A Universe Behind What You Hear: The Strange World of Surgeon

A mainstay in electronic sound for over two decades, the music of Anthony Child AKA Surgeon joins the dots between the techno underground and an abrasive, absurdist lineage that stretches back to the days of COUM. Ahead of Child's set at the legacy of COUM event in Hull on 18th March, Harry Sword hears of his love of Burroughs, watching Mike Leigh with Mick Harris and the dangers of the artistic comfort zone.

Anthony Child has a beguiling way with elegant and forceful sound. As Surgeon, his barrelling, hypnotic techno works the grit between untethered thunder and mesmeric nuance, channelling bleak humour, disciplined performance, unexpected time structures and oblique sound design into a shifting wall of viscous throb.

He embodies the principle that, within any given genre, the truly exciting music comes from those who don’t seek to emulate the genre signifiers – obsessively pouring over stylistic tics; assembling music like a wooden shelving unit; dead cod eye on the manicured Instagram looking at the pedestrian middle distance to stake wilted flag – but rather from those who relentlessly channel: who distill their true essence and idiosyncrasies into form and function.

Child started releasing music as Surgeon in 1994 with a self-titled EP on Downwards, following suite with a range of 12”s, EPs and LPs on Blueprint, Tresor and his own Dynamic Tension and Counterbalance labels. But though often relentless, his work is also imbued with a keen sense of the absurd and grotesque, best personified by both the pomp and ceremony of his collaborative project with Karl O’Conner (Regis) – British Murder Boys – and also his long standing residency (alongside Paul Damage, SirReal and Terry Donovan) at Birmingham’s House of God.

One of the most ludicrously ramshackle and debauched nights around (that it continues to fly – like some greasy albatross above a luminous sea, weighed down with oil slicked wings, drooling on the shipwrecked sailors below, who shake their tattooed fists in vein – after 24 years, is a thing of beauty) the sticky floor of HoG remains one of the best places to experience Surgeon in full flight.

Also releasing music under his own name since 1999, the past couple of years have seen an increasing volume of Anthony Child projects come to fruition – a collaboration with Gnod, two albums of improvisational tonal music recorded in the Maui jungle and 2013’s The Space Between Things LP.

This is The Strange World of Surgeon.

On William S Burroughs

Burroughs made me think about structure as opposed to content and consider the idea of assumed structures, methods and thinking – reconsider thinking. Originally, I found Burroughs from a video Psychic TV issued – a VHS cassette which contained a lot of information on his methodology behind the cut up technique. There is an undeniable magical power to certain collections of words. Words are not my medium; I work with sound vibrations but I appreciate the magical power of certain groups of words. I don’t fully understand and can’t fully explain them – with Burroughs the power is undeniable.

On Faust and Coil

Faust were a big early influence. Not necessarily the sound palate, rather the way they massively process and edit their recordings. They’re not precious at all in the way they process and brutalise recordings, also in terms of the actual structure of the albums. I remember when I was at college I played a Faust album to a friend who had never heard them before and he described it as a ‘mental assault course’.

Likewise, I’ve been a huge fan of Coil since the mid 1980s. An important point for me is that weird division people make between ‘light’ and ‘dark’ music. The music that people tend to label dark – it’s not how I relate to it. I never think about the concept of dark and light when it comes to music. I get confounded when somebody says ‘oh, that’s really dark’. Take something like Sunn O))) or Coil: it can be ecstatic. The concept of ‘dark music’ is kind of ridiculous. With Coil there is a sense that the whole universe is behind what you can hear.

On Mick Harris

My interest in techno started to grow with hearing John Peel play Underground Resistance and Aphex Twin, stuff like that. I got more interested in listening to electronic dance music, started to DJ and make techno but I didn’t really have the machines I needed to do it. I got to know Mick Harris and he helped me out. I was living in the Mosley area of Birmingham at the time – a lot of artists, a lot of unemployed people, a lot of musicians, extended social group really – so I got to know Mick really well; we had similar interests in music and film. When I look back, I realise how much of a mentor he was. He exposed me to so much important music that I’d never heard of, he’d share so much. I remember we were really into Mike Leigh’s films – especially the early ones. Mick would go to a video store in New York called Kim’s Video which was well known at the time. It was easier to get a lot of early Mike Leigh stuff from there rather than England. We’d be sitting there crying with laughter to Nuts In May – all that stuff is just amazing: there is a certain awkwardness to his work which is sublime.

