Silent Servant on the making of his new album and “the feeling that shit could blow up at any minute”
Earlier this month, Juan Mendez released Negative Fascination, his debut album as Silent Servant.
Best known for his involvement in Sandwell District, which has ceased to exist as a record label but continues, it would seem, to operate as a loose collective of sorts, Mendez’s roots in techno extend back to the 1990s, when he was making music as Jasper running the celebrated Cytrax label alongside Kit Clayton and Steve Tang. Having subsequently founded the more dancefloor-oriented Delay imprint, an offshoot of Cytrax, Mendez crossed paths with Karl O’Connor, aka Regis.
“We first got in contact around 1999,” O’Connor remembers. “I helped him with distribution; I really liked what they were doing and Juan was a fan of the Downwards stuff. He used to have a night in Long Beach where he would DJ things like James Chance and Smegma into Lee Hazelwood and Cilla Black – needless to say, that kind of selection made a deep impression on me.”
So began a friendship and creative alliance that has continued to this day. Mendez and O’Connor, together with Dave ‘Function’ Sumner and Peter ‘Female’ Sutton, released a number of singles under the Sandwell District banner during the 2000s, and what began as a loose association solidified, over a number of years, into one of the most respected techno imprints on the planet – culminating in the release, in late 2010, of a fully-fledged collaborative album, Feed-Forward album. Meanwhile, Mendez was beginning to play an increasingly prominent A&R role at Downwards, discovering many of the bands that would contribute to the label’s post-punk, shoegaze and death-rock-oriented DO series, among them Pink Playground and Dva Damas. He also took over art direction for Sandwell District, and collaborated with his wife, Camella Lobo, as Tropic of Cancer for a brace of acclaimed singles on Downwards and an EP on Blackest Ever Black, also finding time to team up with O’Connor for the magnificent Sandra Electronics 10″, ‘It Slipped Her Mind’.
Following the dissolution of the Sandwell label, Mendez returned to California after a spell in the North West and focussed his attentions on crafting a Silent Servant full-length. A chance conversation with recent LA arrival Dominick Fernow (aka Vatican Shadow, aka Prurient) – a vociferous Sandwell and Downwards fan – led to the LP being signed to Fernow’s own Hospital Productions. Recorded in just two weeks at Mendez’s home studio, then post-produced for a week with Regis in Berlin, the album is a thrilling distillation of Mendez’s wide-ranging but exacting interests in post-punk, minimal wave, industrial and, of course, techno.
FACT’s Jon Colley called up Mendez last week to talk about the genesis of the album. “I want people to know that there’s a lot happening,” the producer told him. “That we’re not in this dead time. Things are alive. The mutation is happening.”
“I knew that Negative Fascination wasn’t going to be a traditional techno LP.”
“Basically, Camella [Lobo, Mendez's wife and leader of Tropic of Cancer] had become friends with his girlfriend. Dominick had moved to LA, so they organised a dinner for us all to hang out; I’d not met Dominick before, but I’d seen in interviews that he’d name-dropped Sandwell District and few other techno things and I thought, OK, this guy sounds cool. I looked into the Vatican Shadow stuff and when I heard it, I just really, really liked it. I thought it was interesting, it seemed like something fresh, kind of the outer realm.
“So we had dinner, and he kept telling me how much he admired that we’d stopped Sandwell District and all that kind of stuff, and then I told him I was working on my LP, and he said well hey, why don’t you release it on Hospital? And I was a little taken aback… because you know, we don’t really like working with other people. I don’t, Karl really doesn’t – aside from Blackest [Ever Black] we kind of don’t really like anybody [laughs], as far as aesthetic goes. So we had dinner, and we kept talking; I didn’t really give him an answer that night, I guess I tried to – in a way – brush it off. But when I got home, I thought about it, and was like, wow – this guy, in confidence, asked me to put out a record on his label, which I’m sure is something he doesn’t often ask anyone.
