The Face MagazineYou think his records sound like cutlery being chucked down the stairs? One of them is. Then there's the one where he sampled his friend's diarrhoea... Welcome back, the genius that is the Aphex Twin
It used to be pink, Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre. Famously pink. Then, a few years back, as part of some woeful Comic Relief stunt, it was painted Red Nose red. Now - oh dear - the red is starting to peel off, and the joke never stretched as far as an 'upkeep' budget. It's not looking good. On the contrary, it's looking like what it is: south London's premier poverty-magnet, an underlit mecca of no-brand clothes shops and dry-cleaners still displaying faded Seventies ads for ICI Solvents. Ride the escalator to the top and you reach the Superbowl bowling alley. Here, cross-armed skinhead dads keep nonce watch while their skinhead kids do their worst, apparently aiming at the bruise-coloured sunset daubed on the skittle-side wall. Behind them, hunched over a Formica table in the food quarter, Richard James and I sip Cokes and absorb the atmosphere. it's the sounds you notice: the R&B goo seeping from the ceiling; the clatter of coins as someone wins 15 pounds on a fruit machine; children crying; two customers arguing with the woman behind the counter about who ordered what.
'Fuck,' says James, smiling. 'It's nasty in here.'
Well, yes. Some would say it's nasy out there as well, but not him. He's lived in Elephant & Castle for six years, in a converted bank vault. He likes it here. He's just bought the strange silver building, a 'third house' to add to the vault and his Scottish cottage, in the middle of the roundabout just down from the shopping centre. 'It used to be a sub-power station,' he explains. 'I'm exchanging contracts later this afternoon. 'Richard James is the Aphex Twin (aka AFX, Polygon Window, Blue Calx, The Dice Man, Power-Pill, et al); dressed all in black, the white Aphex logo on his T-shirt serves as an arcane reminder of the fact. Still only 30, with
long ginger hair tied back in a ponytail and neatly trimmed beard, he's Britains's foremost composer of electronic music; an enigmatic figure, around whom an ornate, often unwieldy mythology sprang up after the release of his breakthrough record, Selected Ambient Works 1985-1992, in 1993.
Reduced to essentials, it went something like this:
*Freak-prodigy-genius from Cornwall creates haunting aural dreamscapes in dope-stoked, hypnagogic trance using synthesizers he built himself
*Shares name with dead twin brother
*Likes to drop tone arm on to sandpaper/place microphone inside food blender when DJing
*Drives a tank
James remembers an NME article from the mid-Nineties. It was headlined 'You Lying Cunt' and compared stories it alleged he'd made up about himself with The Truth as determined by the journalist.
'In nearly every instance what they said was false was true and vice versa,' he chuckles in his soft West Country burr. He pleads not guilty to the charge of Bullshit Dissemination. For the record, then:
*He does 'lucid dream' (ie remain aware of being in a dream state while dreaming), though not as much as he used to. And ever since he started making music when he was 14, he has customized his equipment to such a degree that he might as well have built it in the first place
*The dead brother is real, though not a twin: Richard died in 1968, three years before Richard D was born
*The sandpaper/blender story stems from a genuine incident at a showcase for record label Blast First in New York in 1994. People danced enthusiastically, believing the horrible noise to be death metal. The evening ended with James throwing the blender at a man in the crowd, who later asked him to autograph it as a souvenir.
*It's not a tank. It's a Daimler Ferret Mark 3 Armoured Scout Car
Anyway. By the time the second volume of Selected Ambient Works appeared in 1994, James was a darling of both the dance and the traditional rock press, his rise abetted by his work's truculent resistance to classification. Was it ambient? Ambient techno? Ambient house? Intelligent techno? Intelligent trance?
