Karl O’Connor (Regis) has made a significant impact on the dance floors in a very unassuming British way. Ever the nonconformist, O’Connor has made a substantial mark on electronic music history through his various musical aliases, his projects and the labels that he’s spawned. He has driven an undercurrent that continues to course through the contemporary electronic music landscape, defragmenting the established rhetoric with a petulant snarl of disdain for anything resembling orthodoxy in music.
His greatest contribution to music has been marooned on the island of Techno, but for a young and provocative O’Connor, dabbling in music, Techno was merely the scion of some greater musical pursuit that starts in Birmingham and the subversion of musical traditions deconstructed by the punk and post-punk movements in the UK and Europe.
Birmingham is “an industrial village” according to a Quietus piece written by O’ Connor, “it’s provincial England, it’s not London, just get over it and get on with it”. A city born and bred on industry, it’s easy to draw a correlation between Birmingham and Detroit, but for O’Connor these wispy threads are inconsequential. “My influences weren’t necessarily in Birmingham” he told Filip Kalinowski in the 2013.
“I always imagined about being cloned in New York in the 70s in or in the early 80s in Berlin, it’s where my influences lay.” A group that made an early significant impression on a young O’Connor in 1980 was not anything close to Birmingham, but rather D.A.F. Hearing the German group for the first time there was something “primal” and “provocative” to the German group that was just “fucking ace” to a punk kid from Birmingham. “(T)here are no choruses, they are making a whole load of records with no choruses and… I thought it was the biggest fuck you to Anglo-American rock & roll. I thought it was brilliant, it was fantastic. Those mad German bastards. That was pure sex, the music that they made was pure adrenaline, that’s what I wanted…”
D.A.F opened a door that would never be sealed again, and in the early eighties O’Connor as a teenager would completely submerge himself in the independent electronic music labels of the time and specifically Daniel Miller’s Mute and Stevo Pearce’s Some Bizarre. “That covered everything that I needed,” he told Electronic Beats Magazine in 2013.”(G)reat pop music through to what I would class as avant-garde music. Test Dept, Neubauten, Foetus, Fad Gadget, pop like Soft Cell or The The. It was all there. And it was British, that was very important. Plus it was pretty much the birth of independent music—and they got into the charts.”
It all conspired in 1985, when O’Connor, a college student and electronic music enthusiast bought his first synthesiser and set forth on his first steps towards a career in electronic music as Karl and the Curbcrawlers. “We had a synth, shared a pair of PVC trousers, and had a smoke machine” he reminisces in his Quietus soliloquy. It was 1985, but O’Connor was still bound by the constriction of youth obsessions and the likes of Fad Gadget and Soft Cell, and the music reflected that kind of early DIY aesthetic of the generation before as the rest of the world was being seduced by the more polished sounds of Duran Duran and The Human League.
He believes the music he was making then “was extremely dated” and none of it ever amounted to anything beyond a demo recording over a soundcheck session, but what was cemented in that project and Karl O’Connor as an artist has stayed with him ever since. It was about DIY, and not as a trend, but rather a necessity. “If you feel the necessity of it, then, you know. It has to become everything for you. For us, the methods were dictated by economic reasons”. Karl and Curbcrawlers had one synthesiser and no money for a drum machine and that became the essence of the group, and it was that DIY born from necessity that followed Karl O’Connor into the 90’s and into the label Downwards.
“I’m not too sure why anybody starts a label,” he ponders in in Electronic Beats about the origins of Downwards “I think it was purely out of necessity”. Spurred on by his “love of DIY” and the UK independent label ethos, Downwards came into the world. Together with Peter Sutton (Female), O’Connor brought one of the longest running independent Techno labels into the world with a singular idea: “You make it, you release it and all of a sudden you are a label,” he explained in Factmag in 2010. “The Desperate Bicycles were right: ‘It was easy, it was cheap – go and do it.’”
O’Connor and Sutton established Downwards with a fully formed idea and a “single-minded” pursuit for the label. “I wanted to make the label in my own image,” he told EB. Influenced by the labels of his youth, namely Some Bizarre and Mute, Downwards distilled the tradition of the eighties independent label down to a new generation of dance music enthusiasts for which the sounds of Detroit had started moving over to the UK and the summer of love had already transpired. It was 1993 and Downwards was born with the Antonym 7” “Consumer Device” inaugurating the label. Inarticulate vocal chattering and atonal wailing guitars swathe a militantly regular 4/4 kick in a style of music that combines the atmospheres of a post- punk industrialism with the functionality of dance music.
