Niko Marks, Detroit electronic musician and composer, discusses his career and his upcoming performance for Detroit Sound Conservancy’s third conference.
Carleton Gholz 00:00 I’m here speaking with Niko Marks today on October the 12th, I believe it is, here on gorgeous Belle Isle Detroit, the island central park of Detroit, Michigan. I just got a couple of questions for Niko. Niko is playing our benefit concert this Saturday, October Three acts, Don Dupree, a country act, Drew Schultz and his band. They do like a soul revival kind of band. And then we’ve got Niko Marks, broadly electronic music. I’ll let him tell a little bit about that. It’s at 8:00, $20. It’s a benefit, all proceeds go to the Sound Conservancy and help us continue to do what we do. Niko, if I may, just introduce yourself. Who are you and what is your relationship to Detroit music?
Niko Marks 00:58 I am Niko Marks. I’m sort of a regular guy. I do electronic music, jazz music, reggae music, different styles of music, and I blend them into, I fuse them into,my own form of electronic music,or dance music. I kind of started with Members of the House, back in the day with, Underground Resistance, which was, myself, Mike Banks, Raphael Merriweathers and Scott Weatherspoon. And we were more of a production unit at that time, who later became a group to actually perform some of the music we were making. After that, we sort of handed the performance part down to four other guys, which included, Billy Love or Billy Love – he’s known as Billy Love. Bill Beaver and three other guys. I started working with Eddie Folks, so a little bit later, I did a few things with Juan Atkins.
Marks 02:02 But I think my most profound work started with Planet E, Carl Craig’s label. I started my own label, I do a few things on the YouTube X productions. But primarily I’m an artist for Planet E.
Gholz: Wonderful. This is going to be great. There’s so much there. We had talked earlier on the phone about, maybe recording at United Sound, so I want to make sure I ask a question about that as well. But briefly, what is the first Detroit record or music or artist that you remember hearing when you were younger? When did, when did you recognize, “Oh, that’s a Detroit musician or artist?” What do you remember? What’s the earliest?
Marks: I think it would be the music of Motown. Preferably for me it was Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye. The type of music they were making was just something that really reached my soul.
The type of music they were making was just something that really reached my soul.
Marks 03:01 You know, I have a family of singers and, and you know, they’re older than me and they were always singing these songs. And so I was, the music was there for me. You know, everybody had music by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, all of the, the big groups like The Commodores, any big group you can think of. The music was there for me to learn from. And listen to. And for the most part, it was the music of Motown. However, I was also, open to different forms of music. I liked music by Elton John, coming up, you know, songwriter type songs. Billy Joel. But the first I – that you asked was it would be Motown, the music of Motown for me.
Gholz 03:48 And what’s the best live show you’ve ever seen in Detroit. It doesn’t have to be a Detroit act, but just a great live concert experience in Detroit. What’s the number what jumps out at you?
Marks 04:01 Prince.
Gholz: Prince, what year?
Marks: Yeah, I’d say like ‘84, ‘85. During that time with his original, well, not original, his first band. I think it included, Andre Simone on bass, Dez on guitar, Prince on guitar. I forget the drummer’s name. With Lisa on keyboard. It was before Wendy had gotten in the group. But that unit for me was, their live show was just outstanding. You know, the energy level was high. Prince’s vocals were always top notch, you know, the background was tight. So for me that was a one heck of a live show. Yeah. Yeah.
Gholz 04:43 Let’s briefly talk about, just what people can expect to hear on Saturday and just the kind – I mean you don’t have to give everything away here, but just, just for people who might be coming to see Don Dupree, who’s a country singer or maybe some of the other acts – how would you describe what, what they’re going to see and hear and, just any, any anchors you want to, you want to let the audience know about?
Marks 05:09 Well, you can expect to hear, first off, music that, anyone can listen to from any age group. I call it futuristic jazz with a blend of electronics. Some you can dance to, some it’s designed just to listen to. There’ll also be, something you can learn from. I’ll leave it at that. (laughs) At the beginning of the show is sort of, artistic or eclectic if you will, toward the conscious mind. But all in all it’ll be good music. (laugh)
Gholz 05:46 Good music versus bad music. We definitely liked the good music and we’d like, although we will archive anything, we, we’d rather archive the good, good stuff. Can you describe, since the Sound Conservancy has worked with United Sound Systems in helping to preserve that legacy right now, writing the historic marker for the building. You can just describe what it was like recording when you were a younger, band in the 1980s when those first recordings were made. What was it like going into a place like United? Had you gone into other studios before? Just anything about that moment and, and with that early, Members of the House moment.
Marks 06:25 Yeah, it was for me, when I first stepped – actually going up the stairs to United Sound, I was like, wow, this is where, you know, Parliament recorded. I was heavily into George Clinton, Parliament-Funkadelic, Parliament. And I said, this is what he recorded, and Johnny Taylor recorded here and so many others recorded there. So anyway, we go in and I’m standing there for the longest, just looking at the different gold records and some gold records, and some platinum records. I think Johnny Taylor’s record was hanging up. George Clinton’s record was hanging up and I’m just standing and looking at the difference, you know, how many sales it took to get a gold record, how many sales it took to get a platinum record. And so, Mike Acapelli was one of the engineers and I think Mike Brown at that time, you recorded there and just asking them about some of the sessions, it was like, wow.
