Atkins & Maclean
JUAN ATKINS BIO
Born on September 12, 1962, in Detroit, MI; son of a concert promoter. Education: Attended Washtenaw Community College, Ypsilanti, MI. Addresses: Record company-Metroplex Records, 2030 Grand River Ave., Ste. 304, Detroit, MI 48226.
Juan Atkins was one of the creators of techno music, the source of the group of genres lumped under the umbrella category of electronica, and was the first person to apply the word "techno" to music. He found new ways of making sound, and in so doing he influenced nearly every genre of music in the 1980s and beyond. Yet his name is not well known beyond the world of electronic dance music. He might, in fact, be one of the most obscure of modern music's true pioneers.
Techno had its origins in Detroit, Michigan, where Atkins was born on September 12, 1962. As a child he lived on the city's northwest side. Techno is often associated in the minds of its fans with Detroit's often bleak landscape, scarred with the abandoned buildings that were relics of an industrial golden age. But techno's first stirrings took place 30 miles to the west in Belleville, Michigan, near an interstate highway leading to Detroit's center, but otherwise very much a small town partly surrounded by farmland. While attending junior high and high school in Belleville, Atkins met Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, who also became artists crucial to techno's development. The trio would later become known as the "Belleville Three."
Atkins's father was a concert promoter, and Atkins became interested in music at an early age. Especially compelling for him was Charles Johnson, a Detroit radio disc jockey called the Electrifying Mojo, one of the last "freeform" DJs who flourished on commercial radio in the United States. His shows mixed many genres and forms, but he focused on the 1970s funk of artists such as George Clinton, Parliament, and Funkadelic (which had some Detroit roots of its own). He was also one of just a few DJs who presented the pulsing, experimental electronic music of the German ensemble Kraftwerk on U.S. radio. "If you want the reason [techno] happened in Detroit," Atkins told the Village Voice, "you have to look at a DJ called Electrifying Mojo: he had five hours every night, with no format restrictions. It was on his show that I first heard Kraftwerk."
In the early 1980s Atkins worked toward combining Kraftwerk's electronics with funk's big beats and spacey atmospheres. He took up keyboards as a teenager and began experimenting with a mixing board and a cassette tape player. He enrolled at Washtenaw Community College, located near Belleville. There he learned the basics of electronic sound production from fellow student Rick Davis, a Vietnam War veteran who owned an array of innovative equipment, including one of the first sequencers (a device allowing the organization of electronic sound) released by the Roland Corporation. "He was very isolated," Atkins told the Village Voice. But the experience transformed Atkins's outlook.
"I was around when you had to get a bass player, a guitarist, a drummer to make records," he told the Village Voice. "I wanted to make electronic music but thought you had to be a computer programmer to do it. I found out it wasn't as complicated as I thought." Atkins teamed up with Davis (who called himself 3070) and, billing themselves as Cybotron, the two released the single "Alleys of Your Mind" in 1981. The name Cybotron reflected the duo's futuristic interests. "Alleys of Your Mind" did very well for a release by a pair of unknown community college students, selling some 15,000 copies in the Detroit area after the Electrifying Mojo aired it on his radio program.
In 1982 Cybotron released "Clear," whose cool electronic sound would mark it in the minds of many enthusiasts as a milestone in electronic music's evolution. "Clear" was almost wordless. Techno as a genre tended to use text only as a rhythmic element or adornment-when it used text at all. The following year they released "Techno City," which gave the new music a name; the term was anticipated and perhaps inspired by futurist Alvin Toffler's book The Third Wave (1980), which used the term "techno rebels." Atkins and Davis eventually went their separate ways, but by that time Atkins had taken other steps to popularize the new music he was in the process of creating. With May and Saunderson he formed a collective enterprise, Deep Space Soundworks, which launched the downtown Detroit club known as the Music Institute. The club inspired a new group of techno DJs, including Carl Craig and Richie Hawtin, also known as Plastikman.
