An Interview with Techno Kingpin Juan Atkins: "L.A. is Still Behind the Curve Three or Four Years"
Cybotron's "Clear," from 1983
More than any other person, Detroit's Juan Atkins is credited with creating techno. Of course, electronic dance music, which fills clubs, warehouses and festivals each weekend, provides sounds for car commercials, movies and public radio, and fuels the technology of contemporary music production, has many streams of influence, including Atkins' own inspirations (radio DJ Electrifyin Mojo, Kraftwerk), second-hand Japanese instruments of the 1980s (Roland drum and bass-line machines), and British, post-punk club culture.
But in the early 1980s Atkins synthesized elements of new wave funk, hip-hop and Europop, added his own fascination with Alvin Toffler and futurism, and created something that stood apart. His earliest work, as one-half of Cybotron (1981's "Alleys of Your Mind,") has the sound and feel of the up-tempo hip-hop, called electro, that would soon be made by Africa Bambaataa (his "Planet Rock" would come out the next year), Egyptian Lover, Newcleus and Hashim. But, as Atkins jelled with Belleville High School friends Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, a techno sound that was less hip-hop, more four-on-the-floor emerged and seeped into the club world.
In the late 1980s, the Belleville Three were discovered by British club-goers fueled by ecstasy and the casual, Balearic beach party ethos imported from the Spanish isle of Ibiza. For nearly the next ten years, Atkins and company would make their careers as star DJs in the U.K. and Europe as recognition continued to elude them stateside. The trio earned some notoriety in the late 1990s as rave- and festival-circuit spinners in the United States, but with techno's resurgence this decade interest in the history of the genre has produced greater American recognition for Atkins and his fellow innovators. Events like Movement: Detroit's Electronic Music Festival and Saturday's Convention festival downtown, where Atkins will DJ, have exposed these futurists to the future. We recently caught up with Atkins.
LA Weekly: Has the techno resurgence brought you more gigs?
I still do my regular rounds. That's something that I haven't really seen pick up too much in the United States. Overseas there's definitely a lot of good interest there. But I haven't played any more or less than I normally been playing.
Where are the hot spots for you?
I've been getting a lot of bookings in Spain. They've opened a couple of big clubs like Fabric in Madrid. Huge club. There's a couple of new places in Barcelona.
What do you spin?
I still adhere somewhat to the Detroit sound, Detroit techno. I mix in some minimal stuff, some house stuff. There's so much stuff coming out I don't even pay attention to the artist and labels.
Do you feel like "minimal" was a way of shedding Detroit's more soulful, vocal-oriented (Inner City's "Good Life," "Big Fun") style?
I really can't say that. [Detroit's own] Jeff Mills and Rob Hood kind of set the tone for the whole Berlin minimal movement right now. You have good soulful tracks from Inner City, but Rob Hood was the precursor for what's minimal now. I tend to lean toward that more underground stuff, Rob Hood, Jeff Mills.
You lived in Los Angeles for a minute. Why did you come and why did you leave?
Four years: 1999 to 2004. I lived in the Valley. I loved it because of the weather. After 30-plus years of ice and snow I wanted to get away. I just wanted a change of scenery for a while. And then when I got out here for five years with no seasonal changes and I missed that. But L.A. is still behind the the curve three or four years. The event I played last weekend [at the Park Plaza Hotel] was four rooms, and I had two or three people asking me to play hardcore. I'm like, man, this sound was years ago.
The reason why I went back and stuck around in Detroit was that I wanted to get my live show together, as Model 500, and the people I played with lived in Detroit. I needed to be there to rehearse the live shows.
You've been in town for the last week. Are you working on any projects here?
I'm trying to put together maybe a small production suite or something to come out here in the winter months when it's cold in Detroit.
How has the scene been in Detroit lately?
Detroit has always been about one-off parties. We never really had clubs other than the Music Institute. You still have some good shows, good nights, but nothing regular. Movement [Detroit's Electronic Music Festival] is definitely a wake up for the whole city. Even the city government, the establishment in Detroit, respects the scene now. You have a lot of different shows now. The crowds are more concentrated.
Cybotron was making electro-like music before the likes of Afrika Bambaataa. Did you consider what you were doing at the time electro?
I've heard people throw that term around. It doesn't have a connection to the old Cybotron. It was techno to me. It wasn't in that genre, but it kind of helped kick-start that genre. "Cosmic Cars" came out at the same time "Planet Rock" came out. The only thing was that "Planet Rock" was made in New York. They had the advantage of having the media behind them. Coming out of Detroit we were like number one on the local charts. It was all techno music basically.
What do you think of the electro resurgence and the rise of acts like Justice that don't have much to do with the original sound?
It's interesting. When you have something that was built to last, it has a way of recycling like that. Like, Missy Elliott sampled "Clear."
Are you working on any new releases?
I don't like to talk too much about projects that aren't finished. I'll just say there's film stuff in the works and, of course, we're trying to revamp the live show. I'm working on an album [as Model 500], to be released pretty soon, to put some more fire behind the live show. I don't like touring and just playing all the classics. There will be a single in 30 to 60 days. I'm thinking the album will drop more like spring.
Do you use a laptop to DJ or do live shows?
People have been trying to talk me into it. But when people see me they want to see me drop a needle on a record.
Atkins DJs along with Robert Hood, Detroit Grand Pubahs, Paco Osuna, Misstress Barbara, Jaime Jones, Acid Circus and more Saturday at Convention, 613 Imperial St., downtown. 21+. Doors at 3 p.m. Tickets $25. Info: convention101.com