Juan Mendez, better known to DJ aficionados as Silent Servant, darts across the living room area of his downtown loft and rummages through a stack of records for something he had pulled not too long ago. “I have a bunch of really young friends,” he says as he reaches for a Saint Etienne record. “They're in their mid-twenties and they haven't heard half of this shit. It kind of blows their minds sometimes.”
Mendez takes the single, its cover striped pink and orange like a 1960s minidress, and places it on one of the two turntables that sits atop his record shelves to play a snippet of a remix Aphex Twin did for the British pop group's track “Who Do You Think You Are.” “I've had this since high school,” Mendez explains. “It's amazing. It's so weird.”
In one brief musical moment from 1993, when Saint Etienne's '60s pop-meets-house vibe turned into IDM madness thanks to Aphex Twin, Mendez's own musical history is explained. He's a DJ and producer who relishes the unexpected. As Silent Servant, he's bringing weird sounds into the club and succeeding. Mendez's sets may get tagged as techno, but there's a good chance he'll throw something from industrial forbearers Throbbing Gristle or EBM stalwarts Nitzer Ebb into the mix.
When he's not on tour, Mendez plays at Prism, a free party at The Lash on Thursdays that emphasizes goth, minimal synth and post-punk. A few days after this interview, he's heading to Europe for a couple dates, including one at Berghain, the Berlin club that's known for techno and notorious for turning away folks at the door. (Indeed, Mendez, who has played the club many times, has also been denied entry.)
His roots help explain why his style is less strictly defined by genres and sub-genres than most of his peers. Mendez, 37, was born in Guatemala, but moved to the U.S. with his family when he was a child. He peppers his aural biography with the kind of references that make perfect sense to Southern Californians who grew up at the cusp of the 1980s and 1990s. “By sixth grade, I was a total Smiths dork,” he says. Not long after that, he flipped for the new crop of U.K. bands hitting the U.S.: My Bloody Valentine, Lush, Stone Roses, Charlatans U.K.
Encouraged by his older brother, Mendez picked up DJing while attending high school in Westminster and started playing school dances and backyard parties, where the jams came from Prince and New Order. Then he started raving. Mendez talks about how he and his pals would hit up shows or indie dance nights before heading to the afterhours — “L.A. was always good for that,” he says. He still recalls the band T-shirt he wore — indie rock darlings Stereolab — on the night he met the friend who would bring him into the party circuit and help get him his first nightlife job, as a “flyer boy” for a rave promoter.
It wasn't until early in the 2000s that Mendez developed the style for which he is now known. Renewed interest in '80s post-punk artists sent him crate-digging at Pasadena City College, where he would find vinyl from Throbbing Gristle and ESG.
Today, Mendez uses his encyclopedic knowledge of music to draw connections between genres. He mentions a recent gig where he mixed '80s synth group Cabaret Voltaire into a set that included techno and acid tracks. “It was all this stuff that, in a weird way, has a lineage, and you can kind of connect the dots,” he says.
Mendez's sets are as much about educating the crowd as they are about starting the party. While he can pack a dance floor, that doesn't seem to be his primary motivation. “Clubs aren't necessarily a place where progress happens,” says Mendez. “They're a place where people go to have fun, which is totally fine, but there has to be a balance.”
Whether he's DJing, producing or releasing other people's music through Jealous God, the label he co-runs, Mendez's love for pushing new sounds and rediscovering old ones is evident. That's partially why he still maintains his day job as an art director. “I don't like my art being dictated… by money,” he says. “Maybe it might be hurting me in the long run. I have no idea, but that's just how I feel comfortable.”
“His dedication to the music, the scene, and what he does for it, comes from a special place within, and that is what I truly admire,” writes Melissa “Nowhere Girl” Rivera, who co-promotes and DJs at Prism, in a message to L.A. Weekly.
Mendez's boundary-pushing sets are as good for the clubs that champion dark, indie sounds as they are at the clubs that push party beats, and he's noticing that more DJs are going that route. Recently, he spotted a DJ set list that listed one of his Silent Servant tracks alongside an industrial oldie from Skinny Puppy. “That's rad,” he says. “That's weird.”