Travis Stewart is a man of many musical guises; over the last decade he has produced for the likes of Jesse Boykins III, Azealia Banks and Dawn Richard, as well as collaborated with Praveen Sharma as one half of the R&B-inflected duo Sepalcure, and with Jimmy Edgar as JETS.
Reluctant to rest on his laurels, he has combined this collaborative work with an extensive global touring schedule as a DJ and solo producer, going by the name Machinedrum. Under this rhythmic moniker he has racked up a spate of acclaimed releases that traverse the hectic soundscapes of drum ‘n’ bass, footwork and jungle, characterising a sound that is instantly recognisable for its density and intricacy.
His second album for Ninja Tune, 'Human Energy', is released on Friday (September 30th) and sees him stepping away from the high bpm, frenetic layering of percussion that he is known for and moving towards a calmer, more maximal collage of bright sounds. He credits this change in direction to a string of major personal developments: moving to a new city, Los Angeles, proposing to his girlfriend, and discovering the benefits of meditation.
Having just flown into the UK and battling jet lag on the eve of his first show of the album tour, Machinedrum sat down with Clash to talk about the healing capacity of music, the eternal influence of Metallica, and the importance of positivity.
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On a first listen, 'Human Energy' sounds warmer and more open than your previous releases – the production seems less densely compacted. What’s behind this choice?
A lot of the change in direction has to do with personal challenges I made for myself to write differently and break out of my comfort zone of using samples and transposed minor chords which are typically my go-to. I wanted to get back into a songwriting-focused approach to making music.
It also has to do with positive change in my life and having a different mentality going into writing the album. Whereas many of my previous records were written in between shows or whilst on the road, this album was all made during a break from live shows and a break from listening to other people’s music and putting together DJ sets. I was trying to get into my own world as much as I could.
It felt like there was something nostalgic about your references to jungle, hardcore and footwork rhythms on previous releases but 'Human Energy' seems to be looking to the future with its choice of sounds. Was this direction related to the environment in which you were writing?
Yeah, I was mainly excited about a new period in my life and wanted to give something back to the world that wasn’t just adding to all the darkness and the melancholic sounds that everyone hears nowadays. I include myself in that statement; lots of my music in the past has been melancholic. I just wanted to try and create something that’s on a different level even from what I am used to.
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Having meditation be more of a daily practice helped me become really focused...
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The titles of your previous major releases have been architecturally and spatially influenced – 'Room(s)', 'Vapor City' – was there a reason for the focus on the body with the name 'Human Energy'?
I believe that humans have an intense energy within them and it’s up to each person as to what they do with their energy. Certain people will turn that energy into hate, certain people will turn that energy into jealousy or insecurity or even put it into sports. This record was my way of expressing that pent up energy and getting it out.
I can be pretty intense at times - I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety... and I still do. The way I deal with it is through music and meditation, and having meditation be more of a daily practice helped me become really focused when I created 'Human Energy'.
If meditation has influenced you, can instrumental music itself have a similar effect in connecting with the listener without lyrical narrative? Does the lack of lyric perhaps make it more effective?
I don’t think you necessarily need to have lyrics in order to convey a message. When I call what I do ‘healing music’, it’s not in the same vein as most other traditional healing music which is done through drone, mantra and ambience. I instead wanted the music to instantly grab your attention and suck you into the moment. I want the brightness of the sounds and major chords to fill you with positive intention.
I want the music to put a smile on people’s faces and take them outside of wherever they’re at at that moment – if they end up liking the music that is [laughs]. If they hate it maybe that’ll contribute even more to the funk that they’re in!
You mentioned that this record is less sample-based and compared to your previous Machinedrum releases, 'Human Energy' is packed with collaborations, from Rochelle Jordan to Melo-X and Tosin Abasi. How did the choice to create in collaboration rather than isolation come about?
I used collaboration as a challenge to get myself out of my comfort zone of using the same batch of ‘90s R&B and diva house a capellas that everyone else is using. That’s not necessarily a wrong approach to writing, I just seem to have been stuck in that mindset for too long. I wanted to reconnect with a lot of people that I’d collaborated with in the past, so I collected many of those recordings into one folder and whenever I was working on the tracks I used those sessions, rather than samples.
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How does the creative process differ when you’re working in collaboration? Do you prefer to work together in the studio or mainly using pre-existing material as you mentioned?You can definitely hear Tosin’s metal influences on the track with the intricate guitar pitched against the electronic loops.
It’s so cool for me to have him on my album because metal is my musical origin. Everything stems back from the Metallica tapes that my cousin would sneak to me without my parents knowing when I was really young [laughs]. I got into metal at an early age and have always had a love for it, whether it be prog-metal or math rock, I’m just fascinated by those complex guitar patterns.
You’re always working on different projects; the latest Sepalcure record, 'Folding Time', was only released back in May for instance. Do you enjoy working on multiple projects at once? Do they feed into each other and help the creative process?
The Sepalcure record actually wasn’t meant to come out this year, that was due to scheduling conflicts, so they’re all written at different times, really. The Sepalcure record was written over the period of three to four years, whereas this album was written over three to four months.
I’ve definitely learned a lot about my own process through collaboration, whether that’s a new production trick I’ve picked up from watching a friend in the studio, or if it’s stylistically trying new things. Giving into trust through collaboration has definitely influenced and informed the way I approach making music now.
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I really tried not to listen to any music...
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Who were your influences outside of collaborators for this record? Who have you been listening to at the moment?
I really tried not to listen to any music whilst I was writing 'Human Energy' but I have generally been listening to a lot more pop and rap, mainly because my fiancée is into a lot of pop music and she DJs, so I’d listen to her sets. I’ve also been very excited in the last year about PC Music and their experimental approach to pop, using major chords in an intense way. You can probably hear a bit of that influence in my record. I also love Oneohtrix Point Never and Exit Records producers like dBridge, Dub Phizix and Fracture.
A lot of these guys are thinking outside of the box but still trying to create within parameters that would be considered drum ‘n’ bass. I just love anybody who is trying to be forward thinking and focused in their sound.
It’s early days but what does the future hold in terms of new music or production and collaboration once the tour is through?
I have no immediate plans – I hope to just do nothing for a good month or so [laughs]. I haven’t written any new music in ages, basically since I turned in 'Human Energy'. There is a new Dawn Richard album that’s coming out that I have produced the majority of but next year hopefully I’ll be recording with more artists. I really love working with songwriters and the inspiration that brings to me.
I want to take some time off again from shows to focus on studio work; that was such a good sacrifice for me to take earlier this year for 'Human Energy' and to learn what I could do within the challenge of having a deadline and focus, rather than throwing studio time into a touring schedule. I want to find more time to experience the cities that I’m travelling in, rather than having crazy music deadlines and using the hotel room as an extension of the studio. I want to try not to have my mind in two places at the same time.
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Machinedrum's new album 'Human Energy' on September 30th.
Words: Ammar Kalia