The Cross-Cultural Bond Between Two Techno Pioneers
“The first German tour of Underground Resistance, at Tresor, I will never forget. It was really dark and, like the name says, underground.” Moritz von Oswald, widely acknowledged as a dub techno pioneer, is reminiscing about a formative experience. Not only did this live performance from Detroit’s key electronic collective inform many of Mortiz’s later musical excursions, it also helped spark a musical dialogue between two cities that continues to this day.
Detroit and Berlin, the latter Moritz’s hometown, are recognised as the twin cities of techno. Though geographically distant, they’re connected by certain socio-economic similarities – both hugely affected by political and social upheavals (post-war divisions in Germany, the crumbling of motoring manufacture in North America), each of their cultural scenes have since flourished in spite of hardships. When it comes to electronic music, their alliance has been predicated on an enriching, sonic cultural exchange. The connection feels very much alive when you talk to Moritz von Oswald and his sometime studio partner, the Motor City’s techno originator Juan Atkins.
“Have you been to Berlin?” Moritz says. “Art is created by social tensions and social elements, and that is something which happens in Detroit too. There’s a similar economy.” Juan agrees, arguing that when the German capital and the 313 first musically collided at the beginning of the 90s, there were many striking comparisons. “During that time when it first started, Detroit and Berlin definitely had a kinship for each other,” he claims. “The landscape was real similar, the weather is similar. I think Berlin has progressed by leaps and bounds lately, so it’s a little bit ahead of Detroit, but [back] then, it was like parallel cities.”
These two artists – who’ve arguably done more to shape techno music over the last three decades than almost anyone – have come together to reform their Borderland project with a new long-player, just the latest iteration of a link-up that began way back in 1992 with their classic album alongside Thomas Fehlmann as 3MB (3 Men in Berlin), 3MB featuring Magic Juan Atkins.
Juan is famously known for being a member of the Belleville Three, the triumvirate of DJs and producers from the Belleville suburb on the outskirts of Detroit. Alongside Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, many credit
Juan as one of the first to make the disco, house and European synth-pop-influenced style that was delineated as techno. As half of the duo Cybotron (alongside Richard Davis), Juan made seminal electro cuts such as Clear in 1983, before striking out on his own as Model 500, cutting classics like No UFOs (1985), and many timeless tunes that fuse machine soul, funk and jazz with the more austere, mechanical synth work, naked emotion and beats of Düsseldorf’s pioneering group Kraftwerk.
Moritz von Oswald has a similarly impressive résumé. Alongside production spar Mark Ernestus, he’s been responsible for a cascade of beautiful techno records, like early 90s classics Dominas, Quadrant Dub and Phylyps Trak under the names Basic Channel and Maurizio, later dub fusions such as King in My Empire (2001) as Rhythm & Sound, and collaborations with Max Loderbauer and Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen as Moritz von Oswald Trio. Drawing inspiration from many sources, his material has practically spawned a genre of its own in dub techno, though Moritz’s body of work is far broader than that appellation allows.
A classically trained musician, it was Karlheinz Stockhausen, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and other contemporary classical composers of the 1950s that first drove Moritz von Oswald’s creative energies, Stockhausen’s experiments with electronica particularly. But dub reggae, the studio tricknology of King Tubby and Scientist, would become a key component of his recordings with Mark Ernestus, and dub finds its way into records with Borderland too.
Sparked by Moritz’s first visit to Detroit and the wide-open canyons of the downtown avenues, their sense of space and the architecture also found their way into his dub-informed techno, his sound influenced as much by the landscape as by the sonic identity of the place. “I was amazed by the empty space that I found, that is present,” he says. “That’s something I found attractive [about Detroit]. It was something I missed in European cities, where everything is very compact.”
Moritz von Oswald and Juan Atkins released their first record with the ‘Borderland’ title in 2013. The new companion piece Transport, for which they’ve embraced Borderland as the name of the project, is a captivating meld of their unique approaches to techno. Each has shared touchstones and influences; you can detect Juan’s electro-funk in the playful bassline of Odyssey, while its ice floe pads, and the psychotropic delays and reverb effects of 2600, seem tailor-made by dub technician Moritz. The name of the duo is apt: a sonic landscape born from the intersection where one brain is merged with the other.
Ranging from armchair techno to broken beat, via more club-built fare, the new album is released through Berlin’s long-running Tresor stamp. Also one of Berlin’s most important clubs, Tresor had a serendipitous role to play in Moritz and Juan’s first collaboration.
