Covering Tracks is a regular series in which we ask our favorite producers and DJs to recommend around 10 new (and not so new) releases. We’re capping off the week with ALSO, the duo formed by bass kingpin Appleblim and newcomer Second Storey, who have a record out November 24 on legendary Belgian outpost R&S. Second Storey started the session with five heaters.
RSD – “Over it” [Tectonic]
I first heard this track at Berghain when Laurie played Substance in 2008, and it blew me away. Up until that point, I wasn’t 100 percent into Ddbstep, as I came from a more electro- and techno-orientated background, but upon hearing this (and especially on that sound system) I totally got it. It changed the course of my music in many ways.
Drexciya – “Under Sea Disturbances” [Tresor]
I love pretty much everything Drexciya has ever done and have been obsessed since I first heard their music at age 17. There’s an understated genius vibe in so much of their work, so it was hard for me to pick one track. This is definitely one of their lighter and jazzier moments. The way the melodic elements dance around the ridged beat is so satisfying.
Mathew Jonson – “Symphony for the Apocalypse” [Wagon Repair]
This is an intense and inspiring piece of music from Mathew Jonson. He’s always had a such a knack for those melancholy Eastern melodies, which always get me. The way it just builds and builds and then completely explodes…
Isolée – “Beau Mot Plage” [Playhouse]
I played this at the party where I first met Laurie. He had it as well and it became a kind of anthem for us. Isolée has written many amazing tracks, his album We Are Monster is a good example. The structure, sound design, and overall mood of this track really stand out.
Erik & Fiedel – “Donna” [MMM]
This is another track that’s been a big influence on us both. I’ve got three copies of this record. All of them are fucked.
And now we hand the reigns over to Appleblim for five closing tracks.
Villalobos – “Panpot Spliff” [Perlon]
This is one that Al [Second Storey] introduced me to when we were were fist bonding over techno and all night DJing sessions! I didn’t really “get” all the early Perlon stuff at the time it came out, but now I’m realising how influential and experimental and FUNKY they were, and I just love the wandering melancholy melody on this—deep and yearning and psychedelic.
Vessel – “Silten” [Tri-Angle Records]
I think Vessel and the Young Echo crew are a great example of Bristol’s quietly pioneering spirit. They are really varied in what they do, and Vessel’s first album had a big impact on me when I was thinking that maybe the bass scene had dried up a bit for me. It conjures up a similar starting point of, say, Pinch, Peverelist, and Shackleton, but through a sound world which is all Vessel’s own. His new album is amazing too, but very different, again pointing out the restless spirit of Bristol music.
Autechre – “Fold4, Wrap5” [Warp Records]
I could have picked any Autechre track, really. Even if I don’t fully feel one of their songs straightaway, I always end up coming round to them. I’m often about two albums behind them in terms of getting what they trying to do, so I sit with the albums for a while, then at some point, maybe even a few years later, I suddenly find the groove and funk within it, or get the vibe of the melodies they’re creating, even if they seem buried or hard to find on first listens. “Fold4, Wrap5” is one the I always go back to for inspiration, because I love the way it’s like a symmetrical sculpture or something like a Mandelbrot Set, constantly folding in on itself and seeming to perpetually slow down.
MM/KM (Mixed Mup and Kassem Mosse) – “Galagonmixdown” [The Trilogy Tapes]
Again, I was fairly late on the Workshop stuff. I was so deeply into the bass music thing it wasn’t on my radar, but once Boddika told me I should check it out, and then I heard Fred P drop Workshop 12 (forever known as “Enchillada Enchillada” to me) on the monster sound system at Labyrinth Festival, I got hooked in. This EP was very inspiring for both of us, as I think it has this psychedelic playfulness and disregard for any perceived or imposed rules of sequencing/arrangement/ melodic content..but is still completely catchy and keeps the groove and funk intact. It feels very loose and jammed, so I would love to have sat in the studio while they were working on it to see their method.
UR – “Journey Of The Dragons” [Underground Resistance]
These days, it’s almost a cliche or unnecessary to say you’re influenced by Detroit, as it’s rightly pretty much a given if you’re making techno. When I first started working in a record shop, pre-internet, UR were still a mysterious crew surrounded by myths and legends, and all you really had to go on was the records and the inspiring texts on those records. It felt kind of magical and secret. “Journey Of The Dragons” is one that both me and Al have been blown away by many times, astounded by it’s beauty, depth, and that yearning, melancholic, sadness in it.
