Juan Mendez has a critical place in what can be called the American techno scene. While techno and/or electronic music (EDM, etc.) generally conjures images of a glowstick-garbed Skrillex or Steve Aoki throwing entire cakes in people’s faces (or breaking a woman’s neck while crowd-cannonballing because, you know, dance music), Mendez — more commonly known as Silent Servant — represents a different cadre of electronic musicians.
Measured and mindful, Silent Servant summons a techno that meditates in the darker corners of existence, sound that’s sculpted more artfully yet is far rawer than Top 40 tech. His prolific work with the legendary Sandwell District collective and now his own Jealous God label (which he runs with Regis and James Ruskin) is proof of an alternate dance music narrative.
Mendez will perform for the first time in Miami at the Electric Pickle, brought in by local underground dance music evangelists SAFE in collaboration with As You Like It from San Francisco. Though the music is decidedly not meat-headed-rowdy like the aforementioned superstars, Silent Servant is certain to keep a packed floor. You dance harder but smarter when you face the void.
New Times: Do you remember your very first interaction with electronic music? Was it at home, in a club, or elsewhere?
Juan Mendez: I guess the first thing was seeing an Aphex Twin video on 120 Minutes, which was that MTV show in the ’90s. It was the video for “On,” and I was like, “What the fuck is this? This is pretty rad.”
How old were you at that point?
Shit, I must’ve been a freshman in high school. Sophomore actually, so I was 15.
What music were you into?
We had a really good radio station out here called KROQ, which is now syndicated nationwide, but when I was growing up, it was very heavy and new wave. They played stuff like the Smiths, Depeche Mode, the Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen. Rodney On the Roq had a really good show of British stuff. The station was how I got into My Bloody Valentine and shoegaze. It also got me into the Stone Roses. They’re one of my favorite bands.
You told my buddy Reed Dunlea that you really like "somewhat damaged music." Can you elaborate on what you mean — like sonically damaged or emotionally or both?
Definitely can be both. It’s more about this purity that happens with things that aren’t polished, you know, or things that don’t want to be polished. They just are what they are, and that’s the point. And that doesn’t mean the music has to sound like shit. It’s like when you hear a demo for the first time and are wowed by it. There’s a purity of intent, and I appreciate that. There’s a beauty in the fact that it can all fail at one point or another.
It seems like the collision of noise and dance music is full blown, and leaking more and more into pop production. What do you make of the surge in dance music amongst the noise scene? Is it happening more than before, or is it just more visible?
It depends I think. Personally I think people who are more strictly into EDM might not be into the music we make. You might not find too much crossover. But if you’re talking about production, you have bigger producers working with new artists. For instance we have this friend named the Haxan Cloak, who’s working with Bjork. There’s also Evien Christ, who’s the 24-year-old kid producing for Kanye, who comes from bass music and weird shit. But historically you have big producers doing that too, people like Pharrell and N.E.R.D. who had this really fucked up-sounding production. I think it’s been happening for a long time, now it’s just that more pop people have been latching on, because they want new production standards. They want what kids are listening to.
Right, so it’s not necessarily that noise and weird techno are going mainstream, just that it’s bleeding through, or getting appropriated by the pop industry.
Yeah, they just become production standards. There’s a utilitarian aspect to it. People would buy cheap drum machines and synths back in the ’80s, because they were cheap. Now, you know, it’s kind of the same thing, technology is so inexpensive that a kid can just make some crazy fuckin’ shit with his computer and a controller. They can do something in a way that someone with a million-dollar studio just isn’t thinking about. So then, all the sudden, the producer with the million-dollar studio is like, “Yo, bring that kid into the studio.”
Would you produce for Kanye if he asked you to?
[laughs] I’m not opposed to it. I just don’t think it would work out. I don’t think I would do it if I were asked, because I’ve been asked to do some pretty weird shit, and my response has been to ask for absurd amounts of money, and then they say no. And that’s the reason I still have a day job. I don’t wanna have to chase that stuff.
Keep your dignity.
It’s hard man. If I wanted to make money, then that should be what I try to do, right? But making this kind of techno in America is not a moneymaking venture. It’s still a pretty small scene of people. If you wanna make money, you gotta be a superstar DJ or some shit. The more records you sell, the wider the taste would need to be for that many people to like it.
What's coming up on Jealous God that you're really excited about? And that’s your day job right, running the label?
Actually I’m an art director for a high-end eyewear company, and I also do the art direction and management for the label, so it can get a little hectic sometimes. We’ve got a record coming out by this guy Alexey Volkov, who’s this Russian kid who makes really cool stuff. After that we have Fixmer, he makes more body music like from the nineties—not EDM but EBM—not a reissue but stuff he’s been sitting on forever. Then there’s a record from DAMIEN DUBROVNIK, which is connected to Lust for Youth, a Sacred Bones kinda band.
What do you think about Miami's electronic music scene?
I have no idea. I’ve never been to Miami before.
Oh shit, you’re gonna have a good time. I think.
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[laughs] I’ve always been kinda scared of it because we’d always get invited to play Winter Music Conference, but I’ve never liked the scene that it attracts so I’m like, ehh. It’s just so far removed. But whatever; people just wanna have fun.
Damn, my last question was going to be if you’d ever been to Ultra.
Nah, I have no idea what that is.