Charlton Heston gets the minimal treatment: seminal Detroit producer Robert Hood is readying his new album, a sonic take on the 70s sci-fi movie The Omega Man. FACT took the opportunity to speak to Hood about country life, metaphors and why we’re like walking zombies through our lives.
In 1976, “Omega Man” Charlton Heston has a problem. He is apparently the sole survivor in Los Angeles following bacterial warfare. Fortified in a penthouse and guarding a life-saving serum, he roams the city by day. At night, he battles a horde of bloodthirsty zombies.
Thirty years later, The Omega Man has a problem, too. The movie, which was based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend and directed by Boris Sagal, hasn’t aged well. The zombies are more funny than scary, with their Spanish Inquisition-type robes. Heston comes across like a crazed Hugh Hefner as he interrupts his cocktail-sipping to blast his machine gun at the scavengers. Ron Grainer’s jazzy easy-listening score is at times completely out of sync with the screen action. Why the hell, one is bound to ask, did Robert Hood take this film as the template for his upcoming concept album, Omega?
It’s a choice fuelled by deeply personal motives. When Hood saw the movie as a child, he was struck, if not transformed, by it, he told FACT’s Bjørn Schaeffner in a telephone interview. Apparently The Omega Man‘s futuristic, spiritual and end-of-world themes have reverberated throughout Hood’s life. Which says something about the Detroit icon, who heralded the arrival of the Minimal Nation in the mid-nineties.
On his current EP ‘Alpha’ / ‘Omega (End Times)’, Hood gives us a taste of the forthcoming Omega album, throwing us right back into his minimal maelstrom: the fast and whipping pace, the sinewy beats, the brutal beauty.
“It’s almost like being retired here, I feel I have all the time in the world to concentrate on music.”
Robert, how has the year started off for you?
“The year has started off on a great note. We have many new projects on the way, and spiritually we are on the right track. It’s been fantastic, so far.”
Do you still reside on a farm in Alabama?
“I wouldn’t call it a farm, there’s no cows or chickens. But the land we live on used to belong to a farm. Yeah, we still live on that same property.”
Tell me about country life.
“Typically, I get up, start my day with prayer, have a cup of coffee, read scriptures from the Bible. In Spring and Summer there’s a lot of yard work to do, so I tend to cutting the acres, there’s a tractor mower that I might get on, and I put on my hat, my farming gear. I might work out, too. Do a couple of push-ups and sit-ups, then move into the studio and do some studio work in the afternoon.”
That sounds like quite a contrast to the super-urban music you produce. Do you feel the serene surroundings add a kind of balance to your sound?
“Yeah, it’s a surreal kind of balance. I got so complacent and used to the city landscape and the sounds of the city. You know, looking outside the window and seeing certain activities take place. It sort of got stale. Now this quiet, laidback environment is kind of surreal. When I’m listening to sounds, I’ve slowed down a lot more; I take my time in my musical approach and try to really focus more. Things that go on in the city can be a distraction. It’s almost like being retired here, I feel I have all the time in the world to concentrate on music.”
You’re working on your Omega album right now. Can you tell me about this?
“Actually, the project is finished. It’s this long-time vision I’ve had in musically interpreting the movie. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the original movie with Charlton Heston?”
Yes, I’ve seen the movie.
“And there was the remake with Will Smith, I am Legend. But I’ve had this vision of doing this project even long before that. You know the story: Charlton Heston plays the last person on Earth, everyone has died. This man is running out of hope, running out of faith. He is this kind of Messiah type figure. The music I’ve done is sort of a loose interpretation of this precept. I just imagined myself if I were commissioned to do this soundtrack. What would it be like? And so, this is what it is.”
“We’re heading in the direction of extinction, we’re killing ourselves and each other.”
So, you plan showings of the movie in combination with live sound?
“You know, I was just thinking it over, what kind of images and what kind of live show or presentation I would do for this album. I haven’t made up my mind but it has peeked my interest to maybe combine scenes of I Am Legend with scenes of the original movie.
What drew you to the story in the first place?
“Faith. Let’s say, you’re the last man on Earth, and there was this opposing force of people threatening to wipe out the last remnants of humanity and progress. You know, the white people with the hoods and the white faces, I don’t remember their name [The Family]. They were trying to kill the original character, Charlton Heston. He who represented the last of humanity. I asked myself: What would I do? How much hope and faith would I have? Faith in God, faith in restoring humanity? Ever since I saw that movie as a child, it has haunted me. [In particular the scene] where Robert Neville [the Heston character] creates the serum, this antidote for this sickness. He was like this Christ figure and that has resonated with me over the years.”
Do you see the movie as a metaphor for our society, and the need for it to heal its wounds?
“Exactly. That’s exactly it. The sickness and the illness in this world. With viruses, HN1 and AIDS and man’s sickness and man’s hatred towards one another. We’re heading in the direction of extinction, we’re killing ourselves and each other. So, this original movie lays out where we’re headed, an extreme vision, sort of like a Twilight Zone episode made into a movie. This is where we’re headed: Man’s greed and lack of humanity. It is definitely metaphoric and if we don’t heed the signs, this is were we’ll end up.”
“We live in a society where we just consume. We just take. We live to consume, we live to take. We don’t operate on the concept of giving. When we go to raves or on holidays, we see it only as an opportunity to consume, but not to give input.”
