Aphex Twin's mask collapses
Nobody can chew up music and spit it back out quite like Richard D. James. Throughout the 90s, the Cornwall-bred prankster refracted practically every known sub-genre of electronic music through the kaleidoscope of his whimsical personality and extreme technical ambitions.
With each album from the artist, best known as Aphex Twin, came a new, warped blueprint. Selected Ambient Works 85-92 brought new lush melodic instincts to dance music, while its sequel, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, cut the drums entirely and turned its titular genre cavernous. I Care Because You Do moved in brutalist industrial wheezes and the Richard D. James Album reimagined drum ‘n' bass with a childlike glee.
All the while James was gaining a reputation as dance music's foremost proto-troll. The early internet buzzed with rumours of him ambushing audiences with noise by playing pieces of sandpaper instead of records in his DJ sets, riding around in a fully armed tank, building vast secret studios of custom home brew synthesisers and stockpiling hundreds, if not thousands, of unreleased tracks. He often came off as aloof or purposely oblique in interviews. "I just like to make music, I don't like to talk about it much," he said in a 1995 promo clip that now lives on YouTube. "Electronic music isn't meant to be talked about."
James doubled down on this position around the turn of the century, when he all but disappeared from music entirely. In 2001 he released Drukqs, a sprawling and critically misunderstood double disc collection that alternated between information-overloaded rhythmic assaults and sombre treated piano numbers. For a while it seemed like it would be James' swan song. A series of limited vinyl-only 12"s followed in 2005, as well as a few presumed alter-ego side projects through his esteemed record label Rephlex, but largely, the Aphex brand would go dark for more than a decade. James retreated from the public eye, moved to Scotland, got married, had children and simply left the myths to simmer.
It wasn't until 2014 that he re-emerged with Syro, his sixth album under the Aphex Twin moniker, and did the last thing anyone would expect – he opened up. There were no tanks and no sandpaper in the press run that followed. Instead he just talked enthusiastically about his family life, his recording process and even his once-guarded list of studio equipment. After years of hiding behind the frozen, grinning visage of his own face that was once his visual trademark, he had finally removed the mask.
James acknowledges the significance of this reverse heel turn, but he claims it came with little conscious effort. "If I went around thinking about my own mythology all the time, I'd be a pretty sad individual," he says over the phone. "I'm aware of that stuff, obviously, but I think if you got too into that you'd actually go quite crazy."
Perhaps though the most exciting product of James' newfound transparency came when he began to make those long-rumoured archives public. Over the first few months of 2015 he dropped 269 free and previously unreleased tracks into an anonymous SoundCloud account. "It was really just a spontaneous thing," James says of the SoundCloud avalanche. "And the label, Warp, were like 'Uh... what the fuck are you doing?' That made me think it was even a better idea at that point. If the suits are getting annoyed then it's definitely a good idea."
In the years since, James has comfortably resumed his position as an active institutional hero of experimental electronic music. His occasional festival DJ sets have become major events in the dance music world, and he continues to release music at a steady clip, eschewing the album format in favour of short-form EPs.
His latest EP Collapse might be his most data-rich release since Drukqs, all seizure-inducing skull rattlers built from a million moving parts. James paints the project as part of a long-term strategy of presentation spanning Syro and the more stripped down Cheetah EP from 2016, which was created entirely with a rare synth. "After Syro it was really big exposure, so I wanted to put something low-key out," he explains. "The Cheetah tracks are really mellow. It [was] like putting water on the flames. Then I thought after that I'll put out some fucking banging stuff."
When I spoke to James, he was seemingly still operating in the spirit of openness – waxing philosophical about teleportation, online dating and waking up in the middle of the night with an itching desire to spend too much money on rare electro records. And yet a hint of the old Aphex seemed to creep in at the close of the conversation, when he abruptly announced that “this is the last interview I'm going to do for a long time.” He then took an apologetic pause and added, “not that I haven’t enjoyed it.”
AN: How are you doing today? RDJ: Pretty good, actually. Just sitting outside in the last bit of summer sun. It's quite warm, it's nice... I'm not really used to doing interviews on the phone. But I'm being a good boy, I'm doing what I'm told.
Well it seems like over the past few years you've really opened up, both in terms of the availability of your music and being more candid in interviews. What sparked that? Did you just wake up one day like "I'm tired of taking the piss"? Oh I'm always taking the piss out of everyone. It's essential. I don't know really. I have a terrible memory. The only interesting thing I can say is about doing the SoundCloud thing, dumping loads of tracks on there – I've got all this music and I thought if I died what the fuck would my kids do? What would my wife do? They'd get really stressed out and they wouldn't know what to do with it all. So I just thought I'd give it away, then they don't have to think about it.
I think you were the first and maybe still are the only established artist from the pre-internet era to fully embrace that kind of freedom in online distribution. Yeah. It's very different for old fuckers like me to understand what's going on with the internet now but I think I've got a handle. I mean I've always been into technology and computers but it still totally freaks me out. You've uploaded the track, it's only been there for a minute and a thousand people have listened to it! The track's five minutes long and they're already commenting on it after one minute. You're getting feedback before they've even listened to the track. It's brilliant in some ways but also quite scary.
