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Interview

Juan Atkins talks through his Ibiza debut and forthcoming collaborations with Jeff Mills and Mark Ernestus

By Christine Kakaire
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On the subject of Juan Atkins, it’s near impossible to avoid the same phrases and references that have become welded to his name over the last two decades. There is, of course, the catalytic proto-techno produced with Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May as The Belleville Three, plus the electro blueprints laid down with Cybotron, and the timeless output of Model 500 and the Metroplex label that earned him that weighty nickname: The Godfather of Techno.

All of the above remain as vital as ever to the history of electronic music, but rather than trading on his own myth, this year in particular has found Juan Atkins renewed. He’s had fresh studio wizardry to explore with the acclaimed comeback EP Closer for R&S Records, and more uncharted territory to discover, with a debuting DJ set on Europe’s party isle, Ibiza. And, as he recently revealed in his breezy, housey Beatport Live Sunday afternoon Ustream session, there are still plenty of unexpected tricks up his sleeve.

As I was monitoring the the chat room during your Beatport Live Ustream session, I noticed that a number of people tuning in either hadn’t the opportunity to hear you before or were complete Juan Atkins newcomers. How typical would you say that set was for you?

It was very different. I felt like I took the opportunity because it’s different than playing a club. I played more listening music, a lot of Latin stuff. I can’t play that kind of music everywhere.

Juan Atkins live at Beatport’s Berlin offices
You had headlined at Berlin’s Tresor Club the night before your Beatport Live session, which is a frequent haunt for you in Berlin. How did that connection with Tresor first come about?

Well, when I first came to Europe—that must have been 1989 or ’90—the first place I went was Birmingham in the UK, because we were being managed by Neil Rushton, who was based there. So for our first trip, we went there and worked in the studio to help pay for the trip, then eventually we went to London and I played a couple of big gigs and started doing a lot more remix work in major studios. I had met Thomas Fehlmann, Mark Ernestus, and Moritz Von Oswald in Detroit; they would come to the pawn shops and buy up all of these old synthesizers and have them shipped back to Berlin. I met them when they were on one of their trips and me and Thomas hit it off pretty well. And while I was in London I ran into Thomas in the offices of ZTT, which was Trevor Horn’s label. He said, “Hey man, you should come over to Berlin; I’ll hook it up,” and Tresor was the label that sponsored that trip. Basically, all I had to do as make a record with them and play at the club, and the advance money from the record would help subsidize the flight. It it ended up being the 3MB record, and actually that stands for “three men in Berlin.” From that point, I met the owner of Tresor, Dimitri, and we all hit it off real well. I’ve been going back and forth ever since.

You made your Ibiza club debut this year. How did it go?

It’s so funny that all of these years have gone past and I’ve never been booked there and, you know, I handled my business [laughs].

Did the crowd handle their business as well?

Yeah, it was a good crowd! I played at the Space opening weekend, so it was still early. The second time I played for Sankeys and it was pretty good, and the next night Derrick [May] happened to be playing at Space, Carl [Craig] was playing at Amnesia, and Stacey [Pullen] was playing as well. I went to all three places to see all of them, so that was really a first.

Ibiza is one of the prime examples of the commercially driven side of the electronic music club scene. What was your impression of it?

My thing is I’m a very even-keel person; I don’t get too excited or too depressed about things. I have a job to do and I do the job and try to have a good time—I keep it at that basic level.

Is that how you’ve also maintained your enthusiasm and creative output throughout your career?

Well, one of the things that has always kept me going is developments in new technology—it’s almost like getting a new toy. Like when the Roland TR-808 came out, that was like a new toy and it helped my creative juices flow, because you were so into experimenting with this new gear that a flow of creativity comes out; things of that nature. The good thing is that there is never not enough stuff for you to keep up with, so whatever your imagination can come up with, it’s just about translating it through your instruments.

