Not many producers have been as consistent over time as Anthony Child AKA Surgeon. With roots in early UK techno, his sound became one of the key pillars of industrial and left-of-centre techno at a key time for electronic music. From the outset in the early 90s, he followed his intuition, seeing him release on some of dance music’s biggest labels such as Tresor, Downwards and Blueprint, alongside being one of the founding members of the legendary club House Of God.
I couldn’t resist complimenting his newest album ‘Crash Recoil’, an unexpected techno album after 5 years in a techno-hiatus (of sorts). Like his previous releases, it is very much doing its own thing, gritty techno beats swirling along a tapestry of tension and release. The concept of the album, it turns out, even came as a surprise to him!
I would say it surprised me as well…I was gonna say came out of nowhere, but it didn’t come out of nowhere. But it was like I didn’t plan it and then all of a sudden, I realise that there was an album there already and I just had to sort of capture it somehow. Because I made it as a live set, I’d made it come out of a lot of live performances and I just created it purely for that. I’d never intended to turn it into like, a sort of studio project or whatever. And then I just realised, oh, there’s 8 tracks here. So that’s kind of an album, isn’t it?
Did you take a break from releasing techno for a while? What have you been up to since the last release?
I hadn’t planned a techno album for five years but I had a couple of releases, one which is on Illian Tape. And I released a few things myself, but I don’t know, I always feel like an album project is, you know, in the simplest way, it’s a much bigger project. For me, I like it to have a bigger overall idea, or concept or something like that. Being really, really honest, I didn’t know if I was going to release any more techno.
I still really love DJing and I still love playing live, there’s infinite things to explore with that. It’s like a never ending journey. But I just didn’t feel the inspiration to make techno music and release it, because I can’t force it. You know, I don’t want to just go, oh, you know, I gotta release something because I need things. I can’t just do that, it has to come naturally for me.
It was as if this album was already there, and I hadn’t actually realised it was. It was such a different way of creating an album. There’s something really honest about it. It was just like, it is what it is, you know? So, it came about in a really different way.
‘Crash Recoil’ came off the back of a new condescended live setup that Tony has put together in recent times, a collection of gear to give dancefloors a serious workout, while giving him the hands-on experience needed to bring it together with his well known improv style.
I’ve really, really loved exploring different ideas and approaches to improvisation for quite some time now, over the last six, seven years or something like that. For each of these sort of, you know, if you call them songs, it’s creating a lot of different rhythmic and melodic elements, all of which kind of makes sense together in any combination. And so I can use these as starting points, but, where I take them in a live context can go all over the place, you know, it’s quite open ended. So I’m not fumbling around trying to find a tune, while the audience is going “Get on with it” you know? [laughs] It’s just a bit of a balance between pure improvisation and having a starting point.
This leads us onto discussing his broad taste in music, and how this comes through in his productions, notably the new album.
When I listen back to it, I hear little hints of a lot more of my influences than I might normally do. I think I just let them out a bit more, in a bit more of an honest sort of way really. I hear little hints of early 90s progressive house. It’s just like a whole mishmash of stuff and you know, some of it’s not really that cool, but it’s like, yeah, I’m not embarrassed at all. I’m too old to be embarrassed.
I find a lot of dance music these days is very pristine and polished but I got almost like this grittiness to the sound on your new album. Was that done on purpose?
Yeah, that’s something that’s always really important to me. It’s like a fundamental thing that’s really important to me in electronic music is an idea about a relationship between a human and a machine. It’s like, I want to hear the human in there as well. I want to hear that person turning the dial, do you know what I mean? Like, if everything is so refined, I don’t hear the human. If you think about really old dance music, you can really hear the human in the machine. That’s just the dynamic and tension that I like to hear, so that’s what I’m trying to go for as well.
We chat about how a space can affect the performance on the night, the idea of having this live feedback loop where the crowd are a key influence to the performance.
Each space is different, the sound is different and, you know, I really believe that every minuet detail and element, I always kind of joke about how it’s like, how warm the beer is even, that every little detail is part of this whole kind of experience, a musical kind of magic of myself, the equipment and the sound and every person in there, you know, it all sort of ties in together to what gets created in those moments.
We talk a bit more about the energy of a room and how it impacts the performance. I ask him about his performances with Transcendence Orchestra, a live project he has with friend and collaborator Dan Bean.
When that project started off it felt very far away from techno to me, but the more I did it, the more I realised that kind of beneath the surface of it, there’s so much that’s so similar in the way that it’s like, I would describe it as like moving energy, the way a DJ set moves energy in a certain way. And that’s kind of a level that I really think about it on. And the Transcendence Orchestra does that with tones, it’s not so obviously rhythmic but it moves and creates energy and it affects people. And it’s heavy as well. You know, the thing ‘Oh, it’s ambient music’, but it’s a lot heavier than that. Especially live with high volumes.
It’s almost like bringing people into your world, is that what you’re kind of trying to do?
