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.”
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Karl O’Connor is credited as “executive producer” on the record, what was the process of completing the record with him like?
“We would wake up every morning at 9, have some breakfast and then start working. We’d have a lunch break and then get right back to it. Then in the evening we’d kind of be pretty spent so we’d listen back to what had happened during the day, then we’d go our separate ways, meet up the next morning, have some fucking pancakes and hit it again! [laughs] It’s was this really amazing process, it was cool.
“For it’s time, Broadcast’s Tender Buttons was probably the closest we got to a TG record, you know?”
“At the end of the day, I made the record for people like Karl, like Kiran from Blackest, like Veronica from Minimal Wave, like Rabih [Morphosis] – those are the people that for me were kind of like pillars to look to for the record. And even some people that I don’t know, like the dude who runs Captured Tracks, or Justin from The Soft Moon – I played a techno gig in San Francisco and Justin was there; I didn’t expect him to be there, but he came, and was really into it. It’s important to understand the wider scope of what we’re doing, that it’s not just banging techno music, there’s a lot of context.
“Still, it’s strange for me for the record to be getting the attention it’s getting, because at the end of the day the people I’m trying to target it with it are those people that I know, that I look up to. I was talking to Veronica the other day, and it occurred to me that there was just so much that she’d done that had influenced me before I’d even met her, all these reissues and stuff I’d never heard of that had become really poignant to me.
“In terms of influences, another really important one was Trish Keenan and James from Broadcast; for me Tender Buttons was the opening to a lot of things. People didn’t really get that record, a lot of people dismissed it as this kind of synth-pop thing, and they don’t really understand that for that time, it was probably the closest we got to a TG record, you know? Of course the biggest influence was probably all those early Downwards 7″s that we just reissued as the White Savage Dance 12″ – I tell Karl that all the time, that stuff is more relevant today than ever.
“People don’t acknowledge that there is inequality. They’re like, ‘What do you mean? Everything’s fine!’ and it’s like no, everything is not fine.”
Tell us more about the album. Why is it called Negative Fascination?
“The reason I called the record Negative Fascination was… well, I used it on a Sandwell District single a while back, and for me it became this proprietary thing…I’m not a firm occultist, you know [laughs], but I’m very much informed by all those things. I know things like Process Church and Temple ov Psychick Youth are very much in fashion, but they still interest me. At the core of it, it’s about creating context for creation.
“I have a fascination with things that are very disturbing, but which are also very common. We’re very desensitised to things, but we also need to acknowledge that they exist, to know what they are. For example, me, being Hispanic, being immigrant, in the US, the biggest thing that bothers me most of the time is that people don’t acknowledge that there is inequality. They’re like, ‘What do you mean? Everything’s fine!’ and it’s like no, everything is not fine. And I’m OK with that. I don’t feel oppressed, personally, but just acknowledge that things are not equal, and we’re good. Because the acknowledgement of that is the statement of reality. And I’m fascinated by this: there are all these fucked up things going on, and we find a way to live within them. I’m fascinated by that.
“Living in Southern California, for example, you have fucking Disneyland and then literally a 5 mile drive outside of it it’s fucking meth central. There’s always been this crazy juxtaposition of things like that in California. Growing up, we’d go to all these ritzy areas and the way these areas run efficiently is because they’re run by immigrants – on the top there’s this upper crust of the white super-rich, but if it wasn’t for this underbelly, it would not exist, it would fall apart.”
“There are all these fucked up things going on, and we find a way to live within them. I’m fascinated by that.”
What about the imagery? The sleeve artwork feels like a culmination, or continuation, of the themes you explored in the Sandwell District releases…
“With Sandwell District, it was always this obsession with two things: horror movies and teddy boys. A mix of that. And for me, that’s still a big part of it. That time was just a classic time for style, for aesthetics. That’s kind of how we live, top to bottom, you know what I mean? Those things remain hugely influential on us. Part of the reason The Smiths have always been such a big deal for me is all this imagery on the covers – all these crazy British movies that I’d never heard of, or, I don’t know, I’d have to search really fucking hard to find out who Viv Nicholson was, you know? [laughs] Or the guy who was in Leather Boys, or whatever.
