An instrumental family and net-fostered interest in dance music in part explains his eclectic stockpile of records, which to date seem to touch upon nearly every genre imaginable via his Machinedrum alias and platter of side projects. It was in fact one of these that first brought him to the attention of Miami tastemaker Merck. Stewart's Triskaideka album as Syndrone—an alias "more about experimenting with electronic sounds," he reflects—also launched the label before becoming an early home for his Machinedrum hip-hop/jungle hybrids.
It was while studying at college that Stewart began gravitating towards pop music, an interest that eventually led him to relocate to New York. Through Nomrex, originally a battle-focused imprint headed by DMC Champion IE.Merg, he became immersed in producing for vocalists like Theophilus London and Chicago soul singer Jesse Boykins III—work he still continues with today. Had the label's eventual demise not revived Stewart's Machinedrum focus, records like Room(s) may never have taken shape and if coincidence had not played its part, we may even have been cheated of Sepalcure—his Hotflush-approved collab with Praveen Sharam—too.
What was it like growing up in North Carolina?
I grew up around a lot of camping, lot of hippies. My parents were hippies. I don't know if you could tell they were hippies now, unless you're at my parent's house late at night—they listen to music really loud and my dad's always playing harmonica.
You had quite a musical background?
My grandpa is in a country band. My first experience with music was going to my grandparents' place. He'd have guitars there and tape machines so I could record myself singing songs about my babysitter. I grew up with a piano in the house—my mom used to play, a lot more than she does now—and my dad has always toyed around with a lot of different instruments. We even made the mistake of getting him a miniature bagpipe. That was probably the worst idea.
My cousin was a singer-songwriter. She actually really influenced me, the fact that she was writing her own songs. She played guitar. It was very folky, with a sense of humour. She would always sneak me tapes of different music without my parents knowing, when I was in elementary school—Metallica, Green Day, Rancid and some other punk stuff.
Were you in any bands?
I was in some, just for fun. We didn't really play out or anything, we would just get together and record it. I was in two bands that played out. We would cover Weezer, Smashing Pumpkins, Hum and various other "alternative rock"—I really didn't have any other options. I grew up in such a small town and the only other musicians I could play with were just into that kind of stuff, they weren't into electronic music.
When did you take to electronic music?
It was at a point in middle school when I started getting into electronic music, around eighth/ninth grade. I was disappointed with the fact that I couldn't make the kind of music I wanted to with other people, so I think I naturally gravitated towards electronic music because it is more of a solo effort. Around then I started researching software. My mom was also really into computers, so whenever she got a new one I would get the hand-me-down. I was already an Internet nerd at that point and enjoyed meeting people from around the world who were also into electronic music.
so I kind of became his stand-in girlfriend."
Were there any records or labels that you were particularly interested in at this point?
I was into a lot of Wax Trax and industrial stuff like Skinny Puppy, Pig Face and maybe a little bit of Nine Inch Nails. Then I started getting into Aphex Twin and Autechre in early high school—that was my first introduction to Warp. When I discovered Warp that opened my mind up to paying attention to labels instead of just seeking out individual artists. I knew that I could get anything from this label and it was going to be good.
When did hip-hop enter the equation and what ultimately drove you to merge jungle and Warp-style IDM with hip-hop as Machinedrum?
Hip-hop was always there too, but mainly MTV-type stuff like Dr Dre, Wu Tang, Pharcyde, Beastie Boys, Digable Planets and Onyx. There wasn't much music I wouldn't listen to. I started getting into more underground stuff like Rawkus Records, Stones Throw and Anticon after high school. I was a huge Def Jux fan. Company Flow was also a big influence.
There's something raw and undeniable about hip-hop and most urban forms of music. There's so much freedom of expression that isn't present in a lot of genres of music. Jungle shared this with hip-hop—lots of carefree sampling, making older songs into your own. The tempos were also similar in that jungle can often be mixed into hip-hop because of the half-time/double-time tempos.
When did you start Machinedrum?
I started the project in my last two years of high school—1998-9. I was basically experimenting with Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, µ-Ziq—chopped up jungle, but going back and forth between that and a hip-hop feel.
I had sent round a demo but nobody really got back to me on it. Then I remember this label, Crack5—which was a CD-R label—got back to me with some criticism, like "you're not panning any of your stuff" and "there's no real mixing going on," which was an eye-opener to actually start learning how to do this. I was quite a punk about making music—I didn't care sonically how it sounded to other people, it was more about getting out emotions and aggression.
