Home Interviews Silent Servant: The Final Interview with Juan Mendez

    Silent Servant: The Final Interview with Juan Mendez

    On 18 January, 2024 Juan Mendez of Silent Servant sadly left this world. This is the last interview he would ever give with friend and confidant, Matthew Samways.

    Juan Mendez of Silent Servant
    Juan Mendez - Photo courtesy of Triangle Agency

    In the early hours of January 18, 2024, Juan Mendez (Silent Servant), Jose (Luis) Vasquez of the post-punk band The Soft Moon and my friend Juan’s wife, Simone Ling, passed away in Vasquez’s LA home. The cause of their deaths was deemed an accidental overdose. From what I learned, at 2:00 a.m., they used cocaine (my sources tell me it was given to them by a stranger), not knowing that it was cut with Fentanyl. A decision to keep the party going ended in death. Heartbreaking. From my perspective, I can confidently say that Juan nor Simone struggled with addiction issues – despite some of the less informed articles I have read. 

    Full disclosure: I am an opiate addict. Juan knew this about me and never judged or turned his cheek. Since I was 16, he has been an amazing friend who has never given up on me and continuously showed his support. I could give many examples of his support and kindness; one was in 2016 when he contributed to helping my family pay for my drug treatment program. He believed in me, and I am eternally grateful for that.

    In preparation for the interview for Discipline Mag, Juan and I had four phone calls lasting 2 to 5 hours, as it was so easy for us to get lost when we connected. I could listen to Juan’s stories for days. Although this particular conversation was documented just over a year ago, its importance drastically changed in significance after his tragic passing. I have spent so much time deciding how to preface this interview to honour my friend, a friend to many. It is not lost upon me that this is undoubtedly monumental – as this is, sadly, the last interview with the mastermind behind some of what I believe to be the most incredible work of our time. 

    Juan produced his own hypnotic and industrial techno brand for those unfamiliar with his work, drawing influence from the counterculture. He was a predominant member of the influential techno collective Sandwell District alongside Regis. Moreover, Juan’s musical output and style of DJing were just an extension of his incredible, genuinely unique personality that impacted nearly all corners of these niche worlds. I don’t need to spend too much time dissecting Silent Servant’s sounds, as in this unique interview – Juan explains his creativity from his lens.

    Some context to our relationship, I first began speaking with Juan by email and social media in 2009 due to his involvement with his group with his ex-wife and my dear friend Camella Lobo of Tropic of Cancer. By the time we began working together in 2012, Juan & Cam had decided to focus on each of their respective solo projects. It was a great time in my life; I was 19 years old, and the project compilation from my first record label, Electric Voice, introduced us to working with legend Genesis Breyer P-Orridge as well as Sean McBride’s Martial Canterel, which also resulted in another great friendship. Aside from the seminal artists I invited to participate in the accepted record sampler, I was also honoured to include friends, including Tropic of Cancer. Juan was eager to make the artwork. I had no idea until this interview, though after creating the cover for EVII, Juan would then take that influence, which resulted in the historical Negative Fascination – which for some might not be a massive deal – though for me, that record represents a time in my life and is the soundtrack for my early 20’s. I still have the limited edition version with the engraved knife – Juan’s way of giving things away, making you feel special. Juan also sent me the teeth moulding on the cover of EVII, which I unfortunately do not have. 

    After this interview had taken place, Juan called me on 14 January, 2024 (4 days before he passed) when I’d texted him about my most recent relapse. This sheds an interesting light over the interview given my own near death experience took place so close to Juan’s tragic passing, both at the hands of a similar cocktail of substances. But this is not an article on the opiate epidemic or about my struggles; it is to honour my friend Juan and, by proxy, those who passed by accurately sharing what this beautiful mind had to share with me. In 2014, Sean McBride and I were curating a compilation series, and Juan recorded the following track, appropriately titled “Still Life.” He said this track was exceptional, although the sentiment echoes. When I started releasing under Flesh Prison in 2021 – it was essential for Juan to contribute, though he was travelling, so we decided to reissue the track on Flesh Prison 004 V/A – The Wild World Itself is Holy.

