[Interview] Stewart Walker exclusive for MNML.nl

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Daniel Logikal
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[Interview] Stewart Walker exclusive for MNML.nl

Post by Daniel Logikal » Tue Feb 21, 2006 10:47 am

Stewart Walker

Stewart Walker is one of techno's most prolific artists. He's just as comfortable releasing on labels such as Background, M_nus & Mille Plateaux as he is on Tresor, Force Inc & Belief Systems. In 2001 he started up his own label Persona Records which has seen him further etch his sound on the global massive & give him the freedom of releasing music on his terms. Away from the studio & on the dance floor, his live performances have seen him gradually move from a hardware to a more software-based set-up - but the dance floor dynamic has been the same - raw, inspired & cutting-edge. For Walker, "it’s not enough to play your music on stage & be finished with it". We spoke to Stewart following another live tour, this time in Australia...


How did the Australian dates go? What were the highlights for you?

For me the highlights were the shows in Sydney and Melbourne. In both locations, the promoters and their friends were very accommodating and friendly. I was really happy to eat some fresh pan-asian cuisine, and I got to eat raw oysters for the first time in my life! Otherwise, I really liked viewing the cities themselves, and judging how they compared to their British and American couterparts.

Did you get any opportunities to get away & relax away from your gigs while you were here?

I think the only time I really had to relax and get away was the one night where I had no performance scheduled, and my desire for a delicious 12 hour sleep were foiled by "Lost in Translation"-style jetlag. So I grabbed a Coke from the minibar along with my iPod, left the hotel and just walked alone for a few hours through the hot and humid night. Listening to Sufjan Stevens, and stopping occasionally to admire an empty park or tennis court and roll a cigarette under yellow streetlights.

You played an outdoor festival (Rainbow Serpent) while you were here. Do you do anything different, musically speaking, when playing outdoors as opposed to playing in a more traditional party atmosphere in the dark confines of a club?

I haven't played too many outdoor festivals, so I wouldn't say I've developed my "festival sound." But honestly, I don't think that my mode of performance really belongs at festivals. I can never connect with an audience from the back of a tall stage. And the sound from the main system always overwhelms the monitors which means I can't hear any detail anyway. So what usually happens is that I go through the motions of the set, starting and stopping things at the right time but never actually feeling the music or the crowd. Making a live show really involves a lot of searching during the first half of the set, to find out where I am and where the crowd is, and then adjusting the music to join the two. But for whatever reason, it's easier for me to do this in a smoky club at 3 in the morning than on a festival stage in direct sunlight.

And the Rainbow Festival didn't really work out. Not so much because of the above reasons but because 1) Due to conditions outside my control, I arrived late to the show and 2) My technical rider conditions were completely disregarded. I always ask for a table, a mixer of my own, and monitors, which I think is pretty simple. But at this festival I got none of the above, and so upon arrival I had about 5 minutes to precariously place my equipment on top of the turntable that wasn't playing a record, plug it in, turn it on, and then *boom* I was on. If luck was with me that day I could have pulled it off, but instead I just didn't feel it, and I don't think the audience did either. It was a little bit funny to have some seriously umm "affected" people come to me and ask if I could play more "psychedelic."

Images courtesy of Ollie Beetson @ www.higher-frequency.com

Your live performance consisted mainly of Abelton Live running off a Mac Powerbook. In past years you were using EMU samplers, Akai MPC sequencers & Nord Lead Synths. Is this an example of software-based alternatives starting to offer more than hardware-based alternatives, both in terms of practicality & options available?

Actually no. Or at least based on my current understanding of how Ableton Live works. Maybe I'm still too deep in my transition to favor one method over the other. But there are still techniques which were available with my sampler which are not offered in Live. But I've been quite slow and conservative to adapt to the new paradigm.

