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.
“Someone from a major label phoned us up once to ask who our press agent was – we just laughed at them down the phone.”
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.”
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.”
If you were a twenty-year-old in Birmingham now, do you think you’d have been moved to make the same kind of music, or start the same kind of label, as you did back in the 90s?
“It’s all down to the environment and the times you grow up in. I think that if I were 20 now, I would still have that same single-minded vision of how I would want to apply my sound. So I would imagine that at its core it would be the same type of label.”
A notable thing about Downwards right from the off was your desire to impose something extra-musical, some kind of narrative, onto its music – from the artwork to the provocative titles, rarely with Downwards does anyone feel like they’re buying into “just” techno. You seem keen on the idea that music be about something other than itself, so to speak. Is that fair to say?
“Because to an extent the [techno] movement was faceless, and we were perceived as having this bleak, imperious sound, I didn’t also want the label to be ‘soulless’. I loved the immediacy of techno but 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. I imagine the things that seemed obvious and instinctive to us were alien to the way most other people in techno readily presented themselves. I think that in the best traditions of British electronic music, we had a certain fractured pop sensibility.”
“The people with the least amount of talent always seem to take up the most of your time.”
You once said that Downwards drove you round the bend and nearly killed you. What precisely have been the pleasures and pitfalls of running the label over the years?
“I think I was being a bit overly dramatic when I said that – I’m surprised I didn’t announce my retirement too. Putting out a record is still the greatest experience and I still have the same feeling when I receive a new release of mine for the first time (Smell The Glove is here…). Pitfalls? The people with the least amount of talent always seem to take up the most of your time.”
You’ve recently repressed Delivered Into The Hands of Indifference and Penetration. Is the timing of this significant? Is the Downwards repress programme considered or erratic? Have you ever thought about anthologising the label’s output in any substantial way?
“Well, Delivered Into The Hands has been remastered – in truth, it was never mastered in the first place – with the sequence order I originally wanted. It’s been out of press for about eight years and I still think it still has some merit and deserves to have a life in the real world as well as the digital realm. Most of the records have always remained in print, so I’m not sure if we need to compile just yet.”
You were instrumental in bringing techno to the Midlands, but where did your own techno epiphany come? Where did you go and what did you hear that got you into the music?
“Well, I think Network Records and Neil Rushton – the man who introduced the sound of Detroit to Europe – would have something to say about that. They really were the Birmingham originals.
“As I’ve already said, I felt disconnected from the emerging [techno] scene. The things that I liked were made by people who had actually been making music since the post-punk era, if not before: The Cabs’ Richard H. Kirk and Rob Gordon and their XON and Sweet Exorcist projects, ex-Rema Rema frontman Gary Asquith and his (then) new Renegade Soundwave project. I always loved the British stuff much more than what is now considered the pioneering early American techno.”
I’m keen to hear more about the ambience of Birmingham when you first started Downwards. What was going on locally that motivated or intrigued you? Were there any particular local fanzines, bands or producers that were a direct inspiration?
“Mick Harris, it all went through Mick Harris [former Napalm Death drummer, records as Scorn and Lull among other names]. Although Mick was a face I had known from the clubs around Birmingham since the mid-80s when I used to see him out from time to time, we only really got to know each other just after he left Napalm Death. I was a bit wary of him at first – as I was sure we had no common ground – but he had this infectious personality coupled with an insatiable appertite for new music (especially, at that time, electronic dance music) and most importantly he showed me that is was possible to move into new fields of music without sacrificing your influences (a concept that I was struggling with back then). Through him I got to meet people like Nik Bullen (Scorn) and Justin Broadrick (Godlflesh, ex-Head of David), who like Mick had both been important figures on the Birmingham scene for years.
“During this time Tony Burnham (Antonym) was doing his Soft Watch experimental bible-cum-directory – a legend in its own lunchtime. Also people like Martyn Bates (Eyeless in Gaza) and the journalist John Everall became part of this micro-scene that passed through Mick’s house. By the time Mick had introduced me to Tony Child [Surgeon] (Tony recorded his first 12″ at Mick’s studio – which doubled up as his back toilet), this odd collection of people – who were all working in different areas of music and at different points in their careers – had swelled to include Mark Farmer, who ran the Plastic Barry fanzine and Richard Harvey, a local pornographer. Even the veteran music journalist Nik Cohen (the man who inspired the concept for Saturday Night Fever) put in an appearance once, whilst researching a book about the British ‘underground’ music scene. I think the feeing at the time was to just get your ideas down, record and move on, make something happen.”
What’s the Birmingham scene like now? Is there one?
“I have no idea.”
You’ve mentioned before that Val Denham is a big influence. Can you tell me a bit about him and the impact his work has had on you? Have you ever considered approaching him to do some artwork for you?
