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“I Want People to See What I Do, What I Play”: An Interview with Kevin Saunderson

The techno legend chats about how Movement has developed and what he looks for in young artists to work with. Take notes.

Lizzy Sermol

Photograph Courtesy of Phil Conners 

When Movement, then known as Detroit Electronic Music Festival was launched in 2000, it was hailed worldwide as a fantastic celebration of techno music in the city of its birth. Fourteen years later, the festival is still among the top ranked festivals in the world for electronic music, and continues to pull in thousands of people who are arguably as passionate about the music as the founders of the festival themselves. The city of Detroit may have seen a huge amount of change over the past decade and a half, but Movement has remained an indelible part of the fabric of city life. And who better to talk to about that impact but one of the founders and one-third of the famous Belleville Three—Kevin Saunderson.

Sitting in the cool, air-conditioned area behind the Red Bull stage, I waited while Kevin and his sons Dantiez and Damarii finished testing out the new Roland hardware on display beside us. Looking out the window, I could see the tiers and tiers of dancing festival goers shimmying and shaking in the summer sun. The bass shook the windows, and in the corner of the picture, the GM towers rose somewhat ominously above it all. All of a sudden, the impact of where I was and who I was meeting and what this all was had hit me. Here was a city destroyed by capitalism and cronyism and saved by the people who were hurt the hardest and saved by their music. It was surreal. The poetic irony of the vista almost seemed scripted.

I snapped out of my reverie as Kevin finished up playing around with Dantiez and Damarii on the Roland gear and quickly wiped my sweaty palms. No dice though, I was so nervous that the usually fail-proof hands-on-jeans move failed, and I just looked even more awkward, standing there with both of my hands on my legs. This was off to a good start. I was meeting arguably one of the biggest legends in techno, one of the pioneers of a sound that has infected the globe and inspired thousands upon thousands of people to create, play, promote and develop their own interpretations of the music, and I felt like I was developing a nervous tic. I shook his hand, smiled somewhat apologetically, and we sat down to begin the interview. We were interrupted a few times as other members of the Saunderson clan came and sat around, obviously completely unaware that my already pounding heart was increasing in speed with each new family member that came by. I was sitting with what I assumed to be at least three generations of the Saunderson clan. No pressure. Finally, once Kevin had turned his attention back to me, I stammered out my first question. Despite having my heart in my throat, Kevin's calm presence and easy laugh made me a lot more comfortable, and the conversation began to flow.

Photograph Courtesy of Phil Conners

Coming from Toronto, a city where there is a seemingly continuous assault on all things related to electronic music and public spaces, I was fascinated by how love for the festival and the music permeated the city. I asked Kevin about it, what he thought was instrumental in developing a strong music culture in a city. His answer was simple:

"It's about the music. You gotta have the right music, the good music. You've gotta have the people who are going to inspire, not the ones who follow. In the beginning, that was my philosophy. When I found Juan Atkins and Derek May, I was like I want to be doing what they're doing, but I need to find my own niche within it. What Detroit and our role in creating this music has done through time, we see the effects of it around the world—we just decided we had to start somewhere, and look where we are now."

I was intrigued to know whether the city itself has always been a supporter of the festival, or if there had been some resistance from them. Kevin explained to me that when he took over the festival in 2005, it was the city that was actually the biggest obstacle to making the festival happen again. "I said to them, don't come to me at the last minute. Of course they did, and I had to make a hard decision. It was almost a death-trap, but I made the decision that had to be made, and it still happened. We still had some problems after it, but it happened. The city was very gangster-like at the time—I hate to say it, but it's really what it was. At that point I pulled off a bit, but Paxahau, who I had brought in to run the festival, they were able to take it over and they were the right people. I'm travelling the world, Derrick's travelling the world, Carl—as much as we understand what needs to happen, it's a hard balance, running a festival, playing for people all over the world, and making sure everything is in line for one weekend a year. So, it's in the right people's hands."

Kevin was set to play from 9-9:45 PM that night on the Made in Detroit stage, a performance that was entitled Origins. He was going to play alongside a host of both young and older acts from the Detroit scene, the idea being that they would all jam together to demonstrate the classic and modern interpretations of the Detroit sound. "I want people to see what I do, what I play" Kevin said, in reference to the idea behind Origins. "I don't play just one sound, I have a lot of variation. So Origins is about, well, everyone playing on that stage today is hand-picked, from the young guys to the ones who have been around for a while. It's a performance to protect and show the integrity of our music, showing that this didn't just pop-up somewhere. It's from here."

Photograph Courtesy of Josh Hanford

When I asked Kevin about hand picking younger artists, I also wondered about the biggest aspect he looked for in these acts. "I think the first thing is work ethic. You need real determination. And obviously talent, but sometimes it takes time for that talent to mature, to come of age, to get better, time to develop a sound and really understand the tools."

I then took this opportunity to ask him what his one piece of advice would be to young producers or DJs hoping to work with him. "Look, just because you don't catch my ear the first time, you know that doesn't mean I'm never going listen to your stuff." Kevin said. "You need real determination. Kids wanna work on music real fast, but they really need to develop their skills. That's what I look for. Also, go with your first instincts. Definitely. You can't be ashamed if you go with your instincts. If you let yourself be swayed by someone else, off of the path you think is right, you'll be embarassed. But you won't be if you stick to your gut."

I commented that this mantra has clearly served him well, and he let out a deep chuckle, looking out the window at the stage and crowds behind us. "Yes, it most definitely has. Look where we are."

At this point, Kevin's son Damarii came by to talk to his dad. His sunglasses were perched on the bridge of his nose as he tilted his head to look over them as he talked. Kevin introduced us, and we shook hands. To my great relief, my hands were back to normal, and I was saved the added embarrassment of another sneaky hand swipe. He smiled, said "nice to meet you," and joined his brother at the Roland gear to continue testing it out. Both Kevin's sons are also producers, and so I asked Kevin about how they help him keep the music on his label fresh and find new artists. 

"My son is my A&R, so everything goes to him first, and then it comes to me. He knows what I like and what I'm looking for, and when he's got something he likes or he thinks I'll like, then we'll pull them in and get started. We look for artists who want to do a few records, they want to work on their career, not just because they whipped out their computers and decided they would try to make a record."

Unfortunately my time with Kevin ran to an end at this point. I thanked him for his time, and was treated to one of his big, beaming smiles and a slow nod. "My pleasure, have a great time at the festival," he said, and we parted ways.