Like many of his peers, he'd been inspired by Chicago house, and Detroit techno pioneers like Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, as well as their key influences, Kraftwerk. But he also seemed part of a broader, more experimental tradition which took in Brian Eno, Krautrock heroes Can and Neu!, Tangerine Dream and the avant-garde German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Moodwise, his music was schizophrenic: one moment unbearably beautiful, the next a near-unlistenable squall of hisses, thuds, vicious snare rushes and deal-with-this breakbeat meltdowns. Drukqs, his first new album for five years, cleaves closely to this blueprint. For every 'Omgyjya-Switch' (built out of samples of whipcracks) or 'Vordhosbn' (which has gothic fun with the cliches of UK garage), there's a 'Gwely Mernans' (a beatless rumble of reverb flecked with soft, sinister chimes). Much of Drukqs uses non-electronic instrumentation: specifically, a custom-built 'prepared' piano triggered by a laptop. The results, on tracks
like 'Jynweythek', resemble Javanese gamelan, but with psychedelic folk overtones. Then there are Erik Satie-esque tone poems for piano like 'Avril 14th' and 'Kesson Dalef' - spare but rich illustrations of the harmonic dexterity which led some classical music critics to hail him, rather absurdly, as 'the new Mozart'.
Next month he plays the Stockhausen Festival at the Barbican, at the
composers's personal invitation. Is this a betrayal of the techno
brotherhood? James doesn't think in those terms.
'If someone says I'm like Mozart, they obviously don't know much about classical music, 'cause he's the person I'm least similar to. But I'm totally into Satie, so if his voice hasn't come through I'd be surprised. He was right fucking inspirational, totally ahead of his time.'
Drukqs is an astonishing record, with an agenda similar to Bjorks
Vespertine: namely, to use the very latest digital technology to evoke a neverland of analogue warmth where human agency (and error, and memory, and love) still count for something; to open up machines and let the ghosts back in. As ever, genre is only of incidental interest to him: it's the sounds that matter. And before you ask: 'Some of the titles are Cornish, some are coded or rearranged words.'
Talking to James, you get the sense that however good Drukqs may be, it's basically a ragbag of stuff he's been working on since 1997, much of which would never have seen the light of day had fate not forced his hand.'Basically,' he admits, 'I had 180 unreleased tracks on an MP3 player which I left on a plane. That's why I released this album, 'cause all of those were on it. And I thought, "They're gonna fucking come on the internet sooner or later so I may as well get an album out of it first."'
Which begs the question: what about the other 140-odd tracks?
Answer: what about them? For James, you sense, it's making the music that matters. What happens to it then is neither here nor there.
'Most of my time is spent making music. When I was younger, I used to think there couldn't be anyone who spent as much time writing music as I do, as I love it so much. I've since realised there probably are. But it's really kicking off now, people making electronic music. It's taken ten years for people to catch up.'
Singularity of purpose would always mark James out. But by the mid-Nineties fellow travellers had emerged from their equipment-strewn bedrooms; Mike Paradinas ( mu - Ziq), Tom Jenkinson (Squarepusher), and Sean Booth and Rob Brown (Autechre). They too would have their work released on Warp, or on James's own label, Rephlex, which co-founded in 1992 with the DJ Grant Wilson-Claridge, and which is now a full-on concern. 'Staff work a four-day week, and there's a hash-smoking policy in the office.'
A BRIEF CONVERSATION ABOUT DRUGS
The Aphex Twin's favourite drugs, in order of preference: grass/hash,
mushrooms, coffee, tea, Ventolin, aspirin. At a festival last week, he licked a little too much liquid acid off his hand, then had to spend the night convincing his mate, who'd similarly indulged, that they were in a field, not standing on the edge of a hypodermic needle. He wasn't very successful. Have his tastes changed as he's got older?'Only in as much as I know what not to take when I'm going to see my parents.'
Profile-wise, the great leap forward for the Aphex Twin came in 1996, when Warp sent a track called 'Come To Daddy' to a selection of filmmakers. James still remembers the first time he saw Chris Cunningham's treatment. 'It was just so detailed, almost to the beat, in the way it pictorially represented the music.'
The resulting video, one of the most disturbing ever made, featured a bunch of kids wearing latex masks of James's gurning face running amok on a sink estate and terrorising an old woman. Everyone banned it. Within weeks, force of notoriety brought the Aphex Twin perilously close to the mainstream.
Six years on, James feels a little ambivalent about this video and it's follow-up, 1999's profanity-packed hip hop parody 'Windowlicker'.
