An Actor Prepares: An Interview With Surgeon

For nearly 20 years Anthony Child, aka Surgeon, has sent dancers into collective states of hypnosis with his overwhelming, elliptical techno. Having just released a beatless album under his own name, he speaks with Rory Gibb about introspection, method acting, the importance of intention, and what continues to excite him about club music

Has there ever been a more deliciously appropriate artist moniker than Surgeon? The unrelenting bass battery and serpentine rhythmic and melodic patterns of Anthony Child’s music cut right into your core, triggering instinctive physical responses so deep inside that you’re barely aware of them taking complete command of your body.

Right at the tail end of last year, Child uploaded a mix for listening and free download entitled This Is The Place Where The Intellect Gets Annihilated – a perfect capsule description of the effect of his DJ sets, unbroken barrages of intensely funky percussive work which draw all manner of musics into their orbit. Frequently eschewing techno’s traditional kick-snare skeleton in favour of swung drums and galloping, undulating grooves, they charge forward with as much rawness and intensity as any artist working in modern day extreme music. Indeed, with its intense awareness of the hypnotic effects of his music on the human body, Child’s approach plugs into an ongoing British musical continuum intensely focused on physicality and affect – one running from Throbbing Gristle and their post-projects Coil and Carter Tutti, through Whitehouse and UK techno contemporaries like Karl O’Connor, to current descendants such as Sam Shackleton. There’s been much discussion of the move by many younger UK producers to some form of modern industrial techno, but it’s these bodily concerns, rather than some straightforward preponderance for metal-plated snares and furnace-roar sub-bass, that connect Child directly to his industrial forebears.

Child cut his teeth in Birmingham in the early ’90s. Alongside contemporaries such as O’Connor, aka Regis, and with connections to the city’s wider extreme music circles via artists like Mick Harris (Scorn, ex-Napalm Death), his early productions melded the influence of minimalist second-wave Detroit techno with the intensity and wild humour of British industrial and rave musics. He has remained a long running DJ at the city’s House Of God club night, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, and was also a resident at Berlin’s famous Tresor club during the mid-to-late ’90s. His music – released through his own Dynamic Tension and Counterbalance labels, O’Connor’s label Downwards and Tresor, among others – has evolved over that time, taking in both longer-form album statements and brutally punchy club tracks on 12" vinyl. But certain characteristics have remained present throughout: breakneck momentum and a breathtaking sense of grace and posture, thanks to the careful weighting of every element at play within his tracks.

His most recent techno full-length, 2011’s Breaking The Frame, pushed those fluid and meditative aspects of his music still further to the fore – it was a deep, psychedelic listen, its percussion woven into intricate knots around restless oceans of reverbed synth and spiraling melodies. Speaking over Skype from his home, he explains that it was largely inspired by the spiritual musics of artists like Alice Coltrane, Terry Riley and La Monte Young; a connection that becomes immediately audible once revealed. In the last 6 months he has collaborated with younger UK producer Blawan, and reunited on production duties with co-conspirator Regis, re-booting their British Murder Boys project for the first time since a spate of punishing 12"s in the mid-’00s, under the shortened name BMB.

‘Whose Bad Hands Are These? (Part II)’

Child’s latest release finds him taking a slightly different tack again. The Space Between People & Things, released under his own name through US label NNA Tapes, is a compilation of sorts: a pair of 20 minute long collages of beatless material from Child’s archive. Its source material is drawn from around 15 years’ worth of experimental recordings, sound sketches and location recordings, and across the course of its length tracks crop up that touch on everything from Raster Noton and Editions Mego-esque laptop fizz to early electronic composition and more recent releases by labels like NNA, Opal Tapes and PAN. As a result, large sections of it feel oddly contemporary – something Child has become especially aware of since its release. “It’s funny how I’ve seen people reviewing it and saying ‘it sounds like this and this’, and namechecking artists I’ve never heard before!” he laughs. “And then I’ve checked them out and been like, oh yeah, I see what they’re saying – but it’s funny how it was not informed by or influenced by that kind of music.”

