Send me your track

Sunday
Oct042009

Juan Atkins Interview, part two

Juan Atkins, Hampshire, July 19th 2009

Part two of Dan Bean’s interview, part one is here.

 

When you’re making music, are you trying to get the sounds in your head out?

It varies. There’s some tracks that I have ideas of what I want to do before I even sit behind a keyboard or a drum machine or whatever and I’ll go at the idea of what I was thinking.

Is it a melodic idea?

Sometimes it’s more beats and rhythm than anything. The best stuff that I have come up with is stuff that I had no idea what I was going to do when I sat down. Just messing around and saying, “damn, that sounds good, let me record this.” Then you just build. To me, the best stuff has come up on straight improvisation, just working on the fly.

Even better than that, we got to the point where we started working with engineers and didn’t have to worry about the technical aspect of getting the stuff down. I could really roll then because I could just play something, choose the sound and say, “OK, record that.” Tracks like The Flow and I Wanna Be There, which to me are two of my favourites up there with Clear.

I Wanna Be There’s one of my favourites.

I did that in Berlin, I was working with Moritz from Basic Channel. He was engineering the session and he was really proficient at being right on top of the sounds, EQs, effects and stuff. He knew exactly which sounds effects go with certain stuff. It was one of those moments where I felt creative. I got off the plane and went straight to the studio and we started messing with tracks. It was one of those instances where I went, “OK, record that, dah dah dah, record that, record that, record that.” Before you know it I got all of these sounds.

Since you were making a new kind of music, did you have to invent a new way of making it?

Yes, or the new way of making it invents the new music, that’s more it. To give you an example, any time I got a new piece of gear, I got a new track or two from just learning the gear. Getting new gear is always real inspirational in making new tracks.

It seems to me that there’s something slightly random in that, if you play a mistake or hear something by chance.

Yeah, a lot of it is like that. You would be surprised that the end result of certain tracks started out being a totally different track, or you could take one line out of a track and make a whole new track.


Model 500 - I Wanna Be There 12”, R&S 1996

On the cover of I Wanna Be There you’re looking up, kind of looking to the sky. It reminded me that there’s an outer space thread through a lot of your music.

It’s a theme that’s throughout my music and it’s about escape sometimes, about being able to fantasize or being in a different place… different planet… different dimension… different universe. Sometimes you feel like that, somewhere deep in you, you know that there’s got to be more to it than what it is right here, to this whole big infinity, time space continuum.

Do you think it’s something particular to your experience of growing up in this city, or is it more a universal thing?

It’s more universal definitely.

Do you feel like you’ve got there?

Maybe I could be from there? [laughs] Sometimes I feel that way.

Like it’s hard to relate to your surroundings?

People tell me that sometimes they think I’m an alien.

Do you remember the first time you left Detroit?

I travelled to California on my own when Technicolor was out, 1987. We had sold 50,000 records out here so it’s probably worth me going to check out some things and see how I can make it better. Me and my brother drove out there in 87. We got out there, checked out some stuff, went to the radio station, did an interview. [I] did what I needed to do to hype it up more and get more mileage out of it and get discovered I guess at the same token.

Did all that kind of stuff come naturally to you?

I read a lot. There’s one book that was instrumental in helping me start, and the book that Rik read. It was called How To Make And Sell Your Own Record. It gave you step by step instructions on what you should do.

It was the text book for anybody that had an independent label. It had charts and stuff in there that showed you how to do your spreadsheets and do your priority mailing list and your promotional list. If you don’t know what a programme director’s job is it tells you. How to actually market your record and how to manufacture it, press it. It had a lot of information. I had no idea that you could actually make your own record and sell it.

Who mastered the first Metroplex?

When we did Cybotron, the Deep Space stuff, we were using a record pressing company in Cincinnati. You sent them the tape and you sent them your label artwork and they mastered it and pressed it.


Model 500 - Night Drive 12”, Metroplex 1985

 

Was not being there during the mastering a problem?

You just had to trust them, the way they did it was that they sent you a reference copy. If you didn’t like your reference laquer then you called up and told them what you thought was wrong with it. If you were any kind of engineer you’re supposed to know exactly how many dB you want turned up. You could damn near send them a note, tell them exactly how you want your stuff to be mastered. I would know exactly what frequency to cut the bass at, how many dB it needed to be boosted and all of that.

