Downwards, it’s safe to say, can be counted among the most important record labels in techno. Largely that’s due to its role in shaping the sparse, steely strain of industrial techno that came to be known as the Birmingham sound, through releases from Surgeon and label co-founders Peter Sutton, aka Female, and Karl O’Connor, aka Regis. But Downwards was never simply a techno label. For O’Connor, it represented an escape from the mundanity of the suburban Midlands, and an outlet for the realization of his own singular vision. Regis is one of techno’s great individuals, a producer who—from the remorseless Jeff Mills-influenced churn of his early work through to the abrasive theatricality of his British Murder Boys collaboration with Surgeon—has proven that dance music can stand for much more than simply getting bodies moving. His Downwards releases were, and are, darkly stylish, witty, often confrontational, but never dull.
The inspiration for O’Connor’s particular brand of sonic provocation comes from the challenging electronic pop of his mid ’80s youth, and it’s arguably his insistence that music should be more than simply functional—more, even, than simply music—that has maintained the label’s relevance through its two-decade lifespan. From the first ever Downwards release—Antonym’s thorny, discordant Shattering Of An Illusion 7”—through to his recent championing of bands including Tropic of Cancer, DVA DAMAS, and The KVB, O’Connor has consistently embraced the unexpected. This year marks the label’s 20th anniversary and the launch of Downwards America, run by O’Connor’s long-term collaborator and partner in Sandwell District, Silent Servant. Angus Finlayson caught up with O’Connor to discuss the label and some of the artists who have helped shape it.
You founded Downwards in 1993. What made you decide to launch the label? Was there a healthy techno scene in the Midlands then?
Well it wasn’t about techno at all, to be honest. Techno was very secondary to me, because my youth, in the mid ’80s, had nothing to do with techno. But I’m not too sure why anybody starts a label. I think it was purely out of necessity—I simply couldn’t do anything else. I think I came to it with my ideas fully formed; I knew what I wanted. I wanted to make the label in my own image. It was very single-minded, really. That’s probably why I’ve had arguments and fallings out and disagreements with virtually everybody who’s recorded for me at various stages over the 20 years. And I had this unshakeable belief that I could do it. You’ve got that swagger when you’re younger. Though I was very naive, actually, in the early days.
What were you modeling the label on? Did you have any particular labels in mind, or artists?
Again, it was very specific. I remember exactly the type of records, the type of atmosphere I wanted. There were two labels in particular—I’m actually looking at my records now, and I don’t think I bought anything outside of those two labels from 1980-1985. Mute Records and Some Bizzare Records. That covered everything that I needed: great pop music through to what I would class as avant-garde music. Test Dept, Neubauten, Foetus, Fad Gadget, pop like Soft Cell or The The. It was all there. And it was British, that was very important. Plus it was pretty much the birth of independent music—and they got into the charts. Major labels were never an option, they always seemed a dinosaur to me, even back then.
It was the people behind these labels as well. Daniel [Miller] definitely modeled Mute in his own image—I saw him last week and he’s still doing it, he’s still got that youth kick that he always had. And Stevo [Pearce], with Some Bizzare, that was a different thing—just complete and utter chaos. The legendary things he used to do. He’d make A&R men sign record contracts on the lions in Trafalgar Square at midnight, completely humiliate them. When he signed Soft Cell, he wanted a live duck as part of the deal. He used to send his teddy bears to meetings. I loved this stuff as a kid. That was the birth of [Downwards] really. That was my interest and my passion. But there was this whole new generation of people who were into dance music, and a whole, possibly completely different aesthetic to all of that. I just wanted to apply my influences to this new thing.
Over the past two decades has the label adhered closely to that initial vision, or has its identity and direction changed over time?
Oh it has changed, completely. The early stuff is a great snapshot of my life as it was then. A lot of it was quite raw, quite open, very personal. The mistakes were there but they were part of the charm. It wasn’t polished. But as a result it wasn’t really of its time, it was quite separate from it. I think myself and Tony [Child, aka] Surgeon have said we were like a virus that hitched a ride on this thing. I was absolutely certain of what I wanted to do. I think as the years have gone on, I’m less certain. I’m definitely certain of what I don’t want to do, but I’ve become a bit more unsure of what I really want, because so many more things have opened up. But that can be just as creative.
These days there’s still a strong focus on new artists on the label. How do you feel about the health of music at the moment? Do you hear the influence of Downwards in younger artists?
