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Q & A with James Stinson

September 13, 2002

This is an interview Free Press special writer Tim Pratt conducted with James Stinson of Drexciya March 3, 2002. It was just after the release of Drexciya's most recent album, "Harnessed the Storm."

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  • DETROIT FREE PRESS: What went into the making of your new album?

    JAMES STINSON: Basically, we make all the records differently. "Harnessed The Storm" is one in a series of seven individual storms, which are LPs. The albums are sent to different labels. "Harnessed the Storm" is one, "Transillusion" is two and "The Other People's Place" is three. Much like storms or tornadoes, you don't know where or when they're going to show up, but there's four more. They were all made within one year. Each captures different emotions, abstract thoughts and has a different emotional ride and different experience.

    FP: So you've got several projects you're working on right now?

    JS: We're really pushing the gas pedal now. I'm working at my own pace now. In the past, I would intentionally slow down to see what other people were going to do, but I'm tired of playing games. Now, I'm happy. This is my pace. Get on the gas, get off the gas and end up in a traffic jam.

    It really all depends on the mood. I really feel good. It was just something that had to come out. The way we produce is based on emotions and that time period, what's going in and out of our minds. What's going on in personally in my life, my health, anything like that. Some of the songs came very quickly.

    FP: What about the concepts on your new album, as well as the many other projects? They're still based around the water theme, correct?

    JS: We don't make songs based on a concept. We make the songs first and deal with the concept around the songs. The whole thing with the aquatic world was created due to how creative and innovative water is. It's very creative -- there's a lot you can do with it. A lot of things that come through water, all these different molecules. That's the way I see the music we do -- it's so endless, constantly using different water. That's the way I see Drexciya. We spend time creating, take a little bit of time and think about it. Sometimes I have to slow down and think because I'm thinking of multiple things all at the same time -- it's a domino effect. There has to be a purpose and a reason to exist, it has to be a complete thought.

    After the music is created, we're building a concept around it: moods, emotions and feelings from the music helps build the concept. Basically, what we do is listen to the record and then your mind starts to wander and images come to your mind. Hopefully, people that buy the record feel the same thing. When you listen to the music and read the title, you basically have to run with it. The images have to go also with the themes.

    FP: Why haven't you done interviews in the past or played live shows?

    JS: Really, we simply didn't have the time. This band is all about work and that's why -- we're too busy working. We've always said we'll do interviews when we have something to say. But with the new millennium there's a new direction now.

    Drexciyans like to keep the focus on concept -- not us. The calling hasn't come yet, but it's coming soon. I'm starting to get that feeling. When I first started getting into music, it took three years before I felt comfortable to release something. I strive for perfection so much, it doesn't leave here unless it's right. So much work goes into this and I don't believe in failure.

    Really, we operate on a need-to-know basis and we really had nothing to say. Yes, people want to know what's going on. Everyone needs a little information. The problem comes when you give unnecessary information. For many, every release they have, there's this mass interview burst that's unnecessary. They talk about their record and talk about success, and it doesn't make sense. We have no room for that. We say let the concepts and music do the talking for you. After this, there's nothing else to say. We're going back to work. People have misunderstood our secrecy because it's on a need-to-know basis.

    FP: You guys are notorious for recording under different pseudonyms, recording for different labels. How have you been able to do that without playing live?

    JS: For the last five or six years, we've definitely been wave jumpers. We jump around the world to different ports around the world through our production company. Not too many people can we do what we do and survive. A lot of people stay in one port and rely on their back catalog. For us, our lives are so abstract and the way we do things is so spontaneous, we need room to breathe. We need to fly, we need to spread ourselves around the world. Now is the time for us to flex. That's "Harnessed The Storm."

    FP: How are all the different recordings and various projects linked?

    JS: There are small itty-bitty links between them all -- and that's the fun part. You have to see what the pattern is to figure it out. It might just be one song but there's a lot going on. It's a lot of fun. This is a fun project, something fun and mysterious. It's a mystery, chasing around the world all the different stuff. Some of these might be hard and tricky to figure out. To us, it's fun. We're humans and humans love mystery -- we're very curious creatures. If you don't challenge the intellect of people, they're going to be bored. That's what I've been working on for so long, trying to figure out what works, when and why. But like Dr. Frankenstein, you have to breath life in all these individual body parts to make them work. I'll never reach the point where I can say this is the best I can do. There's never one record that's better than another because that was a moment of time. We can never outdo another song. I'll just keep going on till I can't go on anymore.

    FP: How did you first start recording and producing as Drexciya?

    JS: In 1991, I tried to release a record that had nothing to do with Drexciya. It's kind of funny, though. The concept came about in 1988 and '89. We were working on the concept for a long time and it took quite a while. I didn't want to come out half-assed. And it wasn't like an instant thing; it took a long time to build. Until me and my partner went to high school, the most we knew about this music was from Afrika Bambaataa back in the day. But what really sparked my interest was what Juan (Atkins) was doing with Cybotron. I was a little kid when "Alleys in your Mind" was on the radio, but I was just blown away. The years progressed on and the Electrifying Mojo was playing all these groups I liked and I realized it was my destiny -- I had to do it. I was going through high school and getting together with people in talent shows, just going through the normal process of figuring out what I wanted to do.

    FP: Did you learn from other Detroit techno musicians? What were some of your influences?