But at the same time it must have been liberating to have two decades of work suddenly open up to the world. Oh it was amazing. The thing is I haven't even started. Not long after I did that I found... I made all my stuff onto cassette before the 90s. Then when I got a DAT machine that was the first time you could actually back something up. If you made tracks in the 80s there was no way to duplicate them [in high quality]. You could put them on a cassette but it would always sound shit, even if you had the best equipment in the world. I used to lose sleep when I was a teenager like "shit I've lost the tapes." It's your life's work on cassette. And when you listen to your music – which is the best thing about making music, you can listen to it – each time you play it it's getting worse and worse. Bits of tape are falling off while you're listening to it.
So when DAT came along I borrowed a DAT machine and stayed up for three days straight taping stuff. Then for the next 20 years I just listened to all those DATs and put all the cassettes away, back in their boxes. I forgot that of course I didn't back all of it up, I was young, I didn't have the patience to sit through a C90 [90 minute] cassette and put the whole lot in. I just cherry picked the best bits which at that time I thought were good.
Basically I just forgot that there's all this other stuff. Which is fucking amazing for me! It's like the best gift I've ever given myself, being able to listen to tracks that you've completely forgotten about. That's the ultimate thing for me. If somebody would say you can have anything in the universe – you can have teleportation, you can be invisible, you can do time travel, whatever, my first [wish] would be to listen to my tracks. Either ones I've forgotten about or ones I've lost or things from the future that I haven't done [yet]. So to discover those cassettes, it's better than teleportation for me.
I wanted to ask about what I see as kind of the opposite of the SoundCloud thing, these limited 12"s and tapes that you've been exclusively releasing at certain shows. What's the thinking behind those? Well I was trying to get people in the concert for free. I'm getting paid quite a lot of money for doing these gigs and then the ticket prices go up. I was feeling a bit guilty about that so I thought if people are really bothered and they get there early they can pick up some limited stuff for the gig and then they can make money [back by reselling it]. It's a pretty flawed philosophy but it does make sense to a certain degree.
But doesn't that alienate people who don't go and don't want to spend $300 on Discogs? I mean... yeah. But then it's not that bad really is it because they can just get the mp3s or whatever. They'll get it eventually, they just won't possess it.
Are you the type of collector who hears a track and needs to possess a physical copy? Yeah. I'm really bad and because I've made money now and I pay ridiculous amounts. I bought this thing called Truth, it's a 90s techno thing, has a blue label, it's a lovely record, I've played it out in some sets... but I paid 500 quid for it!
It's crazy. I think it was about 15 years ago when Discogs first kicked off and me and my friends used to be looking at all these amazing electro records and we're like "man this is expensive, they're like 40-80 pounds, fuckin' hell." Then one day, I think I woke up in the middle of the night actually, and was like "I'm just gonna buy all of those fucking records." I'd been looking at them for like a year. I spent like 10 grand on fucking electro records. But all those records now are between 150 and 500 quid. Not that I care because I'm not gonna sell ‘em. It's just nice knowing that if I had waited any longer I never would've gotten them.
I learned a lesson when I was a kid. When I was about 16 my best friend had this Mike Dunn record Tracks That Move Ya, an eight tracker acid thing. We were in Cornwall and he had been up to London and bought two copies of it. There was no way I could get that record because I'd have to go to London, there was no internet back then, and then he said I'll sell it to you for 30 quid. 30 pound then was like 100 grand to me. I remember giving it to him and he gave me the record and he looked at me like "you're such an idiot" for paying that much. I was like "yeah but I've got this amazing record and you've just got pieces of paper in your hand."
"If somebody would say you can have anything in the universe, my first wish would be to listen to my tracks"
What role has your family played in your music in recent years? The same as it's ever been. I always incorporate the sounds of whoever's around me into whatever I do. I don't try to do it, they're just around me when I'm making music. Whoever's around me gets put into it. I sample my mum and dad loads, they're still around. It's quite a weird thought but I just sample their voices over a long range so when they die I can still make music with their voices.
But it's interesting as well with family. I don't know if you know about formants in the voice structure. So a formant is a kind of harmonic in a human voice and if you compare voices from the same family they have similar formant patterns so you have similar sound characteristics. It's really interesting matching those up and how they change over time as you get older.
I think [it's a factor] when you're attracted to someone as well. Everyone knows that you need to know if you fancy someone physically, that's the obvious thing. The less obvious thing is if you like someone's voice. Maybe smell would come second for a lot of people but I think the voice is really important as well. And this is based on no evidence at all but it's my theory that if you don't like someone's voice you're probably not a good genetic match for each other. Girls that I've liked, I've analysed their voices the way you do... well the way I do things... and I've seen some characteristics that are similar with [their] voices.
