Rewind: Serge on “Ocean To Ocean”

Posted: July 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Features | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

In discussion with Serge on “Ocean To Ocean” by Model 500 (1990).

I assume you were already familiar with Juan Atkins when the “Ocean To Ocean EP” was released in 1990. He was the first of the Detroit techno originators to release a record. Was he also the first of them you heard?

I am not sure… probably yes. But it could also have been the first Transmats of Derrick May. It was around ‘87 when I heard the first techno and this came out in 1990.

What makes this record so important for you? Are there special moments and memories attached to it?

It is just one of the best records Juan Atkins did, and one of the first records where techno became techno, where it became a form of art, and not just a tool to make people dance like disco, and like what house and techno was in that period, but an expression of feelings and emotions in an creative sophisticated and highly skilled way. You also hear this on other records from that 1989 and 1990 period, but somehow this one is one of my most favourite releases.

How would you describe the music on this record? Do you like it in its entirety, or do you prefer some tracks to others?

I love all tracks and it is difficult to describe. I can only do that properly in my native language I think. “Infoworld”, “Ocean To Ocean” and “Wanderer” are tracks that are unique. It’s electronic music but not as we knew it in that period, like we knew house music, or electro and new wave. All electronic dance music was driven by rhythm and drum machines. The drive and the energy on this release come mainly from the mindblowing basslines and melodies and strings. The percussion is not the most important part of the tracks, which is rare in dance music! For me this is techno in its most vibrant and creative form. Back then (89-90) this was music from another world. This was the future! No-one ever heard anything like this before.

I think “Ocean To Ocean” and “Infoworld” are very trademark Atkins sounding, they contain a lot of elements typical for him. The pensive vocals, the delicate electro leanings, the way he establishes a feeling with fragile melodies and moody strings. Would you say this record defines his sound even more than other of his releases?How would you place it in his career?

Actually I don’t think it is very trademark Juan Atkins. You think so? “What’s The Game” and “The Chase” are maybe closest to these tracks. But I think his previous tracks are more electro orientated. I think this was more sophisticated then anything he did before. Fragile and a more dreamy atmosphere, as if you were away from the world floating in space or something It doesn’t feel so grounded and dancefloor orientated.

Juan Atkins had a few guest spots on Derrick May’s Transmat label, but this is the first release under one of his best know aliases. Do you think May wanted to pay his dues with it?

I think it completely fits on what Transmat and Derrick May where doing in that period. Techno in a more creative and expressive way. I have no idea if there are any other reasons, beside the killer tracks themselves, to release this record.

I always found it peculiar that “The Wanderer” sounds very much like May, and that there never surfaced another version of this track. Is this more of a collaboration, and there might not even exist a version which is more Atkins?

I don’t think so. It might be a collaboration, or actually it says it is a collaboration, but they all shared gear and worked together on tracks. I think “Infoworld”, and “Ocean To Ocean” are very much Derrick May. The way it builds, and how the melodies and strings are done, the drum programming. But Derrick may doesn’t get credits on those tracks I believe, only Marty Bonds. Also they don’t sound completely like Derrick May.
I actually never heard Derrick May do those melodies and sounds so loud in the mix with such a dominant arrangement. His tracks normally evolve and organically build up. Atkins used to do more of an arrangement, like electro producers. I actually never listened to the tracks like that. I always assumed that it were some kind of collaboration, like sharing studio, work on mixing together, playing a melody etc., and I just didn’t care what and how was written on the labels because that probably wasn’t correct anyway, haha.

1990 was a year in which Detroit techno seemed about to change. Derrick May fell silent, not releasing any original material under his own name since then, other producers of the first wave slowed down comparably, including Atkins, and new talent was about to enter the scene. Is this some kind of finale to the pioneering phase of the sound, or was it impossible to predict back then?

In a way you might be right. It was a small group of people up until then but I don’t think it was a finale for the pioneering phase. Those years, ‘88-’89-’90, all happened in a flash. Records from that period were not consumed as fast as people consume records nowadays, there was no internet, not 200 new records a week. So even after 6 to 12 months or even 2 years records sounded fresh. Actually I believe it was the start for the pioneering phase for many others. The period that new artists and new sorts of techno showed up was after this period. Until ‘90 it was a small group of people dominating techno music and they had their limits of what they could do on a technical and a creative level. So probably for them (Derrick May, Atkins, and Saunderson, plus a couple of others such as Marty Bonds) the pioneering phase was over. But I would say that wasn’t until ‘92 before all different styles appeared and the pioneering phase somehow ended for Detroit techno.

Was this phase of Detroit techno a sound you liked more than what followed, or was it just different?

I think all early periods of new music styles and artists are the most creative and interesting periods because of the lack of a scene and the absence of expectations. I was in the middle of that early techno period and the ending of the acid period when I discovered everything and bought most of those records right after they came out. So yes it was special because of the impact of the music and the nightlife, and also because it was in my teenage years.

There was a tradition of Dutch producers and DJs bonding and collaborating with ones from Detroit at that time. Where did that come from? Was it out of mutual respect, or a likemindedness rooted in cultural and musical parallels? How were you involved with it?