    JS: I've never been into anybody's studio. I'm sorry, I don't care how big of a star you are. I didn't come up to you that way. I don't ask for autographs. I'll treat you like a friend, but basically, I didn't want to be in contact with anybody. I wanted to do it on my own and on the principle I don't listen to anyone else's music while I'm producing. I totally don't go out. I don't want to suck up anyone else's personality because my stuff has to be 100 percent produced in my way.

    That makes me happy, that I know that I didn't have any outside influences from any techno. I listen to jazz and hip-hop, but of course I have to get away from it when recording because humans pick it up subconsciously. I'm scared of it. I don't want to pick up it. . . .

    I love electronic music. I really like mental stuff -- I'm fascinated by it. I watch to see what's popular, who buys it, who sells it . . .

    But I never was trained professionally. It was straight raw talent, with a lot of hard practice and hard work. We have very good ears. You have to have a natural talent for it, go by what you feel. You know rhythms, you know notes. If it don't sound right, it don't sound right and you do it over.

    FP: What have you been thinking about lately? What do you feel about your current status?

    JS: I feel great. For me and my partner, there was a lot of pressure and lot of personal things in my world being turned upside down (while making "Harnessed"). But we were just clicking on all cylinders, we were just in that groove. With this different project, we had to make sure this one was totally different from the next one that comes out. We never intend to copy ourselves. Whatever comes out next, comes out next. "Harnessed" has a lot of personal memories. It's melancholy and very well-rounded. There's lot of different emotions: laid-back, mad, frustrated, happy . . . it has it all.

    FP: What is the recording process for you and your partner?

    JS: How we do things is kind of like wine in that we let it age. It's basically the same way when we produce. Before we go back to it, we let it sit for at least a week. Then we'll come back and listen to it. At that point, I'm a very strange individual when it comes to that. My short-term memory is really wacko. I don't remember things I've done when it comes to music or titles. I've programmed myself to instantly dump all that music and knowledge of recent history because I don't want it to recur. Part of my training and process is that you don't dwell on what you did. You have to dump it, in this case, my memory. It's a good thing in one sense because I won't revisit something I just did. The bad thing is when people ask me about something I did, I don't recall or retain much of it.

    FP: What do you think about all the controversy with the Detroit Electronic Music Festival this year, now that Carl Craig is gone?

    JS: I'm sorry, but we're not being represented like we should be. There were big companies that wanted a piece of this after Carl got this started. They want to bring in a lot of people, when there are people who were here from the beginning, from Juan to us. And now we're all getting pushed aside. If it wasn't for us in the first place, from the hard work and sacrifices that we make, it wouldn't be happening. It's just not fair.

    Look, let them do what they want to do and let the original guys be part of it. All the guys from the real Detroit underground. The big companies are going to see concepts and snag ideas to entertain these people. Make it fair. This is totally unfair. The way I feel to counter that, "Fine, go ahead. Let me show you what the real deal is." But that's going to take a lot of work. Basically, they're going to have to do that amongst themselves . . . .

    But I still think the DEMF, it's a good thing, I'm proud to be associated with Detroit techno. I didn't get a chance to join it last year, but to have so many, these millions of people coming in one place, it's better than having 50 or 100 people showing up at a bar gig.

    FP: Do you think your move to Atlanta will affect your music at all?

    JS: I was born and raised in Detroit, but I'm moving to Atlanta for health reasons. The music will be the same. I never received my energy from outside my four walls. I never received my energy from the city itself. I shut down everybody. Everything that goes on outside my door doesn't matter. It's not an external thing, it's an internal thing. Whatever goes on in Atlanta outside my door won't matter.

    If I wouldn't have told you I've been living and moving to Atlanta, nobody would have known, so it doesn't matter. Detroit is a good place. I love it, I was born and raised here.

    FP: How do you respond to feedback on your music?

    JS: I'm a humble person. Whatever a person feels in their heart about what we do, I have to appreciate. I'm not going to say anything negative about that, whatever they feel. I'm the type that's never satisfied with what I do and I have to do more. When people say they appreciate our music, I bow down and give my thanks and my appreciation. I'm not thinking about money, fame or glory. I do this because I love it -- it makes me feel good inside. Music expresses the joy and happiness in my life. I don't want my name or my face to be associated with this. It's not about me, it's about emotions that I put out there through my music and art. I talk to people whenever I get chance. I can run my mouth like a motorboat, but then I also need to be myself at times.

    FP: How do you maintain the consistency from one release to the next?

    JS: In the artwork and music, there are little messages that may come back five years later. I've had things going on from our very first record. There are so many things you have to go back to to understand the whole story. I'm even thinking of doing a dictionary, a Drexciyan dictionary, but I love it. I'm kind of a workaholic, but I don't have a time frame on it. Besides this, I also work full-time. I need an equalizer something to balance the stuff out.

    FP: You also work a day job? What do you do?

    JS: Drive trucks. I love being out on road by myself. In fact, I really don't think I'm going to quit because I need that time. Driving 100 to 150 miles, you can do a lot of thinking. Right now, I've been thinking that we're in the middle of the storm and the project we're doing now, this is the middle, number four is coming up, which is the eye of the storm. As soon as we do this, the move is going on. It involves relocating and rebuilding our studios, relaunching the businesses and then that's going to be about it. Driving a truck, that's my equalizer, that's my balance, that's my weight. Without it, I would lose my mind. Once our company gets going, I'm going to cut my hours back and eventually I'll get my own truck.

    FP: Do you have any regrets?

    JS: The only regret I have is not working harder at the beginning. Instead of pulling the trigger, I hesitated and I wasted a lot of time. I'm not going to dwell on that, though, because I can't change it. I'll get it balanced out somewhere.

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