    Track 5 ‘Still Life’ by Silent Servant

    There are some caveats to this interview. Parts of this are verbatim, some are paraphrased, and Juan reviewed and approved the interview before his tragic passing.

    When did you begin DJing? How and what led you to spin records and play music?

    I think I was 13 or 14 years old, whatever age I was when I started high school. However, I’ve been making good music for the last decade (ha-ha). When I started high school, it was something to do that I liked. There were a lot of backyard parties, and I enjoyed the DJ aspect of it. I grew up mainly in Orange County. There were party scenes, ditch parties, events that would happen, and there were always dope DJs. I grew up with a story similar to most; when I was growing up, it was at the end of the New Wave era, and I grew up watching 120 Minutes. We had a really good radio station here called Chiraq. It was a commercial dance music scene, and they had excellent DJs that were technically really good. So that’s one thing we’ve always had. You know, it was really good, like technical club DJs. Anything from hip-hop and electro to house was popular at the time. We are talking late eighties into the early nineties. I started high school in 1992, although before that, I attended parties and was exposed to many DJs, and many of my friends were doing it at the time. My brother traded his guitar to get me turntables and a mixer. He was always a big help and has always been really good to me. It was a way for me to attend parties without having to attend them. At that time, it wasn’t so much about drugs or anything like that; you went and just heard music that was playing. I had a friend of mine, Marcus Miller, and he’s the guy who taught me how to DJ properly. He had an extensive knowledge of music; for instance, he introduced me to Cabaret Voltaire and Richard Kirk and got me into Art S records, which were these compilations that used to come out. They were called to dance and like, and there was a basic channel, Kenny LarkinCarl Craig liked that it was a mix of Detroit and Berlin techno. And when I heard that, I was like, what? I was drawn to it, but there wasn’t much of it in L.A., so that kind of music was not popular here. Here, it was more like acid stuff and trance music – going out and dancing. Yeah. But I’ve always liked that part of it. And, there was a big new wave scene that seemed to like the kind of, like new wave clubs are always really good. 

    And the party scene, the drugs and all its glory…

    Nah, dude, you know very well that was all secondary, and I was just never really about that lifestyle. You know about my phase in my 30s, but again, it was just a phase – I get a better high off the dancefloor. 

    You end up doing DJ sets more than playing live. Do you prefer DJing over-performing?

    I really don’t play live. I mean, I did for a stint; you saw it. I’m not very good at it, so it’s not something that I like doing. It’s not like Martial Canterel or something. There have been times when it’s been more successful than others, and I’ll do it on special occasions, but it’s not something I love doing. I believe that, to a certain point, I feel more effective as a DJ because that’s what I’ve done most of my life. I played in some bands when I was really young, but I wasn’t good at it, so I stopped. Most of my friends like to play live and really like it; they played in bands most of their lives. It’s more intuitive for me to DJ because that’s what I’ve done most of my life. There’s more of a barrier, and you have an out when you’re playing other people’s music. It’s not all on you, right? It’s on the selections. Like if something’s sucking, you can change it to someone else’s. You can play that record, right? But if your music’s sucking the hits, you’re sucking. You’re, like, comfortable with that? Yeah, like, you know what I mean? I have had more success than I have had playing live.

    I first knew of you and then met you through Tropic of Cancer, which most people are surprised to find out you were a co-founding member. Do you want to elaborate on how you and Camella came to form the Tropic of Cancer?

