“The audience is my enemy. My job is to destroy them.”
Detroit techno pioneer Derrick May’s distinctive sound has many influences from the German electronica of Kraftwerk to the electro funk, soul, and jazz of his hometown of Detroit, Michigan. He received worldwide acclaim through his records “Nude Photo” (1987) and “Beyond The Dance” (1989) which are both from his own label Transmat, along with the seminal “Strings of Life” (1987).
Le Festival de Radio France et Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon is an annual international music event now in its 25th year. It provides an eclectic mix of classical, jazz, world and electronic music, with over 100 free world-class concerts in open-air theatres, squares, cathedrals and festival halls. This year’s festival (12-30 July) featured exceptional performances by techno pioneers Derrick May and Andrew Weatherall. The electronic strand of the festival “Tohu Bohu” was programmed by Pascal Maurin and Edith Rolland, and I was fortunate to catch up with the programmers and the DJs during the event.
When photographer Paul Allen and I meet Derrick “Mayday” May poolside at the chic hotel “Le Jardin des Sens,” he announces that we’ve just missed a minor mishap. It’s the morning after May’s sensational DJ set at Place Dionysos, one of the highlights of this year’s Le Festival de Radio France et Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon, and his French promoter has a nasty lump on his forehead caused by an ill-placed tree near our table. May advises on the use of an ice pack and some healing oil he’s provided while asking us what we thought of the previous night’s gig? He wonders if we noticed a small technical problem that occurred early on in the set and notes that “those few seconds where things don’t work are a millisecond to the audience; to you it’s like an eternity. I’ve seen so many younger guys get caught up in the technical problems and they let on and then it’s all over. When you’re not happy; the audience isn’t happy. The old saying in the business is don’t let them know if you have a problem.” We settle in for an afternoon of chat about music, photography, travel and why May feels so tied to Detroit.
Joanne Shurvell, Scene 360: Your music style has been described as George Clinton meets Kraftwerk—is that accurate?
Derrick May: Actually that was my description of the genre of music at the time to the music journalist Stuart Cosgrove. I told him to imagine one keyboard in an elevator and you have Kraftwerk standing here and George Clinton standing there and they’re stuck in that elevator together. That’s Detroit music; it’s a complete mistake. It wasn’t just about my music. It was about all Detroit music.
You’ve always come back to Detroit, but where else have you lived and what are some of your favourite places to gig?
I lived in London, Tokyo and Paris for a year each and in Geneva for four years. I was in Ibiza yesterday. I don’t like it there anymore. When I go there now, it’s just in and out. There was no money in Ibiza until late 1980s. Then the monster group took over. Space is the only club I’ll play now; I won’t play anywhere else. The promoters Sarah and Mark are great. Likewise, my gig here in Montpellier had nothing to do with money; if it were money I wouldn’t be here. It’s not about the size of the venue. It’s about the integrity and honesty of the people who invite me. I’ve played in venues in Cannes where there are 20,000 people but the people who come to party are as plastic as that bag on the table. So the size has nothing to do with it. It’s nice to play smaller venues but that doesn’t necessarily mean you get in touch with people either. Tokyo has an incredible scene. It’s out of control. It’s perfection. The enthusiasm from the local Japanese is insane. They party hard and play hard until 25 when the family take care of them. After 25 they take care of the family. We’ve had a 20-year run in Tokyo; I think that’s why I like it so much.
When I talked to Andrew Weatherall last night he said he liked to be taken out of his comfort zone by playing huge venues. Do you feel the same way and I’m assuming you know each other?
Surprisingly we’ve never met, although we’ve almost crossed paths many times and we definitely should meet! For me, I just want to hit it. The audience is my enemy. My job is to destroy them. That’s the way I approach any gig. I want to hurt you. I want you on your knees. That’s my approach. I don’t care if there are 50 people or 50,000; I’m going to hurt you. It’s a fight between you and me and I’m going to win.
You haven’t made any new music since the early ‘90s. Do you have any plans to make more?
I’m not interested in making new music. My record company is doing really well. I’m running that and touring. I help young people all the time; not just young people but I help a lot of people make music. I think it’s really important to keep this genre of music qualified. It’s important to make sure someone comes along who can add to the backbone. Right now, we don’t have many people who are making this music that are good. You have a handful of guys in the world who truly know what they’re doing. It’s more important to support a guy like that. I think it’s good we didn’t become pop stars. We used to do remixes for everyone, people like ABC and Paula Abdul; it’s good but it’s bad. You get known as the guy who just does that. That’s why I stopped making music. I got tired of that. I got tired of the whole idea of pimping myself. So I help other people; that’s what I do. I love that.
You seem to have a keen interest in photography and those photos on your iPad look pretty serious. Have they been exhibited anywhere and are they part of a future project?
I’m holding the camera for every shot you see with me in it; there’s no one else taking the pictures. I take my own pictures. But I don’t want to come across as the ultimate photographer. I’m still learning. I’ve been doing it for 15 years but there’s always someone who can teach you something. I’ve exhibited in Japan a couple of times. Now I’m working on a book; I’ve got thousands of photographs that I’ve been taking for the past 15 years. I started going digital 4 years ago. I didn’t really want to as I still like to shoot film. I love film. A New Zealand publisher called PQ Blackwell who publishes beautiful coffee table books is publishing the book. The publisher approached me and he’s coming to Detroit to sift through the thousands of photos to decide which ones to use for the book.
(He shows me a photo from his collection of a chic Japanese girl).
She looks like my attorney and she was a hippy girl nine years before when we dated. That’s an example of what I was talking about how the Japanese behave. She comes to the dinner now looking like my attorney because she’s settled down.
You’ve stated that your mission is to save the world from “bad music.” What is bad music?
You’re goddamn right! I’d define “bad music” as any kind of music that is soulless. It’s bad news when DJs attempt to go down the serious “genre” road. Or when DJs jump on the bandwagon of another DJ and it becomes a fad that screws up. Like Minimal. The music is not so bad but the joke is all the guys who got a career out of playing this music—it’s unbelievable. Every time it happens, clubs close and DJs don’t work anymore because all these “minimal” guys live in Berlin and work for very little money. So you have this whole scene that makes itself readily available to all these clubs who want to make money. But once the fad dies everyone loses because there’s no substance. Everyone moved to Berlin and made minimal thinking they could make money and it didn’t happen.
So would “manufactured” boy and girl bands like the Spice Girls fit your description of bad music?
Those bands serve the stupid. They serve the little kids. My daughter who’s six is into Justin Bieber. Those bands serve a purpose. As long as it makes money, this music will continue to be made.
Why are you still in Detroit? With all the places you’ve visited and lived in haven’t you ever been tempted to leave permanently?
I feel tied to the city. Did you see the BBC documentary “Requiem for Detroit?” I’m going to burn you a copy. Detroit was an important city in the ‘50s and ‘60s when it was known as “the second city,” the hottest city in the world. Detroit had all the fashion, music, bars—it was the place to be. Detroit is tough to live in; you have to drive 20 minutes to reach any cafes, restaurants or shops. They closed 71 schools last year. There were 3 million people in 1966 and now there are 800,000. But I’m on a mission to stay there. That’s for real.