As Chris Stewart releases his second album as Black Marble today, It’s Immaterial, all his time spent holed up in that Greenpoint apartment will be worth it.
Sure, the record sounds timeless, with buoyant bass lines and warm, squiggly, cascading synths that recall those golden years in the late ’70s before punk fully transitioned into new wave. But Stewart’s sense of social detachment, of morose reflection and self-imposed exile remains firmly rooted in post-Giuliani New York. In a time when Michigan’s forward-thinking electronic label Ghostly International takes more chances than ever signing artists who bring variety to their catalog, releasing this Black Marble record is a move both rooted in the past and undeniably timely.
Stewart told me about his signing to Ghostly, his transition from a laptop producer to a vintage synth maven, and the golden time in early 2000s New York when he fell into a community around synthesizer performance, catalyzed at a birthday party for Jim Jarmusch.
What readers may find most valuable, however, is his refreshingly no-bullshit perspective on the current cultural landscape of our fair city. When new droves of young kids arriving every few years with their own styles and their own aesthetic, artists can have a tough time finding a footing in the cultural climate. So it wasn’t too surprising that Stewart told me knew he had to leave—but had to finish this record first.
Ghostly features a bunch of really awesome artists, but maybe they needed someone of your warmth? You and Tobacco make, for lack of a better word, the warmest music on that label.
Yeah, the other label that I put out records on, Hardly Art, is more of a rock-based, Seattle label. A bass and or guitar and some people singing. But Ghostly started in Ann Arbor, and Detroit, well, Michigan in general, has a really strong electronic music heritage. So I think it came out of that. I knew Jacob who does A&R at Ghostly just from going to shows in New York, and he was always just like, “Dude, you’ve gotta put out a record on Ghostly.” HTRK is also more like Black Marble, and I feel like we definitely stand-out, not even in terms of quality.
Well fidelity-wise, maybe? There are words that music journalists use like new-wave and cold-wave, and I’m sure both have been applied to you endlessly and frustratingly at times.
You’re right, and I don’t know if the label is gonna continue to sign more bands, but it seems like they’re starting to sign some hip-hop acts, and there’s Starchild & the New Romantic.
He’s great, man, doin’ the electro-R&B thing.
Yeah, they’re branching out. It’s weird because it seems like everyone is making techno right now in New York.
“All of a sudden it stopped sounding like something somebody made in GarageBand and started sounding like something someone made in a garage, in 1978.”
But you don’t make techno music, strictly speaking. It’s warm and real, and it sounds like you oversee every facet from its composition to its construction. There’s something to be said for writing a perfect pop song without a piece of fuckin’ software.
Well when I started I didn’t have any money, so all I had was a laptop, and I didn’t really have big aspirations, didn’t think I’d really play shows or anything, I was just looking for something to do. So I started making songs in GarageBand, straight up. I really had no aspirations beyond making a tape to give to friends and have them play it on their tour van on tour. I gave it to some people and they said, “this is all right, dude, the songs are fine, but the actual sounds you’re using are kinda shitty.”
What I’m understanding is that they thought there were some really special songs muddled by your recording limitations.
Yeah, they were encouraging in that way, nobody said, “Dude, you need to stop doing this.” This is maybe ’10, and the whole thing sort of percolated before Hardly Art came along. At the time there was this New York party called Wierd, which was spelled wrong. This guy Peter brought in the most amazing synth acts from all over the world, and there was this little moment in New York in ’10-’12 where there was a spotlight shown on synth-based music.
So a lot of people were learning about and seeing these bands, me being one of them. I remember seeing Marshall Cantrell at Jim Jarmusch’s birthday party, which was weird. It was in his loft on Bleecker street, and all these characters were walking around. So I see Marshall Cantrell, and I didn’t know who he was at the time, this dude who had all these crazy synths and wires around, like, “what is this shit?” He just played in his bathroom or whatever. I had just started to mess around with that synth stuff in GarageBand but [then] I realized, “no, I have to do this kind of stuff.”
