Tracing Silent Servant’s Latin influences, a driving force of his sound
One night in 1999, Ale Cohen and Marcos Chloca were performing as their glitch electronic duo, Languis, at Dublab radio. Then located near Paramount Pictures Studios in Hollywood, the station teemed with people who’d turned out for the party. A stranger suddenly weaved through the crowd, plunked a stack of records on the table – the same one the band had used to set up their gear – and walked away. “Marcos and I looked at each other like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’” Cohen recalls.
The record-toting man later called the station and introduced himself. His name was Juan Mendez, and he’d wanted to share the music he’d been releasing on his label. Cohen remembers being struck by that: like him, Mendez couldn’t have been older than 22 or so. “When you’re in your 20s, it’s a time when normally most people would be looking out [for themselves],” Cohen says. “And he’s already supporting the work of others.” The two became friends and collaborators after that. “He just planted himself in our lives, in a way,” smiles Cohen.
A prolific visual artist and blisteringly original producer, Mendez died last month in Los Angeles, reportedly with his partner, the visual artist Simone Ling, and musician Luis Vasquez of The Soft Moon. An outpouring of grief followed, with fellow artists, friends and fans memorialising Mendez’s iconoclastic vision, channelled in his Silent Servant project and in the Sandwell District collective, and recounting how he cared for and mentored others in the scene.
The far-reaching sonic universes of darkwave, industrial, minimal wave, EBM and post-punk were revelatory for Mendez, and he nimbly straddled these brutal rhythms in his music. But his upbringing as a first-generation Latine in southern California, and the breadth of the region’s seemingly contradictory musical scenes, crucially suffused his artistic ethos. In 2018, Mendez told Treblezine that his music’s dark undertones didn’t stem from woe so much as they did from genuine emotiveness. “There’s a side of my life that’s always been drawn to that, I think partially because I’m Hispanic,” he said. “Latin ballads, it all comes from the same place. I’m not a dark person, like, fuck everything! That’s why the last song on the record is called Optimistic Decay. That’s something I wanted to try with this record – a sense of optimism.”
The concept of optimistic decay, which became an overarching theme Mendez frequently called back to in his work, embodies the simultaneous forces of levity and macabre that often inform how Latines move through a difficult world. Moe Espinosa, the San Gabriel Valley-born and bred techno stalwart known as Drumcell, says that Mendez held this distinct sense of self, and where he came from, close in subconscious and conscious ways. While Mendez may have embodied a “hard industrial” persona as Silent Servant – he himself said that he veered towards “somewhat damaged” music – Mendez “had this typical Orange County, Californian slang,” Espinosa laughs. “He’s the only dude I knew who always used the word ‘rad’. He would pull out a record and go, ‘Dude, this record’s so rad!’”
Born in Guatemala in 1977, Mendez grew up in Westminster, a city in Orange County roughly 40 miles south of Los Angeles. As a young man, Mendez skateboarded with his older brother, and fellow skaters introduced him to bands like Echo & the Bunnymen, The Cure and Bauhaus — transmissions he’d soon also started hearing on KROQ, one of the few local radio stations that spun punk and new wave jams. Post-punk catalysed Mendez’s love of music; MTV later exposed him to shoegaze, then Aphex Twin’s On music video became his window into electronic music. Mendez then began ordering crates of records, gravitating towards Detroit techno thanks to the likes of Submerge Records. He started DJing at 16, in clubs and after-hours parties around Los Angeles and the Orange County rave scene.
“We were all part of this small Latino circle of people who were pushing the techno sound” – Moe Espinosa, Drumcell
Mendez’s sonic proclivities – i.e. loving the Smiths and Drexciya – were unusual in that taste was a lot more atomised at the time. In his book, A Kiss Across the Ocean: Transatlantic Intimacies of British Post-Punk and US Latinidad, Richard T. Rodríguez, a professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, recalls that in the working-class Mexican American enclave of Orange County that he grew up in, “musical tastes more often than not reflected one’s cultural (or subcultural) alliance — metal head, party crew affiliate, or “new waver”. (While Rodríguez secretly loved freestyle, he hid those tapes when his new wave friends came over.)
Rodríguez posits that the intimacy between post-punk and Latinidad exists, in part, because the music felt so thrillingly unfamiliar. Post-punk continues to move Latine listeners across the diaspora and gives them licence to be themselves or subvert their status quo. For Mendez, post-punk wasn’t just a collection of intriguing sounds: it became a telescope, the vessel through which he took a close and intrepid look at other musical worlds.
