Techno's Godfather Speaks: An Interview With Juan Atkins

Juan Atkins (2011). Photo by Yann Gross/Red Bull Content Pool.

A quick Google search of the phrase "who invented techno" will immediately draw up a musician named Juan Atkins.

Working out of Detroit in the early ‘80s, Atkins used synthesizers to create songs that were entirely electronic, at a time when doing so not only wasn’t popular, but was rarely heard of— especially in the United States. (Importantly, he was also the first person to use the word "techno" to describe electronic music, though there’s a common misconception that the term "techno music" was first used in Germany).

While a fair amount has been written about Atkins' work as Model 500, less has been written about his earliest electro releases in the band Cybotron. Yet it's arguable Cybotron's early singles (notably "Alleys of Your Mind," "Cosmic Cars," and "Clear") were important electro tracks in American history that contributed greatly to techno as we know it today.

At the time, the advent of the MiniMoog had caused synthesizers and other electronic instruments to become more available to regular consumers—not just minted producers, rock stars, and record labels. Funk legends Parliament-Funkadelic had already begun incorporating synthesizers into their sound, while electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Giorgio Moroder, Yellow Magic Orchestra, and Jean-Michel Jarre had also made their mark.

Whether he was directly influenced by them or not, Atkins grew up around a melting pot of good music—including his grandmother, who herself played a mean B3 Hammond organ—and had an innate proclivity for sound. By age 15, he was creating his own electronic productions on a synth his grandmother had given him for Christmas.

While Atkins' ingenuity and self-motivation meant he likely would have always gone on to become an influential musician, at age 19 he met Rik "3070" Davis, with whom he would capture the attention of the Detroit music scene.

Juan Atkins (2011). Photo by Yann Gross/Red Bull Content Pool.
Juan Atkins (2011). Photo by Yann Gross/Red Bull Content Pool.

Davis was a musician, poet, and artist 10 years older than Atkins. He was also a reclusive Vietnam vet then in his late 20s, who, like many soldiers, had been deeply scarred by the horrors of Vietnam's Tet Offensive. Upon returning home to Detroit after surviving Vietnam, Davis began devoting himself to music as a source of reinvention, social commentary, and catharsis. He was a fan of both psychedelic rock and underground electronic music. His favorite artists were Jimi Hendrix; Pink Floyd; Emerson, Lake, & Palmer; Morton Subotnik; Tangerine Dream; Larry Fast; and Isao Tomita.

By the time he met Atkins in a community college electronics class, Davis had already self-released "Methane Sea," a cool primordial electro song that had been used as an opener by Detroit's most influential yet least egotistical disc jockey, The Electrifying Mojo, who had also served in Vietnam. The track was notable for being entirely electronic, a testament to the fact that even before having met Atkins, Davis was an open-minded outlier.

"Methane Sea" was more cerebral than danceable, however, and it wouldn't be until Davis teamed up with Atkins that he would experience commercial success.

Davis and Atkins would become an essential part of each other's personal history, setting to work in Davis' gear-filled home studio in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Together they recorded and self-released their first song, the dystopian single "Alleys of Your Mind," in 1981. To this day, "Alleys of your Mind" is considered by many to be the world's first techno song, though there's some debate over whether "Sharevari" by Detroit band A Number of Names came first [Ed: which you can hear more about in the interview below].

After The Electrifying Mojo began playing "Alleys of Your Mind" on Detroit airwaves, Cybotron became a local success, releasing three more singles: 1982's "Cosmic Cars" (which bumped Prince's "Little Red Corvette" down to No. 2 on a Detroit chart), the iconic hit "Clear" (later sampled by Missy Elliott), and 1984's classic "Techno City."

When Cybotron disbanded in 1985 due to creative differences (Davis preferred combining psych rock and electro, while Atkins was an electro purist), Davis moved further into the background, perhaps of his own volition, while Atkins released seminal techno tracks along with friends Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, and became known as "The Originator" of Detroit techno.

Cybotron's music inspired many electro, house, and techno artists, but the creation of these early pivotal songs is somewhat veiled in mystery, a bit lost to time and memory. Did Atkins write the lyrics to "Alleys of Your Mind," or did Davis? How did they work together? What instruments did they use, what was their songwriting style, and what were their production techniques?

