Rik Davis: Alleys Of His Mind

The reclusive co-founder of Detroit’s seminal Cybotron group comes out of the shadows

May 24, 2016

Despite being one of Detroit’s most important electronic music pioneers, Richard Davis has always remained largely in the shadows. He was the very first of the Motor City’s African-American electronic musicians to put out a record, but with only 100 copies of his self-released “Methane Sea” 7-inch pressed in 1978, the single remained unknown except to the most ardent vinyl collectors. During his time leading the seminal proto-techno group Cybotron with Juan Atkins in the early 1980s, he was mainly identified as “3070” – the numeral he adopted as his alter ego – and was rarely photographed. Cybotron paved the way for both the electro and techno movements to come, establishing a distinct Detroit sound and ethos. Because of Atkins’ subsequent fame, however, most fans tend to think of that band as Atkins’ project, despite Davis having written the lyrics and music to much of their work – including their game-changing 1981 debut single “Alleys Of Your Mind,” a haunting evocation of modern paranoia that still sounds eerily prescient today.

Over three decades since he and Atkins stopped working together, Davis’ public persona has only receded further, so much so that when a Cybotron reunion show was briefly announced in 2014 (as part of a never-realized new electronic music festival in Detroit), it prompted the question: Richard Davis is still alive? In fact, the Vietnam War veteran and longtime synthesizer enthusiast is still actively creating in the Detroit area. After some backchannel negotiations trying to track him down, I was finally given instructions to meet him at the clubhouse of a suburban apartment complex nestled between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Although I’d never seen Davis’ face, it turned out to be easy to pick him out among the people milling around pool chairs and potted plants: he was the only one in full Elizabethan costume. Davis sported a green velvet cape and cowl over a brown tunic, leather gloves and a golden crown, accented with a futuristic touch: his face was completely obscured behind a white mask that looked like a mash-up of Iron Man and Boba Fett, which he wore for the entirety of our three hour conversation.

Before the dinosaurs, before there was male and female reproduction, back during the time there was asexual reproduction – I’m older than that.

The attire, he explained, was what he calls the “arcade mode” incarnation of Richard III, part of his current project, a modernized adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Davis imagines the Bard’s blood-soaked tragedy as a film, believing he might be able to finance an IMAX movie with a relatively small amount of money. “What I’d like to do is Richard III with all the tertiary, secondary electronic musicians as my victims – including Juan Atkins,” says Davis with a sinister cackle. He plans to translate the play’s plot, including the murder of characters like Hastings, Rivers and Buckingham, “into a techno theme. Then I could kill each one delightfully on screen like Vincent Price taught me, with a vat of acid.”

The horror and sci-fi movies of Davis’ youth are never far from his mind. His conversation is peppered with references to 1950s films like The Giant Behemoth and Caltiki – the Immortal Monster, and he describes Shakespeare’s Machiavellian tyrant Richard III as “the ultimate apocalyptic monster.” The apocalypse is another obsession of his, whether cinematic, Biblical, or, in the case of modern catastrophes like Fukushima and Flint, all too real. Davis sees his music as a form of “apocalyptic rock,” and feels his approach hasn’t really changed since he started making music, going all the way back to “Methane Sea.” “From the first thing that I did, I always thought metaphysically, in some kind of theological context of mystery, of eternity,” says Davis. “‘Methane Sea’ was a meditation on some lessons from the Book of Isaiah: I am God, there is none beside me. I am the Lord, there’s no one else. That sort of thing, taken to the level of cosmic creation between the planets and spreading your progeny across the universe and all of that.”

Mark Dancey

Long the holiest of Detroit record collector grails, “Methane Sea,” originally released on Davis’ own Deep Sea imprint, was recently reissued as a 12-inch on Portland’s Spanish Mission label. “I let him put that out primarily because I would like people to think about renewable energy,” says Davis. “You can build a manure reactor and a garbage reactor when you have decaying vegetable matter. You could produce enough methane gas out of it to power a city. We don’t need nuclear power plants to make continuous energy. The idea of building more nuclear power plants is so insane and insensitive it borders on Satanic madness.”

“That was always my goal,” he adds. “Some sort of enlightenment.”

