Mentors: How Silent Servant Guides Rising Techno DJ Phase Fatale
[15.07.2021. Content warning: an article published by J.-H. Kabuiku on July 9th 2021 points out Dominick Fernow’s consistent links with metal and noise artists, bands, labels and productions using pedophilia and sexual violence imagery, listing a number of regular collaborators explicitly affiliated with National Socialism and white power ideology. More on this here]
Silent Servant has long been a flagbearer for the contemporary dance floor avant-garde who blends the sounds of warehouse techno, industrial noise and post-punk. His signature brand of minimal wave-indebted techno has exerted a profound influence on the tastes of producers and fans since his initial experiments with Sandwell District 10 years ago, and many rising stars have followed in his musical footsteps. One such artist is Phase Fatale, a Philadelphia-born, Berlin-based producer who has garnered attention for a DJing and production technique that weds early ‘80s electronic sensibilities with contemporary techno. His penchant for the style has earned him releases on Silent Servant’s own Jealous God label and the Ostgut Ton sub-imprint, Unterton—not to mention regular bookings at Berghain.
The two producers have collaborated more frequently over the last few years and have performed together at shows like Berlin Atonal. For our latest Mentors column, we sat down with them to discuss their shared musical pasts, the influence they’ve exerted on each other’s productions and their recent collaborative 12″ of edits accompanying Phase Fatale’s debut LP, Redeemer, which came out on Vatican Shadow’s Hospital Productions on October 13.
Phase Fatale: A lot of the music that influenced me the most came from the Wierd parties in New York—they happened weekly at Home Sweet Home. It was the coldwave and minimal synth party in the States that was bringing this sound over from Europe that had already been going on for years—since the ‘80s.
Silent Servant: I worked in advertising for a long time, so even when I was living in LA I would go to New York for work, and I’d also end up at the Wierd parties. I didn’t know anybody. I would literally just go and sit in the corner and listen to music. But there’s a similar party in LA. We had Part-Time Punks. The thing with Wierd, though, is that the guy running it, Pieter Schoolwerth, also had a record label for the whole thing, so there was a very stable music community that revolved around it. A lot of those same bands would play in LA. So the connection was there. Pretty much all of the stuff that he did and the bands that he brought out would come play with us in LA. And I would DJ at Part-Time Punks a bunch, too, so it was the same thing happening on both coasts.
PF: I think the thing about Wierd—or Part-Time Punks—is that there’s an aesthetic approach to it. It’s not just a traditional goth party that plays The Cure. It was something that dug really deep and was super nerdy, but at the same time it was very eccentric and had an almost club kid vibe to it.
SS: Yeah, exactly. I think it became a place where you could listen to really good music that you wouldn’t hear anywhere else. You could hear any minimal synth band or goth thing that we’re into. I don’t pretend to be super goth or anything, but a lot of the appeal of this music aesthetic for me is that it’s what I grew up with. I’m a little older—I saw the end of the ‘80s—and I saw my older brother go to all of these new wave clubs. I always really wanted to experience that. LA has always had a lot going on in that scene. So as I got older, it just became a part of me.
PF: Yeah, the same goes for me. My dad was involved in the scene in the ‘80s, mostly with new wave and goth and post-punk bands, so when I was little he kind of drilled this music into my head. We listened to a lot of new wave and post-punk bands in the backseat of the car. So I grew up with a lot of music that most people in my generation didn’t have exposure to. I actually remember the first time I walked into Wierd. I was completely underage; I wasn’t even 18. I just remember walking in there and hearing these songs that my parents used to play for me when I was a kid and I would always just listen to them at home. When I walked in there, though, I was like, “Woah, they’re playing this song in here?” I never thought that existed outside, because of course when I was younger, I wasn’t going to bars.
SS: We actually met at one of these things. It was some weird-ass party that Martial Canterel was playing. It was just one of those things that you experience with certain people where you see someone and you’re like, “You kind of look like me,” or you have some other commonalities from a visual standpoint, and then you realize that you have commonalities from a musical standpoint that’s totally outside the techno stuff. And for me, that’s even more of a connecting point.
PF: Yeah, it’s more interesting when you can find strange common ground. We ran into each other a few times in the last few years, and then we ended up working together after all of these small meetings. Our first “collaboration” was the Grain EP on aufnahme + wiedergabe, but I don’t even know if you could call it a collaboration since we didn’t work on it together—I just sort of threw him the stems.
SS: Yeah, I remixed that and then kind of forgot about it, and then I started hearing it out a lot and was like, “Oh, cool!”
PF: I guess the first real collaboration of ours was the 2016 Atonal performance. We decided to make something special rather than just each of us playing solo again, which happens all the time.
SS: There were already certain influences that I really wanted to be part of it, but you were like, “Oh yeah, totally.”
