|Playing favourites: Silent Servant
RA talks to the Sandwell District member and post-punk fanatic in advance of the collective's debut compilation.
Art, music, it's all the same for John Mendez, AKA Silent Servant. As part of the Sandwell District collective, Mendez's striking graphic design on the label's records and their situationist-inspired blog has helped provide context for the music. (Conversely, the music has often done the same for the art.) Growing up in California, Mendez was divorced from a monochromatic clubbing culture, cottoning instead to the sounds of post-punk at the same time as he fell in love with techno. This unique way of looking at the world is one part of what has made Mendez's contribution to Sandwell District so special, and it's why we asked RA's Finn Johannsen to quiz Mendez recently about some of his favourites.
- Todd L. Burns
Doctor Mix And The Remix
Out of the Question
A lot of the music we've picked out to discuss comes from a similar background in terms of time period, style and sound, but I think this one is pretty obscure. How did you find it?
Through a friend of mine. There's a label in New York called Acute Records maybe eight years ago or so. A few of my friends in California are really obsessed with The Jesus and Mary Chain, and one of the members of the band mentioned once that this was one of their favourite records of all time. The thing I like about it is the extremity of the music. It's super high-pitched, with distortion and tinny drum machines but then it's covers of, like, Stooges songs.
This track in particular has this really insane, rhythmic track that's super metronomic but super heavy at the same time. It's very aggressive, but not because of the levels of distortion. The first time I heard it I thought I was listening to [The Jesus and Mary Chain's] Psycho Candy. The more I looked into it, the more I realized how much of an influence it had on them.
It's funny. The Jesus and Mary Chain were always compared to The Velvet Underground, but apparently there's much more to it than that.
Sure. There's not a lot of stuff like this. The guy was in one of the first French punk bands. And, with this, they kind of combined the attitude of the Velvets with these misinterpretations from a different country. I love that because, for me, techno in California was always a misinterpretation of what was happening in Berlin and Detroit and Chicago just because we didn't really have a big scene. We had a club scene, but not a techno scene. I just really love the weird interpretations of The Stooges and stuff like that.
Are you interested in bands that deconstruct rock tradition in some way?
At the end of the day it's all about attitude. Willing to push things a lot and not really care. It was the same when I first heard Cabaret Voltaire's "Messages Received." I just didn't know what to say, I was blown away. I thought, "It doesn't get any more honest than that." I think that's the whole thing. There's an honesty in the music that you can't remove. There's a visceral element to it. That's how myself, Karl [O'Connor], Dave [Sumner] and even Pete [Sutton] interpret music in some way I think.
There was a very heavy art slant on what Cabaret Voltaire did. I think it's very, very art driven. They'd also have the influence of The Velvet Underground and all that '60s psych rock, but they'd do all these awesome records and what came through the most was the attitude. "This is what I wanna do, this is how I'm gonna do it." And they just went for it.
Is that a quality you try to pursue? Not thinking about what you can or can't do?
Yeah, I talk to Karl every other day on the telephone, we're in very heavy contact on a weekly basis, same thing with Dave. But it's funny because when I make music it's purely to see what he thinks, just for us to discuss... "Oh, I really like this. What do you think?" It's more a conversation from an art base. I try to work in a very automatic response way. I work in art direction, so I work quite a bit on TV commercials and magazines and stuff like that. So when I work on music it's usually very late at night and I have to work in headphones, so it's usually like a weird mantra type state, kinda conscious and unconscious, while I'm working.
It's nice because there's a sense that I'm not really thinking about anything particularly. I'm able to work on music in that mindframe where I'm doing it purely just because I want to see what I can come up with. In a more artistic sense, sometimes I will make a visual and we will work to the visual. Like with the artwork for the album. That was made first. Then we made a record that matched that.
For labels like Factory, design labels were incredibly important. They were, in many cases, as important as the music.
When you get that double impact of visual and audio, you're like, "Wow, this is really intense." Cabaret Voltaire for me has always done that. All the artwork on their covers. The early ones especially had that handmade element, which I'm sure was some of the guys in the band literally cutting things out by hand and assembling collages.
