DJ, producer and remixer Dave Clarke meets a producer who’s been at the cutting edge of UK techno for more than 25 years.
In this short series, I’m interviewing three generations of pioneers who have shaped, are shaping, and will shape the future of electronic music. My goal was to not just find out about their studio techniques, but to dig a little deeper and work out what makes them tick creatively.
For the second interview I elected to talk to Surgeon. Tony to me, Anthony Child to the passport authorities, Surgeon comes from what I call the second generation of UK techno. He appeared around the mid‑’90s on Downwards, the Birmingham label started by Regis (aka Karl O’Conner, with whom he would later pair up with as British Murder Boys) and Female (Peter Sutton). Surgeon’s release was number four on the label and it instantly alerted me to his talent. It was the most bleeding‑edge, 13‑bit, razor‑sharp techno that I had heard from an artist in the UK, a true Peaky Blinder if you like (this will be my only Brum joke here). I was so impressed by its carnivorous bite that after meeting Tony at House Of God (HOG) — a club in Birmingham, UK named after a record that we both liked by DHS — I asked him to remix the B‑side of my Red Three track ‘The Storm’. It was the right decision.
HOG in Birmingham has been a hotbed for UK techno and was still going a quarter of a century later, until a Covid‑induced pause happened. How important was it for the formative part of your career?
I remember sitting with Chris, the promoter of HOG, when he was trying to think of a name for the first night and I said to him, “What’s your favourite track? Let’s just call it that!” I’ve been a resident DJ for HOG since we started in 1993, and HOG has been going for 28 years now! None of us can believe it. It’s been a great lesson in the rewards of being stubborn. I think it’s lasted so long because it’s never been run in a professional way, in fact we celebrate how amateur it is.
HOG is key to who I am as a techno artist and especially my attitude as a DJ. There was always a really healthy competition between all the resident DJs at HOG. We never really played the same tracks. Whoever ‘found’ it first, that was their track and the others wouldn’t play it. The crowd at HOG has always been amazing. They make it what it is. They really want the DJs and live acts to push it further, go weirder. It remains one of the most inclusive crowds I play to. From the start HOG was always a place for the outcasts, the weirdos. We gave them a home.
What were your formative musical influences, and how did they feed into your signature leftwing approach to music production?
My early major musical influences were the Velvet Underground, Spacemen 3, Suicide, Faust and Coil. I was also really obsessed with the more experimental Beatles productions and traced a book called The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions that described everything they did in the studio. I remember spending hours recreating some of the tape loops with an old open‑reel tape machine. Another huge influence for me was a book called Composing With Tape Recorders: Musique Concréte For Beginners by Terence Dwyer. I read these books fervently whilst in a small village outside Northampton.
Looking back, I suppose the really interesting thing about all of this was I was already experimenting with musique concréte concepts, but never actually heard any of the music until many, many years later. I’m still very inspired by the attitude of these early electronic music pioneers, as they created everything from scratch and it gave the music a wonderful harmony of human and machine. Subsequently my production approach has been, and still is, figure it out for myself, and if an idea excites me I want to do it now, not wait around for the enthusiasm to dissipate.
Did your interest in films also have an effect on your music?
My biggest film influence on music I created came from William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Ian Sommerville: Three Films 1950s‑1960s which was a collection of short experimental films. It was my first introduction to Brion’s ‘cut up’ technique and it really blew my mind. Seeing that changed my view of the universe forever, and subsequently how I thought of making music and many other things besides.
Did you get musical inspiration from anyone in your family?
My dad was a music collector and into hi‑fi for a short period of time. His music interests were Herb Alpert and Tomita [this bears an uncanny resemblance to my own father! DC] and he had a seven‑inch of Laurie Anderson’s ‘Oh Superman’ which I was really inspired by. The thing I really appreciated about my parents’ attitude was that when I was playing with tape machines there was no discouragement from them at all. They actually allowed me to experiment, which I really appreciated in retrospect. They actually came along with me to my Lady Gaga gig where I warmed up the concert. That came about from me being mentioned by Lady Starlight (the warm‑up act) on the microphone in Birmingham, saying “This is techno I’m playing and I’m playing it at the home of Surgeon!” I then got invited to play after meeting Lady Starlight when the tour came back around, and I then invited my parents to see me play pure hardcore techno filth in front of screaming adolescents warming up for Gaga! By playing here I did wonder if this was the end of my career, but it was a great subversive 30‑minute moment for me and my family and I got away with it.
What was your first foray into music production?
