|Sandwell District: Where Next?
In what may—or may not—be their final interview together, RA's Angus Finlayson attempts to make sense of the tumultuous working relationship of Regis and Function.
"This is basically the end of Sandwell District, and I don't want to talk about anything negative. Unless Karl did." David Sumner laughs ruefully over Skype from his Berlin home. He has had a little time to ponder the course our interview might take. We'd been due to meet a couple of weeks earlier in a hotel next door to London's Fabric, where Sumner and musical partner Karl O'Connor—better known as Function and Regis—were due to perform. The occasion was the launch of Sandwell District's first recorded document in two years, Fabric 69. I had arrived that evening to find only O'Connor in attendance. James Ruskin was drafted in at the last minute to take Sumner's place.
Neither Sumner nor O'Connor is willing to go into detail on the matter ("I just... I wasn't well" is all Sumner will say). But it would be naive not to suspect that the pair's famously tempestuous relationship played a part. The West Midlands-raised O'Connor and Sumner, a New Yorker, have been friends for the better part of two decades, having bonded during O'Connor's early success as the co-founder of Birmingham's Downwards label. It seems that they have been warring, intermittently, for almost as long. But there's no denying that the conflict is, at least in part, a productive one.
That's certainly the case with Sandwell District, the nebulous entity co-run by O'Connor, Sumner, Los Angeles producer and graphic designer Juan Mendez, AKA Silent Servant, and O'Connor's fellow Downwards founder Peter Sutton, AKA Female. Equal parts label, production collective and live show, Sandwell District are one of the most important techno outfits of the late '00s—and arguably the most intriguing. During its peak between 2006 and 2011, the label specialised in a forward-facing but classically informed strain of techno that both expanded on and challenged the dominant minimal aesthetic of the mid-'00s. Sandwell District releases were highly refined, displaying a subtlety born of each producer's considerable experience. But they had a rebellious streak, too—something inherited, in part, from O'Connor's activities with Downwards, and aided by Mendez's post-punk-inspired sleeve designs, which exuded a brooding militancy.
Mendez, and to a lesser extent Sutton, contributed to Sandwell District from afar. But in many respects Sumner and O'Connor were the motor of the operation, feverishly generating "audio transmissions" from their Berlin base. It's a relationship that, through the Sandwell District live show, has persisted beyond the label's disbandment in 2011, and one that was already long-standing when the label first rose to prominence. The pair met in 1996, when O'Connor, on his first trip to play in the US, stayed at Sumner's Manhattan apartment. They became firm friends, and conducted what Sumner describes as an "exchange program" throughout the late '90s. They shuttled back and forth between the US and Birmingham, touring together and collaborating on a handful of records for Downwards as Portion Reform. The relationship culminated with Sumner moving to Birmingham to work with O'Connor and Sutton's distribution company, Integrale Muzique, at the end of the decade. Unfortunately the move didn't work out; as Sumner puts it, "I went from living in midtown Manhattan to living in Halesowen in the West Midlands. It was... shocking! I only lasted about four months."
It might seem odd that a techno producer would leave one of dance music's great metropolises to pursue his fortunes in an unassuming English town. But while Sumner was very much part of the Downwards family, he never achieved the acclaim of his running mate. Indeed, there was a sense in which Sumner—although he had been DJing in New York since the early '90s—had yet to find his muse. O'Connor, ever the facilitator, was there to help him. Still, it would not be until the mid-'00s, and Sandwell District, that Sumner would really make his mark. "Even though I released my first record in '96, it wasn't until 11 years later that I really started to feel like a pro," he says. "That was when I left New York and went to Berlin."
There's a certain symmetry in that, when I meet O'Connor, he has recently moved away from Berlin after 14 years in the city. He seems upbeat about the decision ("I've been there for so long, it kind of drags you down"), but it's difficult not to read it as the end of an era, given Berlin's central role in the birth and success of Sandwell District. O'Connor originally left Birmingham for the city in 1999, at a time when techno was undergoing a drastic sea change. "We pushed Birmingham techno so hard in the beginning," he says. "But lots of things changed at the start of the 2000s. Obviously it's peaks and troughs with music, I'd experienced that a few times. It's great to be exiled, or provincial and celebrated. But at some stage, I think if you've any interest in art or music, you have to escape the provinces."
Sumner, too—at this point still based in New York—was grappling with the changing musical landscape. He found himself increasingly prioritising promotion over production. "After 1999 or 2000, loop techno had died its death and minimal came in, and micro house, whatever you wanted to call it," he says. "When minimal took over, I wasn't appreciated as an artist in my own city any more—I became more of a promoter. It got to a point after a while where I couldn't take it any more. I had to look at myself in the mirror and say 'these are not the reasons why you're doing this.'"
