• A conversation about all things Surgeon and beyond. Interview by Thomas Lundberg. Photo by Cathrin Queins
With his trademark relentless techno since the 1990s to his transcendental ambient music collaboration today, Anthony Child remains as relevant as ever on the international music scene performing solo and with other musicians all over the world. Anthony connected with Vlad Kreimer in the early days of SOMA Laboratory and has quietly been one of our biggest supporters through the years. Without knowing it, thousands upon thousands of people around the globe have been dancing to the raw power of PULSAR-23 and the Rumble of Ancient Times in Surgeon's live techno sets, or chilling out to the meditative rhythmic sounds of LYRA-8, COSMOS and more recently TERRA during performances of The Transcendence Orchestra.
On October 27th, 2023 Anthony Child’s new release Perpetual Rotation will be released via SOMA Labs Music.
How important is it for young producers and DJs to study the history of electronic music, to know the originators in different genres and to know the main influential labels in those genres?
Interesting question. On one hand, I am personally interested in the roots of the music that I am interested in and how different artists and scenes and labels connect together and influence each other. I’m constantly learning about this. On the other hand, this could be seen as quite a conservative approach and if you were a young artist, maybe it works for you to tear up the rulebook and just do whatever you want without caring about what came before you. We’ve seen that happen many times and great things can come from that approach too.
What are the best ways for young producers and DJs to educate themselves in today’s digital world?
There are so many resources online today that it’s quite overwhelming. These resources are great things like tutorials on YouTube etc but I really enjoyed using my imagination and trying to figure things out myself when it came to production techniques. I like the way that can give you a very personal style and sound. Learning things by the book is fine but it’s certainly not the only way.
Do you remember when you felt that spark the first time? When you knew, or felt, ‘I want or I need to learn how to do this’.
I remember being quite young, maybe about six years old, when I discovered that I could make the record player in the living room feedback by turning up the volume. Opening and closing the door of that room changed the feedback tone, and I found this fascinating. Around that time, I also started to play around with tape recorders. Disabling the erase head, and making simple sound on sound recordings. I saw the short film The Cut Ups by Antony Balch and William Burroughs and that totally changed my universe, just the idea of abandoning the traditional linear timeline blew my mind, and so many other things about it too.
You grew up as a musician and DJ in the ‘before time’ and are still very active today. What would be your advice to yourself, if you were starting off today as a young producer?
My Dad had some interesting records in his collection that I was very drawn to. One being an album by the Japanese electronic composer Isao Tomita, Future Shock by Herbie Hancock. Also ‘O Superman’ by Laurie Anderson made a big impact on me. BBC sound effects records and early releases by The Art of Noise inspired me. I remember an art teacher at my school when I was about 10 years old played me ‘No Pussyfooting’ by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno. It had a big impact on me in terms of minimalist, long form, repetitive music.
How did you land your first DJ gig and how did you connect locally (with Regis and Female, becoming what would later be called the ‘Birmingham sound’ and scene)?
I started DJing regularly in Birmingham in 1992. It was just a group of friends who loved techno and all kinds of rave music. We didn’t have a place to go where we could hear the music we liked, so we made the events ourselves. A real DIY approach. I met Karl (Regis) later on, but he used to come to some of those early events, I just didn’t know him at the time. Karl was introduced to me by Mick Harris who was a mutual friend. We never called it The Birmingham Sound. As usual with those sort of labels it’s something that comes from outside of the scene it describes. I understand these labels can be useful for people, but they always oversimplify and reduce what they are describing.
How did you learn to use electronic gear and setting up your first studio, without access to the internet?
It was really about trial and error and the techniques that I had learned with my own tape recorder experiments. Mick Harris also helped me with choosing pieces of gear. When I finally had the money to buy some, I really just used my ears.
How did you connect with Mick Harris from Napalm Death, and what role did he play in your early works?
Mick Harris was part of a wider group of friends I had at the time and we bonded over a lot of the music and films that we both liked. My first release on Downwards Records was recorded in his small home studio.
How did you connect internationally (for example with German label Tresor, and getting booked for DJ gigs in the US)?
I remember at the time that producers used to print their phone number on the records they put out, or a fax number. That’s how people got in contact with you. The phone would ring and there’d be someone asking me to play in Berlin or Tokyo. I remember record shops from New York sending faxes saying that they had sold lots of copies of my records. That was how you got in contact with people back then.
Was there a particular artist, label, collective or scene that first inspired you to start producing/DJing? Who were early sources of inspiration for you musically (not limited to techno, any genre or artist that was important to you early on)?
Musically, the biggest influence on me has always been Coil. I remember when I was at school, someone who is quite a bit older heard one of my tape experiments and said “That sounds like Coil” that made me go out and find the music. I followed them since about 1986. The way that music was a sacred ritualistic force in their lives is a real inspiration to me.
Have we moved beyond regional and genre-specific music scenes in the age of social media and instant and constant global presence?
Yes, I hear a lot of hybrids of musical forms. I really like it when you can’t pigeonhole a piece of music, you don’t know what box to put it in. I always really like that.
Traditional underground scenes tended to be staunchly anti-commercial, anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist. How can today's underground artist reconcile that spirit with the modern need for a social media presence and digital releases?
I think the problem these days is that nearly everyone wants to be rich, famous and popular. It’s the curse of celebrity culture. It’s quite rare that people create something just for the sake of creating, for the sake of art.
