Over the course of nearly two decades, Anthony Child has been at the forefront of techno, pursuing a darker brand of the stuff that came to be called The Birmingham Sound along with fellow British Murder Boy Karl O'Connor, AKA Regis, and pushing the boundaries of DJing via his digital set-up. On the eve of the release of his new mix CD for fabric, Todd L. Burns called up Child to talk about the early days in Birmingham, the enormous influence Japan has had on his career and the re-emergence of science fiction in techno.
I think it might be appropriate to start by talking about the Birmingham night, House of God, a place that people really have come to imagine is the crucible for the Downwards sound. But, of course, it's never just been about hard techno there, right?
Absolutely. I've definitely found that often people think we only ever played Downwards records there, and that really couldn't have been further from the truth. For example there's a whole lot of humour in terms of stupid rave stuff basically. I mean we'd really mix it up. It was funny that people had this idea of it being such a purist club when it really was the complete opposite. It was very much about intensity, but that doesn't necessarily mean the hardest music the whole time.
We were very conscious about having a warm-up, if the resident banged it out too much in the first set, then Chris Wishart would kick their arse. Everyone knew their place in the night. It was very important to think about the whole night and not just "here's my set, I'm going to bang out the classics" kind of thing and it was fun to play the first set as it was a total discipline as a DJ.
You talk a lot in interviews about your influences. Some of them are quite obvious I think: Coil, Faust, Suicide. But one of the more interesting ones I saw mentioned once upon a time was Japan. You travel there quite a bit, right?
I do. I have a really early memory at school, maybe five or six years old. We were in a class and were looking at that kind of blue and white style, I don't remember the name for it, a blue and white style of porcelain, I think it's actually Chinese in origin, but I think we were looking at that and I was really struck by these images. It really had an impression on me.
And when I got to play there first, in 1996, I was so blown away. I had not done that many gigs outside of England. And the Japan trip was really due to Jeff Mills using two tracks on his Liquid Room mix, which was obviously massive over there. It really blew my mind, in terms of things like food. Before that, I had this really English idea that "food is something that keeps you alive." Over there, I discovered the sensuality of food and so many other things. I think I've been there at least once a year since then. It's really interesting discovering more about the culture and seeing different layers and discovering deeper, more subtle aspects of it. And because of the way that language and culture are really entwined, I started to learn Japanese and that in itself teaches you more about the culture.
You talk about the design being quite striking to you. When you moved to Birmingham, you went for an audio visual degree. Was the visual design stuff similar to the things that you were drawn to when you were young?
I actually did that course because I wanted to become a sound engineer and, at that time, the choices of further education were more limited for that sort of profession. I enjoyed doing the photography and the TV stuff, but my main focus for that was the sound engineering and the radio stuff.
When you moved there you played in a band called Blim, right? Did you immediately jump into the music scene? Or did it take you a while?
I'd lived there a few years before that happened. I moved to Birmingham from quite a small village/town and the thing that struck me was that it was wonderful to find people who had a real passion for music outside of the mainstream and people that knew about the music that I liked which I'd not really experienced that much before.
Was Mick Harris part of that group you were talking about?
Yeah, he was. I mean everyone knew everyone. We were introduced by a mutual friend. We enjoyed a lot of the same films and a lot of the same music and I use to go around to his house. Mick was a real catalyst at that time in terms of making connections between different people in the wider music scene in Birmingham.
He seems like a lynchpin. A guy who was into metal, techno, all sorts of underground things. Was that the norm?
In the late '80s and early '90s there was still a real prejudice against dance music. I think I knew like two other people who'd even listen to it. Most people I knew were in bands, and were like, "Oh, this is rubbish." It took a while for things to open up.
Mick was really important in the beginning. (Not so much in terms of House of God because he wasn't involved in that.) But in terms of just connecting people. He introduced me to Karl O'Connor, and Mick let me use his studio as well. And it wasn't like he was hovering over my shoulder either. He just left me in the room to get on with it. Without that I would never have recorded those early tracks.
When you were first releasing some of those records, was it clear to you that there was something bubbling up around you in terms of a new or different techno sound?
I was DJing every weekend around that time. So, for me, it was like a means to an end. I wanted to make more tracks to sort of fill the gaps in my record box. To make more music I wanted to play, because I couldn't get a hold of things that I wanted to play.
For example, with something like the first record on [James Ruskin's] Blueprint it's exactly the same as it is now, regardless of genre or tempo. I'll put the needle on the record—or today I'll click play on a file—and I can just hear something straight away. There's something that comes from behind or beneath the music, and that's really what I'm always looking for. It's nothing to do with what's on the surface. That's always been an important notion with music and artwork for me. The way it transmits something deeper than what you see on the surface, to hear that honest intention.
Was Berlin among the first places that you played outside of the UK?
The first place I played in Germany, actually, was Ultraschall in Munich. That was through DJ Hell.
He seems like quite a connector too. He brought a lot of people to Munich back then, right?
Yeah. I remember playing there. I don't know if Karl was playing too. He might have DJed in the second room and played Elvis Presley and the Silicon Teens and stuff that really fucked the heads of these ravers. [laughs] But I remember it because there was a party on at the old Munich airport that weekend too and we got to meet Dave Clarke and Jeff Mills and people like that I think for the first time. It was unbelievable to meet these techno heroes and actually see them play.
