In A Birmingham Tongue: An Interview With Regis
, October 10th, 2013 05:48
Ahead of his Necklace Of Bites shows at Blackest Ever Black and Unsound this coming week, Filip Kalinowski speaks to the Downwards boss and UK techno figurehead about ritual, sound pressure, DIY as necessity and being half of "Britain's best-loved absurdist space rock duo"
Karl O'Connor has been bludgeoning the senses with his ascetic and pinpoint-focused techno battery for over two decades now, yet the force of both his music and his vision remain undiminished. Emerging from Birmingham in the early 90s as part of a wave of artists exploring intensely heavy and punishing electronic music including Surgeon, Scorn and Female, O'Connor's music as Regis occupied an overwhelming yet euphoric middle-ground between the high-velocity assault of early Detroit minimal techno (Jeff Mills, Robert Hood) and the UK's noise-laced and provocative industrial music lineage. Typically a Regis track will bound along at bracing tempo and momentum, frequently eschewing melody in favour of wave upon wave of drums, percussive clutter and background grit, dragging your body along, whether willingly or not, in its wake.
In 1993 O'Connor established the Downwards label, a platform for his music and that of his close contemporaries that over its two decades of existence has encompassed various strains of techno, noise, post-punk and DIY electronics, presented under a strongly unified aesthetic. And last decade he hooked up with Silent Servant and Function to form the Sandwell District triumvirate, a label, production and DJ collective whose sensuous yet hard-edged takes on techno were as distinctive and iconic as the artwork they were presented within. Sandwell District shut down label operations at the end of 2011, although remained operative as a DJ unit until earlier this year. More recently O'Connor has also released music through the Blackest Ever Black label - something of a spiritual descendent of Downwards - and has just released his first collaborative Concrete Fence 12" with Russell Haswell on PAN.
As Downwards enters its third decade, the label is in rude health, with its recent activity coinciding with a broader flourishing of interest in dark and physically powerful electronic music. O'Connor celebrates his label's 20th anniversary this autumn with a new compilation gathering both old and new material - from himself, Surgeon, Samuel Kerridge, OAKE, Antonym, Sleeparchive and more - as well as a series of shows under the Necklace Of Bites heading that he describes as "a celebration" of his work to date. Ahead of his performances at London's Blackest Ever Black showcase this weekend, and Krakow's Unsound Festival on 18th October, he speaks to the Quietus' Filip Kalinowski (in an interview originally published in Polish at Aktivist) about being inspired by his past, a love of overwhelming sound, ritual, and why mistakes are important.
The Necklace of Bites show, which you'll present at Blackest Ever Black and this year's Unsound, is a twenty year retrospective of your work. In recent years you also released your early tracks through Downwards. What kind of feelings do you have for the material you made years ago? Many people are a bit embarrassed with their past...
Karl O'Connor: I've never had a problem with that. I've constantly had a connection with it through DJing for the last 20 years. A lot of music that I made a long time ago I still play now, people still play it, it hasn't really dated. It occupies its own space, as it didn't sound like anything in particular at that time. It was always more than music anyway. Necklace of Bites is a celebration of... my glorious past, that wasn't so glorious. I know many people don't ignore their past but move on from it, but I don't feel weighed down by it. It inspires me, 'cause I think, 'How the hell did I do that, how did I make it happen with very limited resources?' Frequently I'm quite surprised. But it won't be all about me, I will add other elements from the label. It won't be a techno set, it will be quite varied. There will be many other things to contemplate on. It will be constant, but it won't be a constant mix. Hopefully it will be remotely interesting. It will be a celebration.
Would you somehow, during your set, touch on the topic of this year's Unsound, which is "interference"?
KO'C: As I said, it was always more than music. Interference and disturbance is exactly what I'm into. I like disruption. It's not just about interference in terms of white noise or glitches, that would be a really straight and obvious connection to make notes about. It's about disruption. If my set disrupts something, if it stops the flow or a pattern of the programming, it's great. If it sticks out like a sore thumb, if it's on its own, if it occupies its own space - that's the interference that I like. We'll see what happen in the context of the show. My music is very visceral, it's a confrontation in itself, it's not very palatable, it certainly isn't easy listening, it fits uncomfortably within techno. That's the kind of disturbance that I bring. I don't have to do anything special to make interference happen. It's natural.
Disturbance also seemed to be the theme of a lot of the music coming out in 1993. Stripping the sound to the bone and putting it into this dark context was somehow a paradigm of this time. On one hand we got the rough, rugged and raw wave of New York hip hop, on the other, at the same time you established Downwards. Did you feel any kind of zeitgeist at that time, or maybe you see one today?
