visual storyteller Daito Manabe (who constantly works in collaborative environments), interviewed American born, Berlin based musician Travis Stewart (aka Machinedrum). Read their in depth conversation about remixes, the power of audiovisuals, and where music is headed below.
I’d like to begin by emphasizing that I’m a huge fan of your work. When I checked just now, I found that I have nearly 300 of your tracks on my MacBook. I’ve been an avid listener of your music since the Syndrone days. I’ve also been involved with the Merck crowd in the past, having provided video for Merck artists at events and even appearing as a DJ myself.
I’m into IDM (intelligent dance music) from the era, such as Autechre and Boards of Canada. As an outgrowth, after the transition to a style that heavily sampled and cut-up hip-hop beats, I really played your tracks from Bidnezz, Mergerz & Acquisitionz often. Hollis was my favorite. I guess this was back around the mid-2000s. In the present decade, I’ve liked your post-juke and dubstep tracks, and can’t lavish enough praise on the Planet Mu days. I also dig the recent vaporwave and futurebass tracks – they get a lot of playtime. I also enjoyed the tracks made following your move to Ninja Tune. Your great melodic sense was on display front and center, and I play those tracks often. I really studied the Sacred Frequency Ableton Live Set you released. I think a lot of track makers were heavily influenced by those files.
Basically, I’m pretty much a card-carrying Machinedrum maniac. Ever since your shift from early IDM to sample-based cut-up music, dubstep, juke, future bass, vaporwave, you’ve always been the first to incorporate on-point grooves. It’s to an extent that Nosaj Thing told me, “Follow Travis and you’ll know what beats are trending.” What drives the evolution of grooves? Is there a particular impetus for you?
Thank you so much! It means so much to me, especially coming from such a successful and innovative artist like yourself. It’s times like these that really give me incredible confidence in my work.
As far as evolution goes, it’s just a natural thing. I’m constantly interested in new forms of music. When I initially started Machinedrum I was in the middle of discovering so many dope producers that were de-constructing hip hop and doing something new and creative with sound design, poly-rhythms and writing interesting melodies. It wasn’t necessarily that I wanted to create anything specific or that fit within a genre so to speak, I more-so wanted to take different interesting approaches that my favorite artists and producers were taking and mash them all into one body of work.
At that time I loved the nostalgic melodies of Boards of Canada, the dusty drums of DJ Premier and J Dilla, the deconstructed hip hop aesthetic of Push Button Objects and Prefuse 73, the poly-rhythms of West African music, the jazz sensibilities of Herbie Hancock and the sound design and experimental genius of Aphex Twin and Autechre. I funneled all of those things into the first album as best I could. I was then and always will be a super fan of great music and art!
Each album I write reflects new things that I have learned, new approaches and experiments in production, or new philosophies and methods I’ve developed. I’m constantly discovering music, new and old, and there are certain things about that music that stays with me. I may hear someone use an instrument in a new way, or hear a chord progression that I’ve never thought of, or even hear a song on the radio that I hate everything about except for the beat. Those things wind up making it into my music in one way or another.
I allow myself to be open to inspiration at all times. I embrace that inspiration and try to be as honest as I can be about the source of that inspiration rather than deny it. It empowers me when I am able to pinpoint where I may have got an idea. I don’t worry if someone can tell that I was influenced by one thing or another. Generally if I try to recreate something that inspires me it tends to not sound that much like the original inspiration, and instead takes on a new form that fits into my world.
My goal when I write music is to channel something that is part inspiration, part education, part practice and part spiritual. I try to let myself go and write something that I would want to listen to every day. There is no point in creating otherwise. I wanna create things that fascinate me as much as the things that inspire me do.
You’re involved in a lot of remix work. What kind of songs do you think readily lend themselves to being remixed, and what kind of song would compel you to make a remix in the first place? Do you ever preemptively throw up your hands and say, “This is too hard, this isn’t going to work”?
I’ve found that it’s quite hard to remix songs that are for the most part instrumental, unless there is something hooky about the melodic part of the track, or some sound in the song that is anthemic.
These days I tend to pass on remixes for many reasons. Mostly because I don’t have time, but also because a large percentage of remixes I do either fall flat and I’m not happy with them or they get rejected by the artist or label.
Otherwise I generally pass on remixing tracks that don’t have any strong elements when you start stripping away everything. Sure some tracks sound great when you hear all the parts together, but when you are hearing the parts and you can’t find anything that is strong on its own then it’s quite pointless to even try.
I think some people’s methods change when they get their hands on equipment and software. But I heard you take a more limited approach, and pretty much only use Ableton’s built-in plugins and the Native Instruments plugins. What are your thoughts on equipment, software, and all the other technology surrounding music?
It’s important to find instruments, including software, that speak to you. While we have infinite possibilities of finding new and interesting sounds with the vast array of instruments at our finger tips, it can be very easy to get lost in that world. I know a few producers who can manage to constantly try out new gear, plugins, synthesizers and so on and still somehow maintain their own identifiable sound or style while never staying consistent in their studio environment or writing method, but it is rare.
I started writing electronic music with limitations that weren’t self imposed. My family couldn’t afford to get me much more than a keyboard or a guitar and a hand me down PC computer. I had to search for free software and samples. In the 90s it wasn’t as easy as it is now to get cracked versions of software and plugins, so I really had to rely on whatever free things I could get and whatever was in front of me.