Well, I’m told people are influenced by it. There’s this alleged, uh, influence we do have on people, this alleged mythology. I can certainly see it in these new artists, in the way they approach stuff. If that’s the legacy [of the label], that’s fantastic. On a very small level obviously—we’re talking about a label on the arse-end of a very small scene, let’s be honest. But the influence has been much wider than the output, probably. To go back to your question, I think at the moment it’s a fantastic time for music. I don’t think it’s been better for absolutely years. Certainly in the last three or four years, I think music in general has been brilliant. I’m really excited about it. And I wasn’t so much at the end of the 90s: it was repetitious, it became very easy. It was almost like a lot people had a vested interest in keeping the status quo, keeping it shit. But recently it’s been great; it’s so open now, in general, not just for electronic music. People are very open to other scenes.
This year you’ve launched Downwards America. What was the thinking behind doing that?
I’ve known Juan [Mendez aka Silent Servant] for years. He lives in Los Angeles, and we were very keen to do something where the remit was a bit wider than just dance music. So we started putting out bands like Tropic Of Cancer; West Coast, almost garage or goth bands. When he used to send through the files of this stuff, you could almost hear that crackle of excitement on the music itself. That was something I hadn’t heard in dance music for a while. It was a leap of faith for a lot of our fans, expecting to buy a Surgeon or Regis record and suddenly thinking, “Hang on, what’s this?”. But I think it worked—a lot of people came with us. It could easily not have worked out. A lot of other people have done it, and it’s been questionable. But I think we just went about doing it in a way that anyone with half a brain and passion should do it.
Juan was A&Ring a lot of it. So, we thought it made sense to split that [into a new label]. And we thought, “Let’s have a pompous title, like ‘Downwards America’.” Because it’s completely preposterous and ridiculous—that’s us [laughs]. So, he’s going to be releasing a lot of those bands: DVA DAMAS, White Hex from Australia, The KVB. It’s definitely created this whole scene [on the West Coast]. I went there last year and it was just fantastic. All these kids, they’re all Downwards-savvy, they all know about the techno, the history of it, but they’re making this fantastic music. The connection from what they are doing to the label is undeniable, whether it be techno or not.
What next for Downwards in its 20th year? What are your plans for this year and for the future?
The future’s never a good one: you know what they say, if you want to give the gods a good laugh, plan for the future. If I can plan ahead to the next two releases then I’m doing well. I wasn’t going to mark [the anniversary], because I hate these “20 years of so-and-so label”, they’re awful. The fact of the matter is, half of them were only good for about two or three years—though possibly people are thinking that about Downwards! So, I resisted. But I am going to do a compilation. Not necessarily the techno stuff, but a lot of things we did pre-that and during that; but that wasn’t the main stuff—for instance, not anything that myself or Tony did. So, it’s almost like this golden thread that runs through what we’re doing, that points to where we went and where we came from. Also this year Samuel Kerridge, OAKE, and William Bennett of Cut Hands are doing releases for us. So: old, new, borrowed, blue, the lot—we’ll stick it all in there.
Regis, in his own words, on key Downwards artists and releases:
[above: CUB "C U 1" – collaboration between Regis and Mick Harris released on CUB; Harris released a split 10" with Regis & Antonym on Downwards in 2009]
[When Tony and I started] we had nothing. I had one synthesizer that I’d had since the ’80s, Tony Surgeon had nothing. That’s partly why the sound [of those early records] is so economical, so stripped back, because that was all we had. But Mick had a small studio setup. He brought us into the studio, showed us how to use it. He was going through a period of change himself at the time, because he’d just left Napalm Death and started Scorn, so it was this very interesting period. He also used to go to America, because he was working with John Zorn and Bill Laswell at the time. So, he’d bring back all these fantastic acid records, all the New York stuff that was happening at the time. And we used to go round his house to listen and think, “This is fantastic.” Before that, I wasn’t necessarily into dance music at all—I thought it was rubbish in the beginning, to be honest. My friends always said, “Oh, it’s just music for secretaries.” [laughs]
But Mick was fantastic with that stuff, because he was so open. We used to get so animated in his house that we’d smash things up—just because of the music. And he helped us so much with the recording of the early stuff, especially Tony. Mick knew Tony before I did, because Mick used to go to [Birmingham techno party] House of God—I never really used to go out. He said, “There’s this really great DJ, he’s going to make record.” Even though Tony on that first record [see below] wore his influences on his sleeve, I could smell it was great and Mick brought it out of him. And I’m eternally thankful to Mick for that. I think he’s working on some new project at the moment, I don’t know what it is. It’s impossible to explain Mick: he’s massively nihilistic, he’s his own worst enemy in loads of situations. But he’s still a great person. He’s trying to reconcile a load of things in his life at the moment—but that’s the way it is.
