Filed under: Interview
American techno producer Stewart Walker grew up in Atlanta, Georgia and has lived in various places throughout the U.S. In 1999, he received critical acclaim for his release “Stabiles” released by Force Inc. Music Works of Germany, bringing him to global attention. Beginning his imprint Persona in 2001, he has provided promotion of his own music as well as other prominent new artists. He is currently living in Berlin.
Interview by Laura Brown (ArcTokyo)
HigherFrequency (HRFQ) : You were first brought to Japan by Fumiya Tanaka, right? How did you connect with him initially?
Stewart Walker : Fumiya’s label manager Keiko contacted me in the spring of 2001 to invite me to perform at my first Chaos parties. Since then, I’ve been coming over every summer to play at Liquid Room in Tokyo and Rockets in Osaka. This year, we will be performing at Yellow now that Liquid Room is moving its location.
HRFQ : Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, were you influenced by country or the local music at all? What have been your main influences?
Stewart : At the time that I was living in Atlanta, I was not influenced by the local music. I actually went to college in Athens, GA which had been famous in the ’80s for being the home of R.E.M. and the B-52’s. When I was hearing this music all the time, I was only inspired to avoid it because it was so prominent everywhere. Now that I have moved away, I can listen to this music without feeling like I’m hearing it too much. As for my musical influences, they seem to change every year. When I was just beginning to create electronic music, I was much more influenced by other electronic musicians such as Brian Eno, Aphex Twin or Autechre, and then later I was influenced more by Detroit artists such as Juan Atkins, or Robert Hood. Nowadays, I have music which I really like, but it’s difficult to say if I am influenced by it, because I don’t necessarily want to incorporate their sound into my own. So, my favorite artists of the last year have been Elliot Smith, Cannibal Ox, Radiohead, and Wilco. At the moment, I don’t think such sounds are present in my music.
HRFQ : You recently moved to Berlin. Has your time outside of the Bush-powered states inspired you? How has that move impacted your music?
Stewart : When I first moved to Germany, I was concerned with detailing the differences every day. After six months that grew boring though. Now I am just very satisfied to live in Europe because life for me has been easier here. The cost of living is much lower than it was in Boston (where I was living after Atlanta). Also there are more opportunities for me to perform around Europe which I’m happy about. On the political side, I focus more about what’s happening in America now that I live outside. Maybe it’s I don’t speak enough German and because most English-language magazines I encounter are news, rather than culture.
HRFQ : Are there any differences in the way your music is recognized in Japan and in Germany? How does the reception and/or audience differ?
Stewart : I believe that Europeans have been living almost exclusively with electronic dance music for the last 15 years. Because of this, the audiences know what kind of music they want to hear when they go out to a show, and if they hear music which falls outside of those parameters they don’t like to adjust to the new sound. It’s been my experience with the Japanese that they have a broader range of tastes, and are usually excited just to go and see a good show. So, I don’t feel the pressure to conform so strongly in Japan. I feel I have more creative latitude to experiment as I’m playing.
HRFQ : For your live PAs, what new technologies are you currently using?
Stewart : That’s a funny question, because I would say that my live performances are not utilizing very much in the way of cutting edge technology. In fact, some of the equipment which I’ve been using has been discontinued by the manufacturers so I have to scramble right now to plan a new live show for the future, which will include modern equipment that I can replace if it breaks.
HRFQ : Can you explain a bit about the set-up of your live performances? You’ve mentioned that you aren’t a big fan of straight laptop-live performances.
Stewart : My live shows have been based on an Akai MPC and an EMU sampler for the last 4 years. And when I started making live shows laptops were not a possibility because live-performance software did not exist. At this time, many of the laptop shows I witnessed consisted of artists just playing back individual songs. The reason I started playing live was so I would have more flexibility than a DJ to deconstruct and remix my work during a performance. As the technology got better and the computers got faster, I tried a couple of times to switch to a laptop, but I found that the working method still didn’t appeal to me. Now that my Emu has become obsolete though, I am going to research the possibility of using a computer as a sampler. However, I would still use the MPC as my front-end. I like the MPC because it keeps my hands visible… And it’s important that the audience can see the performer’s hand because even though the music is electronic, it’s still coming from a human being, just like he is playing a guitar. So, not everybody in a dance club cares about the physical movements of the performer, but some people do. And I think performance ability will become more important as we move away from turntables as the dominant solution.