Yeah, I mean, that also ties in with techno I think. I mean, ultimately, if we’re talking like the big ideas, I really like having experiences which make you aware of something greater than yourself. It could be a room full of people dancing together, or even on a galactic or universal sort of level, you know, and I think that’s a really healthy thing for people to do, to think beyond themselves to connect to something larger than themselves. There’s so many different ways of doing that but my way is through music.
You’ve been involved in events since the 90s. What do you make of the techno scene now? And do you think it’s a little bit more commercially driven or is that just, you know, music in general?
It’s funny, I’ve talked to people about this, and you know, to a large extent, in my experience, the music scene and the techno scene is the same as it’s always been. There’s a big commercial scene that I’m not at all interested in and, you know, it’s fine. It’s fair enough. But I just don’t really pay attention to it. I always just focus on artists and music that I really like, and that’s always been the case. They are always a bit harder to find, you got to dig a little bit to find what for me is the interesting stuff. In that respect, it’s been the same the whole time I’ve been involved in it.
And yeah, things come and go. Different styles go up and down in popularity. But yeah, I mean it is what it is. And I’m so grateful to be able to release music, and play music that people are interested in basically, it’s really simple. I’m so grateful that people still like hearing me play because I love playing music for people and having that feeling and that connection. It’s just the best thing there is.
Do you find that you get that connection during bigger stage performances versus a smaller event?
They work in different ways, I think. Yeah, I mean, a smaller event, it’s more about connecting person to person. But a larger event, there is something really magical about that feeling. This feeling of all these people together. That’s really special. But yeah, they’re different.
We chat about how there is a lot of big productions for techno shows now, and about how the local scene has been affected by larger events. We wonder how this commercialisation element is going to affect the creativity and the chances for people to share new sounds and experiment.
I’m a very optimistic person, so I hope and believe that there’s always going to be something emerging. It’s like weeds popping up out the ground or something, you know, there’s always something that’s gonna emerge, you know, new scenes, young artists.
I’ve been involved with House of God in Birmingham. We’ve done that 30 years now. We had our 30th birthday in March. We pretty much didn’t advertise who was playing, it was just going to be the residents, but we actually got Jeff Mills to play but we didn’t announce him. And it was just a surprise for our audience. It’s a tiny club and he was really great about agreeing to play for us. And, yeah, I mean, it was so good because I think if we’d have advertised him and put him on in a big venue, you know, the crowd would have been different, it would have been people who just came for him, but you know, we wanted to do it for our cowd, you know, this is for you. It just creates such an amazing buzz, people were just going out of their minds.
Even though we didn’t advertise him, there were a lot of people who hadn’t been before, there were a lot of younger people. But you know, the crowd, there is the whole full range of people who’ve been coming literally 30 years and people who are like, you know, they’re just old enough to get in the club. We literally have people, like, parents raving with their kids, it’s just so good to see them. Really, really good.
That time Jeff Mills played unannounced at House of God pic.twitter.com/HTzIgmc7VY
— tony_surgeon (@Tony_Surgeon) March 11, 2023
The British Murder Boys project with you and Regis is one of my favourite techno collaborations. Any plans in the works?
We did quite a few gigs last year. We play every couple of months and that’s always really fun. We like trying out different technical sort of approaches to playing live. That project creates its own different kind of energy. I’ve known Carl so long, you know, I love him, so it’s great performing together. We don’t do practice sessions because it’s weird. Setting it up at home is so different. You almost can’t test something. It’s so different louder, I don’t know. I love just getting together and just like making it there.
We’ve been listening to your Rinse FM show with your wife DJ Bus Replacement Service, Marital Aid, and it’s a lot of fun! How did this come about?
That’s loads of fun. I used to do a show on Rinse FM and then my wife Doris started doing one, at some point I was a guest on with her, and then she came up with the great name Marital Aid for it. And I kind of brought this idea from the previous show, this feline shout out idea, it’s like a pirate station where you’re giving shout outs to people, but instead of that, we’re saying hello to people’s cats [laughs] So yeah, we’re just having a laugh, you know, playing goofy music. We pick the music that we’re going to play, but we don’t know what the other person is going to play. And then we just like hit record and just go and jam it. It’s really fun and I think that comes across, people hear that, like how we’re sort of doing little digs at each other and stuff like that.
Are you listening to many Irish artists at the moment?
Of course Sunil Sharpe, Fran Hartnett, Lakker, Splitradix and I love what Lunar Disko Records release.
Tell us what can we expect from your show in Wigwam on Sunday?
Well, it will be based around the new album and it will be fully improv. The thing is, I’ve never done this before. For a really long time, I’ve just created techno live that doesn’t really have a connection to existing music I’ve released, but because of the weird nature of about how this album came about, I have this live setup so I’m performing with the same sequences, in the same gear that I made the album with. So there will be recognisable connections, but there’ll be bits that go off on tangents as well.
Thanks to Surgeon for joining us for the chat! Grab your tickets here to catch him play alongside Fran Hartnett, Stephen Mahoney and me, Shiv!