music | features | artist interview
REM may be the biggest musical export of Athens, Georgia, but over the last decade Stewart Walker has been putting the town on the electronic music map with his deeply hypnotic techno productions
By Nick Craddock
Drawing early inspiration from the dense textural guitar washes of British 'shoegazing' bands Lush and My Bloody Valentine, Stewart Walker was at first moved to pick up the guitar, but found himself more interested in experimenting with guitar noise and effects pedals than songwriting. An avid interest in British music magazines such as the NME introduced Stewart to early electronic pioneers 808 State, The Orb, and the output of the fledgling Warp and Rephlex labels, and accordingly his interest shifted to the sound of synthesisers. After high school he sold his guitar and bought his first analogue synth. Bitten by the bug, he began assembling pieces of kit throughout his time at college – working part-time jobs in order to save money. Initially, he had no access to MIDI equipment and so early experimentation was based around the manipulation of individual tones and sounds. In 1995, Walker left college in favour of a more defined focus towards his music. Overload's Nick Craddock caught up with him as he prepared to relocate to Berlin in 2000.
You're working on a new album at the moment – how's that coming along?
You're working on a new album at the moment – how's that coming along?
As of May 19 I feel I'm only one or two tracks away from completion. This new album has taken a really long time in order to create basically because of the success of Stabiles, and having three separate tours associated with that album. Touring was very important because up until the album's release I had not been able to go out and play many shows, and this major spike in activity gave me a lot of time to work on my live show. But the album process started out very difficult because I could not clear my head. I needed to check my email, I needed to call my booking agent, etcetera. The business side overcame the artistic aspect and so I was miserable thinking 'Oh god, I'll never make another good record.' In addition to this, I was very confused about how I could make music which would appeal to fans of Tresor and fans of my own recordings. Then somehow, after throwing myself at it everyday, I started to feel creative again and actually enjoy what I was working on.
When you made Stabiles, you were looking to create an album for the home listening environment; what direction is this new album to take?
I'm probably always leaning towards a home listening album because I don't go out to clubs in Boston too often. But Stabiles was an anomaly because I had been holding onto the concept from before my Tresor relationship began. I've always appreciated the home listening side of electronic music alongside the more club-oriented tracks. With Stabiles my goal was to specifically bring techno beats into a home listening environment. And I wanted to achieve the same kind of head-nodding appreciation other non-dance electronic music receives but without resorting to trip hop clichés or overuse of ambient pads.
My goal for the new album I'm working on for Tresor travelled through many phases of possibilities until I ultimately decided against any kind of strong conceptual backbone. As I've previously stated about Stabiles, the Calder reference was just one possible association to make with the music. The best part about listening to music is that you can simply throw away all of the pre-packaged marketing imagery and make your own assumptions. But this type of personalisation can probably only take place after the press has moved on to covering a newer recording. One instance of this is that I could never listen to REM when I lived in Athens, Georgia because there was no escape from their aura, but now I can appreciate and love their music since I'm so far away from their bevy of fans and influence.
You've only been producing for a relatively short period of time – since 1997. How do you see yourself to have developed since then as a musical artist?
I have been producing since before '97, but it was that year that I felt comfortable enough with my output that I began to send music to labels for potential release. Much of my artistic development grew in tandem with each new piece of equipment I bought. My musical aspirations occurred independent of any scene so I didn't have access to anybody's studio. Thus I had to work full time and build my studio at the same time. For at least a year I went through an ambient production phase because I sold my 909 for an apartment deposit. Acquiring a sampler in this period then revolutionised my whole production process. But since 1997 I have grown more in that I record fewer pieces of music but there is a higher percentage of quality material. In my early production years, I had no idea what a piece of music would sound like until it was completed on DAT. Stabiles proved to me that I could really build a cohesive album with some degree of control over what the final music would sound like. While writing my new album, I have noticed my mixing abilities have gotten better to the point where my music sounds more clean and polished. I've taken more time to add more flourishes and neat little one-time-only elements.
What have been your main influences musically, and which contemporary musicians do you rate?
I don't think my influences are too different than those of most electronic music producers. I grew up on the Beatles and other 60's era British pop. Black Dog, Autechre, and Global Communications were early favourites of mine in the early 1990's and I'm happy with how each of them has developed further throughout the decade. On the techno side, I am a big fan of Surgeon, Rob Hood, Claude Young, Cristian Vogel, and Maurizio. I still listen to a lot of different varieties of music though. I've especially been getting into commercial rap music of all genres in the last couple of months.
You effectively use different sound textures to convey mood. Do you begin each track with a specific feel in mind?
I began my musical education as a guitarist. I always gravitated towards playing rhythm guitar meaning the texture provider. This was not in a band situation, so I would just strum and try to invent interesting chords or sometimes sound effects with echo pedals. Obviously I've got more methods at my disposal for making great sounds than before. But to answer your question, the mood generally occurs on it's own accord as I'm working on a track. Or, I can have an epiphany of sound if I happen to be away from the studio for a long time, and in a quiet place where I can think. This happened more when I had to spend more time at a day job.
Your tracks all have a strong rhythmic momentum. How important is it to you to have a groove behind the music?
My music is all groove with very little additional decoration. My ideal for techno music has always been to make tracks which are definitely changing but in such a subtle way that the changes are not noticeable unless you compare different parts of the track. So if you compare the beginning and the end of the track to the end it will sound very different. But I'm moving away from that idea more now, because when I listen to a lot of my earlier music I hear too much gratuitous change of the percussion or synth stuff. The music of my earlier period starts to sound too impatient. That is also a problem with orchestrating music on a computer sequencer. The interface begins informing your decisions. I read an interview with Autechre where they suggested turning off the screen while listening. That way your ears seize control of your listening away from your eyes.
