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By: Michael Lara

Clip from the film High Tech Soul (2006)

“The rain just falls off of me. The tears just fall off of me. Cuz I’m waterproof. I’m waterproof. The barometric pressure has no relevance to me.” Surging and purging all for decades like brothers Russell and Ron Mael of SPARKS, Detroit’s Derrick May could never be slowed or brought down.

After 17 spectacular years of being the crown jewel of Tokyo’s club life, Space Lab Yellow sadly was and shut its doors in finality within its famed quiet neighborhood location, just a stone’s throw from restless Roppongi. Shocking to witness in remembering how Frankie Knuckles told me that Yellow, alongside Metro in Montreal, were his all-time favorite clubs to perform in. Putting whip cream on top to its cozy confines and meticulous staff, Derrick listed it as his number 1. With such accolades, this was something to behold in a most surreal closing week. This was history.

As one of the select few chosen to help deliver Yellow and its loyally passionate patrons one last hurrah, a Tour de May unfurled resplendently over 7 hours, rising and falling triumphantly between all those happily swimming in historic humanity. Days later, I was able to catch up in his café of choice before he went to catch Laurent Garnier at Yellow.  Interestingly, our meeting place is firstly a high-end furniture gallery, but then again in our coming chat, I can understand why he came to choose such a smooth space to have our chat. From here, it rolled like this:

Thirsty: So Derrick, if you had to pick characters from techno for this (showing Roxy Music’ ‘Siren’ liner notes), who would be Brian Eno? Who would be Bryan Ferry?

Derrick May: Hmmm…

Thirsty: Paul Thompson…

Derrick: Wow…That’s a good question man. Who would be…

Thirsty: Who would be Phil Manzanera? Andrew MacKay and Paul Thompson?

Derrick: Well, Bryan Ferry would probably be, um, I don’t know. I’d probably say. Even though Kevin didn’t want to be a pop star, it kind of worked out like that (big broad mischievous smile). You know, so he would be the sort of Bryan Ferry of the group. Um, I would give… I would give Carl (Craig) the nod as Eno because Eno has experimented and done so many projects. You know he’s left and ambient.

Thirsty: Yeah.

Derrick: He’s dabbled with a lot of electronic artists. He’s hung out with Talking Heads. He’s done a lot of different things man. So I’d give him that nod.

Thirsty: Now, he (Carl) was like your underling right?

Derrick: Yeah, he was one of them.

Thirsty: Now he’s played Fuji Rock (, but you haven’t huh?

Derrick: I did the first one (1997).

Thirsty: Oh you did!

Derrick: Yeah, the very, very first one...

Thirsty: It was the one that got shut down (due to a typhoon).

Derrick: It was in the very beginning when they did it. It was a rough thing. When I did it, it was real rough.

Thirsty: It was ‘97 and at Mount Fuji.

Derrick: Yeah, it was. I guess that’s it. So I did it and ah yeah man, it was pretty raw.

Thirsty: Yeah, speaking of that, who else would be in the Roxy Music of techno?

Derrick: Oh yeah, well, I’m not too familiar with a couple of these guys.

Thirsty: That’s okay, you can go visually speaking if you like.

Derrick: Oh, okay then visually speaking, I would say. Well, Phil Manzanera… Hmm, don’t know. I think I would probably say that with the Paul Thompson guy, Black Baxter gets that nod.

Thirsty: Oh Blake! Why’s that?

Derrick: Well, at one time, Blake had this androgynous look- that almost boy, almost girl look. This Graham Simpson looks like a rather serious fellow. Maybe the Octave One Boys-They tend to take themselves seriously, maybe too much (grinning).  Andrew MacKay, I don’t know. I’m gonna have to think about that for awhile. For Manzanera, I’m going to have to say Juan Atkins because Juan loves to wear his sunglasses. This is typical guys’ thinking it looks cool. I can’t stand when guys wear sunglasses in promo pictures. And this is one of those perfect situations where Juan Atkins would be wearing his sunglasses. Um, Andrew MacKay… I don’t know what his deal is, but um, I think he’s a bit of a pretty boy…

Thirsty: He is checking out his nails.

