Juan Atkins discusses his greatest invention: techno

Juan Atkins. (Flickr via Passetti)
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If anybody invented techno, it was Juan Atkins.

The 50-year-old Detroit native was making futuristic synth-dance records back in 1981, when his duo Cybotron (with Rick Davis) landed a local hit with “Alleys of Your Mind,” before going national via the Bay Area indie label Fantasy, which issued 1982’s “Cosmic Cars” and 1984’s “Clear.”

In 1985, Atkins began working alone, as Model 500, setting up a small label, Metroplex, to issue his own music. It was an act of exigency that birthed a revolution. Long a mentor to fellow Detroit D.J.s Derrick May (who founded Transmat in Metroplex’s wake) and Kevin Saunderson (ditto his KMS Records), Atkins’ ultra-futuristic ideas and grooves would be adopted by English dancers, many of them flying high on MDMA—a.k.a. ecstasy, or, more recently, molly—setting off the chain of events that led, among other things, to the modern superclub (and, subsequently, bottle service—boo) and the current pop-music boom for EDM, the rocked-up, giddily youthful, gleefully crass stuff that fills festivals like Electric Zoo and IDentity.

The latter is pretty far from Atkins’ purview these days. He’s been playing steadily around the globe since 1988, when a Virgin Records’ U.K. sub-label, Ten, released a compilation titled Techno: The New Dance Sound of Detroit, featuring Atkins’ own Model 500 track, “Techno Music.” Though he hasn’t issued a lot of music in recent years, he’s seldom been out of the shops with new material for long, and as a number of recent mixes and podcasts show (see below), he plainly likes keeping himself surprised when he plays. He did that on Saturday night for a Brooklyn Bass party at Cameo Gallery. We spoke with him as he was exiting a doctor’s office in Detroit last week.

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You turned 50 this year.

Yeah. When you get that age, man, you’ve got to check in with the doctor a little bit more often. [laugh]

Richie Hawtin and Carl Craig and Jeff Mills have been doing some retrospectives recently and I wonder if turning 50 has made you think about doing that as well?

I haven’t done any special events or projects that would commemorate looking back. But I’m looking back all the time, every day I wake up. I didn’t even really celebrate my birthday, actually.

I’ve been listening to some of your recent mixes and podcasts—FACT, Boiler Room. Do you approach a podcast mix differently from a club set?

When I do podcasts or anything that requires a listenership, as opposed to being at a club, in a way it’s almost a totally different mix, because I know that the majority of the people who hear it are going to be listening to the mix, probably in their living room or bedroom. They’re not going to be in a club around a group of people. I have a tendency to play more to a listener’s vibe. When I play a club or an event, it’s more spontaneous. It’s more looking at the crowd, reacting to the crowd, and trying to have that interplay with your audience. You don’t have that when you’re doing radio or a podcast.

The Boiler Room is where you play a room while it’s being streamed, then podcast later. Was that room small?

Nah, it was a pretty big crowd. I guess they can only film a certain amount of people, the people right there in front of the decks. But it was a pretty big venue. It must have been about 1,000 people there, 1,200 people. When I play to a crowd, [spontaneity] is the thing.

I just recently bought the new CD-J 2000 Nexus. It enables you to sync to the track on the grid [on a laptop controller like Traktor], so you can process the sound without worrying about matching the beat so much. Even with these new CD-Js, there’s a certain element—I’m never going to go in and know which track I’m going to play, from track to track. I may be able to cue it up and have it beat-match or whatever, on the fly, but the spontaneity element is always going to be that I never know what record I’m going to play next till I actually get there.

Do you ever surprise yourself with something you didn’t expect to play?

All the time: I was playing at a party in Switzerland—Geneva—this year, back in the summer. I have some Brazilian tracks that I like more listening to than I like playing out. It’s just so different. Plus, it’s a younger crowd; you don’t really get a chance to break out those deep, rhythmic tracks. But the crowd went there with me, man, and I just went into a tangent where I played a half-hour of all Brazilian beats. I never thought I was going to be able to play all that stuff—ever, actually. I give them a lot of credit.

You and Derrick May play very differently from each other. Was that always apparent?

Our musical selection definitely shows our personalities. I don’t know if this is well known, but I actually taught Derrick how to mix records.

That’s pretty well known, yes.

[laughs] Yeah. I mean, of course he’s come into his own. He’s blossomed very well.

Derrick’s got tracks he wouldn’t play that I play, and I’ve got tracks he wouldn’t. I haven’t really analyzed [our playing styles] to that extent. If it’s somebody looking at it from the outside, [fine], but for me to critique—because it’s always been a friendly competition, not just between me and Derrick, but with all of us Detroit guys. There’s always been this friendly one-upmanship with each other, so we’re never going to give each other true props to each other. [laughs] We’re always in competition with each other. Because of the history, you automatically know [Detroit] is where this sound started. So the bar is going to be automatically high by default.

Were the party systems you ran back in the early ’80s with Derrick May a calling card to get into bigger clubs?

Not really, because there’s never been no big clubs in Detroit. Superclubs like they had in New York or the West Coast—that’s never been in Detroit.

Were you looking at throwing parties in an entrepreneurial way, or did you mainly want to play records and that was a good way to do it?

Nah, I was just having a good time. We was having fun. I was just doing something I wanted to do. The funny thing about it is that the monetary aspect or the entrepreneurial aspect of it—all of that came secondary. It was never about trying to make money. It was always about who could play the best records and who had the best reaction from the crowd.

Did you see D.J.ing and making records as connected right from the beginning?

Not really. As a matter of fact, it took a long time for me to actually blend the two. Somewhere between ’81 and ’85, I stepped out of the D.J. realm for a minute in order to further my music career, right before I started Metroplex in ’85. It took a while for things to develop in a way where they were hand-in-hand.

What did you think of the Dirtbombs’ versions of some of your early songs on 2011’s Party Store?

[laughs] I thought it was great. I think I went by their studio before the release.

Did they ask for your blessing?

Yeah, pretty much. I think they were already in progress, regardless of what my reaction was, but I think out of respect they wanted me to give my OK.