How do you see yourself in relation to other musicians? What I mean by that is do you think you’ve changed the way people understand music?

I definitely see myself fitting in somewhere, I don’t know exactly where. I think I played a major role in the direction and the course of electronic dance music. Like Sly & The Family Stone, one of my all time favourites, set the precursor to the whole funk movement. George Clinton, P Funk took cues from them, Prince, even James Brown.

What is it about what you do? It’s not just that you started things, throughout your career you’ve made music that people have stuck with.

There’s no formula, it’s just a sound. It’s just something I feel, just what I hear. Whatever my influences are, the music I’ve listened to since I was in the womb probably affected how I make music. The chords and the progressions and the twists and turns that I’ve heard throughout life come out in the music. Like I said, it’s more what flows through you when you sit there. Sometimes I don’t know where I want to go, more often than not I’m just a vessel and something comes through me and comes out in the form of a song.

Normally the best tracks and the best productions and the best pieces of music have come when I’ve totally let go and I’m in an environment where I don’t get caught up with the technical aspect of plugging in the patch, making sure this sound comes through this channel. That takes away from the creative process.

At one time I didn’t want to leave the engineering up to other people because I wanted to do everything myself, there’s a phase that everybody goes through where you can do this, sometimes you have no choice but to do it. You might not have money to pay an engineer or want that. Anybody else that you work with is of course going to have their two cents to put into it. You might not want that as well sometimes, but that to me is part of the process, because at one time you had to play with other people to get a record.

When was the last time you actually made a track? I know you’ve been rehearsing for the [Model 500] tour a lot.

We actually did a track in the airport on a laptop. This is where it is now, this is where technology has brought us to. We had a little keyboard controller and we plugged it into the laptop through USB. It’s a program called Garage Band, it’s got some pretty good sounds on it and you play just like you would in any studio. Mark Taylor, who is one of the band members, had this Apple laptop. He got all of the parts, went home, mixed it and gave us the bpm. I didn’t even sing over the track, I just did it in another studio to a click at the same bpm as the one that we worked on.

Before that the last thing I did as an actual release was probably the Berlin Sessions. I did something in Belgium but it’s not released yet, it’s a disco track with vocals and everything. I’m trying to get Carl [Craig] to do a mix on it, it’s his cup of tea, I think.

Because I was living in LA for four years a lot of my studio is still there. I didn’t have no idea I was going to be back in Detroit this long, especially not making music. I have dabbled in certain other things, I was in New York with Kimyon [Huggins] and we worked on something that was pretty interesting. But I never really sit down and finish it, I’m leaving it up to these other guys to finish the stuff.

In Europe there’s the idea that you don’t turn up for your gigs and there’s also speculation about why. Is that something you want to comment about or set the record straight on?

Well, yeah, I’ve recently run into some health problems with diabetes, I’m a type two diabetic. Also there’s a lot of things that happen, especially when you’re in a city like Detroit. I have family that have supported me and I support them at the same time. You know I hate to have this kind of attitude, but sometimes there are certain things that are more important. I’ll book a gig, but it still comes down to that day.

Flying half way around the world, especially now, is really not a picnic like it used to be. I remember when I could roll up to a flight 15 minutes ahead of it and get on it! These are the things that make travelling a little bit more difficult, especially if you realise that your sugar level is too high one day. True enough, it’s up to me to keep my control, but I’m kind of an undisciplined person.

Do you have to give yourself injections?

No, I just do oral medication, but sometimes I don’t take my medicine, because it was hard for me to come to grips with. It was something that was just diagnosed in the last four years.

How did you first find out?

One day I woke up and my vision was blurry. I couldn’t damn near see my hand in front of my face. I went to the doctor and my sugar level was 1200. I don’t know how it works in the UK, but here 100 to 150 is the normal range. They said, “we’re surprised that you’re even still walking around.” They had to pump five of those bottles of saline solution into me, to bring my level down, shot me a couple of times with some insulin, to get my sugar level down.