Derrick: I get the feeling that he’s a bit of Kenny Larkin kind of guy, probably. Likes to be in the mirror a lot (grin).

Thirsty: Right on (chuckling). Kenny had some words for you as well. Um, now here I have a bag, similar to the one I had with Gary when I interviewed him. So, what I’d like you to do is take out one item at a time and lend me your thoughts on them to yourself. The questions will flow from there.

Derrick: Okay. So… Just take one?

Thirsty: Yeah.

Derrick: Okay chopsticks…

Thirsty: And if you notice, on top of the case for them is printed, “What is the most important thing for us? Love, friends, study, etc., but take care of myself in the best.” So what does that mean to you?

Derrick: It means to me self-preservation is number one. It means uh, to me, it specifically means be good to your friends, but be better to yourself. So, I’m going to enjoy these chopsticks and I’m going to live to eat, not eat to live (grinning). Next item!

Thirsty: Indeed.

Derrick: Ah ‘Amadeus,’ what a movie (holding the DVD case for it)…

Thirsty: “Amadeus, Amadeus.”

Derrick: What a freak... What a freak… What a real freak. I mean Amadeus was a freak man, but he was brilliant and he was uh, he had to live and he had to be sacrificed.  Sacrifice is sometimes one of the ultimate commitments when it comes to uh that level of creativity. He was a bit insane by his own demise. His own level of genius was his demise. Genius is sometimes a curse.

Thirsty: How many times have you seen that movie?

Derrick: I’ve watched it about 7 or 8 and I’m going to have to watch it again because it was deep. It’s a heavy film. It’s really done well man. By the way, that guy…

Thirsty: Tom Hulce?

Derrick: Yeah, hasn’t worked much since, but great job in this film.

Thirsty: Who do you think, in your experience, would be a Mozart?

Derrick: Overall, all the musicians in the world, um, ah, I really think that’s a stretch really. And the reason why I say this to you is that these days, the last 15 years in dance music, I don’t think you could say anyone has come close to that kind of caliber. You know, raising the bar to a level where it’s untouchable. Number one, it’s setting a standard out of nothing, but water and mud, making a sculpture. You know, creating it without any other influence. Creating it without any other structure that was there before. I think that’s fucking huge man. Ah, you can’t, you can’t… What’s happened in Detroit with techno, we had modern influences. We had Funkadelic. We had Jimi Hendrix. We had of course these groups from Europe. We really, honestly, where it came from, we wanted out. We didn’t necessarily want out of Detroit, but we wanted out of being a part of Detroit. So we felt the people of Detroit, the city itself was beneath us. There’s like these dumb country motherfuckers.  These ignorant people don’t know.  But we didn’t want to leave. We didn’t have any money. We were too young to go, but we knew we wanted to do something that we thought would be appreciated by a few people, more or less from our city and I think, when this kind of thing happens, I think that these guys did it to originally escape themselves and then they found that they had an audience for it. So it created this phenomenon. I don’t think anybody can really understand the mind of a genius. So I think it’s kind of hard to say who would be like these guys.

Thirsty: With that movie, both Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham were nominated for best actor Oscars, Abraham winning and how many movies have that?

Derrick: Yeah, F. Murray Abraham-I liked him in his supporting role in Miami Vice…

Thirsty: And of course ‘Scarface’…

Derrick: Yeah, he was excellent in all and the character he plays in ‘Amadeus’ is of a psychotic benefactor of sorts and he does it so well. So who would be like them today? Well, myself, my agent, we’re pretty psychotic (chuckling). I think of all these wonderful records by Walter Gibbons and all the disco music from the mid 70’s. This is fantastic stuff. BBC just did an all-time greatest, like the 25 greatest dance records of all-time and I’m on the list as is Kevin and I don’t think either one of us deserves to be on there because they forgot Liquid Liquid, um, ESG, a lot of wonderful artists. I think it’s kind of hard to bare it down.  It’s too much music. There’s too much. You gotta go back to the very beginning. I used to listen to classical music all the time and when I did “Strings Of Life,” I was thinking of classical music. That was where my influence came from, where my drive came from.