That he should have spent time working on beatless, experimental works over the years is hardly surprising given the breadth of Child’s tastes. His DJ sets are famously wide ranging, having drawn all manner of forms of music into the slipstream over the years: industrial and noise musics, Warp/Rephlex-style electronica and Berlin techno, early forms of dubstep (2007 mix CD This Is For You Shits is a prime example of that diversity). It feels telling that he mentions John Peel more than once during our conversation – it transpires that one of the tracks on The Space Between People & Things was originally recorded for a Peel session on Radio 1 (how unlikely it would be these days to hear a Tresor showcase being aired via that particular institution).

“Pre-internet, the way I discovered almost all music was going round to a friend’s house and them playing me some crazy music and introducing stuff to me. Or someone like John Peel doing that,” Child recalls. “I guess that’s what the fundamental thing about DJing is for me, is that I’m excited about music and I really want to share it with people. I get a lot of time to think about these things when I’m sat on a plane on the way to a gig [laughs]. So I’ve kind of broken it down to that really, it’s a really simple equation – I’ve heard some music, I’m really excited about it, I want to share it. And I just have to figure out how I’m going to shoehorn it into my set. Especially when the music’s kind of not-really-techno, I always try to find a way of passing it off as techno.”

What I really like about listening to you DJ is that even though you draw from lots of different areas, and for stuff that isn’t necessarily techno – whatever techno means in that broadest sense – when you DJ you can always tell it’s you that’s doing it, even as you manage to keep the essential properties of each individual track present. It’s quite a unique approach.

AC: When these tracks are all knitted together, there’s a thread of techno that runs through it somehow.

Is that approach something you’ve found yourself honing over a period of time? And is it something that’s in a continued state of flux, the way in which you knit your sets together?

AC: I think that all of these things we’re talking about – the kind of definition of it – it’s a very important fact that this definition occurs to me afterwards, much more so than consciously planning things. Say when I’m playing my set, I’m not approaching it in such a conscious, pre-meditated sort of way. It’s only really afterwards that it occurs to me, ‘oh yeah, that’s what happened, that’s what I did’. It’s coming much more from a gut or an instinct sort of place. So at the time I’m doing this stuff I’m just going with the feeling of it and not being very conscious in my mind, as it were. So it’s more like after the fact that I realise, ‘Oh yeah, I’m doing this because of this, possibly’ – a kind of post-analysis sort of thing.

I think that’s a core approach to the DJing and production. It’s strange to say it, but [the attitude is] to really not think too much about it, but to approach it [via] what feels right, and tap into some sort of flow, or whatever. It’s following something that’s very natural and not consciously directing it quite so much. And the more on that deeper level I can get with DJing and production, I think the better the result is.

Getting to the point that you’re doing things intuitively, figuring out what they are after you’ve done them.

AC: Definitely. It’s almost like I’m in quite a trance or meditative state, or something like that, and I’ve had people saying that I look really bored [when DJing], but it’s because I’m really turned inward, and I’m not punching the air and directing the crowd. I’m very aware of what’s going on outside, but I’m kind of transmitting it… We’re getting into some quite strange territories now! [laughs] – but I think you know what I’m talking about.

I know what you’re talking about, in the sense that as a dancer to techno, you aspire to reach that same state.

AC: It’s very similar, yeah. There’s feedback between me and the audience, and that’s when it works really well. It’s a very strong and very deep and personal connection with the people in the room. That’s a really great feeling and it’s very inspiring to connect so deeply with people from all different countries, even if you don’t share a common language.

A lot of your titles that refer to these kind of sensations, or allude to them – the mix you did recently, This Is The Place Where The Intellect Gets Annihilated [listen and download via the embed below] – that’s almost what you aim for, in a way, if you go out to a good techno rave, that feeling of just being switched off for several hours.

AC: Absolutely. And that’s a really important point because, for example, I feel that it’s an unavoidable fact that when people go out to a night they bring a lot of expectation with them. The more they’re able to leave that at the door when they come in, and the more open to the experience they’d be, and the more powerful that experience would turn out to be. Like you say, it’s like disengaging from your conscious mind and plugging into it. It’s difficult, I don’t know – it’s like you can confuse the conscious mind to sort of bypass it. They’re all very hypnotic techniques really. That’s always quite fascinating to me, the similarity between things like DJing and hypnosis.