We recently featured R&S founder Renaat Vandelpapeliere on Slices. Watch the interview below.
We Love is an opportunity for EB writers to contemplate, rant, and rave about one of their current musical obsessions and the deeper issues they inspire. In this installment, Daniel Jones finds destructive energy in Paula Temple‘s Deathvox EP, out now on R&S.
During a recent chat with David Psutka (AKA Night Slugs regular Egyptrixx), we talked about the similarities between techno and black metal. He told me that both genres are often built around repetition and low-end bass, engineered to hypnotize and simultaneously propel the body into spasms—”concussion plus tranquility,” as he put it. Paula Temple’s Deathvox EP is closer to the tribalist industrial techno of Cut Hands, but it attracts me in the same way as a lot of my favorite modern black metal groups, extending right own to the attached visuals.
The stark shots of forest, mountains, and bodies of water in the title track’s video resemble the aesthetics of Northern European metal fiends like the one-woman Danish band Myrkur. When I first saw the video, I was sitting on the floor, surrounded by incense and a picture of a dog with messed-up eyes, like a goats eyes. My friends and angry neighbors often refer to music with pounding percussion and otherworldly screams as “extremely Daniel’s shit,” and upon hearing “Deathvox,” I rose to my feet and started slamming myself into the wooden pillars in my living room, eager to reignite the rush of adrenaline and happiness that the song had poured into me. The video left me keyed-up, so I vented my energy by trying to chop and screw Sunn O))). Ten minutes into the project, I ran out of hard drive space.
Each week, Moritz Gayard rounds up the best new music videos so you don’t have to.
Summer is over. The grey skies have taken over and for the next seven months Berlin is an indoor place. Soon there will be snow. And the depression says, “Hi!”, too. So, either you take in bath in the melancholic Neubauten back catalogue to get comfortable with Berlin post-summer or you’re strong enough to escape into the colorful, uplifting music video world—which this week offers videos from the likes of Thomas Fehlmann, CFCF, James Blake, Cut Copy, and more.
#1 PsychoEgyptian – “Pretty Boy”, directed by Craig Callison
Found this video gem over at the always inspiring Sex Magazine blog. According to the interweb, Devin Kyle Cuthbertson is PsychoEgyptian, a Brooklyn-based artist and musician. The video is kinda hilarious! I want more.
#2 Tessela – “Nancy’s Pantry”, directed by Will Barras & Sean Martin
Check this 3-D fantasy video for drum & bass lords Tessela, teasing their latest R&S release.
#3 Thomas Fehlmann – “Eye”, directed by Martin Ebner
Let’s take a trip to the forest and follow our friend, musician, and contributor Thomas Fehlmann on his journey called “Eye”. Taken from his just released Eye/Tree EP.
#4 CFCF – “Beyond Light”, directed by Derrick Belcham & Ruby Kato Attwood
Incredible, trippy visuals here for Montreal’s CFCF, who has his sophomore full-length ready to drop via Paper Bag Records.
#5 James Blake feat. Chance The Rapper – “Life Round Here”, directed by Nabil
#6 Eli & Fur – “You’re So High”
Down for some deep house? Then enjoy Eli & Fur, the duo from London town. The girls have just released their EP Illusions with sounds like the above.
#7 Rival Consoles – “Odyssey”, directed by Michael Zoidis
Here’s the next “Odyssey”, this time Rival Consoles is the artist—label friends of Nils Frahm on Erased Tapes. The director says, “For the video I wanted to create something that was electronic in aesthetic, but through more ‘organic’ methods, for want of a better word.”
#8 Forest Fire – “Cold Kind”, directed by Galen Bremer
New vid for CAN-influenced Forest Fire. Here the band’s own bassist Galen Bremer directed the clip and stated: “I have always enjoyed the contrasts in “Cold Kind”—the song has a sturdy and thin tone—and it feels consistent even when accumulating.”
#9 Cut Copy – “Free Your Mind”, directed by Christopher Hill
Check out Alexander Skarsgard’s latest role – that of cult leader in Cut Copy’s “Free Your Mind” music video, which you can watch above. Track comes off of CC’s second album, In Ghost Colours which is out next month.