Both Sumner and O'Connor trace the genesis of Sandwell District back to a single fateful day, during a visit that Sumner made to Berlin in 2004. The merits of minimal had become an on-going topic of discussion between the pair, but they had yet to find a way of repurposing the template to their own ends. During a visit to the Hard Wax record shop, they heard Sleeparchive's debut record, Elephant Island. Its steely, austere tone—indebted as much to the frosty sonics of Mika Vainio as to the prevailing minimal aesthetic—immediately struck a chord. "Instantly Dave and I looked at each other," O'Connor recalls. "We could completely join the dots between what we did and the possibilities of what our future could be. What Sleeparchive did with that record is sort of the way I view making a lot of my music now: taking very classic ideals and updating them."
If the seeds of the Sandwell District aesthetic were sown at that moment, then the events that followed set them germinating. "Later that night I went to play at Tresor," Sumner says. "I'm DJing and I'm playing Regis 'Guiltless,' then this new Sleeparchive record. I see Karl doing something behind me, he's talking to the sound guy—basically he's organising a microphone. And as I'm playing 'Elephant Island' he gets the microphone, he wraps the cable around his head, and he starts grinding against me, and slapping my ass, and shouting 'Woo! Woo!' Then he starts singing [Buddy Holly's] 'Peggy Sue' over fucking Sleeparchive. In a way—if you look at what's happened since, and what Juan and Karl have done with the post-punk thing... it's all there in that one day."
The Sandwell District label had actually existed since 2002, founded by O'Connor and Sutton as an adjunct to Downwards. The name—taken from a borough near the pair's West Midlands home—suggested a continuation of the ethos of its parent label. Its two releases that year, before sputtering to a halt, did nothing to unsettle the notion.
Not long after the events of 2004, the label was revived. A pair of Female 12-inches, released in 2005, explored a slower, more spacious kind of techno. That change in direction was cemented the following year. "Around 2005 or 2006, I got back in contact with a lot of old friends—particularly Juan Mendez," O'Connor says. Mendez was another friend from the '90s circuit. Under the alias Jasper he was a central part of the small West Coast techno scene, and had done business with Integrale Muzique. But he had since lapsed into obscurity, having not released any music since 2002.
O'Connor found him working under a fresh alias with a rash of new productions. "Juan hadn't done anything for years, and I really liked what he was doing [as Silent Servant]," he says. "We just said, 'Let's start afresh.'" The result was Mendez's debut release as Silent Servant, The Silent Morning, a brilliantly assured take on contemporary techno that counterbalanced the dub chords of Basic Channel with an abrasive edge inspired by Downwards.
Beyond this point, Sutton increasingly occupied a back seat role in the label, focussing on administrative and accounting duties, with Mendez taking the creative decisions alongside O'Connor.
Sumner's music making, too, had entered a fallow period. He was struggling to make headway in the New York scene. "I was going through a bit of a crisis," he says. "I was struggling for money. I needed a change in my life." That change, he decided, would be a move to Berlin. Before that, though, he visited O'Connor for a fortnight in the summer of 2007. During this time he had his first encounter with a club that would have an enormous influence on his music: Berghain.
"I had never been to Berghain before," he says. "At that time Panorama Bar was where the party was. The first time I was there, DJ Pete was playing. I walked through the room and saw these gays in black leather, on the dance floor with their shirts off. When I saw that imagery I was just like, 'This is it—things are going to change now.' I've always said, techno sort of came back because the people who were into minimal and house had to pass through Berghain [to get to Panorama Bar]. They were always being reminded."
On that same visit, Sumner played O'Connor a pair of his productions intended for release on New York label Thema. O'Connor was captivated by these dour cross-pollinations of Millsian tunnel-vision and Sähkö-style atmospherics, and instantly suggested that they be released on Sandwell District. The two tracks became Isolation, the record that brought both Sumner and Sandwell District wide recognition. The timing, for Sumner, couldn't have been more perfect. "It's funny because I was there for a couple of weeks, we had this session, the record went into production," he says. "I went back to New York for three or four months, got my things ready. And literally the same day I landed [in Berlin], the record came out and got DJ Mag techno 12-inch of the month. It was one of these things that I needed in my life to spark everything. It was like I hit the ground running."
Sandwell District only released two records that year—Hypnotica Scale, by the anonymous CH-Signal Laboratories, and Isolation—but they were sufficient to kickstart the label's ascent. The following year, further records from Mendez, Sumner and O'Connor (exploring fearsome broken-beats as Kalon) were equally well received. According to Sumner, O'Connor saw in the label's success a chance to encourage his friend's growth. "Karl could see my ambition. He saw that I was hungry and he would say things like, 'Sandwell District is yours.' Not that it was mine, but he meant, 'Take this and run with it, you need a home, you need solid ground.' And Sandwell District was that solid ground."
