Surgeon’s live set at Sommerøya had a powerful intensity. The atmosphere was potent and you felt like could reach out and touch. It was a welcomed intensity, a claustrophobic feeling that sucks you into the music without suffocating. Every moment you’re aware you are in the presence of it, but it’s all just a very dense emptiness that clouds around you. There was no room for hedonistic escapism as you remain grounded, moving to the beat of a stubborn and relentless kick drum, coaxed from Surgeon’s modular synthesiser.
Hailing from what Regis referred to once to as the “Industrial Village” of Birmingham, Surgeon’s auspicious roots in music had developed a new strain of Techno in the early part of the ninety-nineties when the sound of Detroit had reached English shores and evolved and mutated with its new surroundings.
Through the influences of Regis (real name Karl O’Connor) and Mick Harris (Napalm Death, Scorn), who Child often mentions in interviews as a mentor, Surgeon established a new and unique dialect in electronic music. A promiscuous figure who channels influences from disparate worlds through machines, his music relays a propensity or a mood that people often conflate with misnomers like industrial, dark or gloomy.
An individual artistic presence in Techno, you can trace a direct lineage from his debut EP to his most recent releases, and while many have tried to replicate his sound, none have succeeded. As Surgeon, Child has contributed a great deal to the Techno genre and continues to do so through releases on Downwards, Tresor and his own imprints Counterbalance and Dynamic Tension Records.
Watching Surgeon from the swampy crowd at Sommerøya the intense focus he exhibits corresponds with the legacy he’s established, but as soon as I meet him backstage for our interview, the severity disappears and I find a very approachable Englishman with a modest demeanour and a dry sense of humour.
What an amazing set. You were one of three live Techno sets in a row. What do you think has changed in Techno recently to make it more conducive for live sets like the one we’ve just seen?
The only thing I can think of is that maybe technologically they are a lot more different ways you can perform live.
Coming from a DJ background as well, do you feel there’s something to the live set which is more suited to your personality and music?
I’ve DJ’d for a long time using a computer, and I gradually started getting into more hardware stuff, but I initially intended that for the studio. Then what happens is, if anything is really fun I want to bring it to a gig and use it. As soon as I got the first (eurorack synthesiser) modules I took it to a gig after a month of having it. I ran that alongside the computer and gradually it went further away from DJing, like a hybrid type thing, into live. There was a point I realised the computer was a safety net for me, and that the safety net was the thing getting in the way of the purity of the improvisation.
It’s a thing about risk. I really believe that when a performer takes risks they feel that and they connect with that and they participate with this risk that everyone is taking, that’s what makes it exciting. If everything is all set out and you are doing this perfect live set or DJ-set, it’s super boring and there is no risk involved.; That realisation was so important. When I play live it is so imperfect, but it gives a sense of things happening right there, rather than me doing these perfect sequences.
Do you feel you can connect with an audience more in this way?
Yes, it’s in a different way. I’m so busy I forget to look up. I’m aware of people, but I have to keep working. There’s some level where it really connects me, the people and the sound in a much more intense way than having something more set out or even a DJ-set.
Is everything completely in the moment and improvised?
I have these basic sequences that I start with and I tend to take them apart, but I have to work hard to make it happen, but that’s challenging and fun?
I want to delve into your history a little. Karl O’Connor (Regis) quoted you in a Quietus interview a while back about Birmingham where you said “Anything nice or remotely artistic that happens, people either don’t go or burn it down”. What effect do you think that environment had on the music coming from people like you and Regis?
That is true, but in a way it’s too simplistic to look at Birmingham in that way. There were a lot of things going on for me during the early nineties and the really important thing for me was a big group of friends, and we all lived in a certain area of Birmingham called Moseley – interestingly Karl didn’t live there. I didn’t know Karl, but that’s how I knew Mick Harris. We hung out and we were interested in a lot of the same music and films, but he was very much a mentor. He would buy me Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and say “you need this”. And it would take me ten years and I would persist with it, because Mick gave it to me and it was important.
There were mod psychedelic bands, there was Godflesh, Scorn; there was us doing Techno. There was a cross pollination, that was really important; this healthy musical scene where everything was exciting and people were creating.
Do you think that you borrowed something from artists like Scorn and Godflesh when you started making your own music?
I think it was about the energy of excitement, creation and possibility at that time that was the most important to me rather than a stylistic thing. Everybody did their own thing and everyone let people do their own thing and I appreciated, but still focused on their own thing.
Was there a club-culture in the city that brought you into contact with like-minded people or was it more isolated?
There was a club culture, but it was not anything I wanted to go to. I went to a few raves, but you wouldn’t really hear Techno at them. Really, it was me and my friends who started a club called House of God where we would play Techno and I started DJ’ing. We started that in 1993 and now that’s been going for 25 years.
That’s a key thing with Birmingham; if you don’t have something you make it yourself. You don’t sit there and moan that there’s nowhere I can hear Techno, you just get off your arse and make that happen. That was the spirit of the early nineties, that energy of creation and energy of making thing happen. We had no idea what we were doing and we had no blueprint to follow, we just made it up as we went along.
Regis mentioned previously that it was the Surgeon EP that propelled the Downwards label into the public consciousness and today it’s like a blueprint for the Techno genre and artists from Oscar Mulero to Kobosil. How much stock do you personally put in these early releases in what Techno has become today?
