20 Questions: Machinedrum Talks New York vs. Berlin, Steve Reich, and Staying Motivated

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On just about any given day since, say, 2009, chances are XLR8R has published the name Machinedrum somewhere. And that's not just because we're constantly keeping tabs on what the American DJ/producer born Travis Stewart is up to, it's because he's always doing something. The man is unquestionably one of the hardest-working artists in electronic music right now; if he's not on tour or gearing up for the next Machinedrum release, he's working on one of his many side projects, collaborating with Jimmy Edgar on the Ultramajic label, or, more likely than not, writing the bass- and beat-loaded tracks that will eventually make his next album. Oh yeah, he's also regularly doing interviews like this one, in which he answers our 20 questions about his favorite cities, how he stays motivated and inspired, what happened when he first met Jimmy Edgar, the most important record in his collection, how he organized his year-long run of Vapor City releases (including the brand-new Vapor City Archives record, which drops next week via Ninja Tune), and many other topics.

1. Where were you born and raised?
Born in Eden, North Carolina, raised in Hickory, North Carolina.

2. Describe your surroundings right now.
I'm in my new studio here in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. It's overcast and crisp outside. My two new kittens are finally tired from playing all night/early morning, so they are napping.

3. What's one of your earliest musical memories?
I grew up with a baby grand piano in the house. My earliest musical memories are of sitting at the piano with my mother as I banged away on the keys. I must have only been two or three years old. I started to become more actively interested in music when I would visit my grandparents' house. My grandpa had a couple guitars and a pedal steel, which he still plays to this day.

4. Since you were already releasing music as Syndrone early on, why did you create the Machinedrum moniker?
Syndrone and Machinedrum were more or less birthed around the same time, 1998 or so. Syndrone was the name I gave to my more glitchy, sound-design heavy, Autechre-inspired electronic music. I was also writing a lot of "drill & bass"-type music that went back and forth between jungle-break tempo to hip-hop tempo. This is where the Machinedrum name was introduced. I eventually started veering more toward the hip-hop side of things with the project. I also started experimenting with a more psychedelic and melodic approach to the music. The first track that was released on Merck Records, "Izey Rael," exemplifies this.

5. You're a man of many names. Have you ever produced or performed under secret aliases?
Since the beginning, I've been interested in doing side projects that let you step outside of your expectations for a bit. Eventually, I started gathering all the influences into Machinedrum, maybe due to the project's success. I feel like Machinedrum, since it is my longest standing alias, represents evolution of influence and sound. It's more of my "melting pot" project, where most everything I love about music comes together as one. This allows me to start side projects every now and then that are more genre specific.

6. Tell us the story of the first time you met Jimmy Edgar.
Jimmy and I had met around 2001 at an Anti-WMC event in Miami called Infiltrate. It was started by Steve Castro, who ran Beta Bodega records at the time. Actually, now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure XLR8R sponsored the event! I didn't really get to hang a lot with Jimmy during that trip, though.

A year later, Jimmy and I ended up touring Japan together, before either of us had even toured anywhere at all! We were only 18/19 years old at the time. It was an incredible experience. We both had no idea what we were doing on stage. [laughs] We also had no idea how much of an impact our music was having over in Japan. We were signing autographs on our records, hats, record shop walls, and even shoes. I remember we were talking to this Japanese girl who was a huge fan of ours outside of Warszawa Records in Tokyo, and she started crying when we told her we had to leave Tokyo the next day! It was really surreal, as we both barely had any fans in the US at the time and never experienced anything like this. I actually still haven't had a fan cry for me since then, while Jimmy probably makes girls cry for him at every show.

7. New York vs. Berlin… Go.
I love both cities for their own reasons. This is why I decided to live in both. I sublet my apartment in Berlin while I live in Brooklyn, so that when I tour in Europe I have a familiar home base. Obviously, the cities are very different, but in some ways they are very similar. Both have very vibrant and diverse music scenes. Even though Berlin is known to have more of a techno scene, you will find there's a lot more going on. NYC also has a huge house and techno scene, but you can pretty much find any kind of music you want here.

One of the biggest differences is the cost of living. Berlin is crazy cheap compared to NYC. Of course, this allows for a more relaxed environment for artists, musicians, and creative types. However, it can be very easy to be lazy in Berlin. Sometimes you need that fire and drive that comes from the stress having high living costs in order to inspire you to push yourself out of your comfort zone. This is where a lot of new ideas come from. If I had to pick one, though, I'd have to choose NYC because most of my friends and family either live here or definitely closer to here than Berlin. If there was a city more like Berlin in the USA I'd definitely live there instead.