As the label's influence grew, it increasingly came to be seen as a collective entity. This was partly helped by a string of records in 2008/09 featuring a range of edits of unheard tracks, the originals of which were credited to N/A. Conceptually, it was an elegant gesture that located authorship beyond any single producer. It could also be seen as a reaction to the increasingly celebrity-oriented DJ culture of the '00s. O'Connor, though, is wary of claiming any high-concept motivations for the project. "It was about decentralising the 'DJ personality,' and to an extent that worked," he says. "But I think that was more of an instinctive thing, probably, in certain members of Sandwell District. This was also at the time when everybody was doing white label no-name records, and that in itself was awful, just awful—eventually, because people milked it."
In reality the approach—as with many of Sandwell District's alleged obfuscations—was just as much a result of the label's chaotic management structure. "That was the thing about Sandwell District," says O'Connor. "Nobody knew who ran it. People thought I was being playful when I said that. But nobody took responsibility for anything. The music... Dave in particular, sometimes he presented things that were made for a record, and when it came out, completely different tracks were on it. It was just crazy."
Still, somehow the label retained coherency, and before long, the idea of producing an album took hold. According to Sumner, they stumbled into the decision in typically haphazard fashion. "Basically the start of it was when we did the Sandwell District podcast for Resident Advisor [in 2009]," he explains. "In the interview I had mentioned that there was going to be an album. And Karl was like, '[exasperated] I guess we have to do an album now!'"
The decision resulted in 2010's Feed-Forward, a collaborative effort from Mendez, O'Connor and Sumner as Sandwell District. It was accompanied by a fanzine from Mendez that further expanded on the label's distinctive visual style. Musically, the album is a highly distilled synthesis of the three producers' approaches, containing the bleak industrial vistas of Silent Servant, Function's highly ascetic minimalism, and the rolling syncopations of Regis' later work. It was a brilliant summation of the label's achievements up to that point, but according to O'Connor, the conditions of its creation were far from harmonious. "What went on behind it was so wilfully destructive, in terms of people's behaviour," he says. "Getting it recorded was very difficult, even though it's a very simple record."
Maybe it was inevitable that, as expectations surrounding the project grew, the volatile relationships involved would become ever more strained. As O'Connor and Sumner toured more and more, cracks began to show. "Dave and I, as we started to DJ [together] more, we became this rock & roll cliche," O'Connor says. "And it led to this..." he sighs. "We couldn't travel together for about four or five months because certain airlines wouldn't seat us together. We'd always get recognised and they'd pull us out. It was a bit mental, really."
According to Sumner, the pair were more than willing to play up to the rumours that soon began to spread. "After a while, we got into this groove where we were jokingly referring to ourselves as Keith and Mick," he laughs. "It was rock & roll, and I think that was what people liked about it. But it did go too far—to the point where there were injuries." He is probably referring to an infamous occasion, recounted in the duo's 2011 Wire interview, when a drunken altercation between the pair landed Sumner with a broken shoulder. For many this would be the end of a working relationship; for O'Connor and Sumner it seems to have been little more than an unfortunate footnote. But as relations grew increasingly fraught, it dawned on O'Connor that further collaborations might not be viable. "I just thought, 'Fuck, we can't keep doing this, we might have to bring in other people,'" he says. "That was the natural thing to do."
The result, in 2011, was a broadening of the label's purview. They released Yves De Mey's Counting Triggers LP and records from Rrose—both solo and in collaboration with Bob Ostertag for the Motormouth Variations LP—that pushed into more experimental realms.
At the time, O'Connor declared this "phase 3" of the "Sandwell project," but unfortunately the transformation was short-lived. By this point, Sandwell District had transcended its outsider status to become something of a techno institution in its own right. The obstinate personalities involved were never going to deal well with hero worship. "It just became a bit too much," says Sumner. "I think at some point each of us was like, 'Fuck, I don't want to hear this name any more—this is not everything that we're about.'"
O'Connor, meanwhile, sees the label's demise as an inevitable consequence of the way in which the three of them approached it. "We should have viewed it as a business, but we didn't. And especially with the personalities involved, that eventually led to more fractious behaviour. I think we were all to blame equally for the success and the ultimate demise of it. It was kind of wilful in the end—we were wilfully sabotaging it."
On 31st December 2011, a statement appeared on the collective's blog announcing the temporary disbandment of Sandwell District. To many, cutting down the label in its prime probably seemed like an insane act. But it was a move entirely in keeping with the characters of those involved, reflecting their determination to avoid fossilisation at all costs. Or as Mendez put it at the time, "It was a glorious death, not a mercy killing, as is so often the case in these situations."'
