The Roots of Techno - Kevin Saunderson Interview
Iara Lee caught up with Saunderson during a winter music conference in Miami in April 1997 to interview him for the Modulations film. Though short excerpts appear in the movie, this entire interview is an unpublished exclusive.
Lee: How did you start out with your work originally?
Saunderson: I started working with Derrick, Juan, Eddie (Fowlkes) in the early '80's, around 1983. Basically when I was at Eastern Michigan University, me and Derrick were very close friends, and Juan and Derrick were close friends, and I met Juan through Derrick, and I met Eddie through Derrick. Actually we all went to junior high school together- me, Derrick, and Juan. So we knew each other, in a sense, but I wasn't into the music at that time as they were. Anyway, as time went on we became close friends and I kind of was around them. And just by watching Juan... he was putting out records like "Technicolor," "Cybertron" and stuff like that. Back then they were really great records, and it influenced Derrick to want to make music and also become a DJ, and it just brushed off on me. Since I had a close relationship with Derrick and Juan, obviously Derrick would inspire me a little more because, you know, we communicated a lot more.
Anyway, through the process, Derrick end up makin' his first record, probably in 1985. I was around during the whole time while this whole process was goin' on. He was in the studio and I was like watchin' close, but I wasn't tryin' to make my own records. I was just tryin' to become a DJ. Anyway, through this process, by watching him create, it inspired me to create. So in 1985, he made this record, "Let's Go." That was his first record.
Saunderson: It was quite an inspiring thing for me. And I think he did his first record with Juan and Eddie in the studio, and they all kind of just had fun. And when I seen that record come out on vinyl, it made me want to go create, too. It just brushed off on me. So then, six months later, I'm there in the studio sayin' "I wanna make a record." I needed to make a record. And Juan was the one who actually helped me make my first record. It was called "Triangle of Love." Juan came in, and I had the equipment, but I didn't know how to put it all together to make it a final product. Juan was the one who came in the studio and showed me, gave me the direction. And it led to me creatin' more and more songs.
KS: For me, musically, to create is something you can't think about. It's somethin' that you have to feel. And, I think we all have been blessed with that talent to feel and to release our expressions through music by bein' in a studio. You know, there has been plenty of times when I've woken up in the middle of the night and I've went right into the studio, 'cause my studio, back in the early days especially, was right in my living room. (laughs.) So I just go right next door and I would get a vibe. I'd wake up in the middle of the night. It was like sometimes I would have a dream and I would feel like I had to make a track. And I would go in there and, just based off of how I felt, I would start creatin' sounds and just get so deep into it. It's almost like another world and time passes on. Before you know it, you have a creation through experimenting with sounds and changing different sounds and blending stuff together. And, you know, obviously there's different tempos, you know, different speeds that help that mood. But it's all about that and knowing how to get it out. And through experimentin', it definitely helps that whole process. There was no thought behind creatin' these records. It was more or less a spontaneous thing. It was just natural. Everything happened naturally.
Saunderson: Oh, yeah. I mean, you might start a track and you might have a vision. The track that you started could definitely sway in all different kinds of directions, but the main thing is the end results. When you get those end results, sometimes I've amazed myself to say, "Man, I've written, started here and I've gone here and I don't know how that happened!" You know, but it's all emotional. It just happens through... the process.
Lee: In the beginning, you had to work with some pretty basic equipment, right?
KS: Right. Well, for us, when we started creatin', we didn't have much equipment. We had a board, we had somethin' that we could record on and an effects unit, which was minimal, but still, that's maybe about three or four thousand dollars. Back then that was a lot of money for a college kid to try to come up with to get this stuff. But it was an easier process than tryin' to go in and use studio time. For one thing, instead of creatin', you're worryin' about your time that you have to try to create. And I think it's great, the way technology is today. The way we started has played a major part in helping our careers because otherwise, spendin' a $100 a hour or so, I don't think the vibe would be the same. And it's easy because you can get right up and get right into it too. And you don't have to worry about all that. It's just, you know, natural process. And sometimes also, if you go into a big studio, you got too much there. You got a few keyboards, like we had. You maximize on all your creativity by using that equipment to the fullest extent.