“So the next morning I texted him and said look man, I’m really sorry, I realise it’s kind of a big deal that you asked me to put the record out on Hospital, and I know that takes a lot, so I’m just going to say yes. And that was that. It wasn’t a guilt thing, but it was kind of out of respect – and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Also, we were going through some weird things with Downwards, a distro change-up, and it felt right to do it kind of outside. And anyway, the connection was already there: Blackest put out a Vatican record, Karl had done a remix [of Vatican Shadow]. Even unknowingly, on the first Where Next quarterly mix, I put a Vatican track, when I didn’t even know Dominick at that time, and he’d noticed.
“It’s not your normal techno crowd, it’s more like this mutant crowd…it’s a little more like…I don’t want to say gothy, but the kids just look different.”
Was there a sense that in releasing your album on Hospital, that you’d potentially introduced Silent Servant to a different audience, and that Dominick would be opening up Hospital to a new audience too?
“It’s funny, because a lot of the times I’ve been DJing out recently, at certain events anyway, I notice that the crowds are different now, you know? It’s not your normal techno crowd, it’s more like this mutant crowd…it’s a little more like…I don’t want to say gothy, but the kids just look different; it looks more like a post-punk show than a classic techno gig. And a lot of these kids, they know about Dominick, and they really appreciate what he does, but they also really appreciate certain strains of techno – not everything, but certain things. So that was part of the attraction too, we kind of knew that would happen. And I knew that the LP wasn’t going to be a traditional techno LP. I really don’t think it would’ve been possible til this year to do what we did.”
How do you mean?
“It’s just all the influences, everything that’s happening – there’s a lot of cool stuff happening right now – and I just wanted to make sure that I did what I felt was necessary at this time for things to progress. Even if it’s small. I know techno’s getting bigger and all that kind of jazz, but at the same time the whole mutant area is still underground… things like L.I.E.S., with Steve Summers and Ron Morelli doing really cool stuff, they’re making things that are more mutant, then you have things like Blackest, things like the Pye Corner Audio… So it’s coming from all these different places. It’s like Haul, these kids from Switzerland – I think it’s Switzerland, they just sent me a 7″ in the mail and I was like wow, I got a free record and it’s fucking awesome. I don’t even know these kids, you know. And they like techno but they also like this weird shit, you know, so we’re slowly building this, like, weird boat – who’s know where it will go or how big it will get, but I like where it’s at, it’s at a comfortable place.”
“The real opener was the Tropic of Cancer ‘Be Brave’ single, and also the Sandra Electronics 10″ ['It Slipped Her Mind']: after that, things felt really open to do whatever. For about two years, pretty much post-Feed-Forward [Sandwell District's 2010 album], I knew what I wanted to do, I just needed to get a lot of other things out of the way. I put together a mix of things that I was pointing to, and Cabaret Voltaire’s Red Mecca was a big one, but even bands like Led Er Est – for me they’re just a really good combination of fucked up shit; really good sequencer stuff, good synth stuff and drum machines, but it still has this hi-fi-lo-fi thing going on, you know? It’s not truly lo-fi. And that’s something we wanted to come across on the Silent Servant record. I also really like all the minimal synth shit, but I really appreciate it most when it’s got weird elements – that’s why I love the Cabs so much, it’s because of the guitars, the guitars are used in this really mutant way. Listen to a band like Modern Art, the way they use guitars. That’s the kind of thing I really love.
“I really wanted to have this element of electricity, of live electricity. That feeling that shit could blow up at any minute.”
“So when it came to my record, I used bass and guitars in really weird ways, a lot of different synths – things like an Omnichord, whatever – but also I really wanted to get away from dub-techno. I really wanted it to be non-dub-techno. That’s one of the reasons that the sequencers became such a big focal point. I have this thing called an MAQ 16/3 sequencer – it’s just a metal box with a crapload of knobs, basically, a mono sequencer – and that thing basically made the record. In actual recording terms, I only spent about two weeks on it. I spent like a year thinking about it, and then two years of recording, and then we [Mendez and Karl O'Connor] spent a week finishing it in Berlin. I really wanted to have this element of electricity, of live electricity – you know, that feel of open cables. Because that’s the thing about synthesisers and all that stuff I love – these things have weight, they have life, and there’s some texture to them. That feeling that shit could blow up at any minute.”
Use arrow keys to turn pages (page 1/3)