“Magneze” [Surgeon’s first ever release]
Tony and I, really, were thrown together. We met, we put [this] record out and within weeks it was massive—my life completely changed. It was that overnight success thing. I remember I went with him to some gigs in Munich early on. And it was like, “Christ, we’ve put these records out, people are saying all these things about us, but I don’t think we’ve actually hung out.” We were thrown into the eye of this storm together, as kids, really. But Tony’s a great calming influence. He’s very considered. In many ways he was custom built for it; he was a dream artist to have. If you wanted to start a techno label, Tony Surgeon was the kind of person you’d want on it. But there’s also so much more to Tony: this absolute depth that’s obvious now, but that we probably didn’t know about back then. And he certainly didn’t know about me, about where I wanted to go. It was a leap of faith for both of us. I think we’d both have had careers if we hadn’t started that way, but I don’t think our careers would’ve been as important. I think we’d probably both admit that.
“Consumer Device” [from first ever Downwards release]
Tony [Burnham] is one of the nicest blokes ever. He used to publish Soft Watch magazine, which was more of an encyclopedia. It connected all these people who were running tape labels with each other. And he did great reviews. I used to work in a record shop and he’d come in trying to flog this mad German dub reggae stuff. I wasn’t really into that, but then he said, “Oh, I’ve got my own cassette.” I started playing it and really loved it. It linked me to what I always loved about music: it was massively DIY, its own thing, and bullishly so. It was completely unlovable—or only lovable by me, I think. And I’ve used that against Tony over the years—I keep saying, “I’m the only person who likes your music,” which is sort of true [laughs]. He was a bit older, and he had a link with everything. He’d say, “Oh god, I remember when I saw the Pistols,” or Robert Rental and The Normal, or Throbbing Gristle. He was almost like a really cool older brother. But it was great because I could bully him! Poor Tony, I’ve taken him on this journey; he’s a classic British lunatic, in his garden shed, making sounds, annoying his wife. I love that. And you have to cherish that, because it’s definitely dying. People like that don’t exist as much any more. Well, not that I’m aware of.
Tropic of Cancer
“The Dull Age” [from debut Downwards single]
Tropic of Cancer is Juan [Mendez] and his wife Camella [Lobo]. This was at the very start of our idea to put out bands. When I heard the demo I became very animated, like I always do, and said, “We have to put this out!” And Juan said, “Do you think so?” This is one of the few things I’ve been quite good at, is I just say, “Come on, let’s put it out, it’s done.” [The artist] would be saying, “We need to finish this, do that,” and I’d say “No, it’s fine, it’s fine.” And in this case that was proven right, because when it came out it was an instant success. Camella, again, is a fabulous character in her own way. Everybody I’m involved with on the label is their own fabulous character, I think. The kind of people who I certainly don’t meet on a week-to-week basis when I’m out DJing; who I’ve rarely met within dance music in the last 20 years. Cam’s working now with Taylor, from DVA DAMAS. Purely and simply, I think any man between 16 and 75 who doesn’t see those two on stage and get affected has got problems. They’re brilliant-looking, and they sound great. They’re going to do an album on Blackest Ever Black—I’m going to LA in two weeks to get some ideas together. I want to be involved with that in some way, just helping out.
Waiting For Love [EP on Downwards] preview
I met Sam at a friend’s house and he said, “I’ve got a demo for you,” you know how some people do. And I thought “Oh, ok…”, but had a listen and it reminded me of a lot of things I liked: Sähkö, CoH, [old Berlin label] Zark. It was really noisy, and wonderfully naïve but very well put together. It was all in place and I love that. Couple that with Sam, who’s the most amiable lad going, and it seemed perfectly correct for us to do something. And now he’s off doing his own bits and pieces, I’m kind of glad for that. I actually suggested that Horizontal [Ground] do something with Sam. I do feel proud that those type of things happen quite quickly.
“Erajh Nur Dwfa” [from forthcoming Downwards EP]
I’m really excited about them. It’s a girl and a boy from Berlin. They’re basically just kids, but they came to me and they were totally, wonderfully sure of themselves—they knew what they were doing. The past didn’t matter, this is what’s happening now, and it’s the most important thing ever made. And that’s fantastic. I’m all for that.~