All of which makes Borderland, their Tresor-backed album released earlier this year, such an exciting prospect. It's not the first time they've worked together—in "Jazz Is The Teacher," the 1992 cut they produced with Thomas Fehlmann, they've got at least one classic under their belts—but it comes at a moment when both are as active as they've ever been. During Berlin Atonal, a long weekend of boundary-pushing electronic music held at Tresor's epic Kraftwerk Berlin space this summer, we managed to get them in a room together between live sets and DJ sessions. The dialog, touching on Atkins and Von Oswald's musical personalities, geographic influences and collaborative methods, continued on and off for the next few months.
Your show really fills out the sound of the album. How do you approach playing Borderland live?
Moritz Von Oswald: The approach is just to present the record and have fun playing it. It was fun to do [the album], so we just perform it in the same manner. It's not very complicated to play out. I've never been nervous on stage. Never.
Why do you think that is?
Moritz Von Oswald: It's a matter of rehearsal. I've played live so many times. And also with classical performances—you have to be extremely concentrated and extremely right. And in this project, Borderland, if I hit the wrong note, the wrong element—for me, it's quite disturbing. So I have to be as concentrated as ever before. And I know it. We've rehearsed it. So that's why I'm never nervous.
What else goes into the show?
Juan Atkins: Yeah, I don't know if you noticed, but we used a couple of [Ableton] Push units. It was an opportunity to test drive the latest technology. So that's a different thing.
Have you liked using the Push?
Juan Atkins: Yeah. It's kind of a different way of doing things.
Were you using a Push for this show as well, Moritz?
Moritz Von Oswald: I didn't use the Push, but I had a little bit of a problem with my analog synthesizer in the beginning [of this show]. I will have to get maintenance for it, but I think it will work during the next shows. It has to work.
The show is based around your album Borderland, and my understanding is that it was composed as a jam. Are you able to keep that spirit alive when you perform live, or are you pretty set on reproducing it as it was committed to tape?
Juan Atkins: I think that there's still an improvisational element to it. I mean, the rhythm section is basically what you hear on the record. But a lot of stuff on top, a lot of the chords that Moritz is playing, are improvised. So each show is going to be different from the previous show. It's not going to ever be exactly the same.
I bet there are some external factors, too. Like the space where you guys played for Berlin Atonal, Kraftwerk Berlin. It's a pretty impressive room, to say the least. Do you think the epic surroundings brought something to your performance last night?
Juan Atkins: Because it is such a huge space, the system had to be huge, and the bass was unbelievable.
I can confirm that the bass was indeed huge.
Juan Atkins: I got a lot of comments. The whole album is actually a bass-heavy production. So to hear it on a loud system like that just brings that bass to life, you know?
Bass is really central to the sound of the Borderland material. Is that what you start with, or is it something else?
Juan Atkins: You know, we've worked together before. I did most of the Deep Space album with Moritz, the whole Sonic Sunset EP I did in Berlin with his previous studio. We were already familiar with each other's likes and dislikes, so it was relatively easy. It was kind of same-ish, actually. To me it's really a continuation of what we've done over the years under different projects. But by the same token, it's always different. I might come in, and Moritz might have a line already playing, or a chord or something. And I just pick up and add what I think I hear, to complement.
Would you agree that this is how the vibe is set, Moritz?
Moritz Von Oswald: That's a bit of a secret, I think [laughs]. The first thing is what Juan mentioned, but the first thing [sound-wise] is the bass, and if the bass is rolling, it helps to get things—it's like a good bed, you know?
You can define heavy bass with two things: the amount of bass, and the frequency. I like when the frequency is less subtle. I like sub-bass—in the studio, in the live system. The energy it has for me, when the house is shaking, when the windows are shaking. I like this! [laughs]
You like the bass to be physical.
Moritz Von Oswald: It has a physical aspect. Some people just feel claustrophobic, but I don't. I've never felt claustrophobic with a big bass. The highs are hurting sometimes in the ear, or the mid-frequencies—I like something which is not hurting. I think some people feel that bass is hurting, but it never hurt me.
Did you have an epiphany about bass at some point—a moment when you realized how important it was to how you related to sound?
Moritz Von Oswald: When I was playing music in orchestras, the double bass was something I was always listening to and watching. It's quite physical to play it. And I always liked the orchestra bass drum, because it also shakes through.
How has your musical relationship changed through the years? Have you noticed a development in the sound you guys make together?
Moritz Von Oswald: The lightness of it. [It's at] that stage where if the music is good, it's quite light. It's just floating, it's not very heavy and you don't have too many worries.