He was kind of part of that weird synth scene, and Led Er Est. They didn’t have a lot of international notoriety, just local notoriety or whatever. But I learned a lot about that whole scene from the late-’70s, early-‘80s era of synths. I don’t wanna say “new wave” because that’s more of a reaction to punk using synths, but the little bit earlier scene around the same time that synthesizers first became cheap in the late ’70s and kids started trying to make music with them.
Coldwave has kinda been the first wave of kids just picking up cheap synthesizers and starting bands with them, the way that a couple of years earlier they were picking up cheap guitars and starting punk bands. Getting immersed in all that stuff, I started buying all these old synths one by one, and they would slowly replace a shitty synthesizer patch that I was using in Garageband. Over time all the songs I’d written morphed into recordings that used real synthesizers. I got a Juno from somebody and I got a Korg DW-8000, a couple of other ones.
So it sort of just worked out that way as an organic process?
Yeah, over time I just started acquiring this stuff and all of a sudden it stopped sounding like something somebody made in GarageBand and started sounding like something someone made in a garage, in 1978.
How does that process change in your four-year lapse between albums? I understand you plotted a move out West, and the press release said something about fragmented songs. But I’m more interested in how you wrangled everything together as a composer and turned it into this record.
That process is always changing. I’ve written an EP and two LPs, and the process on each one is completely different. I think that as I go into a new record I sort of set up a new process for myself as a way to give myself constraints. I wrote the last record as I tracked it, so I would track a bass line, play that, and then track a guitar part to that. So it was sort of like ironing. You’re ironing a bit out, a bit more and a bit more while you’re adding to it. You’re still using a computer, but as an unlimited four-track, as a tool and not to create sounds or anything.
“New York is a place where there’s a million people who think they’re the coolest person on Earth, but most of them aren’t really doing anything.”
That’s interesting to me though. The record isn’t a dense exercise of you adding things on things on things—there are parts where you sort of build up and there are parts where you pull back and show the groove. How do you make space for those moments on your songs?
The answer’s not really that exciting. You usually lay down a rhythm section first. If I can figure out a melody that I like on bass I can imagine what the song is gonna be like.
So it’s really in the order that you approach things, the groove is baked in? That’s totally interesting , because there’s a process that lets you know what phrases have what instruments going off at any given time so it’s easy to re-organize live. You have all those building blocks.
Where do you hear the last few years of your life on this record? Where do you hear the move to L.A., that transition?
When people are writing about the record this is definitely something that comes up. The last one is a Brooklyn kind of record [while] this one sounds kinda different, and I moved, so it stands to reason that there would be something in there. I actually wrote this record in New York, but I knew that I was moving while I was writing it. So if anything’s baked into it it’s just a weird process.
I was so sick of living in New York and I knew I had to get out of there—I was gonna jump of the 59th Street Bridge—but I couldn’t move until I finished this record. And records take me a really long time to write, it took me a year to write it. So I had a year of time where I felt like I didn’t even really live in New York anymore. I wasn’t taking advantage of anything that New York had to offer anymore. I had stopped seeing people, hanging out with people, I was basically already gone. But I was still there trying to finish this record because I needed something to go to the West Coast with, you know what I mean?
Totally. Makes your move easier to not have something unfinished.
If this record feels a little claustrophobic and pent up a little bit it’s because that’s how I felt. It was like Groundhog Day—I would wake up every day and the only thing I had to do was work on the record, and as soon as the record was done I could move. I think the way a lot of people write records is, as soon as they have a few good songs they think are singles they think, “Sweet! Now we’ll just throw eight other shitty songs in there and call it a day.” But I have to like every single song just as much.
Well you’ve done it. It feels easy, not slight, but easy to listen to. That’s a good magic trick and a good set, too, though, when you really want the band to play one more song and they don’t come out but you’re still satisfied. It’s a tight record that leaves us wanting more.