There are, however, certain topics that he prefers to leave shrouded in darkness. When pressed for specifics about his age, for example, he cites the formation of the Great Lakes, 415 million years ago: “Before the dinosaurs, before there was male and female reproduction, back during the time there was asexual reproduction – I’m older than that.” He admits to growing up in the 1950s in the predominantly African-American Black Bottom neighborhood (now demolished) on Detroit’s east side, on Congress Street between Leib and Mt. Elliott, two blocks from the Detroit River. “We didn’t even have electricity in Black Bottom,” says Davis. “All of my homes were destroyed by either the riots or urban renewal. Nothing remains.” He attended Duffield Elementary and Eastern High School, but Davis refers to his true education as “the manipulation of the human gestalt by means of propaganda.”

As a teenager, Davis usually dressed in military surplus clothes and army boots left over from World War II and Korea and “used to get robbed and beat up all the time.” He sought solace at local institutions like the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Historical Museum, skipping school to go to Belle Isle and hang out at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum and the Belle Isle Aquarium. An avid reader of the Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, he became a devoted sci-fi and horror fan (especially Japanese kaiju monster movies and the work of gimmick-promoting, B-movie auteur Willliam Castle), which he’d see on Saturday afternoons at Detroit theaters like the Roxy, the Colonial and the Fine Arts – all long since destroyed. He found not only escape but inspiration in these phantasmagoric tales. “All Sunday school, the Bible, the apocalypse and all that, is dragons and hydras and fire-breathing monsters,” says Davis. “I used to sit back and think of ways I could destroy the world, because if you’re going to write science fiction movies, you’ve got to think of ways to destroy the world.”

Such creative nihilism was directly counter to the save-the-world mentality that he was raised with, “the mental conditioning that I received from Dr. Martin Luther King – be a credit to your race, sacrifice yourself for the betterment, etc...” says Davis. “They drummed that altruistic spirit into you from the time you were in elementary school in Black Bottom. They literally beat that into you.” The result, says Davis, was that he became “the kind of fool that will go out and join the Marines to go to Vietnam.” He enlisted in the Marines at 17 “to escape the gutters of Detroit, get laid, and learn a trade,” he says. “To live a life, sail the Seven Seas with Captain Sinbad, as it were. That was my purpose: adventure, thrills, all that kind of thing. I had no real desire to kill anybody, I just wanted some pussy.”

He arrived in Southeast Asia just in time for what he calls “the worst part” of the war, 1968 to 1969. “I missed the Tet offensive but got there just in time for the idiotic Tet counteroffensive,” says Davis. “The jungle they sent us into, even the Viet Cong wouldn’t go in there. It was virgin jungle. All the Vietnamese thought we were completely nuts. There was nothing in that jungle but rock, apes and tigers. Everything in it was poisonous.”

When I was a child, I thought as a child, I saw as a child. But when I came back from the Vietnam War, I became a man, and I was able at last to see the level of hypocrisy that is man.

Davis was “just a lance corporal grunt, rifleman infantry,” he says, “about the lowest shit in the Corps.” His unit handled security for the Chieu Hoi PSYOP propaganda program up in the northern DMZ, trying to woo potential Viet Cong defectors with the promise of Coca-Cola, cigarettes and C-rations. Vietnamese who accepted the offer would be helicoptered back to the rear, says Davis, “while they left us in the jungle to rot. You know The Walking Dead? That’s lightweight compared to what it did to us. The jungle killed more people than the Viet Cong and the NVA [North Vietnamese Army] did.”

Davis got malaria twice, then spent weeks in the hospital with jungle rot. “The stuff you see in the movies about people like Mowgli and Tarzan going naked to the jungle, that’s ridiculous,” says Davis. “The jungle will actually eat the flesh right off your bones. Every scratch turns to cancer and won’t heal. You can do whatever you want, put every kind of ointment in the world on it, and the jungle will actually eat you to the bone if you don’t get out of it.”

Davis managed to get out, but he had to navigate different hazards upon his stateside return in 1969, which began with a stay in “the pit of the VA Hospital where they threw me.” Compounding the indifferent and often hostile treatment encountered by returning Vietnam vets, the favorable coverage of Charles Manson he saw in the alternative press alienated him further. “What changed me after I got back,” says Davis, “was I saw the hippies and the Beach Boys side with their friend Charles Manson. His picture was all over the underground papers, talking about, ‘Charlie, he ain’t done nothing.’ Later on you find out that he’s a fucking Nazi and that his whole plan was to cause a race war between blacks and whites so that he could reign out of the bottomless pit or some such shit, but they sided with him. He’s Jesus to them, but I’m the fiend, I’m the monster.”