Mick had a more complete Coil collection than I did at the time; his techno collection was much more complete too – he had a lot of Underground Resistance, Basic Channel, Steve Bicknell records – the classic techno stuff from the early 90’s. I remember once he brought me a CD of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and just said ‘you need this’. He’d often do that – buy me copies of records and say ‘you need this’. Terry Riley, Steve Reich; Nurse with Wound’s ‘Soliloquy for Lilith’. He has hugely broad musical tastes, and is by no means just about heavy, nasty music. He is such a musical connoisseur, so incredibly open minded. My friendship with Mick has been a really important part of my musical education.

On Maui

The music that I make in Maui: I’d use the word ‘tonal’. It’s electronic music, but the process is really quite simple. Friends of mine on Maui have a large house and there is a dip in the land and there is a jungle down there and they have this little cabin on the edge. One of the walls is an insect screen which is open to the elements. I run a power cable down there and play this keyboard – a Buchla Music Easel.

I play it through these little boards and speakers on the windowsill – and along with the sound of the music that I’m playing I’m capturing the sounds of the jungle around me; it’s not like I’ve just recorded some music and overdubbed, it’s literally the sound occurring at the time. I’ve always loved sitting down in this place; the atmosphere is very unique. I actually recorded some of the sounds and played them in a set that I did at Freerotation, in the background. It was originally done purely as a personal project – I didn’t record it with any intention of releasing it but I sent it to Karl, who loved it and suggested I send it to Peter from Editions Mego and we went from there.

The term ‘ambient’ though? I try to stop myself when I use it. I relate to the term ‘ambient’ to the Eno sense – music which is made to be background music – and I think he referred to it almost as being akin to a scent or a perfume. It’s not music to focus on or pay attention to; which is a totally valid concept, but I have a problem with the label. Just because something doesn’t have drums in it, it tends to get the ambient tag. We were talking about Sunn earlier – it could have a transcendent effect and somehow the term ambient seems to belittle things; belittle the power. I don’t connect with it at all.

On live improvisation and lazy performance

I felt my process – laptop based – was becoming stagnant. I remember going to see Karenn and it looked like really good fun. I also saw Charles Cohen performing with the Music Easel and, again, my reaction was ‘wow, that really looks a huge amount of fun’. I decided to radically change my workflow: that was the key, rather than any material aspect. I’d actually say that problems can arise when people put so much emphasis on the material aspect of music and think the answer is to go and buy a huge modular synthesiser (LAUGHS). That is not necessarily the answer.

It’s about forcing change. When you work in a certain way for a very long time you become comfortable – sometimes it’s time to tear that all up and become uncomfortable again. Modular can be nerve wracking, but that sense of chaos is all a big part of it. I don’t want to allow myself to become comfortable. There was actually a sudden realisation that the laptop, instead of being a safety net, had become a real impedance to the purity of the sound and to improvisation.

Recently I’ve been changing my new set up, removing things, effectively stripping down more and more. I feel that the more raw and basic it is, the harder that I have to work, the better and more powerful the effect is going to be.

On not giving people what they want

Performing to an audience and giving them exactly what they want? I believe that is the biggest disservice. That ‘perfect techno set’ aspect is fine in it’s way – and other people can do that – but I’d feel I’m massively letting people down if I did that. To me, that is working on a straight forward consumerist level. What I do is using the structure, methods and sound palate of techno: but I want an audience to reconsider something they thought was fixed, to think ‘actually, maybe this thing that I thought was solid – this idea I thought was solid and fixed and immovable – maybe it isn’t like that at all.’

