Chris Stewart of Black Marble answers some questions about gear, song-writing and more below.
Exclusive photos provided by Payton Newcomer.
Synth History: What are some of your biggest inspirations currently?
Chris Stewart: I've been using a looper called an Aeros Loop Studio that as far as I know is the only machine of its kind where you have six loops running in parallel but you also have six independent parts you can easily switch between. I've tried a bunch of other options and nothing quite works right. It allows for multi track looping but also the ability to write verse chorus verse style arrangements with the six part functionality. It's a great sketch tool and it allows me a lot of creative freedom that I didn't have before.
For me right now, it's about being able to get ideas down fast for an entire song, not just demoing parts. I've always wanted something like this to exist on the hardware side that would aid to that effect but as far as I know it just never did... or if it did, it didn't quite work the way I needed it to. It's a small company but hopefully they have some success and stick around and continue developing it.
Synth History: What are your top three current synthesizers?
Chris Stewart: I always use a Juno because it does what it does and I can get it to sound all of the different ways it sounds just by grabbing sliders, usually in under ten seconds. So if I have a sound in my head I want and I know the Juno is capable of it, I always reach for it first because I can almost picture the slider settings I need to get that sound in my head without even going over to the machine. It's the closest thing I've ever found to using a traditional instrument in which everything on it has an exact purpose and if you know it well, you can get where you wanna go almost instantly.
I have a few rack synths that are midi routed to my MPK249 that I just switch the midi channel on my MPC to switch between. When I want something weird but don't quite know what, I like to reach for my Oberheim Matrix 1000. It's 1,000 different patches in a rack synth. I have the old school patch book printed out and just go through it looking for weird names and demoing sounds. I've stumbled across some famous sound effects that way. The modulating synth sound at the beginning of Grauzone Eisbaer is on there. Patch 814!
I have a Korg EX 8000 rack I like a lot. It's a hybrid of analog filters with sample based waves. It sort of straddles the timeline between when everyone, Korg included, went from analog to the FM Synthesis craze made most famous by the DX-7. This was another approach where instead of using a DCO or VCO it used samples of different wave shapes. It's pretty weird but it sounds really good. I guess in a way it's almost like an analog sampler? Anyway, it had a built-in delay which sounds super trashy. It's really good for doom-y single note bass lines and you can get some crazy sounding bells out of it. People who know them love them but they've stayed kinda under the radar and thankfully never blew up in prices like most of the other 80s polysynths.
Synth History: What music were you listening to growing up, and do you ever go back to listening to it?
Chris Stewart: Well, I grew up outside of DC before social media and at the time, since the popular culture seemed so ubiquitous and oppressive, it was cool to try and listen to music that was as obscure and hard to find as possible as a reaction. Like only one person had ever listened to it before. You had to go to their house and steal the tape if you wanted to hear it. This was sort of a weird and silly idea that was endemic to subculture at the time, but also, it made sense looking back on it. There was a mystery to the idea that you had to somehow find your way to DC as a suburban teen and get into one of the super intimidating clubs to hear these bands. There were like 5 kids at your high school that knew about it and they wouldn't talk to anyone about it. You had to just sort of embarrass yourself and show up to these places, go to the record stores in Adams Morgan in DC and listen to 7 inches on the record player, try not to get yelled at for putting a jacket back on wrong. Go to the shows on 14th street and try not to get robbed on the street, try not to get made fun of in the club by these older super intimidating girls in like Bratmobile and Slant 6. Looking back on it, it sounds no fun the way I'm describing it, so I'm trying to interrogate myself in real time and understand what it is about this that I miss, and I think it's just the mystery of it. There was something about it that was hard to earn and when you felt like you figured out a piece of it, you felt like you'd leveled up in a secret club. That was the fun of it. It existed totally outside the normal culture and was openly hostile to being co-opted by it, or even discovered really. Sometimes I go back and listen to that old DC underground stuff and it still rules. Still sounds like kids just really not giving a fuck what other people think and making something that worked for them. By the way, talking about this is making me feel really old [laughs].
Synth History: If the 80s and 90s were in a fight, which would win?
