John Tejada: In memory of Juan Mendez

A reflection on the life and work of the late, great Silent Servant, featuring insight from two of his oldest friends. 

Sometimes death has an unusual way of hitting home. Like a lot of techno devotees across the world I was shocked by the news of Juan Mendez’s tragic passing on January 18 alongside his wife Simone Ling and close friend José Vasquez (aka The Soft Moon). I’ve always been a fan of Mendez’s music – his most prominent work in Sandwell District and as Silent Servant, but equally his 90s releases as Jasper. However, it was only a few days later that it struck me, as I cycled back through open browser tabs and landed on an unlisted promo for a reissue of The Monitors. It was originally a one-off 12” released in 2011, uncredited at the time but widely known to be the work of Mendez alongside John Tejada. I’d been sent the link some time in early January, when no-one would imagine Mendez might not be with us so soon after. Just like that, a brilliant creative light is extinguished, and in the public outpouring of appreciation and grief I suspect most people have gained some idea what a widely loved figure he was, on a creative and personal level. When the persistent narrative is focused on a person’s kindness, you know we lost a real one. 

After listening back to the The Monitors tracks, which are unsurprisingly great, it moved me to reach out to Tejada. I imagined, given their parallel trajectories as pioneering techno artists in LA from the early 90s onwards, they must have known each other for a long time even if The Monitors was the only time they appeared to collaborate on music in any official way. Along the way, I also spoke to Tejada’s wife Lynn, who also offered some insight into their enduring friendship right up to Mendez’s more recent years happily married to Simone Ling. Hopefully it provides another perspective on Mendez’s life and spirit, which undoubtedly lingers in the gothic romanticism of his most celebrated work. 

For the sake of avoiding confusion, Tejada refers to Mendez as John, which he more commonly went by in the early days.

“I met John in 1994 through our mutual friend Marcus Miller,” says Tejada. “We met at a night I was helping with called Public Space. It was a weekly, mostly ambient club at a coffee bar which mostly hosted live PAs. John was one of the few here that was influenced by a Chicago-Detroit-London-Berlin sound. That music was kind of hard to get back then so the few of us that were into that scene found each other. Pretty soon after Marcus, John and another friend Tang started Cytrax.”

Cytrax is an emblem of the emergent West Coast take on glitchy, crunchy minimal which emanated from LA and SF in the late-90s. The first release in 1997 was a VA split 12” which in fact features Tejada’s ‘Dot 71’, and by the third release Mendez had made his debut appearance as Jasper alongside label mates Tang Tran and Kit Clayton.  

Mendez eventually went on to establish the equally essential Delay label, where his Jasper productions really found their feet. Just check the brilliantly scuffed up dub techno immersion of ‘Delay 1’, playing above. There’s a sensuality to the sound which totally carried through in his later work, especially as his sound rapidly matured over the coming years. There’s a roughneck charm to those early Cytrax drops, but even by 2002 his last release on the label shows a much more refined palette. ‘Forgive’ is as strong as its A-side cut, ‘Forget’, and even the titling of the EP Here I Lie Waiting In Vain has the kind of emotionally loaded, cooly delivered presentation which would come to define Silent Servant. As it happened, Mendez put Jasper to bed and held off for a few years before emerging on Sandwell District with The Silent Morning, as though he’d taken time to reflect and grow a true artistic intention for his next musical moves. 

“John was already making a strong voice for himself with Cytrax and Delay,” says Tejada, “so it just seemed a natural progression that he tightened the concept and visual side of what he was doing. At that time the LA scene was still pretty sparse when it came to the music we were into, but it was just beginning to shift and grow.”

The already imposing aesthetic of Birmingham techno laid out by Regis, Female and Function on Sandwell District made a cosy home for Mendez’s own darkly seductive, industrial-tinged techno. From the initial singles through the 00s to rounding up the label’s sound on the Los Perdidos / Una Compilación mix in 2009, the Silent Servant stamp only grew stronger along with the rest of the Sandwell District collective leading up to the group show of strength, Feed Forward in 2011. It’s interesting to note this was the same time another former West Coast minimal alumni, Seth Horvitz, was evolving from earlier work as Sutekh into the visionary, psychoactive Rrose alias on Sandwell. This is also when Mendez and Tejada finally got in the studio together.   

“We stayed friends this whole time,” Tejada says. “We would help each other along the way. I’d get John setup with tools to make music and he’d help me with photos and design. Of course we would DJ together when we could, and hang out as well. Once in a while I would also help John record some drum tracks for his solo songs. We didn’t collaborate musically a ton but it feels as though we had. He was kind enough to always call me one of his mentors. 

“We go back 30 years so it just seemed really natural working together when we made the Monitors tracks,” he adds. “I believe that day I took him to get a small piece of gear, we plugged it in and just started making a song. We both like to work fast and intense, so our creative styles matched really well. It’s bittersweet that a Redux of this is actually planned for February 2. John updated the tracks very recently for me, as well as updating the design.”

It’s absolutely worth mentioning Mendez’s parallel affinity for visual arts, which were applied throughout his musical career from sleeve and centre label designs for techno 12”s on Downwards and Horizontal Ground to LPs for the likes of Puscifer and Drab Majesty. Drawing on archive imagery and a moody, sexy style which was grainy without being lo-fi or trashy, he set the tone for so many records, not least his own. Working with ex-wife Camella Lobo on her project Tropic Of Cancer and bringing Silent Servant into its full form with the Negative Fascination and Shadows Of Death And Desire LPs, steering the iconic Jealous God label with Regis and James Ruskin, there was a lot of creativity pouring out of Mendez’s endeavours at that time, and his visual aesthetic was a huge part of the overall artistic statement. 

“He was one of the most amazingly creative and multi-talented humans I have ever known,” adds Lynn Tejada. “Did you know that he was an Art Director for [US chain store] Target for around three years, I think? And actually moved to Minneapolis for that job.”

Few might have realised his talents reached into such commercial ventures – you might never look at Target branding the same way again. Simone Ling, who Mendez married in 2020, was an equally talented visual artist as you can see from her videos for more recent Silent Servant projects such as his release on L.I.E.S. featuring Cabaret Voltaire’s Stephen Mallinder. A more extensive archive can be found on Ling’s website. Ling also worked on designs for Tejada and March Adstrum’s synth-pop project Optometry.

“I was also working with Mendez (that was my favourite thing to call him) and Simone more than ever in the last 13 months,” adds Lynn. “As soon as we met her for the first time in late 2022 I hooked her up with my composer, lyricist client and Simone created some wonderful music videos and cover art for her releases. Last year I was thrilled Mendez was available to design the graphics for my 30 year anniversary celebration in June.” 

“John and I would speak frequently,” says Tejada. “What I always liked is he wasn’t huge on texting. If I texted him, he would just call me and we would talk. We met before anyone knew our name. We had the same dream and we excelled in parallel. So just about 30 years later, to have been so collaborative with both he and Simone in the last year with more plans ahead is a real mind fuck. John always had great insight on things to come, whereas I’m more of an in-the-moment kind of thinker. I’ll miss his insight and the way he’d get super hyped talking about an idea. We’ll miss seeing the both of them for exciting food outings and just having them in our lives.”

A fundraiser is seeking to help Mendez and Ling’s family and friends with funeral costs – if you’re able to donate, please consider doing so.

Header photo used with kind permission from Lynn Tejada/Green Galactic.