Perhaps its due to his disinterest in following trends, or maybe it's because of the support he receives from Modern Love's tight-knit family—a group that includes similarly minded artists Andy Stott and Pendle Coven, as well as label head Shlom Sviri—but there's undeniably a certain something that sets Stewart apart from his peers.
That's why we decided to catch up with Stewart via e-mail in advance of his upcoming performance at the Communikey Festival to discuss his past, his present and the need to keep your friends close…and your enemies far behind.
Your music touches on a wide range of sounds, from the dubby minimalism of Basic Channel through to jacking Chicago house and classic Detroit techno, where would you say you take your primary inspirations from?
All you mention really. There are too many individual names and styles to mention. I suppose I have a long-standing love for old English warehouse techno. Around the time I left school the big underground sounds were acid house, Chicago house and subsequently Detroit techno. Early Warp and Sheffield sounds in particular influenced me. The likes of LFO, Nightmares on Wax, Marshall Jefferson, 808 State through to the Aphex era, and more recently Theo Parrish and Basic Channel have all had a big bearing.
There are also a lot of artists to which Shlom at Modern Love introduces me each time we have our regular label get together, but I have a lot of other influences which are non-electronic too.
When I left school in the late '80s I worked at a screen printers, and there was a guy there who was a fair bit older than me who knew my musical interests. He introduced me to artists such as Harold Budd, Robert Fripp, David Sylvian and Dead Can Dance on 4AD to name but a few. I suppose the mood and ambience of "Beautiful Death" certainly can take some influence from those mentioned.
I was also into The Smiths, Pixies, New Order and Depeche Mode in the '80s though the latter two have an obvious electronic influence. Hip-hop like Erik B and Rakim and Gang Starr. And I also had a fondess for some soul stuff like Loose Ends: I think the basslines, chords and groove of that genre certainly was an influence.
Your earlier works for Ai (the Peace of Mind EP, Neurofibro) had a certain electro bent that has disappeared from your recent releases. What prompted this shift in your sound?
There was never a shift really the way I see it. I sat on a vault's worth of material the old label wasn't particularly into. It was only when I was going to release tracks such as "Chicago" on Modern Love that they had an about turn and loved it all of a sudden, putting it out when really it wasn't up their street.
If you look at the first couple of 12-inches, there was actually a mixture of 4/4 techno signature and the more electro-type vibe. I decided I wanted to continue with the style I favoured and developed it further. Shlom knew the volume of tracks I had and was extremely keen to do some releases and also help nurture the sound.
You recorded your debut long-player, Neurofibro, which was named for the genetic disorder Neurofibromatosis, while you were actually dealing with the disease yourself. Was working on the album a sort of therapy for you?
Not really, it was just a half-decent concept for the album and a good title. I contacted the Manchester Medical School and they gave me permission to go into their Museum to photograph old instruments with my SLR camera. This was used for the artwork I created for the album at the time.
The title itself came about when I developed a cluster of tumours in one particular area on my back. My general practitioner said at that point that he thought I may have the condition, and I've had three operations since, though the numerous specialists I have seen don't seem to agree on exactly what it is that I have or indeed how to stop it from happening.
What was behind your break from Ai? How did you come to work with Modern Love?
To give a simple answer, we couldn't continue to work on a musical, personal and professional level. A lot of baffling behavior was going on and I decided to move on. I'll leave it at that.
Shlom (who runs Modern Love) was already a friend in Manchester and was really into my music and we certainly had a lot more in common with our musical taste, plus he's just a damn nice bloke! It seemed to make sense to work together. The Neurofibro album was sequenced by Shlom and myself, so he really should take a lot of credit for the success of that record despite it not being released on Modern Love.
As one of their "staple" artists, do you feel as if you've played a major role in helping Modern Love define its identity as a label? How has your role with the label evolved since your first release with them back in 2004?
