Harmonizing Roots and Innovation: A Captivating Interview with Detroit Label Boss Derrick Thompson, AKA DrivetrainSeptember 14, 2023
Words Mike Moggi Mannix
Photography ref Derrick Thomspon
In this illuminating interview between Mike and Derrick Thompson, commonly known as Drivetrain, a legendary figure in the Detroit electronic music scene, the rich tapestry of his journey through music is unfolded.
The dialogue delves into Derrick’s upbringing, exploring his roots in a musically inclined family, his early experiences with instruments, and the gradual transition from a traditional musician to an electronic music producer. Amidst candid exchanges about influences and motivations, the discussion vividly captures the pivotal role of family, technology, and the Detroit music scene in shaping Derrick’s artistic identity.
The conversation gracefully navigates through the intricacies of Derrick’s journey, touching on the establishment of his own record label, Soiree Records, and the challenges he encountered while pursuing his passion. The interview paints a vibrant picture of Detroit’s music landscape, offering a glimpse into its history, camaraderie, and the evolving nature of the electronic music scene. As Derrick reflects on his evolution as an artist, the dialogue encapsulates his timeless wisdom and insights for aspiring electronic music producers, emphasizing the values of persistence, authenticity, and self-expression in an industry marked by innovation and change. This interview is a captivating portrayal of a music pioneer’s life, brimming with anecdotes, inspirations, and a deep commitment to nurturing the future of electronic music.
Mike: Yo Derrick, how are you?
Derrick Thompson: Hello Mike! I’m good, how about yourself?
Mike: Not a bother. Good to talk to you. REOSC told me lots about you.
Derrick Thompson: Yeah, he mentioned a few things about you guys too. So, I’m glad we were able to make contact.
Mike: It’s so cool that he made that connection to Detroit. Because here in Europe, everything is focused on Berlin. So, for an Irish guy like REOSC to get to meet you guys in Detroit, getting back to the roots, its all good.
Derrick Thompson: Yeah, man. I call him Speno. We love him. He’s a great guy, and we were really glad to have him here. He’s such a positive force. You guys are always welcome. Together we can spread the music over in Dublin. Another guy you might know, Eamon Doyle. He was a pretty good contact for the Detroit connection to Dublin and Ireland in general, maybe 15 years ago. I haven’t spoken with him in a very long time.
Mike: We have a good crew in Dublin. We’re all positive, like in the spirit of how the scene was in the 90s and we want it to thrive, especially post-COVID. So, when REOSC said he’s going to try to make connections over in Detroit, I was like, “Fuck, man.”, “Go for it,” it seemed like a huge leap. Obviously, getting DJ Roach hearing his debut album Reoscillate, pulled a lot of people together who wouldn’t have traditionally met each other. So, yeah, he was like, “I’m going to reach out to Detroit” and then, it happened! I’m glad that the focus is coming back to the home of techno.
Derrick Thompson: Yeah, it’s kind of like that here as well. Any type of attention that you or anyone else can bring to Detroit, would definitely be appreciated.
Mike: I think it’s amazing what he accomplished in a week.
Derrick Thompson: He was here at the right time when Tec-troit was on. If he came today, he probably wouldn’t have accomplished as much. But by coming at the time of a festival, then yeah, that’s the right time to come.
Mike: So, tell us about how it all started when you were a kid. What were your inspirations, and what led you to this path?
Derrick Thompson: I come from a rather musical family. I had a couple of uncles who were musicians. One played guitar and sang. He told me about how he used those talents to his advantage…to pick up girls back in the 60’s…haha. He said he would tell girls he was Chuck Berry or something like that, and they would believe him! So, he would play his guitar and pick up chicks. Hearing those stories and watching him play was kind of my introduction to the music scene. I was really young at that time, so my interest in music wasn’t to pick up girls, but
I was more fascinated by the intricacies of music”
Fast forward a few years, in school, I developed an interest in drums. So, I took drum lessons, and that was actually the first instrument I learned to play. A few years later, my older brother bought a bass guitar. He didn’t play it much. It just sat there in his bedroom collecting dust. So, I picked it up. Because I was so young I didn’t have any responsibilities, like a job. So
I had nothing to do but play that bass all day long”
I got really, really good at it, and that’s how I started in music. After I sort of mastered the bass, I was a little bored and wanted to try something else. So, I picked up the guitar and learned to play that. At that point, I was a teenager and I started playing in bands. Learning how to play with other musicians and feed off of their energy was a great experience.