It’s something that can actually be reversed, that I’m working on with different herbs and diet. There’s a lot of speculation you know, “oh yeah, he must be doing drugs,” and you know, true enough, I have had my party moments. But diabetes runs in my family, a genetic thing. The reason for my weight loss is I was losing water because of the sugar overflow. So a lot of that came together in the reason why certain flights I didn’t make. I always try, I don’t know two months ahead what’s going to happen on the day. But I don’t want people to get shell shocked or nothing, my health is a lot better now than it was a year ago.

I remember when I met you about three years ago we spoke briefly and I was shocked by how thin you were, it was unreal. From the sound of what the doctors said, you had a pretty close shave.

Oh yeah man, I could have gone into shock. Eventually I just had to come to grips and change my diet and I feel a lot better. I have picked up weight, it’s just about staying disciplined. I don’t purposely like to miss gigs or stuff like that or take somebody’s money, that’s never been an intentional plan of mine. It’s just a lot of things that I’ve been through in the last couple of years that I have now come to grips with.

How do you mean?

Family issues, it’s a lot of things that my family was in involved in. I don’t want to go into it right now, but sometimes if you love your family you have to stick at bay with them, hang with them and just make sure everything is cool. Sometimes when you make these trips and you make these plans, it’s predictable what you might do. “Well he ain’t going to be here on this weekend so this can happen.” “Well oops, fooled you, I didn’t get on the plane!” And it’s a lot of things that could have happened, would have happened had I been gone, that didn’t.

That sounds intense.

Yeah, but everything is cool now, I think that added a lot of stress to me. That was probably how I kind of developed certain things. I was stressing and that leads to eating more and drinking more.

How are you finding the touring? That can be a stressful lifestyle.

Actually, that feels good. It was something that I always wanted to do and intended on doing. Me and Mike [Banks] talked about it for a couple of years before we actually did the first show.

That was at the festival [DEMF 2007]?

Yeah, that was the first Model 500 live, in that configuration.

 

Wall in North West Detroit, June 2008

That was an amazing show, it blew me away.

Thanks, we’ve got all the glitches out of it and everything is cool, it feels good. You’ve got the camaraderie with the guys, you’ve got people travelling with you, it’s not like you’re sitting up [in] some room, lonely. We go out and have good times, we eat before the shows and talk about things. Everybody is creative in their own right and have different outlooks and insight on stuff, so that’s real good.

Mike [Banks] said something interesting, that the music was healing you.

Yeah, that’s a good analogy, a good way of putting it. The shows are definitely having a theraputic value.

I still feel like we haven’t got to grips with the outer space thing.

We ain’t going to come to grips on that.

It’s too abstract?

Yeah, that’s a whole other book in itself.

You’re still looking to the stars?

Yeah, definitely, there’s a track on the Metroplex 20 album called Dreammaker. It was one of our first Cybotron tracks that we never released, It sounds like Cosmic Raindance, we were using that DR55 drum machine on there.

How come it never got released?

I guess at the time we wanted the singles to be really uptempo dance tracks. I don’t know why we didn’t put it on the b side or something. Cosmic Raindance was the first track that we actually made, the first song that me and Rik made together, after that we did Dreammaker then Alleys Of Your Mind. Dreammaker was actually done at the same time as Cosmic Raindance.

It’s different from your other tracks of that time, is it you singing on it?

I’m singing on the choruses and that’s Rik doing the lead with the falsetto voice. This was more Rik’s style, really dreamy stuff.

There’s something about it that reminds me of Hendrix, maybe the lyrics?

Rik was a big Hendrix fan because he was a Vietnam vet. I actually refer to him as the Hendrix of keyboards. If you listen to tracks like Dreammaker, or another track called Space Race that we didn’t release as well. It’s about three or four tracks out there that we never released. I’m thinking, now that you’re mentioning it, I might gather up these tracks and release them as a Cybotron.

Are you still in touch with Rik?

Through the internet. There’s this guy that’s doing a thing about vocoders and he reached out. Me and Rik corresponded between each other about this guy because Rik is a real loner. He’s real standoffish to meeting new people. He’s real private and secretive. So when I put this guy in touch with Rik I just told him how to contact him. I didn’t give him his phone number or nothing, but there’s a way on the internet… He’s on there but you wouldn’t know it was him unless somebody told you. When this guy hit him up on the internet and said “yeah, Juan told me, blah blah blah,” he got back to me and asked me a couple of questions about the guy. We can reach each other when we want to but we’re not in constant contact like we where when we were in the group.