Atkins continued to record in the middle and late 1980s, now using the name Model 500. His releases of this period, including "No UFO's" (1985) and the evocative "Night Drive," are considered techno classics. Spare and polished, they inspired a host of younger electronic musicians in Europe, where techno was more popular than in the United States. They were released on Atkins's Metroplex label (which he also used to nurture the careers of younger Detroit musicians), and some were collected in the 1990s on the Classics album released by Belgium's R&S label.
These recordings helped to define a new form of nightclub culture in the United States, and especially in England, where Atkins and Saunderson found their greatest popularity. Though techno music often had a fast beat, it wasn't the deep, intense pulsation of disco and the popular dance music that succeeded it; instead, Atkins's music had a mechanistic sheen that encouraged the pursuit of a blissful attitude rather than sheer sweaty sensuality. At all-night "raves," participants alternately revved themselves up with fast dance tracks and cooled down with slower, dreamier ones in different rooms of the same building. It was often Atkins who provided the soundtrack; he made the first of many European trips in 1988. The cool quality of Atkins's music was famously described by May and quoted in the Village Voice as "like George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator." It helped inspire the new genre of ambient techno, created at the hands of DJs who combined techno music with the intentionally featureless "ambient" sounds of musical experimenter Brian Eno.
The late 1980s were probably the high point of Atkins's fame, and in England he was invited to do remixes of hits by top acts such as the Style Council, the Tom Tom Club, and the Fine Young Cannibals. He cut back his activities in the early 1990s, although he released several recordings on which he billed himself as Infiniti. A series of European reissues of his earlier work again stimulated his creative juices, and he returned to the recording arena, now working in the more expansive album format. The 1995 Model 500 album Deep Space was really Atkins's album debut. He released new albums as Infiniti (Skynet, 1998, on Germany's Tresor label) and as Model 500 (Mind and Body, 1999, on Belgium's R&S).
Through all this, Atkins wasn't exactly a celebrity in his Detroit hometown. But the establishment of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival displayed the power of what Atkins had created, when a crowd of an estimated one million people turned out to hear Atkins's musical descendants make people dance, using nothing more than an array of electronic gear. Atkins himself performed at the festival in 2001, and that year he released the Legends, Vol. 1 album on the OM label. Scripps Howard News Service writer Richard Paton in the Cincinnati Post observed that the album "finds him not resting on past achievement, but still mixing pumping, well-crafted sets." Atkins continued to perform on both sides of the Atlantic, and the end of the year 2003 saw him appearing at London's hip nightclub, Lost.
JUAN MACLEAN BIO
"It's been a bit of a sore spot., laughs Juan Maclean, "sitting on this album and seeing this robot stuff pop up all over the place. I have serious robot credentials that go back years and years. Like, a decade! But Daft Punk beat me to the punch." He may be joking, but the man's right. If anyone's earned the right to call their debut album 'Less Than Human' and imagine a love triangle consisting of a man, a woman and the man's gay robot friend (as in 'Shining Skinned Friend'), it's Maclean.
He was guitarist and synth player with acclaimed but obscure, gonzo electro-punk band Six Finger Satellite, who began formulating their blend of rigidly mechanised disco beats, oddly sumptuous synth melodies and razor-shredded guitar work in the early 90s. The brutish but groovy result suggested a cross between Devo, Kraftwerk and Big Black. Then, America was mired in grunge, the famous French robots were still in short pants and the 'punk-funk revival' was in the unimaginable future. Six Finger Satellite were just too far ahead of their time and perished accordingly.
As a result, Juan MacLean nearly gave up. Not just on music, but on life itself. Creative disillusionment and personal despair aggravated by years of drug addiction (he started shooting coke at an early age, then moved on to heroin) had, toward the end of last century, brought him to his knees. Then, as the world prepared to party at the millenium's turn, two shifts occurred. First, he quit Six Finger Satellite, got the hell out of New York City and decided to try doing something rather more socially constructive with his life than just playing in a band. Secondly, he found himself being bugged by Six Finger Satellite's former live soundman. But this guy wasn’t after money or the return of borrowed gear or any one of the countless other things that usually prompt such reconnections. MacLean was being hassled by his old friend James Murphy to start making music again.
