Surgeon: Exclusive Interview
Surgeon will be playing at our Autumn St venue on December 6th, alongside longtime collaborator Regis.
His understated energy and raw, industrial talent has served as a gravitational centre for totally new generation of techno artists to orbit around. Bloc’s Lee Smith exclusively sat down with Anthony Child to hear his take on things, and they ended up talking about Lady Gaga.Buy Tickets
You’re playing for us in December alongside your long-time / sometime cohort Karl O’Connor, aka Regis. What first drew you two together? What inspired you to work together again in 2012 as BMB? Do you stay in regular contact, musically or otherwise?
Mick Harris introduced us in 1994. I’d recorded some tracks in Mick’s home studio and he played them to Karl who wanted to release them.
We’ve continued to work together and perform together since then. British Murder Boys came about as a more focused fantasy project. We have a very close connection as he’s the only other person who’s been on this whole crazy ride with me for the last 20 years.
I do want to stress that we no longer perform together as BMB. I don’t want anyone mislead into thinking that’s going to happen. The final BMB gig was performed in Tokyo in 2013 and was filmed. That’s was the perfect conclusion to the project.
I’ve often thought it was interesting that even though you have a reputation for being somehow ‘ultra’ techno, a kind of techno zenith, your sets span all kinds of further non-techno reaches. Do you think that says something about ‘techno’ as a genre? Or about people’s perceptions of you, perhaps?
I enjoy a LOT of different music on many different levels. I see it all on a totally level playing field. The only important thing is whether I connect with it or not. Not the artificial construct of genre or how popular it is.
You’ve spoken before about the similarity between hypnotic states, and that point in your sets where you’re kind of benignly controlling the dancefloor. How much of that ability to ‘hypnotise’ comes from learning, and how much from instinct? Do you plot the journey ahead of time in any form?
I think it mainly comes from the experience of DJing for over 20 years. That experience allows me to more fully open up to my instinct right there in the moment.
I never plan anything ahead, though I like to conclude my sets in a very positive and ecstatic way. The journey may be difficult at times, but you always need to work for the right outcome.
Although non-dancefloor material has always been part of what you do, both on record and when DJing, that aspect of your work seems to have taken more of a prominent role recently, at least in terms of the productions and mixes you’ve been making available. Any particular reason?
It’s probably mostly due to musical fashion and what is tolerated by audiences at the moment. I’m glad that you’ve noticed that it’s always been part of my work. That’s often overlooked.
You’ve been described as part of a certain kind of darkly British electronic music continuum, starting with acts like Throbbing Gristle and Coil, on through Whitehouse, possibly yourself, Shackleton. Would you agree there’s a thread there? Does ‘Britishness’ mean anything to you, musically or otherwise?
Yes, I’d agree that there’s a thread running through all of that music. Britishness in that sense is difficult to define. Perhaps it’s a self loathing dark humour.
I was listening to Muggerscum Out a while back, and wondered if you had any thoughts on the state of the UK since then (1996)? Reports are it’s safer, crime is down etc., but at the same time there seems to be a rise in the further right, less tolerance – even some techno labels have been accused of flirting with fascist ideologies in offensive ways. Do you have any thoughts on all that?
I believe that you can examine, explore or comment on anything with your art. Just because you write a book about tightrope walkers doesn’t automatically mean that you are one. That’s a ridiculous assumption to make.
More prosaically – what have you been working on recently?
I’ve been developing a Hybrid DJ / Live setup using Ableton and a modular synthesiser. It’s so much fun. Essentially improvising live with the tracks track I play in my set. It creates a very unique atmosphere of being directly connected with the moment. The audience can really feel that.
And we couldn’t go without asking about your appearance at the recent Lady Starlight gig (warming up for Lady Gaga), which I think it’s fair to say was a surprise for music fans on both sides of the pop / underground divide. How did it come about? Did you enjoy the experience? Do you have any wider thoughts on techno’s supposed resistance to the pop music mainstream – or indeed, pop music’s ability to sometimes absorb the underground?
I’m interested in many different artists and believe that there’s always something to learn from all great performers.
In October my wife and I went to the Lady Gaga concert in Birmingham and I was very surprised to hear one of her support acts, Lady Starlight playing a ‘real’ techno live set. She made a real point to tell the slightly confused audience that she was playing techno live using hardware. Then she said, “I’m happy to be playing in Birmingham tonight as one of my techno heroes, Surgeon is from here.”
To say I was surprised is a massive understatement!
We got to meet after her set, she was just as surprised that I was actually there and we got on really well and stayed in contact. We realised that we shared many, many core ideas on music, art and performance. She’s like the techno sister that I was separated from at birth.
Since their tour was returning to Birmingham in November we had the idea to perform together. It all came together very naturally.
The gig was the most fun ever, there’s an amazing onstage chemistry between us. Lady Gaga came out to see our set and she could see the energy we created and was very enthusiastic about it. So much so that she asked us to perform together at their last tour date in Paris.
Of course we knew it would surprise people. It’s so absurd, I would never have imagined it in a million years before we met, but when the universe holds up such a massive sign, I have to pay attention.
It’s been a chance to really provoke people and force them to assess their ideas on the connections between different styles of music. The context of music and many other ideas. Separation is an illusion.
Interestingly people’s reactions, as always, reveal so much about themselves. It’s like holding up a mirror to themselves because there was so little information about our performance.
Surgeon plays at Bloc [Autumn St] alongside Regis, Billy Nasty, Volte-Face and Rubin on Dec 6th. Tickets and more info here