During October 2004 Frescher-Southern conducted an e-mail interview with musician Travis Stewart, aka Machine Drum. Machine Drum performed at Oscillate Night 3 and will perform at Oscillate Night 5. He can be found on the web at the Machine Drum website or at Merck (his label).
Frescher-Southern: So how did you first get into producing music on your computer?
Travis Stewart: I played in a couple of bands including one with my brother from 5th grade till 8th grade, then various other bands. I dunno. I was kinda tired of the musician pool in Hickory, North Carolina so I decided to start using computers and keyboards to make my music when I was 13 because I just wanted to have complete control over the music and I'm usually too submissive in bands to really get anything I want accomplished. I play lots of other instruments, piano being my favorite. I play guitar, drums, bass, sing, various keyboard and ethnic percussion instruments. I sample a lot of these.
F-S: Do you have an educational background in electronic music production? You had mentioned attending Full Sail in Orlando. Was that a good experience?
TS: Not really. Full Sail was OK -- just mainly something to show my parents that I could go to school and finish. I learned a lot of bullshit, basically, but it did turn me on to ProTools, however. Not like I will ever be able to afford it, though. I met lots of cool people at Full Sail, but I don't recommend attending.
F-S: And how did you first get involved with Merck?
TS: I have known Gabe from Merck for a long time over the Internet until 1999 when I sent him a Syndrone demo. He enjoyed it and decided to release a Syndrone album as the first Merck release. We've been together ever since.
F-S: How do you generally put together a new track? Any secret software or technique weapons? I've heard you use Tracker for most of your arrangements. Do you feel most comfortable with it? Or do you prefer to stay away from the sort of standard set of laptop production tools (the Native Instruments and Logic stuff, for example) as an aesthetic choice?
TS: Where to start... I guess that's always the question with my process anyway, "Where to Start?" I can't write a song unless I have a lot of good samples to work with. So I will spend weeks making samples with keyboards, instruments, voice, CDs, software synths, etc etc. I then spend time cutting these samples to bits so that I can assemble them in Impulse Tracker. Yes, I know this program is outdated, but I believe this constant forward push people have is deteriorating electronic music. I feel that everyone is constantly trying to outdo each other by using the freshest software and newest sounding gear or whatever and they aren't focusing on songform. A lot of people are getting caught up in the madness of it all and as a result there are a lot of things that are coming out that sound so similar to each other. I mean, I do it to a degree but I'm constantly getting in discussions with people saying, "Why dont you upgrade to like Logic or this or that?" and its basically like telling the drummer from Sonic Youth that he needs to get a drum set that is like Neil Perts or something.
F-S: One of my favorite Machine Drum tracks is "icya" off of "Urban Biology." Would you mind explaining just a bit how you put that track together (as an example of how you work)?
TS: Well at the start of the track is a field recording of me sitting on a train in NYC... I just kinda lined it up with the hihats of the track and did SoundForge-style microeditting to the first bits before the beat came in... The rest of the song was arranged in Impulse Tracker. The text-to-speech vocals in the background are from a text-to-speech conversation I was having with my friend Collin in Saskatchewan over NetMeeting. This was a long time ago and we were just having fun with making tts sound like gangstaz. It's all just samples arranged in Impulse Tracker -- I don't really know what to say other than that.
F-S: When performing live, do you do the remix on-the-fly thing like many performers or do you take a different approach?
TS: I used to improvise and make stuff up in Audiomulch, then Ableton Live, but the end result was to me very boring live. I focus more on songcraft these days so the live aspect has kinda been focused on less. I've been trying to incorporate more live instruments to make it a little more watchable for fans, but I almost want to start performing in a box. People need to see a body for some reason, I guess they don't want to go to a show that's just music. They need to be visually entertained. Thats why a lot of people have started including visual mediums at shows but that tends to distract people sometimes, I think.
F-S: When I came down to Orlando a couple months ago the scene seemed very loose and friendly -- and so many digital musicians I listen to come from around Orlando and the Maimi areas of Florida. Do you enjoy that scene? Are Merck and Schematic sort of the IDM-hubs in that area? Any good stuff around there that may not have made it out to other parts of the country/world?
TS: Theres a couple of other labels like Beta Bodega, Must!Delicious and Nophi. I don't know what it is with Floridian musicians. I guess it's the weather, really, cuz it rains a lot and its miserably humid and hot year round so it keeps a lot of reclusive types like myself indoors more often than others. Just like Chicago and its 5-6-month-long winter that causes so many to take comfort in their homes and hobbies. There are a handful of good bands from Orlando, as well, that aren't electronic but still really good.
F-S: What music have you been listening to lately? And how do you think IDM as a wide genre has been evolving recently? Any directions you think it might take in the coming years, or is it being wholly subsumed by other genres like hip-hop or indytronica?
TS: I've kinda fallen out of the loop as to knowing the newest stuff to hit the streets lately, but I have been listening to Dino Felipe, Wolf Eyes, Lateduster, Band of the Name, Hella, Kiyoshi Ono, Tiki Obmar.
I think that IDM has a problem. The problem is there are too many people conciously trying to make IDM, instead of just making good sounding music. IDM was what it was in the early 90s Warp Artificial Intelligence era -- but afterwards just became a very hard to name genre. There are so many labels popping up and so many kids who downloaded Reason for free and are making "glitchy" sounding tracks -- which is cool -- but it just seems people are trying too hard these days to sound different or to make something "original" which is never going to happen.
I just try to make songs that make me happy, and very luckily it has made other people happy as well! IDM has branched off into so many different directions that its really hard to predict what directions it will go. I don't think hip-hop and indytronica will cause IDM as a genre to subside because of the many directions it has gone and will go. IDM sadly will be the term that is used for a long time to describe any electronic music that is unclassifiable. Any electronic music that is certain subgenres fused will be labeled the same way. I guess it's better than being labled "miscellaneous." Hehehe!