Such hardline musical affiliations between some scenes began dissolving in the late 90s and early 2000s. Back then, Los Angeles “was a place that was, at least in the eyes of the rest of the world, kind of left alone,” Cohen explains. “You just did your thing in L.A.” Because of that isolation, or perhaps in spite of it, divergent scenes became “a bunch of loose ends that the city brought together,” Cohen adds. “The way that [L.A.] functions also has a tendency to connect the dots between things that normally in other cities wouldn’t be connected: alliances, friendships, influences that come from more disparate places.”
Cohen remembers that he and Mendez weren’t just galvanised by the Kit Clayton and Galaxie 500 songs they were burning on CDs for each other at the time. The influential coffeehouse-slash-venue Jabberjaw had given rise to DIY haunt The Smell, which blended glitch electronic scenes with indie by featuring wildly different artists on the same bill. Strains of early emo trickled in from San Diego and college radio station KXLU. Simultaneously, a nascent beat scene of experimental producers birthed Sketchbook, later evolving into legendary club night Low End Theory. “I can’t tell you that we were all hanging out like a big happy family, but these worlds were bleeding into each other and feeding off each other,” Cohen says.
That eclecticism cropped up in electronic music scenes, too. “You went to raves and there were multiple floors of different DJs, so many different styles of electronic music, and you kind of enjoyed it all,” Espinosa says. In the early 2000s, Espinosa and some friends – who hailed predominantly from east side enclaves like Pomona and Pasadena – decided it was “time to put our heads together and try to build a proper techno scene in L.A,” explains Espinosa. Their efforts resulted in Droid Behavior, now a linchpin of the contemporary techno community. Along with the likes of Mendez, Developer, Santiago Salazar and others, “we were all part of this small Latino circle of people who were pushing the techno sound,” Espinosa says.
What Mendez forged as Silent Servant, and in the labels he co-founded like Jealous God and Historia y Violencia, had seismic reverberations. There’s a throughline between the sentimental Latin ballads of Mendez’s upbringing and the melancholic tenderness of 2009’s Los Perdidos / Una Compilación from his Sandwell District days. Negative Fascination, an album that put Mendez on the map, is similarly beautiful and fierce in its propulsive techno sound, evoking the drama and theatrics that characterise Latin music. The grisly, percussive thrums of Invocation of Lust, euphorically crescendoing into near-operatic swells, calls back to the “optimistic decay” Mendez kept circling back to. The black and white art adorning the album’s back cover, featuring a hand brandishing a Stiletto-style flick knife, surrounded by neat rows of roses, feels reminiscent of the late Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta’s ruminations on how natural forces, and violence, can alter the body.
The sonic transcendence of Negative Fascination also charted a path forward for southern California’s continuous musical evolution. “I didn’t know anybody else that was able to collide worlds, bringing in techno and punk and post-punk in one common thread,” Espinosa says. “Nobody could ever really draw the narrative as one complete unit quite the way [Mendez] could. That brought me a lot of confidence with my punk and industrial background to be like, ‘I can also make music and bring in my influences from the stuff I grew up listening to.’”
Mendez’s own experience of growing up Latine and Catholic also informed his artistry. He culled from traditions and symbols ubiquitous to many Latine communities, such as Santa Muerte altars, sculptures of saints and rosaries, and threaded them into his visual art practice. “He would simply take things like that from a world that we lived in that we passed by and never really paid attention to, then put it on the cover of a record,” Espinosa says. “And somehow the gravity and weight of it meant so much in the context of the music.”
By elevating ubiquitous, familiar Latin culture and emblems as art – such as releases for the likes of Frequencia – Mendez gave new meaning to the complicated rituals surrounding life and death that at once provide us with a sense of belonging, a way to cope, and, inevitably, guilt. It’s especially clear in how Mendez included a new track in the expanded version of Negative Fascination, A Path Eternal (Source), featuring ambient instrumentals and vocals proclaiming in Spanish: “Consider that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
By hewing closely to his vision, Mendez became a respected artist around the globe. But tellingly, he continued living in Los Angeles — a region which, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, logs 49% of residents as having Latine heritage. As Espinosa points out, he and other friends in L.A.’s techno scene, Mendez included, could have moved elsewhere to expand their careers. Yet they chose to remain in southern California, a place that’s both central to their Latine roots and the prism through which they’ve created art. As Mendez told Treblezine, Los Angeles’ promise as a site of reinvention, and how it presented the potential for a better future for his family, irrevocably shaped him as a person.
“It’s home,” Espinosa says. “Our families are here. That’s the foundation: how incredibly close we are to our families, and how much it matters that we are in reach to our parents, aunts and uncles. It’s a very profound thing we all have in common being Latino, how important our family is – and the loyalty we have for them and our friends.”