The Director's Cut: Machinedrum - A View Of U

Machinedrum and his collaborators break down the ideas and process behind his AOTY contender 'A View Of U.'
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Machinedrum

Machinedrum

Every year there seems to be a bass album that is released to near universal acclaim. Critics, fellow DJs and producers and most importantly, fans love it. Machinedrum’s A View Of U was that in 2020. Traversing genres with the ease of a politician lying in a speech, it meshes drum and bass, dubstep, hip-hop, electro, lo-fi and even house with a soulful and elegant shine on top. There are moments where it is gritty and tough like “The Relic” and others where it is polished and refined like on “Wait 4 U.” There are also moments of stadium-sized euphoria with the finales, “Inner Eye” and “Ur2yung,” which was originally made for Kanye West, who eventually passed on the instrumental.

The album is not built like many of his other albums. This is more of a compilation, pulling together some of his favorite songs that didn’t make other projects and giving them a home on this album. Even with the scattershot nature of this approach, the album doesn’t feel completely disjointed. It still has some cohesion with the many collaborators like Freddie Gibbs, Sub Focus and Chrome Sparks all adding something interesting to the record.

He has also been meditating daily now and he credits that process for giving him clarity for selecting the songs on A View Of U. He would sometimes have out of body experiences during those sessions, which became an overall theme for the record.

We asked Machinedrum, real name Travis Stewart, to break down the album even more for a Director’s Cut feature and he went above and beyond. He explains the concept behind the album, how the collaborations came together and what went into each song. Many of the collaborators also offer their insight on each track as well. Get to learn about the samples used and see if you can pick out what album era many of these songs come from.

Get your copy of the album here via Ninja Tune and stream it below.

Background On The Album:

Travis -

I put together my latest album A View Of U with the intention of assembling tracks that were essentially a “best of” collection of the past 8 years of my work. This was a very different approach than any other album I’ve made as typically I write albums within a specific period of time and the songs are intended to work together as a narrative or concept. I realized that over the years certain tracks I’ve written didn’t necessarily fit on projects I was working on at the time, yet they still remained some of my favorite tunes I’ve ever written.

Choosing to put together an album in this way made me have to find ways to be able to look at my work from a more objective perspective so that I could make better decisions on what tracks should go on the album. Time separation was definitely a helpful factor in this. The more time between when the songs were created and when I critically listened to them, the less I found myself forming subjective opinions when listening back for them.

Another huge help in the selection process was discovered through a new meditation practice that I’ve been doing daily, which inevitably lead to defining the overall theme of A View Of U. In my meditations I reach a point where I am able to become aware of my body, the space around my body, the space of the room I’m in, and ultimately the space of all of space. It is from this place of loving awareness that I’m able to see myself from a point of view that allows me to focus on the thoughts, behaviors and emotions that are empowering, elevated and overall loving to myself.

Sometimes I have out of body experiences during the meditations, which are quite exciting to say the least. I’ve applied what I’ve learned during these experiences toward listening to my music from a more objective place so that I can disconnect any negative associations from the listening experience as well as being able to listen back to the tracks as if I were someone else listening to them for the first time. This made it much easier for me to assemble the album. I decided to name the album A View Of U based on this whole experience, as I felt it was like viewing myself and my work from outside of me.

A View Of U is by far the most collaborative album I’ve ever made. This album wouldn’t be the same without all the vocal features, producer collaborations, instrumentalists, sound designers and sample replay musicians that were involved. I’m eternally grateful for each and every one of them and I’m super excited that they were able to share their experiences with you as part of this feature.

1. The Relic (Feat. Rochelle Jordan)

Travis:

I decided to begin the album with this track as it grabs your attention from the beginning, giving a sense of urgency to pay attention. Initially the track was an experiment in melding more “neuro” type bass sound design with footwork drum programming. My good friend Salvador Breed sent me a message recently explaining his experience of listening to the track for the first time that summed it up pretty well: "I was mentally transported to the excited state I felt when I was 17/18, seeking raves and the waves of excitement that the music and dancing brought me... which feels further away now than ever... when 'I've been dreaming, don't wake me up' came back it brought me to tears."

