Although he is gently spoken in conversation, Robert Hood will eventually steer you towards some pretty grand subject matter: the electronic music industry’s lack of spirituality, the nature of industry, and the mechanics of nature, for a start. But it’s a weightiness that sits lightly on him; Hood has the gravitas, being a founding member of Detroit’s hallowed Underground Resistance crew and a crucial figure in the development of the skeletal, stripped-down blueprint of minimal techno.
Having since sought out a simpler life away from his native Detroit in rural Alabama, Hood is now at ease with the machinery that has mapped the course of his life. From the inner workings of the music business to the auto industry that courted—then famously jilted—his home city, Hood acknowledges the past, yet looks firmly ahead. Spirituality plays a big role for him in it all personally, but outwardly it’s his music that speaks loudest and clearest.
2012 was a banner year for Hood, with the acclaimed third edition of his Motor: Nighttime World concept series—inspired by the documentary Requiem for Detroit—appearing all over recent end-of-year polls, and he just staged the highly anticipated New Year’s Eve debut performance of his Floorplan project at London’s Fabric club. Beatport News caught up with Hood in a quiet moment to probe him further on his past, future, and present.
You’ve been making music for two decades, but it’s only the last couple years that you’ve spoken in depth in interviews. Why is that?
I just got tired of the whole process and I didn’t want to be locked into some kind of music-celebrity-machine process. I just wanted to be normal. I felt like I didn’t have anything to say at that time, and just to go along with the process for the sake of it just didn’t feel right to me. I was a little bit frustrated about that, and I had to step back and ask myself, “Are the people really getting this? And what are you saying to the people?” I had to do some soul searching and recalibrate my message to really speak for myself.
Do you feel better equipped to express yourself now, or would you rather the music was still a pure message?
Well, when I talk about creativity and vision and dreams, it’s much easier now that I’m in a place of spirituality where I can explain and convey that to the people. Whether people can understand it or not, it’s easier for me to articulate where the source of my creativity is coming from, where the source of all our creativity is coming from. All of our purpose is coming from the same place, so I definitely find it easier when I can articulate that. I believe that everybody doesn’t have to get it, but if two or three people get it, as long as I’m doing what I’m supposed to do in witnessing the power and the spirit of God and what his presence means to this music and to this scene and what he’s trying to say, then I’ve done my part.
Is that something that’s lacking in electronic music in your opinion? A sense of spirituality?
It has been lost. For us not to acknowledge the power of God is just a tragedy. I watch on some award shows how people are not afraid to profess that God is the lord over their life and music, and nothing would be possible if it hadn’t been for God being prevalent in their lives, and I think that’s sorely missed in electronic music. I feel an urgency to tell people about why Robert Hood has been able to sustain his marriage, career, and creativity. We can’t take that for granted.
Did your devotion to spirituality coincide with your relocation to Alabama?
Yes and no. My wife and I were involved in ministry in Detroit and when we came to Alabama—it’s been seven and a half years—we got involved in the church here and began going to a school of ministry that added to and compounded what we were brought up in. Now it just seems like the divine purpose for us to come here to Alabama where her family grew up; her grandfather was a minister, and we’re living on the very same land where her mother grew up. There’s a spiritual connection I believe, with us coming full circle, whereas her mother went to Detroit searching for the American dream. Now we’ve returned to the very land where it all started, we’re growing all the more spiritually.
What’s the landscape like where you are right now?
We’re in a very rural area and it’s mostly farmland. We literally live right next to a cornfield, right across from us they grow cotton, and this road we live on was just paved maybe four years ago. If you’ve ever heard of red dirt in relation to the south, this would be it. The gulf shore is maybe two hours away, so the land is mostly flat and the humidity is stifling hot in the summer.
I ask as there’s a line in the documentary Requiem For Detroit about how the dilapidation of the city is so extreme that nature has begun reclaiming the city. Has the Alabama landscape that you’ve just described had an influence on the music you’re making as well?