I interviewed [Whitehouse’s] William Bennett a couple of years ago, and that was a fairly major feature in conversation with him. We were talking about his Cut Hands material, and he was explaining he’d come to this feeling that even more powerful than straight up, hypnotic repetition, were rhythms that never quite recur the same twice, that change incrementally with each bar, so you could never predict what was going to happen – and in the process creating a whole new level of sensory disorientation. But then I suppose that’s definitely within the Bennett sphere of doing things.

AC: Definitely, and I’ve definitely seen that occurring, without a doubt, at Cut Hands gigs I’ve been to, I’ve seen that effect on a crowd. There’s a point where people absolutely lose it, it’s incredible. I think repetition and overloading the conscious mind, those are both techniques to hypnotise, so he’s just approaching it in a different way. I’ve seen both of them be very effective.

Is that hypnotic element a key aspect of what you do that’s kept you interested, or has kept drawing you back to techno over the years?

AC: Yeah, but I think that’s another example of something that has always been there, but I haven’t consciously categorised it and labeled it. But for me it’s interesting to do that, because then I can research that stuff and see how the wider world of hypnosis can apply to what I do with a DJ set, and I can draw a lot of parallels and maybe use some of those ideas in the way I approach the structure of the set. It can be very effective.

[Pauses, thinks] Hypnosis is a weird topic because there’s always this old idea of some evil hypnotist taking advantage of people. But really, all my intention behind my music and my DJ sets is always very positive, the effect to have on people. I’m not aiming to destroy people or hurt them. I’m aiming to shift their consciousness and, you know, blow their minds, really – make them see the world in a different way. It’s up to them what they do with that, but it’s a very positive intention, it’s definitely not about controlling.

Facilitating people reaching this state in a nurturing or positive way, rather than going ‘I’m going to impose my will upon you’.

AC: Yeah. And I think that ties in as well with a really important thing to me – I think there’s a very widespread perception of my music as being very dark. But it occurred to me recently that I’ve never really thought about it in that way, and that’s never been the intention. Maybe I’ve just done it really wrong! [laughs], and it’s come across in the wrong way. But it’s about intensity, and a mind-altering quality to it, and a kind of turning inward, quite introspective [aspect]. I don’t know, that’s just the way it comes out, what comes across, and it’s just funny how it gets described as ‘dark’. That’s quite an important point for me – that’s never the way I see it.

For example, music by Coil is often labeled as being very dark. But I’ve never seen it in that way, it’s very deep and introspective, and it has a very meditative kind of effect for me. I’ve never associated it with this idea of horror, or any other ‘dark’ things. It’s interesting to me that a lot of this darker, industrial sort of music that can be quite popular at the moment, a lot of I don’t really connect with, because the intention is darkness, and not this kind of introspection. It’s a subtle line and it’s very much about how you personally feel it, but it’s not about some mock horror kind of thing. [With Coil], you can hear them really delving very deeply into themselves, for me more so than almost any other music that I know of, especially their later music.

There are also these ideas of balance that seem to run right through everything you’ve done, your track and label titles [Dynamic Tension, Counterbalance], and also the way that each element in your tracks feels well weighted against the others. Again, was that something you found yourself naturally inclined to explore, or was it something you came to over the period of starting to make music and starting to play techno?

AC: Yeah, I think that’s another one of these factors that have sort of occurred to me after the fact as well. It’s difficult to explain why that quality appeals to me but I suppose it’s quite a deep part of my character, is a search for that, some kind of balance.

I guess it touches on what you were saying – reaching certain mental states. There’s a certain quality to that balanced feel that maybe facilitates that.

AC: Yeah. Thinking back to what you said before, the thing that keeps me really, really excited about playing DJ gigs is that the environment is never the same, in that there’s a different group of people, and a different space and a different sound, and people are in a different mood, and every tiny little factor has an influence on the outcome. So each time I play, I’ve got to look at the situation, and think, ‘ok, right, how am I going to take these peoples’ heads off, or take them to a different place, or somewhere they’re not used to?’ It’s always a different challenge. It’s like, if I did a mix between two tracks one night and it just blew the roof off, if I replicate that mix, it’s not necessarily going to do the same thing on another night. That’s what makes me really excited about playing every time I do, because it’s a slightly different challenge.