Marks 07:17 You know, I think Mike Acapelli for one gave a brief talk on how it was with George Clinton and all of his entourage. He played at some of the takes that he did and it was just so awesome to hear everything before it became, you know, the actual record and what George Clinton actually had to produce from. You know, it was like a bunch of guys in a jam, great musicians, but everybody’s playing something to a track that George had, and just listening to those different parts, like, man, you know how – one of the songs I remember hearing those takes from those flash and the way that it turned out versus, wow. You hear the genius of George Clinton, And, to record our record, Members of the House. Mike Acapelli was our head engineer and it was awesome. It was – the things that he knew about sound and sound design just helped so much.
Marks 08:28 I remember him bringing out the synclavier. It’s a keyboard that’s very well known during that time. It’s still a nice keyboard. It costs a lot of money though. However, he brought that out for something we wanted to happen in the music specifically and no doubt it definitely worked. I remember Mike Banks playing some of the parts on there. If you listen to Summer Days, Summer Nights, there’s a mix, a dub mix that we did and Mike is playing the bass using the synclavier. So that was a great experience of being in the room. We had a session one day right before Paul Riser who did a lot of the strings for the Motown stuff. He was finishing up and I had a chance to sit in on that and it was just like, wow, this is awesome. We actually got to record in the same spot.
Marks 09:24 So yeah, for me, that was a great moment. I had been in other studios, there was a studio called Tracks back in the day with Ted Dudley. He was the drummer for RJ’s latest writing. And he had a song called, one of their hit songs, was called Cutie Pie. So me and Mike Banks, Scott Weatherspoon and Raphael Merriweathers – we, we worked under him for a while at that studio. And for our services, he granted us free studio time. So it was a way to get a lot of our stuff done in a professional manner. Outside of that, I had been with Vanguard, Michael J Pyle. He produced for Nita Baker, the Wynans. He worked with R. Kelly, a bunch of other people. Working with him was also great. As a matter of fact, I learned more about production and what to listen for under his tutelage. I mean, it was just the things he would hear versus what I was accustomed to hearing was just like night and day, you know, so, I learned a great deal through that, that situation. But yeah.
Gholz 10:35 It’s an amazing moment. And I hope we talk again about those moments. Let’s take you to the bridge here. Why, is music history important? Why is it important that a group such as the Sound Conservancy or other groups be active in preserving Detroit music history and recordings and people’s stories? Why is that important, do you think?
Why, is music history important? Why is it important that a group such as the Sound Conservancy or other groups be active in preserving Detroit music history and recordings and people’s stories? Why is that important, do you think?
Marks 11:02 Well, I think it’s important because so many great artists, it’s bad enough that in some, some artists, older artists anyhow, in their time they didn’t get their credit, you know, for a lot of music that they did. And, you know, it’s almost like it would be forgotten. Some of the art forms, especially some of the jazz art forms – true jazz, not mixed with R&B flavor, but true, true jazz, those types of things would be lost if you didn’t have groups such as Sound Conservancy to preserve and to showcase to the new generations You know, what paved the way for, for what they may be into, you know. It’s also great for the artists that are still with us that may have, you know, had had a big career during like , the late ‘40s or early ‘50s. You know, it’s good for those artists that are still here, you know, to receive some more recognition or receive recognition once again, you know, for what they’ve done. You know, music is not just something you play with. You know, I know a lot of the younger artists, it’s just, it’s like a fad, you know, they wanted to do it, and they had an outlet to do it and everybody can pretty much record. So something, you know, go to the internet and record something. So everybody became these overnight – oops sorry – producers, and overnight artists. And not necessarily have the skill. And I don’t want to short anyone for having an ambition to do a certain thing, but there are so many great, great, great artists that again would be forgotten if it weren’t for a group such as yours.
Carleton Gholz 12:44 Motown is known the world over, we started with it today. Most people answer it the exact way that you did, that Motown is, is an early Detroit text for them. They’re there that they hear that early. What thing, give me one other thing though, that you wish got a little bit more attention when it comes to Detroit music history. When you travel and you talk to other people, what else? Give me something else that you think you wish got a little bit more coverage.
Marks 13:11 Well, actually it may sound in the negative, but it’s a truth. Whereas I think during the Motown era, when it was at its apex there was an illusion that things were just great. You know, because of what was being showcased was the thriving, victory. You know, the car companies. And then you had the sound, the music, the sound of – the sound of Motown. And it would give an illusion that everything everywhere in Detroit was just so great when in actuality it was not. However, today the untold stories are emerging every day with, the depreciation of neighborhoods, jobs, et cetera, et cetera. So it doesn’t put Detroit in that same light. However, there’s a revival taking place. Again, the work that Sound Conservancy is doing is part of that revival.
Marks 14:09 But it still should not be forgotten. The struggle that takes place with a lot of the artists, since we were on that, that page, a lot of the artists have a struggle. Unlike somebody who gets a, say a regular 9:00 to 5:00 job, you know, that’s the security that they have is that they, they go to job each day and they can expect a check at the end of the week or every two weeks. Whereas a musician, it’s a hustle and it’s, for me, I can speak for myself. The hustle was not one that I regret. It’s what I’m here to do. Music is for me, it’s a part of me. I’m a part of music. So that takes the struggle out. Nonetheless. We all have to make a living and there’s not, or there doesn’t seem to be enough focus on the artistry of making music as a job. You know what I mean? It’s not, it’s not counted that way by most people until you’re huge and successful.
Gholz: The day to day of making music and laboring for sound. Yeah, absolutely. Niko, let’s leave it there. We’re really excited about you performing on Saturday.
Marks: So am I, friend.
Gholz: We really appreciate your support and, we’ll, we’ll see you on Saturday.
Marks: All right. I’ll see you as well. (laughs)