I'm not sure. I think we all work well as a team though it sounds corny. We have good crack (not the smoking kind) when we get together and we are all influenced by one another's music. Usually it's myself, Andy, Shlom and Miles and Gaz from Pendle Coven just playing our new stuff, listening to records, having a laugh then going for a curry!
It's how label meetings should be I reckon. If I'm having a lean spell writing, which I often do, getting together usually gives me a bit of a lift and a few ideas. I think that's the same for all of us.
In terms of my sound and how it's developed with the label over the last few years, I give total thanks to the gaffer for that. He's got the ability to make us believe in our sound and to stick to our guns, despite what the current flavor of the month may be in terms of hot and cold genres.
I can't take any credit for anything other than the music I make; Shlom really should get a production credit on all our work given his major influence.
No, it's purely from a "musical director" perspective though that still probably doesn't truly describe his input. All the programming, compositions and production is done by the artists. We just get a better sense of direction on where to take something.
In some instances we've had a bit of direction with regards to arrangements: If we have a track that's almost there, Shlom will know if something needs taking out in order to complete the piece. Say we overload a track with unnecessary melodies or sounds, he's the best judge of knowing what works even if it means stripping tracks down and leaving elements out. "Dependant" is a good example. The original started with the pulsing chord, but I had a Phillip Glass-type piano melody I wrote over the top and Shlom simply said, "Lose the piano…and it's done!" and he was right.
Are you a hardware or a software guy? What's your studio looking like these days?
My studio looks like a kitchen table in a small cottage in Bolton, in fact it is…I use my laptop, controller, MIDI keyboard and plenty of software. Native Instruments, Reason, Cubase, loads of plug-ins and a set of headphones. You probably think I'm joking but I'm not.
I recently sold a lot of my hardware including a 48-channel Tascam digital desk, 606, SH-101, various modules and FX, etc. I had a Juno-60 which was used a lot in the early days too. I must admit it made my spare room look like the Starship Enterprise at one point, but what's the point if you're using only two channels from a laptop soundcard?
I'm sure I'll invest in some new hardware fairly soon, a Nord Modular has recently caught my eye, but I'm happy as long as I can program the sounds I want by whatever means. I lost interest in collecting hardware a while back, but it doesn't seem to have affected my production in any way.
You're known for producing loads of tracks, with only a handful of them ever actually seeing release. Could you describe your working process for us?
It's a varied process really. The unreleased tracks you mention span all kinds of styles—from barebones piano pieces to ambient and some harder techno. At some point I'm sure more of them will be released.
I tend to start on the keys, hence so many of my tracks having some form of melodic structure or chords, then build this with basslines, drum programming and so on. There's no rocket science to it, and I never set out to write a particular style. I'll just write a handful of tracks to which the label whittle down to just a couple for a 12-inch. It doesn't mean to say the others aren't any good; they just don't fit the bill for that particular release.
Metanarrative found you exploring deeper and more atmospheric territory from your long-running Warehouse Sessions series, were you consciously exploring new territory with Metanarrative?
Possibly, but a lot of these tracks were written over the same period so there wasn't a particular month where I would say "Right, time to make something deeper…" It literally is a case of writing track after track and then a picture gradually unfolds helping to give a sense of direction.
How long was the writing process for that particular album? Did you find yourself going back into your archives and pulling out old material that you thought might fit within the release?
I've never put out archived tracks as such, but I probably took two-and-a-half or three years on Metanarrative to get it finished or at least have a big enough pool of material in which to do the sequencing. We toyed with various selections and we'd leave gaps in the sequencing to try to fill once the right track came along. I was writing both the Warehouse Sessions and Meta pretty much at the same time.
The bulk of your catalogue, despite its eclecticism, is clearly the work of a singular artist, whereas there is one 12-inch in particular that sticks out like a sore thumb. I'm speaking, of course, about "Rise." What inspired this particular track? Why is it so far removed from your usual output?