Obviously, the type gear that you used in the late 1980s has evolved significantly, so what’s your current preference for production? Can you tell us what you used for your most recent record, Control?

[Laughs] Well, I have a tendency not to disclose my trade secrets, so to speak. Suffice to say that it was done mostly, if not entirely, through digital means. Software and computers.

What are your memories of the making of the seminal Cybotron track “Clear”?

I made that track in my mother’s house, in the living room, and I can vividly remember the little house that she had on the east side of Detroit. I had just bought a Sequential Circuits Pro 1 for the bassline, and a TR-808, and I had all of my gear there in the front window, and I just put it together. Rick Davis—my partner in Cybotron—had most of the studio stuff at his house, but the ground work pieces and sounds were done right there in my mom’s living room. Then I took my gear up to the studio and finished it.

At what point do you think you really settled into your own sound?

I’ve always felt like that. I’ve always been happy, from the very first record, “Alleys Of Your Mind.” I was in love with that track; it was an accomplishment for me, and I always felt like I was at the top of my game when it came to making music.

You’ve had a number of aliases and monikers over the years—Model 500, Cyobotron, Infiniti, etc. How would you characterize the differences between them? Is there much crossover?

Well, one of the main reasons that I have different identities is because of a collaboration. The first time I did an Infiniti record was with James Pennington. But I have also done different things to be able to change up the sound, because people are kind of finicky. With Model 500, people are used to a certain sound.

Do you have a preference for collaborating or working solo?

It’s always good to collaborate, even if it’s just an engineer. Like my Deep Space album, I did most of that album in Berlin at Moritz’s studio. I think that some of my best tracks have come in collaboration with other people because I tend to work harder and push myself a little farther for somebody else than I do for myself.

Is there anyone left on your wishlist of collaborators?

Probably Kraftwerk. I guess one person I can say that there might be a collaboration coming up with is Jeff Mills.

How did that come about?

Well, he closed Movement Festival [this year] and we sat down and talked for a couple of hours after he finished his set. He’s a futuristic type of forward-thinking guy as well, so I guess it’s only natural for us to eventually come together on a project. So we agreed to work on some things. I’m not at liberty to go into full detail, but I can just say look for a Model 500/Jeff Mills hook-up.

What has it been like for you being at the core of this intense attention from the international community of techno fans for an extended time, but perhaps not receiving the same level of attention or regard within the United States? Have you been aware of a discrepancy there?

Well, lately they’ve come around. It took about five to 10 years after the techno sound exploded in Europe and around the world. Even though we were from Detroit it took a while for the actual people in Detroit to recognize, but they’ve done a few things. I think at the second DEMF festival they gave us the keys to the city, then the Detroit Historical Museum had an exhibit around five or six years ago, and during this festival they did a ceremony where we put our hands in the cement, like a walk of fame.

Juan Atkins placing his hands in cement at the Detroit Historical Museum, with Kevin Saunderson and Carl Craig looking on

Detroit has long and storied music history with the beginnings Motown as well. How did that impact you as a local?

My parents listened to Motown. When I was in middle school and elementary school, Diana Ross did that film Lady Sings The Blues, which was huge and the soundtrack was one of the big highlights of the year for my parents—and also the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, and Eddie Kendricks. As a matter of fact, I learned how to play drums on the Eddie Kendricks record “Keep On Trucking.” I’m not a classically trained musician, but I learned by ear, and I talked my father into getting this drum set for my brother for Christmas, which I actually wanted to use myself, and I learned and listened to that record. That was one of my most vivid memories of Motown.

What are your future plans for Metroplex? Is the label still in operation?

Oh, yeah, we’ve got about three or four releases lined up. I’ve also got a release that I’ve collaborated on with Mark Ernestus.

Are there any last thoughts else you’d like to leave our readers with?

I would just like to say that there’s something within me that continues to push the envelope in terms of presentation and dissemination of the alternative reality, so stay tuned. Juan Atkins and Metroplex are going to continue to reinvent the wheel.