Beyond that, what really was the first Detroit techno track? Does Juan Atkins think of himself as the father of techno, as others call him? Does he define his early music as techno or electro, insofar as it actually matters?

I caught up with Atkins in a rare interview to gain insights on a formative time in his life, and in Detroit's musical history.

To learn more about Juan Atkins and his work, check out the Metroplex website here.

The first thing I wanted to talk to you about was with the MS-10. I know that, going back to your early days, you used to make demo tapes in high school on it, and you made them on bass guitar as well. Are those demo tapes totally lost to time or do you have them?

I wish I still could have had those tapes, but no, those tapes been gone for years now.

You recorded them on a PA mixer, was that right?

Yeah. It was a PZ, Like a regular, four channel PA mixer.

Korg MS-10
Korg MS-10. Photo by Otakurulez.

So you got the MS-10, I think when you were about 15. Your grandmother got it for you for Christmas.

Yeah.

So had you already been turned onto Parliament, Kraftwerk, and Yellow Magic Orchestra at the time that you got this MS-10, or were you making these demo tapes before that?

After. It kind of came after. It wasn't Parliament or Kraftwerk that inspired me to get the MS-10. I don't really know. It's just because my grandmother had a Hammond B3 organ. And she used to go to the music store called Grinnell's to buy sheet music and accessories for this organ. And they sold synthesizers in the backroom. That's how I actually got into thinking about getting a synthesizer.

So it wasn't even George Clinton then? It was basically your grandmother playing this organ and then you'd go into the backroom, and there'd be synthesizers?

Yeah. It wasn't any musical artist that really—I mean, those were the artists that I was listening to at the time. But my first, I guess, relationship with a synthesizer was listening to my grandma.

So you must have been playing for hours in your room. You were making total electronic productions on the MS-10, right?

Yeah.

You figured out how to do percussive elements with the filters.

Yeah. I was making my own drum kits from off the Korg.

I want to talk to you about Rik Davis. I know you met him in community college. So after he hears these demo tapes, he invites you over to his place.

And he was a pretty reclusive guy, right, who had been through a lot, at least to my understanding. He wasn't just going to let anyone into his life because of who he was. So you describe, you go in there and for you, you were like 18, and it's like seeing a spaceship, right?

That's what it looked like when I went in there. And I think that he was trying to do some kind of psychological, Jedi mind trick or something on me, right? I mean because he had it—it was in the middle of the day when I went there, but the room was totally dark, totally black. He had the shades and stuff down, so when you came in the room and the lights off, so when you came in the room, all you could see was the LEDs from the synths and the gear.

You said in another interview that it wasn't really consumer gear. But I know that Rik did have some consumer gear. What was some of the gear he had?

He had an ARP Axxe, an ARP Odyssey, and an ARP... I forgot what you call it. The sequencer that goes with the ARP Axxe, the analog sequencer, Roland MSQ-700, Roland, RS-09 Strings, and a couple of other keyboards. I can't remember right off hand though. DR-55 Drum Machine.

I actually wanted to ask you about the DR-55. I remember you saying for you it was kind of a game changer. So what was it about the DR-55 that was so revolutionary for you?

Well, it was my first drum machine. After getting that machine, after being involved with that, I didn't have to create my own drum kit and hand-play the drums. I mean the demos that I had made, all of the stuff was played freehand, like freestyle with no sequencing. I didn't even know what a sequencer was. So when I came in contact with the DR-55, it was the same sounds but they were able to be sequenced or put in a pack.

What tracks was the DR-55 used on for Enter [Cybotron's 1983 debut studio album]? Was it used on "Alleys of Your Mind?"

DR-55? Yeah, I think we used that on "Alleys of Your Mind."

And do you remember it being on any other tracks?

"Alleys of Your Mind," "Cosmic Raindance." And I think those were the only two. By the time we got to the rest of the music, we had got a TR-808. So "Clear," and "Cosmic Cars" and stuff was done on TR-808.

Production-wise, what was your collaboration with Rik like? From my understanding, a lot of Enter was... It seemed like he wrote the lyrics for a lot of the stuff, but you wrote the lyrics for "Cosmic Cars."

Right.

And what was the collaboration like? What were you doing on the tracks, and what was he doing, to the extent that you remember?

