Kevin Saunderson on techno, growing up in Detroit and the reforming of the Belleville Three

 “I’ve always been drawn to the four-on-the-floor,” says techno legend Kevin Saunderson. “Even as a kid – a really young kid – I can remember hearing this beat and realising that it was something special. I knew that rhythm was going to take me somewhere. I guess I didn’t know just how far it was going to take me.”

Kevin Saunderson is one of the few names in electronic music that need no introduction. We all know that, alongside Derrick May and Juan Atkins, he was part of the Belleville Three and is generally regarded as one of the godfathers of techno. Without a hint of exaggeration, we can probably add that he is one of the aural sculptors that helped shape the sound of electronic music. Working as Kreem, Saunderson’s first single, Triangle of Love, was released over 30 years ago. 

During the next three decades, Saunderson employed a string of different names. As Reese he was responsible for Just Want Another Chance and its groundbreaking bassline, and enjoyed worldwide success with Inner City. As e-Dancer, he released a couple of corking tracks last year – including the joyously hypnotic One Nation – plus an update of Inner City’s classic Good Life. But it’s the reformation of the Belleville Three that’s really got techno hearts all a-flutter. Saunderson, Atkins and May are the main attraction at this year’s Movement event in their home city, Detroit. 

It’ll be the first time the three of you have shared the same stage since 2010. Can you tell us much about what’s in store when you reunite as a trio? Or is it still not all decided?

“We’re all friends and we constantly stay in touch – we talk about music. Every now and then it feels like the right time to get something happening. I know people get excited by it – which continues to humble me to this day – but, for us, it’s just, ‘Hey, let’s make some music.’ Music is such a personal thing that it has to come from your heart; it has to start inside you."

Will there be new Belleville material? 

“We’re certainly moving on to the next chapter of Belleville – that’s for sure. But that’s what we’ve always done… all three of us together and as individuals. I started making music a long time ago, but I learnt very early on that you have to keep moving forward; you have to stay current. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still have a lot of love and respect for the music I made back in the day.” 

After we moved to Detroit, the musical vibe changed completely. It started coming from the leftfield and was more soul than disco … There was a great new wave station called WLBS, and their late-night shows were so unique.

You said that you’ve always been drawn to the four-on-the-floor. Were you a musical kid… could you play anything?

“Nothing. It was all about the radio. I was actually born in New York and used to hear things like Chic – disco music that made me feel so happy. In the evening, the radio shows would get a bit more underground. You’d get the extended remixes, tunes that really focussed on the Studio 54 groove. The bass and the drums. That was where I made the connection to music. 

“I only found this out later in life, but my mom had always wanted to be a singer. She appeared at the Harlem Apollo on amateur night. But it wasn’t like I was living in this musical household where we all played instruments and sang around the piano. The only time I remember us listening to music together was when my mom would put on a Chaka Khan cassette.

“After we moved to Detroit, the musical vibe changed completely. It started coming from the leftfield and was more soul than disco. First it was Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, but when I got a bit older, I started to pick up on New Order and Kraftwerk; Funkadelic and Parliament. Even the B-52s! There was a great new wave station in Detroit called WLBS, and their late-night shows were so unique. 

“Even though I never played an instrument, you could say I still got a musical education.” 

A lot has been written about the connection between Detroit and Techno… a white-collar city that was built on technology giving birth to music driven by technology. 

“For Juan, yes, I think that was definitely the case. His perspective was all about the technology – the robots, the sound of industry… the sound of the future. I’m pretty sure that Detroit played a role.

“What you’ve got to remember is that I was living in the suburbs and didn’t actually visit Detroit until I was about 16 or 17. My first impression was that it seemed a very tough town. The industries that had built this city were beginning to suffer, and that was affecting the city itself. I remember a lot of derelict buildings; whole parades of shops that were boarded up. Abandoned buildings and abandoned people. 

“When I eventually moved there in 1988, things had gotten worse. Everyday things like buying groceries became hard because the stores didn’t have anything to sell. You’d have to drive across town just to find bread and milk.

