Karl O’ Connor, to put it simply is one of the foremost and prominent players in the world of techno today, yesterday and the years to come. Our first guest piece is from a friend of ours who was lucky enough to catch a 4 hour set by the man himself at Process, a night in Manchester. The pair chatted until the early hours of the morning and here’s the result:
I have to say he is one of the greatest characters I have ever had the privilege of meeting, in light of multitude of records that he has produced inspiring generations of producers through the decades, the man made for both a surreal, enlightening chat and his wit isn’t easily categorisable as conspicuous.
Karl resonates the un-cheesy essentially ‘extinct’ version of the rebellious punk attitude that simply doesn’t exist in today’s ‘X factor generation’. And so it comes as no surprise his production has taken in his own resolute character.
Suthan: Hey Karl, how are you doing?
Regis: I’m doing very well.
S: Excellent. So can you tell us a little about yourself and how old you are?
R: How old I am? Is that completely necessary?
S: No you don’t have to (laugh)
R: Well, I’ve been doing it for a while…. A bit about myself? …Well, I’m a bit of a techno legend (laugh)
R: Those were actually your words.
S: Yeah they were. (laughs)
R: But yeah, someone who’s been ploughing their own lonely furrows for many years, wandering down the pathway of despair, stopping down at, you know, self-harm, suicide and all the rest of it.
But yeah, I just make techno; electronic music and that’s what I always try to do.
S: Where do you come from?
S: What were your musical inspirations as you were growing up?
R: Well basically my love of electronic music, well, broadly speaking was from that generation that was on the cusp of 79’ 80′ when I came into music. It was like when the revolution of electronic music came from the clubs into the charts. That world is probably impossible for anybody under the age of 40 to even remotely imagine or understand these days; it was like… You had to wait once every week to be able to see music on television.
For instance, you’d have to wait until Thursday night until Top of the Pops used to come on. Everything was dark and then all of a sudden, 7 O’ clock on Thursday Top of that Pops would come on. That’s actually the truth. It was dark ages! That really was the way it was. You had the radio and you had loads of stuff. We had loads of great magazines in the UK at the time, even things that seemed really benign like Smash Hits… kid’s magazines; they had great writers there. And they were into great music, so we learnt it all from there. It wasn’t about the NME. NME was rubbish hippy shit at that time. Punk really came from Smash Hits or Sounds. That was my influence. Broadly speaking, I was in the right generation at the right time to love electronic music.
S: This actually brings me onto my other question; Your Sandra Plays Electronics project. That was one of your initial projects, what were the ideas behind that?
R: It was completely and primarily me trying to copy my heroes, that was it. It was the first time I ever did that, the first time I ever got a synthesiser. I was like 15, so like 1985, so I just thought I wanted to replicate that. It’s like when you pick up a guitar you want to be Hendrix or Clapton, so that’s just what I wanted to do. Fortunately I taped it. Being relatively working class or even middle class, your only real connection with art is really through pop music and that’s what I tried to do, try make something that I was kind of into. It was my pathway from the mundane rubbish of my existence at the time. It was just being a kid, a teenager and that was what I was doing. It was like anybody, you just wanna do something and that was Sandra Plays Electronics.
S: Yeah, it’s actually quite a cool project because when I listened to it, it comes as a surprise that someone’s work as a teenager could sound like that.
R: Well, you always get embarrassed by juvenility when you’re in your youth. Of course you do, you’re open and very, very raw and angsty, because it is really that. You don’t come into this world fully formed, only very few people come into this world on a cool with their influences all in place, straight way. We’re all awkward teenagers until late in the stage. It was kind of weird to have that put out but luckily it was put out by Veronica and Minimal Waves.
S: Who’s idea was it to put it out there?
