Silent Servant – Steel and Machines and Flesh
The Jealous God artist speaks at length about his upbringing in Los Angeles, merging techno with industrial music, Sandwell District and more.
Silent Servant aka Juan Mendez is a fascinating anomaly. In a world of streamlined conformity and social media-dependent image manipulation, he stands apart musically and visually. The LA DJ and producer has a long history and colourful background and traces his musical history back through indie, the early days of rave and into the modern electronic music era. Mendez’s journey, however, is never-ending and doesn’t follow a linear route. He initially appeared during the minimal house explosion as Jasper, but his work for the Sandwell District label redefined modern techno for all to follow, with releases like The Blood of our King, Violencia and Hypnosis in the Modern Age and his imagery on the Where Next Tumblr central to the collective’s identity.
Before that bright star faded, the label closed and Mendez recorded his debut album, Negative Fascination, which documented the grey area between techno, noise and new wave for Hospital Productions. In 2013, Mendez set up the Jealous God label with James Ruskin and Karl O’Connor, the latter being someone that’s been a continuous presence in his life for over a decade. Like Sandwell, Jealous God also boasts a striking visual identity, and gives vent to an even more freeform musical approach that includes everything from 51717’s electronic torch songs to In Aeternam Vale’s primal techno. Mendez also found the time to contribute tracks to a split release with Oliver Ho’s Broken English Club on Minimal Wave offshoot Cititrax last year.
These grinding, screeching workouts sound like the by-product of Mendez’ inspired DJing, which see D.A.F and Cabaret Voltaire sit beside Steve Poindexter and Anthony Parasole. Ahead of a forthcoming European tour, Mendez spoke at length with Richard Brophy and proved to be an animated, friendly and entertaining interviewee, full of interesting stories and opinions. The following is a transcript of the conversation.
I wanted to start at the beginning and ask a little bit about your background and also your musical background. Did you grow up in LA and have you always lived there?
I grew up in LA. I was born in Central America and we moved to South California when I was two. We just stayed, I guess.
What about your musical background?
Me and my older brother, we were skateboarders when we were growing up. He had a tendency to get into trouble and could have ended up in gangs, but my parents whooped it out of him. He had a few skater friends. They were the ones who got me into The Smiths and Echo & The Bunnymen, Bauhaus, The Cure. I’m talking about when I was in fifth grade, around 10 or 11.
There were these new wave clubs in LA at the time, I would go with my mother in the car when we were dropping off my brother, but I was too young to go in. Around that time I became a fanatical fan of The Smiths. The walls in my bedroom were plastered with their posters. In Orange County, punk was a weird thing, as there was a big connection to the white supremacist movement. Being a Hispanic kid, I didn’t want to listen to it or go to the gigs. Just before I was going to high school, I was into The Charlatans and The Stone Roses, and I was also listening to MBV, so it was mainly indie, the shoe gaze thing and Sonic Youth, Mudhoney and other Sub Pop acts.
You have spoken before that the music scene in LA is quite fluid in terms of punk kids going to techno nights and techno kids going to punk gigs – was this always the case, that there was a lot of crossover?
Right when I was starting high school, my brother had bought a guitar and we would go to indie gigs and then on to after-hours parties, but I was always good at staying out of trouble. I got into DJing kinda by accident – we knew a guy who had a DJ set-up, decks and a mixer and we traded my brother’s guitar for it. My brother, he’s only three years older than me and he has always been very supportive.
I guess at the time I was more into new wave than anything else – alternative music was really big in the States. I know a lot of British friends who would say ‘my dad was a mod, I don’t want to be like that’, but we glorified mod culture.
We’d go to a night in LA and there would be scooters parked outside and inside they’d be playing The Who and The Stone Roses. That’s what we were into at the time. Early on in the rave scene it was wide open, but then things got very weird and segmented. Even the Goth scene in LA has existed on its own for so long – one of my friends has been organising the Release the Bats party in LA for almost twenty years. The city is so big that shit can exist on its own.
One thing that is hard for Europeans to understand or grasp is the racial divide in America – is this something that is noticeable in LA’s music scene, or is there a crossover there as well?
As an immigrant in an affluent area, you feel it. You see fewer black kids going to techno gigs, although that is changing now. From a socio-economic perspective, that divide does exist. I didn’t experience racism as much because I have lighter skin, but it still goes on. The Hispanic community in LA is really big, in fact it’s in a majority, but the inequality exists, in the same that it exists in the UK. I know that there is inequality – there are even degrees of it. I am not that dark skinned, if I was, my life would probably different.
