Artist Feature: Juan Atkins
Click here to listen to the Juan Atkins radio show.
The catalogue of American musician Juan Atkins is one of the most prolific in the electronic music genre. Widely credited as the originator of techno, specifically Detroit techno, along with his peers Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, Atkins created sounds that would lay the groundwork for the future of the genre.
Heavily-inspired by Düsseldorf-based electronic band Kraftwerk, Atkins formed the electro outfit Cybotron with his classmate Richard Davis in 1981. Founded on the principle “that a computer can be as good, or a better musical collaborator than a person,” they funneled their demos to radio legend The Electrifying Mojo, who played electronic and funk sounds on his five-hour radio show from the late 1970s through the mid-1980s. Too many of Detroit’s early techno originations, Mojo is considered a seminal figure, who heavily shaped their musical tastes.
The “godfather of techno,” as he is known, Atkins has worked under a myriad of aliases – Cybotron, Model 500, Channel One, Infiniti, Model 600. The foundational electro project Cybotron performed live for the first time this year. Under the tagline “The Future Has Arrived,” the tour premiered at the Barbican in London and will go on to perform in cities like Amsterdam, Barcelona, Tokyo, New York City, Sydney, and more.
Almost four decades into his career, Atkins’ compositions have continued to evolve, gracefully unfurling as he expands his sonic ambitions and scope. Aside from his hometown Detroit, Berlin has played a significant role in his creative process as well, having lived in the German capital for almost two years. Against the backdrop of res·o·nant by artist Mischa Kuball, a light and sound installation at Berlin’s Jewish Museum, photographer Lukas Wassmann captured Atkins, whose own (Afro)futuristic, industrial aesthetic feels tangentially related to Kuball’s installation, with its refracting lights and mirrors set within the cavernous, gray, concrete space.
For Carhartt WIP Radio Juan Atkins now conducted a mix that features classics from Cybotronas well as his solo works under pseudonyms like Model 500. To accompany the show we spoke with Atkins about the impact his grandmother had on his career, the legend of Mojo and garage bands in Detroit, and why this year will mark the first Cybotron live show (ever). Atkins arrived late for his interview, but his reasoning solidifies his congenital artistry: “We’re working on tracks for the Cybotron shows. It’s very exciting. That’s why I’m late… We just lost track of time. When you lose track of time in the studio, you get completely lost in the music. Those are the best moments.”
Hey Juan, when you look back again: how did the radio show of Detroit’s legendary disc jockey, The Electrifying Mojo, influence you?
Juan Atkins: We never played his show with Cybotron, but it totally influenced us. I don’t know if I would be here right now without The Electrifying Mojo and all that he did. I know that’s a strong statement, but it’s true. His impact was massive. He was the first to play our records, our music would not have fit into regular radio. He let the world know what we were doing. It was a coincidence of unique circumstances that only could have happened in a city like Detroit. When Mojo came on air around 1977, FM Radio was a new technology and only three stations existed. The other two combined rock, classic, and talk radio. The station Mojo worked at was, as we might say today, “urban” or black-music-oriented. After the Detroit Riots of 1967, laws were passed that mandated that people of color and their culture should get more space on public radio. That’s how Mojo came in. He was a Vietnam veteran and a DJ for soldiers. When he started, he’d sometimes speak Vietnamese on the radio. Upon returning to the States, he first went to a radio station in Ann Arbor called WAAN, which was a popular Top 40 AM station. Then he changed to the FM station WGPR and did his genre-bending magic on his show The Midnight Funk Association. That’s how all of us got into this music. We always listened to him in the car. Everybody did.
When you listen to the early Cybotron music today, you hear so many different influences. From Detroit-based bands like Parliament and Funkadelic to European innovators such as Kraftwerk. Was this because of Mojo?
Juan Atkins: Yes. He played it, and we loved it. He played lots of music that originated from Chicago at that time, like Hot Mix 5 Records. We didn’t have a record store for imports in Detroit back then, so it was Mojo who introduced us to Kraftwerk. Mojo’s style was that he didn’t have one. He played it all the way he wanted to. Sometimes, he played an entire side of an album. It was personality radio in a way that doesn’t exist anymore.
Was your family involved in music while you were growing up?
Juan Atkins: My father was a concert promoter. My grandmother was an organist in church, and she had a Hammond B3 organ. My fascination with music and instruments came from playing around with her organ. My grandparents took care of us kids ever since I was five years old, so I spent a lot of time with her.
So this fascination was something that started from a really young age?
Juan Atkins: I feel that I’ve been attracted to music since my birth. My earliest memory is sitting on the couch as a baby and wiggling my head to music. I can recall it very clearly. When my father bought me an electric guitar for my tenth birthday, everything changed. It was a total surprise. I came home one day from school and there it was: a guitar with an amp. The case of the guitar was the amplifier. I loved it. Later in life, one of my idols, the Funkadelic guitarist Garry Shider, came to my house and offered to buy that guitar, but I didn’t sell it.
What kind of bands were you in to when you were young?
Juan Atkins: Before Cybotron, I was in little garage bands where I played with my friend from around the corner who was a drummer, and another guy down the street who played guitar. It was like that back then. You would walk down the street and just hear some music coming out of a garage. People would stand around watching the bands play in the garages. Those were good times, man.
When did the synthesizer come in?
