Aaron Coultate meets one of Detroit techno's most elusive artists.
For more than 20 years, Dixon has been a hard man to pin down. He rarely gives interviews. His music, too, is slippery and hard to define. He confounds the accepted norms of techno, creating unorthodox tracks with strange arrangements and kick drums that sometimes whisper instead of thud. His music is not made for DJs (though DJs often play it), nor is it made for home listening. He's earned a reputation as a pure, uncompromising artist.
I saw Dixon perform twice over the Movement weekend—once at Tangent Gallery alongside Thomas Fehlmann, and again on Movement's Made In Detroit stage with his band, Population One. At Tangent Gallery I bumped into Brendan M. Gillen, AKA BMG of Interdimensional Transmissions, who's known Dixon for more than two decades. They first crossed paths when Gillen was hosting a show called Crush Collision on WCBN, the University Of Michigan's student-run radio station. Dixon lived on the outer reaches of the broadcast range, and would phone in to request tracks IDs on early Sähkö records.
"Terrence is a very fast thinker, in the course of a pause in a conversation he can go through five thoughts and seven totally different emotions," Gillen told me. "We all must be so slow to him. Within Detroit techno he is an outsider from the inside. His sound is so raw. He is not trying to conform to make house music, or be about anything other than his high-tech soulful and thoughtful stream-of-consciousness techno."
After shelving plans to retire, Dixon has released lots of music these past couple of years. In 2017 alone he's appeared twice on Tresor (including the wonderful Like A Thief In The Night EP) and put out a new solo album on Out-ER called 12,000 Miles Of Twilight. I met Dixon at his home, an ivy-covered building on a leafy street in Detroit's Boston Edison neighbourhood, where he lives with his wife and his seven-year-old boxer dog, Gooch.
Your first record came out in 1994 on Claude Young's Utensil label. How did you meet Claude?
At first I was making music in a guy named Dave Peoples' studio, and then Claude Young heard me and he put me out on Utensil Records. And then came Mike Banks, and then Juan Atkins. I got to know Claude through a guy named David Oliver Whiteside of DOW Records. Those were his initials: DOW. I knew him and I was making music, and that's the guy that bought my gear, because I didn't have any money.
What was happening in your life at that point?
I made a lot of early mistakes in life. I was smart in school, but I was chasing girls. I had kids at a young age—I was 19 when I had my first kid—and it just stopped my life for like, 20 years. So I stayed in the house and did music, because I was taking care of my kids. All my money was going towards my family, so I didn't have a lot left over.
I had two pairs of pants, one shirt, no car, you know, the government helped with food. They went to a good school—I remember other parents rolling up in Mercedes. All my money went to the kids. I had to stay in one room for a long time, and make a lot of music.
What role was music playing in your life at this time?
I just made music for myself.
Mike Banks is someone you've been close to for a long time, right?
Mike Banks taught me everything. I remember that Mike came and found me when I was living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We were out there because there are great school systems. So he came out there and he helped me learn about music. I was originally going to be a part of Interstellar Fugitives. But when it came to creating music, they didn't agree with my take on things.
You had your own ideas and direction?
I had my own style is basically what it was.
What kind of stuff did Mike teach you?
A lot of patience. He had this white cat that used to walk on the keyboard and mess the bassline up, so we had to sit there and, all day, he made us just sit there and watch the cat.
Oh, yeah, Juan was important. You know—Juan and I, we never talked about music at first. We didn't meet like that, we met talking about American football. Detroit Lions. And then I was in Mike Banks' studio one day, playing my tracks, and Juan walked in, heard what was playing, and he was like, "Who is that?" And Mike said, "That's Terrence." He was like, "Man, that's hot." And he said, "Come down to my place," and that's how we connected in a musical sense.
How much has Detroit shaped you as a musician and human?