"From the very beginning," explains Maclean, "I always made a promise to myself that when I thought the time for Six Finger Satellite was up in terms of creativity, then I would just quit. I thought it was better to go out in a blaze of glory, rather than make five more albums nobody cared about. ” Maclean quit in 1988, just one month before their final LP, 'Law of Ruins' (produced by Murphy) was due to be released. "I was just so sick of it," he claims. "I was burned out from going on tour, plus it had just stopped being interesting, so I sold all my equipment. I thought I'd never have anything to do with making music again."
With that in mind MacLean moved to New Hampshire, where he lives now. He cleaned up, studied for a degree and began teaching English in a young offenders' institute (he spent time in such places as a kid), which he does still and describes as "pretty fun." Meanwhile, his enthusiasm for music had been reignited by (a pre-DFA) Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy. "They'd mail me CD's of things they thought were good," recalls Maclean, "and the three of us started having this dialogue again about older dance music that we'd always liked - Kraftwerk, house and techno." Goldsworthy also introduced Maclean to music that we’d always liked – Kraftwerk, house and techno.” Goldsworthy also introduced MacLean to the work of experimentalists like Autechre and, although he found it “very calculated and intellectualised,” it did help get him excited about music again. So much so, that in 2000 he bought a computer and sampler. “The real breakthrough,” according to MacLean, “came when I took Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’ – which was one of my favourite records when I was like, 13 – and attempted to rip it off. The result was ‘By The Time I Get To Venus,’ because at the time, I just wasn’t good enough to get that close!” That track became the debut 12-inch by The Juan MacLean and one of the first singles released by DFA.
‘Less Than Human’ refines what that tentative first effort only hinted at. It’s a precision-tuned rekindling of MacLean’s love affair with everything from Kraftwerk to Juan Atkins and Derrick May, Funkadelic to Giorgio Moroder and Lipps Inc, DAF to Talking Heads and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. It’s full of tics (sin drums, cow bells, Bootsy Collins bass lines, Moog Liberation motifs) borrowed from dance music history, but refuses to engage with retroism, nostalgia or any notion of ‘the classic.’ Opener ‘AD2003’ tracks back to Kraftwerk via Orbital, buoyed up by bubbles of percolating glitch. ‘Give Me Every Little Thing’ rewinds through Underworld and Talking Heads en route to Studio 54. ‘Tito’s Way’ contrasts acid-house synth squelches and rave whistles with clattering, tribal percussion. There’s a constant, though. Even the LP’s euphoric epic – 14-minute, piano-decorated closer ‘Dance With Me’, sung by LCD Soundsystem’s Nancy Whang – is poignantly subdued, touched by a melancholy that reflects MacLean’s own world view. “It doesn’t seem incongruous to me to have a lot of that stuff in there,” he says of the album’s sadness, “because I made a big effort to make an album, rather than a collection of tunes with just one good track that everybody knows. So I never really set out to say, ‘this is a song that will played for the dance floor,’ or whatever.
“When I started on it, I don’t think I had any pre-conceived notions at all, except that I knew I’d always be operating under the same aesthetic principles that I’d held in making music my whole life. For example, I started taking old multi-track, Six Finger Satellite recording tapes and I sampled all the drums from them – that’s most of the drum tracks you hear.” For the rest, there’s a live drummer, flute, guitar, synths, piano and vocals – no samples. “I might spend months and months on one track,” MacLean explains, “and we have a lot of live instrumentation on it, so a lot of things that sound like samples are actually me playing.”
As to the DFA connection, MacLean declares that working without Murphy and Goldsworthy was never an option. “Even now, if I weren’t going to work with James and Tim, I just wouldn’t be doing this at all. The thing that James does is something that he and I had been formulating for years and years, when I was in Six Finger Satellite – his recording techniques, his approach, the determination that he was going to put out the best thing he could possibly put out, or else it just wasn’t going to be put out. . . we spent every day and night together on tour for years, talking about recording – there was never a question of doing it with anyone else. I don’t need to be working with James because, in an engineering sense, we both do the same thing, but working with both James and Tim, it’s three people sitting there going, ‘that’s no good, that’s no good,’ and maybe one in three things will be passed by all three of us. It’s a really tough jury – the toughest – but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”