There’s a lot of very subtle details, and this is why I’ve really, really gotten into playing completely sober in the last quite a few years, and I’ve found that much, much more effective, whereas in the past there was an idea that I’d have to have a few drinks or something to be a bit loosened up, to be more on a level with the rest of the crowd. But I find that being very clear and very present makes me really in touch with these more subtle aspects of the situation, and it’s given me a different appreciation and enjoyment of it.

I imagine it’s a very different sensation.

AC: Yeah, it’s very much like being in the eye of a hurricane, and it’s a lot of fun actually. When I’m playing, I’m being very much affected by the music I’m playing. I’m not apart from that experience, I’m feeling it just as much – if not more, really – than the people I’m playing it to. I’m experiencing this very deep, calm, focused feeling, and all around me is just mayhem! It does make me laugh.

You mentioned going into the studio and not necessarily consciously thinking about the way things are going to turn out – would you say you ever go into the studio with an intent or an overall narrative idea behind a record you’re going to make? Or do you go in, and they come out as they come out?

AC: I think it begins with a… It can have a sort of starting point and a trajectory, a direction it’s heading in, and especially an intention. I keep coming back to the idea of intention – for me it’s the most important and powerful thing in music, and in life, I suppose. That’s really the force behind the music, much more so than the surface, of what the genre is, or what drum machine you used, or whether you used analogue or digital to make it, or anything like that. Is the intention that I want to be a famous DJ? Or is the intention some purely focused music? I think on the surface you can have two tracks that would be quite similar, but it’s the intention which gives it its power and depth and emotion.

I think it’s kind of distilled by – it’s actually a book that William Bennett turned me onto, by Stanislavski, a very famous acting text about method acting – An Actor Prepares. That idea was really distilled for me in this Stanislavski book, the idea about method acting. William sort of summed it up as ‘Does it make a difference if an actor, when they’re behind the curtain between Acts 1 and 2, stays in character, or has a cigarette and chats to their mates?’ It’s about intention and what lies behind it, and whether that has an effect. I think it has the most powerful effect.

Do you keep that spirit in mind when you approach your music, when you’re writing in the studio?

AC: All that intention and preparation is what takes all the time. The actual making of the music itself is actually quite quick.

‘Radiance’, from the Breaking The Frame album

For an example, I wanted to ask you about Breaking The Frame because I think it might just be my favourite of your albums, and I don’t really remember reading any interviews with you around the time you released it. I find it a really interesting, emotionally involving listen. So say, when you went into making that album, did you have an idea of the sort of musical shape you wanted it to take? Or was it a case of knowing what the intent was behind the album, and then it all slotted into place, emerged and took its shape from that budding point?

AC: Breaking The Frame was very influenced by spiritually inspired music by people like Alice Coltrane, Eliane Radigue and Terry Riley, La Monte Young, that kind of thing. And this idea of the Alice Coltrane, Journey In Satchidananda thing. I don’t know, I had this really bizarre idea in my head about doing this very colourful, psychedelic kind of Alice Coltrane album, and through my twisted techno lens, it kind of turned out the way it did. [laughs] But a very important part of it was the cover – having a very psychedelic collage cover, very different from this cold, industrial techno aesthetic.

I love that cover for precisely that reason – it’s almost totally not what you would expect generically if someone was to say to you ‘a techno record’.

AC: I think the desired effect is to make people go ‘What the hell is that?’ And think about it, and not outright reject it, and not just let it sort of pass through and go, ‘Ok, here’s another industrial techno release, there you go, it’s sort of got these clanky sounds on it.’ Thats the desired effect. And yeah, at the time when I was preparing to make the music, I was deeply listening to those sorts of artists, and trying to tap into the way that they expressed spirituality in their music. Really getting to that, and trying to do a techno record that was sort of like that.

I like that idea. Going ‘I’m going to make an Alice Coltrane record’. Almost assessing or assimilating what you take as important from that music…

AC: Yeah. It’s really delving deeply into what’s going on beneath the surface of the music, and then drawing that out, and doing my own thing. It’s not stylistically going to be the same at all, it’s going to be completely different, because I can’t play the harp like Alice Coltrane did, or whatever. It’s just trying to delve into that feeling, and bring that out.