I was really lucky to find and become a part of the Tracker and Demo Scene online community. It allowed me to not only find new samples to use in my tracks, but I also was able to study how people made tracks and learn new tricks. The beauty of the Tracker community was that people shared the sessions all the time, it was really the only way in dial up times. The file sizes of the sessions were super small depending on what samples you used. Generally a tracker file was smaller than a mp3, so it was more convenient to share the original sessions anyway.
There were competitions all the time that tracks were judged on what composers could do while keeping their tracker files, mods, ITs, XMs or whatever, as small as possible. Chip tunes are a perfect example of this. Instead of relying on the coolest most processor intensive plugins you can get your hands on, people were making bangers out of samples that were way less than 1kb in size!
OK I went on a bit or a tangent there, but my main point is that with that upbringing of being limited in creating electronic music came a life long understanding of the importance of limitations. I always say if you can’t make a banger on a SK-1 then you can’t make a banger in a million dollar studio.
Performance , recording , sampling , Walkman , internet , iPhone and streaming. The birth of new technology has changed the nature of music as well as our listening methods. How do you hope music will evolve going forward? Alternately, I’m curious to hear your predictions on where music is headed in the future.
Personally, I suspect the new form of music will be less rigid and have a sort of unexpected dynamism; maybe an entirely new genre will emerge in which music morphs in response to one’s own environment and location. I don’t know whether it would more appropriately be called “music” or “algorithm,” but either way, I think we can look forward to a new audio experience.
I always have trouble when it comes to predicting where things will go with music or technology. For the most part I’m mostly interested in interacting with what’s currently available and experimenting with technology and music genres without any intention of pushing anything forward or inventing anything new. All of that should just happen naturally. I’m not really concerned with how music or art will evolve as a whole. Sometimes I feel like people are more focused on doing something brand new or 100% original and innovative rather than just becoming masters of what they do.
With all of that said, I do really enjoy seeing something that I’ve never seen before. It’s important for there to be people pushing things forward and not recreating whats already been created. There will always be a place for innovation. However, those innovative things may never become accessible on a wide level. Using your example of a new environment based genre, it sounds like a cool concept but on a bigger level I don’t think people really want to think that hard about the music that they hear. They want to understand it the second they listen to it and not be surprised too much. Unfortunately most of the world doesn’t respond that well to giant leaps and advancements in music, just us music nerds.
I’ve directed music videos for Nosaj Thing, FaltyDL, and Squarepusher. From this perspective, I want to ask: what’s your take on audiovisuals? What potential do you see in the medium vis-à-vis your work (or otherwise)?
I really really love your work! You’re one of those rare artists that thinks outside of the box while still doing something thats relatable and understandable. It’s got a classic sense to it. With music, art and video I tend to gravitate toward things that will stand the test of time and not be looked back at as some kitschy, trendy or cutely nostalgic thing. Of course it’s important to make art that reflects a certain time period but it is also important to not rely on what is considered “cool” in that time period.
While I love thoughtfully considered audio visual performances, the recent reliance on grandiose stage production to make the performers and the music they are playing seem larger than life is getting a bit old. It used to be cool to go to a festival and see a giant stage with millions of lights and set construction elements. At this point we’ve seen it all and it’s becoming easier to see through all the bells and whistles and recognize that it doesn’t really make the music any better by adding hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stage production. You can’t really hide the fact that everyone is playing the same tracks and super generic music with flashy stage production.
Unfortunately it is quite difficult to have a strong audiovisual component that works in larger venues such as festivals unless you have tons of money. Even the people pumping tons of money into their “a/v” shows aren’t really doing anything that interesting other than basically having an electric circus on stage. Hopefully one of these huge artists will start working with artists like yourself and do something that’s really interesting and inspiring on a grand scale.
What kind of music do you most often listen to on a day-to-day basis? (When you’re chilling at home or trying to fall asleep, etc.) I feel that your work under the Tstewart name produced a truly expansive aural landscape, featuring chillout tracks composed of guitar and ambient sound. In short, I’m interested in your quotidian listening experience.
There’s really nothing quotidian about my listening experience. I tend to be all over the place depending on my mood. One day I might just want to listen to dub and country music on vinyl with my wife in the living room, another day I will be scouring Spotify and Soundcloud for new music. Recently I’ve created a playlist of all the music I listened to back when I was younger, all of the music that inspired me to create my own music. Sometimes I only listen to what my wife wants to listen to. There are really no rules. Sometimes, when I’m writing a new album for instance, I try not to listen to other music at all if I can.
I will say that in the past year I’ve finally got on the Spotify train and it has lead me to not only discover new music but also reconnect with or discover older music I may have missed.
If you were to order a customized instrument, plugin, or sequencer, what would you request? (It doesn’t have to exist yet.) Alternately, if you could bioengineer your own body, what capabilities would you like to add?
I would love to do away with cables. They annoy me so much. I would love to be able to work in an entirely wireless based studio. I would also love to have an entire portable studio that can function on minimal solar power. Other than that it seems like everything has been done, is in the process of being made or has been thought of already.
It would be cool if I could bioengineer myself to rely less on sleeping and eating and get more energy out of less of it. I don’t want to get rid of sleeping and eating altogether, I love sleeping and eating of course! It can just be quite annoying when you’ve got so many things to make! Of course it would be amazing to be able to turn your thoughts into music instantly, but what’s the fun of that?
Machinedrum tour dates HERE.
Check a recap of Ableton Loop 2016 below.