Co-founder of the techno movement, Model 500's Juan Atkins discusses yesterday's technology and influences, and tomorrow's music. Technospeak: Simon Trask.
Juan Atkins is Detroit's original techno musician. Having taken his cues from Kraftwerk and Telex he's now handing out cues to another generation of musicians.
AS HISTORY OFTEN relates, originators are not always the ones to benefit most from their vision. Others more adept at capitalising on it often take the spotlight. One such figure in the history of modern dance music is 26-year-old Juan Atkins, the originator of Detroit techno music and a shadowy but important figure in the birth of Chicago house.
Atkins first came to prominence in Cybotron, an early '80s techno/electro group which achieved some success but was eventually split by conflicting musical directions. Since then he has worked as Model 500, releasing on his own Metroplex label polished minimalist hi-tech dance-music gems with titles like 'Future', 'Time Space Transmat' and 'Interference'. Atkins is a man with a fascination for technology and all things futuristic.
Atkins' musical output isn't exactly prolific, and much of it is hard to find in the UK as he still has no distribution deal. He's a musician who thinks carefully about his music, and as a result, it always sounds carefully crafted - music made to last. In person he is a quiet, shy man who you feel would rather avoid the limelight, but who nonetheless proved to be a most patient and courteous interviewee on a recent working visit to the UK.
Since MT's interview with Atkins' fellow techno musician Kevin Saunderson (MT September '88), Inner City's 'Big Fun' (a commercial techno track taken from 10 Record's Techno! compilation album) has had major UK chart success, and an album is planned for January release. Atkins has performed mixing chores on the follow-up single, 'Good Life', while a remix of his own track 'Techno Music' (also from Techno!) is provisionally set for January release on 10 Records. With the charts once again opening up to groups of a technological persuasion, Atkins seems set to follow in the footsteps of the early techno-pop bands he so admires.
BORN AND RAISED in Detroit, Atkins grew up mainly on the northwest side, where he attended high school in the suburban area of Belleville till 1980. Here he met Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, his future techno compatriots.
Recalling the music he listened to as a teenager, Atkins accords particular respect to a Detroit radio DJ known as The Electrifyin' Mojo, who began broadcasting a nightly show from 10-3 on WGPR 107.5FM in April '77.
"Mojo really had a lot of impact on music in Detroit. He used to play a lot of German and British imports. The first place I heard Kraftwerk was on his show, in '78 or '79. He'd play anything from the B52s to Jimi Hendrix to Kraftwerk, Peter Frampton... all kinds of stuff."
Atkins' earliest enthusiasm was for Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, and he recalls with particular enthusiasm Moroder's work with Donna Summer and the producer's own album E=MC2.
"Around 1980 I had a tape of nothing but Kraftwerk, Telex, Devo, Giorgio Moroder and Gary Numan, and I'd ride around in my car playing it."
Meanwhile, George Clinton's mob were bringing the funk to Detroit in a big way, and Mojo was right on the case.
"He played all the Parliament and Funkadelic that anybody ever wanted to hear. Those two groups were really big in Detroit at the time. In fact, they were one of the main reasons why disco didn't really grab hold in Detroit in '79. Mojo used to play a lot of funk just to be different from all the other stations that had gone over to disco. When 'Knee Deep' came out, that just put the last nail in the coffin of disco music."
Short-lived as it was, the disco boom in Detroit inspired a lot of people to take up mixing. Atkins was one of them, learning his skill from listening to the mix shows on the radio. He subsequently taught May to mix, and the pair started doing DJ sets together as Deep Space. In '80-'81 they met with Mojo and proposed that they should provide him with mixes for his show. Around '81-'82 they did this, lavishing their attentions on artists as diverse as Prince and the B52s.
"We'd do a megamix on one record, extend a record, do tricks with it... We'd have two copies of the same record and do flanging and backtracking on the turntables, just weird stuff that would give the record a little bit more of a pep. Eventually we started doing 20-minute mixes where we'd run a whole lot of records together. Basically we were blending; this was before scratching and all of that came in. We'd do mixes on tape. A lot of our mixes were done onto cassette using the pause button."
Meanwhile, Atkins had been developing his own musical aspirations. He was no newcomer to music-making, having started playing drums at an early age and moved to the bass guitar. His conversion to the synthesiser came when he heard that Parliament and Funkadelic were using synths for their basslines. Suddenly an instrument which he had associated with the high-end of music was operating in his kind of frequency range.