#10 James Ferraro – “QR JR.”, directed by Jamal Swarovski
Quo vadis, James? No way for me to get into this new James Ferraro album, but oh man so what. Video is kinda meh, too.
In this essay based around themes he’ll touch on in his upcoming book Ghosts of My Life, Mark Fisher—the noted blogger known as K-Punk and the author of Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?—finds the veiled melancholy of 21st century pop through James Blake, Kanye West, Drake, and Darkstar.
A certain trajectory seems to have come to an end with James Blake’s new album, Overgrown. Blake has gone from digitally manipulating his own voice to becoming a singer; from constructing tracks to writing songs. The initial motivation for Blake’s early work no doubt came from Burial, whose combination of jittery two-step beats and R&B vocal samples pointed the way to a 21st century pop. It was as if Burial had produced the dub versions; now the task was to construct the originals, and that entailed replacing the samples with an actual vocalist.
Listening back to Blake’s records in chronological sequence is like hearing a ghost gradually assume material form; or it’s like hearing the song form (re)coalescing out of digital ether. A track such as “I Only Know (What I Know Now)” from the Klavierwerke EP is gorgeously insubstantial—it’s the merest ache, Blake’s voice a series of sighs and unintelligible pitch-shifted hooks, the production mottled and waterlogged, the arrangement intricate and fragile, conspicuously inorganic in the way that it makes no attempt to smooth out the elements of the montage. The voice is a smattering of traces and tics, a spectral special effect scattered across the mix. But with Blake’s self-titled debut album, something like traditional sonic priorities were restored. The reinvention of pop that his early releases promised was now seemingly given up, as Blake’s de-fragmented voice moved to the front of the mix, and implied or partially disassembled songs became ‘proper’ songs, complete with un-deconstructed piano and organ. Electronics and some vocal manipulation remained, but they were now assigned a decorative function. Blake’s blue-eyed soul vocals, and the way that his tracks combined organ (or organ-like sounds) with electronica, made him reminiscent of a half-speed Steve Winwood.
Many who were enthusiastic about the early EPs were disappointed or mildly dismayed by James Blake. Veiling and implying an object is the surest route to producing the impression of sublimity. Removing the veils and bringing that object to the fore risks de-sublimation, and some found Blake’s actual songs unequal to the virtual ones his early records had induced them into hallucinating. Blake’s voice was as cloyingly overpowering as it was non-specific in its feeling. The result was a quavering, tremulous vagueness, which was by no means clarified by lyrics that were similarly allusive/elusive. The album came over as if it were earnestly entreating us to feel, without really telling us what is was we were supposed to be feeling. Perhaps it’s this emotional obliqueness that contributes to what Angus Finlayson, in his review of Overgrown for FACT, characterizes as the strangeness of the songs on James Blake. They seemed, Finlayson says, like “half-songs, skeletal place-markers for some fuller arrangement yet to come.” The journey into ‘proper’ songs was not as complete as it first appeared. It was like Blake had tried to reconstruct the song form with only dub versions or dance mixes as his guide. The result was something scrambled, garbled, solipsistic, a bleary version of the song form that was as frustrating as it was fascinating. The delicate insubstantiality of the early EPs had given way to something that felt overfull. It was like drowning in a warm bath (perhaps with your wrists cut).
On Overgrown, the post-rave tricks and tics have been further toned down, and the album is at its weakest when it limply flirts with the dancefloor. Piano is still the lead instrument, but the chords hang over a backing that is almost studiedly anonymous—a luxuriantly warm pool of electronics where the rhythm is propelled more by the gently eddying bass rather than the beats. Like James Blake, though, Overgrown repays repeated listening. As with the first album, there is a simultaneous feeling that the tracks are both congested and unfinished, and that incompleteness—the sketchy melodies, the half-hooks, the repeated lines that play like clues to some emotional event never disclosed in the songs themselves—may be why it eventually gets under your skin. Blake has said that, by contrast with his debut, Overgrown sounds like the work of a man who has experienced love. For me, it is as emotionally enigmatic as its predecessor. The oddly indeterminate—irresolute and unresolved—character of Blake’s music gives it the quality of gospel music for those who have lost their faith so completely that they have forgotten they ever had it. What survives is only a quavering longing, without object or context, Blake coming off like an amnesiac holding on to images from a life and a narrative that he cannot recover. This “negative capability” means that Overgrown is like an inversion of the oversaturated high-gloss emotional stridency of chart and reality TV pop, which is always perfectly certain of what it is feeling.