One of the things that struck me about an interview you did last year was that you said that you worked a job from the age of 11. Is this true?
Sure, I grew up in a working-class family and my parents were both doing two jobs. They didn’t want to leave us at home, so we’d go to work with them. The areas of LA where I used to work, cleaning banks and offices, that’s where I eat in a restaurant nowadays. I used to be ashamed of what I did, but I guess it’s just something that I went through and I’m thankful to my parents for that and for how they raised me.
Do you think that this upbringing made you more grounded, more responsible and more productive from earlier on – as opposed to someone who would go to college and have fun before getting a job?
In a way, ignorance is bliss. If my parents were rich, they would have put me in private school. Would I be making this kind of music? I don’t know. Sure, there are kids with money who make it happen, but the percentage of people who do something, who even go to art school, is minimal. I mean, I meet up with people who are super-educated. They’re the kind of people who could be politicians and change the world – I am trying to reverse engineer it from the ground up. I bust my ass because my parents gave me the chance to.
Your stage name, some of the imagery you use and the Jealous God label suggest that religion has had an influence on your work.
I grew up in a very Catholic family, but there was a point where my folks stopped going to church because there was a homeless guy who came to the church and the church turned him away, they didn’t want to let him in. My parents thought, ‘fuck you, we don’t need to be part of this’. At the same time, religion wasn’t a negative experience for me. I mean there were always a lot of weird things, like rituals and pictures of saints around the house. I grew up with it and I also draw inspiration from it.
For me, the name is about serving in silence (laughs)… that’s just how the name came about. The name was an homage to Karl (O’Connor). In my opinion, he is one of the top guys. He has that touched quality. I can’t tell you how much Karl has helped me. My life would be totally different if it wasn’t for him.
Around the time of Negative Fascination I really got into reading Genesis P. Orridge, who had appropriated ideas from the Process Church. I was more interested in his music, but his take on the church was interesting. The Process Church was this cult that was based on Scientology, but they flipped it and made it their own thing. Cults almost always end in failure, but that’s what fascinates me about them, their ability to self-destruct.
Do you see any parallels with your own labels?
Sure, it happened with Sandwell District, it’s slowly happening with Jealous God. It’s why I love Throbbing Gristle and the Cabs. They had an image, they pushed it to the edge. It’s also why I loved The Smiths – I loved the imagery, the fascination with those old movies. That’s why we give away the mix CDs with the Jealous God releases. I mean I am sure there are a lot of people who have a similar background and appreciate what we do. I still go and see a lot of bands and at a weekly night called Prism, we recently did a Cabaret Voltaire tribute night – we even got bootleg Cabs T-shirts printed up for the occasion!
Do you see music as a career or is it something that you do in your spare time?
What you have to remember is what I, what we, are doing isn’t hugely lucrative. I know some of the people who are involved with managing Diplo and there is a lot of money involved, but I can’t do stuff like that, it just isn’t me.
I still have a day job – I’m an art director for an eyewear company. It’s funny, I played Berghain on a Sunday and was back in work on the Tuesday morning!
Sometimes, I think that I want to do music full-time, but there is a bit of fear involved. I’m older now – I’m 38 this year – and as you get older, you get more comfortable. Plus last year, I got really sick. I was meant to do a show at The Bunker in New York and I started to get these really bad nose bleeds. I had to undergo emergency surgery. If I didn’t have medical insurance, the bills would be about $70k. It was stress-related due to personal matters – but I’m glad that I have insurance. If I was 24, it would be totally different, I would gun it!
Also, I want to make sure that I can afford to do all of the releases I want to. I don’t want to have to say ‘no’ to anything. If I want to do Jealous God matchboxes for the next release, I don’t want to have to worry about doing it.
Your first records were as Jasper on Cytrax. Was glitch/minimal house a big thing at the time in LA and did you get lumped in with that sound?
No dude, it was more of a coincidence. I kinda got lumped into that while I was into Basic Channel and R&S compilations. I guess it was at the beginning of Chain Reaction. The guy who set up Plug Research got me into that music. He and his friends also helped to distribute Planet E at the time. That’s how I got their records. I was really into that dubby, minimal sound and that was also part of the Detroit sound. So I got Submerge’s fax number and I was getting all of these Maurizio, Basic Channel, Chain Reaction and Detroit techno records for about three dollars apiece because at the time the shipping was so cheap as well.
Around that time, I became friendly with a guy who moved to San Fran and who was putting on parties. He brought over Kit Clayton and Hawtin and I ended up doing the warm-up slots. I didn’t like my DJ name, Jasper, but I did a mix for Force Inc around that time and a lot of good came from it with bookings. I suppose I saw the rise and fall of it (minimalism). One of its failings was that it didn’t work in most clubs or would only work in very specific clubs. I found myself lumped in with this whole laptop techno thing even though I didn’t use a laptop.