I’m glad you say that because it definitely was a trick, it was not an easy process. I spent a lot of time on that record and there are lots of different versions that exist. Like Prince, I have a whole vault. Different versions with different lyrics, and I didn’t know what was gonna happen, if I was ever gonna make another record again or if I was gonna get hit by a bus. I wasn’t gonna turn it in until it was the way I wanted it, you know what I mean?
My theory about New York is that it elicits one of two feelings in creative people—it either makes you feel completely invincible and full of possibilities in the anonymity of it all, like you could do anything. Or it makes you feel completely invisible, powerless and microscopic. I’ve gone through both feelings myself.
Well for me it was more of a pressure. The thing about New York that’s different from any other place I’ve ever been is that it’s like the fucking seashore—there’s constantly a new group of 23-year-olds that are lapping up onshore with their ideas and their aesthetic. In a place like Detroit or L.A. you can kind of put your head down and work creatively, and as I’ve gotten older and become a better working artist with better habits I gravitate more toward a place where I can get my work done.
New York is a place where there’s a million people who think they’re the coolest person on Earth, but most of them aren’t really doing anything. Just existing, being the coolest person, having the coolest haircut, and as you get older it really puts pressure on you. Should I even be hanging out at the same bar as these kids? New York can really fuck with you as you go through it. When I first moved there I had a period of time where all I did was go out till 5 in the morning and get fucked up. My friends were the coolest people on Earth, and none of us did shit, you know what I mean?
So I then got a little bit older and realized I moved here to be an artist, I actually wanna make things and not just hang around looking cool. As I became more accomplished in my work and got older I started to feel pressure from a new generation of kids that were showing up with new ideas, new aesthetics, new this and new that.
‘I already figured out what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it, so once I did that, I knew I could do it anywhere.’
Well it’s all marketing. If New York is a “flagship city” then the new trends are locally sourced from our L Train stops and to some degree these kids are just experience tourists. They come to the city for a few years, act cool, do their thing, but they don’t wanna stick around. They wanna eat some fancy food and have New York on their resume, then leave.
Yeah, see, I don’t get that. When I moved there the mentality was that you move to New York to try to get away from some place that sucks. New York is supposed to be a home for you because that’s the type of person that you are. You didn’t fit in in Saskatchewan or wherever the fuck you came from, and New York was the place you could make other connections with people like you. You could be crazy, do creative work in a supportive environment. I don’t get the whole, “I’m gonna put New York on my resume” thing. That’s kind of shitty to me.
I think there’s this romantic idea for me of being the old crotchety guy in The Village with the long white beard and the thick glasses, you know, who used to own a Yippie bookstore or whatever. But it doesn’t really exist anymore. Those guys are all dying or moving away, and it’s all young kids now.
Yeah! It’s weird, occasionally you’ll still run into somebody like that, you’ll get a whiff of old New York. When I was going to buy one of my old synths I went to the Upper East Side and some dude died. He’d been on rent control there for 45 years, and his brother was trying to sell off all his stuff from his apartment. You could tell that he was part of the CBGB scene or whatever, because there were all these pictures around his apartment of him hanging out at CB’s and Max’s Kansas City. He’s standing there next to Richard Hell and all these people, and his apartment’s just this complete shithole.
He was a shut-in who had been there. I don’t wanna be a crotchety old man about New York changing. New York should change, it’s fine. But New York is like…you’ve got the Senate and the House, people have to get re-voted in the House every couple of years, so the House is a fast-moving place, what the people are thinking today, and the Senate is every four years, more of a stable thing. Those two houses were intentionally made in order for one to sort of stoke the other one, and I feel like New York is sort of the House of Representatives for the country, a very fast-moving scene.
And I already figured out what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it, so once I did that, I knew I could do it anywhere. I’d been living in Greenpoint for 12 years, my first apartment there was 800 bucks for a giant place and now I’m paying 2,500 bucks for a tiny place. The place doesn’t look the same anymore, it’s changed, so do I really wanna stay in the same place anymore and pay five times what I used to? It didn’t seem like it made sense anymore.
Wait, so is L.A. The Senate, the place with the slower transitions?
I think that’s just the rest of the country. [Laughs] That’s California.