KO'C: I think it was a fallout from the 80s. You felt that there was something that would continue going on, and suddenly the 90s came and we became refugees. I don't think it happened so much in the last decade and I don't see it in this decade, but I certainly feel, in my experience of the 80s and 90s, we felt like refugees from the previous decades. This sense of trying to find your place, what your influences were before that. I think it also is a question of age. It was completely natural to me. It's got nothing to do with my surroundings, I wasn't making music because of my surroundings or the position I was in, it was just the way it was, it was what appealed to me sonically. Not that I can't appreciate something that's not like that. That was just what I wanted to produce, that was what I wanted to make at that particular time, and it happened to come across dark.
But I don't think it is particularly dark - it's a powerful force, I think it's positive. The connotations of dark mean it's very negative, but I think it was that powerful force I was into, I was into sound pressure. I don't think it was a dark time. The early 90s were very prosperous, nothing was a problem, there was no real recession. At that time things were very timid, so we could bring the opposite. Was it a zeitgeist? I don't know. Possibly. Things are connected. But it's also probably romanticising it a bit, 'cause I think I would do the same thing now.
Techno always was deeply rooted in the cities that it comes from. The scenes most of the time were somehow connected to urban contexts of Detroit, Berlin or... Birmingham. The industrial roots of your city obviously fit really well into the stereotype of a fertile ground for electronic music. How do you see it from the inside? Did your music reflect the ambience of the city?
KO'C: I'm always very cautious about answering questions like that - you know, 'Did your environment influence the way that you make music?' I suppose it did, but my influences weren't necessarily in Birmingham. I always imagined about being cloned in New York in the 70s in or in the early 80s in Berlin, it's where my influences lay. I'm a gypsy, I like traveling, I get inspired and influenced by many things and lots of different places. I feel equally at home in various different spots. I just applied my sound to the place where I came from. I've never been rooted in one city. It became to be the "Birmingham sound", but ultimately we're talking about what myself and Tony [Child, aka Surgeon] were doing at that time. Birmingham is very important for techno in general. Neil Rushton from Network Records, he discovered all the Detroit guys at the time that Chicago was still on board. Detroit would be a very different place if Neil hadn't published this compilation in 1988 and brought them all to Europe. Birmingham may be a place which is really underplayed, but we don't shout about it like Manchester do.
So I don't know if this environment shaped me, but I'm surely a product of this particular city to a great extent. Of course it's a very industrial area, but it doesn't necessarily make me do this hard music. I was really influenced by Mick Harris, who I actually shared a studio with at that time. I could hear what he was doing with his bands, 'cause he just came from Napalm Death, and he was doing his heavy dub project Scorn, which was this thunderous, dark thing. However at the next door to our studio, this band Broadcast were doing their really melodic music, and at the next one a guy who actually died of AIDS few years ago, Tony De Vit - who was much the core of hard house - was making this very uplifting, poppy house music. So there was a real cross-section of people making their own music, that was their thing. It's got nothing to do with the environment of Birmingham. It's all about the kids. That's what makes the most interesting music – this youth kick.
Your work came to be mostly instrumental, but at the same time – as you said – it was always more than music. How do you approach the transferral of ideas, reflections or topics into the sound that people can sense without words?
KO'C: Music is always the end product, but the ideas are coined beforehand. Of course you want to create an atmosphere, like everybody does. Because there is no narrative in techno, lots of people blindly couple it with spaceships, science or shit like that. It's got absolutely no interest for me or my life. I want immediacy. I like here and now. These are the things that interest me about music. Sex, ritual, that's what I'm into. It's very naturalistic, I'm not doing it because of any reason, it's a progression of who I am. I don't want to talk about Sandwell District because it wasn't something that was completely mine. Downwards is how I define myself. The titles work completely with the music. I notice many people trying to do similar things, and it doesn't work for them. In our case you can hear the authenticity in the music that we make, you can tell the link between the titles and the music, it's obvious. It's not a thing that we slap on, it's not an afterthought.
Your work always balanced well at the brink of seriousness and irony. How you manage to do it?
KO'C: I take a lot of things seriously, but at the same time there is heavy irony, the tongue-in-cheek with other things as well. It is absurd. Especially with myself and Tony. We used to call ourselves 'Britain's best-loved absurdist space rock duo'. It's the question of things that come into our personalities as well – we love the Bonzos [Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band] and Monty Python. We're well aware of our shortcomings within music, our abilities. We know we're not like Tony Visconti, we're not like Phil... oh, thank God we're not like Phil Spector. We know we're making music in a very small niche, it's very instant, very immediate, it's very DIY, and it still remains this way. We know our shortcomings, so we take it seriously to a degree. We're sort of musicians, sort of producers, sort of DJs. It's a bit nebulous. But if we didn't take it seriously, we wouldn't still be doing it until nowadays. I could tell from a really early age the people I suspected of being artistically bankrupt. I liked the artists I liked, because I knew there was some kind of authenticity about them. I think most people can. But, yes something changed in recent years. I can't understand how – all of a sudden – Robbie Williams could become so accepted in the mainstream, and everyone is like 'Oh, he's so great'. No he's not, he's fucking awful. People like this should be crucified, they shouldn't be hanging with people like Oasis. That's why I felt the 90s were pretty shit for music. [That irony's] got nothing to do with the irony we're into.