After college you moved to New York and got involved with Nomrex. Could you tell us a bit more about it and what happened?
I moved to New York City and instantly started working with vocalists like Tiombe Lockhart, Addiquit and other people that I had known before moving there. Eventually I met Theophilus London (who went by the name Thelonious Kapps at the time), Jesse Boykins III, MeLo-X and Mickey Factz. Once I had made all these connections we decided it would be a good idea to make Normrex more of a production team than just a label. A Brooklyn-based studio was started. Mixtapes were made for Theophilus as well as a full-length album. Once the mixtapes started circulating a bit of hype started growing around Theophilus and the inevitable happened—big labels and manager-types started filling his head with ideas of a bigger and better life than the underground/boutique level we had established. He eventually parted ways with us.
After he left things went quickly downhill. The Machinedrum album Want to 1 2? was put on the backburner mid-manufacturing stage, all other planned releases were also subsequently scrapped and the label started to fall apart. Too many eggs in one basket-type situation. I am disappointed by the outcome, but I also learned a great deal about the music industry in a short amount of time.
We played a show together in New York before I moved there—that's when we first met. Then whenever I was coming through on tour I would stay at his place. After moving there we were hanging out more and throwing parties together. We used to collaborate on his Percussion Lab events and also a party called Cassette NYC, but we never really collaborated musically until just a little over two years ago. We had made music together, but it was just drunken nights jamming and not really recording anything. Then there was this time his girlfriend went out of town—she was away in Sweden for a month—so I kind of became his stand-in girlfriend. One night I said, '"Let's stop playing video games. You have this studio, let's make a full track." And that's when Sepalcure was born. We weren't really making the tracks to put out. We were just doing it for fun. We sent them to our friends—Alex and Dave from Dub War—because we thought they would like them. Little did we know that Alex was doing PR and A&R for Hotflush. Dave was also in communication with Paul (Scuba). Without us knowing, they sent the tracks to Paul and he just hit us up one day.
Sepalcure, Machinedrum, production work and various other aliases—do you need to have a lot of different commitments?
I have loads of unfinished tracks from the past and things I don't even know I will ever finish. I don't want that to happen any more. Too much of that stuff is unresolved and I would like to have more resolution in my life. It's better for me to narrow down. Once I start getting involved in too many projects, especially lately, everything suffers. Every single project suffers from the lack of focus and me not knowing how to say no.
Is that why you changed your approach with Room(s)?
A lot of the tracks were made while I was on the road. I started trying to make tracks as quickly as possible because I knew that if I made just a little bit of an idea and let it sit around in my hard drive for too long, there would be a big disconnection between the original intent and the outcome. It was an approach that I never really attempted before.
I am really excited with the outcome so far. It's an exciting process to just be done with songs. I think that's an important thing for all artists. How to be OK with abandoning your artwork. Essentially, art is never finished. You can toy around with it for the rest of your life and it will still never be finished, so why not abandon it earlier than you would normally?
You've just spent the summer in Berlin, what's it like compared to New York?
There are a lot of artists here really pushing sound and doing innovative things—which is similar to the hardworking vibe in New York, but it's way more relaxed. There is less of an immediacy to translate your art into money here. When you have that pressure to work your ass off on music to make just enough money to get by, there's something missing that's really pure about making music and really good art.
What is your stance on the music scene in New York?
New York has become a world hub of everything, so it gets a bit blurry and hard to tell what is the scene there, but I think a big problem that is stopping any fresh scene from popping up is that fact that kids can't really go to parties. Every party is 21 and up, so you're losing out on all the youth—and they are the sponges.
They are the ones that want to be influenced, they're the ones that get the most excited at parties and, in the end, have this naïve approach to hearing all these influences and creating something new. I think some of the most innovative music comes from that. From naïveté, from people not really knowing what they're doing—just reacting, rather than being jaded.
Do you still consider yourself naïve, despite a decade of experience under your belt—or at least hope or wish to be so?
I wish I were a bit more naive of course. I think this benefits artists in that their minds aren't clouded by over-knowledge or saturation of a certain sound, style or method used to create. On the one hand it's important to understand where a style of music originates from and the history of it. On the other hand, if you consider all this history and what is and isn't considered "correct" under the defining laws of a genre there is a tendency to box yourself in. I feel like it's harder to form a box around yourself when you don't necessarily consider genre limitations due to a simple lack of experience and knowledge. When the box is off, it's easier for one to innovate.