Exclusive: Machinedrum Signs to Ninja Tune

Machinedrum (Photo: By Matt Barnes)

Azealia Banks beat maker plans a summer album

London-based label Ninja Tune has signed electro/dubstep artist Machinedrum to a four-album deal, with a full-length expected as early as June. The deal was announced at the Ninja Tune SXSW showcase last night; both parties spoke to Billboard about it exclusively.

According to label head Peter Quicke, Machinedrum is a great match for Ninja Tune. “He fits in particularly well because he’s an experimental electronic artist and that’s one of our key principles,” he says. “Not just that, he’s unmistakably precise and prolific – just a brilliant producer. I think we’ll see him producing records for all sorts of people, not just for us but for big stars and pop artists.”

Working under the Machinedrum moniker as well as several others, Berlin-by-way-of-Brooklyn producer Travis Stewart has been releasing music for over a decade. But he came to greater prominence last year when Azealia Banks used his tracks as the basis for several of her own songs, including the acclaimed “1991.” His Ninja Tune debut will be a highlight on the label’s 2013 release schedule, set to include other albums from artists Bonobo and Emika.

Fans only familiar with Stewart’s work on Banks’ records might find the bass-heavy, smooth melodies of his new material surprising. “The music I’ve been listening to lately has been a lot of throwback to my original influences of earlier jungle and hip-hop,” says Stewart. “I make so much music all the time, it kind of builds up and I look back at it like it was a dream in a way.”

Machinedrum is just one of the prolific artist’s projects. While at SXSW, he’s also performing as half of Sepalcure, his duo with Praveen Sharma (aka Braille), before he returns to Europe for a handful of dates as part of JETS, his drum ‘n’ bass-inspired glitch-hop outfit with his friend Jimmy Edgar.

While the next Machinedrum album is all but mastered, a new EP from Sepalcure precedes it, due in April on U.K. dubstep imprint Hotflush. Machinedrum’s last EP “SXLND” came out in early 2012 on LuckyMe Records, and showcased Stewart’s technical precision and affinity for microsampling, recalling early records from techno cult hero Akufen. He released a full-length, “Rooms,” in 2011 on Planet Mu, a record he describes as “a revelatory moment. I realized a new approach to writing music that focused on getting ideas out as fast a possible. It was about being more in the moment rather than mulling over the ideas for months and months.”

“Rooms” caught the attention of Ninja Tune, who contacted Stewart about working together, to his delight. “I’ve always been into Ninja Tune,” says Stewart. “I’ve always respected their focus on more of a hip-hop and drum ’n’ bass kind of world, which is the reason I started Machinedrum in the first place. I was trying to explore the relationship between hip-hop and faster tempos of jungle. I got the sense that they really wanted to help me break into the next level and were going to give me a lot of freedom and help me to come into my own as an artist and not just an electronic musician.”

Founded in 1990 by Quicke and seminal English electronica duo Coldcut, Ninja Tune has found firm footing through the years by showcasing a diverse roster of artists, from post-shoe gaze singer/songwriter Fink and Australian and nü-punk outfit The Death Set, to rappers Wiley and the Mercury Prize-winning Speech Debelle through its hip-hop imprint, Big Dada. While they remain headquartered in London, a newly expanded Los Angeles office has replaced a smaller outpost in Montreal as their North American headquarters. Recently the label has enjoyed significant sync successes with placements including a holiday TV spot for K-Mart and an episode of “The Walking Dead.” In addition to licensing, Quicke cites app development as part of their digital promotion strategy, though albums remain at the core of their business model.

“We see the album as an important work of art,” Quicke says. “When [an artist] gets established and when they have a fan base, people want to buy their album, they want to buy the statement that the artist is making. At the pop end of the market people will hear a tune on the radio and they’ll just want to buy that. It’s less true for us. The album is still an important thing for artists and for us.”

With the confidence of his new label behind him, Machinedrum’s next record could be a breakthrough for Stewart artistically, but there’s no doubt that the collaboration with Banks has already been a boost for his profile.

“I’ve talked to people after shows who have said they got into me because of Azealia Banks,” Stewart says. “But then they discovered this whole other world of music and they really dig it. That means a lot to me, that people can open up themselves to different sounds.”