Is it your intention to make your tracks hypnotic, or is that a by-product of minimal repetition?
For most of my music making career I've been relying on hypnosis induced by minimal orchestration. I feel that time dilates in a dance club, and that's why dance records sound so different from pop records for instance. When you listen to a piece of minimal techno, you begin to hear the circular motion of the music. There are small circles like the relationship of the kick and the clap which will most likely be one-half measure long. And then there are larger circles created by the melodic element which repeats after one or two bars. I can envision each little sound event creating a solar system-like picture. After using this method of repetition for such a long time I'm starting to get a little bored. Now that I feel comfortable in creating a strong musical mood through hypnosis, I'd like to start building larger circles, perhaps based on four or eight bars. I've often thought that gamelan music has a lot of structural similarities with techno records. Both of them build up from few elements to a point of maximum instrumentation and from that saturation point the compositions start getting reduced back down to very few elements at the end. And this all occurs in even bar intervals.
Stabiles was inspired by the sculptures of Alexander Calder. Are you interested in such arts generally?
While living in Washington, DC it was very easy to be influenced by sculpture because it was all over the place. Alexander Calder, Roy Lichtenstein, Sol Lewitt, and Claes Oldenburg especially. I was essentially a fan on these grand meaningless gestures loudly proclaiming the idea of art for art's sake. Since moving to the relatively art-less place of Cambridge, I have started taking inspiration from other parts of life, like my chronic MTV exposure.
Do you have any plans to work within other media?
I've always said that when I'm 50 I'll probably quit recording music and instead begin making sound sculptures like mechanical wooden drum machines. But for the present, making music is it for me. I'd like to change the method I make music in the near future after my touring season, but I don't want to discuss how I will do it until I try it and it actually works.
What priority do you put on your DJing activities – is this something you would like to do more of?
I don't DJ ever. I certainly respect the craft of DJing, but I think that the number of excellent DJs out there is too high for me to go in and try to make a dent. So, I play live shows exclusively. In the past, live shows have gotten bad reputations for being 'events' only to be endured between DJ's. But since I made my name as a producer, I thought it would be artificial for me to immediately begin DJing which in my mind has very little to do with producing music. Also, I felt that live shows would give me more of a challenge and more room to grow as a producer. There are so many ways that you can offer live shows that is very exciting. As much as I respect DJing, I think it is one hundred percent cooler to see a live performer and know that every piece of music they play is their own.
Your next move – to Germany – is impending. Was the destination of this move influenced by the large amount of quality electronic music emanating from there at the moment?
With my German summer vacation I'm only going to be staying for two months and touring every weekend. The reason I travel so much to Germany is that many of my most recent recordings have been released by German labels, such as Tresor, Force Inc, Background, Rampe D and a few others. So, I feel like my music is definitely appreciated there. Also, because I'm not as much of a music listener as I used to be, I am excited about meeting some other producers there and maybe having a little bit of a community before I return to the States.
I understand you spent some time living in the UK. Could you tell me a bit about that?
I only spent five weeks living and travelling in the UK after I had graduated high school in America. So not really too long a period of time. At that time I had become somewhat of an Anglophile after reading all of the music press like NME, and Select, which covered the bands or artists I cared to read about. So, I came over to hang out at clubs and buy techno records when I was 17, and that was back in 1992. I also had a great experience hanging out in Wales for part of that time and checking out the local geography. It was a great experience and I still try to come to England when I'm in Europe just to get a break from trying to speak non-native languages.
You are set to tour Germany and later in the summer, South America. How well do you think your music translates into a live environment?
I have actually been very happy with the way my music translates live. Up to this point I have been remixing and reprogramming the music you hear on records so that the live show would have elements of familiarity but not sound like I was simply playing back old sequences. Also, I think the people who have seen my show would agree that there is definitely a lot of live manipulations happening. Normally I play an hour of music, with my goal being to perform live for two hours every time, just so I can perform all of the places that DJ's perform and hopefully make live shows as accessible and flowing as a quality DJ set.
Do you have any plans to play live in the UK?
I would love to play in the UK but I have had difficulty setting up shows in the UK, even with the backing of Tresor. I get the feeling that the UK underground is held hostage by the ugly superclub phenomena, and bringing over an American artist could potentially be too expensive for a smaller club. But I still have hope. If I can play a 10-date tour throughout the rest of Europe, my hopes are high that I can get a show in the UK soon. I'd especially like to have more communication with British producers simply because I feel their home country situation is similar to my own.
What do you think the likelihood is that techno will be accepted on a wider scale in the States?
I feel it's extremely unlikely that the techno I create will be accepted in the US. Faceless music simply doesn't work here. I read an article in one of your previous issues where the writer was complaining about how Radio 1 doesn't play any music written before 1990. I live in an opposite and worse situation where the most popular radio stations don't play music after 1980. So I often run into people whose favourite band is Led Zeppelin, and it freaks me out that for these people the best music was made before they were born. I attribute this crazy behaviour to the baby-boomers owning all the media and perpetually remembering Woodstock while at the same time ignoring youth culture. But I have hope that the college radio listeners will continue to appreciate electronic music as a vibrant musical art form. I've played for more 'indie rock' type crowds and they get into my performance and start dancing, even though they are normally the head-nodding, chin-stroking type of punter.