But what is the faith that Overgrown has lost? Blake’s development has paralleled that of Darkstar, who similarly moved from the tricksy , tic-y vocal science of “Aidy’s Girl is a Computer” to the chilly melancholia of their first album, North. Their new record News From Nowhere has a brighter, dreamier feel, but, as with Overgrown, it is notable for its lack of designs on the dancefloor. In a discussion that Simon Reynolds and I had about UK dance music, Reynolds argued that the “emotional turn” represented by Blake and Darkstar was an implicit acknowledgement that “dance music no longer provides the kind of emotional release that it once did, through collective catharsis.” The music doesn’t have to be explicitly sad for this to be the case—there is a melancholia intrinsic to the very turn inward. As Reynolds points out, the idea that ’90s dance music was unemotional is a fallacy. This was a music saturated with affect, but the affect involved wasn’t associated with romance or introspection. The twinning of romance and introspection, love and its disappointments, runs through 20th century pop. By contrast, dance music since disco offered up another kind of emotional palette, based in a different model of escape from the miseries of individual selfhood.
In the 21st century, there’s an increasingly sad and desperate quality to pop culture hedonism. Oddly, this is perhaps most evident in the way that R&B has given way to club music. When former R&B producers and performers embraced dance music, you might have expected an increase in euphoria, an influx of ecstasy. Yet the digitally-enhanced uplift in the records by producers such as Flo-Rida, Pitbull and will.i.am has a strangely unconvincing quality, like a poorly photoshopped image or a drug that we’ve hammered so much we’ve become immune to its effects. It’s hard not to hear these records’ demands that we enjoy ourselves as thin attempts to distract from a depression that they can only mask, never dissipate.
A secret sadness lurks behind the 21st century’s forced smile. This sadness concerns hedonism itself, and it’s perhaps in hip-hop—the genre that has been most oriented to pleasure over the past 20-odd years—where this melancholy has registered most deeply. Drake and Kanye West are both morbidly fixated on exploring the miserable hollowness at the core of super-affluent hedonism. No longer motivated by hip-hop’s drive to conspicuously consume—they long ago acquired anything they could have wanted—Drake and West instead dissolutely cycle through easily available pleasures, feeling a combination of frustration, anger, and self-disgust, aware that something is missing, but unsure exactly what it is. This hedonist’s sadness—a sadness as widespread as it is disavowed—was nowhere better captured than in the doleful way that Drake sings, “we threw a party/yeah, we threw a party,” on Take Care’s “Marvin’s Room”.
It’s no surprise to learn that Kanye West is an admirer of James Blake’s. Meanwhile, this mix that was doing the rounds a couple of years ago made parallels between Blake and Drake. There’s an affective as well as sonic affinity between parts of Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Blake’s two albums. You might say that Blake’s whole schtick is a partial re-naturalization of the digitally manipulated melancholy Kanye auditioned on 808s: soul music after the Auto-Tune cyborg. But liberated from the penthouse-prison of West’s ego, the disaffection languishes listlessly, incapable of even recognizing itself as sadness. Unsure of itself, caught up in all kinds of impasses, yet intermittently fascinating, Overgrown is one more symptom of the 21st century’s identity crisis.~
James Blake’s Overgrown is out now via ATLAS/Polydor and he plays live at Electronic Beats Festival in Cologne on May 16th.
Let’s start with the facts. Juan Atkins is the Techfather. He is the father of the Holy Trinity of Belleville. Top king of the three wise men of techno. Kraftwerk may be the robots but Juan Atkins is the mo’bot, taking it to the dancefloor while simultaneously achieving an atmosphere that never fails to draw in deep. The new set of remixes of his tune “OFI” on Apollo Records was possibly my favorite release of 2012. This was followed by a new Model 500 release, “Control”/“The Messenger” on R&S, a classic yet refreshed workout. Hence it was with 14 year-old pubescent girl giggling excitement that I went to meet the innovator in Berlin.