There’s a sinuous connection between O’Connor’s early musical adventures as Karl and the Curbcrawlers and Downwards and although the two are “completely different”, he does consider there is a “golden thread” that runs through them. “It was more about getting ideas out, most of the early stuff sounds like it was pressed on the back of a digestive biscuit, it was lo-fi and charming, but it wasn’t deliberate.” It ran perpendicular to the way the label operated, where production and distribution all came down to O’Connor and Sutton, to the point where no-one even knew who ran the label. “That total artistic freedom was its own reward” he told Factmag.
That freedom might have been its own reward but the ultimate success of Downwards was validated in 1994 when Surgeon came on board and sent Downwards on an upward trajectory as one of the biggest successes early in the label’s biography. “Tony (Child aka Surgeon) is the only bona fide star in the whole thing,” said O’ Connor looking back in his Quietus piece. “He has a fantastic attitude to everything, he puts up with quite a lot, and it was a leap of faith with me and the label.” The Surgeon EP propelled the Downwards label into dance music’s collective consciousness where it and that record remained ever since.
The EP stomps with a timeless European sound of Techno that continues to remain popular today and in many respects have become the de-facto sound of the genre in the contemporary musical landscape. It’s brash and aggressive and for the first time it defined the Downwards label as something intended specifically for the dance floor. There’s still that unwavering DIY aesthetic that first established the label, but considering the period, it’s more punk than ever. It strips the melodic and spacial elements away from Techno into an industrial-esque functional monster, born from that primal instinctiveness of the corporeal and simply explodes into the atmosphere.
It’s this sonic aesthetic that O’Connor permeates further when he eventually steps into his role as Regis when he releases his first EP on Downwards in 1995, “Hablame / Amistad Modelo”. He expounds on the atmosphere and channels everything into brash sonic textures that jackhammer through the progression of the two tracks.
For O’Connor it’s always been about the “immediacy of the moment” and that’s the ideas he transfers, to Regis and Downwards too. “Downwards is how I define myself” he told Filip Kalinowski back in 2013. “I like here and now. These are the things that interest me about music. Sex, ritual, that’s what I’m into. It’s very naturalistic, I’m not doing it because of any reason, it’s a progression of who I am.” Downwards became an extension of that centred around a core group of producers namely Surgeon, Female and Regis. Later Downwards would incorporate acts like Jeff Mills, Tropic of Cancer, OAKE and Samuel Kerridge as that extension of the artistic personality behind the label, in which Downwards would cement, a sound, a visual aesthetic, and a conceptual framework, through which an attitude prevailed.
O’Connor might have supplanted that very same attitude in his other projects, but the thing that remained constant throughout was Downwards. Other fleeting experiences with labels and conceptual projects came in the form of Sandwell District and Jealous God, but 25 years on Downwards and Regis is the only aspects that remain. In 2010 O’Connor told Fact Magazine that it “makes as perfect sense for us to be releasing a Tropic Of Cancer or Dva Damas 10″ in 2010 as it did for us to be backing a Surgeon 12″ in 1994”, suggesting that even though the label’s evolved with time, the sonic aesthetic and the attitude remains unchallenged.
It’s O’Connor and Sutton that remains at the heart of the Downwards appeal with their personal tastes adding that much needed human dimension to the often “faceless” Techno genre. “I loved the immediacy of techno but was also put off by the short shelf life and disposability of some of the music – club fodder, I guess they call it. So I just went about applying my own influences to the sound and overall operation. I imagine the things that seemed obvious and instinctive to us were alien to the way most other people in techno readily presented themselves.” This set Downwards apart from the rest and that’s why 25 years on they and all their artists remain relevant.
Downwards disrupted traditions, styles and trends to make a significant impact in electronic music, and although we can call it Techno it’s always been the odd one out, upsetting the apple cart when we try to clearly define the genre. Downwards lives beyond such nomenclature as a singularity through the years and Regis and Female have certainly left their imprint there. Before paying Unsound in 2013, which had Disruption as its theme, O’Connor told Filip Kalinowski “Interference and disturbance is exactly what I’m into. I like disruption.” And that is certainly what he and Sutton have achieved with Downwards and what he singularly permeates through his music as Regis.
*Regis and Samuel Kerridge present 25 years of Downwards this Friday.