In this conversation taken from our Summer, 2013 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine—ahead of their appearance at Berlin Atonal—the two techno pioneers discuss their decades-old friendship and their new collaboration. Photos by Luci Lux: Juan Atkins (left), Moritz von Oswald (right).
Juan Atkins and Moritz von Oswald are two of techno’s most central figures from two distinct eras: Atkins of course, was one of the genre’s co-pioneers in the early eighties under the Cybotron and Model 500 monikers while von Oswald, working in tandem with then partner Mark Ernestus in the early nineties, was an originator of techno’s dub-inflected and minimal manifestations under the guises Maurizio, Basic Channel, Rhythm & Sound. Somewhat inevitably, their relationship has been a feedback loop of influence, with early remixes and co-productions on Tresor Records helping to establish the historical Berlin-Detroit axis. Now, after a long break that’s seen tectonic shifts in both artists’ personal lives, as well as opposite developments in economic progress between Berlin’s boom and Detroit’s bankruptcy, Atkins and von Oswald have reunited to make Borderland. The LP is a continuation of sonic conversations dear to their respective oeuvres: music without beginnings or ends and tracks in endless variations. In the latest issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, the two spoke with von Oswald’s nephew Laurens at the German family’s West Berlin residence about music bridging time and space.
Laurens von Oswald: Moritz, do you remember how you and Juan first met? I mean, I know your history goes way back. You met way before in Detroit, no?
Juan Atkins: Yeah—I’ve told the story a couple of times, but I’ve never heard it from your perspective, Moritz.
Moritz von Oswald: In Detroit in those days, you just needed to look around the corner to bump into someone you knew from the records we were getting in Europe, because so many releases came from that city. I would even go so far as to say that in the beginning of the nineties, all the important records came from there, from Underground Resistance to Juan and so many other artists. So, I wanted to go to Detroit because I was curious, and I wanted to meet people like you, Juan. I knew who you were and when I finally saw you, I thought: that’s him. For the first trip to Detroit, I had actually followed my former partner [Mark Ernestus] who was interested in the important labels from Detroit—Fragile, Metroplex, you name them. Basically, we’d listen to a record in Berlin and then wanted to really know who the artist behind the track was. And this meant that you had to book a transcontinental flight to Detroit to find out and to get to know all these people personally. So, that’s what I mean when I say I met Juan around the corner.
JA: I remember that corner. You were not only carrying records with you, but also real instruments. You were busy buying musical gear, keyboards and sequencers from all these pawnshops. Man, you dug out some obscure instruments.
LvO: Does that still happen? Can people still find stuff cheap in pawnshops?
JA: No, you can’t. Everybody knows the price of these instruments nowadays. Besides, we have eBay for that now. But I remember that smile on Moritz’s face when he’d got hold of a rare synth in some basement in central Detroit. It was like Christmas for him.
MvO: [pulls out incredibly obscure looking old filter] In fact, I still own some of these old devices— filters, drum machines, synthesizers . . . But it was exactly like you said: we would buy the most obscure instruments for little money and eventually use them as add-ons to our productions.
JA: And I was most curious what you guys would get out of these machines. I mean, I had some imagination, but do you remember we didn’t have MIDI back then? This meant that we couldn’t synch our gear. The different manufacturers didn’t care whether their instruments would interface with instruments from other manufacturers. The fact that you could use a Roland drum machine only together with a Roland keyboard and a Roland sequencer did actually effect a lot of pre-MIDI productions. That’s why some of us would sell gear that was actually great—because we couldn’t use it properly. And we were quite impressed that you had built this customized system that nobody else in the world had and that would synchronize all the old instruments. We called it German engineering! And that’s one of the reasons why I went to actually see you in Berlin: to see all these keyboards that you’d bought in Detroit synchronize and in action. I was quite impressed because it meant so much more freedom.
LvO: Do you remember your first visit to Berlin?