Before we get into detail, what is coming next from Model 500, what’s new?
Juan Atkins: I’m always doing something new. Right now I’m preparing a Metroplex release. It’s not a Model 500 release; it is collaboration between Mark Ernestus and me. The name of the track is called “Dark Side”. We’ve got a Ricardo Villalobos mix on it and more. It’s funny because we don’t even have a name. Him and me just went into the studio and just did this thing, and we don’t yet know what we want to call this project. That’s going to be Metroplex 040.
What about a Model 500 album?
I’m working on a model 500 Album. For years I go back and I always say, “The album is gonna be done on this day or that day,” and I never make the deadlines. It’s one of those things where you have to feel it. You’ll know when.
Because my own release is so overdue, I tend to put myself under pressure. I get up in the morning and I’m feeling guilty already. I’ll be on my first coffee and I’ll think, “I should be doing this, I should be doing that,” but if I don’t have the motivation… Maybe you’re more in touch with when it feels right.
JA: With me it’s the exact same thing. I’m at that point now where I’m waking up and I’ll be getting e-mails asking when it’s going to be done. “We’ve got distribution, promotion, blah, blah,” and “What’s the plan, man?” [laughs]
Do you work in your home studio?
I work at home; I’ve also done some recording with a Belgian guy in his studio where he has all this analog gear and we mix it with all the latest technology. It’s a really great studio.
What’s his name?
His name is Gregory [Lacour]. He used to run Elypsia Records, and one of the big distribution companies in Belgium. I went and did one track with him. It’s cool.
I saw an old photo of you from an interview from Music Technology Magazine from 1988. It was you in a serious ’80s outfit and you were sitting in front of what looks like all this vintage mastering gear. Machines! [Laughs] It looked fantastic! And you were talking about how at that time you had not yet started using computers, when some others had already been doing so. You were still doing it your way. Others were using Atari etc, and you started shortly after that.
Actually, the early software-based sequencers were just a nightmare. It’s funny you mention Atari; that was when they were using the big floppy discs, the real five-inch floppy disc. You used to put them into the computer and they were really floppy. Do you remember those?
I’m not sure. I might have seen the next generation of Ataris then. They weren’t bad, actually. We used to program stuff on those and then record it all onto tape. That’s how you got that amazing tape sound still.
Ultimately we would do that too, if we would even get to that stage. It was so tedious. I mean, if you weren’t constantly saving—you couldn’t just save it onto the computer, you had to save it onto those floppy discs. And if you didn’t save every three minutes… These computers were famous for locking up and you would have to reboot, and of course once you do that everything is lost [laughs]
I can remember one time I was getting to the end of a track. I was finished, and the computer crashed. [laughs] And I lost the complete track. And it was so funny because the software was such, you would have to write the pattern the whole way to the end, because if you looped, there would be a hesitation in your boot. It wouldn’t loop directly back and then go back to the top. It was horrible.
“OFI”, the release of the end of last year was in my chart of best releases of the year. Who decided to get some mixes done and who chose the remixers?
It was R&S.
Did you know those people that they chose?
JA: Not really.
Those mixes are incredible. What was your reaction when you heard them?
When I heard them and they sent them to me I was like, “This is great.” Those mixes are really cool.
I seriously think as a package, this might be the best set of mixes I’ve ever heard in my life and I just wanted to know who chose them. There’s a Shadow Child & Horx mix. Blows your mind, right? And there’s a Sei A Mix, which is another dimension. I was waiting for the bad mix, which never came. And there’s a Colonel Red ‘Drunken Masta’ remix. Was your reaction like, “Yep, this is doing me justice.”
Yes. I heard them back-to-back, and I just had to hear the first few bars of each one, they were so good. R&S just went ahead and did it, and before they did anything with it they sent it to me for approval, of course. I approved just about all of them. There might have been just one mix that I didn’t care for.
How do you decide whether anything you release is a Model 500 release or one of your other monikers?
Just based on the track. I usually know before I start a track what it’s going to be for. Usually I reserve Infiniti for the real underground purist crowd. The straight, head, techno expectations.
The Tresor crowd.
JA: Yes, the harder basement style stuff. That’s usually under Infiniti, whereas the Model 500 stuff tends to be more song-oriented. Or if I do stuff with lyrics and vocals, that would be Model 500 stuff.