    That was the first proper musical thing (I was involved in). The way that happened was funny. I started to play music and was excellent friends with (the band)  Broadcast. Mostly,  James Cargill. Long story, though another good friend of mine, Chris Faith, was their US tour manager who happened to manage a venue (in LA), and Broadcast would often play there. Another friend of mine also owned the venue, and at that time, I would often DJ there, and we cross paths. The members of Broadcast would say to me, “How do you know this music?” as a lot of what I was paying was underground records, mostly from Europe.  We connected, and I did some shows with them. I would DJ some of the West Coast shows and stuff like that. It’s funny. I even played records with them on stage while playing at the Whiskey – I would just do noise modulations with effects and records. But I made kind of like this synth/drum machine music stuff that I liked. I sent it to Trish (Keenan), and she was like, “Hey, you should make this into a band and see if you want to play live.” Camilla (Lobo of Tropic of Cancer) had always wanted to be in a band, so I said, “Oh, dude, this is the perfect opportunity.” So we started playing and started Tropic of Cancer. There became this hope that we would go on tour for some of the West Coast US states (opening for Broadcast) for the record for Haha Sound, which was their second LP. It kind of came to be that the record didn’t do so well, and they couldn’t tour on that record, so they had to cancel all possible touring arrangements. It didn’t work out that we’d open for Broadcast, though at that point we had a band, so we started playing for a while, but then it worked out that it was just better that I was not in the band. Camella was able to take the reins and make it their own completely. I think that worked for the best – that’s how that happened. This was the only proper band I’ve ever been in that didn’t last very long again as I am not the best to play live as I am a better DJ. Honestly, I think I’m more of a studio person, Like I can play, but I’m not good? Haha, I’m not great at playing the guitar. I’m not great at playing the bass. Like, I can hold a baseline, I can hold a guitar line, I can play a set, but  I never practice that much. I’m sure it would be better if I practice, butI can do it. But it’s just not something that I look forward to.

    For years, it seemed as if you were most known for your role in the Sandwell District; what role did this group have in your musical career?

    It was always secondary. For me, it was something to do. I had just taken a job in Minneapolis and Carl (O’Connor/ Regis) was feeling similarly that techno had kind of died out at that point. In 2006, the whole techno industry had kind of taken a significant nosedive, and it felt like it was dead. With that being said, everyone thought it was over. I had been running another couple of labels earlier that were more minimal; it was more in the style of Detroit Techno kind of stuff – early, early aspects, in particular, had just sizzled out. This is right, as I had gone to New York in ’97 and ’88, and I was exposed to all this kind of post-punk stuff that was happening in New York. There’s a club my friend Marcus took me to this club that was in the basement of LIT, and it was that time I heard the likes of Certain RatioBush Tetras, ESG, Delta Five, Grosso you name it.  A lot of  Post-Punk reissues and Minimal Synth issues at this point. I was exposed to minimal electronics, which is ironic because the show on East Village radio before it was the Minimum Wave label that had just started producing much of the same stuff. Sandwell District was like a restart because everything had felt like it had died. All of these producers were just no more. Techno had gone into what became the shitty parts of Minimal Techno, which became like this shitty club, except that Richie Horton was kind of spearheading a lot of this kind of shit, and it was pretty bad. Sandwell District had just kind of come out of a little bit of boredom and just something to do, and I was at this job where I had to work full time, about 4 hours out of every day; otherwise, I had nothing to do. I was just making stuff. I respect it as a vehicle to present the techno music that can be pretty mundane for the most part.

    There’s a boxset anniversary reissue that’s coming out this year. The sub-label is actually from Play It Again Sam! and Hospital Productions will present a ten year anniversary box set of Negative Fascination, which will contain a cool double picture disc on vinyl and all other formats.

    Sandwell District WHERE NEXT? album cover
    Various – Sandwell District - Where Next? (The Point Of Departure Recording Company, 2024)

    I love your cover artwork/photography style. Can you tell us how that developed, particularly through Jealous God?

