The electronic musician's latest LP is a jungle and hip hop flavored journey based on a recurring dream about a vast imaginary city.
Image credit: Andrew Defrancesco
Machinedrum (Travis Stewart) is a prolific and multifaceted musician—working under numerous aliases and collaborations the US-born, Berlin-based artist has produced everything from experimental ambient eletronica to dance floor friendly jams, traversing a number of different styles and genres in the process.
Back in March 2013 it was announced he was signing to London label Ninja Tune and now he's set to release his first album with them on 30 September 2013 called Vapor City. The first single and b-side, "Eyesdontlie" and "Body Touch", has already dropped and below he gives his first interview about the album, which is based on a city that Stewart kept having a recurring dream about.
Harking back to the days when releasing a new electronic album was an event and came loaded with additonal materials—like some of the 90s Warp record releases from Boards of Canada and Autechre—each track will explore a different district of Vapor City and each month will see additional content. From short films to installations and artwork, they'll explore and immerse us in this sci-fi-esque world.
The album is a shift away from the shuffle-friendly, track-skipping world of today, and back to an age when listening to music meant listening to an entire album from beginning to end. It's something that we've seen a bit of a revival of lately, with new albums from Daft Punk, Boards of Canda, Autechre, and Oneohtrix Point Never's forthcoming R Plus Seven—and it's perhaps no surprise that all these artists come from the same era, which was a rich period for electronic music. Something of a golden age and a time before torrenting and streaming made access to music so much easier, along the way depleting some of its mystery.
Artwork from "Vapor City". Credit: Dominic Flannigan and Eclair Fifi
We Skyped with Machinedrum to find out about making the new album, the styles of music that influenced it, and more.
The Creators Project: So can you just start off by explaining this recurring dream you’ve been having that informs the album and the structure of it?
Machinedrum: Yeah sure. The last half of the year that I was living in New York, which was a little over two years and a few months ago, I was visiting Europe a lot and I started touring. Touring was starting to kick off a lot more for me based off a lot of records I was putting out on LuckyMe and the Sepalcure stuff that was going on. I was starting to get a little bit jaded about living in New York and the US in general and, I don’t know, felt some weird tension. I don’t know whether that had something to do with why I was having these strange dreams maybe two, three times a week but they would be really tense. I would kind of be transferred to this same city in my dreams where it felt familiar, even though I knew I’d never been there. In the dream I felt like I knew all the places, I kept seeing the same streets, the same shops and clubs. Same amusement parks and weird little details that I kept noticing were recurring and it really started to freak me out that this kept happening—and it was also happening the first half of the year that I lived in Berlin.
So it started to form this sort of combination architecturally between New York and a bit of Berlin. A sort of old-meets-new sort of architecture. But it was very vast. And I could almost, in the dream, sort of zoom in and see the city for what it was, and kind of get an idea of where I was in the city. But it was crazy that I kept having this dream and it started fading out as I was living in Berlin but I thought it was definitely something I should explore more creatively, there was definitely a reason I was having this dream.
Cover art for "Vapor City". Credit: Dominic Flannigan and Eclair Fifi
The songs relate to the different districts of the city I believe. Can you just tell me about them and maybe some of the themes you were exploring when you were building these songs from the cityscape?
Essentially what happened was, as soon as I’d finished sending in the pre-masters for Room(s) on Planet Mu I instantly started working on new tunes. It was around that time I started having these dreams and I was making the songs, but I wasn’t necessarily relating them to the dream persay. As I started culminating a huge body of work over the next year and a half I started trying to think about putting together an album, and started talking to Ninja Tune. I hadn’t really signed anything yet but the fact that they were interested kick-started me to sort of think about piling all these songs together.
It was a bit daunting because it’s the most amount of songs I’ve ever had to pick for an album before. It was probably about 70 tracks I had to go through. I was quite inspired when I moved to Berlin, I started writing songs all the time. Anyhow, I’d made this kind of master playlist of songs and I decided I was going to call this album Vapor City. It’s sort of the title I’d given to this dream city but I didn’t really think about the songs representing the districts until I started putting together the tracks for the album. I started noticing in this giant playlist I had made that sonically there was a consistency between all the songs, that there was a heavy sort of sonic kind of quality between—like five songs would sound this way, be more a jungle kind of thing and five or six songs would be this more washed out 80s kind of thing.