The reasons I switched to using a computer for live performances are that my hardware was beginning to break down often enough that I'd always worry about ending up at a show with broken equipment. And by this time, every manufacturer had ceased building samplers (perhaps with the exception of Kurzweil). So I knew that I was either going to have to stock up on legacy equipment, or bite the bullet and switch to a laptop option. For me, performing with hardware WAS better, because I could play my show with more muscle-memory as opposed to searching out miniscule "clip" buttons with my mouse and then clicking on them. With the MPC, I was better able to turn 4 patterns on and 3 patterns off simultaneously. There are hardware controllers solutions available to approximate this control, but I've been cranky about them because most of them are made of plastic, and I hate the idea of spending $300 on such a flimsy device. I'd rather have something made of metal with long-throw faders whose caps don't pop off in the middle of a show.

Images courtesy of Ollie Beetson @ www.higher-frequency.com

What does your home studio look like thesedays? Do you keep it simple like your live PA set-up or do you like accumulating all manner of equipment akin to an avid collector?

My home studio has always been simple, no matter if it was analog or digital. These days I like looking at old analog gear, but I don't feel the same voodoo magic from it that other people do. But to answer your question, I can't really keep more than 2 or 3 things in my studio at any one time, because I get distracted really easily. I read a statement from Brian Eno a long time ago when he said that an artist doesn't need 100 synths, he or she only need to know how to program one. And through that knowledge, then they will find a unique voice. His choices were the Yamaha DX-7 and perhaps a Sequential Prophet VS. I try to buy equally unhip but technically advanced pieces like the Korg Z1, or the Kawai K-5000 because it's pretty easy to get unfamiliar sounds out of them with a little patience.

You've mentioned previously that you like to keep a journal where you write down words or ideas that you like, so you can translate those ideas into tangible audio output. Do you still do this & through time & experience has it gotten easier for you to translate those ideas into sound more effortlessly, that is bridge the divide between conceptual idea & engineering sound without losing that initial feeling?

I feel like you have the sounds you imagine, and your studio interface. Sometimes there's communication between those two distinct realms, but never for very long, you know?

So yeah I began writing stuff in a journal, but more because I started to have more words coming into my brain than musical motifs. And I didn't want to forget them. But I look at it more as a hobby than something directly related to music right now. Because I've written down a lot of words in the last year, but I haven't really done anything with them. I'll probably dredge 'em up again for the next BBB album, but for now, it's become a dead end. Happy, and fun, but not directly applicable.

Looking back at your first album, 'Sabiles' you mentioned that it was inspired by sculptures of Alexander Calder, but that you also felt pigenholed being called being a conceptual artist. Do you still view your music as being conceptual?

At some point I experienced a drastic change in ideology. From promoting "art" to respecting "craft" because I felt that my music was only possible because of all of the time I put in, learning the craft. That included working in the studio, learning the equipment, and thinking about what I wanted to sound like. Doing that Terence McKenna thing of sitting in a quiet room high on mushrooms, and listening to the music in your brain. And from there I just decided that the practice of presenting "concepts" had another name: marketing.

So, I felt guilty about borrowing cred from AC for the "Stabiles" album. I respected him as an artist, and ultimately I felt like I was cheating by name-dropping something arty, as if I could become arty through association. And now I avoid getting too conceptual. I'll talk about what I was thinking about during a recording or planning of an album, and I'll try to present the recording with nice cohesive graphics. But I never again want to make an album about which you must first understand the artist's statement before the music makes sense.

At the end of the day, the music is the music & it must give us pleasure, both you as the artist & us as the listener, whether its conceptually based, or pop-based, or whatever.

I have a theory that we can only really appreciate an album a few years after its release, once all of the marketing and press photos have worn off. Once all that peripheral dander and fluff has dissipated, then you are left alone with the music. And hopefully by that point you have assimilated the beats and melodies into your life. And so they're no longer the sole property of the artist, but instead something you share.

You are now living in Berlin. Why did you decide to move from the US to Europe & has it worked out for you the way you wanted it to?

