DERRICK MAY, the Detroit-born founding father of techno, will be leading the City of London Sinfonia orchestra earlier this month at the stunning Royal Festival Hall.
Conducted by Macedonian musician Dzijan Emin, the orchestra played classics from Derrick May’s seminal recordings, including ‘Rhythim is Rhythim’ and ‘Mayday’, both of which remain iconic three decades later.
The show had only been performed six times across the globe with 70 musicians for concerts in Europe, USA and Australia. Derrick May’s sound originated in the early 1980s when he met Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson as a teenager and the trio began to DJ together under the name Deep Space Soundworks – otherwise known as the ‘Belleville Three’. Inspired by European electronic sounds and black American dance music, the trio created the Detroit techno sound; a style that was both futuristic and emotional, physical and cerebral. May also runs the Transmat label, which he set up in 1986 to nurture the next generation of Detroit techno producers, with releases by Psyche (Carl Craig), and Suburban Knight (James Pennington), among others.
We caught up with Derrick ahead of the performance to find out what we can expect and much more..
We are speaking today about the London Sinfonia orchestra gig but I’d love to chat further to you at some point about your back story. I’m sure you have been through it so many times that you are bored speaking about it but would definitely be great to hear first hand from you?
What’s interesting about the back story is that no matter how many times we have done it, most of it is pre-internet and the younger generation need to be reminded of the origins as most of them don’t know shit. It’s always relevant. I’m always happy to talk about it.
I was just out and about with my teenage daughter and I said to her that I was speaking to you later and she didn’t know who you were so I played her Strings Of Life and of course she knew that record! I think now she will check out more of your music!
Haha! My whole life is defined by one record! You know I totally get it but as you will know there is a huge body of work out there. But the thing is people will define it for you man! No matter how you feel, people define who you are as an artist. You know, first impression is the last impression!
With the orchestral performance this Thursday, Strings Of Life must be high on the agenda though. It was made for this kind of interpretation.
Everything I have made was made with the fixation in my head of my own personal orchestra. All of my strings and instruments were laid out imagining that it was my own personal orchestra. That’s why I’ve always been entranced with strings and the kinds of melodies that work with strings. I remember one time when I was young and just made ‘It Is What It Is’ and I took it to a record store and played it to them as I was trying to get them to buy some copies from me. The guy in there said to me ‘I don’t know if I should dance to this or do a waltz!’ You know, that’s exactly what I was intending to do when I made my music, cross boundaries.
I get that. There has always been that cinematic ambition to the music too, it paints a picture, creates a scene and a mood in a very cinematic way.
I totally agree with you. You know I never knew how to get into the film industry back in the day. We never realised that if you wanted to get into that industry there was a certain protocol. You needed a film agent as opposed to a regular music agent. We were making this music and thinking that the phone was going to ring and it would be a film company wanting to use our music for a film that needed some atmospheric, space odyssey type stuff but the phone never rang! But we never stopped making music. We were always dreaming about being in films so you are totally on point with that!
I’ve always been absorbed by techno music in that way and felt the best tracks are always the cinematic ones such as yours.
Thank you for saying that and realising that. It’s a real compliment. I mean, we started making this music in the 1980s. Three young black men from Detroit, totally off the radar of anyone’s expectations. Nobody would have imagined that Detroit would tip the scale of creativity again after the Motown and rock n roll era with electronic music.
Apart from Strings Of Life, can you give us a heads up of some of the other tracks we can expect to hear?
We are gonna feature ‘Icon’, ‘Kaotic Harmony’, ‘It Is What It Is’ and there will be a few more surprises thrown in here and there. You won’t hear the entire catalogue as we only have 90 minutes but those are some of the songs that you will hear.
‘Icon’ is beautiful and I have brought in a selection of backing vocals which is something I’ve never used on a recording level in my music but within the show we are using some singers. Dzijan Emin, my director has reinterpreted my music with his own personality. When I met with him I was under the impression that we were going to transcribe the music together. But he had already done it! That’s how passionate he was about this project. It really blew me away. I could always hear my music in an orchestra but here he had actually done it. He has done such a great job too man. It was really amazing for me to see what he did, and that first reaction I had will be the same reaction the audience will have. It really is amazing. It will feel like you are just hearing this music for the first time.
Orchestral dance music is of course nothing new. Jeff Mills was doing similar stuff years ago but more recently it’s become very popular with shows like Cream Classical and of course Pete Tong’s show. This has opened classic dance music up to the younger audience who missed it first time around but also an older audience who maybe missed it or did not appreciate the music first time around?
Pete called me and asked if he could use Strings Of Life for his shows and at first I was wondering what he was trying to do, was he trying to steal our thunder? We weren’t the first by any means but we are definitely contemporaries who have helped motivate the orchestral side of dance music. I was concerned for a minute that people would maybe think that he made this music himself instead of just presenting the music, however once that one minute concern was out the window I was totally supportive of it. We all need to support this music on another medium, in another arena and show the true range of electronic music.
Talking of big shows, do you think we are missing something now days with so many massive dance music shows? Certainly here in the UK the club scene has suffered.
Yes definitely. We are missing the community. Young people don’t get the chance so much to make that connection with the music with their friends as they used to in a club or a small environment and there are a lot of guys and girls that won’t get a chance to be heard. A lot of the super large events are only booking the biggest, strongest names possible. I mean that even affects someone like me. I don’t get to play as much sometimes because a lot of promoters are making bookings based on logistics. Talented young artists never being given the chance is something that really disturbs me. I don’t believe its something that has been planned but there are just so many festivals now.
Is it actually sustainable to have so many festivals? People will get bored eventually won’t they?
Yes exactly. It’s already happened with the older generation I think. A festival was always an adventure. That was the whole point of a festival. It was like a musical discovery. That’s just not there anymore. Now a lot of the time it’s just more of the same.
Talking of talent coming through, with the accessibility that the digital world offers in terms of production and marketing surely it should be easier than ever to be heard?
I don’t mean to sound negative but you know what, I’m so disappointed with the digital distribution world. It’s become so conservative, limited and predictable. It is very difficult to get heard even with all of the mediums available. It feels like we have set it up for failure. But that’s what we have right now.
I guess that is why more than ever we need guys like you supporting talent and helping them along? Speaking of which, you have an amazing trio of releases on your Transmat label coming up. You support a lot of local Detroit talent on the label which is great to see.
I do but I support everybody to be honest. I am a pro-Detroit record label but I’ve released quite a few records from Europeans too! Mostly, I am looking for super creative stuff. As much as I am a pro-Detrioter, I am a pro-creative first and foremost.