Charting the the different influences behind the work of Stewart Walker can be an intensely confusing affair. Having released everywhere from m_nus to Mille Plateaux, his sonic interests migrate quickly as he experiments with different genres and production techniques constantly. The urge to experiment with different sounds was also instrumental in Walker’s relocation to Berlin. Originally hailing from the Atlanta, Walker felt a strong draw towards Europe, inspired in part by American writers who made the same pilgrimage, such as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and Henry Miller.
With the recent release of his sixth full-length LP, Ivory Tower Broadcast, we decided to catch up with Walker to discuss the album, working for Native Instruments and how dining arrangements in Berlin have changed over the years.
So first off how are things? You recently put out Ivory Tower Broadcast, your sixth LP. How has the response been so far?
It’s only been a week since it came out, so it feels too early to really gauge the feedback. Reviews so far have been really positive, and I’ve been really pleased that many of the reviewers seem to have researched my interviews to contextualise the music within my own frames of reference.
Prior to Ivory Tower Broadcast, your last release was a number of years ago, what have you been working on in the interim? Was it a struggle to come back to the project and do you feel like this most recent album marks a change in direction?
It’s not entirely true that I’ve been lying fallow over the last 6 years. Since “Concentricity” was released, I released the “Scratched Notes” EP on Curle in 2010, and four digital EPs on my Son of Cataclysm label in 2011. But after working so hard on the concept and music of SoC, it became really clear to me that digital EPs don’t even make a ripple. No matter how much time I spent on a compelling concept, and making kick-ass music, “the medium is the message” still holds true today. If I really wanted critical consideration and a platform for my ideas, I needed to do an album.
Incidentally, as I have said in a few other interviews, Ivory Tower Broadcast is the third complete album I’ve written during this period of time. With ex-Persona label-mate Touane, we wrote an amazing afrobeat and fusion-jazz tinged album called “Golden Parachutes … Into the Dark Grey Morning” which has been picked up and dropped by two labels at this point. The second label even went so far as to press vinyl but they never got it together to actually release the project. The second album was a band-project called Solis which I wrote with Samuel Rouanet and a local Irish singer but the other two participants were too busy with their own projects to really commit to signing, promoting and touring an album. So I finished it just for my own pleasure.
The overriding point here is that writing music comes relatively easily, but selling music requires a dedicated team, and many of the people I work with are spread so thin with their own dream projects that it can be difficult to pursue my goal to completion. As a result of that, I am resisting any future collaborative urges and trying to stay focused on my own music and career.
The press release for the LP references post-punk, techno, DJ Screw and Appalachian mountain music… did you make a conscious effort to include such a diverse array of influences or did they come through more naturally?
Over the past couple of months I’ve read a few different press releases from producers who got so inspired by one event that they wrote an entire album in a week. I’m jealous of that because I usually can’t even complete a song in a week. Completing a song is an iterative process, and I often spend more time listening to a sketch than recording a bunch of new elements. Also, there are always new production techniques I want to learn and explore. So, the whole course of writing an album usually takes me six months of recording and then another six months of fine-tuning. Naturally, influences and inspiration rise and fall over such a long period of time.
On Ivory Tower Broadcast, the original idea was to make a homage to DJ Screw, but indirectly - I didn’t want to appropriate his sound. There’s already too much ugly history of white musicians appropriating African-American tropes, and I have my own history and terroir. Similarly, I have no direct connection with post-punk or any of the other genres listed above, aside from having been a fan of these styles. Instead I’m obsessed with finding my own authenticity and amplifying it. Like many, I became a techno producer following the Chicago/Detroit/Berlin templates but after my tenth year of making techno (e.g. 2006), I realized that my own artistic relation to these genres was completely tangential. Europeans always ask me if I’m from Detroit, and then they seem completely mystified when I say Atlanta. Like what did Atlanta, GA have to do with techno, and what was I doing recording ambient music inspired by Fax and Apollo and Rather Interesting in Athens, GA, in 1994?
At some point, I realised that there’s no difference between taking inspiration from Pete Namlook (RIP) while living in Georgia, and taking inspiration from John Fahey or early Cure albums while living in Berlin. I am the common thread, and I can shape influences from anywhere and any time into my own sound. This is why I was overjoyed when a recent review of Ivory Tower Broadcast called my music Post-Everything.
You’ve released on a pretty diverse array of labels in the past from techno labels such as m_nus, Curle or Tresor to more experimental outlets such as Mille Plateaux. What is it you are looking to achieve when you’re composing and what do you think the link is between these different approaches?
It’s important to remember that all of these releases have been spread out over seventeen years and six different cities, in pre-computer analog synth and drum machine-based studios, or laptop-based bedroom studios, and now a more fully featured recording studio with drums, guitars, synths, amplifiers, and a growing microphone cabinet. It would be more strange if my music sounded exactly the same over that period of time.
Otherwise, I just don’t want to make the same song twice and I’m not trying to hone a formula. Every time I press record, I am starting with no preconception beyond “let’s experiment and have fun with sound.” As you can imagine, sometimes I spend six hours banging my head against the wall and end up with garbage. Or sometimes underneath all the garbage is one beautiful sequence or chord progression that I listen to for years until I find the right matching component.