Experiments with tape recorders. Tape loops, four‑track Portastudios. The first machine was a completely standard mono cassette recorder. I found a way of disconnecting the erase head and experimented with sound‑on‑sound layering. I’m pretty sure that broke it and it couldn’t be used in a normal way after that. I was then kindly lent a four‑track, along with some microphones and a parametric EQ, by an audio‑visual technician at school. After that I got a part‑time job and saved enough up for a Fostex X‑26, a rudimentary six‑channel mixer/four‑track cassette machine. I loved being able to turn the tape over to play it backwards, add delays from a cheap guitar pedal and turn it back over to get pre‑delay. I had a couple of Tandy PZM microphones which had amazing fidelity for my almost zero budget. [From memory, you could pick one up at Tandy for £20‑£30. DC]em> That’s the only gear I had for a long time.
I did like to use ‘endless’ cassettes that were made to be used with telephone answering machines. These were available at different lengths, up to a few minutes. I also made some shorter loop cassettes myself. That gave me four‑track tape loops. At that time I borrowed a reel‑to‑reel machine. I didn’t have my own until much later, a slightly battered Revox B77 Mk2 that I rescued from a disgruntled non‑techno‑loving sound engineer who mastered my Dynamic Tension EP and asked me “Is it supposed to sound like that?” This will be the title of my biography! I offered him a small cash amount, took it home and found out it only recorded on one channel, but I still dubbed various projects on there including my Hardfloor remix and did weird reverse edits by flipping the tape round.
Until I signed a three‑album deal with Tresor I’d always made music on mostly borrowed gear. I lived in a shared house and we pooled all our equipment into one setup and that was enough to make basic techno tracks with. My original contribution to that was a Korg Poly 800 [synth]. I used a Cheetah MD16 drum machine that was sending a MIDI clock to the Poly 800. I programmed usually just one drum pattern, and used the very basic sequencer on the Poly 800. I then fed the separate outputs from the drum machine into a Seck mixing desk. I fed two copies of the same output from the Poly 800 into the mixer and treated them very differently, EQ’ing one to be the bass and the other delayed by perhaps a quarter bar and sweeping the midrange EQ. I would record a live take to DAT by dubbing the faders up and down on the mixer and EQ’ing and effecting the sounds live, very much inspired by what I’d read about in dub reggae production. I would usually do just one or two takes. There was also a stereo compressor on the master bus — maybe LA Audio, I don’t remember — and a cheap multi‑effects unit. There was an Atari ST in the studio that some of the others used, but they all seemed to have a nightmare using it so that really put me off. I preferred a spontaneous and raw approach to producing techno.
What was the very first big‑ticket studio item you bought and why?
With the Tresor advance I bought a Soundcraft Spirit Studio mixer, Clavia Nord Lead [synth], Yamaha TX81Z [FM synth], [Roland] TR‑909, Doepfer MAQ16/3 sequencer, Boss SX‑700 and Ensonic DP2 effects and Alesis Monitor One speakers. I chose them mostly because they were available secondhand. Mick Harris [Napalm Death drummer aka Scorn] helped a lot with choosing the right equipment as he was far more clued‑up with that than I was at the time.
I bought an Ensoniq ASR10 secondhand from Mick. It’s the only hardware sampler I’ve ever used. I don’t think I even really got really deep into the features and probably used it in a fairly primitive way. The sampler was never the central part of my studio. I’d say that effects [the ASR had a DP2 effects card embedded into it], EQ and compression, playing the mixer were much more so. I don’t think I really ‘clicked’ with the ASR10.
I believe you also are a fan of Eventide effects units. Do you still have a Harmonizer?
Yes! I love my H3000‑D/SE even though I don’t turn to it very often these days. I remember the Eventide H3000 being really expensive, and it felt like the Rolls Royce of all effects units. Very distinctive. I actually used it a lot on the Balance LP for Tresor, you can clearly hear it on the last track ‘Dinah’s Dream’. It’s also very apparent on my remix of ‘Fear Satan’ by Mogwai. I still have all my early gear. I’ve kept it all, Even when I think I’ll never use it again I’ve found integrating it with some new combinations of equipment truly can spark creativity.
Was your first seismic change of working practice going to Ableton Live?
For full computer production I started with [Emagic] Logic Audio, maybe version 3.0. It was very liberating at the time as I’d grown frustrated with the way that I was creating and loved the multitrack audio in Logic. The first project that I used Logic with was the Force+Form album for Tresor. I then used Logic for about five years.
DJ’ing with Ableton was a different story, though. I was a very early user of [Native Instruments] Final Scratch, the first system to control digital files with timecode vinyl, in 2001. It’s funny to think back about how heretical that was. Burn the witch! Then in 2003 me and Regis were booked at a gig in Eindhoven. At that time I would DJ with Final Scratch and he do a short live set in the middle, but there was a mistake with the timetable and we only got allocated 60 minutes for both of us to play! So, back at the hotel, I quickly created a DJ setup in Ableton using high‑ and low‑cut filters to mix and layer our tracks, as I had Ableton on the same laptop I used for Final Scratch. I immediately saw great potential in performing that way and literally changed to performing with Ableton Live immediately after that scheduling mishap. Again this was greeted with the typical ‘burn the witch’ reaction, but as always I stayed with my vision, especially if I see interesting potential ahead.