Rochelle Jordan (Vocals):

Originally, I wrote the lyrics of “The Relic” on the beat of our previous collaboration which ended up becoming a totally new song called “How You Want It,” so when I heard these lyrics on “The Relic” beat I was surprised and hyped. Machinedrum has this really unique way of flawlessly flipping and re-imaging the music we create, so it's always really exciting every time I receive a surprise in my Dropbox. It's funny how perfectly the lyrics actually ended up fitting because when I listen to the song, although the drum patterns ride fast and knock hard, it becomes super dreamy, especially with the string build-up on the breakdown - shout out Laura Escudé for her wonderful performance. Definitely, an out-of-body experience if you allow yourself to fall into this track. I'm happy we could create a beautiful moment in those 4 short minutes.

Laura Escudé (String Arrangement / Performance) -

My first solo show was in 2003 opening up for Machinedrum so it was super special to reconnect on “The Relic.” I got the MIDI of the string parts from Travis, which I then converted into sheet music and recorded myself. I composed some additional layers and used several different violins that have different ranges to cover viola and cello.

2. Star (Feat. Mono/Poly + Tanerélle)

Travis:

I loved making this song with Mono/Poly and Tanerélle, albeit remotely. I feel like our three worlds of sound really came together in such a harmonious way. Mono/Poly’s signature drum sound, Tanerélle's meaningful lyrics and soulful voice, matched with my atmospheric and emotional melodic elements blended in this beautiful and synergetic way that created something unique and wonderful.

Tanerélle (Vocals):

I wrote “Star” about a month into quarantine. I listened to the instrumental over and over and nothing would come to me and I got really defeated and depressed about that. That’s when the lyrics came. I’ve always subjected myself to be on at all times, to always be working, hustling, creating even at my lowest… and in that moment I was like wow, here we are amidst a pandemic, quarantined, a scenario we’ve never experienced in these modern times and I’m hating myself for not being able to write a song. 

I feel like we all can relate to that, that pressure within that’s instilled in us from society. That idea that no ones going to wait for us, the idea that while we’re sleep someone’s up, working, the idea that we always need to be on for everyone else. Add that on top of being a black woman and that pressure is a million times heavier. That’s what “Star” is about. “Star” is my ode to the humanity in all of us and me acknowledging that sometimes it’s ok to step back and let the universe shine for me.

Mono/Poly (Co-Production):

The collaboration between Me, Machinedrum and Tanerélle started off as a rough instrumental I made that reminded me of jazz-fusion music. It took Machinedrum a while to get back to me with the new instrumental but when he did he changed much of the original elements. I didn't know what would happen to the resulting instrumental but when I heard Tanerélle's addition I felt it was the perfect element to top it off!

3. Kane Train (Feat. Freddie Gibbs)

Travis

I wrote the beat for “Kane Train” around the same time Jimmy Edgar and I were working on our follow up EP to our debut LP Zoospa. At the time we were both vigorously working on rap beats, beats that had space for a rapper to flow on top of. I was digging through old vinyl rips that I have and I came across this track by UPC All Stars “Don’t Get Discouraged” and immediately wanted to sample it. The beat came together so quickly and became one of my favorite rap beats I had made at the time. I needed a rapper that could live up to the beat and Freddie instantly came to mind. I hit up his manager Lambo and had the vocals back within a week, I was completely floored by what he wrote and recorded. It couldn’t have been better.

4. Wait 4 U (Feat. Jesse Boykins Iii)

Travis:

This originally began as an instrumental but as I was working on it I couldn’t stop hearing Jesse’s vocals in my head. Jesse and I are very close and have collaborated many times over the past 13 years. I’ve amassed quite a collection of recordings that we’ve made together as well as different demo vocal idea’s he has sent me over the years. I tapped in to this library of vocals and found a rough vocal he had sent me that was just the hook “Waiting for you, to come back to me” and it fit so perfectly over the beat. I then had Jesse come by the studio and record a final version of the track along with some extra vocal vamps that elevated the song to new levels. Jesse is one of the best out there and I’m so grateful that we get to work together.

Jesse Boykins III (Vocals):

In my eyes Travis will always be one of the most innovative and creatively sound producers of our generation. I am always amazed at his sonic perspective and ability to combine these two dimensions of music. Most of the time I am just honored to be a part of his story and “Wait 4 U” is just one of the colors we’ve been able to create together. It’s vulnerable and still demands you to stay engaged throughout the duration of the song.