On the downside, when playing with other musicians sometimes there can be conflicts with people who aren’t really on the same page. They don’t show up to practice, or they want to go in a different musical direction. So when I was around 18, I decided to start investing in electronic equipment so that I wouldn’t need other musicians to perform. I learned how to make my own tracks.
Mike: What type of equipment did you have?
Derrick Thompson: I started off on an Atari computer running Cubase. It had nowhere near the functionality of today’s versions of Cubase. But it was sufficient for me because I could use it to control my drum machines and synthesizers. I could play live guitar and sing over the tracks.
Mike: How did you transition from being a physical musician to getting into technology? What made you decide to go down this route?
Derrick Thompson: My older brother was also a DJ in the 80s. He was really into house and progressive music at the time. So, watching him play in clubs kind of inspired me to get involved not only in DJing but also producing music. The ironic thing is that my brother eventually lost interest in DJing too. So, I picked up where he stopped. I started DJing at house parties and weddings…wherever I could. Since I was playing mostly dance music,
it inspired me to start creating this type of music as well”
Mike: You also had a foundation by learning the drums, bass, guitar etc.
Derrick Thompson: Music theory is fundamental for making tracks. I know there are people making amazing tracks who can’t play any instruments at all. But for the type of music I like to produce, having that background really makes it possible. So, yeah, in the late 80s, I played at parties and started making some tracks. I started looking for a major record deal. I was sending my tracks to big record companies, and of course, they weren’t interested. So, after being denied several times, I decided to launch my own label, Soiree Records.
Mike: How did you do it? Making a label now is not the same as back then?
Derrick Thompson: I was young and invincible. I thought I was destined to be a big rock star. So whatever it took to get there, I was ready and willing to do it. I worked, invested my money in equipment and just went for it.
Mike: You were into a different type of music then, right?
Derrick Thompson: I was into many styles of music. I liked everything: Industrial, Metal, R&B, Hip Hop, Dance…as a musician I didn’t want to limit myself. But when it came to releasing music,
I wanted to create a label that represented the styles of electronic music that I felt closest to; house and techno”
There was a pretty wide spectrum of music that I produced and released within those genres. Soiree brought a different flavor to the scene. We were not only releasing music by Detroit artists, but also music from artists around the world who had the same musical vision.
Mike: When you got your label up and running, were you able to make a living out of it straight away?
Derrick Thompson: No, not at all. I had a day job. I was a truck driver. At night, I would make music and run the label.
Mike: When you first released your tracks, how were they received? Were people supportive of this new sound?
Derrick Thompson: My first release was acid house. As the label was just starting out, it did not receive a lot of attention. But
those who heard it supported it and played it in the clubs”
With each release the label gained more recognition. Back then, only vinyl was being played. So it was much more difficult and expensive to get the music the exposure that it deserved. Our music was sent to record pools, promotional agencies, etc to help get the label noticed.
Mike: Did you start playing in clubs in Detroit?
Derrick Thompson: Yeah, when I first started playing the underground scene in Detroit,
most of the parties were held at raves in warehouses”
I played at a lot of those. After a while the police started shutting those parties down. So as the scene moved into the clubs, I had already established myself and I was able to play the clubs as well. As Soiree Records became more widely known, I started playing around the USA, Canada and eventually at venues and festivals around the world.
Mike: Was there a specific moment when you felt like you had “made it” in the music scene?
