As a producer, North Carolina-born Travis Stewart is exceptionally diverse.
For over 15 years he’s manipulated the templates of hip hop and electronic music with an imposing dexterity, whether under his main alias Machinedrum, his dancefloor-focused JETS project with Jimmy Edgar, his fluttering bass-heavy work with Praveen Sharma as Sepalcure, or the footwork and jungle experiments he crafted with Om Unit as Dream Continuum.
Although Stewart had maintained a respected position as Machinedrum with releases on now-defunct Miami imprint Merck Records and LuckyMe, it wasn’t until he stepped out on Planet Mu with 2011’s Room(s) that he truly found his feet. The album met widespread acclaim and placed Stewart at the forefront of international producers who were melding regional club motifs with a soupy collage of styles that drew from the hardcore continuum.
In 2013 Stewart debuted on Ninja Tune with Vapor City, an ambitious concept album that charted the fractured metropolis he’d encountered in a recurring dream, with each track representing a forgotten district. That record harboured a hazy and at times wistful sentiment, awash with shrouded vocal clips and the radioactive pitter-patter of a drenched urban landscape. But a lot has changed for Stewart in the three years since.
He relocated from New York to Los Angeles in 2015, bought a new studio computer and proposed to his partner. He also reignited a fascination with the esoteric and New Age concepts he’d dabbled in over a decade before, honing a decidedly more positive outlook on life in the process. This newfound optimism seeps through the 15 tracks on his latest full-length, which also finds a home on Ninja Tune.
Sparkling, tactile and unabashedly catchy, Human Energy is Stewart’s most effervescent and pop-leaning work to date. Collaborators across the LP include Dawn Richard, MeLo-X, Jesse Boykins III, Rochelle Jordan and Tosin Abasi of prog metallers Animals As Leaders; yet this feels wholly Stewart’s own creation.
It’s rare that a period of change in an artist’s life is so lucid in the sound and sentiment of a record, and it’s a testament to Stewart’s abilities as a musician that his intentions can be felt immediately upon pressing play. This is music that hits you in the gut, fizzing in your belly like some syrupy concoction brewed in another galaxy.
With the album out now, I caught up with Stewart to discuss why Dawn Richard is a visionary, his varying experiences of energy healing, and the power of falling in love.
I wanted to start by talking about Dawn Richard, who to me, is one of the most exciting collaborations on Human Energy, and one of the most singular artists in recent years. How did you start working together and why do you think it clicked?
We were actually introduced via our booking agent, Devin, who’s now with The Windish Agency. He just really wanted to put us together, he knew I was looking to work with vocalists out of LA since I’d just moved there. I met Dawn at Jimmy Edgar’s studio – we were both having a session with her, and had just met her for the first time. I think between the three of us we wrote three songs that day and immediately had a rapport. Since then we’ve made, like, 20 songs together. She’s just so refreshing to work with. She has a lot of years under her belt and she’s been through the ups and downs of the industry, and so have I.
I was going to mention there are similarities in your careers… and you’ve been in music for the same length of time, working on various projects.
Yeah, we have a similar story in that we’ve both been burnt by the industry and come back on top – refocused, reenergised – only to be knocked down again. You realise that’s how life is in general, not just the music industry – it’s a lesson you learn. It’s up to you to pick yourself back up because the only time you fail is when you completely give up. I think we connected on that level. We’ve both put all the bullshit aside and just focused on making some beautiful music together.
We’re both so busy and have our own particular ways of writing and recording. Even though we’re both based in LA, we haven’t spent much time in the studio together. She’s got her guy who she loves recording with, and her own studio and sound and space, and I’m the same way. So I’ll end up sending her a beat as if I live on the other side of the planet, and she’ll record and send it to me online with the acapella, or vice versa. It’s cool that we understand we have our own comfort zones when it comes to writing and recording. I think you can hear that in the music.
We also have this trust together that was formed quickly. Honestly, with a lot of collaborations it takes a long time to form that trust. With her it happened very quickly. For ‘Do It 4 U’ she’d recorded to a different one of my beats and there were three verses and two choruses. I ended up just using one verse and made a new chorus out of a different bit of the song – chopped it up and sent it to her like, “is this cool if I do it like this?”, and she was like, “yeah, I love it!”. She actually fought me over the track, she really wanted it, but luckily she gave it over as I said “I’ll give you ten songs if you give me this one song!” [laughs].