What is your studio like now? All in the box, or is there any analogue processing at all?
For a while I have had a small ‘live setup’ with a few pieces of hardware. I improvise with that and push Record. Usually it’s just a stereo recording and then I layer, treat and add to that in the computer, I generally record between six to nine separate tracks in each project. I find this to be a really versatile way of working that keeps the live, raw and human part in my music. I dislike trying to create music solely in the computer, it works far better for me to only arrange, edit and process the stems there.
For any acoustic recordings I use my Zoom H4, and recently I rediscovered some in‑ear microphones that I bought in the ’90s. They create wonderful detailed recordings that transport you back to the location. They were recommended to me by Christoph at Dubplates and Mastering in Berlin.
The setup also changes for each project. Recently I’ve been using a PIN Electronics Portabella, TR‑909, Soma Lyra‑8, Soma Pulsar‑23 and Buchla Music Easel, though not all at once. In the computer I use Ableton Live and UAD Powered Plug‑ins. I’m a fan of their 1176 and LA‑2A compressors, I love the way they make the sounds dance around in the mix, it really gives them life. I also use a lot of the Ableton native plug‑ins such as the EQ Eight, Amp and Delay and [Cytomic] The Glue compressor.
My soundcard is a Prism Titan with Focal Shape Twin monitors. I’m very happy with that particular combination. I have no soundproofing in my studio and I generally record in the afternoon and early evening. That seems to be the peak time for my concentration.
My soundcard is a Prism Titan with Focal Shape Twin monitors. I’m very happy with that particular combination.
Have you ever recorded in a commercial studio?
I’ve recorded material at Willem Twee Studios in the Netherlands. The first time was as BMB for the Artist In Residence project for Drift Festival in 2019, which I was initially reticent about as I was used to my own space. I couldn’t imagine writing music in an alien environment, but it was more of a place to gather gigabytes of sonic material, and therefore it really panned out well. Working there was a great experience, so I actually went back again later that year with Dan Bean and we recorded the material that became the Transcendence Orchestra album Feeling The Spirit that was released by Editions Mego.
I loved working with Hans and Rikkert there. They had a great intuition of when to help and when to leave us alone. Experimentation was truly encouraged, we could stay there all night if we wanted as they gave us the keys. They have a great selection of synths and old test equipment, but we mostly used the large great‑sounding hall that’s next to the venue and recorded the grand piano and pipe organ.
What have you bought in lockdown and why?
The only thing that I’ve bought in the last year is an Eowave Quandrantid Swarm. I truly love those esoteric desktop synths, not the cold, clinical ones and as it’s produced by a really small company I knew I had to buy it when it was available, otherwise I’d miss out. It’s a lot of fun for live improvised performances and that always leads into creative sparks for studio productions. As with so many people, my income took a huge hit this last year, therefore I have been focusing on using the gear I have. Soma Records very kindly sent me their Ornament‑8 sequencer which is amazing to use with the Lyra‑8 and Pulsar‑23, it’s a weird analogue computer/function generator.
Has the pandemic been a good time creatively?
Not for me. Mentally I’ve struggled a fair bit during the past year, and that’s certainly not a creative state for me. However, when I do look back I have actually been more creative than I give myself credit for. Not so much of it has actually been techno, because without the feedback from performing I feel quite disconnected with that music and especially that scene. So I found it better to not put pressure on myself to produce techno and just do what I am feeling at the moment. Ironically, it is almost coming back full circle to the early experiments with sound that I started out with.
Surgeon: ‘Is it supposed to sound like that?’ This will be the title of my biography!
Steve Davis, world snooker champion, is a fan...
He invited me onto The Interesting Alternative Show [Steve’s show on Phoenix FM] and is an avid music collector, mostly of obscure material. If you are world champion you have to be an obsessive nerdy person, in my mind. He is really open to so much different music, and we have had a little jam together as he is really into modular synths. His lifelong passion for music gives him a great groundwork for both DJ’ing and playing music.
How was it being asked to remix Thom Yorke?
Initially I was suspicious of the remix request, wondering if it was a record company idea that he wasn’t aware of, so I asked to be put in contact with Thom to discuss it directly with him and find out what his ideas behind the remix project were. It was a useful discussion and after the remix we exchanged a few emails and I sent him some more music that I’d released. I did see him write on the Radiohead blog or somewhere that he was pretty enthusiastic about my remix.
What is your favourite, career‑crowning remix and why?
Personally, my career‑crowning remix was ‘Teenage Lightning’ by Coil. Even though it’s not been released, they accepted it alongside a remix by Autechre for a project that never saw the light of day. Honourable mention has to go to my remix of ‘The Storm’. My first ever remix. I still can’t believe that Deconstruction accepted that filthy racket I submitted for the remix!
I actually had it in my contract that I had final say on all remixes, both on who did them and what to release...
Good planning Dave!