Thirsty: That’s like the Van Halen brothers. They started off classically trained.

Derrick: There you go.

Thirsty: Then they switched instruments. Eddie played drums. So the next item…

Derrick: Ah (peering at packaged swim goggles), I think of my little girl. I have a four-year old girl. I think of her and to teach her how to swim.

Thirsty: Great. Right on.

Derrick: Basically, that’s what I get from those.

Thirsty: 4 years?

Derrick: Yep, May 30th.

Thirsty: Now you talked about the influence of your Mother.

Derrick: Yes…

Thirsty: That (showing a framed photograph) is my great aunt Emily. She has now left us, but she lived until 105 and that’s my niece Emily. She’s 5 here and my great aunt was 95.

Derrick: 95 in this picture? She looked good. She sure didn’t look 95. She had good genes. You look just like her, same cheekbones and same eyes.

Thirsty: Ha! Thanks man (big smile). She lived a very full life and that’s one very big desire of mine.

Derrick: How long has been gone?

Thirsty: Let’s see, she’s been gone 2 years now.

Derrick: Did she go peacefully?

Thirsty: Probably, I would think so. I sure hope so.

Derrick: Oh you weren’t there?

Thirsty: No, unfortunately not. I failed to get out. It was right around Golden Week (national holidays time in Japan) and I regret that failure to attend. Haunts me to this day. And well, family is obviously important to you as well.

Derrick: Oh yeah, I don’t get the chance to spend enough time with my family. My daughter is crying for me. I come and I go and I come and I go. That’s difficult for a small kid. So soon I’m going to start taking her with me.  So your question is…

Thirsty: Well, the question is that we have different instruments of inspiration and perspiration. This is one (the Emily photo). Another is this pocketknife that my now deceased best friend gave me for Christmas back in 2001 when he visited me in Japan.

Derrick: How’d he die?

Thirsty: A drunk driver cleaned him on Manchester Blvd. there in LA.

Derrick: He was walking?

Thirsty: Yeah.

Derrick: Man, I hope that when he went, he wasn’t suffering.

Thirsty: Well, I hope so to, but um, these are sources of inspiration for me.

Derrick: Yeah, of course.

Thirsty: But for you, what stands out as the fire for you? What keepsakes, whatnot are sources of strength for you?

Derrick: My Grandfather… I have a keepsake from him and he was a barber. There are these straps. I just oiled them the other day. They hadn’t been oiled in 20 years. My Grandfather was huge to me man. My Mother is never around. I never see her so much anymore, which makes me upset too, but my Grandfather was key to me as a kid because I never had a father. He bailed before I was even born. So I know who he is and where he lives, you know. I don’t need that. I just don’t have any relationship with him. My Grandfather filled his shoes in being my father and he was great. My Mother allowed it. You know, which I love her for. She didn’t say no. She let me spend as much time as I wanted to with him. I used to always speak with the old man. You know what I mean.

Thirsty: Did he take you to a certain dinner or something all the time? I remember my Uncle Mike did that for me and I will forever remember that and cherish that.

Derrick: He took me to Greenleaf’s. He showed me how to tip. He showed me how to order breakfast. He took me to the races. He loved to go to the racetrack. He was a well-dressed man, very well dressed. My Grandfather would not step out the door unless everything wasn’t perfect. Tie, jacket, the hats... He had a hat for every day.  

Like his beloved Grandfather, Derrick continues to follow suit, whether or not in one or not, always ready to step out that door huge with a hat for each day:

Clip from the film High Tech Soul (2006)



All opinions expressed by Michael Lara are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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