It’s really about confounding expectations and challenging perceptions. It’s a balance; I don’t want to alienate a crowd so that people shut off and stop listening to what I’m doing. I have to find a certain level to it where people can say ‘that’s techno’ – but I’ll be working with odd time structures, things coming in when they shouldn’t, aspects that really throw people off. It has a strong psychological effect. That thing of when people say: ‘right then, today, I’m going to make a dark techno track.’ That attitude is the absolute recipe for shit music. It’s looking at music on the pure surface level.

On Lady Starlight

Working with Colleen [Lady Starlight] is great because she has such acute perception. It works naturally to perform together. With improvisation, the key is really listening: opening awareness to what you’re doing and what the other person is doing. This year I’ve released more music than I have in the past decade or so, and I’d credit a lot of the inspiration in that to working with her. She helps me not hold myself back or doubt myself. I find it difficult to explain, but if you have an idea and an inspiration – and it’s really out there, a real pie in the sky thing – it’s very easy to say ‘oh, I can’t do that: that’s ridiculous’ but she’s really helped flesh out ideas. She is an incredible performer and has a real depth of knowledge of so much art and music.

There is no doubt that she really helped in the earlier years of Gaga’s career, too: a lot of the costumes and performance elements. I have the utmost respect for her as an artist: it was an incredible experience on the Gaga tour. Performing to those stadium audiences was great – they weren’t there to see us, they were there to see Gaga, so we could we go and do anything. I remember one show we did a bit at the end that was slowed right down; it was slow and gnarly and went on for far too long. But it felt so free because the feeling we got from the audience was of being confounded and confused. It felt so much freer than playing at a techno event.

On Belgian Piss Lake (alcohol):

I haven’t drunk alcohol for seven years now. I wasn’t genetically exposed to being an alcoholic but over the course of about twenty years, I’d say that I trained pretty hard – I basically learnt to be one. I developed a very unhealthy relationship with alcohol and felt very uncomfortable with my relationship to it but was able to stop drinking, which was a very good decision. Alcohol is always there, it was always there when I started DJ’ing.

In my job it’s usually free, as well. Travelling a lot you end up using the airport lounges and there is free alcohol there as well. It starts to become a very convenient way to deal with boredom, loneliness, feeling socially awkward, having to socialise with people you’ve never met before. There are so many ways it works as a convent crutch within the industry but stepping away from it I realised it made all of those things more difficult in the end.

Touring is a fantastic way to psychologically break people. The way I deal with it now is to take the first two months of the year off. I need to give everything to a performance and if I take on more and more bookings I feel more and more exhausted on every gig and can’t concentrate in the way that I need to. That’s when I need to dial it back. It’s too easy to be greedy, too easy to be lazy and take everything and give a ‘that’ll do’ level of performance. I’m very much against that. I see too much of that attitude. Often it also comes down to modern technology that makes DJ’ing more comfortable. There is an argument that if you remove the need for somebody to do something, then they can devote the energy to something else – but that usually isn’t the case.

On Gnod

I read about Gnod in The Wire and it used the word ‘krautrock’ in the description of their music. When I read someone describe a band as being krautrock I’m usually really disappointed – but I checked out Gnod and loved them. They hadn’t tried to imitate the surface sound palate of krautrock, to me they transmitted the real exploratory spirit of it. I got in contact with them via Twitter or something like that and we started communicating. I went up to Islington Mill in September and hung out for a few days and we recorded some bizarre stuff. It was just really great hanging out with them and talking with them and making music. It reminded me of my roots in playing in bands like Blim. I don’t know how important to me the influence of psychedelia is – but it is certainly something that I try to bring into techno – the mind altering power of music.

On Sarah Devachi

I’d massively recommend her music, she is incredible. Drone is rather like techno in the sense that – as a style – it’s deceptively difficult. On the surface you can listen to it and think – ‘oh, yeah that sounds easy, I could do that’ – but it has such an amazing sense of restraint.

Anthony Child plays a specially-commissioned new set at the Legacy Of COUM events as part of Hull City Of Culture 2017 on 18th March 2017. For more information go here

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