"During the summer of 1980 I bought myself a Korg MS10. I messed around with that synthesiser all summer, and I'd got to the point where I was making up all sorts of drumbeats on it. I had two Kenwood cassette decks and a little Yamaha four-channel mixer, and I'd make up my drum beat and record it on one deck, then bounce it across onto the other and overdub another part at the same time. I became a real master at doing that; I knew how to EQ my drum sounds to start with so that by the time I'd finished four or five overdubs the music still sounded clean."
Atkins' summer-long recording experiments produced a demo tape of five or six tracks, which he proudly played to his classmates when he went to community college in Autumn '80. They caught the ear of one such classmate, Rick Davis aka 3070, a musician who'd already released a record of avant-garde, non-danceable electronic music. The two decided to join forces as Cybotron.
"I walked into Rick's room and was blown away. He had an ARP Odyssey, ARP Axxe, Roland RS09 string machine, the ARP analogue sequencer and an early Roland sequencer, and the Boss DR55 Dr Rhythm. I had my little Korg MS10."
They released their first single, 'Alleys of Your Mind', on their own Deep Space label in '81. Airplay on Mojo's show generated considerable interest, though few people realised the record was by two black musicians from Detroit.
"I had people come up to me and say they thought Cybotron was some white guys from Europe. People couldn't believe we were actually Detroit musicians. We sold between 7000 and 10,000 copies of that record in Detroit."
The '82 follow-up was 'Cosmic Cars', which has nothing to do with Gary Numan's classic track. Instead it was an ode to Atkins' car, a 1980 Cutlass. The track became popular, helped by interest in the Grand Prix being held in Detroit for the first time. On the strength of 'Cosmic Cars' the group signed to the San Francisco-based Fantasy label, and subsequently released a classic album, Enter.
Enter displays a clear musical schizophrenia, which is one of its charms but also proved to be the group's downfall.
"My concept was that the Kraftwerks, Telexes and Devos were good but they weren't funky. I felt that if I could take that type of music and add a funky element to it then it would be a smash. We did that, but we just didn't get recognised. Soul Sonic Force came along and beat us to it."
The trouble was that 3070 and third Cybotron member Jon 5 wanted to head in a rock 'n' roll direction while Atkins wanted to pursue techno/electro. The result was that they never had a strong enough musical base to get substantial sales out of the album.
Feeling that the group should be one thing or the other, Atkins struck out on his own, and since '85 has recorded as Model 500. A reference to the Ford factory which once dominated Detroit? Atkins is amused by the connection, but denies it.
"It has nothing to do with Ford. I wanted to use something that repudiated an ethnic designation, something that was really techno 'cos I've always been into a techno/futurist thing. We always used numbers and computer phrases, like Jon5, 3070, Enter, Clear... So it was following a tradition."
THESE DAYS, ATKINS works out of his 16-track Metroplex studio, which is currently located in his basement. The studio is based around a Fostex B16 with a Tascam desk and assorted outboard effects. Atkins currently sequences his MIDI instruments off a Korg SQD1, which he has used for all his Model 500 tracks to date. Wot, no computer? Atkins explains.
"I bought the SCI sequencer, the one that runs on the Commodore 64, when it came out. This was when MIDI was still real new, and the reason I don't use a computer now is because I had a bad experience with that sequencer. I'd be working on something for two or three hours and the computer would crash on me, so I was saving to disk every time I did something, just in case the computer crashed. There were other things, too, like you could patch one sequence onto the end of another, but there'd be a hesitation in the timing. I guess it was just bugs in the system, but that turned me off using computers and I went back to a more durable dedicated sequencer, which was the SQD1."
Atkins is fully aware of how much computers and MIDI software have improved since the early days.
"Now I go in studios and everybody's using Creator or Sonus software, and they've got Apples, Amigas and Ataris, and they're saying 'How come you're not using a computer?'."
He expects to bow to the inevitable eventually, as the SQD1 simply won't handle what he calls "heavy-scale productions".
Atkins' Model 500 tracks are characterised by a clean sound and a contrapuntal interplay of musical lines - or "layered sequences". It's an approach which he explains as the major influence of Kraftwerk on his music. How, then, does he set about putting together a track?
"On 'Interference' I started with the bassline, 'cos the bassline is to me the most important thing in a dance record. Even the drums become secondary to a good bassline. I worked everything else around that. A lot of times I let my basslines carry the melody. You'll hear that the little tweaks and bits people can listen to are in the bassline."
Is he ever tempted to fill a track up too much?
