We managed to persuade Stewart Walker to give us a track-by-track guide to Ivory Tower Broadcast, letting us in on his hip-hop influences, the personal side of his productions and the way that the tracks make him feel now they're out in the wild;
Ivory Tower Broadcast
Ivory Tower Broadcast developed from an earlier album concept I was calling "Ausgeflippt: A Chopped n' Screwed Odyssey" because I was so into DJ Screw's musical aesthetic. Half-speed hip hop custom-mixed for consuming codeine & Sprite and going for a drive, presumably at 5 miles per hour, while intentionally jerking the steering wheel to enhance the wooziness and disorientation. I felt it was a parallel to the development of so-called "heroin house" in Berlin's dance clubs, which saw a radical drop in tempos from the 140 BPM hard techno I was witnessing in the late 1990's to the now long-running era of Minimal and Deep House where songs are paced at 120 BPM.
As a Berlin-based techno producer, I couldn't credibly make any style of hiphop and I would never even try. But I wanted to take some of DJ Screw's elements like the "drunken master" record scratching, the natural flanging of playing the same record at slightly different speeds, and of course the inherent trippiness of playing music at half-speed. I hedged my bets though, and never actually made any super-slow tracks because it was enough just to drop down to tempos which were non-danceable.
Colour: Dark Magenta
Season: Late Autumn before the first snow.
First of all, Desolation Peak is a real geographic location in the forests of Washington State which I learned about from reading Jack Kerouac's "Desolation Angels." Based on his experiences as a fire lookout sitting in a lonely cabin with no human interaction for 2 months, this notion seemed almost too poetic to be true. Yearning for the isolation and concentration of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, and then finding only the madness which comes from not speaking to another human for months at a time. Somehow, this encapsulates the emotional aspect of Ivory Tower Broadcast. Wanting to be internally pure and consistent and true, yet simultaneously wanting to reach out from that internal place and connect with others. As an impressionable teenager, I used to get inspired by Jack Kerouac or Gary Snyder and go sit outside in the woods behind my house and try to meditate, but there's just too many bugs in Georgia.
Like a lot of the songs on Ivory Tower Broadcast, I wrote Desolation Peak when I was alone and I assumed that whoever listened to it would also listen to it while alone. I grew up loving music that nobody else in my locale cared about, so I spent years sitting on my balcony listening to music in headphones after my family had gone to sleep. I wrote all of these songs with all the little easter eggs of detail which encourage repeated listens. Unfortunately I can't get more specific describing Desolation Peak because it has passed beyond my understanding. I've listened to it hundreds of times and I consistently get different emotions and visions from it. It is the song I associate most strongly with the album's artwork. A light and activity behind a purple velvet curtain which the listener is somehow cut off from.
Gone At First Light
Colour: Ugly hungover grey-green
Season: Works in all seasons
I had this scene in my head of George Romero's Day of the Dead when at the end of the movie after a night of fighting zombies underground, the last survivors are getting into their helicopter at dawn to finally make their escape, and upon liftoff while looking out the window they look down and see the fires burning throughout the town, and a lack of any recognizable humanity. I guess it's an extrapolation of that cracked out feeling you get after a long night of excess when you and your friends are still awake, finally coming down. Dawn has arrived and your world of fun collides into the dour faces of morning commuters in rush hour traffic. You feel like you've just been through a secret experience with knowledge gained and visions revealed and upon encountering the mundane morning, you realize you have to stop smirking so you don't draw attention to yourself and instead close your eyes and silently repeat your mantras so you don't forget anything.
Colour: Aquatic green-blue
This track was a bitch and a half to finish. On one hand, I like the richness of the sound design and the way the track is always changing yet maintaining a steady groove, but it reminds me uncomfortably of the earliest Artificial Intelligence-era Warp releases from B12 and Autechre in which a new blueprint for electronic music was hinted at but the composition and sound design was still too naive. I hear that especially in the pale scritchy electro beat that anchors the track and the soothing piano chords at the end.
As a result of the linearity of this track and it's ever-changing soundscape it sounds more like a journey than a proper song. Like a carnival trip through a Tunnel of Love or Disneyland's It's a Small World where a new scene of dancing automatons is revealed every hundred meters.
Colour: Lime green/royal blue
The original title of this piece was going to be "Candycoated Stickstoff" after the German word for nitrogen, because this track to me feels like getting a gas mask strapped to your face and taking deep breaths of cold air from a canister. Candycoated refers to the shimmering automobile paint job which results from painting one transparent color on top of a different color which means the car is a different color depending on what angle the sun is coming from. I feel like Candycoated exhibits a musical equivalent of that type of prismatic effect. The tempo can feel very fast if you follow the hi-hats and rhythm or it can feel quite slow if you listen more to the melodic elements. For a lot of these songs I had my calculator out so I could seamlessly layer a ¾ measure at one tempo with a 4/4 measure at a different tempo precisely to tease that kind of polyrhythmic disorientation.