You talk about Karl playing Elvis and other things. It seems like the perception is that maybe Karl is the antagonist of you two. That you're the one that perhaps brings it back to techno in a way. Would you say that is true?
Well, it's funny to say that because the first thing that comes to mind is during some British Murder Boy gigs Karl leaning over to me and saying, "Tony, I think you should play some techno now." [laughs] I think we just had different ways of doing it. There was this cheeky humour. There was something weirdly self-destructive about it...I don't know. It's really hard to explain.
In a recent interview Karl said, "at times we tested the patience of even our most loyal supporters but I maintain that while our lows, when we got it wrong, were lower than most, our highs were higher." Tell me about some of those lows.
[laughs] Karl mentioned in that Fact interview about having to discuss the merits of performance art with bouncers who are trying to throw you out of the venue. And that kind of stuff really did happen. He was breaking out of the normal structure of what people did when they played techno. It confused a lot of people. The bouncers wouldn't understand, and would think he was some nutter who'd jumped on stage that they needed to throw out. That happened numerous times.
The funny thing about that was—and it's exactly the same as, for example, me playing Whitehouse in sets—it worked great at the beginning. The shock factor. But once people get used to it, and they request it, it's really kind of played out. That's when the whole project calmed down and we started to investigate different musical areas. The only reason to carry on was because people wanted to book us. But that's not the best reason to keep flogging a dead horse really.
You released a new record this year for the first time in what seems like a while. Why now for Compliance Momentum's release?
I'd had those tracks done for quite a while actually. It occurred to me relatively recently why I'm not releasing anywhere near as much music as I used to. I think a big part of it is that back then—to play new material—I would essentially have to release it because I never really did that many dubplates and I never really got on that well with DJing with CDs. So I needed to have that test pressing of a new release. The way I play now, I can try out new parts and alter things and layer parts and everything else without having to even complete a track. Or even release music.
from behind or beneath the music,
and that's really what I'm
always looking for."
Are you nostalgic about vinyl at all? The idea of having a physical artifact of your work?
I can understand the nostalgia about vinyl, but I think it's the way I've always been with music. Even before Ableton or Final Scratch. The music I loved, listening at home or DJing was always about getting a good, quality convenient medium. As a DJ, it wouldn't be about getting the first pressing of something. It was about getting the best sounding, loudest pressing of something.
It seems like you're quite excited about dubstep these days. I'm thinking specifically of your recent Wax Treatment podcast. Is that something that you're paying close attention to? Or was it just a collection of some favorite tracks you had on your hard drive?
It was definitely the stuff that I'm kind of excited about. I obviously was aware of it being a Wax Treatment podcast too, so I knew I could go more in that direction. The interesting thing with dubstep, though, was when I played vinyl I used to try and mix drum & bass tracks in. You know, playing them at 33 instead of 45. Only some of those tracks worked pitched down in that way. So playing with Ableton early on was good because I could play drum & bass time-stretched, so the pitch was right and the tempo was right but still the pace was kind of weird.
So when this dubstep stuff came along it was exciting because it was at a techno tempo. I remember Karl and I getting really excited hearing John Peel play some really early dubstep stuff. We were like, "Wow, what's this?" John Peel, yet again championing new, new exciting forms of music.
Surgeon DJing at The Bunker, NYC.
Sure, of course. Quite recently I realized it had been a long time since I'd really connected with a lot of music that Jeff Mills had been releasing. But then I heard him play a set on this Japanese streaming site, and it really clicked. I was in Japan at the beginning of May, and I pretty much listened to the soundtrack to Blade Runner non-stop. I was really, really jetlagged and I was walking around in this kind of haze and it was really amazing. I've kind of got a bit obsessed with the soundtrack now.
I remember a long time ago Jeff saying how big an influence Blade Runner was for him. So the whole thing kind of made sense when I heard his set on that site. I saw one of his records that he was playing, and it said "Blade Runner" on it, and the whole thing came together. It's really exciting to feel connected again to Jeff's music. There's really been a lack of sci-fi in techno for a long time I think.
It seems like you've all gone away from it a little bit.
Yeah, I mean it doesn't have to be like this obvious and corny thing. Do you know what I mean? There can be music with some kind of sense of… you could almost call it science fiction… but it's not quite.
What else are you excited about right now in terms of the future? What's next?
Well, I'm doing a live audio-visual thing at the Awakenings Festival tomorrow. I've done a few live A/V things. But I've reworked it a lot. It's a lot deeper now. I'm working quite closely with my wife, who is doing the VJing, in choosing the source material.
So many times DJing, I will turn around and look at the screen behind me and think, "That really doesn't connect with the kind of feeling or message that I'm trying to get across." Controlling it makes it a more complete experience. A lot of the source material comes from very old Super 8 footage. Stuff from Derek Jarman and Richard Kern as well. We also managed to get a hold of some material from the first-ever motion pictures which is pretty interesting in the way that you have this kind of deterioration. The artifacts in the material. You have this organic source material, but you're presenting in a way that's not.
That's quite science fiction in a way.
Yeah, I think there's a very deep concept with this where it comes back to—and is most easily described as—the Kraftwerk man-machine idea. That's an idea that crops up very frequently in science fiction, doesn't it? The merging of human and machine.