R: We put it out 12 years ago actually. We put it on download and a 7 ” series, put our old retro stuff but then recently Juan Mendez AKA Silent Servant, asked me to put it out again and then people like yourself, go ‘Oh, that’s really interesting’. But it was from something, that you can have no connection with. It’s of its own merit and that was kind of the thing. And it’s my girlfriend who does Minimal waves in NY, so she said you should really put it out. I said ‘I dunno’ but she thought so, so we put it out.
It’s very hard to go along the course on an interview to really explain the whole range of my influences and stuff, like for me and someone like Surg we joined the dots between Cabaret Voltaire and TG and all the really experimental Great British bands into the techno era and I think we joined the dots with that and so the lineage is there.. sorta. Ok yeah, so we make techno music, dance music. Of course we do but there’s that thing lurking in the background that people can either take or leave if people are prepared to go with it and if it appeals to themselves on some level.
S: How long do you think you been producing?
R: Well, I actually know. I bought my first synthesiser. I remember the day I bought it, it was 1985. I had got some money off my mum. I think it was like 200 quid, couldn’t even imagine that type of money back in those days, for me personally as a kid. So anyway I got the money together. In those days synthesisers were so marginalised. You had to walk through the guitar section, all these sort of guitarists laughing at you to the synth section of the back. Where like some nerdy kid was like can I buy this. So that was it, I think it was like March or February 1985. Maybe 28 years ago, a life time ago…
S: What brought you into creating techno, a record or Dj perhaps that spurred you onto that path?
R: Absolutely nothing. Techno I was at odds with, I still am at odds with it. I never was really into techno. I was never into dancing. Dancing is like a pass time to me. I could never understand it. Why are you dancing? That’s shit. What are people going dancing for? I always wanted to go out and go pogo’ing two hours and fuck off back to the night club at 1 o’ clock. This late night business, I don’t get it.
I’ve lived in Berlin for fifteen years and weekends start Wednesday afternoon but I don’t get this whole prolonged night existence. I’m very Victorian actually but what I did like about techno is that it did break the DNA of music; where everything was guitar driven, verse-chorus verse-chorus. It broke that American type of ‘rockism’ and that’s what I loved about techno, it was very hypnotic. I could make tracks that had very little but they were massively hypnotic and mixed together with other music, that’s the element I really liked about it.
S: This diverges a little off topic but one question I’d like to ask is how would you respond to Scuba’s claim that trance and techno cross similar borders?
R: I love trance but not the kind you would think or maybe he would think trance is. Trance dance; what I would think of as trance is hypnotic. Hypnotica is what I’d call it. Which is when that great hypnotic state of music when everyone goes into a hypnotic state, I love that. What he probably means as trance is something else… Just bad music. … I think, broadly speaking though he probably is right. It’s just all dance music. It’s all boom boom out of a box. It’s music for some ones weekend. Music for mass consumption but then I always thought techno was an awful term. It’s almost derogatory. It’s almost something that was made up by a real rock journalist who hates everything and goes we’ll call it techno. It’s just a bit crap!
S: Well it’s all a bit all over the place, when you look it up on Wikipedia; techno tends to be thrown up as rooting from Kraftwerk in the 70s.
R: Actually, I’ll have you on that, young whippersnapper! The actual first reference of techno was a really awful band in England called the ‘Techno Twins’ and they did a version ‘Falling in Love Again’ by Marlene Dietrich. That was the first ever reference of techno.
S: So that was in?
R: 1982. Kraftwerk; of course Kraftwerk. The actual definition though; the christening of it… the champagne bottle against the bough of techno was actually that! I thought it was an awful term. I think it’s shit. Only Americans could have come up with that. Only people who hate electronic music that much could have come up with it.
S: So what would you call it personally?
R: I’d call it electronic rhythmic music. I wouldn’t call it that personally but just for the purpose of this. That’ll do.
S: What do you think defines your sound? Some describe the sound you made on the Downwards Label with label-mate Surgeon (aka Anthony Child) blended Chicago house with darker European electronics. How would you describe it?