It’s definitely an anthem. It seems Dawn really understood your vision for this album – these feelings of positivity and rebirth. As there’s so many collaborators on Human Energy, how easy was it to communicate your ideas on what this record was going to be about? Did you find they were all receptive?
For the most part the vocal collaborations were actually done before I even started working on the album, except for the track with Jesse Boykins III. Getting towards the end of the album writing process, I picked him up from his crib in LA and we were driving back to mine and I was playing him a new beat I’d made. And right there in the car he recorded a demo on his phone. He already had the lyrics. You know, we’re really good friends – he’s gonna be at my wedding, he’s one of my groomsmen. We definitely have a connection already, so he instantly tapped into the vibe.
On previous albums I’d go straight to my usual library of samples: diva house, ‘90s R&B acapellas, or whatever. I wanted to avoid that for this album, so I made a folder of any vocal collaborations I’d done: songs that I’d released, songs that never saw the light of day, rough recordings, whatever I’d done with friends… people that I have some sort of connection to. I made a whole folder I’d go to when I’d be writing the track and feel like it’d need a little vocal flair. I’d treat those recordings in the same way I’d treat those old school acapellas.
Having moved to LA last year, how do you feel the city has impacted upon the way you approach making music now?
The city itself and the people that are in it have definitely had an impact. For instance, when I was in New York, even though there were loads of producers and artists out there, I never really met with them or hung out that much – everybody was on their own path. In LA everyone just likes to hang out, get together and have barbeques, chill all night and talk about music or whatever. Just having that laid back yet inspiring atmosphere is definitely something that influenced me.
I live in a house now and have a back yard, I’m close to hiking trails, so being a bit closer to nature but having that urban environment around me – the balance of both those worlds has been very inspiring.
I guess New York, like London, can grind you down in comparison – you’re most likely going to be living in a very small apartment, you don’t get out into nature that much.
It’s definitely a struggle in bigger cities to have that access to nature. It’s interesting being in a place that still feels like urban sprawl but at the same time, you’re not that removed from nature. I live in Echo Park so it’s very easy to escape.
Vapor City was written in Berlin. What are the main differences you’ve found between living in LA, New York and Berlin? I imagine Berlin is more relaxed than New York, in terms of the creative scene there, and its impact on your work.
Yeah, in terms of relaxation and being more laid back, Berlin definitely shares that with LA. Obviously the weather’s quite different, even though the summers in Berlin are very beautiful and people love going outside – there’s tons of parks there.
As far as the music scene… Berlin obviously has a crazy club culture; late nights, never ending weekends…
I imagine that’s quite different to what’s going on in LA?
I mean, there’s definitely more and more of these pop-up style warehouse raves that have been happening in Downtown. There’s definitely a techno scene there, it’s not all just EDM and ADD style DJ mixes [laughs]. There’s some great underground techno things going on that are after hours and will go until 10am. But that’s not really what I’m in LA for [laughs].
You’ve moved in with your partner who’s now your fiancée. In terms of falling in love, do you feel this gave you a new energy and outlook that affected your music? There’s this notion that when people find that really special person, that can almost consume them and take all the passion out of their own creative endeavours. But it seems it’s transferred more energy into what you were already doing musically.
She’s definitely very inspiring and makes me relaxed. You know, she loves what I do and we’re very supportive of each other in our creative endeavours. It is a bit distracting at times, especially as I’m working from home and she is too, and we’re kind of obsessed with each other so it’s very easy to get out of work mode a little more than I’d like [laughs]. But at the same time, it’s just nice having that comfort and support from someone that you love.
It’s funny because someone asked me something a couple years ago in an interview when me and Lexi first started dating. I mentioned it and they said something like, “do you think this is going to affect your work in a negative way? Imagine if Morrissey fell in love and all his music became super sappy – The Smiths would’ve never existed!” [laughs].
My music was definitely more melancholic in the past and had darker overtones. It was my way of dealing with the stress and insecurities that I had. Being with the love of your life can bring a lot of those insecurities to the forefront where you have to deal with them. I feel like I’ve dealt with a lot of them and learned a lot through sharing those different things that are going through my head with her, and turning a new page in my life. A lot of that has been inspiring my music, absolutely.
I wanted to talk about these ideas of spirituality on the record, and your music in general. I know your great grandfather was a healer for his family and friends. What were your first experiences with some of these New Age concepts?