Detroit is very inspiring. You walk to the store to get some water, and you're gonna see a story. You're gonna see a bum with no money, smiling. You're gonna see somebody singing. You know what? Just hearing police sirens, and people screaming and dogs barking—stuff like that inspires me. Fights, and gunshots every night, stuff like that. I mean, for me anyway. I don't want to sound clichéd and say things about the dirtiest, grimiest parts of the city, that's not it. It's just a spiritual kind of thing, it's more than just the way things look.
Detroit filed for bankruptcy in 2013. What was that like for you and your family?
Detroit, I mean, at that time it was real bad out here. But now it's getting better, you know with the whole... just to have hope, to give the city hope. Just to give Detroit hope, that's all. It was really bad back then. It was so dark, nobody had any money, nobody was smiling, no businesses were open. People were looking on the ground for two cents, and they couldn't even find that.
Are things on the up now?
Yeah, it feels better. It feels a lot better. You know, the downtown of Detroit has changed a lot.
I can't describe it. It's just like they took everybody that was living down there in the bad times, pushed them out and new people came in, rich people, and they fixed it up, and that's it. They just pushed everybody out, people who were here for 20 years, in the bad times.
One characteristic of your music is that the kick drums are sometimes back-grounded.
Exactly. The kick drums are just for tempo. The bassline—I put that in the forefront 'cause that's the most important thing in the music to me. Not the boom, boom, boom, but more the music—the music's in the forefront and the kick is in the background. I always make the bassline first and then the drums second.
Would you describe your music as minimal?
To be honest, my style of minimalism comes from having less gear to work with. I'm not trying to make minimal music—it just comes out that way. I call my music Detroit techno. Living in a city with a really low population, no businesses, one house on the entire block, no jobs... everything about Detroit is minimal.
Does jazz directly influence your music?
Jazz was not an influence for my music, but Jimi Hendrix, Teddy Pendergrass, The O'Jays, Santana, Frank Zappa, Leo Anibaldi, early Sähkö, Juan Atkins, Chick Corea and The Electrifying Mojo were. I found out about Sun Ra from Mike Huckaby like five years ago. I needed it. Jazz is a huge part of my life now for listening only.
Some of your music sounds like it was influenced by jazz.
I don't know why I do it like that. I don't know. I can't tell you. I don't know why I do it the way that I do it.
What did you listen to as a child?
Kraftwerk, when I was 12 years old. That's right. My grandmother liked Kraftwerk. Yeah, she used to play Computer World, and she used to sit on the porch all the time listening to it. I remember the back of the cover, that's what really got me. I used to love it so much. My aunty owned the Kraftwerk record. She used to go roller-skating, and she used to take her own records and give it to the DJ to roller-skate to. But I didn't want to go because I couldn't skate. But you would hear a Kraftwerk song anywhere in the hood. Anywhere. You might even hear it right now, driving around here, to this day.
Do you feel your music is a window into you as a person?
I guess so. I don't know, because I'm not a musician. I don't know about music, I just know what sounds good to me. And I'm satisfied with it, and I'm happy that some people like it. I had no training at all. And I've never read an owner's manual for a piece of hardware. I'll read enough so I know how to get started and then I take it from there.
Do you prefer making EPs or albums?
My story is always too big for an EP. I can't do it. So I've always got too many tracks. Sometimes I give away tracks for free, just so I can do an album. I just can't do it in an EP, man. It's too hard.
This past week you've been collaborating in the studio with Thomas Fehlmann. What can you tell me about that project?
It's for Tresor. I'm trying to get on the dance floor with this project. So far we've got three ambient tracks, and the rest are more dance floor-focused. We did ten tracks in four days, in the High Bias studios, working seven hours a day. We've got a lot of editing to do, but it's sounding good. There are a lot of good parts, and a lot of bad parts.
How do you know Thomas?
This was the first time we'd met. But I had nothing to worry about with Thomas—he knows.
What are your favourite pieces of kit to play around with?
The Juno-106, the SH-101, yeah, this, I like this thing [points to his Maschine]. And then there's the 303s and the MC-303 Groovebox.