5. Sleepy Pietro (Feat. Tigran Hamasyan)

Travis:

This song was a dream collaboration of mine. I’ve been a fan of Tigran ever since I heard one of his songs played on Gilles Peterson’s radio show around 6 years ago. His beautifully unique approach to piano is breath taking and awe inspiring. The way he brings together worlds of jazz and classical music with rhythmic complexity is so amazing in the truest sense of the word. My friend Alfred Darlington aka Daedelus put us in touch through a mutual friend of Tigran’s, and not too long after we found ourselves jamming in my studio over some of my most complex polyrhythmic beats that I had. He instantly gravitated toward the more challenging beats, which was exciting and exactly what I had envisioned.

The song exists in two parallels, house music and jungle. This track was written at 170 bpm with the house kick pattern landing on the triplets while the jungle break patterns were programmed more on straight 8ths and 16ths but written in 6/4, so when you take away the breaks it sounds like you’re listening to a straight forward house track without changing the tempo at all. I brought in Ian Maciak aka Ianhitsdrums to replay the breaks I had programmed, as I love how he approaches playing and recording his kit. He’s super talented and it made so much sense to bring him on this track.

Tigran Hamasyan (Piano/Synths)

I went to Travis’s place so we could jam a little bit. I actually met him the first time that day. I have to say that thing came together rather fast and very naturally. Travis played me this really awesome drumbeat that he created which inspired me to come up with a melody and lay down some chords on it. It all took about a couple of hours hah!

Ian Maciak (Drums)

I’ve been a huge fan of Travis’s work for over a decade now so him wanting me to be a part of this track with Tigran was incredible. He laid out the breaks then I replicated them on an acoustic kit note for note. Being a part of the vision for this album has been one of the greatest honors of my music career and I can’t wait for what’s next.

6. Spin Blocks (Feat. Father)

Travis:

The beat for “Spin Blocks” was also written around the same time, if not in the same week, as the beat for “Kane Train.” I sampled “Ujimma” by The Lightmen Plus One, an incredible song that is so peaceful and transcendent. I put the sample over a minimal beat and then started to add guitars, but not too much that it would distract from a vocalist. I wanted to make a rap beat that was a bit more calming and chilled out than the bigger sounding beats I was writing at the time. I reached out to get Father on this track as I love how he can make a track sound hype and relaxed at the same time. I then had my good friend Miguel Oliveira aka Holly provide some additional production elements like drum fills, sampled folk string type instruments and some sound design bits. In fact I had Holly come in and help out on a few tracks on this album as I love his approach to production and how our worlds are quite different yet collide in a really interesting way that works.

Father (Vocals)

Working with Machinedrum was effortless. There were no limitations of what I could do and he really supported that for the track. I was able to just be myself and it worked out perfect.

Holly (Sound Design/Production on The Relic, Sleepy Pietro, Spin Blocks, 1000 Miles, Believe In U)

Travis has been one of my favorite producers for years and it feels unreal that I had the chance to help him with this amazing record. Travis sent me a couple songs that were pretty much done and he explained in detail what he wanted me to add on each one so it was really easy to get them to a point where he was happy with it. We've been working on music for the last couple months but it was an amazing experience to be able to add the final touches on one of my favorite albums of the year. I'm very grateful for life giving me the experience to listen to such an amazing record and to also be able to be friends with such a beautiful human being like Travis. Can't wait to see you reach the top with this record. Congrats bro!

7. Idea 36 (Feat. Chrome Sparks)

Travis

After this starting this track together on tour back in 2018, we regrouped at the beginning of 2020 to finish the track at Jeremy’s studio. His vintage synth collection is quite massive and I thought it was only appropriate to use those synths on this song. We took the midi from the soft synths that were originally used on the song and sent it to the Moog Minimoog Model D, Oberheim OBXA, and Roland Juno 106. I added some guitar layers as well. It’s the only “beat-less” track on the album but it doesn’t feel like an interlude or anything like that, it’s quite a journey!