Between the end of Cytrax and your first release on Sandwell District, there’s a gap of a few years. Can you tell me what you were doing during that time?
There were a few things in my life at that time. Most of the vinyl distributors were going bust. I also got into some serious legal trouble in the States which meant that I couldn’t really travel that much.
It was the end of an era, but it also meant that I got into DJing in LA and at after-parties. I was also able to go and find all the Throbbing Gristle, ESG, Delta 5 records at second hand stores in LA. I guess I was beginning to see the connection between music from that era and techno.
Did anything else happen to reinforce that link?
Yeah, around that time, I also linked in with East Village Radio in New York, which Veronica (Vasicka) helped set up. She still has a database of all my orders from Minimal Wave from that time and every four months I would order everything from her.
2006 was my first release on Sandwell District. I had started work on it in 2004, 2005. Karl would come to LA on vacation and he mentioned that he had this label. He’d come to hear me play in LA at these bars and I played The Pop Group, which he hadn’t heard in 15 years. This was around the time of the first Oppenheimer Analysis reissue on Minimal Wave, so I was playing that mixed with techno.
Looking back, how do you feel about Sandwell District and your involvement in it? Was it a project that came together by design or accident?
I mean Sandwell District was a weird mixture as Karl was coming out of his shell in a weird way. He is the one who did Kalon. Karl has this almost mystical ability to control things from the back of the room. In a way, we weren’t doing anything that different to the way that Bunker operates. I started the blog and all of this imagery came together. I suppose that Sandwell brought a lot of elements together.
It was also around this time that Berghain and that general move towards ‘pure’, hypnotic techno was happening. Do you see Sandwell as being part of that development?
If it wasn’t for Nodge, Klock and Dettmann and all of the residents getting behind it, (Sandwell) mightn’t have got the recognition it did. The first place that I played in Europe again was Berghain and it’s where I learnt my chops again. At the same time, DJing at a new wave club is far harder than playing a techno night – you have to keep people moving and it’s also made me technically much better.
What’s your feeling about what came in Sandwell’s wake – do you think that sound was copied to death by other artists?
When things get too nice, they get boring and when things get appropriated, they turn into fucking lounge music. It was getting mundane, it was becoming that thing it wasn’t meant to be. It was getting copied a lot, it was like ‘oh look, here’s another black and white photo’. If you look at the ‘zine that came with the Feed-Forward album, that’s what we wanted to do. Around that time, Karl and Dave were touring too much and it was getting to everyone. Substance abuse was also a factor. At the same time, Sandwell has benefited everyone who was involved – look at Dave, he’s at the top of his game, he has just done a Berghain mix.
Following on from Sandwell, you recorded the debut Silent Servant album – did it represent a conscious decision to move away from that sound?
I was really trying to do something different. I decided that there would be no dub techno chords, and I also wanted to get away from the Sahko sound. Dave’s Isolation was one of the best records we (Sandwell) did, but there was only a short amount of time spent on it. If you listen to the stuff that’s coming out now, it’s different. There are too many people making atmospheric techno, so I don’t need to make it anymore.
Is it a challenge for you as a producer and a DJ to make music that has dance floor momentum but which also incorporates some of your other influences? The set you did for Honey Soundsystem in 2013 and the Cititrax release from last year suggests that your DJing influences your productions.
Yeah, a lot of my DJ work influences what I make in the studio. I love Nitzer Ebb, I love Lil’ Louis. Right now I am looking at records by Convextion and Damien Dubrovnik, a Joe Meek 12”, Shari Vari, Cabaret Voltaire’s ‘Crackdown’. That’s what’s in my brain – a lot of my production work is about trying to mix it all together.
What do you make of the way that the lines have blurred increasingly between wave, post-punk, noise and techno and the popularity of L.I.E.S, Nation, Traxx and newer artists like Helena Hauff?
People like Traxx, I mean he has been at it for so long, he is finally getting the recognition that he deserves. Ron [Morelli] knows good music too, so them getting acclaim is the culmination of all their work. The way things are now, it is providing the option for people to hear them, it has opened things up. It’s an option now whereas in the past it wasn’t so apparent – in the past you used to have to be a super collector to hear this kind of music, now it’s all accessible at entry level.
