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Regis: blood into gold

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  • A rare interview with the Downwards boss and Sandwell District operative
  • published
    9 Jun 2010
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In this coarse, compromised world that we inhabit, it’s debatable whether any artist is deserving of hero worship. But Regis is a special case.

A consummate producer, label-owner and provocateur, Regis – real name Karl O’Connor – has been one of the most respected names in techno for nigh on 18 years, staying true to his muse and diluting his art for no one. His career, still fruitful after all these years, is a totem and a tower against which all others must be measured.

It all began a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away: the suburban Midlands, 1993. O’Connor was alive from the off to the possibilities of techno – but he wanted to pursue these possibilities without compromising the principles and aesthetics of the post-punk music that he’d grown up with and passionately subscribed to. The result was Downwards, a label that provided a platform for his own releases as well as those of Tony Child (Surgeon), Peter Sutton (Female) and Ian J. Richardson. The fledgling imprint quickly became notorious for what O’Connor now describes as its “bleak, imperious” sound: a hard, fast and uncompromising style of techno that combined the velocity-funk of Jeff Mills with the nightmarish grind of late 70s and 80s British industrial music.

“I loved the immediacy of techno,” says Regis, reflecting on Downwards’ origins, “But I was also put off by the short shelf life and disposability of some of the music – club fodder, I guess they call it.

“So I just went about applying my own influences to the sound and overall operation [of Downwards]. I imagine the things that seemed obvious and instinctive to us were alien to the way most other people in techno presented themselves. I think in the best traditions of British electronic music, we had a certain fractured pop sensibility.”

In the grand tradition of UK independents, O’Connor and friends did everything themselves: they made the music, they pressed up the records, they distributed them. Before long they’d built up an international reputation, and clubbers and commentators were talking admiringly of “the Birmingham Sound”. Of course, this tag was more reductive than it was useful: focussing the attention on Downwards’ pummelling 4/4 output, it meant that a lot of people neglected the more nuanced and experimental work bearing the label’s insignia. Beginning with Antonym’s ‘Consumer Device’ 7″ in 1992, Downwards has provided a home for all manner of prickly and powerful non-dancefloor productions – indeed, its most recent 10″ releases number glorious post-techno shoegaze from Tropic of Cancer, Cramps-style garage pop from Dva Damas, and 21st century VU raga-isms from O’Connor and Juan Mendez’s Sandra Electronics (download ‘It Slipped Her Mind’, along with two other classic Regis tracks, at the end of this article).

O’Connor the producer has proven to be as versatile and vigorous as Downwards the label. His recently reissued Downwards LPs Delivered Into The Hands Of Indifference (1998) and Penetration (2001) are perhaps the most vivid realisations of his desire to create “giant slabs of music…forsaking any form of melody or traditional structure”.

In 2001 Regis and Surgeon collaborated on the first British Murder Boys record – a real landmark. No mere 1+1=2 studio hook-up, British Murder Boys combined each individual’s huge technical and conceptual prowess into something truly unique, and the six 12″s and handful of remixes that they recorded together under the name represent one of the most impressive bodies of work in the post-2000 techno era. Updating the classic Downwards sound with a generous provision of post-Basic Channel dub-space, teaming it with venomous lyrics that teetered flamboyantly on the tightrope between profanity and absurdity, BMB was a feat of industrial techno situationism the likes of which had never been seen before, and probably never will be again. Their now legendary, technologically-advanced live performances pushed the idea of “club entertainment” to its very limits, achieving a level of skull-scraping intensity quite alien to a traditional techno context. In 2006, long before it could become even slightly boring or assimilated, the British Murder Boys project was disbanded.

Regis’s artistry and self-possession has already granted him immortality, but not once has he rested on his laurels. Since 2002 he has played a key role in Sandwell District, the international label-cum-collective that also numbers Juan Mendez (Silent Servant), Dave Sumner (Function) and Peter Sutton (Female). Sandwell District is a more streamlined take on the Downwards style, and while O’Connor insists that he’s simply a “patron” of the label, he happens to be responsible for its most impressive releases, including ‘Born-Against’ (under the name Kalon) and his masterful, swinging edit of N/A’s ‘Variance’. He’s also one half of Sandwell District’s live/DJ incarnation with Sumner, and will headline Saturday night at the 2010 Sonar festival in this guise. Continuing to produce not only as Regis but also as CUB, UST / Ugandan Speed Trials (with Mick Harris), Kalon, Sandra Electronics (with Juan Mendez) and more besides, O’Connor remains an ever-impish and insurrectionary force in electronic music.

FACT’s Kiran Sande recently enjoyed the dodo-rare honour of sitting down O’Connor for what is arguably the most in-depth interview he’s ever given. It’s the first time that he’s spoken at length about the whole span of his career, from the early days of Downwards through to the making of the imminent Sandwell District album; and he tells us it will be the last for a long while to come. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you one of the UK’s most inspiring, intelligent and eternally relevant techno artists: hail, Regis.

I know the output of the label has always been varied, but recently Downwards’ releases have tended more towards the industrial and avant-electronics side of things, what with 10″s from Antonym, Tropic Of Cancer and so on. Would you say that the techno focus of Sandwell District has freed up Downwards to focus on less dancefloor-focussed material?

“We released the first Antonym 7″ in 1992 so the roots of the label were always based in the outer-scene. We did have a 7″ series that covered much the same ground around 1999/2000, so I think we have always had that particular  thread running through the fabric of the label. I have to say it makes as perfect sense for us to be releasing a Tropic Of Cancer or Dva Damas 10″ in 2010 as it did for us to be backing a Surgeon 12″ in 1994.”

“Someone from a major label phoned us up once to ask who our press agent was – we just laughed at them down the phone.”

Tell me about the early days of Downwards. How and why did you set up the label, and what, in the early years, drove you forward?

“I’ve always loved the DIY tradition of UK independent record labels. You make it, you release it and all of a sudden you are a label. The Desperate Bicycles were right: ‘It was easy, it was cheap – go and do it.’

“We did however have great success in the first few years. Someone from a major label even phoned us up once to ask who our press agent was – we just laughed at them down the phone.

“We did it all ourselves, from production to distribution. We never signed anyone, no Downwards record ever contained a remix and nobody really knew who ran the label – and that total artistic freedom was its own reward.”

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