Matt McDermott meets the designer and producer who's shaped two of the most distinctive-looking labels in techno: Sandwell District and Jealous God.
"All of my shit is out for a reason," Silent Servant, real name Juan Mendez, said as he darted around the apartment. "Because it helps me in some capacity." Over the past 20 years, Mendez has carved out a clear sonic identity as Silent Servant. Through his design work for Downwards, Sandwell District and Jealous God, he's also had a lot to do with how techno looks.
Growing up Latino in Southern California often means growing up obsessed with Morrissey. Early in our conversation Mendez mentions iconic Smiths album covers as influential, not only in their depiction of tragic, romantic youth, but in their allusions to films that he'd dig up and absorb.
"This cover [for the Ask 12-inch] is from this early, subliminally erotic movie called Leather Boys." He then pointed to the shirtless man on the cover of the band's 1984 debut album. "This is a Paul Morrissey still, the filmmaker who worked with Andy Warhol." Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now features a photo of the iconic UK working class actor Viv Nicholson lifted from the movie Spend Spend Spend. He flips past Shoplifters Of The World Unite. "This is Elvis, of course, but you know, [pulls out This Charming Man], this is Jean Marais from the original Jean Cocteau Orpheus."
Though he worked as a full-time art director from the mid-'00s up until this year, Mendez initially got into design work out of necessity. "I'd notice that the place where a lot of labels would lose money was on design," he said. This practical instinct extended beyond record sleeves. "I used to own a store with my friend Mike in Long Beach, we'd screen print t-shirts. We'd always make shit because we wanted to make cool t-shirts."
Casual beginnings aside, the cover art and objects associated with Jealous God are among the slickest you'll find in a record store, having more in common with glossy '60s advertorial and Maurizio Cattelan's sardonic photography magazine Toilet Paper than your typical hand-stamped white label. But as the designer for Sandwell District, Mendez also helped pioneer the grim minimalism that remains a lingua franca for techno labels, before moving on to Jealous God's pastel-toned phantasmagoria.
Back in the loft, Mendez continued digging through his archives. I mentioned his frequent use of clashing fonts—cursive and plain text stacked atop one another—and he nodded and got out a few intricately assembled singles from the '80s label Sordide Sentimental. He pointed out an example on the booklet included with a 7-inch by the synth pop band Ludus, then got distracted by the artwork, a drawing of a woman in peacock-style plumage choking a submissive man. More grist for the mill.
Mendez pointed out a couple designers as crucial forbears. He referenced former Downwards and Tresor designer Claudia Eden as a key influence, and brought out Diversion Group's 2000 single for Downwards, A Man Has Responsibilities. The cover was a photo negative of a woman sitting on a toilet. "You didn't expect that from a techno label," Mendez said. "At least not at the time. She was also doing a lot of the Tresor stuff... it's crazy how something can seep in subconsciously... she's like the unsung hero of all that shit. She was really important for me, even if I didn't realize it."
Downwards founders Regis and Female employed Eden as their chief designer for a period of time. Mendez would later take the reins as he, Regis, Female, Function formed Sandwell District, arguably the most influential techno collective of the 2000s. Along with a sonic palette that merged industrial and loop techno with the reigning minimal sound, Mendez's design work for Sandwell District made its records instantly recognizable.
Mendez chiselled out the Sandwell District aesthetic during downtime at his day job. After debuting his Silent Servant alias on the label via a few 12-inches, he took his first art director position at an advertising agency in Minneapolis. "You were busy and not busy all the time," Mendez said. "I was working at the agency, this is when Sandwell District had the blog too—the whole thing was just make something every day that you're free... it didn't matter what, just make something. You finish work and have two hours to kill, what are you gonna do?"
Mendez offered snapshots of life within the volatile collective. "Karl [O'Connor, Regis] was always sending me books on Teddy Boys, old UK youth culture, cafe racer, leather culture stuff. And then I got this idea to mix all that up with horror movies." Much of this played out on Sandwell District's now-deleted blog, Where Next? He offered little explanation for its disappearance, saying, "We were all heated."
Sandwell District would eventually bring in other artists in an attempt to neutralize the tensions building within its core group. These artists were also subject to the collective's aesthetic and conceptual rigor. Mendez showed me sketches for Rrose's debut release for the label. "We played a gig in New York and he showed up in a ski mask," he said. "I was like, 'Dude, if you're gonna do a Duchamp homage, especially the Rrose thing, you should do it right.' I don't know if it was a week later or a month later, but I got a text with a photo, and he's like, 'How's this?' He'd done it up properly, and he just kept doing it."
Jealous God, launched by O'Connor, James Ruskin and Mendez in 2013 following Sandwell's dissolution, felt primarily like a platform for Mendez. In turn, Mendez fell into a producer position, working with a cast of characters that included art director Corinne Schiavone, photographer Rita Minissi and Los Angeles experimental filmmaker Jenny Nono. "I do like that curatorial aspect. That's why I like doing the radio show, it's being a conduit, in a way."
