Juan Atkins – Front Cover Exclusive Feature InterviewMay 1, 2019
From Detroit to Dublin to Berlin, many cities have felt his influence around the world. Juan Atkins has been named ‘God Father of Techno’ many times, and is a very well respected figure throughout the dance music scene as a progenitor, who paved the way for the modern techno scene.
Mike Mannix: Can you tell us then looking back when you were coming up in 1970’s Detroit how the post-Psychedelic and funk ear culminating in the sound of disco all influenced your embryonic hi-Tech sound?
Juan Atkins: Thank you, Mike, happy to be here. I’ve always been fascinated with music man really from birth if I’m honest. I can remember my father buying me an electric guitar for my 10th birthday because he’d noticed I’d an affinity with music. Years later Mary Schneider from Funkadelic asked to buy the same guitar from me haha. So when I got that guitar it was coming into the early funk era and I remember the first record I bought with my own money was called ‘Sly and the Family Stone’ from the actual Motown record store across the road from my grandma’s hotel.
Eventually some years later my grandma bought me a synthesizer a Korg for Christmas because I was always playing on the organ that she had after school. I remember going to the music shop and buying sheet music with her, and one day and went to the back room where they had all these monophonic synthesizers, I remember playing on the MS 10 Korg and the Moog and I just knew I was going to have get me one of them, haha, so thank you Grandma, she definitely influenced me a lot. So once I got it, literally from then on I started to make my own drum kits and started making up my own tracks just using that synth.
I had music in my blood man I just channelled it in the right way.
MM: So this was the infamous synth where you’re quoted as saying it sounded like UFOs?
JA: Yeah it was for sure, and around the time I was making my demo so probably 1979. I used my own drum tracks which I created myself and I was taking rhythm sections from my MS 10 and ping-ponging between fat cat, overdubbing, and EQing and had become a pro at it, by the time I’d finished with all these regenerations it sounded right in the pocket.
So the first year I was in Community College I took my demos and this is where I met Rick Davis AKA 30 70. He’d invited me around to jam and when I walked into his place it was like walking into the cockpit of an aircraft he had that much stuff. And remember there wasn’t really drum machines around at that time, so the first one I ever used was at his place the DR 55, this is when we’d created our group Cybertron. So when we started you could say what we were making was called high-tech funk because at that time I was really into the funk scene and now all of these synthesizers and machines were at our disposal the hi-tech element came into the sound.
So purely because of the economics of the time, every sound we made came from the synthesizers, so it had that electronic sound that high tech sound that dance sound.
MM: And the disco beat also added to the experimental foundation leading you to using four to the floor in your tracks?
JA: Yeah man funk had its heyday maybe ‘75 and then disco slid in towards the end of the 70s so all of that music you know is in my subconscious so basically that’s how that happened, with my biggest influence George Clinton P-funk, ‘un disco kid’ it was always intertwined.
MM: So would you have had many happy accidents in the studio around this time?
I think Mike a true artist knows when they’re making music it’s all improvisation, so it’s an accident from the start
haha, which is what happened with the track ‘Alleys Of Your Mind’, which was released in April 81 and that was the one that hatched! I was using a sequencer on the Pro one with an input trigger like a muted hi-hat so there’d be no sound but you could play the pad to trigger the sequencer and you didn’t know how the pattern was going to come out. We would just listen and if we liked what we heard we’d use it if not it was cut. But when that pattern came out at the time I was like ‘wow’ and then that became Alleys Of Your Mind.
MM So from there on your sound progresses until we get to say 1984 where you had a track called Techno City, can you give us some background on the terminology and how they came around and the sound?
JA: Yeah of course, well to me Rick was like a philosopher and we had in-depth discussions about everything and through those discussions, we came up with a Techno dictionary and was actually just saying that to Derek May last night. So this is something that me and Rick developed as new speech and that’s where Metroplex came from.
MM: And you’d no idea of the impact these conversations going to have in the future?
JA: Yeah, we were just kids having fun it was like science fiction to us, we were trying to create the future in our way.
MM: So leading us on then as you’re creating your identity and what you later became recognised for today, with Model 500 you released in 1985 that became a game changer?