With tracks like "Alleys of Your Mind" and "Clear," and "Cosmic Cars," basically those were tracks that I did on my own. And then when we got together, he would lay like a synth chord or a synth line on top and also write most of the lyrics.

And that's how we worked. We would go to our own corners and do stuff, and then when we'd get together. He would play what he'd been working on, and I'd play him what I'd been working on. And some tracks, things that he worked on, I would put a line or something on top, and he would do vice-versa on the stuff that I worked on. There's a lot of stuff that we worked on together that never was released. I wish you had a taste of that stuff.

I wish I did too.

We've got about... There's about four or five tracks we've collaborated together that never got released.

Cybotron - "Alleys Of Your Mind"

What were they called?

One was called "Space Grace," "Plastic Girl." "Plastic Girl" was the track that Rik basically had did, and I came in and laid the vocals for it, and played a synth lead on it. But I think that "Plastic Girl" was kind of the precursor to "Cosmic Cars," but we just never did anything with it.

Right. You kind of just had to pick the best ones to put out on that first album after you released the singles.

Yeah. I think it was sort of like that. It was like... A lot of stuff we did was kind of almost by mistake. So you take "Cosmic Raindance," for instance, actually "Cosmic Raindance" was the first thing we did the first time we got together.

Right. Yeah, you just didn't release it until later.

Yeah, we didn't release it. We released it on the B-side of "Alleys of Your Mind." But "Alleys of Your Mind" wasn't made until a few months later.

That's really interesting. So when you were growing and you guys would start writing on your own, so say we just use "Alleys of Your Mind" as an example, and you said you originally laid down the musical concept of it, the foundation of it, right?

Uh-huh.

Did you write that on the Korg on the MS-10, or was Rik giving you some synthesizers that you could take home and you were working on it?

No, I did take the TR-808. We bought a TR-808 when it first came out. And I did take that home with me. And by this time, I had bought a [Sequential Circuits] Pro One too. So I had a TR-808, a Pro One, and a Korg MS-10. And you could do with the Pro One is that it had a sequencer on it and you could trigger the sequence from the trigger out from the 808.

That must have opened up a whole world for you.

Yeah, and that's when I did "Clear." That's the first thing I did when I was able to trigger that sequencing with the 808: "Clear."

I'm curious, you know the ascending synth pattern on "Clear," the iconic pattern. Was that sampled from Kraftwerk's "Hall of Mirrors"?

No.

You recreated it, didn't you? That's what it sounds like to me.

Yeah, I recreated it. I think that at the time, samples weren't even in existence.

So how did you create that sound?

I can't really remember. I just made a patch and just played it.

And was that on the Pro One?

I believe it was the PRO-1. I believe it had to be because I only really had one of the synthesizer. So I'm thinking it had to be the PRO-1.

Cybotron - "Clear"

Yeah, that would make sense. You know how you guys had those vocal effects on tracks like "Alleys of Your Mind"—to me, it sounds like a vocoder, but not. Were you feeding your vocals through a vocoder, or were you using some kind of external input to filter?

No. We didn't use a vocoder. That was a [ADR] PanScan at high speed. You know the thing that pans the signal left and right, back and forth? It speeds up the rate. It's almost like talking through a fan.

Right. So the vocal effects and the high-pitched voice you have occasionally on "Alleys of Your Mind"—all of that was just different variations of the PanScan?

It was the PanScan. We didn't use vocoders so everything was either some kind of delay, some kind of short delay with PanScan.

ADR PanScan
ADR PanScan. Photo by 4-Analogman.

Right. But I think Rik said he did use a vocoder on "El Salvador," right?

Yeah. "El Salvador," yeah. But that wasn't until we made the album.

This is a question I've had for a long time. A lot of people describe "Alleys of Your Mind" as electro and not techno. But other people call it the first-ever techno song. In your opinion, is "Alleys of Your Mind" techno?

It's both, if you ask me.

What about it is techno to you?

The fact that it was totally electronic, and that's why I called it techno. I mean because it was a totally electronic record. I mean, no acoustic instruments were used on it, period.

Yeah, right. So for you, electro would be some of the tracks that Rik and you worked on together.

Well, people tend to have to have all of these different categories, and I've never been into one category. To me, it's all electronic music, period. Yeah.

