Alan Oldham/DJ T-1000
by Andrew Duke
Detroit's Alan Oldham receives much acclaim for the material released on his Pure Sonik label and for his worldwide DJ exploits, but he was also an important player in the growth of the Detroit electronic music scene. When Jeff Mills left Underground Resistance to focus on his own material, Mike Banks asked Oldham to fill in on their world tour in 1992. Woody McBride, Dave Clarke, and other techno luminaries recorded for Oldham's first label, Generator. And Djax, Astralwerks, and other imprints have tapped the man's other artistic outlet--his skills as an illustrator. With the release of his Progress full length on Berlin's Tresor label, Andrew Duke grabbed the opportunity to speak with Oldham about a number of things including his music, the seminal "Fast Forward" radio show, radio and Detroit then versus now, guitars and electronic music, his Generator and Pure Sonik labels, and his latest works on the drawing board.
How did you approach the recording of your Progress album for Tresor? What were you set on accomplishing with it?
"The approach to Progress is kind of ironic because it was a retro approach. On a lot of the tracks I was trying to reach back to the original techno that inspired me in the first place. With two tracks in particular-'Locomia' and 'Marina'-that was kind of my idea of old school Detroit techno, and also the title track, 'Progress'. That was the basis of it. I also wanted to hit on some of the different genres of techno, but have it be all within the techno umbrella. So you would have bangin' loop techno, you would have some minimal kind of Richie Hawtin/Thomas Brinkmann-ish techno, you would have Detroit i.e Juan Atkins/Derrick May-style techno. On the CD version I even experimented with a couple of low tempo pieces; that was kind of my influences outside of dance music. I tried to make it all cohesive and something that an adventurous radio programmer might be able to play on a late night radio show like I used to have, or European radio which is a lot looser in format than North America. I just wanted to provide something for everyone."
You're vocal about your interest in music other than techno, artists such as Massive Attack, My Bloody Valentine, and Timbaland. What makes you so comfortable about embracing that, when you could just stick to DJ-friendly material?
"A lot of people aren't hip to those references, especially a lot of black artists. I came up through the industrial/alternative side, but a lot of cats aren't even hip to that. A lot of cats are afraid to put that kind of stuff on a record. I find too that the white kids that are getting into techno or who make techno are trying to run screaming from their rock influences. You've got kids, ones I've spoken to, and they won't even admit that they used to listen to Def Leppard. They'd be like, 'oh, I used to listen to Parliament/Funkadelic.' I'm like, 'dude, if you're a certain age and you're a white kid, chances are you were listening to Ozzy and Van Halen.' I was black and I was listening to Ozzy and Van Halen, so I know the truth. (laughs) A lot of people are afraid to put their influences on their sleeves for fear of 'not being techno enough' or 'not being cool enough' within the genre. It's all electronic music--that means we can do whatever we want. I've done rock style tracks and I've played them for friends and the first thing they say is, 'who's playing guitar on this? This is hot.' And of course there's nobody playing guitar, it's all electronic. I like those influences, I like being able to open up and do certain things. I've never gotten any real negative feedback from it, so why not? I got one bad review on 'Enginefloatreactor', but that was it."
It seems that some people end up dissing each other for being open minded, perhaps without realizing that they're doing this. It's almost as if some people want to rewrite their musical history to seem more "hip".
"Exactly, you hit it right on the head. I'm out there DJing every weekend and sometimes I'll talk to kids and they'll say, 'hey, I used to listen to Afrika Bambaataa', and I'll think, 'you're 19, what do you know about Bambaataa?' I'm 35, I was around when that shit came out; I was listening to him, I was listening to Kraftwerk, but I was also listening to stuff like Motley Crue. It's all good music. Being in Detroit and being the age that I am and the way that radio used to be in this city, you could foreseeably be like that. A lot people don't have the luxury of having adventurous radio to turn to in their formative years. Everybody when you're growing up, right when you start driving, you get into a thing where you listen to the radio all the time and it becomes like your lifeline to the world. In Detroit back in the '70s and early '80s, we had very adventurous radio formats, so you could forseeably be well versed in everything, but a lot of people have just one little college station that's low power and that's all they have so they grow up with a much more limited scope."
A lot of people are familiar with the radio shows that were hosted in Detroit by The Wizard (Jeff Mills) and the Electrifying Mojo (Charles Johnson). You were also an influential radio programmer in the area via your "Fast Forward" show on public station WDET. Tell me about that time.