“At the same time, I developed this fascination with switchblades and bought a bunch. The cover, that’s me holding the switchblade. We’re doing this limited 20-piece edition of the record that comes with an engraved switchblade. So yeah…the art is very influenced by my fascination with the way that things are fucked up. You read about things like the Process Church… utopia to me is a joke. Utopian cultures and societies always end up fucked up, because it’s the nature of humans that someone will want to take charge, and by doing that, they’ll fuck things up. In that sense I suppose the ‘negative fascination’ thing is quite anti-peace and love, because those things don’t necessarily work. I don’t want to come across as some fucking hater, but that whole hippie shit for me just doesn’t work. And that’s part of the fascination with Process Church: because they were totally anti-hippie, no? 100%. But even that all ended badly [laughs]. The stories are amazing, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the books about it. When people are searching for answers, and for meaning, they can be led to these really weird ends.
“With Sandwell District, it was always this obsession with two things: horror movies and teddy boys.”
“Things don’t always end well, things aren’t always going to be OK. But there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just important to acknowledge that as reality, to acknowledge that we’re in this place and we will have to deal with shitty things, and bad things will happen, people will die – it’s just what happens. It doesn’t mean we’re negative people. And in a way, when you acknowledge those things you’re kind of free – because you’re like OK, I’m prepared, I know what I have to do. It’s about knowing that things will go wrong and being ready for them, no matter what.”
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The music on Negative Fascination doesn’t feel doomy, it doesn’t wallow in despair; on the contrary, it sounds like it’s trying to find a route through it. It has real momentum to it.
“Even back with Sandwell District, people would describe our music as nihilistic, and it’s not… I don’t know if I’d call it celebratory, but it’s visceral, there’s an energy to it. I’ve been DJing since I was 16, and I’m now 35. Over that period of time I’ve developed an understanding of momentum: momentum creates energy, momentum keeps interest. If you can’t keep momentum, whether it’s a techno record, or a rock record, or a fucking drone record…sure, there’s way to create environments, to create a headspace, but even within that there needs to be something that moves. Even on the Silent Servant record, some of the tempos drop down to the 110s, the 120s, but through the sequencer there’s a momentum that’s created which keep things moving. That’s really important to me. When I’m DJing, I’m extremely aware of when things die [snaps fingers]. If I’m DJing, if a record dies, however good it might be, I just don’t play it. It’s just about creating dynamic, momentum, that’s the goal with everything, really.”
“It’s just about creating dynamic, momentum – that’s the goal with everything, really.”
How did the experience of recording Negative Fascination, a solo album, as opposed to the collaborative affair that was the Sandwell District album, Feed-Forward?
“Feed-Forward was a strange one because it had so many mutations of what it was supposed to be. And it was the work of different people, though there was a lot of arrangement happened with Karl in Berlin. This record [Negative Fascination] was very much my head, 100%. Usually I work pretty quickly – though I end up spending more time thinking about records than actually making them – and I really appreciate the fact that a lot of bands, like the early Rough Trade bands, Factory or Mute bands, were working with limited resources and limited time. Think about Robert Rental – he made his first two 7″s in his bedroom at night while his girlfriend was sleeping; he had to do them at night and get them done, and get them out. Or whatever band would set up a recording session with Martin Hannett and basically you had a week – you had a week to record your album. Maybe you even had two weeks – but that was it.
“A lot of that was in my mind, and that was part of the reason that I wanted the album to be a single LP, I wanted to keep it in that tradition. I want people to listen to it, I don’t want to have a record where people are like, ‘Oh, there’s four LPs in this thing’, and you’ve got to keep flipping it. That’s why we made the single: if you want to play the record in the club, there is a version you can play. The LP you can play out too, of course – but it’s made to listen to. A side, flip it, then B side. That’s it. That’s the whole record. None of this I think this is side C, and this is side D or whatever bullshit…”
I buy lots of double-albums like that. And I end up never listening to them the whole way through.
“Totally, I buy them too and they just sit there, and I just end up thinking why the fuck did I buy that, and buying the CD anyway. [laughs]”
“I don’t want to make academic music, I want to make records that have some virility in and of themselves.”
So what next? Do you feel the completion of this album is the end of something, or has it perhaps opened up new avenues for you to explore?