    The funny thing is, I did your Electric Voice cover artwork, and it was the first piece of still-life photography I used, that was like the first thing I ever did. Negative Fascination came right after, you know. I remember a conversation we had ten years ago, and you’re just 19 or 20; I’ve had plenty of time to think about this. I try to be as utilitarian as possible. I don’t like planning. I try to plan very little. Something to know about me is because of the way the brain works, I try to treat things in the simplest fashion I can. So that’s one thing.Another thing is all that time you spend laying there thinking about it and the process. So it’s actual work that only takes 20 minutes to do. You’ve already spent all that time thinking about how to do it. So that’s why when you do it, it may not take very long, but you spend the time thinking about it and the whole part of not feeling guilty about that. So that is this whole aspect of being utilitarian in that way… let it take its course, you know? Therefore, when I’m shooting stuff, I try to give it some loose boundaries, but I’ll either find an object or find a thing and then kind of see what’s around it and work around that and then do it again differently. It’s a way of making a collage in a physical sense, you know? So that’s how that works. When I first met you, you were so fearless and straightforward. This is before most of the bullshit. I was inspired by how we’d discuss an idea, and a week later, you executed it.

    I’ve been running labels my whole life, and Jealous God seems to have fulfilled its purpose. Speaking of Electric Voice, that comp series you did with Sean featured the first Phase Fatale track, and the best thing that came out of Jealous God was Hayden. 

    Various Artists- Electric Voice II album cover
    V/A “Electric Voice II” (Electric Voice, 2013)
    Silent Servant – Negative Fascination album cover
    Silent Servant – Negative Fascination (Hospital Productions, 2013)

    Tell us about how you ended up working with Cabaret Voltaire’s Stephen MaLander?

    It was something like 2020 New Year’s – 2019 into 2020.. Okay. Yeah. We had been texting, and I texted him, “Happy New Year.”  I said something like hey, I’ve been working on some music. Perhaps you’d be interested in doing some vocals; I’d love that. Yeah. About a week later, I got a text saying, “Happy New Year, Juan. Sure, send me the material.” He replies on the same night, I think. I sent him the tracks that kind of immediately. Within five days, he sent me this crash course, and that was it. I was just like, oh, that’s fucking crazy; it was really, for me – really important because I really love Cabaret Voltaire. They are such an important end overall, just kind of the aesthetic and the visual aesthetic and audience that I took everything, you know. Again, as artists, you know, you have to realize that we’re all the same and just people here trying to do stuff. And just that overall we’re just trying to find commonality in what we’re doing and like. Simone did the artwork for that, and we are channelling our work together as Silent Editions.

    *Simone in the background*

    Hi Matthew! It’s nice to hear you are sounding so good! … That vinyl on L.I.E.S with Malander was like two years ago and really feels like 5! We are working/conceptualizing so many new and exciting projects that I can’t wait to share with you and the world! Before Juan and I started focusing our visuals through Silent Editions, I never really had anything like this before so I’m so excited! We finally are done with citizenship stuff and I look forward to your next visit…

    As it stands – it’s a really strange time to be alive. We talk about this a lot and also what it means to be an artist these days. You have this incredible modesty that is unparalleled – especially in Hollywood. A lot of musicians and artists’ are also dealing with “cancel culture” heightened in LA. We’ve also discussed that you feel through “periods” of receiving a lot of praise and hype. I think it’s well deserved, though I wonder if you’d like to share your take on it.  As you know, I have had my hardships over the years, do you feel like the “scene” is much different from when you started than it is now?

