Machinedrum: Genre-Splicing Electronica From North Carolina

Read MOJO's interview with the creator of restless yet elegant dance music for braincells.

Machinedrum: Genre-Splicing Electronica From North Carolina

Fact Sheet

  • For fans of Steve Reich, Flying Lotus, J Dilla, Boards of Canada.
  • A high school Skinny Puppy obsession led him to experimental noisemakers including Merzbow and Wolf Eyes.
  • KEY TRACKS: Now U Know Tha Deal 4 Real; Gunshotta; Center Your Love

To most Americans, North Carolina is synonymous with being home to NASCAR motor racing, BBQ pulled pork and the sort of verdant, sprawling countryside made for weekends spent huntin’ and fishin’. Bell-bottomed folk rock troubadour Jonathan Wilson is a native – but it’s not somewhere you’d immediately expect Travis Stewart, one of contemporary electronic music’s most innovative, prolific artists, to hail from.

“It was a beautiful place to grow up and I learned a lot while I lived there,” says Stewart, who’s about to move to New York after several years living in the electronica crucible that is Berlin, “but I had to do a bit of research online in the ’90s to really dig deep into underground experimental music. I was pretty limited otherwise.”

Under the nom de guerre Machinedrum, Stewart has released a clutch of albums over the last decade, but his stock has soared since 2011’s Room(s), for Mike Paradinas’ pioneering Planet Mu label. He’s also a prolific collaborator, most notably as Sepalcure with friend Praveen Sharma, evidence that he doesn’t conform to the solitary, introspective stereotype maintained by many of electronica’s kingpins. Like its predecessor, his latest album Vapor City – Stewart’s first for Ninja Tune – is a showcase for a singular brand of hyperactive but elegant electronica. Stewart bases it around a loose concept inspired by a recurring dream he had about a conurbation he’d revisit each night.

"I think without music I would be a complete mess."

“If you saw the visuals for the Vapor City live show you would see that the Grand Theft Auto first-person idea isn't too far off,” he describes. “Maybe substitute GTA for Doom or Duke Nukem 3D and you'll get the picture, but the main focus remains how it always is – what works sonically together and paints a nice picture in my head when put together.”

At Vapor City’s core is a mix of jungle rhythms refracted through a prism that includes alt-hip hop, poppy R&B, twinkling ambient, bubbling be-bop and the high-pitched Chicago dance music style, juke. Take one of its key tracks, Center Your Love, which rolls along to a chatter of beats and low-end bass drops but is counterpointed by flecks of an angelic vocal loop, balearic guitar and a hot flush of Boards Of Canada-style analogue synths.

It’s an album that straddles the line between dancefloor and armchair headphone listening which, despite its often frenetic tempo, radiates a fuzzy, emotional glow. To Stewart – who gained his early practical music experience from his membership of everything from high school marching bands to college African ensembles – it almost sounds like therapy. “I guess I can be quite emotional sometimes,” he admits with a chuckle. “I think a lot of musicians I respect are the same way – very sensitive, if not neurotic! I think without music I would be a complete mess…”

PHOTOS: Andrew DeFrancesco