“Val is as wonderful and bizarre as you could I imagine – transgender and Yorkshire in broad daylight don’t really mix, so he has some bottle. I still think his/her covers for Marc And The Mambas and Psychic TV are some of the most endearing from the post-punk era. However, Juan Mendez really taps into the D.I.Y spirit of the Sandwell District label more than any outsider could.”
You do seem to be drawn to artists – from Jarman to Genet, Bataille to Fad Gadget, Kern to Pound – who embrace the forbidden, the profane, often the scatological, and usually with a sense of humour, however remote. Is ‘bravery’ in art, a desire to confront the obscene or prohibited, something which is important to you?
“Artists who go out on a limb, artists that go beyond the point of no return and artists who push things to the very limits of good taste and respectability, I have always found the most heroic.
“Although I admire and at times allude to be carrying the baton for such artists, I’m well aware of my own shortcomings as an artist and ultimately I only really make Techno. Besides, my days of living as a poet in some Parisian bordello are long behind me…”
Do you feel that any artists in any media, after, say, 1995, have emerged who you admire and consider as significant as the aforementioned names? Do you feel art has lost its political and social agency?
“I’m not sure what value we place on Art and Music anymore as it seems to have become just a commodity – we’re exposed to things rather than discovering them. I think there are some very gifted programmers working within music right now, but for me that’s just not enough (or maybe it’s too much). I, like many I’m sure, have been waiting for the next cultural ‘kick up the arse’ for years. I hope someone wakes me up when it happens.”
Would you say there is, or ever was, a political dimension to techno, be it yours or anyone else’s?
“From what I witnessed, if it did rear its head it was nothing more than just empty symbolism and sloganeering. As it always is.”
British Murder Boys is a project of yours that many people were particularly fond of. Can you tell me the origins of BMB, the idea behind it, and why it ceased to exist?
“In 2002 both Tony (Child, AKA Surgeon) and myself decided that we had to explore new areas and finally commit to a collaborative project. We already had an eight year history of working together at that stage, and reckoned we had the experience to make something we felt to be unique – something other than the stock two-producers-bang-out-another-club-track vinyl ashtray. Sonically we both knew that we wanted to produce giant slabs of music rather than just tracks for clubs.
“When we decided to take it out live we were amongst the very first to use the set-up that has since almost become a standard. It was about a certain amount of risk-taking, and at times we did test the patience of even our most loyal supporters, but I maintain that while our lows (when we got it wrong) were lower than most, our highs were higher.”
“Tony is the supreme architect when it comes to sound manipulation and in 2008 I was convinced – as I still am – that he was putting subliminal flutes into some of our tracks during the mix. I think we called it a day soon after, rightly so.”
Ritualistic vocals, incantation, the attainment of trance-states – all this was quite a preoccupation for you for a time, wasn’t it?
“I think it was purely about creating slabs of ‘Exotic Hypnotics’ (as Peter Sutton called it); it was about forsaking any form of melody or traditional structure (breakdowns, drum-fills, etc) and building a mantra. The vocal sequences added a more human dynamic when mixed with he processed electronics. It was part Process Church of the Final Judgement and part Hammer House of Horror to a 4/4 time signature. It may be worth reinvestigating at some point, let’s see.”
You’ve worked with DAF in the past. Tell me about that.
“I have worked with both Robert Görl and Chrislo Hass (also of Liaisons Dangerous): both my childhood heroes. I produced Robert’s Sex Drops LP for the Disko B label in the 90s and we also did a number of 12″s together. He also played drums on my Diversion Group 7″. We did a few live shows as a duo which were brilliant and we still remain friends.
“I did a remix for Chrislo and we had plans to go to Conny Plank’s studio to record some tracks with F.M Einheit (I’m sure it would’ve been news to F.M. had we actually turned up). Chrislo was a product of his time: a punk in the true sense of the word and a wonderful, uncontrollable disaster. He died in 2004.”
“Getting routinely ejected in the middle of my own set by security and then having to discuss the merits of ‘Performance Art’ with the the door staff did lose its appeal after a while.”
What prompted you to found and involve yourself in Sandwell District when you did? Function has spoken about the influence of Berghain and having a club and surrounding culture which appreciates what you do. How important has location in general been to the music that you’ve made over the years?
“I never really immersed myself in techno or club culture, so that type of thing never really had a direct influence on me. I’m not sure if I ever made the big step from the Concert Hall to the Dancehall even. I always wanted to escape the boredom of suburban Birmingham so my location was never an influence, I always wanted to be in late 60s and early 70s New York, early 80s West Berlin or anywhere other than the reality of where I was. In the early days of Downwards – 1993 – we felt like we were on the very edge of something new, nothing was certain and as a result we were insular. Sandwell District is more open, more inclusive.”
