“I think I overslept”, says Kevin Saunderson apologetically over the phone. “I’m in LA, the time is early, you know. I’ve been to Detroit, but I’ve also been sick. It’s New Year’s Eve man, I got a heavy hit on a cold, and I wasn’t able to travel. I’m hanging out here with Kenny Larkin before I head to Seattle”.
Such is the life of a techno legend. Saunderson is up early, generously so, to talk with DMC Update about his plans for 2011. He’s already scored several brownie points though, going the extra distance to phone me back and register that he’s up and about. Not many artists go to that trouble, and Saunderson proves throughout the course of the interview to be an extremely affable and relaxed man, often funny, and hugely passionate about his music.
First on the agenda is Brandon Decarlo, the new signing to his own KMS Records, currently making waves with his Upside Deficient EP, released late last year. “I like his way of working”, says Kevin, “he sends me lots of tracks. He’s very focussed, and didn’t want to release a record right away – he wanted to get it right. We started a rapport together and built from there. I like his energy, his will – and the feeling the best is yet to come. He experiments, and seems fearless!”
Saunderson keeps a blend of old and new in his musical life, enjoying a revival of his old band Inner City in 2010. “It was great”, he remembers, “we did some catching up, and talked about old times, and then we did the tour. The great thing is that Paris (Grey, the Inner City vocalist) still has an amazing voice, and she was willing to re-record some of the material which we did”.
Back in the new camp, Saunderson has been working with nephew Kweku on a few productions. “I’ve been hanging out with him for a year”, he reveals. “He’s very talented, and musically he’s amazing – he just needs a little direction, someone to show him the ropes. He gets the history though, and has been around with me for a year. His musical background is very different; he makes everything electronic. He started in the hip hop field, with a different kind of sound. I asked him to Michigan, and that’s how our work together generated”.
Is he proud to be passing on his legacy of music, in a sense? “Oh yeah, no doubt about it”, he says emphatically. “I try and pass the knowledge on. I’m not going to press the issue with my kids, but with Kweku it’s a case of nurturing him. He can do well, and have fun because he’s young. That’s the best thing, because when you’re young it doesn’t matter. I still get glimpses of the times we would be recording, and not using the bathroom in 12 hours in the studio because it was so intense!”
Perhaps inevitably talk has to turn to Detroit, a city whose problems and dereliction are increasingly well covered. Saunderson pauses, taking a deep breath – clearly a subject close to his heart. “Because I’m not always in the city it’s hard to say, I’m not right there like I used to be. I believe when I talk to people that it’s better than it’s been. It’s a tough city, because of where we are today – and that is because of the auto industry. Some of the people there are making recoveries, but I don’t think people have got their jobs necessarily. A lot of people got out. It’s been cleaned up more, and now there are more hotels, but some areas still need a lot of work”.
There remains a defiant spirit, however. “The creative aspect of it hasn’t changed, not at all. That will always continue, and will be inspired by the history. It has always been energetic in Detroit, and there are a lot of talented people there, in the music scene but also in other artistic stuff”.
Saunderson is returning to Detroit for his next project, but rather intriguingly is keeping the name of his collaborator close to his chest. “I don’t wanna say yet. We’re doing a bit more work; we need to work more to get the project to where we want it to be. It’s a Detroit legendary producer though. We have a new set of tracks, which we got by thinking, “let’s try something – let’s do something that hasn’t been done before. Make a track, then make another track you enjoy, you know?””
He admits that he responds well to the idea of collaborating with other artists. “Yeah, with conversations and inspirations, it’s about how you bounce off each other, how you end up getting a chemistry. I don’t think you can force it. With the Reese Project and Santonio Echols, it was more me trying to teach him, but with this new situation it will be more 50/50, more of a collaboration for instrumental tracks. Inner City was very definitely collaborative, though.”
He is also out on a DJ tour soon with close friend and fellow Detroit techno icon Derrick May. Does he have any annoying habits? “Being late for everything”, he says affectionately. “No matter how old he is, he’s always late! He’ll make the plane just before the door closes. He’s fine to get along with, and we’ve known each other together for what seems like forever. We bounce off each other, and the chemistry is still there. If we had to live with each other that would be a different story (he laughs for some time at this point!) but we’ve been through a lot together, created music together. We’ve been through fights but D is one of my longest friends, I don’t think I’ve known anyone for longer than him actually.”
Saunderson’s career as a remixer has recently been marked through Fabric’s ‘History Elevate’ compilation, and he has enjoyed listening back to it. “To take the history of some of those tracks, it takes me back in time, right from the beginning days of the Wee Papa Girl Rappers remix that I did (‘Heat It Up’). Remixing has been a tool for years, and it’s been effective and helped to reshape dance music. It was intimidating to walk in those big studios and work, but was a great opportunity to meet the challenge. You then got to know what it was about.”
‘Meeting challenges’ is a phrase that could sum him up as an artist. “Definitely in the early days. I was a competitive person, and if Derrick made a good record then I had to make one too. Playing football gave me that discipline and work ethic. The kind of thought that “If you can do it, I can too” – but the difference is, I enjoy it. I don’t get out and make a hit, I make something from my heart, something that feels good, something that’s interesting and that I’m proud of”.