“How did I meet Moritz? They came to Detroit, Moritz von Oswald, Mark Ernestus, and Thomas Fehlmann,” Juan remembers. “They were hitting the pawnshops to buy up a bunch of gear. Old synthesisers, and they were taking them back to Berlin and retrofitting them with MIDI. I met them through Mike [‘Mad’ Mike Banks of Underground Resistance] actually. They came to visit me at my place and invited me to come to Berlin ‘cause I hadn’t been on the European continent yet, only to the UK. I ran into Thomas Fehlmann later in London. He said, ‘Hey man, why don’t you come over to Berlin and do a session? We’ll get you a gig at Tresor to pay for the expenses’. The session was the 3MB session, with Moritz and Mark [Ernestus] and Thomas at Moritz’s studio. That must have been 91, 92.”
From early 1991, Tresor was a vital club space in Berlin that occupied the disused bank vaults beneath the Wertheim department store. It shut its doors in 2005, before moving to a former power plant, also in the area of Mitte, in 2007, where it remains today. In its beginnings, the club was especially influential. Owner Dimitri Hegemann was one of the first to bring over Detroit’s techno DJs and artists to play in Berlin, something that helped kick-start the back-and-forth between the conurbations. If Detroit’s young dreamers had been heavily influenced by Kraftwerk, the influence was reciprocated and bounced back in Berlin, where many local techno heads discovered the Detroit sound through the touring acts visiting a post-reunification city.
“Art is created by social tensions”
- Moritz von Oswald
Moritz von Oswald, normally measured in his responses, is effusive in his praise for the key role played by Tresor. “I like the creativity of Dimitri. He’s one of the inventors… he gave so many Detroit artists the chance to come to Germany. Which was good. It really pushed the whole electronic music scene. Tresor gave many people the chance to have a good time in Berlin. At the time Tresor started, things became really commercial. It became a techno world at that time. People tried to make some money out of the whole movement. But Tresor did it completely differently.”
“It had this reputation because it was this old bank vault,” Juan says. “Aesthetically it was a great place to play.”
Tresor not only affected the pair significantly in their own ways, and helped sow the seeds for the cross-pollination of European and American dance music, it was also the fulcrum by which Moritz and Juan first collaborated in the city. After the success of 3MB’s first tracks, the pair would continue to create in Berlin over the years, including working on Juan’s solo material, like 1995’s classic, cosmic house album Deep Space.
“Eighty per cent of my Deep Space album was recorded at Moritz’s studio,” Juan recalls. “He was the engineer on the project. We didn’t really collaborate, but as the engineer I guess he was the ghost collaborator in a way. He didn’t just engineer, he leant some ideas and things he’d been working on. Tricks of the trade, what have you…”
That they continue to collude, and have increased their output, is testament to their ease of working together. They both agree that in the studio, the ideas simply flow. “The Borderland project continues the influence of the first 3MB record we did a long time ago,” Moritz says. “It was defined by jazz, and a good conversation between the players. One is saying something and then the next is responding, as it should be in the studio. It works really easily. It’s always nice to
get in touch with Juan, because he’s really easygoing, a very relaxed person.”
“It’s just natural, it’s not forced,” agrees Juan. “Even the first time we got together, I guess that’s why we’re still making music now. I actually like working with people more so than I do myself. It makes me work harder when I do it with somebody else.”
As we talk, Moritz is due to return to Detroit at the end of May, 25 years after his first visit, to play live with Borderland. It’s something that he’s clearly excited about. “I’m always excited to go to the Motor City because of friendships I have there,” he says. “I have all these different influences too. You can feel these different vibes. This is something I’m always looking for, to feel this kind of thing in Detroit. I’ve been hungry for this feeling.”
“Tresor always had a reputation. Aesthetically, it’s a great place to play”
- Juan Atkins
Years on from his first glimpse of Underground Resistance, live performance is still something that compels Moritz. Solo, he’s scheduled to play live in the central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, a place not only obscure to most in the West but hardly known for a vibrant electronic music scene. It’s this sense of adventure and sharing his music that Moritz finds alluring.
“Wouldn’t you do it?” Moritz smiles. “It came through this guy who organises the Unsound festival in Poland. He’s doing different events in New York, in Australia. I haven’t followed his path for so long but I know he’s very active in the field of doing things that are not so obvious. That’s something I want to be a part of, and I want to support this.”
As to the future for the musical pairing, it seems that Borderland will be an ongoing project. Both Moritz and Juan predict more music soon. “We’ll probably always work together in some capacity,” Juan confirms.
Looking ahead, it’s certain that whatever these pioneers create — producers that have made so much vital music, pushed artistic boundaries and forged creative links between continents — it will be another crucial addition to the techno canon, talked about for years to come. Let’s hope the cities, and their artists, keeping trading ideas.