"I got hired at WDET in 1987 as an intern and I was working in the music department at the time. My job was to alphabetize the library and process all the new promos that came in. At that time I was doing a show at the student radio station at Wayne State, but that didn't go anywhere, it was only broadcast to a couple of dorms via cable. A host at WDET had gotten fired for one reason or another and the music director liked me. So I submitted my air check from my student radio show and WDET gave me a spot on the public radio outlet. It was a lot more freeform in those days, now it's semi corporate and their whole thing is to get corporate pledges. My music director was kind of a '60s survivor/ex hippie/psychedelic chick, so she was down with all of this crazy music. I started out playing all kinds of stuff and as the show went on it became more electronic. During those days it was like Cabaret Voltaire, Vicious Pink, Section 25, and the very first stuff on Nettwerk out of Vancouver and the very first, coincidentally, Chicago house and Detroit techno twelve inches that were coming out. Nobody knew these artists were black that were doing this electronic music, so it was really easy to slip like Phuture's 'Acid Tracks' or [Derrick May's] 'Strings Of Life' in between the Cabaret Voltaire and Front 242. That's exactly how it happened. As time went on, electronic music was concurrently getting bigger and by '90, that's when 808 State was out in the States on Tommy Boy and the first Moby came out and it started to become quite a big thing at that time. I did the show until 1992 then had to leave when I got hired to do the world tour with Underground Resistance."
Though not often acknowledged, your show played an integral part in bringing the early techno to a greater listenership. Juan Atkins and Derrick May and others, for example, were bringing material on cassette straight from their studios for you to play on "Fast Forward".
"There's not a lot of credit there, but it's just the politics of Detroit and the way things were. My personality has never been such that I was ever a shy person. (laughs) I was really aggressively pushing this music. I don't want to get into a bitter type of thing, but I kind of do have bitter feelings towards a few people--because I'll read interviews with artists whom I've directly helped, but when the interviewers ask them about radio in Detroit they never mention me. And these were people who came in and begged me to play their shit on cassette-people who are huge now-and I was playing their very first material on four-track. People will go on about the Wizard and the Electrifying Mofo, who, of course, were influential-and I'm not taking anything away from them-but if you lived in Detroit during that time, Mojo did not play techno. Mojo played like Juan's music, like the old Cybotron stuff, he was the first person to break that particular music, but he never played Derrick's music, and this was before Mills started making tracks ever. Mojo didn't really support techno, but what he did, in my opinion--he first came on around 1977 and was on for almost ten years in his prime--he introduced the possibilities. He was playing the B52s, Talking Heads, and Prince on black radio at that time. He helped to inspire the musical openmindedness that become Detroit techno, but he did not directly support and promote techno when it was invented. Mojo almost pre-dates Techno, in my opinion. As far as Jeff [Mills] is concerned, Jeff introduced the high speed kind of turntablist DJ culture to Detroit radio. But again, I remember when Jeff was on the radio he would have constant disagreements with his program directors at WJLB because they wanted him to play more hip hop. He wanted to play more underground music but they wouldn't let him. So he also didn't play techno. He didn't play a techno record, he didn't play Kenny Larkin, he didn't directly help the artists. It wasn't his fault, because he wanted to, but he was prevented from doing so by his radio station. I was the only one playing those guys. I played Sean Deason's very first stuff, almost everybody--Moby, Joey Beltram, etc. It's not widely reported, but there was a station up the street from WDET called WHYT 96.3 at the time and Claude Young and Richie Hawtin had mix segments on that station in the early '90s. Derrick May had his 'Mayday Mix' on WJLB, and when he started going to London all the time, he would get Kevin and Juan to do mixes when he was gone. So there was a moment-and it didn't last long-when you look at Detroit in total and there were a lot of cats on the radio doing their thing."
Despite offers, you've made a conscious decision to avoid radio involvement since the WDET days. What is your opinion of radio in 1999?
"It's corporate, bland, and standardized. Radio has become the audio version of McDonalds. You can go anywhere in North America or the world and it's still McDonalds and they make the food the same, and it's the same with the radio. When I was a little kid, you had your little AM radio and if it was humid, hot day you could get like an Ohio radio station one day. That was the magic of radio-you could be going through the dial and you could hear some punk rock station just by some fluke of atmospherics. But a lot of these cats have been forced off the air because people have bought their frequencies and everything is very standardized. In my college years in the '80s, that was when college radio became less freeform because those were the years when record labels began to realize that college stations drove their artists. When REM first came out and that was the first big band to make it because of a college crowd, that's when they first began focusing on college radio. College radio then became very bland. That's the deal in 1999, the radio stations deal on a 'blah' level. It's just like television-you have to appeal to a mass of people all at once so you have to do a lowest common denominator type of thing. Some of the fringe stations give lip service to 'electronica' and stuff like that, like an hour on some stations, but it's not enough. The music doesn't cross color barriers like it used to, it doesn't cross color barriers like it used to, and everything is very formatted."
What about the opportunities afforded by the internet?
"A lot of people are going on about internet radio, but everybody doesn't have a computer. To me, a lot of the hype on the internet is very premature at best. The MP3 stuff is premature, the RealAudio stuff is premature, internet radio is just premature. Until you can listen to it in your car or until you can go around and listen to it on a Walkman and tune in and listen, to me, it's not real. It's a middle class thing to sit in front of your computer and have all of these different functions. Until the technology trickles down to the point where you can just listen to it like you would a radio, it's not really gonna make that big of a dent, in my opinion. That and the fact that so many sites provide this, the competition is just hell."