So it made me think about the districts in this city and I started to narrow down the best all of those sonic groupings of tracks that I'd made. And it gave me the idea to develop districts out of the city and create content based around that since there were loads of tracks and I didn’t want to just throw them away.
Dominic Flannigan and Eclair Fifi
What’s the sound of the new album, what sort of music was informing your tastes at the time you were making all these tracks?
I think it's like every album I write, it’s sort of capturing the kind of music that I’m into at the time and what I’m interested in, experimenting with. With Room(s) I’d sort of discovered this linkage with jungle rhythms and juke and footwork. And that was definitely more of an experiment. I kind of learned a new approach with writing tunes at that time where I was trying to spend less time on writing tracks. Basically trying to finish up writing tracks as fast as possible rather than spending loads and loads of time mulling over ideas and changing things around over and over. I wanted to take a new approach, and I think that for Vapor City this is a more refined version of that approach. But stylistically I’m giving in more to the Exit Records style, autonomic kind of drum and bass.
I grew up listening to drum and bass and jungle, and when I originally started Machinedrum, I wanted to explore this relationship between hip hop and jungle. I kind of went away from that. Now I feel like in the past few years I’ve been revisiting that but from a different BPM standpoint—rather than making a hip hop track with kind of jungle undertones with 80/90BPM, now I’m making jungle tracks with hip hop undertones with maybe 160/170BPM. Things have come full circle on the BPM chart.
Artwork for "Eyesdontlie" single. Credit: Dominic Flannigan and Eclair Fifi
What about the album artwork, how did you arrive at that paricular style? You worked with Dominic Flannigan from LuckMe on it, right?
Well I’ve been working with Dom for a lot of different releases. Obviously the ones on his label LuckyMe, but I had him come in and do the direction for Room(s). And I really loved working with him and how I could give him a concept and he would take that and interpret that in him own way. It just made me feel really good about having a concept but not having to direct him too much. We had a lot of conversations about dreams and that, but I knew at one point I was going to leave it up to him. So him and Eclair Fifi did the illustrations. We were collaborating and brainstorming and were sharing a DropBox and when they had ideas they’d throw them in there and I’d give them some feedback. But for the most part I just let them do their thing because I’ve developed a trust with LuckyMe and their art direction. I knew I couldn’t get exactly what my dream was like because it’s a dream, its changing every time. So I figured it was okay to let him sort of take that and interpret it in his own way, and I think he did a really great job. They both did.
The album sounds interesting, because it's a bit of a nod back to the way we used to experience albums, from beginning to end. And the artwork’s quite important to it as well. We’ve recently moved away from that type of stuff with albums. So do you feel you’re harking back to that? And is it a conscious decision or is it just something that came with the ideas?
It was a bit of both. The conscious part of it was kind of wanting to go back to experiential listening, some sort of memorable experience. Not just the flash-in-the-pan style of listening that everybody has now. I wanted to create a special experience that isn’t just listening to music on your laptop speakers causally. I mean it could be that. It could be whatever the listener wants. But I figured certain people appreciate more thought-out kind of concepts. I didn’t want to get too deep with the concept. There were opportunities to go even deeper into the concept, but I felt we're in a place now that people can understand it and it doesn’t need to go much deeper than just listening to the music. However I feel having these developed districts and an art direction behind it adds that special flare to it that I think a lot of people can appreciate, especially people from my generation. That was the only way you could find out about music, going to record shops and picking out your favourite cover.
What sort of interactive elements are we going to be seeing. You have the video for "Eyesdontlie" (above) which has reactive visual elements to the music, which was made by Weirdcore. What else can we expect?
Just working on the video with Weirdcore kind of opened my eyes. I planned in my mind an ideal world I wanted for the live visuals, I wanted the Vapor City tour to be a perspective of traveling through Vapor City. And in my mind it would be perfect to have someone recreate this city through visuals, but I thought that would be too large of a task to ask somebody. But when I ended up talking with Weidrcore he seemed totally up for it, at least for the "Eyesdontlie" video.
And after seeing what he was capable of and talking about what I wanted for the live visuals we decided that that would be the route to go and he was totally down to flesh that out and try to recreate essentially Vapor City in its own abstract way. I’m really excited about getting to work on these live visuals with him. But there’ll be some other interactive developments down the road, we plan on doing some sort of installation at some point. Those are all in the works.