It's funny because there's this whole debate over, is this electro, is this techno, and I know that you're not really, and rightfully so, not concerned by these classifications.

To me, there's no difference between electro and techno. It's all the same thing.

I heard before that you have a good argument for why "Alleys of Your Mind" came first before "Sharevari." What's that argument?

An argument?

Not an argument... But it's something that people have debated, right?

It ain't no debate that came out before that [laughs].

Okay. Cool. Well I mean I believe you 100%. But if you go on Reddit, or whatever, people have a debate about it.

All you got to do is look at "Alleys of Your Mind," and if you know anything about vinyl, and how vinyl is mastered and pressed, there's an inscription within the inner part of the vinyl, where the person who mastered that record and plated that record puts the date in the vinyl. So if you look at that inscription on our record, you'll see it says April something, and their's says October or November, something like that.

Gotcha. So the proof is in the pudding right there. It's in our vinyls now.

You just have to look at the inscribe of the record. No matter what it says on the label, you got to look at the inscribe—they call it an inscribe—on the actual vinyl disk. Every mastering company does that to identify that plate.

So it's no contest. I know again we talked about how you wrote the lyrics for "Cosmic Cars." I heard that "Cosmic Cars" outperformed "Little Red Corvette" on a Detroit local chart. Is that correct? Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Yeah, it used to be a radio station called WCSB, when it was on AM. Their chart was the chart that determined what's the top records in the city, and then would go to the whole industry... Cities would go by these charts established by these radio stations, which was actually a sample of what the stores was buying, and what people were requesting. And our record, one time the chart came up and "Alleys of Your Mind" was No. 1 and "Little Red Corvette" was number two.

Was that like a high point for you? Were you like, "Wow, Prince is No. 2 and we're No.1"?

Well, it was one of the things that let me know that we had been kind of successful. But, I mean that chart can be whatever anybody wants it to be actually. I mean, I was surprised that we didn't get bumped because of some politics. So I was surprised that something like it was true to what was happening in the streets chart. But it was nothing that made me jump for joy about it. It's a good feeling but...

Do you think the major labels were kind of pissed off about that, that Prince was number two?

I had heard that... Of course if you're a record company like Warner Brothers, which I think that was what Prince was on at the time. They was given him like platinum promotion. Platinum promotion—they were spending a million dollars just on marketing and promoting his music. And how do you spend a million dollars in promotion and you go into a market and there's a local group that's No. 1 ahead of your group that you spent millions of dollars on promotional? Yeah, I think they—

Yeah, of course they probably would have been pretty PO'd about that. It shows you the power of a good track though, that speaks to the community.

Yeah.

I know that you founded your own record label, Deep Space Records. And then after that you did Metroplex Records after you left Cybotron. But when you did Deep Space, it was you and Rik together who made it, right? I think Rik had some veterans benefit money that he could put toward it. And you probably what, 19 at the time? So did Rik turn you on to this idea that because he had already released "Methane Sea" on his own label—was he the one who showed you that this was possible? That you could take matters into your own hands?

Yeah, actually, I mean, Rik had a lot to do with me realizing that you could actually release your own record. But I was already on my way because I had this book. And we both had this book about how to make and sell your own records. It was like a paperback book, and I had bought this book. And at the time that I was reading this book was right when I met Rik.

Do you know what that book was called?

It was called How to Make and Sell Your Own Records. And I think the author's name was Diane Rapaport.

Enter was definitely influenced I'd say by funk and European electro, and Detroit as a city. I know that when I listen to the lyrics, I feel like it's partly influenced by Vietnam, and the Vietnam War. If you had to talk about the main influences of Enter, does that ring true to you, or how do you describe the influences?

Hang on. Well, Rik is an ex-Vietnam vet, so Jimi Hendrix was his big influence, and a lot of times, I always felt that Rik was Jimi Hendrix on the synthesizer.

Cybotron - "Cosmic Raindance"

That's what "Cosmic Raindance" feels like when you hear it. It's like this wailing, and it basically to me, it's so... I mean that song, I love that song. And there's that kind of power, that desperate. It's like a beautiful, soulful, desperate wailing that sounds like an electric guitar almost.

Yeah, I think he used ARP Axxe to really sound like Jimi Hendrix.