When you DJ in front of drugged-out rave kids: isn’t that an image of a sick society?
“Yes, it is. We live in a society where we just consume. We just take. We live to consume, we live to take. We don’t operate on the concept of giving. When we go to raves or on holidays, we see it only as an opportunity to consume, but not to give input. You were talking about the consumption of drugs at raves: that creates negative energy. You know, the techno culture is a positive energy, it’s a God-given vision, but we look at it in such a perverse way. We think about the weekend as just a chance to explode and self-destruct instead of going to participate in something that is higher than ourselves. We’re living just as in the Matrix, and that’s another good metaphor as a movie. We’re walking like zombies through our lives and we really don’t know what abundant life is about!”
You seem to relate to the Heston character, in a way that you are alone as well, in that you have been following your solitary path over the years…
“Absolutely! It’s a very lonely path that I tread. Both in my walk with music and God. I’ve taken a different road than most. That’s just a different reality. It’s not something I chose, it was my purpose. To not approach things in a conventional manner even in this unconventional scene, techno. And I liken myself to David from the Bible. This field-hand was overlooked first. And then he was pulled in, to fight against the Philistines, the giant and the lion. The methods he used were unconventional, he didn’t use armor, he used a stone and a slingshot, so that’s the same approach. Like I said, sometimes I’m misunderstood, it’s a solitary path that I’m taking.”
Besides Omega, have you been working on other projects?
“I can’t really say what they are. We have tremendous prospects, so I’m really looking forward to doing this. It goes with putting M-Plant back on the map, because after 9-11 we sort of slacked off with distribution and getting new music out. Now, the room for self-expression is just tremendous. I regret that I can’t go into details about that, but fantastic things are bound to happen.”
“Minimal techno has taken on a life of its own. It’s become an art form. I slept on that one, I didn’t realize how strong it had become.”
You’re one of the fathers of minimal techno. In the past few years, “minimal” has made quite a career, especially in Europe. How do you feel about that?
“Minimal techno has taken on a life of its own. It’s become an art form. I slept on that one, I didn’t realize how strong it had become. And I’m excited about it! As long as producers think in terms of art, and realize it’s an artform and not a commodity. It’s not a product. The more we’re going into the future, the more things will start to evolve into minimal forms. I just want people to realize this is such a great art form to express ourselves with essential elements. And not get so caught up in the fact that we’re trying to be minimal.”
You speak of copycats…
“I’ve seen so many people trying to be minimal for the sake of being minimal! And trying to be someone else and not focus on what’s inside of you. God has given each of us an individual vision of how we are to interpret music and our opinions towards life and the world. To me, I’m a black man from Detroit, growing up in Detroit has shaped my vision of the world. And this has shaped me into an individual. My approach is different than anybody else’s. But if you look inside you, you’ll find a wealth of creativity and ideas that are completely your own. There’s nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from certain artists, I certainly listen to my fair share of artists.”
Talking about inspiration: many of the creators of the so-called Berghain sound – propagated by Ben Klock, Marcel Dettmann or Shed – cite you as one of their main inspirations. What is your opinion on these guys?
“They are an ideal example of drawing inspiration from some other people. Inventing something that is their own. Starting a new movement. They realized, we come from where we come from, and this sound that we have is an indication of our growth, of our generation. That’s why the movement is so strong, because they ultimately identify with themselves. I think it’s great.”
“One day Derrick May called for a meeting at his loft and everybody was there, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, Octave One, the UR camp and the Planet E camp…”
‘Detroit: One Circle’ is one famous track you released as The Vision. Was that a wish for the Detroit techno scene to unite?
“I remember when I was with Underground Resistance [one day]. Derrick May called for a meeting at his loft and everybody was there, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, Octave One, the UR camp and the Planet E camp. And I just thought that was great! We talked about doing something together, I think Kevin Saunderson was doing a mega-rave. And we just started to come together in a circle and started to brainstorm, and I remember just listening and thinking, now, this is great, if this could just continue. You know, not to be separate from the world, but to make a statement to the world, that we as black men from Detroit can come together and make something good for the world. It was a sort of wishful thinking. If God could just lay the egos at the door. And do something that’s bigger than us, bigger than techno, bigger than our individuals or labels.”
But it didn’t turn out that way…
“Not necessarily, because when everybody left the building everyone got back to their lives and running their labels, and everybody started being the top man on the totem pole, you know what I mean? And so, I just wished that could have continued instead of everybody competing against each other trying to be the top cat. There’s nothing wrong with good healthy competition. Take Ray Charles and Quincy Jones and Miles Davis: they admired each other. They had no problem working together. They came together and created something as a collective that was bigger than themselves. They changed the world. There’s strength in numbers, but not everybody will see the big picture.”
“It’s not trendy, it’s music that is both ancient and modern at the same time.”
As an artist, you have been releasing in recent years solely as Robert Hood, as opposed to the various monikers you used in the early days of your career…
“I just try to re-invent myself. You know, the techno scene is getting younger. Back when I did Minimal Nation, back in ’93/’94, and now it’s 15 years later, so the kids from then are now adults. Their hearts and minds have been changed by technology and trends, I saw that as an opportunity to say, hey, this is the sound of Robert Hood. This music here on M-Plant is timeless, it’s not trendy, this is music that is both ancient and modern at the same time. This is just another opportunity to getting people familiar with my sound.