Chrome is the only artist that we've picked that's from the West Coast I believe. But I think that area has always had a healthy tradition for experimental music. The Residents, for example.
Los Angeles has a weirdo vibe that's always been there. San Francisco also has always been really, really heavy. I think the guys from Tuxedomoon may have been there for a little bit. Again, it's just that sense of experimentation. There is a little bit of insanity involved with some of this, and I think that's part of it too. Always trying really, really hard to push things.
Would you say that maybe this experimental nature is a reaction to living in the sunny state of California?
People used to tell me that too. I used to work with Kit Clayton and Sutekh and these guys would just laugh at us, and say, "You guys come from this really sunny place, why do you make this music?" It wasn't really anything to do with that. We just liked it. It was just something we wanted to make and, in a way, emulate. I think once you hear something for the first time and it really has an impact, you can't go back. You can't.
I had a really close friend, Marcus Miller, who taught me how to DJ when I was 15 or 16. He gave me an In Order To Dance compilation which had some 69 stuff, a couple of Kenny Larkin tracks and "Phylyps Trak." That last one was it for me. We had been going to clubs, sneaking out to go to Los Angeles or Hollywood. And occasionally a few British DJs might play some Chicago sounds or some Detroit stuff but there wasn't that heaviness like when I heard "Phylyps Trak" in its entirety. I could never listen to music in the same way again. It's the same thing for the first time you hear My Bloody Valentine or even The Jesus and Mary Chain. There are senses of extremity that pull you out of your normal realm and you can't go back. At least for me, I couldn't.
It's just what clicked for you?
Yeah, and I think that's how it is for most of my friends. Now in LA, in Long Beach in California I know a bunch of these kids who are like 19, 20, they are really into Chrome, really into Suicide and they also like techno. It's not a reaction to anything, it's more of an art house thing.
The 39 Clocks
What do you like about "Psycho Beat"?
Again, it's like this weird misinterpretation of The Velvets. Just add a little more electricity. The first time I heard it, I was like "Dude, this is it!" I mean, I have a band with my wife called Tropic of Cancer, and we have our 10-inches and it's in that spirit that these guys have. They were a little more jangly, but there's this weird art house feel to it, that you can't put your finger on.
They were super crazy. They would cut things with saws, and there were always fights at their shows. It's kinda how Jesus and Mary Chain were at their shows…fucking insanity. I don't think people value that enough. I would go see Ariel Pink a lot when I lived in Los Angeles when he first started, and there was always this volatility to his shows. You didn't know whether he was going to play for 20 minutes or for an hour. But that was part of it. Because if you did capture when he was good, it was awesome.
For us, you know, a lot of times I will send stuff to people and they're like, "Oh shit, there's a lot of crazy high end on that. It kinda hurts!" and I'm like, "Yeah, that's the point!" There's a point where things have to make you feel something. I'm not saying we make the best stuff in the world, but a lot of the time we're trying to make new things, within the constraints of techno. There is a lot of chance for experimentation there, and to make things that aren't easy to play. I think Carl Craig said it best recently, "You aren't selling that many fucking records, so why not do something interesting?"
I think that's the same case for a lot of bands that we've talked about already. There wasn't a lot of economic pressure, because you don't earn that much.
It's identical. I mean we've tested it a lot with Downwards, the series of 10-inches we've done. The music has been very, very different. Karl and I have done a project together called Sandra Electronics which is influenced by Amon Düül heaviness. It goes from that to Tropic of Cancer. When Cam[ella Lobo] and I work together, it's all about a feeling and about setting up a visual tone. Then we put out a band called Dva Damas, which is these girls whose influences range from Animals and Men to The Cramps to Wall of Voodoo to Joe Meek to all the weird '60s rockabilly stuff.
What I'm realizing is that a lot of the people that buy these records are really into Downwards, so they're like "I'll buy that" and some of them are like "This is the worst piece of music I have ever heard in my life" and then ten other people are like "I don't know what the fuck that is, but it's awesome."
