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stewart walker - dr. jekyll and mr. hyde

I interviewed Stewart Walker in September 2003 on the occasion of the release of his album "Live Extracts" on his own label Persona, also licensed to Tresor. Main issues were his personal view of electronic live-performance and his statements about the so called laptop backlash.

How did you come up with the idea of doing a live-album?

I decided to release a live album because my live performances have steadily grown away from the work in the studio. In the studio, I produce music more from calculation than instinct. My studio approach requires me to take the bold gestures of my original ideas and reduce their intensity over multiple listenings so that they can hold the listener’s interest through complexity, but I believe they lose the immediate appeal that a pop song holds.
As I’ve been performing live over the last 5 years, I have discovered I’m a different person when I’m on stage. Live shows allow me to take advantage of skills and instincts that don’t normally surface in the studio. So in a way, I’ve been living a double-life musically. My studio releases have often been very melodic, orchestrated and intricate while my live show has been showing a more traditional drummy loop-based techno approach. Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I feel like a lot of my fans have only heard my recordings without knowing much about my live shows. So I wanted to release an album, which showed the live facet of my sound.

How "live" are these extracts really? Can they be compared to your live-sets in clubs?

"Live Extracts" is totally a studio album. At first it was built from some of my favorite live tracks that had never been released. When I got into the studio, my first desire was to simply "capture" them. But I’m a very restless producer; I can never let things ride. So these loops from the live show got twisted and reassembled into a more song-like format. As I went along, I also started writing new material in the same style as the live hybrids I had built because I found that the sound of this album quickly became a mixture of my live approach and my studio approach.
To answer your second question, I don’t think this CD sounds like my live shows at all. It’s too polished, there’s too much song structure, and the mixes are really short. In my real live show, I try to make my mixes more gradual and thus more invisible. Live, I imagine myself as a DJ with two "records" of 8 audio tracks each. It’s difficult to simultaneously manipulate 8 tracks of audio data to get the quick mixes of a techno DJ.
I put all of my real live shows on the Persona Records website so that people can compare a real performance with the simulated live show on the CD. There’s also a lot of MP3s up on the file sharing sites of shows I played from 1999 to now.

What was the technical set-up for the production of "Live Extracts"? Is there some live-recorded material (in the club) on it as well or did you try to simulate a live-situation in your studio (similar to Sutekh's Incest on Force Inc.)?

There are no recordings taken from actual live shows. At some point I would really like to make a "Live at the Liquid Room" style recording with crowd noise and club acoustics. But that would require a professional sound engineer with his own soundboard and multitrack recorder. For right now, all of my live recordings are straight from the DJ mixer into a MD recorder.
I didn’t try to make a live simulation in my studio either. I think it’s really horrible to play a live set in a room all alone. It’s similar to how DJs feel when they have to mix at a radio station rather than at a packed club. But I do like the process of building music piece by piece in a sequencer. You have greater control but recording takes much more time.

The performance-aspect of your live-shows seems to be very important to you. How do you think it can be transferred on CD (without the club-situation and the visual elements i.e. artist and light-show)?

Energy. I think about how this music would appeal to me when I was younger and would put in Claude Young’s "Dexit" tape when driving with a friend of mine. We’d turn up the radio so that the little speakers were distorting, and pump our fists like heavy metal headz, or schranzkids. Once the production of the CD is out of my hands, I leave it to the listeners to make up their own uses. I don’t really hope to recreate a full live experience with the CD, or else I’d sell it with a 10,000 Watt soundsystem, Intellibeams, and smoke machines. In a way it’s funny to imagine techno "live" albums since the performer is almost never talking in between songs - unless it’s an old-school group with an MC like you hear on Njoi’s "Live in Manchester" or UR’s "Live in Utrecht".

Do you think it is possible to tell a (in aspects of (visual) performance) boring laptop-act from a driving performance just by hearing it on CD? (I'm referring to the laptop-backlash-logo on the back-cover. by the way: don't you use a laptop at all?)

No, probably not the way it was performed. But every production approach has a characteristic sound. For example, if we’re talking about Roland TR-909s and TB-303s, then for me that setup is going to produce an early-1990’s Midwest rave sound like Drop Bass Network or Underground Construction. Now, if you use Ableton Live, you’ll get a similar sound to the others who use it. The same is true for Cycling 74’s Max/MSP, or even my own Akai MPC-2000 approach.
Hmm, I think I’ll change my answer. If I hear a recording of somebody else’s live show, I believe I could probably imagine the technical layout, the type of audience and the performer’s behavior just by the type of music being played and the way it’s being mixed.
To answer your last question, I’m not a Luddite, I do use a computer in the studio and I am very interested in implementing new technology in the performance realm as well. I think that my statements about laptop shows are good for raising awareness about how today’s potential performance tools are not as advanced as they could be. I am really optimistic that live electronic music will grow past its infancy and become a more complex and complete art form. It’s still a really new field, Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk excepted.
In a way, we the performers are waiting for equipment manufacturers to start making professional equipment. For example, I use a Doepfer Pocket Fader to control MIDI in my sets, but I can’t get too rock‘n’roll with it or the knobs will pop off in the middle of the show. It’s really funny to be down on the floor with a lighter searching for a knob while the show is still going.

In your opinion, has this performance-aspect and laptop-prohibition anything to do with the quality of the music?

Music has multiple areas where you can measure quality: There is sound quality, composition quality, and a freshness quality. I believe the purest place to listen to music is in your home with a nice pair of headphones on. There are probably only two or three clubs in the world that can match that type of audio quality. So, if you’re going out to a club to see a live act or a DJ, I think it’s for reasons other than accurate sound reproduction. I go to a club because I want to listen to loud music and feel the energy of being around 100 or 1000 other people who want to have fun.
What I don’t like is going to a club, spending 15 dollars to get in and enjoying the music but being so bored that I start to think about how my feet hurt from standing in place for 2 hours. I don’t like to pay money to watch a performer who looks like he or she is downloading their email. If somebody is on the stage, then I want him or her to command my attention and show me something fresh. I think audiences should expect more than music coming out of the backside of a computer monitor.
The aspect of performance probably has nothing to do with the quality of the music but it has everything to do with the quality of the show.

Listening to the flow and the mixes on your album it sounds like a DJ-set of your own (live-)tracks with distinct changes (and not like an endless, monotonous loop-carpet). How important is the concept of "songs", and the identity of the tracks to you?

I have to admit it’s always been a fantasy of mine to have a mix CD of all my own material. In a way, this live album fulfills that fantasy. Also, the longer I make music, the more I get ideas about how music should change. Hopefully I am learning the skills to enact those ideas so that others can hear it. The first minimal techno records I heard were very exciting in their repetition. This came after a lifetime of listening to pop music. So when I heard the Rob Hood or Dan Bell records I thought that the gesture of repetitive music was really exciting and I could tie it in to my old interest in minimalism of other art areas. Like Steve Reich and Philip Glass on the classical music side, and Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland on the visual art side. In the 1990s though, computers allowed repetition to occur without much input from the performer, whether in an Illustrator-based vector graphic, or from setting your drum machine to loop. When the decision to get loopy is more from the artist’s tools than the artist’s brain, then what was once revolutionary and hypnotic becomes standard and boring. A lot of these feelings are coming my re-entry into pop music and listening to songs rather than tracks. Also, I’ve found that loopy techno doesn’t make much sense in America anymore because it’s a DJ-oriented style, and DJs have nowhere to play anymore. Techno has died in America, and I’m trying to help it towards its rebirth.



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last updated: 2009.08.26, 10:29