You mean the spoken ones? You do those yourself?
Yes, but on that Mind and Body album I had a couple of different singers. Actually on that next album I’ve got a track that I did with my daughter. She’s actually singing on one of the tracks.
Now, Cybotron—do you actually realize how ahead of its time that was? I’m listening to it now and my ears are growing. People are trying to do that now and it also sounds in places like what Cabaret Voltaire were doing. A bit of Sugarhill Gang maybe there as an influence. And it has those fabulous vocals.
Thanks. I think I’ve just recently come to that realization myself.
It’s what everyone else ended up doing. That stuff is so incredible. Who did the vocals on the Cybotron stuff?
Depends on what track. Rik Davis would have done any of the singing stuff, probably.
Were you influenced by any other European synth pop groups, like Eurythmics, Depeche Mode, etc? There are a couple of tracks that sound like you were totally aware of that sound also.
I definitely had some influences. At that time, when I started recording, the groups that were around were of course Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Human League; not so much Eurythmics. “Sweet Dreams” was a big hit, but I was maybe on my third release at that time. But definitely Human League and Depeche Mode.
I read that you left the project because it was going too much into a pop direction for you, but then I read somewhere else that it was because it was getting too rock ‘n’ roll. I didn’t know what the real reason was.
More rock ’n’ roll. By the time we were on our third or fourth release, before the album came, we started adding guitars and [guitarist John Housley] was a real Eddie Van Halen type.
And now all of that is hip again. They’re doing the mad guitar keyboards again to get that ’80s sound.
Really? I have to keep that in mind because I’ve just been propositioned by a guy from a very famous rock band (I’m not going to say who now), and he’s into doing publishing. He helps a lot of guys in Chicago with publishing and stuff and it blew me away, as he was in this hugely famous group and what he wants to do is play a guitar riff on one of my tracks.
So, it wasn’t the fact that there were vocals that were putting you off, it was the guitar solos?
It wasn’t even just the guitar solos, but he used what you would call electronic guitars, meaning that he had an actual guitar synthesizer. The guitar is just the controller and it controls the actual synth. He did that on a couple of tracks and you could tell that in his heart that he was a real rock guy. There were a couple of tracks like “Enter” and “The Mind” where he played a straight-forward guitar and it was cool, I loved it. But then he wanted to go even more in that direction and I’m like, “Man, you can’t come behind a record like “Clear” and do that.” How can you come behind a record like “Clear” with a rock ’n’ roll record? The record company was asking for the next single and they handed in these guitar tracks, and even the record company said, “No, we don’t wanna do this.” [laughs]
Well, this was destiny then, that you went where you needed to go.
Yes, that forced me to start Metroplex and that gave the cue to all my friends, to the whole Detroit techno generation, and I guess, had I not done that, none of that would have happened.
How do you come up with a Model 500 song title? All your titles are very defined. Do you sit down and decide that you might want to write a song about Detroit or something?
No, more often than not I don’t know what is going to happen. Sometimes I might have an idea but I never ever usually have an idea about the title. Usually that doesn’t come until the very end.
But you kind of know what you want to sit down and develop in terms of sound?
Rarely do I know. There’s only been a few instances where I went at it knowing I wanted to start with a certain kind of beat, or bassline that I had in my head, and I finally get to put it out. But by the time I finish the track it’s usually never what it was when I started.
But now, with Detroit going through these massive changes, is the new Model 500 album going to be shaped by all these fresh influences, because of all the visual and social changes in Detroit now? Are you out there looking around, getting inspired and then writing all those tunes that are influenced by Detroit as it is now?
Not really. It’s funny; I don’t pay too much attention of what’s happening in Detroit.
How can you not when everything on the one hand is falling apart, but out of that new things are growing, like social changes? Maybe because it’s outside your door you’re not going around seeing it that much? But it must influence you in some way. I mean, the crumbling empty buildings and people moving into the empty suburban houses…
It’s not something I pay too much attention to, because, I mean, I was born and raised in Detroit, so I’m kind of oblivious.
But it wasn’t falling apart then in that way, when you started.
Detroit has always been falling apart. [laughs] The only time I can remember that Detroit was really vibrant, and downtown was crowded with people shopping at all the department stores, was when I was a kid. Before I even thought about making music.