Take the mix I did that's up on the blog, The Sandwell District Radio Mix. The music on there had such a big impact on us and on me. That mix has been downloaded so many times, I'm dumbfounded, and there are a bunch of techno people I know that are like "I've never really heard stuff like that before. That's the first time I've heard that." Good. I'm fucking stoked, because that's where we are coming from. [I like] re-introducing things to people. Because right now there is a lot of good music even for indie rock stuff and the weirdo rock stuff. You have labels like Captured Tracks, the minimal wave stuff that Veronica Vasicka keeps reintroducing to the world. You have labels like Acute that do awesome reissues. It's a really good time for that sort of music because people are gunning it and they're young and they're like, "Fuck it, I don't need to make money for five years so I'm gonna make fucking awesome music and figure it out later."
The Art of Stalking
This was a record where, the first time I heard it, I felt it was such an awesome mixture of so many things. There's a depth to it, there's nothing fake about it. I was living in Los Angeles at the time and I was friends with the guys who ran Plug Research. Alan and Joe. At the same time as running the label, they were also helping Planet E get the word out in California. I remember when I met them I went to this DJ night, and Joe was playing all this Detroit stuff that I'd never heard before. Anything from early Daniel Bell records to this dubby Basic Channel dirty stuff.
We started talking, and he was like, "Hey man, write this number down. On Monday give them a call and have them fax you a copy of their catalogue if you have a fax machine at your house." I called the number and it was the number to Submerge. The lady was really nice. I think it was Mike Banks' sister maybe? So the fax comes through and it's every single Basic Channel record, every single Maurizio record, every 430 West record, every Transmat and Metroplex record that was in stock. I would just go down the list and check stuff off, using my entire paycheck to get stuff. It was cheap too. It was domestic, so it was four or five bucks. I built my collection of Detroit techno directly through Submerge.
Karl O'Connor & Robert Görl
The Right Side of Reason
I picked this track because it's Karl with [DAF's] Robert Görl, which kind of connects past and present.
Totally. That time when that came out I still hadn't really met Karl. It was still very fan-based. I used to buy all the Downwards stuff. It's intense, but at the same time it still has this...that's the whole thing with most of the Downwards stuff. There was an intensity, but there was also an atmosphere that you couldn't really put your finger on. That's what a lot of imitators couldn't really do... give it that feeling. They could replicate it, if you went and bought a Doepfer and a synth. You can replicate the loops, but you couldn't really replicate the depth or the vibe of the records.
It's a perfect combination because Robert Görl was one of the first who really reduced electronic music to loops. All the DAF tracks just had one sequencer line, and that's it.
Yeah. Karl was always the one to expose that sort of thing. So you'd see the connection to DAF, and you started seeing all these other connections and you'd dig back a little bit deeper and you'd be like, "Wow, OK. That's where this is coming from." That's why I love DJ Hell. I remember seeing him at a private party in Frankfurt one night and he went into one of those sets where he played a lot of old Chicago and acid house stuff. You don't really hear people play that stuff the way he plays it. He also did that New Deutsch compilation [alongside Thomas Bär]. That album was a big deal because stuff like Stratis was something I had never heard.
That exposure can create influence very easily. Especially in those time periods where Karl was doing things with Robert Görl, it was awesome. Later when Karl and I became friends, it was just funny. I was like, "Dude, you have no idea what you have done to me." [laughs] That's the kind of relationship we have had, it is kind of that brother sort of thing.
Does it flatter him a bit?
He just laughs, because we both do the same. I will make him a mix CD, and he'll be like "What the fuck is this?" It's a really good relationship, and that's what matters to me. The bond for progress, with the sense that "We make art, we want to make art, if people like it or not, that's fine, but we're still gonna continue to do it."
Dirt (Ben Klock Edit)
With all this stuff, it's almost a sense like there's a film of dirt on the record. It's like it has this hiss with a dub thing, but it also this sort of industrial vibe. So it's kind of got this depth on both levels which kind of pulls you in two different ways. I think Brendan Moeller's a really good producer and what Ben [Klock] did to that track is really good.
Would you say that this track really represents a certain sound of the scene. Representative of something?