At first I was just intrigued. Once I learned about that part of my family’s history I was really curious about how it all worked. I’d read about it a little but really I’d just intuitively learned how to practice energy healing through friends and family. I felt that was the easiest way to connect to it – through people I loved.
It was just intuitively learning how to use energy within, and using my hands on people. But also meeting other people who were classically trained in Reiki and stuff like that, to see if I was actually doing it right. With some of my first experiences, honestly, I would feel completely drained and get almost depressed, to the point where I’d feel like I wanted to cry after doing some of these sessions with people. My approach to it was completely wrong. I was taking a lot of the negative energy out of people, which was healing them, but putting it right into me. When someone put it to me like that, it all started to make more sense. I started to really imagine what healing looked like in my mind. Displacing that negative energy from both of us into a different place, and forming these mental protective barriers. It sounds crazy but it was something that was really intuitive.
When I would talk to my friends or family that experienced it with me, they’d say a lot of the same kind of things, or colours that I was imagining they would imagine… like this sort of psychic transference going on. It all started to become very real to me when I gave in to it.
Was this all when you moved to LA or when you were much younger?
This was probably around the time I moved to New York about ten years ago. I stopped doing it and became very pessimistic about it. I started analysing it a bit more and lost the connection for a while. I eventually came back to it when I started surrounding myself with more positive thinkers – people who were into meditation, who were tapped into these concepts.
My friend Jimmy Edgar shared a book with me called The Energy Healing Experiments. It’s interesting this whole scientific approach to energy healing, there’s excerpts of research done by a former Surgeon General of the US. So there’s people who at one point also had this scepticism towards it, so they wanted to put it to scientific test, and a lot of their research concluded that there’s something going on there.
There’s this untapped energy that humans have that they’ve maybe become separated from due to current culture, technology, the pace of life. Reading that book and looking at energy healing in a scientific way reconnected me with that whole world because I could actually back it up a bit more. If not for other people, then for myself, just so I could feel more comfortable with it.
Speaking of Jimmy Edgar and Ultramajic, I know he worked on the art direction for Human Energy. Why did you choose him specifically? Do you feel your close personal relationship over the years meant he really understood what you were trying to do this time around?
Absolutely, that’s definitely a big reason. Another reason was just having him in LA – we live close together and being able to collaborate with him in person has been really nice.
Did you just put an idea to him as to what you wanted this album to be about and he came back with some examples?
Yeah, I talked to him and Pilar about the concept. As per usual we were both on the same page and he was already toying with a lot of those same ideas for his own project. We tend to be on a very similar wavelength, even though our music can be a bit different. As far as the intention we put into our work, it’s definitely very similar.
And considering he gave you The Energy Healing Experiments, I imagine you both have quite a similar outlook on life in general.
He’s definitely inspired me as far as seeing him going through the trials and tribulations of the music industry. Having these existential crisis moments where you’re trying to refocus. We both inspire each other in that same way – motivating each other through the ups and downs of our careers. He’s been an important person in my life, helping me get more into that realm of thinking; getting outside of my ego and out of negative thoughts, focussing on manifesting a brighter world for yourself based on your thoughts and actions.
Do you feel that these changes in your life and your positive outlook changed the sounds you work with – those perceived as brighter, more upbeat – or were you experimenting with these sounds for a while before you wrote the album?
It was definitely something I discovered over the previous year, before I started writing the album. I’d started working with a lot of pop vocalists again. I challenged myself. I’d bought an 88 key, fully-weighted MIDI controller so I could get back to my roots. You know, I grew up around playing piano, having that as my central source of inspiration. I went away from that for a long time… just not having a piano in the house. I wanted to get back into that. Challenging myself to write in major chords, rather than the typical minor transposed thing, which is kinda my go-to. I wanted to do something that was still emotional but brighter and more positive, like you said.
So you were taking it back to the more traditional song writing route – just going to the piano. If you can make it sound good on piano alone, you know you’ve got a great song at the core.
That’s what I’m always saying. It’s also been my approach to working with vocalists on their own projects. It’s why I kind of prefer working with singers over rappers. It’s really hard for a rapper to write to nothing, whereas the vocalists I work with that are strong songwriters, they can just send me the song. And once you strip away the production of a great song, it’s still there.
Human Energy is out now on Ninja Tune. Order it here.
Images: Tonje Thilesen
Words: Hugo Laing