JA: I was invited by Dimitri [Hegemann] to play at the Tresor that was then still located on Leipziger Straße. I ran into him at a record company in the UK and he arranged my first trip to Berlin where I recorded 3MB with Moritz and Thomas Fehlmann. I remember quite clearly that this first stay in Berlin was during the time when the Wall came down.
LvO: Ha, quite a coincidence!
MvO: Of course that wasn’t a coincidence. I knew it two weeks in advance. Actually I had just moved to Berlin myself to witness the fall of the Wall.
LvO: How did you know it was coming?
MvO: That was a joke.
JA: I immediately thought Berlin and Detroit had a lot of similarities. There wasn’t much development happening in either city and Berlin reminded me of the bleakness of Detroit. Back then it still had that dark kind of feeling. I’m talking about the time before Sony and Chrysler and all those big corporations that built their tall buildings at Potsdamer Platz.
MvO: When I came to Detroit for the first time I had this feeling that I had arrived at the end of the world. It was like the civilized world’s last outpost. In Europe you don’t see wastelands like that. I mean, you could look through Detroit’s abandoned main station without seeing a single person. It felt like you could fall from the edge of the earth if you’d walk towards the horizon.
LvO: As if the world was flat…
MvO: Exactly. Detroit—and beyond that the infinite universe. On the streets, everything was empty. It was a lost city. Of course, there was activity but it was almost invisible. And as we all know, Berlin and Detroit have gone in two totally different economic directions since then . . .
JA: But at that time there were a lot of similarities. And when I came to Berlin the next time, all I remember is that they had so many cranes in the sky, more than I’ve ever seen before in my life. Berlin to me was like the biggest building site in the world. Today, a lot of this work is finished and it strikes me as amazing to see how fast you can actually build a city. I’ve been fortunate to have seen a lot of cities in the meantime. Unfortunately, there is still no direct flight from Detroit to Berlin, which is a strange obstacle considering the unique story these two cities share. I really don’t get it. I sometimes wonder how a direct flight would have changed things.
MvO: You always had to change at Schiphol or Frankfurt am Main or New York. It was never easy getting to Detroit. But it always was worth the pain because it was a real creative challenge to meet the friends I had there. The funny thing is that the city never really changed in all these years. Detroit is definitively struggling hard. Everybody is trying to develop the city, but you can’t change the fact that there is simply no economy.
JA: Detroit even had to declare bankruptcy. It used to be the Motor City. But Detroit closed when the industry closed.
MvO: As far as I know, Chrysler is finally profitable again.
JA: That’s what I heard too, but it’s all automated now. It’s robots making robots.
LvO: Let’s talk about the album for a moment. I know that Dimitri approached you both about doing something together. Did it need him or would you have collaborated anyway?
MvO: I would agree that Dimitri was the driving force behind Borderland. I think he is obsessed with bringing people together he thinks should collaborate.
JA: He’s probably someone who thinks in jazz terms; you know, like some visionary producer who wants to hear how it would sound like if certain jazz musicians would decide to work together. He has always been someone who tried to make things happen. The Borderland project reminds me of collaborations where you would constantly seek out different configurations of musicians. It’s like listening to a George Duke album and he has Billy Cobham on drums and Randy Jackson on the bass. And these guys are cool musicians on their own, but whenever they record in different configurations, something totally different will come out. Same thing with Miles Davis and his decision to invite Joe Zawinul to play with him, Herbie Hancock and Dave Holland on In a Silent Way. But coming back to Moritz and myself, of course it helped that we’ve worked a lot together in the past. I recorded most of Model 500’s Deep Space with him, as well as my Sonic Sunset EP and, as I mentioned before, the 3MB project and a couple of other things. That made everything unfold pretty easy.
LvO: Yeah, but now it’s Moritz von Oswald and Juan Atkins—before that it was all about anonymity and hiding behind monikers, wasn’t it?
MvO: Yes, but these are different times. And something that’s especially important to mention is the fact that there has been a long break. In fact it’s been more than twelve years since the last time we worked together. That’s significant. During this off time, the energies on Juan’s and my part were constantly growing, and the resulting collaboration reflects exactly that. It’s as if we had to wait that long to successfully bundle all that energy and then let it out in a series of long jams, which, of course, were carefully edited.