"That's one thing I don't do. I know guys who go into the studio and try to fill up every track. I've literally seen guys sit there and ask 'How many tracks have I got left?' and try to work out how they can fill them up. But if it already feels good, why overdo it?"
As club music has to work at high volume levels is it necessary to monitor at similar levels?
"I listen to a track at different levels to see how it comes across, 'cos not everybody's going to listen to your track pumping out loud. You wanna hear how it sounds if it's in the background; if people are talking and it comes on the radio, is it interesting enough to make them want to turn it up?
"I don't go in with the attitude that my music is only going to be played in the clubs. I make my records in the hope that people will go and buy them to listen to as well as to dance to. A good dance track is going to grab your attention but on top of that I want something that's interesting and different enough to make you take notice of it. It should be totally different from anything else that's happening, but not so different that it's beyond people so that you end up not interfacing with them. Be right on the edge without going over.
"The music is not for everybody. It's for certain people that want a little twist. Some people are perfectly content with the everyday pop - they don't have an open enough mind to consider something new. Those aren't the people I'm playing for; they'll come around eventually, 'cos they're basically followers. When they're told this is what's happening, they'll go along with it."
Instruments in the Atkins arsenal include a Korg Poly 800, Yamaha DX100, Sequential Pro One, and Ensoniq Mirage and Akai S900 samplers. Like Saunderson, Atkins is not interested in sampling old records. He prefers to devote himself to the delights of synthesis - and in particular to one synth.
"The Pro One is my heart. I'll use that Pro One until it falls apart, and then I'll probably still use it if it makes any sounds.
"These new synthesisers now, I think they're scaling them more to interface with the consumer. Synthesisers used to be synthesisers that a synthesist could play. Now manufacturers are going for presets and they make it really hard to get beyond those presets to program your own sounds.
"Here I am, advocating technology and the future but I find myself not practising what I preach when it comes to equipment. I'm just not used to selecting the parameters digitally, like you have to nowadays. It's a lot quicker to have all the knobs there right in front of you, but I notice that manufacturers are starting to come back to that early format, like Roland have their programmers with all the sliders."
Atkins has a similar preference for old drum machines.
"I still use the 808 and 909. I don't like Roland's latest drum machines, but the 808 and 909 are classics. The 808 has a real techno feel. Everything on that drum machine has an electronic feel, it's not like digitally-sampled real drums.
"When Roland discontinued the 808 and 909 to come out with the 707 and 505, they tried to come out with a more true drum sound, but the whole beauty of Roland was that they had drum sounds which were different from everybody else's. If you want a kick drum to sound like a kick drum, go buy a Linn, go buy a DrumTraks. In fact, we did have a DrumTraks at one time, but after a while I started to hate that machine; it just got so outdated. I got a Kawai R100 instead. That has a real nice live-sounding kick drum with gated reverb, and I like the tunability and the velocity-sensitive pads."
THAT DRUM MACHINES have had a profound effect on modern music is certain, yet it's not so often that the story behind the beat is told. As it turns out, Atkins is well placed to talk about the development of Chicago house music. It's a story which begins with his dual life as a DJ and a musician in the early '80s.
"At that time you could get records that were just rhythm tracks of popular songs, and it had become popular for these rhythm tracks to be spun in between other records. As I was already making my own music, I had the idea that Derrick and me could bring a drum machine into a party for mixing in between records."
The pair chose their time carefully. Rivalry between Deep Space and another Detroit crew known as Direct Drive (named after the Technics 1200 decks which they had but which Atkins and May couldn't afford) had been simmering for a while; a battle was arranged at a party around '84/'85.
"We unveiled our secret weapon, which was that we'd brought a Roland 808 to the party to play live rhythm tracks between the records." The crowd went wild and the Direct Drive crew got mad. But a new idea was born which was to have a profound impact not so much on Detroit as on Chicago.
"When I started Metroplex around February or March of '85 and released 'No UFOs', I thought I was just going to make my money back on it, but I wound up selling between 10,000 and 15,000 copies. I had no idea that my record would happen in Chicago. Derrick's parents had moved there, and he was making regular trips between Detroit and Chicago. So when I came out with 'No UFOs' he took copies out to Chicago and gave them to some DJs, and it just happened.
"In Chicago you had DJs like Farley Jackmaster Funk who had never been off the air since disco broke big in '79, and so there were all these mix shows on Chicago radio. We'd never had that in Detroit, where disco never really took off and the only person doing anything interesting on the radio was Mojo.
