Posted on August 1st, by Doris Woo in 20, Interviews, Techno. No Comments

SurgeonWhat most techno connoisseurs know about Tony Child, aka Surgeon, of Birmingham (not Alabama) can be parsed into the following three statements: his discography spans from his eponymous 1995 debut on Downwards to his remix of Chrislo’s ‘L’Eau’ on Tresor’s 100th release, ranging from works as widely known as his recent Balance LP on Tresor to a 4-track white label released in 1996 under the guise of THX (only 50 copies were pressed);  Dynamic Tension is the label he launched in 1997, with three releases in the books thus far;  DJing gigs have taken him from his residencies at Birmingham’s House of God and Berlin’s Tresor to parties at Liquid Room, Love Parade, and a field of dirt under the stars in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  Although these facts aren’t much more than a bird’s eye view of him, observations from the other end provide something more interesting than what amounts to a Tony Surgeon rap sheet.

His set at Black Nation’s Sector 616 this past July was among the best that evening, and the most memorable Surgeon Midwest appearance to date; many may remember his past appearances at Blast-Off (Chicago ’96) and A Hard Black Evening (Kalamazoo ’97) as well.  A few hours after his set, while Jeff Mills was winding down his performance, we met inside a very peculiar interview location–a vintage Jaguar–but the heating and escape from the ear-bleeding sound system were much appreciated.  “It was really nice hanging out with everyone here,” Child says.  “It’s the third time I’ve spent time around Kalamazoo and Detroit…The last two years I’ve come over, spent almost a month over here and done quite a lot of gigs, but this time I’ve just come over for this one.”  With this party, he pointed out the annoying trend of masses of people not dancing and instead gawking at the DJ, which can give a DJ mixed signals.  “When I’m playing all I can see is the people standing in the front, and they’re standing still and watching, and when you start to chop beats around and do double copies, then they get excited, so to me it’s like, ‘oh, this is what they like’ and I couldn’t get it together so well tonight,” Child confesses.  Deck pesticide, anyone?

“When I play… the audience is totally a part of what I’m doing, so if I’m not getting anything back, then I don’t know what to do.  It’s two-way; it’s a conversation.  When it works best, it’s communication.  And when I’m like, ‘what’s happening here?’ you try to find a way to communicate.  I find it very different here, so I find it very difficult.” Nonetheless, ” I really enjoy coming here; I just find it very strange over here.”

Which brings up another subtle, yet quirky difference between punters –if I may– in Europe and ravers in America.  Unless you’ve been at parties on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s difficult to understand this distinction.  “There’s different degrees of it, but essentially on a basic level, clubs are very similar in England/Europe and even in Japan I find a similarity.  You know there’s differences, but then I play in America and it’s different to all that,” he notes.

“I play in a club, and there’s a roomful of people, and the whole room moves as kind of one, you know, one groove; you build the groove and you work the groove, and everyone’s going to that groove, whereas here I don’t feel that, really… it’s made me understand why a lot of American techno DJs like Claude Young and whoever are really tricky with their technique, ‘cuz people seem to really get off on that.  It’s more of a thing where I’m playing, say, twice a week every week for 3 years in Europe; I’ve done it so many times I’m used to that kind of thing and I come here and it’s different.  It’s just weird because I’m not used to it.”

It may not be as well-known that Child was a DJ before he started releasing tracks, though his love for DJing is a reasonable explanation for the onslaught of club dates he books.  It does come at a price, however.  “I’ve been working really, really hard; I’ve been at a really punishing DJ schedule for that last 3 years and it’s really catching up with me at the moment,” he reveals.  “I never plan out gigs that I book, but a few weeks before I came here I pulled out a few things ‘cuz it was just killing me too much, but I couldn’t let Jay [Denham] down by not coming here.” He adds, “it’s just you take on bookings in advance and you can’t tell how you’re going to feel…anything I’m booking is 4 months ahead, and you can’t tell how you feel in 4 months’ time.”  Child has gigs through the end of this year, consisting of European dates in addition to the said residencies at House of God and Tresor.

Despite the cultural differences in partying, there is but one lucid agenda that Child delivers as a DJ.  “When I play in a club, I go there to represent the sound; that’s why I prefer to DJ than play live because I think I can represent the sound…my sound in the context of other people’s music that I respect, and that’s the best way of presenting techno for me.”  To put it into the perspective of the Midwest, where British techno straight from the source is hard to come by, “I played a lot of new, unreleased British techno tonight ‘cuz it’s like, ‘yeah, that’s what I should do here,’ you know?”

Some of the British techno heard in the past two years can be attributed to Surgeon in one way or another; a couple in this lot were results of collaborations with the likes of James Ruskin and Jay Denham, under the Outline and Vice banners, respectively.  Others still were recordings from labels owned by other techno heavyweights such as Soma and the aforementioned Downwards, owned by Karl O’Connor, aka Regis.  Furthermore, Child’s presence in the remixing side of things runs the gamut as well–it all began with his fierce reworking of Clarke’s ‘The Storm’ on deConstruction, and recently bagged another with guitar outfit Mogwai.  These examples add another corollary to the Surgeon profile, that being often having others closely involved throughout his musical existence.  In fact, it was ex-Napalm Death drummer, Scorn fellow, and pal Mick Harris who helped get the ball rolling for Child back in 1995.  In an interview for Magic Feet he recalled, “I did that first EP at Mickey [Harris’] house and that was just to have a DAT to play at the club.  But he played it to Karl [O’Connor] and Karl decided he wanted to start the label.”