Were there any other instruments over the years either from Cybotron or after Cybotron that were game changers for you? Other than the ARP Axxe or MS-10?

Of course the Pro One. The Pro One, because I made the bassline for "Clear" on the Pro One. And I think the [Akai] S900 sampler was kind of a game changer.

What did you use that for, the S900 sampler?

That's kind of vague. I can't remember what I used it for. But mainly, I didn't really sample pieces of other people's records. I would sample my own sounds basically, and it was just a way to manipulate further sounds, to add live elements to the sound and mix them with the samples of different things.

In terms of the whole music industry, that was a game changer.

So you and Derrick [May] and Kevin [Saunderson] had kind of a co-op studio going right, after Cybotron disbanded? And you started producing music as Model 500. Can you talk to me about the setup that the three of you had there? What was the setup that you were using and what were some of the tracks that were created there?

Well, I mean, there was not no one place where... I mean, by this time, everybody was getting gear from different places. Sometimes we'd be over Derek's house making stuff, sometimes was over Kevin's, mostly over my house. And so that's how it went. We would pass it around the same 909 drum machines around. At that time the [Ensoniq] Mirage sampler keyboard was kind of popular, the [Yamaha] DX7, DX100 with this new kind of algorithm type of modulators and stuff that gave things a certain sound. Derek used the DX100 on a lot of his productions.

Did he use it on "Strings of Life"?

I'm sure he used it somewhere on there. I think that was the Mirage. Mirage was a sampling keyboard that had its own sound library you could get on these floppy disks.

Are you saying with the studio, there was no one physical space for it. It wasn't a lockup space that you guys were renting in Detroit?

No.

Do you remember where you were when you writing "No UFO's" and what instruments you used there?

That was one of the first tracks that I made after splitting from Cybotron. However, me and Rik had a studio above TC's Speakeasy in Ypsilanti, Michigan, on Michigan Avenue, right in the heart of downtown Ypsilanti. We had an apartment which was our studio above there and I started making "No UFO's," which was actually the first time I linked drum tracks.

This was around when MIDI first came out. We were so excited about being able to now finally run two or three different drum machines or play Roland equipment with Korg equipment or with Yamaha. Because before MIDI, if you had a Korg synthesizer, you had to have Korg drum machine and a Korg sequencer, [or] else they wouldn't talk to each other.

So the creativity behind "No UFO's" came from that fact that this was the first time that I was able to link two drum machines together, which was a TR-909 and Sequential Circuits Drumtraks.

Model 500 - "No UFO's"

Are you going to tour as Cybotron after the pandemic, do you think? I know you were starting...

Yeah, but we did some shows as Cybotron. We kind of relaunched. I'm working on a new Cybotron album actually—been talking with Rik. But I don't know if that's going to happen. So at this time, at press time, I don't know for sure what's going to happen with that in its final analysis.

So you originally started out, like you were playing Cybotron on your own and touring, and then the pandemic hit. And then Rik might join, but you're not sure. You guys are kind of talking about it?

Yeah.

I know you're using a Novation keyboard. Is there anything you've been just playing with? Are you making music during the pandemic, in your own studio?

Yeah, that's all I've been doing.

Do you want to just give me a couple of sentences on that before you go? I'd love to hear about it.

Well, I mean, I've got my stuff up and running. I'm in the studio every day, a haunted woodshed I guess you could say.

What are your favorite instruments right now that you're working with?

Right now, it's like everything is software and virtual. And so, I'm working with a lot of different plugins, because I am an advocate for a lot of advancements in technology. So I wouldn't say that there's no one sound, one thing that I'm working with, the one keyboard. I know that I'm waiting for this Korg MS-20. as far as hardware synths, since I'm waiting for this Korg MS-20 to come out, but it hasn't come out yet.

But right now, I mean, I'm just doing some modular stuff. I've got the whole Roland System-500 modular setup. I've been working with that.

I have one last question for you. Sorry. I know some people say you invented techno. Some people say you're the founder of Detroit techno. When people say you invented techno, what are you feelings about that, because I know you don't really classify music. But do you think it's true? Or what would you say?

I mean, I'm not going to try to take credit for being the first person to make a totally electronic record. But I do believe I'm the first one to coin the term techno and applied it to the music.

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