Was he secretive like that when you first met him?

When I went to community college I took all music courses, and everybody talked about, “hey you know, let’s hook up and jam one day.” Rik was never wanting to play with anybody else, he kept to his self. His reasoning was he didn’t like dealing with people that have their own schedules and some people aren’t as serious about their career as the other people. I guess Rik was very serious.

It was frustrating when you call a rehearsal and your drummer didn’t show up, you had no rhythm section. I guess he had a couple of bad experiences with groups so he didn’t want to play with anybody. He didn’t have to because he was one of the people that had mastered the art of being able to sequence drum machines, he was really ahead of the curve. I learned a whole lot of things, not just musically but philosophically as well, from Rik and that’s one thing I would never change or never take away from myself or from him.

I was going through some 45s at home the other the day and found this [DB hands JA an Alleys Of Your Mind 45].

Ah man!

 

Cybotron - Alleys Of Your Mind 7”, Deep Space 1981

Can you describe what you’re holding?

This is a 45 single of Alleys Of Your Mind. The design is original, but it looks like it could have been bootlegged, because I don’t ever remember us making beige paper labels. Someone booted me man! If you look at the ink here those Es are blackened in.

If you did get booted that’s a sign of your success in a way.

[laughs] Yeah.

The reason I brought that along was because I read that two weeks before you released Alleys Of Your Mind, Sharevari came out.

Who told you? Two weeks?

Is that incorrect?

I have to present the counter case to that. It’s been a long time, but I believe our record came first. As a matter of fact that record didn’t come until Cosmic Cars the following year. I think they put ‘81 on their label to make it look like it came out earlier because I swear that [with] Alleys Of Your Mind there was nothing else out there doing that.

So looking back now, what do you think of Sharevari?

Oh it’s a great record, I played it. At the time it was just as provocative as the Cybotron stuff, but they followed our lead. If you listen to the lyrics it was almost like they were trying to create the same vocal effect that I was using. We were definitely first!

People say that Sharevari was the first techno record.

Nah nah nah. You can put that in bold print, and I want someone that can contend me on that one

Did you know them?

I met a couple of guys and I met the guy that did the voice. It was funny because he didn’t use any effect to make that voice, it was some kind of thing that he did with his vocals. He would go around places, going [croaks] “Share… Vari…” [laughs]

The subjects they talk about in Sharevari seem a bit dated, whereas Alleys Of Your Mind seems a bit broader, or a bit more universal.

Yeah exactly, of course that wasn’t as deep as Cybotron. There’s not a lot of groups as deep as Cybotron, even to this day, If you listen to Alleys Of Your Mind you could upgrade the production maybe a little, but the thing about Cybotron is the stuff still could work, still sounds fresh. The lyric is like now almost.

 

A Number Of Names - Sharevari 12”, Capriccio 1981?

That deepness you’re referring to, where does that come from?

I think a lot of that has to do with Rik’s wisdom and knowledge. He’s a very brilliant person and he was ten years older than me so he had a bit more knowledge in the ways of the world. A lot of his philosophy he wrote about in songs and he taught me about certain things, what to look out for and what to watch and research. We vowed to never do records about shallow subjects so that transferred to a lot of the stuff that I wrote after starting Metroplex.

Looking at dance music since then, a lot of people have gone on to gain enormous amounts of money and fame. I guess you could argue that they built their house on your foundations to some extent?

This is the way I look at it: I really believe that there’s a higher order or a bigger picture that accounts for everything that happens. There’s no way that I can say that I’m responsible for the advancement of music technology or techno music so to speak. The technology was going to happen anyway, somebody had to do it, I just happened to be one of those people that did it.

I can’t sit back and say, “oh, well maybe I didn’t get all of the accolades that were due me,” and be bitter. Life is too short to sit back and wonder why certain twists and turns happen the way they happen. I can’t point the finger or hold anybody responsible for my success or for my lack thereof, things just go the way they go. You have a lot of influence over your decisions in life, but you can’t hold other people responsible for the decisions you make for yourself.

Do you think people will still be making Detroit electronic music, techno, whatever you want to call it, in a few years? There seems to be less and less people doing so.

I think there’s something about Detroit where every twenty years or so there’s a movement. You had Motown, then you had Detroit techno. I think Detroit has something about the city that creates movements and I think it’s due for another one.