Breaking The Frame album cover

So to move onto your new record – The Space Between People & Things – that was pieced together through field recordings and experimental things you’ve been working on for quite some time, right?

AC: Yeah. That was compiled from very personal material, in that none of it was ever really made with the intention of releasing it. So it is quite bizarre now that people refer to this ‘new’ record, and I’m like ‘What new record? Oh yeah, that one’. [laughs] It’s stuff that I’ve had lying around for a long time. I’m really glad that it’s found a good home, and I think it’s a good time to release that music, I think that if the collection had been put out 5 or 10 years ago, then it would have been completely ignored really. So I think now the musical landscape is such that that kind of stuff gets a bit more attention paid to it.

In terms of the actual music on there, was putting the record together just a process of sifting through older stuff? Was there a lot more work you ended up having to do on it, or was it a series of discrete pieces you unearthed and put together?

AC: They are really all, as you say, discrete pieces, and I basically just made two 20 minute mixes of this various material from over the years. I’ve done very little to those pieces, other than just mixing them together.

So did you just decide you were going to delve through your personal archive, and pick bits you were particularly fond of or found particularly interesting?

AC: It came about because NNA Tapes approached me about doing a release for them, and I said I was into the idea, I liked what they did and the music they put out, the variety and stuff like that, and I thought it could be a good label for a more esoteric project. It took several years and they kept emailing me and I kept replying that yes I was interested, but didn’t have anything yet. Eventually I had the idea to go through this old material and see what I could put together. That’s how it came about. Like I say, I’m glad that I did, I’m glad this material has been able to see the light of day.

It occurred to me, actually, that some of it – in fact the very first piece on side A – I actually made for a session on John Peel on Radio 1. I can’t remember what year this was, ’96 or ’97 or something like that, there was this Tresor showcase on John Peel, and we went down to London. I think Neil Landstrumm and Tobias Schmidt did a live thing, I think Pacou DJed, and then I’d made these weird bits of music and I burned CDs and played them. And yeah, that was one of them.

The Space Between People & Things – Side A

So in this process of going through everything, presumably you discovered stuff you’d forgotten you’d made, or found yourself going ‘Oh, I remember where this came from’.

AC: Yeah, any time I listen through it, it is a real bizarre historical journey for me. It brings back where and when I made them, and if they’re location recordings I remember where they’re from. It’s very much a traveling sort of piece, I think I spoke to someone else about how they’d listened to it on a train journey and found it worked quite well, and I’ve listened to it while flying, and I think it’s a piece that seems to work quite well when you listen to it on headphones when you’re traveling.

It made me wonder as well, as I think the location recording aspects to it are really interesting – obviously you must have traveled all over the world at this point to DJ, and I was wondering whether there were any particular places whose local sound worlds had been particularly interesting or memorable to you? And were those recordings on the record taken all over the world?

AC: Let me think… There’s quite a lot of outdoor stuff from a really hot summer night in Naples, with aeroplanes and cars and dogs barking and things like that. And then there’s some parts recorded in the jungle on Maui. Funnily enough I just realised that I recorded a lot of sound through the subway system in Tokyo a long time ago, and I didn’t actually use any of that on this, and it was like ‘Oh, maybe I should have’. It only just occurred to me!

I just found that I would record location recordings because when I listened to them it would bring me back so much to that place and time that I recorded them. It’s like a really strong, emotional, virtual snapshot of a place and a time.

Do location recordings like that ever become tools that you’d use in making more club-based, beat-driven music?

AC: I think that featured very much in the Tresor album Force + Form, there was a lot more location recording used in that. I think I used a drunken phone answer message from Karl [O’Connor, aka Regis], at the end of one of the sides [laughs], and some stuff recorded in the States, in Kalamazoo. So yeah, I have used it in other work, but I don’t know, I don’t want to overuse a certain technique maybe, I don’t do it all the time. For sure, in a lot of our British Murder Boys tracks we used a lot of underlying, almost subliminal things like that, to give a certain underlying atmosphere to the music, and I think that really comes across.

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