I’d say we blended darker Chicago house with very light European… Nah, we were very influenced by everything in the beginning; I was kind of opportunistic with what I did as well. I played with what I loved. I liked dance music and then went ‘Hang on this is interesting’, I can apply my own sound to this and use it as a vessel to explode ‘sex bombs’ on the populace and stuff. That’s pretty much how it worked out.
It was kind of what I was very excited about dance music initially. It got hold of a broad population. You got an audience basically and they’re sedated and you can play music at them and they love you and that’s great. But I find that I’ve actually come to love dance music and techno. I never really loved it or even took it seriously even for the first 20 years really. It was something I did, I had my own little niche in it but you know, I didn’t give a fuck what was happening or what was happening in dance music. By in large, pretty much everyone I had met were pretty much idiots to be honest.
S: Who in particular?
R: Everyone. Obviously I’m being playful
S: Yeah we know. (laugh) You’ve created countless tracks, under many labels including the lately disbanded Sandwell District, under a fair few alias to name a few; British Murder Boys (w/ Anthony Child), Reality or Nothing, Sandwell District, Cub, Kalon, Karl And The Curbcrawlers, Public Information Film, Ugandan Speed Trials, Your Health. What, personally, has been an interesting project?
R: Personally, I like the Regis things I do. For me what I’m doing tonight this is fucking where I am. In all seriousness why I loved doing all these aliases was that it decentralises the ego that comes with it…
Some people or even everybody…. People do what they wanna do. We don’t come from the same place, what makes sense to them is absolutely preposterous to me and vice versa. The only reason I do that; I’m kind of into that playful art terrorism. I mean I’ve made the worst career decisions, you know I could have made mega bucks over what I did but I didn’t. I chose the wrong path every time on purpose because I knew exactly what I was doing.
That was the only reason I did lots of other stuff. It’s almost schizophrenic actually. When I do one project I feel completely dedicated to that and I can see myself doing that and I do something else and I can block everything else off. That’s the only reason I do all those projects because it allows me to create what I can in my very small remit that I have. I’m well aware of my shortcomings as a producer. I’ve been knocking that round peg into a square hole for years, you know what I mean. I’m not under any illusion that I’m great or something. I managed it quite well is all I am saying.
I know what I’ve wanted to communicate to people and I think I’ve been successful at that. I’m aware of my mythology and what I’ve created. It’s all linked. Probably shouldn’t say that. (laughs).
S: Your latest Ep, Regis – Turin Versions, was with the recently established London label Blackest Ever Black which has been renowned for its very dark experimental take on its tracks, what inspired this EP?
R: Purely and simply: Kiran Sande; the leader, head honcho, el presidente, il duce of BEB said ‘Let’s put that out’.
With BEB there’s complete and utter chaos. Whenever you think there is this fanatic release schedule or it’s all in sync. Everything’s uncertain! There’s no thinking behind that, the only reason I did the limited edition tracks on my previous EP on BEB. I did it live in Turin that’s why I called it that.
I found what I massively admire about Kiran is his work ethic. He balances chaos and economics quite well and I like that. I have to admit he’s an amazing person, I’ll say that out loud.
He’s one of the great people and I wouldn’t release on anybody else’s label. The great thing about Kiran is that he can turn a lunch time drink into a 15 hour experience and that’s why I respect him.
S: What’s your preferred set up these days? Production and live?
R: It’s very simplistic, thats how I produce anyway. It’s kind of identical when I produce and play out live. It’s Ableton Live. I know that very boring but it works for me. It’s simple, very intuitive.
S: So none of the carrying round of hardware?
R: To be honest, I never actually did that. I tried that a few times but I had awful experiences. I really tried but I’ve never been that kind of person, I could never really afford it. Like when people say why don’t you bring a 909? I can’t afford a bus fare, let alone a 909.
Even when I started it was about 400 quid and when I started I couldn’t afford it, I mean, I was on the dole. It was awful. I was down to my last pounds. I couldn’t afford it and I mean I was very economical by making my music.
