Surgeon, aka Anthony Child, has been a man of different styles and pursuits in techno. He has pushed hard edged industrial-influenced techno, helped pioneer stripped down, minimalistic, hypnotic techno, and incorporated the found sound collages of musique concrète, from the stark and cold Birmingham techno sound of the Downwards label and the aggressive stylings of The British Murder Boys with Regis, to the ambient escapist electronica and groovy modular synth techno improvisations with Lady Starlight.
In his newest and well-received album off Tresor, Surgeon has taken the live pa from the stage into the earbuds, headphones, and living rooms of the techno world; a sound that is both an affirmation of the past as well as a hint about a new direction for techno as a whole.
Dirty Epic had a spare moment ahead of Surgeon’s West Coast Tour in San Francisco and Los Angeles to ask him about his mindset when playing live and his inspiration for the newest album, Crash Recoil.
Dirty Epic: You’ve been away from the West Coast for a long time, or at least it seems like it has been ages since you’ve been around. Aside from the usual COVID concerns of the last few years, what has been keeping you away from North America? Or has it been that you’ve been so in demand that it was never an idea to travel out this way?
Surgeon: To be honest, it’s the US work visa that’s been the problem. It’s such a humiliating, expensive grind to get one. I’ve looked into it several times in the past and always pulled out. This felt like the right time to apply again as I’d heard the techno scene in the US is good right now. Fortunately I got the visa one week before I was due to fly over. Fans of my music, old and new kept asking me to come and perform in North America so I’m doing it for them.
DE: We heard you’ll be DJing at Movement Detroit and out here on the West Coast for your North American dates. You have often played a hybrid DJ set in the past with Ableton, what can the audience expect from your upcoming tour dates out here?
S: Yes, I’ll be DJing on all the dates on this North American tour except for one show at Movement on Monday night where I’ll be performing live with Speedy J as Multiples.
Over the 30 years I’ve been DJing, I’ve used many different combinations of gear to do that. Vinyl, Final Scratch, Ableton, Hybrid live + many different ways of playing live. When I move on from a certain way of performing, I usually don’t go back to that. I keep moving on, keep exploring.
As far as the DJ sets on this tour go, I’ll be playing a genre-defying combination of dance music that I’m currently feeling. To me, it all fits very loosely under the umbrella of techno, especially when all combined in one DJ set.
DE: We’d hope that most of our audiences are clued in, but say for the sake of argument, the average club goer can’t tell the difference between DJing and a Techno Live PA. For them, how would you explain your thought processes and what is going on up there to make a live set like yours unique?
S: I don’t believe that thought processes or technicalities matter in that situation. Performing techno live (well, the way I do anyway) gives a quite rough and imprecise result that the audience can sense without the need for a technical understanding of what went into it. It’s that sense of shared risk that the performer and audience both participate in that makes it really special. It’s very different from playing back music that already exists.
DE: Your live sets are mostly improvised.. What helps speed the direction of the set along so you’ve got some idea of what comes next?
For example: Do you have premade sequences and presets to rely on? Or are you tap-writing on the fly? Do you mix and match MIDI with pieces of gear? Such as applying an Ableton style MIDI clip launching and letting it play based on how you or your audience is feeling? Or, are you basing a set of songs around motifs and expounding on them like a Jazz or Classical musician would with a melody?
S: Some or all of those. I explore different approaches all the time.
DE: You’re really focused behind the mixer. How much does the audience dictate the flow of your sets, live and otherwise? Is there a strong musical conversation based on the audience’s reaction?
S: Yes, I’m very focused when I perform. Just because I’m not clowning around while I play certainly doesn’t mean I’m unaware of the audience. I’m very, very aware of the energy in the space I’m playing in. That’s what I’m working with, shaping, bringing up and down. Turning the audience’s attention inward and then external again. I lead the audience, but the way I do that is based on what I feel coming back from them. It’s the same as pacing and leading in hypnotism.
DE: Your album Crash Recoil seems to have a real strong desire for keeping the theme of the gear consistent, such as a bassline that is specifically written for a piece of gear throughout a set. Was this by design?
S: The basslines were written with a piece of gear, a SOMA Pulsar-23. I’m not sure they were written ‘for’ it? But maybe that’s the same thing? Haha. I feel like you’re thinking about it far more than I do. Honestly, I just jam with gear that I connect with, and this is what comes out.
S: Well spotted! I hadn’t noticed a connection with Compliance Momentum but it certainly does refer to JG Ballard as well as William Burroughs. Also Coil is there in the title, hiding in plain sight.
DE: The addition of basslines in your album with the tracks “Masks and Archetypes” as well as “Subcultures” and “Hope Not Hate” seems new, as opposed to some of your previous work, where it’s much lower in the mix and less prominent, and it’s in contrast to the largely broken techno bottom end of the previous tracks in the album. Has your collaboration with Lady Starlight influenced you in this regard?
S: I don’t really think my performances with Lady Starlight had an influence on this album, but there’s a lot of other influences that went into it for sure. I think the broken techno you’re talking about comes from a largely UK sound that’s directly influenced by Jamaican Soundsystem culture. I really love the way that sound uses more syncopated rhythms aside from the usual 4/4 thud of most techno today. And basslines of course.
DE: You’ve said there’s some Detroit Techno you can hear in the album. Do you think it fair to say there’s some British Acid House influence in the new album as well?
S: Absolutely! That’s very much in there too. With both of those there’s a much heavier emphasis on the melodic and bassline elements rather than pure 4/4 rhythm tracks.
DE: After touring this album, do you have any desire to return to make DJ tracks, or are you more interested in pushing the envelope of what is possible as an artist within the realm of techno and otherwise?
S: I don’t know, I don’t really plan that far ahead. I’d say pushing the envelope, because I’m not interested in repeating music I’ve made unless I feel there’s further to go in that direction. Also, I find a lot of music made by other producers that I enjoy DJing with, so that fulfills my need for DJ tracks.
DE: What do you see the next form of techno becoming, and how do you see yourself as a musician within that movement?
S: Just like it’s always been, there will be a huge amount of boring music and lame performers, and you’ll have to look hard and dig for the good stuff. It’s there if you look for it.
I have my vision of techno music and I just do my best to make that work no matter how weird the scene gets.
DE: This isn’t music related, but you were jokingly on record as saying you drink “A panic attack-inducing amount of coffee” to get in the mood for a practice set and to keep things demented and left field… I’m going to the cafe, do you want anything?
S: Ah, I don’t remember saying that. I’d probably drunk too much coffee! Black Americano is always my choice.