Derrick Thompson: I don’t think there was a single moment like that. The journey has been more of a series of peaks and valleys. I realized that I was making an impact on the scene when I traveled to other cities and countries and people were familiar with my label and my music. That’s when I started to feel like what I was doing had some significance.
Mike: Were there any challenges or obstacles that you faced along the way?
Derrick Thompson: Oh, definitely. One of the biggest challenges was making the music available and having it heard on a large scale. Before the Internet and social media, it was a lot harder to reach a global audience. We had to rely on physical distribution, which was quite difficult. Financially it took a toll. Making music and running a record label doesn’t always make money, especially in the beginning. But I was passionate about what I was doing, so I kept pushing forward.
Mike: In terms of your music production process, how has it evolved over the years? Are there any specific changes or technological advancements that have had a significant impact on your approach?
Derrick Thompson: Oh, absolutely. The technology has evolved so much since I first started. Back in the day, we only had hardware; synthesizers, drum machines, and recorded everything to tape. It was more of a hands-on process, and many times you had to commit to your recording decisions because you couldn’t easily go back and change things. Now, with digital audio workstations (DAWs), there is much more flexibility. You can combine hardware with software, manipulate sounds in ways that were impossible before. It’s a blessing and a curse because there are so many options that it can be overwhelming. But I’ve embraced the technology and incorporated it into my workflow.
Mike: How do you find the balance between staying true to your roots and embracing new technology and trends in the music industry?
Derrick Thompson: That’s a great question. I think the key is to always stay connected to the core of what makes your sound unique. For me, that means keeping the soul and emotion in the music. No matter how much technology changes, those human elements are what drive me and what resonates with the listener. At the same time, it’s important to evolve and adapt. You can’t just keep making the same music over and over. So, I try to find a balance by exploring new sounds and techniques while staying true to my musical identity.
Mike: What advice would you give to aspiring electronic music producers who are just starting their journey?
Derrick Thompson: I would say the most important thing is to be patient and persistent.
Making music is a journey, and it takes time to develop your skills and find your unique voice
Don’t get discouraged by setbacks or challenges. Keep learning, keep experimenting, and keep pushing yourself forward. And remember that there’s no right or wrong way to make music. It’s about expressing yourself and connecting with others through your art.
Mike: You’ve been in the industry for several decades and have witnessed the evolution of electronic music. What excites you the most about the current state of the scene?
Derrick Thompson: One of the most exciting things for me is the global reach of electronic music today. Thanks to the Internet and social media, artists from all over the world can connect and share their music with a massive audience. Technology continues to shape the way we create and experience music. From new production tools to innovative ways of performing live, there’s always something new to explore.
Mike: On the flip side, are there any concerns you have about the direction the electronic music scene is taking?
Derrick Thompson: Of course with the advancement of technology comes the potential for oversaturation. With so many tracks being released every day, it can be challenging for listeners to discover and connect with music that appeals to them. Quality can sometimes get lost in the sheer volume. Another concern is the pressure to conform to trends or chase after viral success. It’s important for artists to stay true to their vision and not compromise their art for the sake of popularity.
Mike: Looking ahead, what are your plans and goals for the future?
Derrick Thompson: I will continue pushing my creative boundaries. I will continue to record and release my music on my label and others. I will also continue presenting the music that inspires me to global audiences by way of DJ sets and live performances. And
I would like to educate and mentor the next generation of producers, sharing my knowledge and experiences through workshops, tutorials, and other platforms
Mike: Finally, how do you want your legacy to be remembered in the world of electronic music?
Derrick Thompson: With the advent of platforms like YouTube, Spotify, and others, future generations will have the opportunity to explore music for years to come. I hope that people will find my musical contributions to be diverse, inspiring and authentic. My catalog is deep and includes music to trigger many different emotions. I hope that I’ll be remembered as someone who did it his way, never selling out, but always remaining true to his roots. And if I’ve inspired others to follow their passion and create their own unique paths in music, then I’ll consider my legacy to be a success.
Mike: Thank you so much for your time and insights. It’s been a pleasure talking to you!
Derrick Thompson: Nice one man.