To be perfectly honest I almost never played the track to the label. I've written in lots of different styles, and this started as a purely musical Gamelan-style track with no beat or bass. Contrary to some reviews of "Rise," it's not based on chopped-up Gamelan samples. I composed, played and programmed the whole thing using a kalimba-type instrument in Reason, really quite simple. I played around with the time signatures and then added beats and developed it from there. At the end of one label meeting I said to Shlom, "What do you think of this?" He shook his head and said, "What the fuck is wrong with you, Mark?"
It blew his mind a bit, and that's a great feeling seeing your mates buzzing about a track which you weren't totally confident about. I think this purely comes down to a confidence thing. When you make something that is a bit different you almost find it hard to gauge how good or bad it is. I'm always being told I'm the worst judge of my own music, so that's why the selection process (thankfully) is done by the label and not me.
A bluffer's guide to Claro Intelecto
Five essential tracks from the studio of Mark Stewart
Peace of Mind (Electrosoul)
The single that broke Claro Intelecto to the world. Easing in on a bed of descending keys, the track lulls you into a sense of security before locking into a killer electro groove that is as heavy as it is expertly crafted…and still sounds just as fresh today as it did six years ago.
Stewart's second single for Modern Love comes off like an homage to classic Aphex Twin, all lush pads and bleeping percussive patterns. An exercise in tension and restraint, "Patience" threatens to break free into an over-the-top acid excursion; but Stewart succeeds in keeping things on an even keel, riding the beat to its conclusion.
Finding Stewart operating in more foreboding territory, "Instinct" is a mesh of pinging synth stabs and industrial strength bass that rattles off into the ether before locking into a Detroit-style groove that would give C2 a run for his money.
Previously released as a limited edition one-sided 12-inch on Modern Love, "Dependant" later found a home on Stewart's second full-length release. The track sees Stewart laying down a bed of pulsating chords and noisy synthetic textures before building up one of his most jacking rhythms to date.
Weirder than Villalobos and far removed from the rest of Stewart's catalogue, "Rise" is eleven minutes of crazed Gamelan patterns underscored by a locked-in 4/4 kick. Trippy, heavy and expertly crafted, "Rise" is a true standout in a catalogue filled with gems.
Yes, I've brought loads of material that's shite and we just take the piss out of each other. I think more often than not Shlom would acknowledge that a lot of the material is still good enough to go out, but we feel a sense of watering down our sound so to speak. I've toyed with the idea of going under another name from time to time to get more stuff out there but when it comes down to it I just want to be Claro, no matter where my sound takes me because, after all, it's just me.
From your frequent collaborative performances to the tag-team style podcast you turned in for RA last year, you've obviously built quite a healthy working relationship with Andy Stott. How did you two come to work together? Can we expect any collaborative releases from you two in the future?
I've known Andy since he was 13 or 14. He was a school mate of my younger brother Kevin and he used to stay over at my parents a lot. He was influenced at quite an early age when he'd see my set up and writing tunes back then, way before I had a release.
Andy, like me, had a bit of playing ability on the keyboard and always used to churn out loads of musical ditties. Like me, he started without a sequencer and this really forced us to compose pieces which were more musical. Every week he would come round with tapes asking my opinion and you could tell from an early age he had a lot of ability. Andy met Shlom whilst coming to one of my early gigs in Manchester, and I encouraged him to give Shlom a demo. I remember he was so nervous about it, but he immediately got signed to the label as the talent was so apparent.
After the success of Metanarrative and the Warehouse Sessions series, what's next for you as an individual artist? Have you got any big surprises in the pipeline?
Coming up there's a new 12-inch being finalized, then maybe a few more singles before making an attempt on another album. Also a remix or two—one for Black Dog very soon—and me and Andy are working (very slowly) on another project, which is a collaboration-type thing. We'll have more info on that in the future.
Resonance photo credit: Hans vanHouw