My first 12” on Downwards was Montreal; speak to me. I made the whole thing in about 20 minutes and it sold like 60000 copies. I made it in my bedroom, at home in my mums house. It was on cassette and then we had to master it. When people said you should come out and do a proper live set with gear!
‘I’m not fucking Yes or Rick Wakeman’. ‘Fuck off!’ It was so against the punk aesthetic that I was so into. No! I’m going to fucking do it on tape and play some shit over it and you can take it. Then I got a bit more money and got some gear and you got the gear out and invariably it got smashed half the time as people got on stage. If it wasn’t people it would be the baggage handlers at airports. So it’s just not practical.
If you think about it, you have to lug it everywhere in the car and if you park a car and you have to take it all the way back. It’s a fucking hassle. It’s alright for bands who have a back line and roadies but if you are a DJ on your own all you fit is what you can carry and put in your backpack. It’s a pain in the arse. Air travel used to be a pleasure years ago. Now it’s not. It’s hard core, so no way! Viva el laptop!
S: Favourite record of the moment?
R: I’ve got a couple. Unsurprisingly, they’re on my own label. There’s one guy called Sam Kerridge who lives in Berlin who’s absolutely incredible. He’s very much like early Sarko stuff, like Mika Vainio. It’s this great noise thing. There’s another great band from Berlin as well called Oak and there’s a girl and a boy, it’s like pagan pop. It’s like the Sugar Cubes meets Coil. So actually I’m really into my own stuff, my own bands at the moment and I’ve never said that in 20 years of doing the label. So I’m really into Oak and Samuel Kerridge and also Cut Hands who is William Bennett, who used to be in the industrial noise merchants; Whitehouse. So it’s all on my own label.
S: What was a really embarrassing moment during your career?
R: An 18 hour train journey from Berlin, freezing cold, got there, set up. I think it was outside Kiev and I mean 300 miles outside Kiev and we got there, set up and I started playing. After five minutes, they came to me and said stop. I said I’m not stopping, I’m playing. *click noise* ‘Stop’. The gun’s out and then I thought I’m gonna stop.
‘You’re not gonna play. This is what you’re gonna do, you’re gonna come upstairs and sing ‘Happy birthday’ to my mum.’ The club owner’s got me all the way there to sing ‘ Happy Birthday to You’ to the mafia from this town; the mother of the guy who run that club. They paid me completely fine and then sent me home.
S: So you didn’t play out?
R: No, they didn’t want techno, they wanted me to go there and sing ‘Happy birthday’ to the mother.
S: Wow, that’s pretty extreme.
R: Yeah, pretty. I’ve had a few more pretty extreme moments but I can’t mention those. Detroit!
But you know it’s better than a real job. But that was embarrassing, I had to sing Happy birthday to this guys… Ukrainian Mafia mother.
I played in Kosovo during the war, I’ve done it all, I’ve slept in a mattress with a dead pigeon. The thing is when I was there, if I was dead and on the news and everyone saw it. They’d say well you deserve it because you played in Kosovo during the war, you played to a load of idiots and you slept on a mattress with a dead pigeon, you know… Yeah it’s pretty fucked up. That still haunts me, embarrassingly, apart from that nothing else.
S: That’s pretty much a perfect answer to that question. What are you really excited about?
R: Tell you what. It’s never been better for music and that’s what I’m excited about.
S: How so?
R: I can’t put my finger on it because I was so jaded and pissed off for years but at the moment, there’s so many great young bands that I’ve signed on my own label and they’re really inspiring me and I haven’t been so excited for a long time… for ages, a good fifteen years.. This has been the best period for music, certainly since I was a kid and I’m so happy. I don’t think people have looked as good as they do now. The girls are… yeah. (laugh) . I think it’s wicked, I think it’s been the best it’s ever been to be honest.
Written by Suthan Logan