You did 25 releases on Generator before you shut that label down and started the Pure Sonik imprint to focus on your own material. "Codes And Structures Vol. 2" is the twelfth and latest release on Pure Sonik.
How are you looking at Pure Sonik at this point with reference to your first label?
"One of the differences between Pure Sonik and Generator which really doesn't come out in the retail end is the fact that I'm a lot more spontaneous with Pure Sonik than I was with Generator. With Generator I would have like 4 releases backed up, I was almost a year in advance with stuff, but with Pure Sonik it's more improvisational insofar as if I have four good tracks to make an EP, I'll just put it out. Generator had a very formal release schedule and a preconceived number of releases per year. This year with Pure Sonik I only did two pieces; with Generator I would have done four to six. Musically, [for Pure Sonik], the only condition is that it's my stuff. It doesn't have to be bangin' hard, any style, it's just that I'm the producer of it. Generator was kind of my low budget version of a real record label insofar as release schedules, multiple artists, that sort of thing. With Pure Sonik it's a lot more loose; the emphasis is more musical, less business, and a vehicle to promote my DJing."
Do you miss the days of your Generator label, or is it a case of "been there, done that"?
"I do miss the Generator days. We brought out a lot of good records at that time, especially the really early stuff that's out of print now. It was my first foray into making music and running my own label and the memories associated with those records are really good. I was just getting out of my mom's house, I was just getting my own place, I was just getting into the studio and just beginning to make records. At that time, also, I was going out to do live shows with Underground Resistance, so those were really good formative years. That music is a nice kind of background to those times. I do miss it, though I'm not bringing Generator back or anything cos that was kind of an era. It's not 'been there, done that', not at all."
To talk about the other side of your artistic output, as an illustrator, how has that changed over the years and how does it fit into the picture today?
"It's become less and less of a factor, it's become like a hobby now. In my early days I was scrambling for everything; I was doing the stuff for Saskia (Slegers at Djax Records), trying to make records, doing everything. But my DJ and recording career have grown to the point where I don't need to sit and draw in order to make any money. It's not as important to me as it was. In the new year, I'm finishing this comic that I've been working on off and on over the last few years, and I have a couple of other things in the fire art-wise, but other than that it's less of a priority. It's 'the comic formerly known as "Danger Girl"' because there is another 'Danger Girl' comic which is much hugher than mine, so I changed the name of my comic. I don't know when it is coming out; I've got some interest from another company that wants to release it, I just have to finish it. I'm like five pages out from being done with it. Hopefully, if I can get some time off and get my head together, I'm going to go back and do some new Johnny Gambit stuff, that's the character that I had back in the '80s."
Considering you've been involved in the Detroit scene for well over ten years now, how do you look back at what has happened in the '90s?
"I'll tell ya-half the stuff that has come to pass, if you had told me it was going to happen, I would have laughed my ass off and I would have called you crazy. The rise of 'DJ-as-rock-star' culture, I would never have thought it would happen like this. Back in the day, you used to play like frat parties at your college. DJing involved you taking your whole DJ set up to the party and you'd get like $100. If you wanted to play (a club), you had to go around and try to convince some guido club owner that you could play, and then you'd have to force some music down his throat which he doesn't understand-what we know now as techno. Locally in Detroit, back in '90, Richie Hawtin used to play when he first began as 'Richie Rich'. He used to play at the Shelter which was a small club in Detroit. Then the white kids who were scared to come down did not want to come down to the Shelter because they thought that Detroit was not safe. Now in 1999 with the rave culture these rave kids are partying in places I wouldn't go. They're coming down to the warehouse and meatpacking district--these cats are just off the hook. I'm not gonna take my car down there. (laughs) The script has flipped and with the millennium, it's like 'anything goes'. That's my thesis on the whole thing. I wouldn't have believed that techno has become as huge as it has, even in the underground sense. You've got cats in New Zealand making techno, cats in Hong Kong making records, I would never have believed that. In the early days it was all Black and Latin guys making this music. It was the Hot Mix 5, the Chicago dudes, and the Detroit dudes, and the New York garage guys. Those were the only ones. I never thought it would be this big. This whole underground thing supports a lot of people. It's not very obvious, but there's the shops, the distributors, the kids that buy this music, the kids at raves-this is like a billion dollar industry and I never thought it would be like this. Everything has really happened beyond my expectations. The only thing that really hasn't happen that they've tried to make happen is that it's not represented in the mainstream-there aren't videos for this music and you can't get a straight techno track on the air, ever. To me everything has kind of surpassed techno, so in a way it has come to pass. You've got drum n bass tracks in car commercials, so to a certain extent it has happened, but for the more underground artists it still hasn't. It's really wild, and I'm just talking about house and techno, not drum n bass and other music. I'm going to Spain tomorrow (to DJ) and Front 242 are playing live. I mean, these were my idols growing up, I used to love them. Who ever thought that in 1999 I'd get to the point where I am actually on the same stage--as a performer--with Front 242?"