LvO: I think these jams sound really cohesive.
JA: The funny thing is, we didn’t plan this cohesiveness. Not planning it actually marks the beauty of this experiment. If we knew in advance exactly what would be coming out, it wouldn’t have been so much fun recording Borderland. I mean, we knew what each of us was bringing to the project. But during the process of recording we couldn’t predict what the result would be. I think that we both have that type of personality where we just can work together. I can only explain for myself, but when I work with somebody—and this is not limited to music—I have this tendency to work harder for other people than I’d do for myself. That’s why I like collaborations so much.
MvO: I agree.
JA: And on the other hand, I’ve been in situations where I worked with other people who were overbearing. I don’t like people who behave like that. Moritz, you are not like that at all, and that’s probably why this collaboration turned out so organic in the end: because we both always knew when to give and when to take. We didn’t listen to other music, either. We would only listen to the music we just had recorded and what we were working on. We were busy doing what we were doing.
MvO: That’s correct.
JA: Right now, in electronic music, people have overcome the novelty of the electronic sound. Artists should put in more of an organic feel into the music they make.
LvO: So, you’d describe the “organic” sounds and compositions on Borderland as a progression?
JA: Yes. I mean, you witnessed the recording process from the beginning. How did you perceive the whole thing, Laurens?
LvO: I remember the setting seeming kind of weird. At first you didn’t say much to each other. You were just sitting together. It was days and days of sitting around and jamming. And then, at a certain stage, we just put it together. It seemed like a really comfortable collaborative process, as if you’d done it a thousand times before. Not necessarily talking about the music, but just making it. Occasionally I noticed nods of approval between the two of you.
MvO: You noticed one of the capital rules of music and especially in jazz: music is always about development. It’s as easy as that. You pay respect to another musician when you choose to collaborate with him or her. It’s because you’re interested in the way the other person plays their instrument and because you’re curious where the collaboration will lead you. It’s about freedom—the freedom of reaction. As a musician you always react differently to what somebody else is playing.
JA: The difference to jazz obviously is that we are more like multi-instrumentalists when we work with sequencers, drum machines and keyboards. But this is just a minor difference. The concept is still the same.
MvO: As far as I am concerned, I find rest in loops. Whenever and wherever there are loops, I am happy with it. I would extend this even beyond techno music: I also like loops in human relationships. I like the daily business. I like repetition. I accept everydayness.
JA: Everything is a cycle, a wave, a vibration. I truly believe in cycles too. Techno is music that’s based on just that.
MvO: It’s also a cycle that we have met again, Juan. I really like the loop as a metaphor for everything I enjoy in life and in music. Life is not only about exploring but also about revisiting.
LvO: I hear both of you on the album in unexpected and very interesting ways. Having been there with you in the studio engineering the record, I feel that the tracks are very much a result of reactions to what you were both doing and hearing.
MvO: For me it is like this: a sound is a sound. Whenever we hear a sound, we change. When I hear a sound made by Juan, I change. So, you are absolutely right when you put emphasis on things like that. We of course do everything with respect and openness towards one another. I should add that I have to respect the musician in order to be open to being influenced by him.
JA: Admiring an artist and listening to his music are closely linked. I wouldn’t be here in Berlin in Moritz’s studio if I didn’t admire his work and attitude. And at the same time, it’s not a conscious thing. It’s hard to explain. Let me try to give you an example: if you succeed in turning the recording process of an album into a natural process, your perception of time becomes blurry. You either perceive time as if it was running, and you achieve a lot in almost “no” time. Or you lose yourself in the process of making music and you don’t even notice how it passes . . . at all. Every time I work with Moritz things come easy. If it’s right, it should be easy. If it’s hard, something’s not right. ~
Moritz von Oswald and Juan Atkins‘ Borderland is out now on Tresor. This text first appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N°34 (Summer, 2013). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.