In a similar vein, Child’s tracks were also part of Jeff Mills’ CD recorded at Tokyo’s Liquid Room, which no doubt helped get the word out to the world.  “Obviously, I think, the tracks that Jeff had on …The Liquid Room was a very conscious decision as to what was on there and what’s not on there, so he’s obviously doing a big favor.”  He is quick to point out, though, that he and Mills don’t get together for tea and crumpets or anything of the sort; their relationship falls somewhere along the lines of mutual respect for each other’s work; ” I couldn’t say that I know Jeff at all.  In situations like this [spinning at the same party], he’s there and I go ‘hello’ and that’s it.  That’s how it works.  I send him records, he sends me records, and that’s our relationship.”

Years later, Child is returning the favor by increasing exposure of those in the scene who are deserving in talent. “I always felt that whenever I was in a position where…because these people have helped me out, if where I’m in a position where I can help someone out who I like and whose music I respect then I’ll do that, and people like James Ruskin and that sort of posse…”

He continues:  “They sent me their first record and it had their phone number on it.  I’d never, ever called up a number on a record, but I could hear something in this record, and it wasn’t like one hundred percent there yet, but you can hear something in there.  So I called them up and I went down to London and stayed with them and just sort of lent them money to buy some gear.  Wherever I play –I heard James spin and he was an excellent DJ– I’d say to the promoter, ‘you should book James Ruskin; he’s really good!’  Promoters are always cautious about people who are not so well known, but then maybe 1 or 2 did, and they were really happy with how he played, and kinda spreads like that.  Within a year, I think it is, he’s like totally busy now.”

Let us not forget about the very significant other of Child’s musical talents, his studio productions.  That in itself is more multifaceted than one would assume, more than sounds as familiar as “Muggerscum Out” and “Badger Bite.”  Anyone who has listened to Balance or even Basictonalvocabulary finds that between tracks that bear the heavy, minimal trappings of a Surgeon composition lie more cerebral musings like “Dinah’s Dream” and “Waiting.”  Diversifying the so-called ‘Surgeon sound’ wasn’t deliberately conceived, initially, but it made sense to create a goal of moving forward, remaining relevant, and not becoming pigeonholed, as Child describes a significant musical phase he faced prior to releasing his first Tresor album about two years ago:

“I didn’t record anything for about a year, and before that I worked on certain equipment and pretty much none of it was mine.  I didn’t have the money to buy any of it; it was just like this guy’s keyboard, this guy’s mixing desk, coupled together sort of thing.  And then I was putting records out, doing remixes, and I just felt like I was being sucked into this music industry treadmill thing, and that’s like, ‘oh, do a remix, do a remix,’ …and I was just like, ‘hold on a minute; this is not really what I want to be doing, really.’  It’s something that came about accidentally, and I sort of stepped back and thought, ‘right, what do I want to do with it?'”

“I was still DJing, but I didn’t do any recording.  I was just wanting to think about what I want to do with it, and then I approached it again with the first Tresor LP.  A lot of people were like (in whiny voice) ‘ughhh…your sound changed…we don’t like it…’ but I felt like I was just doing the same thing again and again and there’s no point in doing that, to me…Things are moving on; where do I want to take it? So I stopped everything for about a year and thought about what I’m wanting to do, how and where I want to take the sound.”

Fast forward to the present and Child tells of his other musical pursuits–experimental, if you will–which are commonly mistaken as part of a new phase.  “From an external point, it’s something new, but from myself and people who really know me musically, it’s definitely not a new thing and it’s more a very old thing.  Say I’ve been DJing for about 6 years or something like that, but I’ve made music for a much longer time than DJing, and what I used to make before I was spinning, I should say, was very experimental music.  It’s more like I’ve continued to make that kind of music, but it’s very personal.  Unless it was released people don’t get to hear it.  It’s just on tape at home, so I’ve continued to make that kind of music.”  Which brings Mick Harris back into the scheme of things.  “I’ve known Mick Harris for a long time, and we have a lot of similar tastes in music, so we’d thought it would be fun to do something,” he explains.

That ‘something’ has included Mick Harris remakes for both Surgeon albums on Tresor, as well as collaborations in the experimental music side of things.  They recently took part in the Test One festival at Sheffield as Certain Beyond All Reasonable Doubt, a phrase from Wittgenstein’s book On Certainty.  Their one-hour effort, best summarized as a lot of dark ambient on the fly, “totally bemused people,” by Child’s account.  “We cleared the room out, and it was like (in whiny tone), ‘what’s this?…where’s the beats?…’ even though it was an experimental/electronic festival where it’s very obvious that it was that.  It wasn’t like conning people, thinking it was a rave or something.  It certainly wasn’t that, but people still were like, ‘it was too much.'”

