With no physical base, no website or MySpace presence, and not even an email address –the only contact detail is a fax number on the record inlays – it would appear that the label, if it even can be called that, refuses to engage with the outside world.
It could be argued that Sandwell is merely following a long techno tradition, instigated by Underground Resistance and Basic Channel and more recently adopted by Redshape, of using anonymity to create a strong anti-image, bestowing upon itself an outsider status that can prove eminently sellable.
However, when I finally track down one of the people involved with the label, US DJ/producer Dave Sumner, aka Function, he explains that Sandwell never had a plan. “Pete Sutton (aka Female) was sort of overseeing it the early days and since around 2006 I've played a part in maintaining it. Karl O'Connor (Regis) has also been loosely involved,” says Sumner. “I think Sandwell runs itself … at least no person has ever really claimed responsibility for it. The artists are from New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, Birmingham and Chicago and it was set up for the boring reason of having a different vehicle for newish ideas. It’s run more like an outlet than an actual label. If any of us feel we've come up with something that fits, it comes out. No discussion, no debate. It doesn't fit the normal parameters of what people perceive an electronic label to be.”
This explanation is vague, but we have some facts about Sandwell and the people behind it. Set up in 2002, it has only released ten records – but its schedule has picked up in the past two years. The label is distributed by UK techno operator Veto and has close ties to Berlin shop and distributor Hardwax.
Sumner’s own background stretches back to New York’s early ‘90s techno scene. He remembers Jeff Mills’ residency at the Limelight and one of Underground Resistance’s first live performances at that club having a profound effect on him. “The Limelight was one of the things that inspired me and shaped my life. I feel lucky to have been part of that,” he says. Soon afterwards, he started producing and released on Damon Wild’s seminal NY label Synewave.
by Richard Brophy
1. Function - Isolation
Sähkö’s frequency-shifting tones are married with reverberated claps and a plunging bassline for Sandwell’s “biggest” moment.
2. Silent Servant – Doom Deferred
The bleak, repetitive chord stabs and dense, noisy beats sound like the four horsemen have arrived.
3. Kalon - Man is the Superior Animal
Downwards’ bleak drums slowed down to a house tempo, but its chain mail rhythms still sound like a size twelve Doc Marten applied to the scrotum of wishy-washy nouveau deep house.
4. Female - Cally 1
A hypnotic fusion of Millsian panel-beating percussion with surging dubstep bass and a tendency toward unflinching repetition.
5. Regis & Ian Richardson - Untergang
Sandwell’s first and still most extreme release, Regis and Richardson’s high-tempo, abrasive industrial grooves are characterised by smart breaks and depth-charge beats.
The associations with Downwards don’t end there: a quick glance at some of Sandwell’s titles – ‘Man Is The Superior Animal’ from Kalon’s Born Against or ‘Doom Deferred’ and ‘Disciple to Master’ from Silent Servant’s recent The Blood of Our King – reveal that the same anti-establishment message Downwards adheres to is at play.
“I think it's a Regis thing – it’s about it being more than just music or just tracks, about records being artifacts and people buying into the whole experience,” Sumner explains. “Regis and Female have always been into Situationism, but I can only really talk about Sandwell. It's still about kicking against the pricks though - that's what our philosophical connection is.”
Of course, the loaded titles and refusal to engage with the “scene” wouldn’t mean much if the music was below par, but the artists’ ability to reinterpret and reshape classic techno styles is the real reason why Sandwell stands out. In the case of DJ Jasper (aka Silent Servant), it’s an almost Gothic vision for Detroit techno; Kalon (aka Karl Meier) gives Downwards’ impenetrable, chain-mail rhythms a slower, house-based focus with a dubstep tinge; while the hypnotic tonal frequencies of Function’s work sounds like a clubby take on Finnish label Sähkö or German producer Sleeparchive.
For Sumner, the debt is not just musical: “Sähkö have always been an influence, and Sleeparchive really had a big impact on me because he is someone who understands total product”. Loath as they are to couch their work in such terms, the Sandwell “product” also has a strong aesthetic value with each release is pressed on clear or coloured vinyl, slipped inside lovingly designed inlays.
“It's back to that total product thing,” explains Sumner. “Regardless of the state of the marketplace, any label or artist worth their salt should have an interest in these things. The physical product must compete with so many other forms, it is absolutely crucial that every element of its production and execution is top notch. Ours is a unique process that has proved to be successful.”
Slowly, the wider world is beginning to take notice: Miss Kittin, Modeselektor and tribal house king (or is that queen?) Danny Tenaglia have all licensed Sandwell tracks for mixes. I put it to Sumner that Sandwell’s success may be down to the fact that it presents techno’s more visceral extremes in a palatable manner, one that dovetails with a general tendency towards slower tempos.
“I have no interest in filling gaps – it sounds like a clever marking ploy to me. I have always tried to make electronic dance music that exists in its own right without scenes or trends,” Sumner answers gruffly. Then he reconsiders. “I do know what you mean though. Without trying, Sandwell has fallen into a grey area. It’s more by accident than design though. Techno was always by definition between 135 and 140 BPM, so for me, using the same sound design as before at a tempo of 120 BPM is unknown territory. I think a lot of it has to do with other music too. It seems that each sub-genre of techno is so isolated that when a label like this comes along, you start to think a gap is being bridged.”
With the label’s appeal growing – Jeff Mills was spotted recently in Hardwax buying twenty copies of Sumner’s mighty ‘Isolation’ to sell on the Axis online store – do the people behind Sandwell feel the urge to step from the shadows, sport funny haircuts and endorse technology brands?
“Everyone is so concerned with over-promoting and marketing and ultimately being famous. Maybe collectors and certain DJs miss the anonymity of a record just appearing. I feel you don't see enough situations like this anymore,” Sumner answers. “We've never played to clever marketing ploys and barely promote our releases, so no, we won’t. I still feel there that should be some distance between the audience and the artist: not in the sense where you alienate your audience, but I miss the days of Basic Channel playing from behind a curtain.”