Briefly, because I felt that few artists of any medium survive in the US without also working a full-time job. I didn't want to make that compromise. And yes it has worked out the way I wanted. But I get move out of this city than just career opportunities. I've made some great friends both inside and outside the scene, and because of that I feel more at home here than I did in the States.

With your move to Berlin output on Persona slowed down a little. What are your plans for Persona in the near future?

Well Persona's output stopped for almost a year. Because I was occupied with other things. Playing gigs, learning German, and generally living the high life. But I felt emptiness and dread when I considered how little recording I had actually done that year. So I had to start up the label again. Also, because I tried to shop the "Grounded in Existence" album to a couple of other labels, but being in that position again was emasculating. I'm too egotistical to submit to another's tastes at this point.

Images courtesy of Sami Khoury @ http://photo.interlaced.com/

What artists, producers & labels are inspiring you at the moment?

In the electronic music field, I'm always inspired by Touane's work, and lately I've been really digging the production and DJ'ing of the Wighnomies and Donato Dozzy. But honestly, when it comes to listening to techno, I try to make it a point to not know the artists. Maybe it sounds counterintuitive since I'm an electronic producer as well, but I know that my personality sometimes allows non-musical stimuli affect whether I like somebody else's work. Therefore it's better for me to hear something without any preconceptions. In this I allow myself some blissful ignorance, until something catches my ear so strongly that I have to find out what it is.

What releases can we expect to see from you this year?

I'm releasing the "After This I'll Never Sleep" 12" in March of 2006, and then after that I'm not sure. I've promised some people a Live Extracts Part 2, but I think it's still possible that project will morph into another idea as it goes along.

Name your top 5 albums of all time, both electronic & non-electronic.

How about the top 5 that pop into my head first, that I've been enjoying this month?

1. XTC - Skylarking
2. Elliot Smith - From a Basement on a Hill
3. Cocteau Twins - Heaven or Las Vegas
4. Cannibal Ox - The Cold Vein
5. The KLF - Chill Out


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Interview conducted exclusively for mnml.nl by Daniel Filipovic
Last edited by Daniel Logikal on Fri May 23, 2008 2:42 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by plaster » Tue Feb 21, 2006 1:57 pm

hey daniel, i can say that stewart is one of the original artists on the minimal scene, thus i love this interview. great work mate!

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Post by gillsans » Tue Feb 21, 2006 10:41 pm

Thanks for this interview. Stewart Walkers music is incredible. I hope to see him on day.
Keepin' the beats deep in the groove bunker

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Post by Thomas D and Jack Thomas » Tue Feb 21, 2006 11:00 pm

Stewart is very unique. He is the exact opposite of most producers these days. A lot of techno producers are going from maximal to minimal, and Stewart's slowly been going from minimal to maximal. In a recent live pa I saw of him, he pretty much beat percussive techno the whole time. He also said it was the ground work for Live Extracts 2. :):):)

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Post by lunascape » Tue Feb 21, 2006 11:00 pm

hey really great interview - sad to hear that the RSF performance did not go so well - hopefully he comes back to sydney again soon ... x

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Post by noelpeters » Wed Feb 22, 2006 1:01 am

"But honestly, when it comes to listening to techno, I try to make it a point to not know the artists. Maybe it sounds counterintuitive since I'm an electronic producer as well, but I know that my personality sometimes allows non-musical stimuli affect whether I like somebody else's work."

Interesting point, I feel the same way, this happened to me recently supporting a minimal producer. Now I find his music difficult to listen to.

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Post by accdntly » Wed Feb 22, 2006 6:28 pm

my first gig was opening for stewart walker and i wrecked about every mix. stewart was in the audience dancing and cheering me on though being as nice as anyone could possibly be. we also ate some nice bread pudding before the show :)

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Post by accdntly » Wed Feb 22, 2006 6:32 pm

btw-excellent interveiw. thanks!!!

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