You once called your work 'playful art terrorism'. As terrorists always have specific aims for their actions, what are your goals?
K'OC: You want my manifesto?
KO'C: Have a good time, all the time.
K'OC: You wanted something else?
I wanted sincerity. This doesn't really fit into your 'legend', and because of this it's better...
KO'C: That's from Spinal Tap. But to give you a definite answer – I do it to be globally adored, for my work to be loved for eternity. I'm actually serious about that, and... I'm joking.
Nowadays, when techno is mostly made on software, the factor of the unknown and the appearance of mistakes is almost completely supplanted - even glitches most often happen when the producer wants them to happen. Coming from a post-punk/industrial background, how do you approach the machine, and do you consider anything a mistake?
KO'C: I'm very unorthodox. I actually still don't know how many of these machines work. I'm kind of a dilettante when it comes to it. Quite often I'm working on a piece of software on which I've done much of my stuff, and people come - usually kids come - and they tell me that I'm not doing it properly. But this is who I am, it works for me. I don't read manuals, while many people do, they go through forums or chats to know why something isn't working. I don't. If it doesn't work and I don't understand it, I fuck it off. I'm not really into machines, I'm not into technology. The only thing good about it is that it allows me, as a solo artist, to make a lot of noise. Otherwise I may need to have a band. I'm not into it because I love technology or electronic music, that's not the case. It allows me to be who I am.
Concerning mistakes, there are a lot of mistakes, especially in my early stuff. I used to have an amplifier which obviously wasn't powerful enough to put things through it, and from 1995 until 1997, the last three minutes of all the Regis records I did in silence, 'cause the monitor blew. So there might be certain little mistakes in the last minutes of those tracks, 'cause I couldn't hear as I mixed them on the mixing desk. That's why most of my endings sound like that, because I used to pull things out straight away. I was almost doing it by force. These are real mistakes, but I've never been bothered by stuff like that. I think there are still many mistakes, or potential for them, in my music. People that get things absolutely perfect, those technical geniuses, I think it's so dull. I think they're making the biggest mistake of all time. They should be studio engineers, not producers, stay in the background and stay down with that.
That's the thing about electronic music in general - what happened to all the stars when all the engineers, the boys from the background, got their chance to make music? Previously rock & roll had the frontman, the fantastic person you wanted to be. That's a problem of electronic music, that the stars are gone. Maybe people don't want the stars, but I certainly do, I love it. I want to see personalities, and now there very rarely are any. You, as a journalist, possibly know that. You've possibly done a whole bunch of interviews with completely dull people. It's that now people are so self obsessed with updating their Facebook profiles and other self creating tools. It's got nothing to do with that good old egomaniac way. The youth are so dull. They need a kick. I wish I could be that person that'd give them that kick. But I don't think that'll happen through music. I don't think music has that kind of power anymore.
Frequently it's not even the question of stars, but even people in this most obvious, day to day meaning. It's why Jamaican dub masters made such interesting music, cause they were people searching for a sound, making mistakes, and then just acknowledging them in their next phases.
KO'C: Exactly. They're absolute sonic pioneers. That's so funny that you spoke about that, because I was talking about it today. There were so many characters involved with that. And the sonics from so many dub records are so completely amazing, they're made on instinct, so much of this music is made on instinct, it's so fabulous, you can't recreate that in a big studio. It's impossible. And because of that it's pretty much incorruptible, unless they corrupted it themselves. That's pretty much about what we do - making music that you can't corrupt. We can only fuck it up ourselves. Which we've done on a few occasions, but we're pretty uncorruptable in that way. The sound is what it is.
I'm currently reading Kraftwerk: Publikation by David Buckley, and there's a quote from Ralf Hütter where he states that they play the machines and at the same time the machines play them - they don't treat them as slaves, as they think the synthesiser is the best instrument to show the human's inside, the psyche. Would you agree?
