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INTERVIEW: Silent Servant
Maria Perevedentseva , October 5th, 2016 15:05

As Sandwell District co-founder Silent Servant prepares to call time on his Jealous God label with a series of final releases, Maria Perevedentseva speaks to him about why now is the time to end the project

Juan Mendez – also known as Silent Servant – has a remarkable but by now well-known biography. Catapulted to fame as a founder of Sandwell District, alongside Karl O’Connor and Dave Sumner, he has, for the past three years, been running his own, rather more eclectic, label – Jealous God. This project, however, will soon be coming to an end, and Mendez is now ready to explain the motivations behind it. There are ten more releases scheduled and a book to commemorate the label’s arresting visual aesthetic.

I met Mendez in Berlin the day before Jealous God’s Optimistic Decay showcase at Berlin Atonal to discuss the label’s identity, aims and the reason for its end, but our conversation ended up being far more wide-ranging. His utter dedication to the people he works with, as well as his need to present total ideas and total products was striking. It seems that everything with Jealous God comes from the heart, with an earnest respect for and deep understanding of both the musical and visual media it employs.

Mendez sees himself predominantly as a curator and documenter of his culture and his scene, and he is restless in his search for new talent and ideas. He says that Jealous God’s ending is a natural and necessary closure for a project which has said what it set out to say, and that he looks forward to having some time to think. However, it seems certain that his thirst for this culture will ensure that he won’t stay quiet for very long.

What was the idea behind Optimistic Decay? How did you go about choosing who would play?

Juan Mendez: I knew people would be focusing a lot on the label ending, so I wanted to do the showcase to steal attention from it, end on a high, and provide one last statement of the label’s identity. For a lot of the people that are playing, if they do play in Europe it’s usually in really small places. For example, I saw Alex [Barnett, who does Champagne Mirrors] at this awesome DIY venue in LA and thought, “Man, on a proper system this is going to be amazing”. So I wanted to bring together all these super-talented kids from Europe and the US, and give them an opportunity to play to a crowd that really knows their shit, and is de facto going to be there, listening.

Can you tell me about the motivation behind Jealous God, what the aims were?

JM: Something about the curatorial aspect of running a label has always appealed to me, and all of the people that have been involved up to this point are people that I have felt personally inspired by. I go out, I see something, and get really affected by it, so the label has always been about exposing that to a bigger audience. I try not to see myself as doing some kind of “greater good”, but my thought process is: if there is an amazing tape but only a hundred copies of it, why not make a record and press 300 or 500? Selling 500 copies of a record can only do so much, but it is doing something. And it’s already hard, because we’re already doing weird shit, but I think that if these people didn’t do what they do from their point of view then there would be something missing. There would be a hole. I feel so fortunate to have been able to work with the people I’ve worked with. It’s a privilege to be in these moments, because they are the moments of today which – who knows? – may have lasting significance.

Also, I love making stuff – that’s my thing, and that’s what Jealous God has been about for me. I like seeing the finished records, I like seeing when we make t-shirts or tote bags or leather bookmarks or whatever. Because I know how I am with things, and I try not to collect too much junk but it’s impossible sometimes. It’s the same reason I like buying records, why I like buying art books. I don’t usually buy comic books but there’s this RanXerox thing from the 80s and when I found it I had to buy everything cos I liked it so much. It’s that chip of collectability that I’ve always liked about stuff.

Do you think that’s becoming more prevalent? We’ve passed the white label phase, and lately I’ve seen records coming out packaged with tree-leaves from a particular forest inside the sleeves, or the artist’s urine mixed in with the vinyl, stuff like that.

JM: Yeah, I think so. We moved so far away from tangible product at some point, but it’s a really important thing. It’s why people love Christmas. It never gets old, because you want to open presents. And that part of it, our human nature – collecting things or having things – becomes even more active when it’s something we can attach ourselves to. I love Cabaret Voltaire, for example, so if it relates to them I will buy everything that I see. It doesn’t matter what – posters, pamphlets, buttons – I will buy it. So with the label, being able to create an identity, and an icon, has been really important.

Tell me about the book [that is coming out at the end of the label project], because it’s quite an unusual move, and touches again on this idea of iconography and remembrance

JM: For me, it is just about creating a document, not a time capsule necessarily, but just something that will last. Because that’s all we have left, that’s all we can offer, you know? If someone gets fucking Alzheimer’s and can’t remember anything, something like this becomes really important. I think of all my friends and it’s weird – I get so choked up thinking about it. So many people have passed away in the last couple of years that were of a generation that really had an impact on me, and that will be happening again in ten or fifteen years, so I want to do what I can to make sure that their work isn’t forgotten. So I’m planning for the book to have artwork and photos in it, printed on nice paper. To be a beautiful object and be worthy of its content.