Lee: So you found that it was a problem to create the music you wanted to in larger studios?
Saunderson: Well, what happens is when you have a certain amount of success in music or you're dealing with majors and dealing with big studios and you don't start out like that, it can become a problem because everybody's like saying, "You're quality, you need to make your quality better. You need to make your sound bigger." And this and that. Well, it's not really all about that. It's more about how you hear your final product and what you get at the end results. I've had major records that, you know, maybe only had drum tracks and one bass line going through it. I had a record called "A Sound." It was the sound that made that record and it was the drum track. And that was it. And it did the same thing through the whole record but it was massive. Every club wanted to play it. It was a big record for me, so you don't have to have a big production, a big studio to have some success.
Saunderson: Basically when we started in the beginning, like I said, everything was minimalist. We had... I think it was a MDC-500 Roland Sequencer and just a few different things. But it played a very important part because we didn't start out as musicians. The sequencers helped us, because you can get your idea down and keep repeating your idea. There's a lot of power in technology. And with artists' stuff, it's all MIDI based, computer-based, and obviously now we use computers too as part of our creation. But it kind of opens the doors and lets you see, gives you an easier path to put all this music down instead of having musicians play it. And it stays in time. You can change tempos. Technology's done a lot for this. We're just taking advantage of what technology has to offer us.
Saunderson: Yeah, for me, when I first started I actually ended up having a big success with Inner City, and I would fight with the record companies who wanted to get me to actually go out and perform live and do big shows and TV shows, 'cause I was quite happy and content just how I started and with what I was doing. You know, it's not for everybody to go out like that, and they have a different perspective. They don't understand always the vision. Even though everything has changed now, I think people need to be exposed to the people behind the music. But at first, it was definitely a transition.
Lee: So the majors were really trying hard to push this music?
Saunderson: Exactly. Because then what happens if you don't go out and promote your stuff, these majors find groups who try to imitate you. And because the majors have a lot of money, they can push, they can spend the money to make the general public and radio stations feel like this is what's going on. This is the new hot happenin' group, when really they're just pushin' their image and puttin' a very cheesy imitative sound behind the whole thing.
Lee: You're juggling a number of different groups and projects now.
Saunderson: Right. Well, I have a few different projects. I have Inner City, which had major success- I mean we sold lots of records. It's, if anything, my more commercial group. But I'm still doin' what I want to do. I like doin' vocal stuff too. Experimentin' around with electronic sounds. So I understand that there's a side to that- it's more of a major promotion. It's to develop and to grow in this market. 'Cause my philosophy is I want everybody in the world to know our music and hear our songs, because for Inner City, we write songs that... we feel like they make people happy, they inspire people. So why not touch everyone you can touch?
Then I have other projects like E-Dancer, which is more of an underground project I do, where it doesn't need that same kind of angle. It needs basically just to be put out there and obviously for me to do a little promotion on it so people know who's behind it. But it's more underground, and there's definitely no concessions. It is what it is and that's what it is. And I want people to accept that for what it is.
Well you can look way back, let's say even Juan's influence from Kraftwerk and the European groups like that. I think what Detroit did for this whole thing is we made everything danceable. We made it DJ-friendly, ready for the clubs. So we took it to another level. And that level became known as techno.
Now what has happened is that different parts of the world have had insight into the style in different directions where, let's say, England might be one of the first countries that was on top of Detroit techno. They didn't create Detroit techno like we created it. But they created the best way they thought how to make a record for dancing over there. You know, everybody has different influences. And what happened was you had other countries who basically followed England. So it's like a blueprint has been laid down and there's no particular plans for the blueprint. It's spread and changed by different countries, influenced by their perspective of music and their cities and their emotions. And their history also.