O'Connor describes ending the label as "the best feeling of release ever. Lots of people, of course, if they'd had any moderate success, they'd have kept it going, churned it out. But I couldn't do that. I had to move on. And I think everyone [involved with the label] has done that." But he acknowledges that the feeling wasn't shared by all involved. "This is the great way that we communicated with each other: when it was announced, some people [involved with the label] didn't know. Which, again, caused this fall-out. We were just winding each other up, you know."
It seems likely that it was Sumner, whose personal success had been so closely entwined with Sandwell District's, would have vetoed the decision, had he been given the chance. "I would say I was the one that wanted it to shut down the least," he says. "Because it was sort of a crutch for me, in a way. I wish I could have seen that earlier, but I was maybe a bit scared. I felt like there was still life left in it."
While O'Connor and Mendez have moved away from the dance floor in recent years, becoming involved in the flourishing post-punk and industrial-referencing scene, Sumner has remained committed to Sandwell District's dance floor goals. Perhaps it's no surprise that he talks about his former label as if it's a broken family. "I had been working for the previous four years with two other people," he says. "We were a collective, you know? I was comfortable in that situation. Since Sandwell District ended I've been adjusting to being on my own. It's like taking the training wheels off. I need to see if I can ride."
Sumner's debut album, Incubation, released this year on Ostgut Ton, is perhaps proof that he is, finally, entirely his own man. Fabric 69, on the other hand, could be read as an ode to the bonds that formerly sustained him. The mix was assembled predominantly by Sumner, with O'Connor contributing sketches and ideas remotely (as O'Connor tells it, "There was no way we could have been in the same place"). The 75-minute mix runs the gamut from Sandwell District's roots (Plastikman and Ø) to the generation it has inspired, including a liberal helping of Blackest Ever Black-affiliated material. In the press release Sumner describes the mix as "encapsulating an era and putting it to rest."
But, when it comes to legacy-making, this particular duo were never likely to do things the easy way. "We took [the Sandwell District live show] on the road every weekend and it would be bombastic, big-room," Sumner explains. "We did that so often, people are familiar with it. And there's a million mix CDs like that." By contrast, Fabric 69 is clean, measured and almost surgically precise, having been painstakingly assembled on software, rather than performed on turntables or CDJs.
In outlining the mix's concept, Sumner enthuses about Brian Eno's Music For White Cube ("not even the music necessarily, just the title—something designed for a gallery, that has to be really precise and refined and exact"), and the aesthetic of high-end Berlin menswear shop Darklands ("they're reinventing tailoring and the suit jacket"). Ultimately, he finds himself returning to something of an unofficial manifesto for Sandwell District, born from that first encounter with Sleeparchive's Elephant Island. "It's what we would call, tongue placed firmly in cheek, 'updating modernism,'" he explains—a shorthand for "taking a classic form, but then adding a modern flavour to it."
Sumner uses this phrase several times during our conversation. As it happens, it's one that has previously appeared, in an almost identical form, on O'Connor's lips. The pair may have their differences, but there's no denying the sense of common purpose that binds them, a sense developed over some 17 years of shared experiences, ideas and ideologies.
"It's interesting with Dave," O'Connor says towards the end of our conversation. "I've had this great friendship with him that," he catches himself, "ha, I say friendship... well, it is, we're like warring factions in a family. When I first went to New York in '96, we got thrown together. I don't know why we connected. Probably out of complete and utter necessity. And passion, as it should be."
Sumner, speaking a couple of weeks later, is in a similarly pensive mode. "In a lot of ways we're cut from the same cloth," he says. "We're both wind-ups in an industry that can't really handle that. Which is surprising, because it's so hedonistic, but there's a level of 'professionalism' in the industry, where everybody gets offended by certain things. Like not turning up to a gig or... that rock & roll attitude. We're pranksters, you know, and sometimes it just goes a bit too far. But that's OK. It makes a great story, doesn't it?" He laughs. "And a great friendship. I've never laughed so hard with any other person than Karl O'Connor. And to me that's the most important thing: we've had fun." He pauses. "But it went a bit too far, where it bled over into our personal lives, and just became a bit much. So, it has to stop."
Whether this really is the end for Sandwell District is anybody's guess: at this stage it seems prudent to take any announcement from the collective with a healthy dose of scepticism. When I pitch the question to O'Connor he, unlike Sumner, seems far from certain. "I think it's in the balance," he says. "The sword of Damocles is hanging over it, as it's always done. Who knows." If this is indeed the end, I ask, then how he would like Sandwell District to be remembered? "I wouldn't want it to be remembered. I'd want it to be glossed over, papered over, cemented in. But if it could just emit a nasty little odour, so that people think, 'What's that?' I'd be happy with that. I think we all would be."