PF: Yeah, I think what was nice about it was that we were able to pull from different references that we love but that we wouldn’t use our own selves as solo artists because they didn’t fit into our individual sonic palettes. But together we were able to expand and make something a little more referential by combining different elements.
SS: But at the same time I think that because of the way we mixed it, it still didn’t sound that referential, which is kind of cool. For me it was about experimenting with types of rhythmic patterns and shit that I don’t normally use. Then I made some stuff, and you made some stuff, and we spent, like, two days piecing it all together.
PF: There was even one part we made that was a KR-55 drum beat that I had sequenced, and we were like, “What would happen if we just mashed them together?”
SS: We were like, “Yeah that’s kind of cool!”
PF: It actually ended up becoming a whole song that changes and everything. It was completely not premeditated at all.
SS: Yeah, the set was a lot of happy accidents. But I think that’s also a testament to the fact that two people who work in similar contexts can be completely different, but that the references are kind of similar, you know. That’s why I started working with you—because I was like, “You know what’s up in my world, and we get along.” You just find commonalities and are like, “I can also be friends with this person.” There are some people, you know, you meet them and it’s strictly music, because you probably wouldn’t hang out with them normally. But in this context it’s cool, because I think of you as a friend. Plus we have these root aesthetic commonalities. Working together is not hard. It feels very natural.
PF: In order to work with somebody closely like we do, there has to be more than just music, obviously.
SS: You’re spending a lot of time with that person. It won’t work if you want to kill them at the end of the day. The only person I’ve really, really worked a lot with before is Karl—Regis. Karl has been such a big mentor for me. If it wasn’t for him, my life would be different. He literally just plucked me up and was like, “Come work with us,” and I was like, “Okay!” For me it’s like, trying to find the payback. And it’s not like, “I have to give back to the community!” I just think it’s really special when people are provided opportunities that you can give.
PF: I don’t think that having a mentor is necessarily critical to learning the ropes, but it’s really nice when you can find someone who will help you. This scene is so large and it can seem so daunting—there are so many different places where you could fit yourself into it. It’s good to find someone who’s already done things that you want to do and who shares your mindset.
SS: I think it’s more about finding people who culturally inspire you, because then it becomes a two-way street. As much as I talk to you, I get as much back from you just being enthusiastic and providing some perspective.
PF: People working in techno especially can be really insular. I’m coming from playing in bands and stuff where you’re always working with people, and they’ll tell you, “Your playing sucks. You’ve gotta try this.” It’s actually good criticism, even if you don’t agree with it. You always need another perspective, otherwise you can’t develop.
SS: A mutual respect has to be there too, though. There has to be a common respect to let people do what they do and give them new ideas.
PF: The 12-inch of edits coming out with Redeemer was actually your idea, because you did it for your release on Hospital Records in 2012. It turned out to be a really awesome idea. We just sat in my studio for, like, two days and went through the album together. My tracks tend to be so dense, but you have a more minimalist sensibility that works out really nicely in a dance floor setting because there’s more space and your tracks mix a little better. So you were like, “Take this out, take this out, make this longer.” Just through that short process, I garnered so much about how to better arrange a track for the dance floor. Before I just threw everything in, and now I know more about space and how to have different elements come in and out and small details that I can make way more intense rather than just turning everything up to 11.
SS: That’s something that I learned a lot from Karl. He’s really good at arranging. It’s not like I’m that good at it or anything, but especially when I’m DJing, it’s like, “Where are these parts going to go where I can mix in or out?” It was the first time for me being on the other side and helping someone in that way. Because when I worked with Karl, he just showed me and I just watched.
PF: It was great to go through this process of conceptualizing and then editing it technically. I also worked on it a bit faster than usual, which was good. Otherwise I dwell on stupid details that don’t matter. In the end, if you start screwing with something too much, you make it worse than it was before. It’s always the case. The first take is always the best take, so they say.
SS: That’s an interesting element to the music that we’re making—there’s almost an element of immediacy. And I think that’s why bands like Suicide are so good. There’s this immediacy to it that you feel right away. If you keep fiddling with things then a track can become too refined and sterile.
PF: In the end, I saw Redeemer as a way to put together all of the references that I love, like all of these past musical influences that I could summon up and recreate in my own statement and sound. It takes the Jealous God records and the sounds that were created there and transforms them into a new thing by using more guitar and vocals. So I’m going back to my band background and making something you really couldn’t do on a three-song 12-inch. It feels like I closed one thing and now I’m moving onto the next stage of my evolution. It was the perfect time for Dominick [Fernow]—Vatican Shadow—to ask me to work on it, because so many things are changing for me right now. This record closes one door and lets me continue.
Read more: Return To Wave: Helena Hauff Talks To Veronica Vasicka
Silent Servant’s photo is courtesy of Shawn Reynaldo at XLR8R, and Phase Fatale’s photo is courtesy of Fredrik Altinell. The video of their performance at Berlin Atonal was shot by Alex Baker of Postpunk.com.
Published October 19, 2017.