A couple of years ago you announced your retirement from making music. But since then you've been very active, and now you're working with Thomas on an album. What happened? What changed?
Yeah, well, what happened there, this is the honest truth, I was really depressed. Juan Atkins helped me to come back—but not totally come back, because I'm not totally back doing music, but I've got a lot of music that's saved up. I've got older stuff that I made new again. But I was just tired of making music, I was tired of everything, tired of the industry. That's all.
What's your view on artists having an online presence in order to get gigs?
Well, Myspace saved my life.
In what way?
Because my career was about to be over, and Myspace really picked it up, I swear it did. It was amazing, because I started getting friends, like Mike Huckaby, he said you gotta get Myspace, people are looking for you. You've gotta get it. I said OK, and we sat upstairs in my studio, he signed me up, that morning I looked and I had eight friends. I was like, what? And that's what happened, man. People started calling like, "You wanna do a gig? You wanna do a record?'
What kind of records do you play when you DJ?
It depends on what kind of space I'm in. If it's a bar, I'm no good in a bar. My stuff is no good in a bar. Before 2 AM, it's no good. But, if I'm DJing, it's techno basically, some minimal, some house music, too. So, Kerri Chandler into Robert Hood into Andy Stott.
Do you play records? Or USBs or CDs?
A bag of records in a case, an old-fashioned case. It's actually Juan Atkins' case that he gave me, and people always laugh. They're like, "You've got that big old case," I'm like, "Man, Juan Atkins gave me this case. I fixed it up, too."
Does the idea of taking a live show on the road appeal to you?
Oh man, that's a huge question. I respect every artist that can go on stage, go in a studio and DJ and all that stuff, and do it at a high level. That's amazing. I'm not there yet. I'm there maybe in my productions, but the other two, it's tough. Because my stuff always sounds different loud, like really super loud—like wow, something's wrong. I mean, it depends on what venue. It sometimes sounds good, and then sometimes I go somewhere and it doesn't sound right.
I hope I don't offend anybody, but I'm not one to be on stage. That's not my goal, to make this music just to go on stage and be in photos and stuff, and magazines... this music was better when you didn't know the people's faces. That's when I loved it. I didn't know—who is this person? That was the best.
It's pretty hard to fly under the radar now.
I haven't had a job in 20 years, my whole musical career. I tried a job, working for a moving company, and then I was so tired when I got home I had to go to sleep, I couldn't work. And I couldn't be creative. So I'd rather be just living comfortably, I don't need the hundreds of thousands of dollars and BMWs. I'm content, I've got my garden out the back—my wife just got me into gardening.
What have you got coming up?
It's a real bright future. I'm building a company, minimal detroit. It's a music and events platform with a community focus. I've been busy. I've got stuff coming out. I'm gonna keep on going.
The minimal detroit project seems interesting—why did you start that?
Yes, I started it because we need something of ours out here, something that's about Detroit, something that can help children and young people. I thought of the name—because Detroit can be real minimal. Minimal jobs, minimal facilities, minimal money, you know? So I started it, and it just took off from there, and now some friends help me run it.
What's the best-case scenario for minimal detroit?
We are working on the record label, tours, an animal sanctuary and a school for children, but not a music school: life lessons. And if they're gonna be a musician, it'll be natural. It's like if you have a little kid and push a basketball or football in front of them… I don't want to do that. I want them to decide. Like I decided. Then there will be tours and a label, all under one roof. That's what I want to do.
Have you considered making different styles of music? You've dabbled in ambient recently, for example.
That goes back to that question you asked me, where is my future going? That's where it's going. Dimitri [Hegemann] asked me for 70, 80, 90 minutes of ambient music, just continuous. So I'm going to give it to him. It will be a new Tresor project.
Does that feel like a natural evolution?
Yes. Life's taken me there. Life's presented so many troubles, and problems, and you know, because having kids young—that's not the right way to go. That's tough, man. So I've been through all that, so now all I want to do is just sit back and chill.