I bought a lot of books about Detroit, with all the famous concert halls, cinemas, opera houses, etc in ruins and poor people taking the iron structures out of them to sell the iron for money. And I actually am thinking about going to Detroit and shooting a documentary about it. I know I’m not the first person to do this.
Actually those are the kinds of things that you kind of want to escape from.
But it must give you some kind of new ideas? Also, what I learned is that young people are moving into all those empty suburban houses. Sadly, these are the houses that people lost through the banks giving them expensive loans, which they were unable to repay. And young people are moving in and growing their own food. Mini-farms are being established; so out of the destruction comes some new social movement. People are doing something positive. I know what I would do. I would sit down and write about all of this.
That’s funny! You don’t work that way?
I’m sure that subconsciously it affects what I do, but somehow I am more into creating an alternative to the reality, as opposed to perpetuating.
I’m accused of writing miserable songs. [JA laughs] Larry Flick from Billboard Magazine interviewed me live on the air and his first words were, “So Billie, why are your songs so miserable?” I think I would quite happily be sitting in Detroit and writing about doom and destruction. But I also write from a perspective of what comes out of that. So, I don’t think my songs are miserable at all, but the press calls me “The Nico of the rave generation.” I guess my songs are reflective. I would probably love being in Detroit for a month or more. It’s very interesting to me that you don’t necessarily come from that perspective, because certainly your early Model 500 songs are influenced by Detroit, but I guess it comes from a more individual place then.
So, would I have to hurry up if I wanted to come and make a documentary, because all the buildings are physically collapsing now, because of the iron structures being taken by looters?
Actually, yes. Every time I ride down Woodward I see a new space where they’ve cleared the area. They are starting to get rid of those ancient buildings.
I’d like to get some spontaneous answers from you about the influences about some of your classic songs. The first one would be “Nightdrive Through Babylon”. Your stuff always seems to take that Kraftwerk influence and take it somewhere else. One could say while they’re resting on their laurels, your stuff takes it further. Is this track inspired by driving through Detroit?
Yeah, that track is one of those that actually go with what you were saying in your previous question. That would be one that probably draws on the grimness of Detroit. But there is also the biblical reference.
Actually this was meant to be a Cybotron song. What happened was when we split I was like, “I’ll have that.” [laughs] Because of the rhythm of the track, to me that was more of a follow-up to “Clear”. If you listen to it, it is more like “Clear”, as it was sort of the template for that song. Even though a lot of that old stuff we called a collaboration, I was more responsible for the tracks like “Clear” and “Cosmic Cars” and those sounds, whereas Rik would maybe play a riff on it or do a little keyboard line or vocal riff and he would get 50% of that song. When it got to the point where we were getting ready to split, I was like, “You’re not getting 50% of this one.” [laughs] Although that’s him talking on this particular one, that’s Rik actually. But I just had to have it, because I was in love with it. When I first made it, it was one of those ones where I felt, “Oh my god,” so I put it on Metroplex.
And just to get back to your question: a lot of stuff that I wrote with Rik not only has social and political content, some of it had the biblical references as well. So, there’s the Babylon reference and “R9” was a reference to Revelation 9.
Were you influenced by The Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash and people like that?
I was in my senior year in high school when “Rapper’s Delight” came out. So, we were listening to that stuff.
Sugarhill Gang had the beats that now everyone is influenced by.
Yeah, like “Scorpio”.
They had some serious beats going on that everyone now copies.
Now that I think about it, I think it might have slightly influenced me.
Yes, I can hear that on some of the Cybotron stuff. They had heavy beats, and also what they did was that they would put reverb over the whole track in the mix. I was in the studio recording a demo of what was supposed to sound like a Sugarhill Gang track and it sounded too clean. I asked the engineer, Steve Honest from Rock of London studios, why the hell it wasn’t sounding like the Sugarhill Gang track that I had brought in for reference. And he told me that they put this big reverb over the whole recording at the end of it. He knew what reverb it was and he put it on the track, and it did sound like one of those old tracks. I noticed that on one or two of the Cybotron tunes there is that reverb, definitely over the drums.