“The night was so eerie because everyone went home after 6; it was a ghost town.” 

And yet the music that you eventually made had so much positivity and grandeur… Good Life, Big Fun… 

“You have to go back to that little kid hearing those uplifting disco records. Even today, you listen to Chic or Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King and you want to smile. I got high listening to that music and wanted to recreate that same feeling with my own music.

“Think about Parliament and Funkadelic. Sure, there was some craziness in there, but it was all about feeling good. Kraftwerk, too. OK, the image was very, very different, but right from the first time I heard Kraftwerk, I heard beauty and these wonderful melodies.

“There have been some darker, deeper grooves in my music, but I don’t think I could have ever made, y’know… depressing music. A tune that brought you down instead of lifting you up. I was a happy kid; there was no trauma, no sadness. Music is – and I’m pretty sure it always will be – a spiritual thing that takes me to a good place.” 

Kevin treading the tech with his heroes Kraftwerk

Kevin treading the tech with his heroes Kraftwerk

Can you still remember the first time you heard the 808, the 909, the 303?

“I can remember going to Derrick’s house and seeing all this stuff. Wondering what the hell it was, but also realising that I was getting a glimpse into a new world.

“Right at the start, I didn’t really have any thoughts about making my own music; I just wanted to DJ. But after I while, I began to realise there weren’t that many records I really wanted to play. I was playing certain songs two or three times a night or playing extended versions. I guess that, in my head, I was beginning to build up a picture of the music I wanted to hear.

“The first thing I did was take a drum machine to my DJ gigs and start adding my own beats to stuff. That was the first part of the puzzle… you’ve got great melodies, but you need this solid beat running underneath. Just adding a kick and a clap could transform the feel of a tune. OK, suddenly, this light bulb is going on in my head.

“Luckily, my brother was working in the music industry and he started giving me certain pointers and telling me how songs worked. At the same time, I was learning about MIDI and how you could get these different machines to talk to each other. I was learning chords and creating my first basslines.

“Eventually I wrote a song, but all I had was the parts; I had no idea how to put them together. It was Juan who showed me how to arrange it all into a song. There it is… that’s a song, that’s how you put all the pieces together.” 

What were the early computers? 

“Amigas and Commodores. There were a lot of people who were against the idea of making music with a computer, but I jumped straight in there. It all seemed to make perfect sense to me, and it was so much easier than trying to get all the hardware boxes working together.

“And with the computer, you could also get into more complex song structures – you could get more ambitious. Looking back, the timespan between my first releases and chart success with Inner City was ridiculously small… but music technology was opening up so fast that you had to run to keep up with it.

“Today’s generation might not understand this, but up until that point, the world of music had been closed off to kids like me. These tools gave me an opening into that world. It was a musical revolution and it changed everything.” 

A lot of those early techno/house/electronic tunes were instrumentals, but it was obvious that you loved vocals.

“How can you listen to someone like [Inner City vocalist] Paris Grey, and not want her on your record!” 

This is way before the days of affordable audio recording. Were the vocals flown in from the sampler?

“No way! I don’t think I’ve ever done that. We went to a studio and we did it old-school… recording a live vocal. I can remember a few times in those early days when I was working with vocalists who weren’t too hot, and that could be kinda tedious. Doing about 300 takes and trying to piece together enough to make one decent vocal.

“But with Paris it was a magical experience; to sit there in the studio and hear that voice. A couple of takes and she was done. Maybe a couple of small edits and that was it. No tuning problems, nothing. These days you have the capability to do so much with the vocal, but getting that one take from a human being with a wonderful voice gives you a special feeling.

“Sure, I can sit there and build in all sorts of dynamics and so on, but you cannot recreate something direct from the soul with software.” 

Presumably you’ve still got some of those old hardware beauties. The 909, 808 etc. 