The decoupling of music from the physical medium has had dramatic consequences for underground artists trying to make a living and a name for themselves. What would be your advice to yourself now, knowing everything you do about DJing and music production, if you were starting off today as a young producer and/or DJ?
I think being somewhat delusional helps. On a realistic level being an artist doesn’t make sense. I wouldn’t listen to me if I was trying to advise my younger self. I would be arrogant and think that I knew best.
You started a musical collaboration with Daniel Bean in the form of The Transcendence Orchestra. Live performances have been quite powerful, for example with people laying or sitting down on the floor of a church, being enveloped by the ambient soundscapes produced live on stage. What is the goal of this project, and do any Soma instruments play a role in production or live performance?
That project is more about using tone than rhythm to alter the audience and performers consciousness. As part of that we like to use very evocative locations for the performances and ritualistic clothing and other paraphernalia. Yes, I think I’ve used SOMA instruments for nearly all of The Transcendence Orchestra performances and studio work. I’ve used the LYRA-8 a lot and the ORNAMENT-8. Also the COSMOS and more recently TERRA.
Did you learn to play an acoustic instrument when you were young?
Yes, because I knew from a very early age that I was interested in music, I tried to learn many different instruments. I tried to learn the piano, violin and guitar both acoustic and electric, but what I discovered was that I was more interested in the sounds than the melody, so I became more interested in sound engineering and musique concreté.
Were you a gearhead or were synths and drum machines just tools for you?
Primarily synths and drum machines are tools for making music for me, but I have to admit I am a little bit of a gearhead.
Did you have your favourite electronic instruments which you stuck with for many years?
I’ve always been attracted to the more quirky end of electronic musical Buchla and EMS have always appealed to me. I think it makes sense that I’m also a big fan of Soma instruments and their philosophy of the interaction of the human and the machine.
What was your first hardware setup that you could call your own?
The first keyboard that I owned was a Korg Poly 800. I used that to make my first tracks with up until the first Tresor album I recorded. I borrowed a friend's drum machine that was made by a company called Cheetah. It was pretty basic but that’s how I made all my early music.
What was the gear used on the Patience EP, especially the jack track “Pt 3”? Do you remember anything else about this first release on Dynamic Tension?
That was made with a 909 drum machine, and a Nord Lead keyboard. I remember that I rented a place to have my studio at that time. It was very cold with bad insulation and very little heating.
What is the story behind the very intense remix of “Intro” from the Basic Tonal Vocabulary LP. The “(Intro) Version II” on the Basic Tonal Remake EP still makes dancefloors explode 25 years later, but it sounds nothing like the track it’s based on. What is the gear used on “(Intro) Version II”?
It was kind of a joke to make such an intense remake of what was essentially an ambient intro track. Also noteworthy is that it did not have a catchy and easy title. I also made the main riff in 3/4 time to make it harder to dance to, but in the end, it actually improved the forward motion of the track. The main 3/4 riff in Intro Version II is actually a sample of the ambient intro original version.
Do you have a permanent collection of gear or do you only keep what you need, constantly refreshing your studio?
I do horde gear. As far as I can remember I’ve kept everything that I’ve bought, even when it’s obsolete. I found so many times that if I think I’m done with a piece of gear then some years down the line I always end up finding a new way to use it, and especially new combinations with other gear. Since the pandemic, I’ve really slowed down on the amount of pieces that I buy and I’m just really enjoying different combinations of what I currently have in my studio.
What sets apart PULSAR-23 compared to the classics, Roland TR-808 and TR-909?
They aren’t really comparable. The Roland classics are so recognisable and functional. They have their place for sure, but the PULSAR-23 is a really great experimental instrument.
What has it added to your workflow and productions?
For me, it’s a great live performance instrument and I’ve used it in my techno live sets ever since I got it. I’ve also used it to do some recordings with Speedy J. I like using instruments which have a strong character, and when I use it, I’m trying to feel what the instrument wants to do and channel that.
What is your opinion about COSMOS?
It’s a really unique creative instrument. It’s very different from a regular looper, so I think that someone who is expecting that could be disappointed, but that’s not really the point of SOMA gear for me, I want to find out what the instrument wants to do and work with that. That's always really inspiring and fun.
What are your opinions on TERRA so far? How has performing live on it been for you, and how have other artists and audiences responded to it?
I really love TERRA, it’s so subtle and expressive. I’ve never really got on with a traditional piano style keyboard, no matter how much I’ve tried, but with the layout of the TERRA I really connected with it straight away as a way to express myself in a more musical way as well as tonally. Performing live with it has been really good. Me and the audiences have been quite surprised by how powerful some of the bass tones are! Everyone is always fascinated with it when they see it. The usual reaction is "what the hell is that?". Just using the TERRA and COSMOS is such a powerful set up and has such a huge range for live performance.
What, if any, SOMA gear appears on your recent releases, and which SOMA instruments have you used for live performances?
Haha, that’s a long list! Surgeon - Crash Recoil LP - Tresor. I used PULSAR-23 The Transcendence Orchestra - Dreams, Waking Thoughts, and Incidents. I used LYRA-8, ORNAMENT-8 and COSMOS.
For Surgeon and other live techno collaborations I always use PULSAR-23, and I’ve used the RoAT in my recent techno live sets.
The Transcendence Orchestra performances I’ve used LYRA-8, ORNAMENT-8, COSMOS and TERRA.
Surgeon's older releases are now available on Bandcamp Music | Surgeon (bandcamp.com). Many of them have been remastered and sound a lot better than when they came out originally, so it's well worth your time to check them out if you're a Surgeon fan.