Surgeon on Opening for Lady Gaga— “It was important for us to present real techno and not water it down.”

Words by Elissa Stolman

Earlier this week, Lady Gaga instigated something of a supernova in the techno underground by enlisting UK techno DJ Surgeon to warm up the crowd before she took the stage during her artRAVE tour stop in Paris.

The performance was live-streamed on Yahoo and later uploaded to YouTube, and the video shows the underground stalwart waltzing onstage in jeans and a t-shirt emblazoned with the legend “Constant shallowness leads to evil,” with Lady Gaga’s longtime friend and former collaborator Lady Starlight on his arm. The pair proceeds to pound out a live set of heads-down techno, which eases at one point to provide Starlight the opportunity to explain how she ended up jamming on hardware with Surgeon. “One day I was in Birmingham, and I shouted out from the stage one of my favorite techno artists, Surgeon,” she tells the crowd, and pauses to indicate that the crowd should cheer at the mention of his name. “Surgeon! Thank you. And he was in the audience, and we became really good friends, and it’s like, dreams come true.”

Surgeon shared the backstory with Bloc Weekend yesterday. Here’s the short version: He and his wife went to one of Lady Gaga’s concerts in his hometown, Birmingham, and heard Lady Starlight’s shout-out. After the show, he introduced himself to Starlight, and thus began an intense artistic connection and rewarding friendship that challenged pop listeners’ expectations and the techno intelligentsia’s illusion of isolation from the mainstream universe, which in many ways sums up Lady Gaga’s entire artistic mission. Starlight invited him to perform with her at the next artRAVE stop in Birmingham, and after that performance, Gaga invited them to play at Monday’s show in Paris as well.

We sent Surgeon some questions that Bloc Weekender didn’t ask.

Did you know or meet Lady Gaga, or did she reach out to you out of the blue?

Honestly, I didn’t know much at all about Lady Gaga before all this. Although I do remember seeing her perform on a Japanese pop music show—she played a version of one of her songs just singing and playing the piano. That really struck me, so I knew she was a “real artist.”

Were you surprised when Lady Gaga asked you to open? Or was it Lady Starlight who asked you to hop on stage with her?

The idea didn’t come from Lady Gaga. After meeting at the first Birmingham gig, Lady Starlight came to stay with me during the off days between their UK tour dates, so we got to hang out a lot. We did some live jams together in my studio and we connected instantly. No effort. So much fun. Since their tour was returning to Birmingham in November, we had the idea to perform together. It all came together very naturally.

You were playing with Lady Starlight, so was your set any different from what you’d normally play? 

We played a totally improvised live set. Whenever I perform with someone else, it’s like unique conversation between us. I’m very picky about who I do that with, and there has to be an almost telepathic connection for it to work. We made heavy, raw techno. It was very important for us to present real, raw techno and not water it down, or try to make it more palatable. It had to be the real deal, otherwise we would have been doing everyone a disservice.

 Did you have any personal contact with Gaga backstage? What were those interactions like?

Yes, she was very enthusiastic about the onstage chemistry and raw energy created by our performance. She made time to hang out with me and my wife at the Paris aftershow party. She was having a great time along with everyone else.

Have you performed in these sorts of contexts to those kind of audiences before? What was it like playing to huge spaces and a non-techno-oriented audience? How was it similar or different to the shows and environments you’re used to playing in?

I’ve played to very large audiences before, but never in that situation. As I said, I love how absurd it was. My focus was really on the connection and improvising with Lady Starlight. We were having a great time up there.

Playing this sort of set puts you in an unusual position for an “underground” techno producer. Do you think this is the beginning of a trend of co-opting techno for “pop” contexts? Or rather, what does “pop” get out of affiliating with techno?   

I don’t think it’s the beginning of any connection between pop and techno. What we did was too raw. I’d like to think that Lady Gaga fans got to hear something new that night and one or two may investigate further. Bear in mind that Lady Starlight has been opening the whole seven-month tour with her no-compromise techno live set and telling the audience what it is.

 Do you like Lady Gaga’s music? 

I really like about half of ARTPOP. The first few songs are awesome.

Are you going on tour with her? Or were these gigs a special case?

Just dipping in on two dates of their seven-month tour has made me realize how hard they all work. No thanks! I just take everything as it comes, no plans. I love the techno gigs I play so much. This experience has given me a really different perspective on everything and I’m really, really touched by the overwhelmingly positive response from techno music fans, I know this whole thing has pushed a lot of peoples buttons, so seeing so many people “get it” really means a lot to me.

This isn’t the first time we’ve asked an artist about what it was like to play with Lady Gaga—in 2012, we hit up Wolfram to chat about sharing the stage with the pop titan, which you can check out here. Also related: the astute dissection of ARTPOP harsh noise legend William Bennett did for Electronic Beats last year.