There is a real lightness to the album. There was a time when it would have been difficult to imagine Tresor Records releasing music like this. Dimitri Hegemann, the man behind the club, was instrumental in making this record happen, so it was always going to be a Tresor project. Does the lineage of the club work into the music in some other way for you guys?
Juan Atkins: I think what you hear is the Detroit influence in the music. A lot of the stuff that I've done and a lot of the stuff my colleagues have done in Detroit, it tends to be more musical. And by me being from Detroit, of course subconsciously it's going to come out in whatever I do. There's been a Detroit-Berlin connection since the early '90s—since I first met this guy—so I think that strength continues in this project.
Moritz Von Oswald: It was good to go [to Detroit], to get in contact with the music. That I've always liked. But it's a bit difficult, because it comes subconsciously. It's kind of, again, some sort of lightness. If you ask people from Detroit, maybe it's a different view. But it's just a feeling that I had when I went there. In Berlin, there's something really stiff, in a way. Detroit has something that's really different, I think. It was always very obvious if you went to Detroit that jazz is very present—so that's what I mean, with some of the lightness again. It's something I always liked, and I found it in Detroit.
Juan Atkins: One of the collaborations I did [with Moritz] before was called "Jazz Is The Teacher." That was me, him and Thomas Fehlmann, and I always felt that Moritz had sort of a jazz background. I think he has a lot of jazz influences, a lot of Miles Davis—I know he has a lot of the Miles Davis catalog around his house. And with a slight sprinkling of reggae flavor as well. So if I had to describe Moritz musically, I'd say jazz with a dash of reggae.
You know, the thing about Berlin that has impacted me—it's not just Berlin, but I think it brought to the forefront the simplicity of music and simplicity of the beats. It's not about the beats or the notes, but it's about the spaces between the notes.
There's a huge musical connection between the cities, but they're similar in other ways, too. The economic situation in both has been tremendously difficult at times, but they seem like they're moving in different directions right now. You look around Berlin and sense it becoming richer, but Detroit is—
Juan Atkins: Becoming much poorer.
Almost endlessly. Neither situation is necessarily a positive development for the music scene. You're both so deeply tied to the music of both places. How do you see these changes affecting it?
Juan Atkins: One thing you have to realize is that no matter what metamorphosis each city goes through, the people remain the same. Detroit is very, very post-industrial, and the inhabitants have to survive in that climate. It has a tendency to give you a thick skin, I guess you could say. It makes you able to cope with more severe situations than most other places. And what I mean by that is, when you're born without a silver spoon in your mouth, it tends to make you very strong. It also makes things, especially in creative circumstances, a little more meaningful. You put a little bit more effort, a little bit more heart and soul into everything you do. I think that definitely makes the music a little bit more innovative.
Is now a great time for people to be channeling energy into Detroit, when things are looking especially dark?
Juan Atkins: I think it would be perfect timing right now. One thing about America is it's so huge, and it takes a long time for new ideas—groundbreaking ideas—to surface. It probably wouldn't have worked some years ago. But now that the kids have been cultivated, you know, the audience has been enlightened [about dance music]. It's a global phenomenon. I think the palate is ready right now.
What's happening with electronic music in America? Is the country becoming more perceptive to your music?
Juan Atkins: I think music [in general] is constantly being developed or progressing, and that includes America. The sad thing about America is that, because America is the creator of capitalism—or the biggest country, the leader for capitalism, there's a lot of commerciality. Everything that happens in America, every progression, is usually for commercial value or to maximize profit, the dollar. As you can imagine, everything that comes there, any new development in America, usually progresses into a money-making venture. A lot of the developments in the mainstream are usually slanted more towards commerciality.
Is it becoming more perceptive to my music? To a certain degree, I believe so. But at the same time, the interest for profit and the maximization of profit tends to squelch or smother any true creative development. So I guess that's a yes and no answer.
Was it the soundsystem?
Moritz Von Oswald: Not the soundsystem, but the intensity of the whole thing. And of course, people got really inspired to play there, because they also got the energy from the room.
Do you still see yourself as a techno artist, Moritz?
Moritz Von Oswald: This is a very difficult question. I always say, where is the rhythm? I'm more a rhythmically interested person, not a techno person.
Do you think rhythm is what you tend to bring to your collaborative work?
Moritz Von Oswald: I'm also interested in putting things like chords or harmonic elements into rhythms. I just like to show myself that it's possible to combine stuff.
Do you think you'll do another album together? Could the Borderland project continue?
Juan Atkins: I don't see why not. I will guarantee the sun is going to come up tomorrow. Is that a guarantee?