I’ve been told that your father was friends with Nicky Barnes [New York drug king pin and subject of the film America Gangster], is there anything to that?

It’s true… It’s funny because when I do interviews there’s no real reason for my father to come into it and I never really say anything about my childhood or his life. I have to reserve something when I do my book and my film instead of giving all this information to other journalists and writers, no disrespect… But there is truth to that, definitely he was a gangster, for lack of a better term.

And he’s still incarcerated?

Yeah, he’s got a story actually in his self, and this is going to be a very very interesting read or film when I link the two stories together.

So you’re thinking of writing an autobiography?

Oh definitely, it’s already in progress. I’m more of a visual person so I actually want to do a feature length film.

Who would play the young Juan Atkins?

I thought about Ice Cube at one time, but he might be too old. There is a young actor, I can’t recall his name at the moment [Michael B. Jordan], but he played on “The Wire” [as Wallace] and he was on the soap All My Children for a while.

We’ve covered a lot of stuff, is there anything else you want to speak on?

I just want to say that we got new music coming, I weathered the storm and I’m coming back with a vengeance! So just watch out! [laughs]

OK, thanks very much.


Part one of this interview is here.

 

Selected links:

Model 500 website

Juan Atkins/Cybotron on MySpace

Model 500 on Discogs.com

Cybotron on Discogs.com


Many thanks to Cornelius Harris, Shaun Ellis and Ken Odeluga for their help with this article.


Reader Comments (17)

Excellent! Thanks.

October 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNajem Sworb

really interesting to hear some of these answers..
this is by far the best interview with Juan Atkins I've read so far.
nice1 Dan!

October 5, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterali

nice read. also cool to feel his intelligence bursting out of his words, the man knows what it's about in this world. and only a few do.

October 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterM.A

great read, thanks a lot

October 6, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterdoffice

Great read... like many have said, probably the best interview with Juan!

October 6, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterbernardo

thanks for sharing

October 6, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersteven

Really nice and thorough interview !!! thanks for that

October 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTimewalker

lol his nails

October 7, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterlolex

A good read and a good interview Dan.

October 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

Thanks so much. a great interview.

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBill

good read....
Its about time the Bellevue Three got interviewed.
- whos next up.

October 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJ / Ai

great interview, some sensitive and insightful questions

October 11, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterandy g

excellent work Dan! It's been too long!

December 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEtienne

Absolutely Fantastic!
Seems, this is the first big interview with Mr. Atkins recently!!!
I really enjoyed!
Thanks!

February 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKostya

pretty cool that juan addresses the issue of "sharevari" versus "alleys" in the battle of what came first.

having gone through the invoices at archer record pressing, i posted some of my findings on my blog at...

http://trembleunderboomlights.blogspot.com/2009/12/archer-record-pressing-master-numbers.html

BUT...

recent investigation shows that cybotron's supplied catalog number of 107043 was a designation from QCA record pressing in Cincinnati. a visit to

http://www.45rpmrecords.com/date_qca.php

breaks down the formula for QCA master numbers and shows that they actually reveal the date of mastering. if you don't care to read up on it all, i can tell you that the QCA master number shows "alleys of your mind" to have been mastered in july of 1981. that's a good three months before "sharevari" shows up in the invoices at archer.

would be curious if juan remembers any of the records being pressed at archer or not? or if these are the supposed white label "bootlegs" he refers to (that actually seem to turn up moreso than any other copies)

February 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterben blackwell

This interview was really great. I'm an electronic musician too and Cybotron is one of my major influences. While I'm a lot younger, I grew up in Michigan (born in Southfield, lived on 17 Mile Road for years) and heard a lot of the same things he did (lots of motown, for example), but of course, Cybotron and Detroit techno in general were a big deal to me when I discovered them in my early teens. I also liked '80s new wave when I was a little kid, but techno and punk rock permanently changed my musical outlook permanently, and Juan's music had a lot to do with it.

I moved to California in my mid-teens and going back to Michigan is always bittersweet and confusing to me, but Detroit techno always makes me think of home.

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeremy

great interview - much respect to juan and his musicians life.

October 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIve

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Post:
 
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>
« Juan Atkins Interview, part one | Main | Alland Byallo - Brick by Brick »