Melodically, I think this is the happiest or at least most ecstatic track on the album and I love the way the harmonies ebb and flow in a kind of acoustic techno before yielding to a chunky motorik second half.
Something I Can't Remember
Colour: Tarheel blue
Kind of a lame forgettable title, but I felt comfortable using it because Elliott Smith apologizes in 3 or 4 of his songs that he can't remember the name of the persona he's talking to.
"Something I Can't Remember" was the last track I wrote for ITB and it was actually intended for a future album I started after I thought ITB was completed. But after playing it in conjunction with the rest of the Ivory Tower songs, it seemed like a perfect balance between the electronic and natural elements and a good transition between the synthetic beginning and the more shoe gaze and post-punk influenced second half. "Something I Can't Remember" was one of the lucky tracks which basically wrote itself over the course of a few days. Just from playing bass and guitar through the Lexicon and Eventide yielded this automatic recognition with some of the bands I was in love with in the 80's. Like "ohhhhh, THAT's how they got that sound." Instantly harmonizing the notes into parallel musical intervals and the re-harmonizing those parts again in software yielded this nice balance between the organic and impossible. Like Gone at First Light above, this song feels like a song for the dawn with the first light glowing through and around the curtains.
Colour: Purple and red and yellow and on fire
If you follow many techno fans or musicians online, you notice that their photo galleries often include images of repetitive patterns found in urban environments, so I think we tend to extrapolate our love of repetition in music to the visual realm. When I discovered mechanical guilloché of the type used in watch faces, I got really excited because this technology has existed since the late 18th century. Of course, I can appreciate how painstaking attention to details on a micro level can yield radiant shimmering patterns at the macro level because it's a perfect metaphor for how I create techno music. Instead of a lathe, I use a sequencer.
Rose Machine developed directly from my purchase of an Ernie Ball volume pedal in Amsterdam while I was there for a concert. Once I brought it home, I was experimenting with playing my Fender Acoustic bass through it while rhythmically pulsing the pedal, cutting off the note's attacks. Because that technique leaves so much negative space in a mix, it was really easy to layer multiple notes to create a harmonic flow. It's easily my favorite song on the album, recalling the dusty ambiance of Jon Brion's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind soundtrack and Robin Guthrie's guitar work from Tiny Dynamine/Echoes in a Shallow Bay. But all the "guitar" sounds come from a German zither I bought for next to nothing, and because it only stays in tune for 5 minutes, its detuning yields a natural dreaminess.
Exits Have Been Chained (For Security)
Colour: Black and White
Like a lot of techno artists, I derive a lot of inspiration from science fiction novels. For me, I got stuck in Philip K. Dick's Valis trilogy of VALIS, Radio Free Albemuth, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. I love the way he tells the same story in each book, but the characters and setting change. The net effect is that of a recurring dream or nightmare, and because he weaves so much of his own autobiography into these stories, you get the sense that you're uncomfortably witnessing his own descent into madness and neural malfunction. In his myth-system, the individual is holy and forced to live a life in secrecy and claustrophobia while the government seeks him out the individual and attempts to kill him. Simultaneously, I was thinking of the fire at the Station nightclub in Providence, Rhode Island when 100 patrons died, unable to escape because the fire exits were blocked (though not chained, as I find out now) and using that as a macabre metaphor for humanity's hopeless irrelevance to the greater powers in the 21st Century.
Ironically, this is probably the most dance-floor friendly track off the album, and reminds me of my track "Blässe" from my own short-lived Son of Cataclysm label.
Colour: Dark grey
Shakemaps refers to the maps of earthquake zones put out by the US Geological Survey. In January 2011 I was vacationing in Japan with my girlfriend and we stayed in Sendai and the beach community of Matsushima Bay before driving back past Sōma and Fukushima. Needless to say, I was shaken up two months later to see many of these same cities destroyed by the tsunami aftermath of the Tohoku Earthquake and I was checking up on the aftershocks and amateur videos being released for weeks afterward. I hesitate to say that the track was written as a direct homage because that would be too shallow and reductive. Yet listening to it now as I'm writing this, it works well for me on a personal level.
Feeling of Reeling
Colour: dark grey
Season: November in Berlin.
Unlike some of my other entries, I can directly reference the inspiration of this track. I'd just returned from visiting family in Atlanta and Berlin was opaque with fog and freezing compared to the heat and sunshine of Georgia. I was jet lagged and braindead on the sofa, listening to the Cure's Disintegration when I noticed the beauty of the final track "Untitled" and I just had to listen to it on repeat the entire weekend. The lyrical remorse over missed opportunities to communicate really resonated with me.
Despite the simplicity of "Feeling of Reeling" it was one of the more difficult tracks to complete because I had to force myself to remove a lot of elements which were making the track bigger and more grandiose. Sometimes as a producer with a lot of ideas, the hardest decision to make is to sit back and let the track ride without editing every little moment to death.
Stewart Walker's album 'Ivory Tower Broadcast' is out on Friday 26th September.