That's why you have so many different forms of music. The jungle people obviously were very hip-hop influenced producers. And dancehall is a good combination of fast hip-hop and reggae. You know, that's their influence. They made it danceable, fast, and that's what they're into. You have some techno that's more ambient, relaxing. That could have something to do with the climate people live in, you know, just the way they feel emotionally. So it has spread and it's all called techno or dance music. It's all electronic music regardless, 'cause it's created with technological equipment. And it's versed. There's a good side to it, there's a bad side to it. Obviously with so much diversity, the general public who go out and buy and support this music... you're taking a lot of different directions. It's hard to focus in on just dance music. Maybe that should be the only name, dance music, because everybody has a different vision of what techno is now.
Saunderson: Well, I prefer it, because it shows me that times have changed and it's changin' still for the better, even though you're always going to have the watered down stuff, the more commercial stuff. You're gonna have the cheesy stuff. You just have to accept that it's like that. You're still going to have the great underground tracks. They start out underground and get big. And some are just gonna stay underground. So there's a bin out there for everybody. You just have to be careful, and enjoy it.
Saunderson: Well, for me, I've always been the kind of producer where most of what I've created is basically all my own. That doesn't leave out the possibility for me to work with other people, but I'm just into no one straight direction. The way I create is just by filling it. So it's hard for me to say, "Well, I'm going to do it, I want to do this," or "I want to do that," because it all comes from the inner. And I can only let that happen when I feel... so it's hard to answer that question.
Saunderson: Well, it's an emotional thing that happens when I feel it. And it would help guide me in the direction that I'm gonna be in or go in.
Saunderson: In Detroit the scene has not actually developed like maybe it should have. And that probably has a lot to do with the fact that Detroit producers, like myself, Juan, Derrick and Eddie, have been traveling maybe a little bit too much around the world instead of tryin' to concentrate at home. But tryin' to concentrate at home is always difficult because it's hard to give parties. It's hard to give functions without the city stopping you. You know, they stop everything you do, so it got a little discouraging. So we prefer to move on and travel.
So, the latest people that have played a major influence in Detroit have been people like Carl Craig and Kenny Larken, Stacey Pullen. Those guys have played major parts in the scene, and I can't really say, I don't know who's really who's new and upcoming. We have a guy Kenny Dixon who's done some stuff. But as far as the real young talent sprouting up, I haven't seen a lot yet. And there's probably some out there, but it's nothin' that I've seen a lot. The young kids in Detroit are still into hip-hop and R'n'B. The very radio-minded, especially the urban community, they don't even listen to what we do. They don't even know anything about it now.
Saunderson: Well, when I DJ, I feel like I want to give people music that touches them, that they feel somethin' from the music. I think that's the most important. Every track that's made or comes out, you don't always feel somethin' for it. I'm the type of DJ where I feel like everything I play, they have to feel somethin' for it. That means they're gettin' somethin' out of it 'cause I don't feel like you should play something for the sake of playin' it. I try to take it and build... build... build and build. And to intensify the records that I'm playin' for the energy level to go up.
Saunderson: Well, I try to DJ, set up a few different tours a year, and go out mainly three or four months out of the year and just concentrate on DJ-ing. And the rest is basically vibing when I feel like creatin', being available or around where I can go in the studio. And so I have the opportunity to express myself musically.
Saunderson: That's right. You can't create then. The scene and the way music is, the music still needs producers like ourselves to stay a part of it. It's very important to stay a part of the creativity of the scene to keep educating people and to stay a part of it.
Saunderson: Yeah. I'm friends with almost everybody from Detroit.
Lee: Carl Craig too?
Saunderson: Yes. Carl is... very unique. He's a genius. He's very good. He's very creative and... I can say no more about him. (laughs.)
Lee: He's in Detroit now?
Saunderson: Yeah, he lives in Detroit. And, you know, Carl's a good guy. And I've always been into his music from day one and I knew he had a gift.