It seems there is something about all the visual imagery you’ve used with Jealous God which is covetable somehow, so for the book to become a coveted object as well will be a neat circle.

JM: In terms of visuals, I like the pop-ness of things – like Toilet Paper Magazine - and I’ve tried not to rip them off too much but something about that 60s product photography style really appeals to me. Also having the two distinct concepts of “Jealous” and “God” allows for a really interesting and creatively productive mix of ideas. This dichotomy becomes a sort of mould, a limitation that creates a means of no limitation.

And how does the artwork connect to the music on the records?

JM: I like for what is being said to be easily read - I don’t understand wit that much, for example. In Hispanic culture, humour is very slapstick, and wit and cynicism seem like very English or American things, so they’re not really something I grew up with. For me, the idea has to translate quickly and effectively

I would say that there is a lot of wit in all the covers and titles, so it’s funny that you say they’re not.

JM: I get a lot of help from people around me. My friend Corinne thought of the cover for JEL06 – the one with the metronome and the scythe – and the simplicity and severity of that kind of humour is something I really enjoy.

Why do you think pop culture, and dance music or techno especially, are so drawn to severity and harshness?

JM: It’s that classic thing. I watched The Children of Paradise recently, which is a black and white movie from the 20s or 30s, and the whole movie is the dynamic of one person – a mime – who’s in love with this girl. They’re friends. He loves her and she doesn’t love him. She loves another guy. And that is a story that will be told time and time again. The severity of that – of loss and of love – is something that feeds all art, all music. That weight is always there in music and art, because it’s such a personal thing that gets distilled out.

Techno is sort of the ultimate form of that – it’s like, here are my thoughts, from my brain, coming from me in my room. I think it’s the fact it’s so personal is what makes it dark. I’m always trying to find a way to make techno music, but without it being too brutal. If you listen to Tuxedo Moon or something, it’s super fast, but it’s more minimal, more synth-led. As people, we’re not always happy – shit goes wrong. And in those times it’s nice to have something to reflect that, and to escape into. Techno is one of those things that can completely transport you from your current mental space into another one.

What about the imagery of it all? The black clothes, the chains. You’ve spoken about communality before, and how that makes it safer to participate in cultures and create new things. Do you think the uniformity of the “techno militia” is something that is working to achieve that aim?

JM: It’s complicated. I do strongly believe in communities creating safe and productive spaces, but it has a negative side too. I remember the first day of high school, I was scoping around for people to talk to, and I saw this girl in a Pixies t-shirt and suspenders. I thought she looked cool so I went to talk to her about music, and then the next thing I knew we were hanging out. Or if you noticed kids wearing creepers – because not everyone wore them – you got a feeling that you could go up to them and that you’d have something in common. Now, though, with monoculture, this sort of thing can be a little dangerous. You have people like Kim Kardashian wearing a Discharge t-shirt of whatever and you think, “OK, you don’t know”. But people are savvy enough, or at least the people I know are, to know that that’s not what it seems. As I’ve gotten older, I don’t approve of the exclusivity part, but sometimes it’s necessary because you do want to have a safe environment. But as much as you choose to invent this safe thing, it can be harmful.

So, once the ten or so final releases are out, and the book is printed, what next?

JM: I think I need to cut back a little bit, as lately I’ve been feeling way too spread out. I don’t want to start another record label, but I think I probably will. Jealous God started very quickly, but then I had to figure out the identity for it. It slowly distilled. Some good things happened, some weird things happened. It wasn’t until release three that I felt that it was the start. Visually, it was what I wanted it to look like, and from an audio standpoint it’s what I wanted it to sound like. The Domenico Crisci record [JG12] is super brutal, it’s techno, it’s great. The James Ruskin [JEL02] too. But I needed time to arch the label’s sonic direction, so that I could come back to that sound.

If I DJ and you give me four hours, I’ll get there. And some people say, “You don’t play techno” but it’s like “Dude, give me time and you’ll see”. That’s why I love playing at Berghain, for example, because I can start off with Pye Corner Audio or Broken English Club and by the end I will get to Oscar Mulero, I will get to the fucking Waveform Transmissions or Sleeparchive records. That arch is crucial, and now the label embodies that. It’s how I would programme a night, which is case in point for Optimistic Decay. How the night is programmed is how the label is programmed, because how the label is programmed is how I would programme a night. A lot of those things are very one-to-one. That’s how it works for me, and the next step is to have a new, clear, distilled idea.

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