I guess I’m happy about them. I realise the way I view my timeline is not the same as you would view my timeline. That’s not the beginning for me, it’s the beginning of me releasing Techno music, but that’s not the beginning.
What was the beginning for you?
I made a lot of music before I ever DJ’d. It wasn’t Techno though it was closer to musique concréte with tape recorders and things. I read something about the BBC Radio Symphonic workshop, but it was like if you read something or have an idea and you have no idea of how they are doing it, because there’s no youtube, you’ve just go to guess what they are doing.
I liked a lot of The Beatles very psychedelic music, and dabbling in experimental music was very exciting to me, so I wanted to play with tape recorders and make these tape loops, and figure out how they made “Tomorrow never knows” or something like that.
Equally important was William Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s ideas about cut-ups. That’s what I was doing with tapes. The idea about collage with sound, that was a really important early influence to me and that still carries through my work. Whether it was text, film or sound, this re-contextualising was really exciting idea. When this idea hits you and suddenly the whole universe changes it’s that kind of thing.
I know you don’t put any stock in the sci-fi themes that played a role in Techno in the USA, but your music has this claustrophobic feel to it; something like the satellite towns in J G Ballard’s books. Do you think that kind of thing is present in your music especially considering your ideas about burroughs?
I grew up in a more rural environment and moved to Birmingham and looking back that was quite a shock to my system. I think, especially the early Techno I made, may have been a reaction to that. How abrasive it was. Maybe, it’s just an idea.
The thing with Burroughs is he put you in that universe. It’s the same thing with Coil, they have their own Coil universe, and when you listen to their music, you are there. When you talk about that suffocating thing, that’s me trying to create music that transports you into some mindspace and maybe I found it easiest by pressing hard.
Usually listening to an artist’s music – especially electronic music that’s kind of reliant on technical evolutions – you can hear a progression or evolution. With your music, I’ve never been able to discern that. Listening to Communications and then listening to Luminosity Device I can’t draw a line of distinction. How do you maintain that level of artistic identity in a music that is machine made?
I see what you mean, it’s not something that’s conscious, it’s something that just happens. I really try to put myself in the music when I make it. I really pour myself into it.
Do you ever work within a strict conceptual framework when you are working on an album?
I think albums work much better within concepts. On the whole when you talk about the similarities between Communications and Luminosity Device, they work on many different layers on the same time, but maybe I’m exploring some of those layers more than others.
There are a lot of elements that’s within in the framework in Techno, but that’s what keeps it interesting. It’s possibly the most flexible style of music there is, because you can bend and stretch it so much, and you can add other things, and it’s still Techno. If you compare it to Drum’n’Bass, if you alter it too much it’s not Drum’n’Bass anymore. Techno, when you stretch it out, it can incorporate Electro and even Dubstep, but it’s still really Techno.
People often ascribe signifiers like dark, sombre or melancholy to the kind of music you make, which is probably the same kind of thing they’d apply to a band like Coil. Listening to a track like “Syllable”, I’ve always been more inclined to think of it as quite upbeat and energetic.
I know no-matter what I do people are always going to say, ‘o yeah he makes hard, dark music’. It doesn’t matter what I do, I can release a pop country western album and people will still say he makes hard, dark music. I look at it more as intensity than darkness. It’s fun you can fuck around with people if they have a rigid idea.
The overall idea, when we are talking about concepts, the reason I do a lot of things the way I do, is to hope to show and influence people, and this is the really important thing; that if you think you have to do something a certain way, that’s not true.
It’s about playing and bending rules about everything. It could be about music, it could be about the way you dress, or how you present yourself, just everything. Re-consider everything, that’s the idea, the overall message.
It seems today Techno’s become more rigid as people are defining it in a way that it has to have this aggressive, dark nature to it.
I’ve seen cycle of these things happen before. When there’s too much of a consensus that this is what Techno is, it just sinks and then there will be another permutation. When there’s too much of a consensus restricting something it suffocates itself.
People tend to put an industrial label on me and that’s not a label I’m happy with at all. Yes, I’m a fan of and I appreciate what Throbbing Gristle did and I’m a huge fan of Coil. but to call them industrial is restricting the varied music they did.
The problem today with this idea of Industrial Techno, it’s a kind of pantomime, it’s absolutely ridiculous, it’s like bad Goth music. People take themselves far too seriously.
And that’s another thing about Birmingham. A really important part, which nearly everybody outside of Birmingham doesn’t see, is the humour in it. It’s us laughing at ourselves. A lot of Downwards titles are ridiculous, but it’s very subtle. We love the absurd. Karl and I described ourselves as “Britain’s best-loved absurdist space rock duo.”
Do you think the popularity of the genre has had this adverse effect on the music?
I’ve seen it before, that the more popular Techno is the more Techno is made, so statistically there’s more bad music being made.
What would you prefer, to go back to this niche underground thing?
No, not really. I’m not precious about who hears Techno. I know for sure that there are a lot of people, who have this idea about Techno being underground and they want to keep it precious and I understand that mentality, but I don’t really have that mentality with it.
Having said that, I want the music to speak for itself, and not have some personality DJ at the helm – that’s the biggest problem for me. When it’s led by the music, that’s fine, that always works out, but when it’s led by the idea of this personality DJ, I’m not really sure about that.