I suppose so. The natural elements we live in play a part, the organic elements that we live in now combined with the steel and concrete being in my subconscious, they just kind of meld together. I can remember even before we left to move to Alabama in certain areas there was organic life bursting up through the concrete. As a result of decay and the city being unkempt, I learned that anything that is not maintained turns to disorder, so that’s my state of mind when I’m thinking about Requiem, about the state of mankind, about Motor: Nighttime World 3 and how it related to Detroit, about the state of black America and America as a whole. That’s the aesthetic that I approached this album with.
Do you think the album is optimistic about the future of this city?
Absolutely. There’s that spark of hope and life. “Where there’s no dream, the people should perish,” that’s what the Bible says. As long as people have a dream and a purpose, vision and drive, there’s always hope. In the movie Omega Man, everything had fallen apart and it seemed to be the end of mankind, but there’s that one man who is still searching for the cure so that one spark, as dim as it was, was still shining. There’s always that hope that the phoenix is going to rise from the ashes and that we’re going to trade the ashes for beauty.
The way that you’re describing Omega Man sounds similar to what I understand the basis of Christian spirituality to be. Omega Man influenced your previous album Omega heavily, so would you say that this is the kind of narrative that you’re drawn to generally?
Yes, that has become my “thing,” the human struggle, and relating to people who identify with struggle. Wherever you come from, we’re all struggling to make it day to day. Every day is not going to be perfect, but that doesn’t mean that every day doesn’t have a purpose. I identify with that struggle. Detroiters are resilient people, we’re survivors. I identify with survivors.
Where did you make the album?
It was recorded in Alabama, but I went back to Detroit, talking with my grandmother and relatives, going back to the places where I grew up and talking with people who worked in the auto industry. I was thinking back on my grandfather who worked at Chrysler and my stepfather who worked at Cadillac, and my father-in-law who worked at GM, listening to their experiences not only in the auto industry, but hearing their stories about racism, dealing with unemployment and layoffs, dealing with the rise of crack cocaine—all of these factors that we had to face in and around Detroit. Listening to those experiences and watching the documentary shaped and formed the album, and then I listened to a lot of the old Detroit records, Marvin Gaye and Blake Baxter, Carl Craig. Rediscovering Detroit and looking at it from a bird’s-eye-view of the past, present, and future.
I’d like to ask about one track in particular, “Black Technician,” which is the most dramatic and unpredictable of the album. Was it inspired by a particular part of the documentary, or a particular idea related to Detroit? Could you also speak a bit about the technical side of making the track?
To start on the making of it, at the same time I was listening to Detroit recordings and digging back into history, I was watching bits and pieces of Kraftwerk’s documentary and there are also small pieces of that German industrial element which had a hand in shaping the sound and attitude of Detroit. I can also take you back to before I started making music: I was an industrial illustrator and I worked for a small-job shop for GM myself, and I would have to go to GM and go on the assembly line, and I have a mental image of technicians that I would see working on the line, operating computers, and assembling certain parts on the body of a car. That image has stuck in my mind, and I try to articulate that through the music: the soul of that black technician and what he thought, what he went through day to day, that mundane task that he had to perform every day, and him becoming a robot at the same time, a machine, after working there day after day, year after year—the soul of that man and that machine being melded together. It harkens back to the day when I first heard of Kraftwerk, when I was 13 and working in my uncle’s record store. That idea of how a man and machine can become one has stuck in my mind.
Will there be further Nighttime World albums in future?
There will definitely be more Nighttime World albums as long as I can keep making music, and even if I’m not relevant to the scene it will always be a need for me to continue the Nighttime story.
Is there a reason this didn’t come out on your own label, M-Plant, like the previous two editions?
I’ve been asked that question quite a bit, but Music Man was just so interested in having the album. I have known Stefan at Music Man for almost as long as I’ve been making music and I think Music Man get me. They understand the M-Plant sentiment so they were just so driven, and I had done the Hoodmusic series with them so it seemed like a natural progression. I felt like they could do it justice in spreading this important story to the masses.
What’s the next most exciting thing that’s coming up for you?
I’m just putting the finishing pieces on the new Floorplan album and experimenting with some Monobox material. I’m really excited about those two projects, and just trying to recreate techno in an entirely different way. I still feel hungry and I still feel thirsty, so I’m excited about just stepping into new realms.