HRFQ : What do you see as the next step in electronic performances?
Stewart : Because of Ableton and Native Instruments, we’ve finally seen music software improve over hardware alternatives. And the music hardware companies have seen this coming but for the most part they have chosen not to compete. Roland continues to make analog-modeling toys, Akai continues to release the same products from 10 years ago with different colors, and everybody else either goes out of business or gets bought out by a computer hardware company. So, software has won the power and portability battle, but in my opinion, there is still a lack of acceptable hardware controllers to manage the sound coming out of the computers. Most of the hardware controllers I have seen up to this point have been molded plastic. That means that they’re probably fine for a studio where they’re never moved, but I can’t imagine traveling the world with one and expecting it to last. I like how the good DJ mixers have a very simple and clear design but are built solid, and they’re also modular so if a slider breaks, you can easily replace it.
HRFQ : Can you explain little about the structure in your equipment for your production work? What do you usually use?
Stewart : Oh, my studio’s really simple right now. It’s based on an MPC sequencer, a Microwave XT synth, a computer and two speakers. I’ve recently bought an analog mixer, which I haven’t had for 8 years, and I’m going to use this mixer to punish the digital sounds in my collection, to hopefully make them more powerful. But the brain of my studio has been and will continue to be Logic Audio. I’m still learning how to do cool tricks with it.
HRFQ : Regarding your artistic process, you’ve mentioned previously that you sometimes initially come up with verbal themes and then go to the composition from there. Is this a regular process for you?
Stewart : I still keep a journal where I write down words and ideas that I like. However, I’ve always found it difficult to go directly from words into music. So, I also take inspiration from mental pictures. Sometimes if I’m right between being asleep and being awake, I can create some images in my brain that are very inspirational. These too are a factor for the “mood” I want to create, but ultimately, when I am working on sounds, or loops or songs, I have to stop being conceptual and think like an engineer. I have to think specifically how to get the sound I want, or how to twist some knobs to get into the area where I like the sounds, and most importantly, think they fit with the rest of the song.
HRFQ : What are you currently working on? Do you have one particular inspiration for this work?
Stewart : I have just finished an album of down-tempo material, which will be in the vein of “Stabiles” but with more acoustic drums and more orchestration. That’s called “Grounded in Existence” and will be released by Persona within the next 6 months. I’m very happy with it and it’s definitely my favorite work I’ve ever made. Most of that album was written in Boston, and it was based on the “come down” from the euphoria of the 1990’s bubble of culture, technology, and prosperity. I really came of age during the US Gen X/Rave movement, and I really thought that my generation was going to change the world, the economy and the music on the radio. After 2000, I realized what folly that thinking was, and realized that I’m still going to have to wake up tomorrow, as a broke-ass artist, and find a way to pay my rent. Maybe this album could have been subtitled, “Gonna have to find a job now.” So it’s a domestic album in the way of “Stabiles,” but rejects stoned floatiness instead trying to embrace coffee-induced anxiety.
HRFQ : With your label Persona, what have you recently been focusing on?
Stewart : Persona went on a break when I moved to Germany. I had to take time away from running a label to take some language classes, and I was playing a lot of shows on the weekends, which makes me less productive during the week. At this moment (August) I’m in the process of re-building it, and signing new music, and artists and rebuilding the look and feel of the label.
HRFQ : Have you signed any new artists to your label and if so, who?
Stewart : I’ve recently been very impressed by the music of the artist Touane from Italy. He has recently moved to Berlin to participate in the renewal of Persona and we already have two albums full of excellent material from him. So, I’m very optimistic that Persona will progress from it’s humble beginnings as a US-based minimal techno label to fulfilling its dream of defining a new sound and direction in electronic music.
End of Interview
Leave a Comment so far
Leave a comment