The realization proved to be a watershed moment for Davis. “When I was a child, I thought as a child, I saw as a child. But when I came back from the Vietnam War, I became a man, and I was able at last to see the level of hypocrisy that is man,” says Davis. “I came back here and saw them with Charles Manson and realized that everything I had been taught or believed was just a ridiculous lie.”

It was around this time that he began to identify himself as “3070” (pronounced “thirty-seventy”), a personage he sometimes speaks of in the third person. “It was a spiritual thing, a realization of me putting away my terrestrial fetters,” says Davis of 3070, “the depersonalization of my psychology and all of that from the terrestrial norm into something else beyond this. This is not my first life and it won’t be my last life. He is not a terrestrial entity, psychologically.”

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Davis will only hint at the significance of the numeral. “Is he the 3070th person or entity from God Almighty? He could be. Is it the flag number of a Marine Corps recruit depot platoon on its way to Vietnam? Is that possible? It’s possible. Is it my racial makeup? Am I 30% white and 70% black? That’s possible. Is it my sexual makeup? Am I 30% male and 70% female or 70% male and 30% female, since everybody that walks the earth is part female and part male, psychologically and physically, in order to make a person? Take your pick.”

Already a huge fan of Pink Floyd, when he returned from Vietnam Davis began gobbling up the work of early electronic innovators like Morton Subotnick, Larry Fast and Isao Tomita, though he often had little luck finding their albums in 1970s Detroit record shops. He bought every John Carpenter soundtrack as soon as they came out, grooved to Goblin’s score to Dario Argento’s Suspiria, and blissed out to the Steve Miller Band’s “Electrolux Imbroglio.” Then there were his personal classics. “Get a nice joint, sit back, and put on some Tangerine Dream,” says Davis, who also favored Emerson, Lake, & Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery.

This stuff was punk: You play it first and then learn what you were doing afterwards.

In 1976, Davis bought a used ARP Axxe synthesizer, and later rented an office in the Farwell Building in downtown Detroit to lock himself away working on the “multi-track noise” which became “Methane Sea.” “I was only interested in recreating the vibe that I got from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the psychedelic transitional scene,” says Davis. “That opened my eyes to cinema, and I’ve been trying to recreate that feeling or that vibe ever since: the sound, the fury, the visualizations.” He brought the finished record to the hugely influential Detroit radio personality the Electrifying Mojo, who began using it as a theme on his nightly WGPR-FM show.

Cybotron - Alleys Of Your Mind

After recording “Methane Sea,” Davis began viewing Detroit as a morgue. He left the city “to escape the atmosphere of murder, death and killing,” settling in Ann Arbor, about an hour’s drive away. Using his veterans’ benefits to take courses at Washtenaw Community College there, Davis met a fellow synthesizer sympathizer a dozen years his junior named Juan Atkins in Professor Lawrence’s music class. Davis’ own electronic noodling was more advanced than Atkins’ embryonic experiments, but the two bonded and soon formed Cybotron. In 1981, Davis used some of his soldier’s money to finance a 7-inch single released on Atkins’ Deep Space imprint: “Alleys Of Your Mind,” which Davis wrote on the ARP Axxe and a sequencer with Atkins contributing handclaps. As with “Methane Sea,” Davis and Atkins received extensive airplay on Mojo’s show, and “Alleys” and its 1982 follow-up “Cosmic Cars” sold ten to fifteen thousand copies in Detroit alone. A contract with Saul Zaentz’s Berkeley-based Fantasy Records soon followed.

A key milestone in the evolution of electronic dance music, Cybotron’s 1983 debut album Enter (reissued on vinyl in 2013 for its 30th anniversary) was actually as much spaced-out, new wave funk-rock as it was ur-techno. Davis wrote the lyrics for most of the songs, except “Cosmic Cars,” which was Atkins’ idea. Atkins provided the vocals for “Alleys Of Your Mind” and “Cosmic Cars,” while Davis sang on “Industrial Lies,” “The Line” and “Techno City.” The instrumental “Cosmic Raindance,” still a Detroit dancefloor staple, was just Davis “tooling around” on his new ARP Odyssey synth. ”I had space left on the tape so I just threw that together,” he says. “We had just got our instruments, and we didn’t really know what we were doing. This stuff was punk: You play it first and then learn what you were doing afterwards.”

