A few weeks ago, when Juan Mendez returned home from a long weekend playing Berghain, Berlin’s famously decadent techno venue, the producer and DJ known as Silent Servant got back to his downtown L.A. apartment and snapped a photo of the sunrise.
Mendez was used to seeing them in his line of work: writing and performing muscular, Gothic electronic music for crowds of leather-clad nightcrawlers.
But this one felt different.
Instead of an ending for a big headlining set — or the start of a jet-lagged hangover — it felt like a new beginning. Mendez, now 41, had decided to put the DJ life to bed for a while.
“My booking agent asked, ‘How are you feeling right now?’ And I just sent her a photo of this sunrise,” Mendez said. “When you’re around nightlife people all the time, you can show up at bars at 2 a.m. because you know you can stay there and go to someone’s house or an after-hours (club). It’s fine once in a while. But your social behavior gets skewed. You’ve got to be cognizant of those things: doing things I don’t like, being a person I don’t like.”
That’s not to say he’s giving up on music.
Silent Servant’s new album, “Shadows of Death and Desire,” out this month on the acclaimed noise and electronic imprint Hospital Productions, is a bold and emotional dispatch from the small hours of the L.A. underground. It’s savage in sound but often tender in tone and reckons with the toll that a life in club music can take on your spirit.
Mendez is one of the most important figures in the current flowering of underground techno in L.A. Since the early 2000s, he’s co-founded two influential record labels, Sandwell District and Jealous God, which helped lend L.A. electronic music a distinct sensibility.
Rather than ultra-precise minimalism or festival-ready crowd pleasers, Mendez’s vision drew from the Cure’s Goth-rock moodiness, the hands-on analog synths of ’70s acts like DAF and Tangerine Dream, and a kind of scraped-up, post-punk glamour that rejected Hollywood gloss but reveled in its underbelly. His 2012 album, “Negative Fascination,” was a landmark for the city’s techno culture and helped set the precedent for the scene to come.
“I grew up with KROQ and Rodney Bingenheimer, and at the end of day, I’m really just a new wave nerd,” Mendez said, referring to the influential DJ and tastemaker long associated with L.A.’s largest modern rock station. “I’m really into Smiths and Echo & the Bunnymen, and I love Detroit techno because it’s a response to all that, with strings and soul. For me, put that in a blender: Suicide, New Order, Tangerine Dream, that’s my brain.”
As L.A. became a global center for EDM, Mendez was at the forefront of a subversive underground scene that existed in parallel in the fringes. But over the last few years, the underground got really popular. Fans started rejecting corporatized EDM for more challenging sounds, and L.A. earned a reputation as a hub for them.
I don’t have heavy anxiety, but sometimes you just don’t feel like doing it, and you get into this headspace where you have to fake it to not bum people out.
Suddenly, an artist like Mendez, who had years of goodwill and credibility at his back, could make a serious living as an underground DJ in L.A.
So two years ago he tried it full time, jetting between Europe’s most esteemed venues and festivals, often several in a weekend, before heading back to California or his part-time base in Berlin, the genre’s center. Whatever there was to do in techno, Mendez did it.
But it left him exhausted, unwell and unable to write his own music, the craft that brought him into this world in the first place.
“Something that isn’t talked about much in nightlife culture is how hard they push you,” Mendez said. “You’re running yourself ragged, the hours are ungodly. Our jobs are open bar with anything at your disposal. I don’t have heavy anxiety, but sometimes you just don’t feel like doing it, and you get into this headspace where you have to fake it to not bum people out.”
Even when he gave himself time off to write, after years in that lifestyle, the well ran dry.
“I took two months at home to write the record, and I just failed. So I kinda fell into party spiral in L.A. and did a lot of things that I’m not happy about,” Mendez said. “It’s a cliche, but I am sensitive person, I’m affected by things. I was in a bit of depressed headspace, but I tried to turn that into a positive thing on this record.”
Over its seven tracks, “Shadows” follows that arc of frustration and release. It starts furious — “Harm In Hand” and “Damage” rank with Mendez’s most aggressive work yet, with de-tuned synths and industrial drum programming throttling the A-side of the LP.
But the flip finds him more melancholy, introspective and back in touch with all the music that inspired him as a kid. “Loss Response,” “Glass Veil” and “Optimistic Decay” edge into real beauty and contemplation, the sunrise after a long night where you promise yourself you’ll do better.
“Given times we’re in, the last thing I want to propagate is negative feelings. I wanted to end the album on a certain note — a life and death, birth and renewal thing,” Mendez said. “I’ve played all the best clubs in world, and that’s insane. But clubs aren’t always where people care the most about music, and I want to care about things.”
Outside of a few shows to promote the album, Mendez will be taking a long break from being Silent Servant full time. He wants to return to visual art and art direction, which has always been a defining element in his musical life as well (both of his labels had a Gothic-romantic sensibility and a sly sense of humor in their design).
With the L.A. techno scene at a full boil, perhaps it’s validating to know he can walk away for a while and that everything will be fine. Even Berghain can feel like a day job, and when you clock out, it feels great to get back home.
“I’m getting older, and I want to think about what’s next. I don’t want to leave L.A., my parents moved here from Central America and built lives here, my friends are here and I want to build my life here,” Mendez said. “Until now, people just assumed I was flying to shows unless I called them and did the the rounds. At the end of day, life matters, and you have to forge life how you need it.”
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