Vapor City, the 2013 release by the Eden, N.C.-born, Hickory-raised sonic and world traveler Travis Stewart under his Machinedrum alias, is a high-touch, high-concept excursion though an illusory gray dystopia where its sweeping palette of sound reveals a sterile, Fforde-ian warmth in those able to perceive it. Go back far enough into Stewart’s Machinedrum discography (just one of many handles under which he records), and one can hear hints of its ultramodern union of slinky R&B, rapacious Jungle beats, litany of freelance influence and raw abstraction on his Merck releases from when calling something “intelligent dance music” wouldn’t be dismissed as a brand of conceit.
Go back even further, and you have a precocious kid in Walkertown, and Hickory soon after, experimenting with the drum machine his country music-playing grandfather used to keep time in practice, or recording jokey songs on his tape machine. His keen interest and acumen for music was recognized early, and soon Stewart had any instrument he wanted in his hands. That included his parent’s baby grand and harmonicas, the guitars belonging to his “Pops”, or just listening to his songwriting cousin (and major early influence) play hers. That naturally expanded into electronic when he discovered artists like Autechre via MTV, one of the only available methods of introduction in the tiny Piedmont towns he called home, and his worldwide wanderlust was a byproduct of that geographic locus.
“I discovered so many bands by watching shows like ‘120 minutes’ and ‘Headbangers Ball’, but it was through the show ‘AMP’ that things really started taking off for me influentially,” Stewart said. “I also spent a lot of time on the internet seeking out music, art, movies and other things that interested me since I had no real outlet for those things in Hickory. I met a lot of people who lived all over the world and I think that gave me some perspective at first, maybe lit a fire that made me want to go other places.”
Stewart noted in a recent interview that he never took any traditional music lessons due to his stubbornness, and it’s a trait that keen listeners might detect on his most recent recordings like Vapor City, its widely acclaimed predecessorRoom(s), or his sterling production on futuristic soul crooner Jesse Boykins III’s just-released record, Love Apparatus. He’s known as one who rarely takes shortcuts in creating a track, programming each individual beat on Love Apparatus rather than duplicating sounds, and turning his own vocals and guitar playing into complex, ghostly texture. The level of detail that Stewart put into his Vapor City release and its companion EPs,Fenix District and Vapor Park, present an imagined city where tactile and spatial boundaries exist in the form of stylistic constraints. The 10 tracks on Vapor City each represent their own district within the city, and each sound is a detail unto itself that lends that district its defining qualities.
“There was a common sonic connective thread between all of the songs that might not be apparent to others when listening. These pairings reminded me of how a city can be made up of very dynamically different areas or districts, but still remain part of the same unit,” Stewart said. “For example, when you are in China Town or Prospect Park you know you are in New York City, even though those two areas are completely different from each other.”
On Saturday night at Moogfest, he’s giving it one of its most involved treatments yet. As surreal as he says it feels to be coming back to North Carolina for such an important show — he recently moved to New York City from Berlin, and remains abroad more often than not — Stewart has big ideas on how to give his home state a proper presentation. He’s been working with visual artist Weirdcore, who previously created a chromatic blitzkrieg for electronic luminary Richard D. James’ live shows, to map out the wildly diverse architecture of Vapor City to build a geodesic, if intangible representation of Vapor City to accompany a full live performance of the album. The complete realization of this project is a journey through the city, conceptualized through a shared DropBox folder where Stewart would post images and videos of the ideas in his head, and Weirdcore would fire back with his own interpretation.
“I gave a general description of each district as well but I left it vague enough to allow Weirdcore to have his own interpretation,” Stewart said. “I worked in a similar fashion with Clair Stirling the illustrator and Dominic Flannigan the graphic designer for the album artwork. It was really cool to see these incredible artists have their own take on my dream city, and in some ways it was spot on accurate to my vision and in others it was interesting and beautiful twists on my original ideas.”
Moogfest attendees will have absorbed three days of electronic music workshops, future-philosophical discussions, and live demonstrations, so it will be an unusually enlightened audience absorbing a work that Stewart says receives multiple returnees to his live performance. He’ll also have a hand from drummer Lane Barrington, formerly of Portland folk experimentalists Hosannas.
“It allows people to see the musicianship that went in to creating the album; people that might not understand the intricacies involved have a different kind of connection with the music,” Stewart said.