KO'C: That's absolute bollocks, biggest load of shit I've ever heard. That's probably true for Ralf Hütter, but Kraftwerk were the most sexless band ever, and that's why they were fantastic. But at the same time, I always felt they were much older, like a generation away from me. For me they were like those big electronic musicians locked away in their big studios in the countryside. That's got nothing to do with the city, there was nothing in it for kids. It was the same with Pink Floyd and this whole prog-rock thing, everyone becomes big, bloated and pompous. There's nothing about getting out there, none of that urge that you need to do it. D.A.F. were my stars, 'cause they had this real powerful energy in their stuff. I think for anybody who was a kid at my age, it was very provocative to be into anything that was German. Because our grandfathers fought in the war, and the scars after it were still really deep. The Germans broke the Anglo-American rock thing, it wasn't rockist at all. That's what I really loved about them, and that's what I still love.
I still remember when I heard D.A.F. for the first time, it was in February 1980, my friend bought a record and he told me: listen to this, this is fucking ace, this is what they are doing in Germany right now, there are no choruses, thay are making a whole load of records with no choruses and... I thought it was the biggest fuck you to Anglo-American rock & roll. I thought it was brilliant, it was fantastic. Those mad German bastards. That was pure sex, the music that they made was pure adrenaline, that's what I wanted, it was primal. There's nothing primal about Kraftwerk, their structures are based in classical music - and it's not that they're not amazing, they are, I love Kraftwerk. But that's just mythologising machines, you can't do that, it's crap, bollocks. It's the same thing people have done about guitars. Maybe Hendrix had a point, because he treated it as a part of his body, you could understand if he'd say something like that about his Fender. But otherwise, I really don't buy anything like that.
During all years of your activity you've stayed faithful to DIY ethics. I remember this famous Underground Resistance poster: 'No Hope, No Dreams, No Love. My Only Escape Is Underground'. How was it with you – was it a matter of choice? Or was there no choice, it was a must?
KO'C: The underground doesn't exist, that's nonsense, inverted commas alone decide what 'underground' is. If you're successful you're not underground, if you're not successful you're underground. It's an abstraction, it doesn't exist. This kind of sloganeering... We never did slogans, never did this kind of crap, because it happened before. McLaren did it well with the Pistols. This kind of talk about hope or dreams - it's massively limiting. We were always completely ambitious, I'm still massively ambitious, I still want to get to number one. I hate people who aren't ambitious, I hate defeatists. I'm the opposite of all that.
DIY was the only way we could make it. DIY is the only way if you don't have any money, and we didn't have any money. But I've never praised it. If we had a great studio we'd use it. We didn't have money for a drum machine. I had one synthesiser and one effects unit back than - that's what I had. And many of those people that were talking about no hope and stuff had whole banks of 909s and drum machines, while I couldn't afford a bus fare home after a gig. I didn't do it for DIY itself. I did it because it was a reality of my life, and that's fucking real. If you feel you have to do something, you just do it, no matter the lack of money or depression. If you feel the necessity of it, then, you know. It has to become everything for you. For us, the methods were dictated by economic reasons, but I understand perfectly well how it worked for UR in Detroit.
They need slogans over there.
KO'C: It's culturally American, and the British are different. In the States you need things that people can understand and feed into, you have to do that. And we were always trying to do things subtly. I'd rather subtly hit someone over the head with a hammer than talk about blowing things up. I think that kind of hit is far more penetrating.
What's your point of view on this wave of popularity of so called dark/industrial techno that we now witness? Do you see – as some other people do - it as being a result of the economical and social situation?
KO'C: It's very convenient. If you can afford a computer, the electricity and access to the internet where you write about crisis, you're not in crisis. Crisis is when you've got your last £20 on your dole check and you still try to buy a record and hope it's all gonna work. There is no crisis anymore. People love to think there is some crisis. There is something going on in certain parts of the world, but most of the time people are just worried that their massive pensions are being eaten by someone else. Fuck it, you should have spent it to have a good life, I don't give a shit. I don't see any crisis at the moment. I've never been happier, we're all happy, and we're just looking for problems.
Do you think this kind of hype can do any damage to the scene that was always more underground and DIY?
KO'C: This word 'hype' has been used so much in the last five to six years. Hype? What is hype? Hype is good old fashioned excitement, and what's bad about getting excited? It comes and goes, it's natural, it's progression. Hype is another thing that certain people get negative about, usually students in their dormitories – oh, it's hype, I don't get into this any more, I was into this last week. Oh, fuck off then, don't get excited. It's all about excitement, and creating excitement is what it always has been about. Since the birth of rock & roll. That's what it's about. It's hard to imagine, Christ knows, without Presley inventing teen age, without Americans inventing teen age, can you imagine a world where you went from being twelve to being a man working in the coal mine? That's complete crap. What makes teenage life brilliant is this excitement, created with the birth of rock & roll. People getting negative about music - fuck off. Enjoy yourself. Have a good time, all the time. You see, that's really my quote.