I think it's just representative of depth. Again, I'm not living in Germany. And when I play in New York or when I play in Minneapolis, playing what people call the Ostgut sound or the Berghain sound doesn't work all the time. People don't like it. It's still difficult because some of the music is pretty extreme. But it's the same thing with a Basic Channel record. They might think it's boring because it's repetitive. But there's a depth that you can't touch. It has that quality of classic timeless music but there's very forward-thinking elements as well, just with the sound design overall.
I feel that there is this abstract image of Berlin techno, and especially Berghain techno, but I always think that the music played in Berghain is pretty diverse. But, on the other hand, tracks like this might be distinctively "Berlin." Something that Marcel Dettmann would say is totally Berghain, which is kind of contradictory.
Yeah, it's weird. The first time I played Berghain I played everything I wanted to play, I played everything from "Hot on the Heels of Love" by Throbbing Gristle to Ron Trent to Lil' Louis to Luke Slater to Sandwell District records. I tried to give it context, but it all worked, it was all part of a big thing. With stuff like "Dirt," it can work in a number of contexts.
It's a very strange thing. All the Birmingham techno stuff will cycle again, people will copy it, "techno is back" and then in a few years it will go down again, and then it'll come back again. It will never go away, but it ebbs and flows in style and popularity. But it's always something that I do, whether it's popular or not, along with all the other aspects of music. Now we're at this point where we've created a situation where I can give myself a break. If I don't feel like making a techno record tomorrow, I don't have to. I could go work on some band stuff.
Right now it's really strange that things are in fashion. I think we're at that point where a lot of people—not everyone—are getting tired of the bullshit, so things are kind of entering a realm where the independents have a little bit of an opportunity to fill a space that was not there before. If Sandwell District didn't exist there would be a little hole that we've managed to fill. Ostgut, as a label, is filling a gap that was sort of empty too. And people like Planet E still continue to do good stuff. Even people like Hard Wax. It's filling a void. As Karl says, it's "kicking against the pricks." Like, "Fuck it, we are gonna get through this, this is what we are gonna do," and you start carving out a niche, and people slowly start responding it.
We Must Hunt Under the Wreckage of Many Systems
Would you say that there is some kind of void that Raime could fill?
Yeah, Raime, those guys are awesome. We are very happy to have them almost as allies within music. Because there is a really weird push with like...people that understand. I guess it's the whole thing about understanding. We make techno music, but we're not like "beats" guys. We're not like...
...it's gotta be banging?
Yeah. It's all about that feeling that things get. But it's really great because they really understand where we are coming from. They were saying how they really like the Tropic of Cancer 10-inch. I was saying likewise, "Your records are exactly mentally where we are at too." If they only make a few records people will be happy to have those records in their collection. People will be like "Dude, do you remember this? Raime was awesome."
That's what we are looking for, that discovery. To keep that feeling of when you find something and you have it. To keep things timeless. There's an aspect of immortality. We kind of strive for immortality. Not that we want to be gods or anything, but there's a sense that you can leave your mark. That's how it is with everything, that's how we treat it. You know, everything that you have ever wanted is already here, we live in this information age that if you dig deep enough you will find it. So there's no excuse, I think, to listen to shitty music—unless you like it, which is fine.
It's all aesthetics. You create something that people chose or chose not to follow. But if people choose to follow you, you have to maintain it. I feel like it's our obligation to do a good job, to fucking make awesome shit, the best that we can make it, as honestly as we can make it. And it's the same for Raime and Blackest Ever Black. I'm really happy that those guys exist, because it feels like there is a conscious move, a little bit of a shift, even if it is only ten people that make music in this way.
If you think about all of these genres, though, it's only really five or six bands that led the charge, Sheffield, Manchester, Los Angeles, New York. It's really not that many people, but those are the people that are pulling the fucking chain, like "Alright, this is what we are going to do." We like being able to take those chances and keep things going. And, when they end they end, but at least they happened. I guess that's how we are treating this. If all this ends tomorrow we did the best we could.
Published / Tuesday, 09 November 2010
Photo credits / Header, eye - Where Next?