Chrome Sparks (Co-Production)

Raymond Scott is an absolute boss. While Travis and I were on tour together, we were blasting Scott’s early modular synth experimentations in the van. We loved them, so we had to try sampling them. After trading laptops back and forth every 30 minutes for a couple hours (which is a super fun way of collaborating with a friend), we ended up with what blossomed into our version of “Idea 36.”

8. Believe In U

Travis:

I wrote the original beat for “Believe In U” back in 2014 as a track to play out at festivals. I brought it back to life for this album and updated the mix on it. In fact, I ended up doing all the final mixdowns of all the album tracks during the same month. This ended up being one of the final missing puzzle pieces to bringing a cohesive sound to all of these songs that were written during different periods over the last 10 years. The track originally sampled The Jackson Sisters “Miracles” and I ended up having Hal Ritson from Replay Heaven replay the sample. I was shocked how accurate his replay was, between nailing the instrumentation as well as the vocals. It was my first time hiring someone else to replay a sample and it was totally worth every penny, it makes me excited to continue doing this type of thing in the future!

9. 1000 Miles (Feat. Sub Focus)

Travis:

I was delighted to be invited by Nick to work with him at the OWSLA studios early summer 2019. His work is unparalleled and it was quite an honor to collaborate with such a legend. We used the “Link” feature in Ableton to collaborate on this track. I had a beat going on my laptop while Nick was working on melodic and bass elements. Eventually we had a nice loop going and I exported the stems I had on my laptop and imported them into the session that Nick had going on the main studio computer. From there we built a basic arrangement and had to call it a day. 

Since then we collaborated remotely over Dropbox going back and forth with the session. He had some demo vocals from a vocalist called Raye that were mostly vibes but not really lyrical. It sounded perfect for the track. Unfortunately we weren’t able to get officially written vocals back from Raye, so we decided to write the lyrics ourselves and have Clementine Douglas re-sing the vocal parts. Some final sound design bits came in from Holly and the track ended up being one of the most epic songs on the album.

Sub Focus:

I’ve been a big fan of Travis’ work since his Vapor City album, he is refreshingly un-conformist about genre boundaries and when he makes D&B it feels very liberated from trends. I’d arranged to do a week of sessions last time I was in LA at the OWSLA studios and he came in the first day and we got this great idea going with an old Lonnie Liston Smith piano sample. We then recreated the sampled piano and vocals remotely to create what turned into “1000 Miles.” I am really happy with the way it turned out!

10. Inner Eye

Travis:

This track was written not too long after Human Energy came out in 2016. It definitely lives in the same universe as Human Energy but exists very well on its own and I think it fits in beautifully on this album. This is one of the few tracks on the album that I did not collaborate with anyone on, nor did I use any samples on. The vocal sound you hear come in and out is a vst-i plugin called Alter Ego, which emulates human speech in its own unique way. There are different “vocalists” you can download that not only sound different from each other but also have unique anime type avatars that go along with them. I was getting super in to synthesis and sound design at the time of writing this track. Additionally I was exploring the relationship between this bright digital type of sound with more warm orchestral elements like brass sections, plucked strings and woodwinds.

11. Ur2yung

Travis:

“Ur2Yung” is the oldest track on A View Of U, dating back to 2012. Originally meant to be on my album Vapor City, “Ur2Yung” was one of two of my beats that were requested to go on Kanye West’s album Yeezus so I held off on including it on Vapor City. I had sent the stems from this track to Kanye and his team and waited. Eventually I got the word that it did not make the cut, however they wanted to hold on to the beats for the next album. By the time I was told that it was also not going to be on The Life of Pablo I was already deep in to writing Human Energy, and “Ur2yung” didn’t fit the aesthetic of what I was doing at the time. 

I’m so happy that I was able to include this song on this album as it’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. I sampled “Young Girl” by Jazzy Cazzie & The Eight Sounds on this beat, basically chopping it up into a sampler that was simultaneously linked to a different sampler with drum hits, so when I played a drum beat the samples followed along the beat. I ended up singing along with the “You’re too young” vocals that were on the original so that they stood out more. I had my good friend Lane Barrington, whom played drums on tour with me for the "Vapor City" Live shows from 2013-2016, play drum kit on the song to give the whole track an even more live feel. I’m so happy with how it turned out and super happy to be able to finally free this song into the universe!

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