“Nope. It’s all gone. For a while, I hung on to my favourite boxes, but I eventually realised they were just gathering dust. And personally, I think it’s a mistake to be always looking back into the past. I’m not into nostalgia.

“And, after all these years, you tend to forget just how difficult it could be to make all those different bits of technology work. When I was putting together my e-Dancer stuff last year, I realised I needed some samples that had been backed up on a Jaz drive. It took me about two months to get hold of those samples… trying to find the right cable with the right pins and even having to buy an old computer.

“Haha! That’s just reminded me. I do have one piece of kit from the early days: a Panasonic DAT machine. I started looking through some old DATs when I was searching for those samples and it chewed all the tapes up.

“Yes, I’m grateful for the part those machines played in my life, but that era has gone. The way we consume music today isn’t spec’d for an 808 or a 909. I’ve made music with both analogue and digital setups, and personally, I prefer the sound of analogue… but if you try to play that kind of sound in a modern club, it won’t sound as good as something that’s digital. It’s weird because your heart knows it should sound better, but it won’t.

“What I’m trying to do is distil that analogue vibe using what’s available to us today.” 

You used to be a Logic user, but we gather that Ableton is the current DAW… 

“I’ve actually got Logic, Ableton and Pro Tools on the computer, which is a black tower Mac. Logic is on there because I’ve been using it for years and it feels strange not having access to it. Also, my nephew does some work with me and he’s a Logic user. 

“To be honest, I’ve always felt that Logic is the better platform, but Ableton feels much more of a creative tool. There’s no doubt that I work quicker with Ableton. Pro Tools is there for mixes and edits… it’s always been so good at handling audio.

“I got the Mac fully-maxed for memory and speed, but I don’t think I get anywhere near what it’s capable of. I tend to keep things pretty simple when I’m writing… mainly just Native Instruments and Arturia.

“My sons also work out of my studio – we’ve built a nice room in the basement – and they’ve put all sorts of third party synths and effects on there, but I never use them. All that UAD stuff! Man, it sounds fantastic, but there’s so much that I wouldn’t know where to start.” 

I might go a little way to the left or right, but I never sit there thinking, ‘I want to find a crazy bass that no one else has got.’

Synth-wise, it’s just Native Instruments and Arturia? 

“Yeah, but how much power have you got with just those bundles?! C’mon… if you can’t write a good tune with that collection of synths, then something’s going wrong. I grew up with limited access to equipment. Once you got a good bass sound, you made the most of that. And I still pretty much work in the same way. I get a good lead, a good bass, a good kick, and I build up a song.

“I might go a little way to the left or right, but I never sit there thinking, ‘I want to find a crazy bass that no one else has got.’ I prefer to know and understand my bass sounds because that has such a big influence on the basslines I come up with.

“We were talking about nostalgia before, right? About anything that I miss from the early days? Maybe that’s it… I miss that you only had this narrow horizon to work with. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t keep developing musical technology because I’m very happy with my current setup, but the problem is that, with every development, the horizon gets wider and wider. You start worrying about what’s over the horizon, but sometimes, the stuff you need is right there under your nose.” 

 Studio tips? It’s all from the heart! 

“For years now, people have come up to me and said, ‘How do I do this? How do I make that?’ The reality is… I don’t really know! I’m not sure if it’s luck or god, but somehow I was blessed with this ability to know when music felt right. My heart would tell me when I’d found what I needed. Does that count as a studio tip?

“OK, here’s something. It might sound a bit obvious, but the more time you spend in the studio, the better you’ll be. Try and see the beauty in learning how to make music. Try to see that learning to understand the bassline is just as important as coming up with a good bassline. And when it comes to writing a bassline, don’t forget that some of the greatest dance music melodies come from basslines. Anything by Chic… Bernard Edwards. Go and listen to those basslines. Get the kick drum right in the pocket and let that look after the bottom end. Then you can give your bassline a lot more room to move.”

Kevin reunites with Juan Atkins and Derrick May to bring back the Belleville Three this year at Movement in Detroit (May 27-29) 

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