JA: Yeah, that was the first release I had out on my label Metroplex actually on the A-Side and on the B Side it was Future. And that particular track was done in the basement of my mother’s house on the east side of Detroit which is where I had my first studio. I was using an eight-track tape recorder I think it was a Tascam, and a 16 channel mixing board and using a 909 for the drum track sequence. It took maybe about 2 days to finish the track. I was taking an audio engineering course in The Recording Institute of Detroit so I was literally coming straight home and using the techniques I learnt that day.
MM: So considering the process in how you made tracks back in the day, what are your thoughts on how the scene and music are made today with sample packs and construction kits and has led to the oversimplification and a lack of originality?
JA: it’s a bittersweet pill cos yeah on the one hand that’s the dark side of it and on the other hand, you get more options to create tracks that you couldn’t have imagined back in the day that you can make now.
I suppose it’s just part of the technological evolution of the music and the price to pay for that evolution sometimes is a lot of crap that you have to wade through.
But in saying that, you have to embrace the change as its coming because if you don’t you’ll get left behind so it’s the nature of the beast I guess.
MM: So as a DJ then how do you filter through the huge amount of tracks available?
JA: I do get tracks sent to me of course but it is harder to find tracks than it used to be because you got you have to literally go through so much bullshit but eventually you do find the good stuff like the happy accidents.
MM: So in the same vein then, what advice would you give to any up-and-coming producer to be original in an already over a saturated market?
JA: Don’t be afraid to take chances I don’t be afraid to take risks. People have said that I had great courage back in the day to release the tracks that I did, so it’s much harder to be original and authentic and you’ve got to take the risks. Today it’s so much easier to carbon copy everybody else in terms of music, but the thing is if you’re trying to copy someone you’re not been original which means you’re not taking the chance to take a risk and discover something new it’s as simple as that.
MM: What do you say to those who have a rigid attitude within the Techno scene?
JA: Don’t stress it everything is universal and it’s all connected haha.
MM: Haha yeah! What challenges do you face when you’re in the studio trying to produce?
JA: it’s obviously a lot easier for me now than it used to be from when I first started in terms of the physicality and time it took to literally patch the cables up, connect up the midi cables to the hardware and you’d spend 50% of your time after you’ve set up and then realising that’s it didn’t work you have to check all the daisy chain in and trace. And by the time you went to check why a sound or something wasn’t playing out of the speaker find the problem sort it and get back to writing the track you might have forgotten what it is that you were trying to do in the first place! So you’d lost the inspiration. So today in that regard it’s a lot easier to catch the moment of inspiration.
MM: So who’s inspiring you today then?
JA: Easy answer the people whose records I buy and I play haha. So just recently rebuilt my studio which has taken a lot of time and I’m itching to get back into creating.
MM: What’s your driving motivation?
JA: I don’t know Mike it’s just something in me where I know I’m always going to make music.
MM: So on a spiritual level how do you know when your music has soul?
JA: How do I make sure my music has soul? Well, I just got to make sure that it’s me that’s writing it haha?
MM: Boom, do you think it’s an exciting time to be working in dance music?
JA: Definitely I’m an advocate for change I’m an advocate for technology for new shit so it’s all good at the moment.
MM: Biggest festival moment?
JA: Actually the first time that I played in London was when it was called rave in 1991 in a film studio there was 5000 kids gone mad and I’m thinking now, that it was just me and the janitor that were the only black guys haha! The sound system that they had was absolutely incredible it was so powerful and amazing to have that much power under your fingertips.
MM: When did you realise that what you were doing in Detroit was having such a massive impact in the UK?
JA: When my first record was getting sent to the UK from a record shop called Imports in Chicago when Marley Jackmaster Funk broke No UFOs on his show by playing it over and over and over again he gave it huge support. So then when a lot of Kats came over from the UK looking for these records they would be flying into Chicago looking for the artists when a lot of them came from Detroit, so they started reaching out to us. Then the likes of Face magazine came in looking to do interviews, and there were different media magazines every other week it was crazy and I was thinking like, ‘what the hell is going on’ that’s when we kinda knew something major was happening.
My first records were getting sold out through Network Records in Birmingham (UK), the first time I actually came to the UK was to Birmingham doing remixes for the likes of the Fine Young Cannibals and the Style Council.
MM: Are you proud of what you’ve achieved?
JA: Haha it’s always a work-in-progress you know this.
MM: What’s next for you then?
JA: Just to continue having fun with the overall creative experience and to continue writing the story…
MM: Juan, nice one man!
JA: Great interview Mike, thank you