“Making techno records is one thing, but making things that are a little more involved is another. I think I’m going to have to slightly regroup now. Because the album is everything that I wanted it to be, in a way. Even though it’s only seven tracks, it’s very representative of what I wanted to achieve – there’s a little bit of Cabs, there’s a little bit of DAF, there’s a little bit of early Basic Channel and early Downwards, there’s some weird post-punk, upbeat, almost Joy Division-like sounds. It was just this weird mutation in my head, and for me to do it again, I’m just going to have to spend some time to find a new focal point and direction and decide OK, this is what I’m going to do next. We [Mendez and Karl O’Connor] might work on a Sandra Electronics record together, that might be the next big thing we do, and I’m going to continue to put out DJ singles, techno stuff, but try to keep it as interesting as I can. People like, for example, DJ Trax – he runs Nation, he’s an awesome DJ who likes taking chances, and he’s making really interesting music that’s also functional – and I really appreciate that. I don’t want to make academic music, I want to make records that have some virility in and of themselves.”
“People out here [in LA] say there’s no good music out there, and I’m like, dude, you’re crazy – you’re just not paying attention. There’s so much. New little things pop up every day in random places – shit in LA, shit in New York, some kid in Nebraska, some kid in Switzerland, there’s just so much everywhere. And these kids are being influenced by some really interesting things. Sure, it lives in the underbelly, and that’s fine. It’s OK if things don’t get too big. If things reach a larger audience, well, that’s totally fine; but at the same time, it’s totally fine if they don’t. You know, I’m OK with the fact that I like The Horrors, I think they’re a good band; I’m totally OK with liking them. I like The Smiths. It’s just the reality of what I like. At the same I time I really appreciate fucking Vatican Shadow, I really appreciate Haul, those Swiss dudes who sent me the 7″ – it’s like dude, it’s all there.
“There’s so much happening. You have kids like Nick from The KVB – his record on Clan Destine is really good, it’s super-fucked-up, there are little gems on there and these are the gems that mean in five years people are going to be looking for that record. I’m still a very avid record-buyer – my house looks like a record store, it’s kind of sad. I try to turn people onto different things. That’s why I appreciate – and Karl will probably kill me for saying this – Trevor Jackson. The fact that he put out that Metal Dance compilation – people like him, people like Veronica, they’re doing a really good job at turning people on to different things and bringing unusual shit to the forefront.
“So with regard to new material, I think it’s more a matter of context, finding the right context in which to create it, and finding a new idea to base it around. The the idea of what the music is, to me, is as important as how the music actually turns out. Even if only 500 people like the record, that’s fine with me. I’m really appreciative of all the Sandwell District fans, I just felt an obligation to move forward. We’re just trying to do things that are interesting and not fall by the wayside. It’s easy just to put out banging techno tracks. And there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not what our end result is, it never has been.”
“People say there’s no good music out there, and I’m like, dude, you’re crazy – you’re just not paying attention.”
Techno remains important to you though, right?
“Absolutely. I continue to have a deep appreciation of really good techno DJs: people like Ben Klock, Norman Nodge, Marcel Fengler or whoever… I try to DJ at that level, but at the same time because I’m in LA, there’s so much happening here with [indie/punk/wave-oriented clubnight] Part Time Punks – a lot of the inspiration that I get, and which is going to come out in what I do next, has a lot to do with that. So much stuff happens there, I’ve seen so many different bands there. Every Sunday night. These kids are really trying hard at what they’re doing, and it’s interesting. That energy, those people, is what keeps me want to keep my own shit interesting. It’s harder to get people to go to these shows, but they’re the ones that are really inspiring, because they’re taking chances.
“We’re not motivated by anything other than desire to make something interesting. We will continue to do these things, and we feel we’d be doing a disservice to ourselves not do them. I want people to find out about stuff – stuff that I’m fond of, I want other people to know about too. I want people to know about Led Er Est, I want people to know about L.I.E.S., I want people to know about, I don’t know, fuck, [distribution company] Ready Made, all the stuff we’re doing with Ready Made, or Hospital, or Tropic of Cancer, or Blackest – fuck, I mean, I intentionally buy extra copies of Blackest records to give to the weirdos who might not know about it. And when they hear it, they’re like dude, I didn’t know about this, and I’m like yeah, this is some cool shit. I want people to know that there’s a lot happening. That we’re not in this dead time. Things are alive. The mutation is happening. It’s a really interesting time, and like they always say: everything you’ve ever wanted is already here. You just have to look for it.”