I think that was because in Holland there was a small group of record collectors, DJs and also producers who knew each other from record stores, parties etc. We had great import stores in a small country so you always ran into the same people at some point. Small fanzines where made and people could easily go to parties or stores in other cities or hook up with others collectors. Artists started to collaborate and shared info etc. Speedy J was the first European artist releasing on a Detroit label, Plus 8, and It’s Thinking aka Gerd and Dirk J Hanegraaf) were the second artist on a Detroit label, Malego Records, and they both lived in the same area south of Rotterdam. Then the connection from Eindhoven with Stefan Robbers and Planet E was made etc., and likeminded people started collaborating. There was a lively scene in Holland and club tours got organised for Detroit artists and artists got invited release records on each Dutch labels and to collaborate.

I was one of the collectors and DJs. I played in a local club on the west coast, and was visiting record stores in Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Antwerp on a regular base. In that period, the pre-internet era, there was a lively trading scene for gear and records. And that was how every one did meet. Record stores were a sort of meeting point for all the DJs.

How did this cultural exchange differ from the Detroit/Berlin axis?

I think the Berlin/Detroit connection is established with the Submerge and Jeff Mills period, the rawer techno after ‘91, while Holland and the UK had more a connection with Derrick May and Carl Craig and early Plus 8. But at the end it is about people and I’m sure that the UR thing was as big in Holland as it was in Berlin/Germany and vice versa with Transmat etc.
The fall of the Berlin wall was more of an influence and think that after that people in Berlin and East Germany had better access to import records.

In more recent years, it seemed that especially Dutch labels released records that were decidedly reinterpreting the classic Detroit sound. Was this out of a fan perspective, or was the intention to keep a certain Detroit sound up to date, instead of other, maybe lesser loved sounds from there?

I think many of the Dutch techno freaks, and also UK heads, still had a weak spot for the early 90’s Detroit techno. It is probably an attraction and a passion for that sound which doesn’t fade out very quickly. Also it is a group of people making and buying records not because they are club DJs. I guess it is a form of nostalgia for a period when things where new and had a lot of impact.

There is a lot of outside criticism claiming that most Detroit artists do little more than maintaining the city’s legacy in the history of electronic music, whereas Detroit artists are notoriously sensitive about artists beyond their scene copying their sound. Are both right? Or wrong?

I think one must understand that most artists, so also Detroit artists, are limited in what they can produce, especially with technical limitations. So their most vibrant period is the beginning of their career when they were limited. Now after 20 years they can never produce music with the same creativity, naive energy and passion as back then in their teens. You can’t blame anyone for that, it is just how it is. Manny Detroit artists are now living on the reputation they gained years ago. Some of them still try to invent new things, still are trying to make music with passion and push boundaries, others just try to make a living and play what they think people want to hear. That’s just how things go. Exactly the same thing happens with many European artists.
Of course many Europeans are influenced by what the early techno pioneers did, just like they were influenced by certain artists and records as well. Everyone has influences. Some use that only in the back of their mind, others try to copy that 1 on 1. And if they succeed in doing that, they risk being called copycats. Others don’t succeed and get praised by the unique productions they make, haha.

Was there a point in your activities where you thought it was crucial to leave this Detroit thing behind, because its quality potential seemed exploited? Was this one of the reasons why you reinvented Clone for example?

I can never leave this Detroit thing or this Chicago thing behind me. It is a essential part of my passion for music. As is disco and funk.
I didn’t reinvent the label because I wanted to leave something behind. I did that because the circle was round. I finished my circle, my musical journey in electronic dance music. I was back where I started and I was there right at the start of techno and house and went through the natural developments. But I can’t do this same journey again without losing passion, so I had to change something or quit. I mean there is a new generation. I release music of young talented guys like Space Dimension Controller, Astroposer and Kyle Hall, who where not even born when this Model 500 record came out. They are at the start of their musical journey and I needed space and freedom to work with young cats like them without being blasé.

Do you think that music like “Ocean To Ocean” will always remain valid, as long as it just reaches this artistic level?

What do you mean with music like “Ocean To Ocean”? If someone copies it? If someone makes a record as good as this it will be valid of course, but it must have a unique character and artists fingerprint on it, combined with its unique moment in time to become such classic, so it can never be “Ocean To Ocean” or “The Wanderer”.

This is a one of the records that went forward and did something new. A new step, together with several other records in that period, that represents a new development in techno music. That’s a big part of the value of the record and also part of the impact it had on me back then! For someone who grew up with techno and who went to a rave with Carl Cox or Marusha or a night at Tresor as first techno party might have a different feeling by hearing this record for the first time then. It most likely will have less impact. The discussion how good it is, and if there hasn’t been records made that are better etc is to difficult, haha.
The only thing one can do nowadays is making a record that reminds very much of this and brings more or less the same emotions. But there can only be one “Here Comes The Sun” of the Beatles, even though Oasis comes close with their songs. Their songs never can get the status of an original Beatles song.

Does it then matter how often it has been tried before by others to achieve this?

These things can not be organised. It is just a matter of being at the right place, doing the right thing, and only history can tell! You cannot try to write a classic record like this. That just happens. I mean with hard, passionate work and dedication one can achieve things. What you will achieve, or how good the record will be received one never knows until 15-20 years later. I am sure that right now, in the last months, a classic record has been released of which we don’t know yet that it is a classic record!

Will the originators from Detroit themselves be able to achieve something like this again?


Sounds Like Me 07/10

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