Yeah that seems to be what's really lacking in the online dating sphere, something as crucial as the sound of their voice becomes an abstraction. I've never done that, but yeah, do you not hear people talking?
You're already in the thick of it and texting before you can meet them in real life and hear their voice. I think I'd be too embarrassed to meet people. Have you ever done it?
Yeah, it's very embarrassing! I'd be too scared I think. But then that's quite nice as well, isn't it? To overcome your fears. I expect you'd get a good sense of satisfaction even after it goes wrong. Like "oh well I did that."
I suppose with things like that you just have to not think about it, just do it. Which is the situation with so much of life. We're thinking too much about stuff rather than just being. That can lead to a lot of problems. You just need to just do stuff. Like if you saw a girl or a boy that you fancied, if you thought about it too long you wouldn't do anything. Eventually, the brain is just gonna talk you out of it.
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Do you find yourself more of a thinker or a doer these days? Definitely a thinker, that's why I'm aware of it. When I'm telling you this I'm telling myself, I'm trying to coach myself. It's like a tool, your mind. It's good for working out problems but if you start letting it decide too much in your life it can go wrong.
Does music help with that? Totally, yeah, it's meditation. Certain things you have to think about. If you wanted to put some plugins into a folder and get them authorised you're going to have to use your brain to do that boring shit. But the actual composing, you don't want to be thinking for that. You need to think to set things up then you want to channel whatever it is from wherever it's coming from. If you can concentrate long enough and you get to the right place then hopefully you've stopped thinking completely.
My favourite tracks are ones that I can't remember making. I didn't think about them. From running a label for years when we used to get [demo] tapes I'd start at the end and go backwards. Because it was always the [tracks] that people thought that nobody else was gonna like that were the best ones. The first ones, the ones that they think are the best, the ones their ego has decided is the best, are always the most boring.
Do you miss doing the label at all? Eh... not really. I still kind of do it because I've gotten into this habit of rating tracks all the time for DJing and just for listening. I'm not releasing it, I'm just DJing or playing it to myself or friends.
It seems like the DJ sets you've been doing over the past few years have done a great job of both putting your music in a historical context and shining light on deeper current music. Thanks, I put a lot of work into it. There aren’t many DJs out there playing different stuff... well, I think it is getting better now, over the last year it's gotten really good. But [previously] people were just playing one type of music for two hours. Which is fine sometimes, y'know? But there's nobody big playing all this amazing music coming out. There's so much of it! And [it gives] great artists exposure as well. It's not like I'm some huge artist or something, but you do give quite a good boost to a lot of people when you play stuff.
I often try to think, if I'm playing in Berlin, say, "Who do I know in Berlin? What track do I know that I can play?" Because they might be there at the gig. That's happened loads. I remember I played some crazy speedcore track [by Komprexx] in Italy. I thought "oh that guy is from Milan, he might be here." And he came running up to me at the end, "I can't believe you played it!" Quite often people will be in the crowd. At that Houston gig there was that guy Qebrus. He had this crazy ASCII syntax for all his track names, really alien sounding music. He died recently, just after that gig. And somebody had found him in the crowd, they were just scanning through the crowd and someone identified him and he's smiling away while I'm playing his track.
"I love people, but I find it very intense talking face-to-face. I just get so much information from people... If I don't know them, it's too overwhelming"
Are you socially engaged with any of these younger artists? Do you keep in touch with many people? Err... not really. I don't really have that many friends. It just takes too much time. I'm very precious with my time so I try not to talk to that many people to be honest. Where I live in Scotland, it's very small. If you live in a small place it can get intense and you can never get anything done. You know everybody, you bump into people all the time.
I keep in touch with some people, but I generally don't meet up with people. It's just over emails. I have people coming to stay with me. I had this DJ Nina Kraviz around recently, that was cool, she was really sweet. That was the last person I had around. Before that I don't know... oh, a local girl who's a singer. I was supposed to do some tracks with her. But that was like in the last month, two people. [Laughs] So I don't really see that many people.
How do you think social isolation affects your music, coming from a club background? That's the thing, because I do go to clubs when I'm DJing and that kind of takes it out of me. You meet so many people in such a short amount of time. You know, I love people, I really do, but I find it very intense talking to people face-to-face. I just get so much information from them... that I don't want [laughs]. It's alright if I know people really well, if I don't know people it's too overwhelming. So I tend not to do it very often. If I do one gig I wouldn't want to see anyone for like six months after that, apart from close friends and family.
I was just thinking this morning about the reason I was still making music. I don't know if it was because I have an interview or what, but I think it's because when you are talking to people and interacting with people you're limited by your language, by your vocabulary. You think with your language so your language dictates how you think. But when you're making music it doesn't. That's why I love making music so much. You're not limited by vocabulary and words. You will fall into patterns and trends but you can access whatever you want. You can't do that with language. Yeah, you could look up some more words I suppose but it's infinite with art, with music. That's the best bit about it basically.
Collapse is out now via Warp