8. You are easily one of the most prolific and hardest-working producers out there right now. How do you keep yourself so motivated and inspired?
I try to keep myself busy and in my studio as much as possible. As an artist, I'm responsible for practicing and learning about my craft as much as I can. When I am making a new track, I try not to search within myself for the idea. There's no literal thinking going on where I'm thinking things like, "You know, I haven't made this kind of track in a while. People say they like it when I do this kind of sound; it would probably sell more if I did this and this." Instead, there's more of a channeling that goes on. I feel like the ideas come when I stop thinking and just start playing the keyboard or guitar, laying down beats, or whatever, and just see what happens. I work off of a "first thought is usually the best thought" mentality. If for some reason I hear a certain melody in my head—a beat idea or whatever—I try it out. Even if I don't end up using that melody or beat in the final version of the track, it at least got me started and into a state of flow. My subconscious starts working in tandem with this "channeling" method, and that's where more logical and influence-driven ideas will come from. At the end of the day, I just try to constantly write music, even if there is no goal in sight. Whenever I write something with a specific thing that I want to achieve, it usually falls flat.

9. At what point did you decide to start using footwork ideas in your tracks?
I started playing more juke and footwork in my sets around 2009 or so. So naturally the influence started bleeding into my own work.

10. What's your favorite non-musical hobby?
I don't really have time for anything else! I was getting into graphic design for a little while, and I have sketchbooks that I make crazy psychedelic symmetrical drawings in from time to time. I would be more involved in the visual side of things if I had more time. Instead, I work in collaboration with visual artists on videos and artwork that supports my music. It allows me to still create visual worlds for my music without sacrificing time for writing and working on music.

11. How did you decide which tracks would belong to each "district" in the Vapor City EP series?
The tracks came first before the concept. When I had a playlist of 70+ tracks to consider for a new album, I noticed that there were around 10 distinct vibes going on. I grouped the tracks into little "vibe" groups. This is when the Vapor City concept was born. I picked the best tracks from those different vibes to represent the districts. When I made the EPs, the other tracks from that same vibe grouping were used for the EP. Boring stuff really. [laughs]


12. You're just about finished with the year-long Vapor City project. What makes Vapor City Archives a fitting end to this era of Machinedrum?
As I said, there were many tracks made for the album. This was a way for me to share some of the tracks that didn't make the first cut. I still feel like they are strong enough to make a full, listenable album.

13. Has touring with a live drummer made you want to continue expanding Machinedrum's stage set-up?
Definitely. Now that Lane Barrington and I have established a really tight show together, I can start considering how I can add other players, or if they are even necessary. If I were to expand the show by adding more musicians, I would only add one at a time and really cultivate how they fit in with the live show, rather than adding on more and having more to worry about. I want the Machinedrum live band to naturally expand, rather than just working with an orchestra or something.

14. Do you have any pre- or post-performance rituals?
Not really.

15. What are some of your most trusted secret weapons for DJ sets?
They wouldn't be secret if I told you, right? You set yourself up for that one! Classic. Anyway, I love playing dubs that my friends send me. I tend to mainly play music by people I know personally, it makes the sets feel more special to me.

16. What's the most important record in your collection?
Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. This record changed the way I thought about music. I always loved polyrhythms from my years of playing in an African ensemble, so to hear those same concepts applied to melodic instruments instead of drums excited me beyond belief. The album cover is beautiful, too, and really represents the flow of the whole album as it evolves over time.

17. What's the most important piece of gear (besides your computer) in your collection?
My nylon string guitar. It allows me to step away from the screen for a while. I like to take it on the patio and take a break from being in my studio surrounded by electronics. Eventually, I'd love to have a piano in my studio, but for now I have a fully weighted, 88-key MIDI controller that fills that need to write songs on the piano.

18. Anything new happening with your side projects these days?
New Sepalcure album in the works, and there are a few new JETS tracks, as well. I'm also working with a few different singers and songwriters on their own projects. Jimmy Edgar and I have a label together, called Ultramajic, and we are collaborating with different musicians for that.

19. Name your three favorite ways to kill time while traveling.
Writing music, exercising, and listening to demos, promos, and new music.

20. What's the first thing you'll do after answering these questions?
Get back to working on music. Quit distracting me! Just kidding.