Tell me more about the live tour.
Audio-wise it’s me on synth and vocals and playing guitar, and manipulating elements of the tracks, and I’ll be playing with a drummer who’s also triggering some sounds and stuff like that. But essentially we’re going to be playing the album live, that’s kind of mixed together in a different way. But it’s going to be a different journey through Vapor City than you would listen to on the album, and visually you’re going to visit all these districts whilst hearing the songs. I think seeing the live show will really tie in the concepts together for people. It’ll be a very powerful experience for them.
Dominic Flannigan and Eclair Fifi
Are there any other people that you’ll be working with or partnering up with that you can mention?
I plan on with the installations, it’s going to be working with very different people but at the moment we’re trying to come up with some ideas with LuckyMe and also been brainstorming ideas with Richard Devine, who actually did a lot of the sound design on "Baby It's U" [track off Vapor City]. The song is made up of a lot of hydrophonic recordings he made, and I’ve been talking to him recently about eventually putting together an interactive piece based around that. But other than that there’s some vocalists from that album that when I’m in New York I’m going to try to have them perform with me on stage, and I’ve just been working with a lot of my friends to get remixes and interpretations of the songs. Kind of building content for each district. We’re going to roll out each month after the album’s release, so each district is going to be represented and you’re going to get content—artwork, short films, mixes, remixes, stuff like that—based on that. I have a lot of friends who are really stoked about helping me with that.
Has the experience been a cathartic one, or was it just the realisation of a long-held ambition? Or just been a lot of fun?
A bit of all of that. Working on music for me is always cathartic. Kind of my therapy, especially from traveling and having a sort of stressful life. I can’t complain too much, I’m playing shows and it’s pretty great. But just the traveling and everything I feel like my home is in the music, and I kind of escape all my problems through making music and in that sense it is cathartic. But it’s also fun, some of my best tracks come from when I’m fooling around and trying to have a laugh and it ends up being one of my more popular songs. So it’s kind of a combination of all that.
Artwork from "Vapor City". Credit: Dominic Flannigan and Eclair Fifi
You said you had a repository of 70 songs, what will you do with the rest?
Those songs will emerge as b-sides on EPs, or they’ll be bonus content, because we’re doing this thing called Vapor City citizen where you sign up to become a Vapor City citizen and you’ll get free content based on what month it is and what district we’re representing—I feel a lot of the songs, the stronger ones, will surface in that way. But I’m not that worried about them not seeing the light of day. With this approach of trying to finish songs as fast as possible has led to me having this surplus of songs and I was kind of ready for that. I used to get really angry if I spent loads of time on one song and it never really went anywhere. But now I'm kind of into the idea of abandoning pieces and just looking at them as essential to getting to where I’m at now as an artist. It’s part of the learning process, and I take things I learned from writing those songs that people might never hear, but they’re essentially hearing them through other songs.
Is there any concept albums from the past, or anything like that has been an influence?
I feel like a lot of Warp stuff that was being put out in the late 90s felt like they were more than just an album. There’s something about Boards of Canada, Autechre releases, the packaging and everything, and the mystery behind it, it felt more powerful than just a regular album. I think that more in itself speaks out to me more than a specific fleshed out concept album.
It feels like a lost world almost.
Yeah, it’s coming back though. Like, with Boards of Canada’s album that came out this year, I feel they’re harkening back to that feel and Daft Punk as well. I feel like we’re coming back into an age of album listening, in the past year or two and I feel like it’s becoming a popular thing and I’m excited about that. Because I feel like that is longer and more memorable and you tell your kids about that kind of stuff rather than, “Oh yeah I remember that one single that was hot in the club.” Even with the 50 minute time length of this album with 10 tracks, people were at first like, "Isn’t that a bit short for an album?", but I really felt it was the perfect length because it kept making me want to re-listen to it. And that’s the first time I’ve ever had an album like that. Even some of my earlier albums with Merck Records I literally would try to fit on as much audio as possible that you could put on two CDs and I think that’s not necessarily the right approach. With Vapor City it gets you right to the point where you feel like you might want more, but that feeling makes you want to just listen to it again.