"Derrick sold Chicago DJ Frankie Knuckles a TR909 drum machine. This was back when the Powerplant was open in Chicago, but before any of the Chicago DJs were making records. They were all into playing Italian imports; 'No UFOs' was the only US-based independent record that they played.
"So Frankie Knuckles started using the 909 at his shows at the Powerplant. Boss had just brought out their little sampling footpedal, and somebody took one along there. Somebody was on the mic, and they sampled that and played it over the drumtrack pattern.
"Having got the drum machine and the sampler, they could make their own tunes to play at parties. One thing just led to another, and Chip E used the 909 to make his own record, and from then on all these DJs in Chicago borrowed that 909 to come out with their own records."
And so House music was born. Atkins describes the real origin of the name.
"The word 'house' comes from a record that you only hear in a certain club. The DJs would search out an import that was as obscure as possible, and that would be a house record. You'd hear a certain record only at the Powerplant, and that was Frankie Knuckles' house record.
"But you couldn't really be guaranteed an exclusive on an import, 'cos even if there were only 10 or 15 copies in the country, another DJ would track one down. So the DJs came up with the concept of making their own house records.
It was like 'hey, I know I've got an exclusive because I made the record."
Ironically, the 909 became so popular around Chicago and Detroit that at one time Atkins and his two techno companions found themselves sharing one 909 between them.
"Everybody was using Kevin's 909, and you can imagine how that was. It was just never available. When you did get a chance to use it, the next day somebody was calling up for it. Derrick just recently lucked up on one, and I hope to find one for myself when I get back to Detroit.
"Actually, I had a 909 when they first came out, but I took it back and exchanged it for the DrumTraks because the 909 wouldn't sync to the Sequential Circuits system we were using in Cybotron. Also, at that time the kick drum on the 909 sounded horrible to me, but recently it's come into vogue so everyone's giving an arm and a leg to get hold of one. To think that I had one and I took it back - for the DrumTraks, of all machines."
A sure sign of respect in the dance-music scene is when you're asked to remix other peoples' records. This is something that Atkins has been doing recently for 10 Records. But how would he feel about having his own records remixed?
"I don't really mind, though I think I've gotten to the point now where nobody could come to me and say 'somebody needs to do a remix of your record'. The whole purpose of doing a remix is to have someone who knows a certain sound put that in on a production. Where we are now with techno music, who could come in and tell me that my record needs to be different?
"To me a remix is almost the same thing as having a different producer. What's the difference between 'Animal' Diaz doing a remix of 'Clear' off the Cybotron album and having him in the studio while we were recording the track? It would have been the same track, but it would have had his viewpoint. When he remixed the track, that's all he was doing, putting his viewpoint in. In fact, I think remixers ought to be credited as co-producers.
"Artists have got to realise that a remix is basically there to bring in another perspective, to put their record where it needs to be. Usually the producer or remixer is setting the trend at the time, like Jam and Lewis did, and people want them because of that."
Jam and Lewis have done their time setting trends, and at the close of '88 it is Detroit's techno musicians who are at the forefront. Atkins remains a fiercely independent figure, above all determined to pursue his own musical direction. An innocent question about whether he'd used the ubiquitous TB303 for the acid-tinged bassline of 'Interference' provokes an impassioned statement of independence.
"That's the Pro One. People want to hear acid, right? But I don't want to go get a TB303, because the idea is to take things that exist, mix them with your own ideas and create something totally new. I didn't want to sound exactly like everybody else out there, but I like the acid feel and I like the reason why acid is out there, because it enabled me to step out a little bit. What I get people telling me now is that I sound like a new acid.
"It really makes me feel good that people are noticing the difference between techno and acid, not just slapping us in the same category and saying that when acid music dies techno will die too 'cos it's all the same.
"A lot of things have been happening in Detroit for a long time now, and it's all starting to come to the forefront. It's a shame for America that the music's happening first in the UK as opposed to there, though."
Now that techno musicians are receiving long-overdue recognition, what is Atkins' philosophy for the future?
"I'm going to try my hardest to always be on the cutting edge. Once you have a successful formula you can't just keep on re-running it, 'cos somebody else is going to come along and blow you out of the water. You've got to move on.
"I want to be as far on the edge as possible without going over. I want to stand out whatever I do, but not be so far above that people won't relate to it. It doesn't really make sense to do music that people will get into in ten years or so. I just want to be involved with things that are going to be interesting enough to set trends or standards."
Interview by Simon Trask