Too avant-garde for avant-garde? “Yeah, exactly! I’m like (in scolding voice), ‘I’m disappointed in you, I really am!'”

Another go at it later with Harris yielded better results.  “We did it again several months ago in Berlin, and it worked a lot better there… the whole atmosphere was much better and we did this improvisation for two hours and it worked really, really well.”  Child admits that this aspect of his music isn’t for everybody, as he confesses, “it’s just a very personal, indulgent, enjoyment kind of thing, really.”

“You know, I love that music, and it’s kind of like ‘in the closet.’  And that’s why I say I always go on about Throbbing Gristle and this kind of stuff just to say, ‘look, and this is where I’m coming from.’  It’s definitely a release ‘cuz then I don’t feel frustrated in making techno.  It felt like my music was getting more and more to the dancefloor compared to my early stuff so I need to have a release, an outlet.”

It’s difficult to assess what Child has next in store for the world since he’s not keen on sticking to a formula for the sake of club friendliness.  That’s why it’s not difficult to comprehend the different branches his repertoire has taken.  When prompted for what may be his next musical phase, he contemplates, “I’d continue in the experimental side, the more listening side, the more mental side of music.  Me and Mick Harris are going to record an album of some kind together.  I’ve got a few opportunities to score music for some films and TV, just taking up on that side of things…I had something offered to me but it was basically like, ‘Um, we need it in two weeks,’ and I had loads of gigs and I just said no.  But opportunities are coming, and I’m just waiting for the right thing.”

As he wraps up the year spinning to the tune of thousands of people around Europe and with the (hopeful) release of more tracks soon–rumors are circulating that a Surgeon/Ruskin dubplate played by Claude Young at Sector 616 has to be released eventually–we are reminded that by virtue of what he’s presented with his live experimental creations and not-so four-to-the-floor fare on Tresor, there’s more to Surgeon than meets the dancefloor eye.

Balance LP (Tresor)
First EP (Tresor)
Learning EP (Dynamic Tension)
Basictonalvocabulary LP (Tresor)
Patience EP (Dynamic Tension)
Dynamic Tension EP (Ideal Trax)
Muggerscum Out EP (Soma)
Pet 2000 EP (Downwards)
Communications LP (Downwards)
Electronically Tested EP (Downwards)
Surgeon EP (Downwards)
Surgeon/ James Ruskin – Sound Pressure EP (Dynamic Tension)
Outline Meets Surgeon – Untitled EP (Blueprint)
Surgeon Meets Vice  – Creep EP (Ideal Trax)


A Round Sampler EP (Round)
Round Sampler 2 EP (Round)
Underground UK EP (Kickin)
Hard Education: 1931 LP (Downwards)


Mogwai – Fear Satan Remixes (Eye Q)
V/A – Tresor 6 (Tresor CD)
Chrislo – Hangars d’Orion (Tresor)
Surgeon – Balance Remakes (Tresor)
Pacou – Cortex Delay (Tresor)
Dave Clarke – Southside (deConstruction)
Surgeon – Basictonal Remake (Tresor)
DJ Bigfoot – Hello (Covert)
Hardfloor – The Best of Hardfloor (Eye Q UK)
The Advent – Shaded Elementz (Internal)
DHS – House Of God Remixes (Missile)
Hardfloor – Strikeout (Harthouse)
Hoodrum – Parade to Parade (Torrema)


“Insert your own Surgeon / sturgeon joke here.”

Surgeon shoots the shit on food.  It was quite amusing to hear how much he talked about things of culinary delight, most of which was discovered when he and Downwards label-mate Regis went to Japan. Some excerpts:

“It was a couple years ago; it was the first time I played in Japan and I’ve never eaten any Japanese food at all, and I was there for two weeks and I ate nothing but Japanese food and I was totally converted to it.”

Raw seafood and all?

“Yeah, the whole thing, and I hadn’t ever felt so healthy in my life.  I came out to England and everything just tasted like shit! It’s like ugh, this food is stodgy and greasy and it doesn’t taste of anything.  I just had cravings for raw fish and I’d go to the supermarket and buy like packets of raw salmon and eat it ‘cuz I was craving it so much!”

Naturally, I had to ask if he tried fugu, the potentially lethal blowfish that wacky Japanese salarymen pay top dollar to eat.  “We saw something in a tank and I was like, ‘no, we’re not eating that!’ (laughs) Yeah, I heard about that, and they gotta train for years, and they have to have a license to prepare the fish.”

Hoping he would conclude the interview with some sagely advice or smart-ass remark, I instead got the following:

“I’ve never eaten so much meat in my life as this weekend… It’s been so full-on ever since I got here; it’s just like (in a whiny voice), “I wanna eat some vegetables! I wanna eat some vegetables! (laughs)”

In the words of author/quote-o-matic Fran Lebowitz, “Food is an important part of a balanced diet.”  This leads me to wonder if the next Surgeon album will be entitled ‘More Songs about Buildings and Food.’  [Judging by David Byrne’s past legal actions, he’d probably make sure he got his cut of the royalties. –Ed.]