    I think at the same time, they (musicians and artists in LA) understand that, in what we consider to be like this world that we see it’s such a small percentage that it doesn’t matter that much anyway, you know, like. I mean, being me, I can say that. But at the same time, it’s also that the point is that aspect of self-acknowledgment at the end of the day when you look at the percentage of things and what it really matters is to understand that the shit that people worry about or the shit that people care about doesn’t matter. You can’t be motivated by money because  It’s not like anyone’s getting rich; we’re talking music, and we are talking realities. I’m in the wrong industry to make money. These things can only define you to a point. it’s just understanding that all these things are ego traps, and that’s something I’ve learned as I get older. You have to take the good with the bad and understand you won’t always be the “talk of the town.” You’re not always going to be at the top of anything. And you might not always be at the bottom, but it’s like, you make it what you will. It’s accepting that you don’t have control of these things. For instance, I know I’m not going to be Regis, nor did I ever expect to be, you know? Even then, it’s all percentages of what you have, what you think is the best or what you think you want your fame to be. It’s like understanding that it’s all minuscule, and you make it want. I just feel lucky that I’ve been able to do it. I feel lucky to still tour even though I can’t tour the way I used to. Things aren’t the same, but I’m still really fortunate that they’re (fans) even happy. People even care. People will even take a listen. But yes, I feel fortunate that that even still happens. And, you know, that’s why I’ve always tried to help people as much as I could. Even that has its limits, you know. I try to stay out of any of the canceling that goes on and focus on the situations I find myself in. I told you I wouldn’t comment on your situation personally but I do want to say that, knowing you and some of the things you are up against, it’s not fair. So, for example, you have a colorful past, and made a mistake – before you could fix that mistake (which you did not only fix, you went beyond your call of duty), you were being crucified and knowing you and knowing that you have no bad intentions vs what people who don’t know you are saying about your intentions is just like a pure example of the opposite of the support we should be giving one another, you know? Also, if people knew how hard you would take that and, no offence, you subconsciously began to self-sabotage and canceled yourself.

    During the time I spent in LA, and even outside of that, I’ve been exposed to a truly competitive nature within some of these niche cultures. Do you think that’s backwards?

    It’s a sad thing. This strange and extreme music attracts strange and extreme people, and it makes it very difficult; I mean, look at you…(laugh). I think we all have (some oddities)…I think everybody. It’s the aspect of trying to make that happen. Like how do you continue in life to do what you want? Everything has its sweet spot, like the first time you make music and make an amazing thing. And that might be the only time you do that. I think the key with this stuff is to understand that everything has time and a place, and you can’t just circle back, can’t make that record again. You can’t make that piece again. But you can make something else, and it might not be as good, but you might get lucky. That’s what this is in my opinion for me, personally. It’s understanding that you can revel in the stuff as much as you want, but that makes you nostalgic. That will place you constantly in that place, and it’ll always make you fun for a time that’s past. And if you do that continually, you will always be in the same place you have to move forward. Like I do, It’s imperative because if you don’t, then, like, what? Then what are we doing? You know, it’s like, this is part of the problem that we caught in; I’m guilty of it, too, that culture of nostalgia. But I also appreciate progress. And I think that it’s still important to have that. Yeah. And at the end of the day, for me it’s what else am I going to do. I am in my mid forties and I live for this; I love the people in my community, and I feel extremely lucky to be part of it.

    RIP Juan Mendez, Simone Lang and Luis Vasquez.

    Juan Mendez and Simone Ling
    Juan Mendez and Simone Ling
    “No Closer To God” (Tribute to Silent Servant) album cover.
    “No Closer To God” (Tribute to Silent Servant) Artwork by Juan Mendez MITH-XX (Rural Isolation Projection, 2024)
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    Matthew Samways (AKA MITH) first met and saw MAN IS THE BASTARD/BASTARD NOISE when they were 14 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. 2 years later they started ELECTRIC VOICE RECORDS and was working with the likes of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, Martial Canterel, Xeno & Oaklander, Ike Yard, and countless others. They have played in many bands over the years, including Sacred Bones' The Pink Noise in the early days. After dropping out of high school, they went out to complete a trade in Audio Engineering as well as studying Interdisciplinary Arts at the famous art school NSCAD University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. After years of living around Toronto, Vancouver, and most recently Los Angeles - MITH is now located in Montreal and runs the record label FLESH PRISON.