By Michael Atkinson
By Luke Winkie
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A while back, Brooklyn DJ and producer Praveen Sharma's girlfriend left the country for a year. Sometimes, people thrust into long-distance relationships mope; Sharma got off his ass and jammed with his friend Travis Stewart.
"It was like: 'We're bored. Let's stop playing video games. My girlfriend's out of town for a year,'" Sharma recalls over a beer at Vol de Nuit on West 4th Street. "We just jumped into it."
Both were old dance-music hands and longtime friends who had never worked together. Sharma had begun producing IDM in the late '90s and launched Percussion Lab—a radio show, club night, and online mix archive—in the early '00s. (This year, it turns 10.) Stewart was better known as Machinedrum. Just for the fuck of it, they made a track and gave it the joking title "Deep City Insects." It was, says Sharma, "a half-joke, almost."
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Collected last month on San Francisco bass-music label Frite Nite's compilation Surreal Estate, "Deep City Insects" is murky but still inviting, with an unidentifiably gendered soul singer wafting into the atmosphere alongside snippets of a lecture. The track takes off from dubstep's artier end, with a low end that snakes more than bludgeons, as well as aqueous synths. "A lot of what we were really getting into was on Hessle [Audio], Hotflush, and using a lot of vocals," Sharma says. "We were like, 'Why not?' Neither me or Travis had done that previously, so we were just trying to do something different. I always had a soft spot for diva vocals in the late '90s, when I was raving. We would throw a cappellas into tracks that weren't even meant to be released."
Those songs eventually did come out in June of last year, when Hotflush released the four-song Love Pressure EP. Among its fans was Mary Anne Hobbs, then a BBC radio DJ (she has since moved on to the U.K. station XFM) and England's biggest bass-music tastemaker. "Mary Anne Hobbs pushed us by playing 'Love Pressure' on a lot of her shows," says Stewart. When Hobbs became a music supervisor for Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan—"They wanted literal pieces made for the movie, rather than going through and selecting pre-made tunes," says Stewart—she put Sepalcure in touch.
"We've both done [movie music] in the past separately," Sharma says. "Travis is definitely heading in that direction, and he should be. He's been doing music a long time and been doing it professionally—that's his only profession." (Sharma has a day job as a programmer.)
It's easy to see why both men are feeling bullish about their first album together, simply titled Sepalcure (Hotflush). Although the duo's second EP, Fleur, was largely done in back-and-forth fashion, with Sharma and Stewart working on tracks separately, both men swear that the live-in-the-studio feel makes Sepalcure what it is. "What happens is a much nicer meld of both of our styles," Sharma says. "It's more fun. We have a blast together. The album was pretty much done in two weeks. We went in the studio hardcore and just saw what we could make."
You can hear them egging each other on in "The One," which starts out with a bright skip and announces itself with a warbling pitch-shifted diva—"You are the one (uh)!" Then the mix gradually turns upside down, the smooth edges growing more frayed, a repeated "Hey-ee!" sounding more desperate as more effects are applied to it. "Breezin'" stomps more thanks to its traction-gaining bass, but the track really lifts off nearly four minutes in. The snare-claps announce themselves, and, blessedly, so does the vocal, which unfolds itself gradually: "Mountains high and low/No, no, baby, yeah." It's nothing written down, but when it emerges in full, it's one of dance music's most purely ecstatic moments of this year.
"Whenever me and Praveen get together, it's automatically a different kind of head space," Stewart says. "We're making decisions we probably wouldn't make on our own. We know each other's taste. I tend to not do certain things I know he would probably not gravitate toward so much. I can really get down to a lot of crazy Chicago footwork stuff, and he's not the biggest fan of it, things like that."
For those inclinations, there are other projects, other names. Stewart's lush take on Chicago footwork's clonking percussion workouts make up the Machinedrum album Room(s), released this summer on Planet Mu. Sharma, meanwhile, also records as Braille. In February, Braille released a 12-inch for Rush Hour Direct Current with two surging house cut-ups—"The Year 3000" and "Leavin' Without You"—that, Sharma acknowledges, have an "all reverbed-out" effect similar to Sepalcure's.
"I wanted to do something a little more straightforward," Sharma says of Braille. "The Sepalcure stuff can go anywhere, and I just wanted to make some stuff that was a little more dance-floor-friendly from the start. There's a lot of unreleased [versions] where you can hear me trying to shed the Sepalcure-ness of it as much as possible."
The duo has a four-hands-on approach, so Stewart's recent move to Berlin probably throws a kink into Sepalcure's future. "Every time I go [to Berlin], I just feel like I'm being really drawn to it," he says. "It's really cheap to live there, and it's got a really good mass transit system, so I don't need to drive. When I'm in New York, everybody just seems too busy to kind of hang out, and rightfully so. Everybody's grinding, making sure they can keep up with the high living standards and living costs of New York. When you don't have that factor in a place like Berlin, people just tend to hang out more. Black Swan really kind of refocused my energy into stuff like that. I'd rather be spending time working on stuff like that than staying on the road consistently."
At least Sharma has his girlfriend back—she has long since returned from her school year abroad. And she's not just around for moral support: "She does all our visuals," he says, then laughs: "Yeah, too much Sepalcure for her."
Sepalcure play (le) Poisson Rouge on November 10; Braille performs at Zablozki's as part of the Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival on November 12