How did you first encounter Juan Mendez and Dave Sumner, the non-UK Sandwell personnel?
“I first met David in 1996 in New York. He was working at The Limelight (where he had been a resident since the early 90s) for it’s infamous owner Peter Gatien and with the even more legendary Arthur Weinstein, who had been a part of the fixtures and fittings of New York clubs like Hurrah and Studio 54 since the mid-70s. I think they saw David as their little understudy and, being true to his New York roots, he was a rude, obnoxious little shit…I liked him straightaway!”
“Juan Mendez was running the Delay label when we first got in contact around 1999. I helped him with distribution (he was working with Kit Clayton and Twerk amongst others); 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.”
Sandwell District in the flesh seems to be a more restrained and demure beast than some of your previous projects, solo or otherwise (I think particularly of British Murder Boys). It’s hard to imagine you throwing yourself into a crowd and screaming into a microphone in your current incarnation. Is that fair to say? And is that “old Regis” still alive?
“Someone once remarked that watching British Murder Boys was like watching a bad PJ Proby impersonator backed by one of the children from The Village of The Damned, which summed up the classic British ‘End of the Pier’ act that we were. I always personally found it difficult to reconcile the studio-based side of techno (which I enjoy) with the social-club-live performance part (to which my approach was a bit naive). I always felt like a voyeur anyway, I never wanted an identity within it as I felt it was someone else’s scene and that I was just a party spoiler.
“We did, however, see the potential to disrupt. But I have to say that getting routinely ejected in the middle of my own set by security and then having to discuss the merits of ‘Performance Art’ with the the door staff at the club entrance did lose its appeal after a while. I suppose it’s a more considered approach these days: if you can get people to the dancefloor, you can get them to listen to other things in your music. Having said that, if the situation was right and I was full of bad booze, I wouldn’t bet against some more ‘chicken in the basket techno cabaret’.”
Can you tell me a little bit about the making of the Sandwell District album? How have you approached its conception and its recording? To what degree is it collaborative, and what’s the process of collaboration?
“Juan Mendez suggested we should make a record to accompany the Where Next fanzine he was doing and we all found the idea appealing: buy a fanzine get a free comp. I think we’ve been influenced by his artwork/imagery so I guess [the music] will have a very heavy, hypnotic theme.
“Technology has made it easy to collaborate without having to sit side by side in the same room. Although we all live in different countries and have very different ways of producing, I think we are aware for the need to pin down a common ‘sound’ for this label, to make it interesting for ourselves.”
I don’t want to be reductive, but recently it seems your sound has opened up somewhat, your productions have adopted a more low-slung, minimal and stepping style. Would you say this is true? Was there ever a conscious decision to alter your approach?
“‘Updating Modernism’ is how I – tongue placed firmly in cheek – would describe the progression. I have only really done remixes over the last few years so maybe they’ve just been more sympathetic to the artist that I was doing the remix for. I can’t escape my sound, I’m just trying to hone down what I do. The music is just a part of the process, I feel that I’m no longer running on the spot and I now have more options than I did a few years ago.”
Broadly speaking, will the Sandwell District album showcase a similar sound to all the 12-inches, or will there be any obvious departures from the quite lean club sound that the label’s known for?
“I have always viewed myself just as a patron of Sandwell District, it’s David [Sumner, AKA Function] and Juan [Mendez, AKA Silent Servant] that really make the music and chart the direction. I hope the album etches out some sort of sound for this so called ‘label’, it really is up to David and Juan as my role is just to disrupt proceedings (and do an edit here and there). However, knowing the people involved, it certainly won’t be straightforward.”
How would you say the people – the crowd, the audience – who turn up to see you play has changed over the course of time?
“As Razanov would say: ‘The show was over, the audience used to leave their seats, collect their coats and go home…But then they turned round…No more coats and no more home.’ I don’t think that happens anymore.”
To someone approaching the Regis corpus for the first time, what advice would you offer? What would you direct a novice to?
“If anyone was looking to make a sound investment – in life, love or art – then I would advise them to buy the lot.”
You’re often cited as one of the last true underground heroes, in that you’re uncompromising, you’re self-reliant, and you’ve stuck to your principles over a long career. What does ‘underground’ mean to you, and how has its meaning changed over the years? You once described yourself as ‘a parody of underground’, which I liked…
“I even think someone disagreed, which was sweet of them. I have a fair idea of what other artists might think they mean when they use the term ‘Underground’, but of course the notion of someone or something being ‘Underground’ is complete nonsense. The meaning has never really changed much over the years, it’s all about degrees of success: ‘commerce alone decrees whether something is mainstream or relegated to the underground.’ Being self-reliant and uncompromising are not qualities exclusive to the ‘Underground’.”
What would you like to be asked that I haven’t asked, and what’s the answer?
Q. Club or Country ?
A. “Black Country.”