The audience is there, even though it’s still a relatively small one. Melvin has crazy tastes, he understands music. If he wasn’t around, I’m certain that a lot of music wouldn’t exist. Beau Wanzer is a genius, so is Shawn O’Sullivan, they both know so much about music, Shawn’s perspective on music is amazing. If he wasn’t doing what he is, that type of music just would not exist.
What about labels like Minimal Wave, Mannequin and Dark Entries – do you feel that are doing some fine work by shining a light on some of the lesser known areas of ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s electronic, underground music? Conversely, are there some records that should have never been reissued?
If you look at Mute or Rough Trade in the ‘80s, a lot of it was down to peoples’ tastes. It’s the same now. If Veronica (Vasicka) or Josh (Cheon, Dark Entries) hadn’t pushed so hard to do their own thing, so much, there is a lot of music that wouldn’t exist. You could say that for a lot of music, that it shouldn’t be re-released, but in the grand scheme of things, it is good to have it than not to have it.
The art and title of the Cititrax release and the Negative Fascinations album suggest that you have an interest in the darker side of life. Do you generally take an interest in society’s darker underbelly?
I have been going through a phase of not being negative for the sake of it. I feel that there has to be an air of optimism. Joy Division are still so popular because they represent a dark form of popular culture, it explores the place that your mind will inherently go to someday or at some point in your life. It’s a representation of the self. I’m trying to find a balance, but a lot of the music I make is about heavy stuff and I guess a lot of the linear Sandwell District material did this dark sound really well.
Negative Fascination had a lot to do with the stuff that I was reading at the time, about the Process Church and cults, the way that a lot of them end in disaster. The funny thing is, these topics are general ones that feature in books and movies, and a lot of music from Negative Fascinations was actually used in a movie, an indie film called The Freelancer. It totally works in the scenes it features in. I was so happy to be part of it and to see that, like shit, ‘it does work’.
What about the Cititrax release – it seemed to document a somewhat macabre fascination with violence and death. Do you think it’s the role of the artist to reflect this side of life?
When I was recording these tracks, I had been reading JG Ballard’s Crash. That whole idea of steel and machines and flesh, it’s not being morbid, but as an artist you have to work in those scenarios. It’s what I am most attracted to. Some people like writing about love and life, but it’s the aftermath that I like to write about. I’m not sure if I am a morbid person, but I like to document the ideas that are in my mind.
Your own label Jealous God follows a more experimental approach than Sandwell. Was this intentional and is it a challenge to sell records that are quite abstract, like the new sixth release?
I’m curating the label and the way that I do it is to imagine if I had a night at say Berghain. I would have Lili (51717) open the night, she could play live, then it would be one of the DJs and I would play live. After that I would get Broken English Club and In Aeternam Vale to play live. We actually just had our Jealous God showcase recently here in LA. The way the label is run is not a conscious thing. We’re not selling tonnes of records. If you are only putting out 300 copies, then why not – it’s not like you will lose a load of money.
Why did you decide to offer mix CDs as part of the releases? Are they mixes by friends or DJs and is this a way of giving something a little extra to fans?
The people who do the mixes are just friends. If I could, I would get them to play at Jealous God nights. It’s not like we’re trying to sell 1,000 copies, so we can make an effort to make it look and feel cool.
What is it like running the label – is it more of a challenge than during the Sandwell days or do you face the same issues?
I do all of the Jealous God stuff. I do all the art. Karl is taking ownership of Downwards, James is running Blueprint. Jealous God is something that can run on its own. Sandwell was one of the greatest things in my life and we all miss it, but Jealous God is a special thing too, it is helping me to redirect my energy in a way that is productive. I mean, I don’t know if I am the best producer, but I am doing the shit I want to and it’s about the whole package.
Is there a theme behind the label – does the title refer to the fact that the forces controlling the world are not benign?
At the heart of the label is the belief in the self, that through discipline and confidence we have reached where we are. It takes confidence to achieve all of this. If the label has an ethos, that’s it. You can blame Karl for all of that, he came up with it!
It just fed subconsciously into my brain and it just worked out like that. Basically, we come up with these scenarios and you let the listener finish the idea. I’m not a very literate person, so if someone can put it into words what I am feeling then I welcome it.
Finally, can I ask what new material you are working on as Silent Servant and what releases you have planned?
Silent Editions is my new label project. I have always been a cog in the machine, and now I want to do a label that just focuses on my work. Also, Veronica (Vasicka) is working on a set of compilations for Minimal Wave and I have a track on the second compilation. On Jealous God, there will be releases from Alexey Volkov, Terence Fixmer, Phase Fatale and Damien Dubrovnik.
Interview by Richard Brophy
Silent Servant will play Dekmantel Festival this summer – more info here.
Jealous God on Juno