As I mentioned before, I am always reading up on music technology whether it’s a new plug-in or a Mid-Side drum recording technique and I feel compelled to try it to see what kind of sound comes out. I have a pretty clear idea of what my own palette is and what I like vs what I don’t like. A lot of this experimentation ends up wasting time, but making music is as much about the journey as it is the final product. These days, I think I’m getting good at mashing up a bunch of these techniques into a rich and complex result which still sounds natural.
You have spent a significant time working for Native Instruments, in what capacity? Do you think working there has had a big impact on your production?
I’ve been freelancing for NI for about three years in the Product Design department of Traktor. Part of my job is as a mastering engineer for the Traktor Remix Sets sold online by record labels and the other part of my job is that I get to research and evaluate new types of DSP algorithms and decide if they could be useful in the future. Otherwise, I am frequently the dissenting voice in group decisions about new software or hardware features, presenting my opinions as a live performer rather than a DJ.
As a researcher, I love being one of the first to play with new proprietary sound algorithms, and as a mastering engineer I have the amazing benefit that I receive all the stems of the songs which I then process into Remix Sets. In that regard, I often feel like Neo in the end of the Matrix when he sees all of the information hidden in his environment. I get to see learn how a wide variety of producers create their tracks, whether they’re simply eight tracks bounced from Ableton or forty eight bounced from Pro Tools. But since techno production has become my day job, I feel much more free to explore different musical concepts in my own creative time whether that’s recording instruments or working at different tempos and time-signatures.
Was this the reason for your move to Berlin? How long have you been there for now, and how do you feel the city has changed a great deal over the years?
I moved to Berlin in 2003, so I’ve been here just about eleven years. I came primarily for musical reasons and that I could actually earn a living making records and playing shows. When I left the US, it felt like the local scenes didn’t really respect local producers and there was also a strong political repression working to essentially criminalise electronic music events. But I’d honestly been dreaming about living in Europe ever since I read stories of the “lost generation:” Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and Henry Miller living in Paris in the 1930s, writing books, and living a bohemian life. And in my teens, I got all of my music news from imported issues of NME and Melody Maker, that I had to pickup at a downtown bookstore.
Berlin has changed a huge amount since my arrival. I would even venture that Berlin has changed more radically than any other European city over the last ten year. Today, it’s hard to remember how absolutely desolate it was, and I often regret not taking more photos. Maybe back then you had a handful of nice restaurants on Alte Schönhauserstr, but now you can’t throw a rock without hitting a fancy café or clothing shop. I can’t really complain about gentrification though since I was part of the first wave of artists. I actually like having more good restaurants to go to and don’t miss the era when the main dining options were döner or falafel.
Tell us a little bit about your experiences running labels Persona and Son of Cataclysm. What was the original motivation for setting up Son of Cataclysm for example? I believe the imprint’s Soundcloud bio goes into some detail on the subject…
In my experience, running a record label is best compared to a self-destructive addiction. It felt really good at the time but in retrospect it’s clear that it was ruining my life. Most tangibly because I lost my life’s savings when I was trying to maintain Persona’s monthly release cycle. Spending tens of thousands of Euros per year on mechanical royalties, studio space, record manufacturing, and publicity, it was really easy for me to lose sight of reality. Record sales were going down at an alarming pace, yet my distributors were calling me to say “we’ve sold out and have an order for 10, please press 300 more!” And this was in the week before they announced their bankruptcy. And when that bankruptcy occurred, I lost not only the money for the previously sold records, but I also lost access to the upcoming records sitting in their warehouse as they were now “assets” of the court. Six months afterwards I finally got back a palette of 2000 records, but you can’t sell old stock when the vinyl sales cycle is only about what’s new this week. So, my cellar is still full of unsold stock reminding me of how mad I am when I start to fantasise about running a label again.
In retrospect, I’m a better musician than label manager. Some artists manage to write music, play gigs every weekend, and run a record label all at the same time, and I respect the hell out of them. I just can’t do it myself.
Finally what’s next for yourself? Are there many live dates booked to coincide with the album’s release?
At the moment, I’ve just performed four shows for the album tour including my Boiler Room performance, and don’t have anything scheduled after that which is kind of fine by me. I am in an R&D phase for my live show because just playing loops from Ableton Live isn’t really doing it for me anymore. Too many people think I’m DJ’ing, and I can’t deny that’s what it looks like. No matter how many months of preparation go into writing material and processing it into loops, this preparation doesn’t come across when I play. And though the sets I’ve played have been pretty flawless executions of my sound, I don’t think they’ve been much to look at. So, I’ve tried adding the live koto playing, and my recent release party added a live drummer and a VJ to the mix to improve the visual interest.
That’s the direction in which I want to continue working. The days of me playing the club circuit every weekend with Ableton and a controller probably aren’t going to happen again. I tried to bring as much creativity to the format as possible, but aside from a few notable exceptions, the audiences who came to these shows wanted less creativity and more boom boom. Techno was always a combination of the artistic and the physical for me and for a long time I thought the two could co-exist in nightclubs, but if I want to present a more artistic music these days, I think festivals, theatres and concert halls are probably better venues.