Ironically, while Cybotron helped usher in the world of electronic dance music, that was hardly Davis’ goal. “I never wanted to do dance music,” says Davis. “Juan cares for Kraftwerk more than I do. Kraftwerk to me is too dance-y. I was more into what I guess you would call techno-rock, especially Ultravox.” For Davis, Ultravox’s 1981 album Rage in Eden “had everything for me. It had the spiritual context. It had the angst, the concern for one’s fellow humanity, all of that sort of thing, which I find missing in Kraftwerk altogether. To me, Kraftwerk is mindless beats and pulses. Anything that doesn’t touch on the human condition, on human suffering, to remind people that there’s people that need help, to me is frivolous and vain. My heart was really ‘Industrial Lies’ and stuff like that. I wanted to make a social comment. Every piece can’t be a dance piece. Everything can’t be beat music.”

Cybotron - Techno City

Davis’ differences with Atkins about the band’s direction eventually boiled over. A Jose “Animal” Diaz remix of the instrumental “Clear” became a Top 20 hit nationally on Billboard’s Black Singles chart, but the two clashed in 1984 over what should be the follow-up single. When Davis opted for “Techno City” (despite its title, the song features guitar-like synth effects), Atkins decided to strike out on his own. “I wanted to add a guitar because I was trying to put together a band to do gigs,” says Davis, who had brought in John Houseley AKA Jon-5 to play electronic guitar on Enter. “We never got that far. Juan didn’t like the guitar. We went into the studio to do ‘Techno City,’ and Juan just went off.”

Atkins, of course, would go on to release revolutionary work on his Metroplex label as Model 500 and become known as as the “Godfather of Techno.” Meanwhile, Davis carried on with the Cybotron moniker, though he shifted his name in the credits from 3070 to Rik Davis. He took his time before surfacing again, he says, “learning film, learning video, writing. I was in no hurry. I’m never going to be a pop idol or teenage idol or anything like that. The whole idea was to learn my instrument, listen, do poetry, etc...” He still owed Fantasy two albums, so he took several years working on 1993’s Empathy, studying South American and pre-Colombian cultures like the Olmec as preparation for songwriting. “I had started working on that material when I was still with Juan, but Juan didn’t want to work on it,” says Davis. “I wanted to play more of a rock-orientated type of thing. Whatever remnants I had left over was Cyber Ghetto, which satisfied my contract with Fantasy at the time.” The latter album, released in 1995, was “esoteric and avant-garde, but Saul always let me do whatever I wanted to do,” says Davis. “I’m not after what commercial artists are after.”

Missy Elliot - Lose Control

Fortunately, there were some of those types who had his financial back, specifically Missy Elliott, whose 2005 hit “Lose Control” sampled “Clear.” “I never got paid for any of the stuff until Missy Elliott recorded me,” says Davis. “That was the first time I ever got a halfway decent royalty check. I still have veterans benefits, or otherwise I probably would have starved to death.”

In the two decades since Cyber Ghetto, Davis stopped making records to concentrate on more visual pursuits. “I’m not interested in being a live musician or anything, doing gigs and things like that,” he says. “I’m only interested in doing cinema.” Since film is expensive, he started experimenting with 3D video, teaching himself to use a camera, edit, do fractal animations and put together soundtracks. According to Davis, this was his goal all along, something he confided to Atkins after they parted ways. “I told him, ‘Listen man, I only got involved in this to get enough money to actually get a computer and get into computer animation and video.’ I wanted to fuse electronic music with video.”

Besides his production of Richard III, Davis has spent the last few years working on a project called Apocalypse Joy, whose debut DVD Necronomicon Eros Kama intersperses computer animation with quotes from sources like H.P. Lovecraft, the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita, Like Giorgio Moroder and Jeff Mills before him, he recorded his own soundtrack to Fritz Lang’s classic 1927 science fiction epic Metropolis; unlike theirs, however, his score actually complements the film’s imagery and themes. Best of all, composing for a seated audience rather than trying to move people on the dancefloor has allowed Davis to reconnect with the movie mania of his Detroit youth. “You want them to sit down, be comfortable, shut their mouths, and then you will take them to a land of enchantment,” says Davis. “The whole idea is to transport the spirit and mind somewhere it hasn’t been, to a fantasy land someplace.”

Header illustration: Mark Dancey

Header image © Mark Dancey

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