Chris Stewart: I'm going to take this question literally like not what era is better but who would win in an actual fight [laughs]. Not sure if that's how you mean it. Anyway, probably the 90s because the 80s were just more innocent, innovative and free. Prince, Cindy Lauper and Pat Benatar, probably the best era for mainstream pop... Hip Hop was like, beefs between Brooklyn and the Bronx but the worst thing that would happen is they would snap on your sneakers or your hair and everyone would laugh at you.
The 90s was more like Mobb Deep and Boot Camp where half the dudes in the cypher were under investigation by the FEDs. Alternative and Grunge was taking off, everyone was mad all of a sudden and no one wanted to admit they even wanted to be famous which was weird. Kurt and Axel beefing on the VMAs, Tupac and Biggie beefing at the Source Awards, just a lot of strife. Also the beginning of grit rock shit like Limp Bizkit and Staind or whatever. All that super toxic bullshit. So yeah, I think the 90s would win but not for anything good. When I think of the 80s I think of kids in the Bronx splicing into the streetlights to run generator parties, where Fab FIve Freddie and Futura 2000 would hang out and the vibe was peaceful. When I think of the 90s I think of summer festivals where the portable toilets had overflowed, the ATMs had all broken and security was fleeing the grounds while everything was being set on fire.
Synth History: Analog, digital, or both?
Chris Stewart: In terms of recording, I just think of digital as a copy of whatever you already had. Not necessarily bad, but like, do you want the same thing again or do you want some degenerative iteration of it? Sometimes if i'm not sure where i'm going yet, I like to stay digital for awhile so my footprints can always lead clearly back if I need to go back. Then when I'm more sure of where I'm going with that element I can head back down the path in an analog way. If I know exactly the vibe I'm going for though, I don't mind from the get-go putting a bunch of analog things in the path because I'm more sure of myself. Digital is a way to hedge my bets as I shape but at some point I always need to break out into analog degenerative processes. In terms of gear itself, I usually create sounds with analog synths, but I'm not against using soft synths especially if I'm tracking for a film score or something because it's just so much easier to make changes against a cue inside the box. The Black Marble records were all entirely made with analog gear though.
Synth History: Do you have a favorite drum machine?
Chris Stewart: Oberheim DMX because it sounds good and 505 because it sounds bad.
Synth History: What are you doing when you're not making music?
Chris Stewart: Probably planning on making music or touring or some other administrative task tangentially related to music.
Synth History: How do your live shows differ from making music in the studio?
Chris Stewart: Well I never thought I would say this as I'm a fairly introverted person but over time I've come to enjoy the performing aspect of music as much as, if not more than, the writing process. I'm very comfortable in the writing process but it's so open ended that it can be overwhelming and I can feel a bit rudderless. With performing I have an hour to like, rule at this one task and I know what I need to do. It's just a matter of doing it. It's exhilarating knowing you've just played a really good show and coming off stage and hanging out afterwards when all your friends are happy to see you. It's an extremely rewarding experience and a gratifying feeling. In terms of process, I think it's hard to even compare the two as I spend so much time writing a song, weeks sometimes, a month sometimes, and piecing it all together is such an intense almost monk like process of patience and asking for divine providence to make your decisions the best possible choices. Whereas performing is the culmination of all that work and channeling it all into 3 or 4 minutes. It's almost like the performance is the celebration of the process.
Synth History: What is a piece of advice you would give to someone fearful of releasing their own music?
Chris Stewart: I don't know how inspiring of an answer this is, but right now, there is so much music being released constantly that what would be the point of being afraid of it? In the time it took me to write this, like fifty thousand jams just got uploaded to streaming services, never to be heard from again. So if your music is bad and no one likes it or listens to it, who cares? As long as it's something you're doing for yourself or you are doing for an intended audience because you think it will bring them relief in some way, then that should be enough. Besides, it doesn't make sense to worry about things you can't control just in general. Even if you do release music and even if it is really good, some people still won't like it, maybe because they are jealous you actually did something instead of just talk about it, or maybe because they read somewhere it's not that good, written by someone who didn't even really listen to it. It's an unmanageable situation. So just embrace that instead of trying to control it. And above all, embrace the conviction that as long as you like it, there will be other people that like it too.
Synth History Exclusive. Photos by Payton Newcomer.