If the visual identity of Sandwell District was conceived behind a monitor at a desk job, Jealous God strives for a palpable, real-world presence. Jealous God 12-inches have come packaged with various objects—a dagger, a matchbook, a bookmark, a piece of cloth. Its album covers owe something to Duchamp's idea of the readymade—quickly arranged still lifes of everyday objects that take on greater meaning in context.
Mendez's work with Oliver Ho on several Broken English Club 12-inches embody the potential of the label. Broken English Club's first 12-inch, Jealous God 04, contains a couple of lurching post-punk numbers with vocals, an intriguing creative turn for Ho, who also produces oddball techno as Raudive. The EP came packaged with a mix from Tropic Of Cancer member Taylor Burch that included tracks from Jealous God influences Throbbing Gristle and Portion Control. The record's artwork—alabaster praying hands, lipstick and brass knuckles, all on a vibrant blue background—are the relics of a devout Catholic forced into a life of sin, a juxtaposition of what Mendez calls "sanctity and sleaze."
For the second Broken English Club release on Jealous God, this year's Issue N° Sixteen, Mendez went one further, using Ho's J.G. Ballard fixation as a jumping off point. "Oliver is obsessed with J.G. Ballard's Crash," Mendez said. "I wanted to embody that, mix it up a bit. Something like Eyes Without Face meets Crash. My friend Dorian restores classic cars, like Alfas and Porsches. He had this awesome Alfa Romeo, the colors are perfect, everything matches. I wanted it to have this androgynous, non-sexual feeling. That's why I used the tin body suit with medical braces. I wanted to push my design off the table top."
Last year, Mendez brought the Jealous God visual concept to Berlin's sprawling Kraftwerk as part of the label's showcase at Atonal 2016. Budget be damned, he filled the space with flowers and flew in Jenny Nono to helm live visuals, transforming the hulking former power plant into what he calls a "beautiful, sombre" space.
A casual survey of the artwork for Jealous God and Sandwell District might lead you to take Mendez for a "very dark, depressive figure, a prophet of urban decay and alienation," to quote Tony Wilson talking about Ian Curtis in 24 Hour Party People. To do so would be to miss the sense of humor coursing through his work.
"A lot of it comes with an element of laughing at yourself," he said. "With Sandwell District, we had clowns and other stupid shit... mainly because I think it's funny. You take it seriously in a way, but you can also laugh at yourself." This concept of laughter amidst the ashes stretches back, again, to The Smiths. "It's why I love Morrissey, in the old interviews there is always this feeling of self-deprecation and humor. Look at the lyrics to 'Vicar In A Tutu,' or 'Death Of A Disco Dancer.' As conceptually heavy as those songs are, there is always a sense of humor. It helps me, too. If you're heavy too much you get depressed."
Of course, Jealous God's focus is club music, and hearing a stripped-down banger like Alexey Volkov's "Ruins" or Varg's "Skrrt (Music Made To Listen To In A RS6)" in a club probably wouldn't send a punter down a wormhole of post-punk esoterica. That's just fine with Mendez. "If you want to look at this 12-inch cover and find out that it's Jean Marais and that it's from Orpheus, you can go look for the movie. Some people won't and that's fine. People take what they need. I've always enjoyed the populist, democratic notion, where it's like, 'Yes, you can come enjoy this, it's OK.' It doesn't need to be high-level, but that's there too, if you want it. I'm not the most heady DJ but I do try to embody these things. If people appreciate it, cool, you can look into what's behind it as much or as little as you want."
During our conversation, Mendez equated DJing and design on several occasions. Along with Eden, he respects Julian House, the Welsh designer who has conjured a topsy-turvy psychedelic world with his Ghost Box label while also designing album covers for the likes of Primal Scream and Stereolab. "I remember reading that he made the cover for [Primal Scream's] XTRMNTR in QuarkXPress, a fairly rudimentary design program. Giving yourself limitations allows you to focus. It's like DJing. I've spoken about this with Zak [Khutoretsky], DVS1. If you bring too much music, you can't react as quickly. Too many options are sometimes a bad thing, you know?"
Mendez is in the process of winding down Jealous God. The label's final flurry includes releases from Alessandro Adriani, Beau Wanzer, Esteban Adame, and finally, a split release between himself and Pye Corner Audio. 20 years into his music career, Mendez just went full-time as a producer, label owner and DJ. This slow build reflects a humility that extends to his design practice. "I don't consider myself a fucking high-level artist or something," he said. "I just try to make stuff from a utilitarian standpoint. At the end of the day, Jealous God was Karl's idea." Mendez clapped his hands. "It's time to move on. Before, I wasn't capable or experienced enough. Now, I think I can do something on my own."