Yes it’s on the drums. A lot of that ’80s stuff sounds the way it does because, when all the digital reverbs came along, everyone went crazy. They were putting reverb on stuff that they shouldn’t have put reverb on. [laughs]
That’s why that stuff sounds so good! It has a kind of live feel. The other song I wanted to know about is “Urban Tropics”. It reminds me of the Detroit equivalent of the classic tune by Richie Rich, “Salsa House”. “Urban Tropics” captures a mood not many tunes capture, so I was wondering.
Actually, it was, I believe, Mike Huckaby, that I did this with. So, that was more his influence.
When I announced on my Facebook fan page that I was about to interview you, one of my fans told me to ask about the song “Techno Music”. How did the tune start and so forth?
I was living in California for a while. I moved there in ’88, and then I got a call from Derrick May and he said, “You gotta come back to Detroit. Record Mirror is here. NME is here. All the British magazines are here to do interviews and you’re not here.” [laughs] So, I drove back. The first techno compilation was coming together on Ten Records, which was Virgin. And we were being discovered.
I guess someone got the idea of doing this compilation. And the working title of that compilation was The House Sound of Detroit. And what happened was that we needed a track for this compilation, and afterwards they told me what the name of the compilation would be. And I was like, “Man, I’m not having that,” [laughs] and I called this track “Techno Music” and submitted it. Everybody at that time was saying, “If it wasn’t for Juan, I wouldn’t be doing this music,” and I had submitted a track called “Techno Music”, so they changed the name.
I also called you the Techfather in one of my tweets. So, from what I gather, Frankie Knuckles would be the Jackfather. Because from what I know, Derrick sold Frankie an 808, and thus Chicago house music was born.
You would never get anybody from Chicago to admit that probably Detroit kick-started their movement as well.
Well, I’m not surprised that they wouldn’t want to give the credit away, because in America no one gets their just credit for anything, no matter what they’ve innovated, so you have to cling on to what credit you’ve managed to create for yourself, I guess.
Everybody is a DJ who’s also a techno artist now. That’s the situation by default. You don’t usually produce music; you’re a DJ first. But by me being a DJ and a musician—at the time the two were separate. It wasn’t what it is now. Either you made music or you were a DJ.
I had this idea to combine the two worlds. First of all the TR-808 was brand new, nobody knew it. We must have had one of the first 808 machines. We were battling with this other rival DJ group and I said, “We’re gonna bring the secret weapon,” which was this drum machine, and you could basically make up your own rhythms. At the time, the rhythm tracks phenomenon, or shall we say fad, was happening, with one record label selling four albums of only rhythm tracks. So, I felt we could make up our own rhythms on the spot and people would go crazy. And sure ‘nuff, we took the 808 and had a couple of patterns programmed in and mixed them in just like records. You had a pitch control on it and you could mix it in just like records.
The beauty of that was, nobody else had whatever patterns you had programmed in there. They were your grooves, worldwide. That gave you an exclusivity, that gave you an edge. And then the fact that you could change the patterns right there, on the fly… man. And so what happened was, and it was funny, at the time everybody had a couple of machines from various deals or whatever, and this was only happening in Detroit—nowhere else I know of—and Derrick was short on his rent one month and said, “Hey, man, I gotta sell one of these drum machines because I gotta pay my rent”. So, I said, “Well, don’t sell it to somebody else in Detroit, because they’re gonna take it and use it against us!” [laughs] His parents had moved to Chicago, so he was back and forth between Detroit and Chicago. I told him to go and sell this stuff in Chicago, because if you sell it to someone in Detroit they’re gonna show up at the party and be battling us with our own damn drum machine! [laughs] So, he took it to Chicago and sold it to Frankie Knuckles. [laughs]
So, Frankie started doing the same thing in a club called The Warehouse. At the time it was a club in Chicago that was very, very famous. He started mixing in patterns into his set, and then I think he had a couple of partners, like Chip E and people like that, that actually took that drum machine home after their club nights, and started making beats and stuff. And so what happened was, he took it home and made tracks like “Like This” and “Jack the House” and would bring acetates back to the club.
My final question: Karl Bartos from Kraftwerk once said to me that he would be open to collaborating with me but that he could not imagine Aretha Franklin singing over a Kraftwerk track. I replied that she had happily done so for the last 20 years. My question to you is: will you record a track with me?
Yeah, I’m sure we can work something out.~
Title image of Juan Atkins by Luci Lux.