When German prog-rockers Kraftwerk traded in their guitars and drums for synthesizers and sequencers in the ‘70s, they changed music forever. Songs like “Trans-Europe Express” and “Numbers” showed the world how alternately stiff and soulful, minimal and melodic robots could be 30 years before Daft Punk donned their helmets.
In Detroit, Kraftwerk’s futuristic, precise sound had an even more profound impact on the city's middle class teenagers coming of age against a backdrop of bleaker modernity. In Detroit we find a young Juan Atkins, who along with Derrick May and other future-thinking high school kids, deejayed their own parties, made their own records and founded their own labels, ultimately giving the world Detroit techno. Atkins is widely considered the genre’s godfather. His raw, robotic classics “Alleys of Your Mind,” “Clear” and “No UFOs” from thirty years ago still embody the timeless future-retro of electro-techno at its purest and most inspired, while his most recent project, last year’s Borderland, a jazz-scaped techno project with Moritz von Oswald, shows Atkins is still vital in techno’s still-evolving future. We sat down with Juan to talk about the influence of Kraftwerk on his career and creating techno:HOBEY ECHLIN: Talk about the first time you heard Kraftwerk.
Juan Atkins: The first track I heard was “We Are the Robots” around ‘79 or ‘80, when [Electrifyin’] Mojo played it. I was really more of like a P-Funk fan, and disco funk was really happening at the time, and that track just cut against the grain. It was very mechanical sounding. I was starting to make my own music, but I didn’t know about sequencers and keeping stuff on beat. Hearing things that exact and pristine piqued my interest.
What was the audience like in Detroit for Kraftwerk at the time?
Me and Derrick [May] had this sound company called Deep Space where we’d put on parties and deejay. Other cities I don’t think had high school kids doing these kinds of social clubs. We were like these inner city preppy kids, you know, like Izod shirts and docksiders. We’d play ballrooms in office buildings. These weren’t nightclubs. “Pocket Calculator” was a real big hit in Detroit. It was a really weird tempo so you couldn’t mix in or out of it. You just had to drop it in the middle and peak out and everyone would go crazy.
Tell us about seeing Kraftwerk back then.
The first time I saw them was in 1981 at a club in Detroit called Nitro. I wasn’t 18 yet so I had to borrow an ID from someone in line to get in [laughs]. It was the most exhilarating experience I’d ever had. It was so different, such a departure from the whole idea of a ‘band.’ There were no guitars or drums. Just these electric panels.
What’s your favorite Kraftwerk song?
Pocket Calculator. It epitomizes everything they’re about.