Juan Atkins: Well, when we started Cybotron, the Roland TR-808 drum machine had just come out. We were using a DR 55 by this company called Boss. When the 808 came out, everything changed. But even before that, it all goes back to my grandmother. She used to take me to this organ store where she bought sheet music and accessories for her organ. In the backroom, they had these new synthesizers that had just been released, like the Korg Ms 10 or the Moog Minimoog. I kept going back there to play with the Korg Ms 10. Eventually, my grandmother bought me one. That was the Christmas I was 14. I also got her to buy me two cassette tape decks, so I could record, and a PA mixer. I would record to one cassette, play it back, catch it on the other tape recorder and would keep doing this until I had a track. This was before samplers. All of this was a natural series of events: the garage bands, my experiments, Cybotron. You know, sometimes it’s good not to have a plan. It just takes the fun out of it. We had lots of fun. It was always like: “Hey, I like the sound coming out of the Korg Ms 10, so let’s mess around with this machine all day.” And then it was like: “Wow, this is great. I wonder if I could get this played on the radio.” And then you’d go to Mojo and ask him if he’ll play it. That was how it was. I was following a point of interest. I was so in love with music and what I could do with the synthesizer that I pushed the envelope.
Do you use new technology when making music?
Juan Atkins: Not really, I keep my analogue gear around. I got back into it again more now, due to the Cybotron rehearsals, but I’ve always been an advocate for progress and change. There are amazing things that you can do with music-making programs and all their plug-ins. It’s a bit overwhelming, but at the same time, the possibilities are unlimited. Back when I started, I had limitations. I was limited by the ability of the gear. Now, you have so many options, and I like that they are available. I take what I need.
Were there influences on your creativity that came from outside of music?
Juan Atkins: I took a course in high school called Future Studies that dealt with sci-fi and the future. That went hand in hand with my affinity for music. Also, I read writers like H. P. Lovecraft and Isaac Asimov.
You’re bringing Cybotron onto the stage this year. Why now?
Juan Atkins: I think Cybotron, and the whole concept of Cybotron, was years ahead of its time anywhere. I think now, it’s time to show this. When we are in the studio rehearsing for our shows, we think on how we could sound twenty years in the future from now. That’s Cybotron. This is the first Cybotron live show after all those 30 years. Rick [Davis] doesn’t play with me – at least, not outside of Detroit. He’s gone down other musical avenues. He’s an ex-Vietnam veteran, and for a lot of those guys, Jimi Hendrix was the anthem. We always called him the Jimi Hendrix of the synth. If you really listen to some of his riffs, they are actually Hendrix-ian synthesizer riffs. He was always more into that kind of rock sphere, which led us to split. I was totally into techno. Anyway, aside from that, I have been asked to do Cybotron live for years. Eventually, the noise got so loud that I couldn’t say no. I also wasn’t aware how much of an impact Cybotron music had on people. I was a kid when we made it, and I had no clue that it influenced so many people for such a long time. Now, many kids that listened to Cybotron are musicians themselves. A lot of them are doing well, and some have told me we that they grew up on Cybotron and that it influenced them deeply.
Cybotron will be playing a series of shows in different cities, like Berlin, Tokyo, Amsterdam, and Sydney, but you’re kicking the concerts off at the Barbican in London. What can you tell me about what the shows will be like? Will you play with a live band?
Juan Atkins: Yeah sure, but it’s still kind of up in the air who will it be. I want it to be forward-thinking. It will be a multimedia presentation. Remember Kraftwerk? They used robots in their shows. I will sing, that’s for sure. But the rest, we don’t know. We thought about having me on stage with two other cloaked musicians. The other idea is to bring on different people I’ve collaborated with, or want to collaborate with, for certain tracks. People that are great artists in their own right, some people from Detroit. Maybe I’ll get Ralf Hütter from Kraftwerk for a track. Who knows? Depeche Mode’s Vince Clarke might be coming out for a track, too. It will be a surprise. I can’t predict it. Just come see what happens. We’re going out with the old and in with the new. That is what the Cybotron Enter album is about. If I re-germinate Cybotron, it is still the same thing: out with the old, in with the new.
Why has there never been a Cybotron live show before?
Juan Atkins: It just didn’t happen. Richard and I only ever played one show together. There was this festival in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where we played the first Cybotron music. They just invited us to play as they knew we were doing some music in the neighborhood. That was right when our first twelve-inch, Alleys Of Your Mind, was released in 1981. We took some keyboards on stage and started jamming. So, you couldn’t really call it a Cybotron “concert.” It was just me, Rick Davis, and some other musicians having fun, playing music. It wasn’t even our original music.
Like many of your contemporaries from Detroit, you’re not as well-known in your home country compared to others parts of the world. Does this bother you?
Juan Atkins: No, but it’s funny. It is what it is. I am sometimes still surprised over here, too. It’s still hard to believe that people want to come to your shows.
When you composed Techno City, did you think of it as a track or a song?
Juan Atkins: The name “track” did not exist back then. I tried to write songs. It was a song.
What changed when electronic machines became part of your creative process? Did your music drift from songs to being tracks?
Juan Atkins: No, not really. I mean, you can play long repetitive parts with machines as well as with acoustic bands. If you’ve got a groove and you’re feeling it, you just go with it. When you do have a nice groove going and you get a finished version on a record that is five or six minutes long, then I’ve usually listened to that track as a 30 or 40 minute version. I think all really creative songs probably start out a lot longer than what you end up with in the stores. All my music starts with a jam, and once you get that groove going, you just don’t want to stop. [Laughs]
As one of the co-originators of techno, how do you view today’s techno culture, which has transformed from a subcultural movement into a huge global music industry machine?
Juan Atkins: Do you remember when they sent the Voyager out to space to go and discover? You develop something, you send it out there, and it’s gone. You watch things twist and turn, but what can you do?
Juan Atkins: Always.
photos by: Lukas Wassermann