Intensive Care

Surgeon describes his third album as being 'very heavy, direct and physical' — just what you'd expect from a record titled Body Request

By Alex Ward

Mild-mannered Brummie Tony Child was fed on a diet of Faust, Coil, Throbbing Gristle and other eighties industrial weirdcore. "I like intensity," he explains frequently throughout our interview. "But there's different ways of doing it. I don't really like ‘bang bang bang’ – I like more ‘vooooooov..."

Indeed, intensity is one of his pleasures – something reflected not just by his tastes in music but also his preferences in film and literature; he cites the novel American Psycho and films such as Mike Lee’s Naked and Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby to be among his favourites. As personality and music-making are intrinsically linked, exploring these elements that constitute his character certainly affords me clearer understanding of his musical output.

Since his seminal Magneze (immortalised on Jeff Mills' Live at the Liquid Rooms mix), his productions have become increasingly more experimental, more explorative. When his first long-player Basictonalvocabulary was released, both title and tracks hinted at a broader agenda than just cuts for the clubs. He sees little point in rehashing the winning dance-floor formula used for his classic early releases such as Magneze and Badger Bite. "You can release records and its just pure product, hit on a formula and just pump them out — It's too easy. It's not a challenge to the person making the music and its almost insulting people's intelligence."

His Dynamic Tension label, now reaching its seventh release, focuses on a pure, tense electronic sound. "There's something about having an intensity that’s never quite letting go – that's the 'tension' thing with it," he explains, before going on to illuminate the concept behind his new label, Counterbalance. "The second Counterbalance is done. It's called La Real, which is the name of a club in the north of Spain. The third one is being worked on at the moment by Pete from Berlin [of Hardwax Dubplates and Mastering fame] – he did Substance on Chain reaction, but it's obviously very different from that. He described it to me as ‘industrial Latin’. The idea behind Counterbalance is taking the essence of other music and turning it into techno. It's not this, that or the other, it's not pure at all. It's fusion, where you take samples from music genres that are influential to you – more funkier and dancier styles – and deconstruct them and reconstruct them, but not in a way that's recognisable, not where you just take a one bar hook and repeat it." The vision of a man obsessed by intensity fades ever so slightly when he lists some influences for the label: "Lots of old records that I remember from when I used to like electro – from when I used to go to a roller rink. Things like Shannon Let the Music Play, some old stuff by Zap, strange old disco – things from the fun party-side, rather than intense weird electronic stuff. Pete's just done a cut-up with some R&B track – you'd never know it but that's where the original hits and beats come from."

His reputation for playing heavy and hard in the clubs recently led him to reassess his DJing direction. Finding little new heavy tunage to his taste, he experimented at a gig in Manchester by spinning all his own material. "I've been doing that much more lately – it's about presenting and representing the Birmingham sound." Indeed, the concrete sprawl of Birmingham is where he feels most comfortable, far from the frenzied media circus of the Big Smoke. He describes the capital's medley of label runners, distributors and magazines as ‘a bit schmoozy’, a distraction his music can well do without. "So many magazines are London based and don't see anything outside of that. They don’t look a few hundred miles north; we're all living in the Stone Age up here aren’t we?" He painfully recounts a tale about attending the first ever Musik Magazine awards when they were held in Birmingham, persuaded by two complimentary tickets and a free bar. "I just ended up wanting to kill people, drunken, shouting, making an arse of myself. It was really, really horrible. I still get sent 'blah blah Christmas party' invites, but I can't think of anything worse than being in a room full of arseholes on coke."

He's weary of talking about drugs to the press, ever since a journalist stitched him up by printing casual conversation portrayed as an anti-drugs rant. "It's great to have a good time obviously, but as time goes on the bad elements far outweigh the good elements," he remarks, mentioning philosophy as a better way of freeing the mind. Clearly he resents the extent to which the British scene revolves around chemical entertainment. "It doesn't have anything to do with the music I make at all," he continues, "I think I'd made the sickest music before I'd even got drunk. It's got no relation to ‘oh, I took loads of acid and then I started liking and making weird music.’ If you go to Japan you have people there going absolutely wild until eight in the morning on a Monday night, and they are all going straight to work from there. It's obvious that no one there has had any drugs at all — they still go absolutely crazy to the music. It's nice because they are totally aware, their reactions are quicker – they can hear exactly what you are doing. You can't fool them, you can't use simple tricks and clichés."

Balance, the second Surgeon long-player for Berlin's Tresor label suggested the importance of equilibrium within music by juxtaposing ferocious and beautiful compositions, while his beatless remix for indie spacecadets Mogwai two years ago promoted a broader public perception of his work. Although releases such as Balance readily displayed more abstract directions within his music, it was the Mogwai track (a serene tonal wave building slowly to great intensity) that finally broke the restrictive mould set in place by the media during his initial rise to prominence. Last year, his astonishing textural composition Over Napoli (released on Slut Smalls under his own name) reinforced his soundcraftmanship, along with the emotive Guitar Treatments with Andrew Read (on FatCat), and also a downtempo reworking of LFO’s Nurture for Warp’s remix compilation.

A close association with ex-Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris (the driving-force behind Scorn and Lull) has given rise to numerous experimental forays, including a forthcoming studio project forging broken beats with dub, hip hop and other influences. "Mick is certainly a key figure in me releasing records, letting me use his studio before I knew him that well, and introducing me to Karl [Regis]. Without him the whole thing wouldn't have happened." Tony relates contrasting tales of the two experimental live sets he played with Mick as Certain Beyond All Reasonable Doubt, one in Sheffield (that went down ‘like a lead balloon’), and another in Berlin. "I was really looking forward to the one in Sheffield, it was billed as an experimental all-dayer. There were a lot of really interesting well-respected artists on, but the audience seemed to be all journalists and indie kids. Mick and I started and the room was full – it was so obvious that they were waiting for the intro to finish and the beats to kick in, which it didn't. The room just gradually thinned out until there was just a handful of people lying on the floor listening to an hour of tonal stuff. It was very, very heavy – we were using different frequencies to rattle different bits of the room..." Perhaps too much for most on a Monday afternoon in May. But would that experience put him off trying something like that again in Britain? "Probably yes. It's not as if there aren't people who really appreciate and understand that music, but I think it’s just generally misunderstood, and that's the problem."

His narrative of events in Germany paints a very different picture: "When we did it in Berlin we had the whole night. It was in a place where they often put on experimental events – a small very cold cellar with one red light, a disco ball and a really nice PA. We began by DJing a mixture of dub and Coil and Faust, then we did our live thing for about two hours. It's such introverted stuff, people just sat there and looked perturbed – but it went down fairly well. You don't expect people to clap when you finish, but we got a good reaction."

As far as the current state of techno is concerned, Tony's glad the music has managed to avoid the curse of bandwagoneers. "I’m not someone who regards it as ‘ours’ and something nobody else can have", he says, "but when something gets hyped more people become involved who don't really feel it – then you get more crap records. The magazines keep saying ‘techno’s dead, techno’s back, techno’s dead...’ Oh, is it? Never mind."

 Listen to Surgeon's set from !emergency! in Bristol, October 2005.
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