'This isn't a criticism of Chris, ' he insists, 'because I love his work. But if I had a criticism it would be that it's wrong to tie the music down to a single visual image like that.' Ironically, though, from this point on the 'single visual image' most readily associated with the Aphex Twin would probably be James's own face, which made more and more frequent appearances in videos and promotional artwork (on the cover of the 'Windowlicker' single it's neatly Photoshopped on to the body of a buxom babe).
In real life, James isn't actually ugly. But that's not the point. The point is that he seems to delight in making himself look grotesque for the media.
He shrugs. 'When you see people in magazines, you can tell they're thinking, "OK, I know I'm not really good-looking, but they're going to make me good-looking in this photo." So making myself look ugly is just the opposite of that. It's just a reaction to that fantasy world that celebrities seem to live in.'
Richard James' childhood was 'very happy'. He and his two sisters were 'pretty much left to do what we wanted'. His parents had moved to Cornwall from Ontario, Canada, and his father worked capping the county's disused tin mines, and filling in the shafts to stop them collapsing. James amused himself tinkering with the innards of tape machines and 'preparing' the family piano - pulling it apart, then inserting objects in between the strings and the hammers. He was a keen footsoldier in the early Eighties home computer revolution. Actually, that's putting it mildly. He was, by the sounds of things, King Of All Geeks. 'When I was 11, I won 50 pounds in a competition for writing this programme that made sound on a ZX81. Basically, you couldn't make sound on a ZX81, but I played around with machine code and found some codes that retuned the TV signal so that it made this really weird noise when you turned the volume up.'
Soon after, he graduated to making music on his ZX Spectrum using a
primitive sampler. He still loves Spectrums, particularly the sound games make while they're loading. 'People who had them must have spent hours listening to that. It's more extreme than any extreme noise music. In time you got to know the sound really well: "Oooh, good bit coming up here..." It was always the best, sonically, whent it tried to load a picture. It would be "Iryurrrrrrrrrrrrrghh!" I always wanted to make my music sound like a game. A danceable version of a Spectrum game. I'm almost there, I think.' You sense his borderline-Asperger's brand of cleverness isolated him as a child. He was disruptive, bored - disruptive because bored.
'Once, when I was 13, my mum and dad sent me to a psychologist because I got into loads of trouble at school. I was well into setting fire to things and got done by the police loads. But I really enjoyed it. The bloke tried to weaken me and make me cry, which he almost did but didn't quite manage. I remained cocky throughout the experience.'
Are you still in touch with your old school friends?
'My three best friends now were my best friends when I was 16. Two of them have got laptops and make music, which I didn't like at frist, but I've got used to it. They're freaked about playing stuff to me, which is weird 'cause I know the relationship I've got with them and I'm not going to crucify someone over a track. But they think I'm going to be, like, "What the fuck's that? Twat, wasting my time!"'
James's music is profoundly nostalgic, in the distressing sense that it evokes lost, even false, memories. To this end, he's fond of using samples of children talking (um, 'Children Talking' on the AFX album Hangable Auto Bulb) or his parents. An answerphone message of Mr and Mrs Twin singing 'Happy Birthday' to him ('Happy birthday, my little son!' ) kicks off 'Lornaderek' on Drukqs.
Would you say you're obsessed with childhood?
'Probably. I think the reason the internet's such a nice gift for people around our age is that it gives you the chance to get back a lot of those childhood things you thought you'd lost. Whereas people growing up now will be used to the fact that they can get anything they want. If it's to do with TV, you can pretty much get anything because so many people experienced it. Though that said, I've been having real trouble finding a sample of Mike Read shouting Runabout!'
When you hear themes from old kids' TV shows now, what strikes you is how unsuitably terrifying they are. Picture Box, for instance. A friend once remarked that this otherworldly dirge sounded 'like corpses weeping'.'I love the Picture Box music!' enthuses the man who once performed a set squeezed inside a wendy house. 'I've got it on my laptop.'
This is no great surprise. When Chris Morris used the Aphex Twin on the soundtrack to Jam, his graveyard-slot trawl through the dark stuff, it seemed like the perfect marriage of music and images. James was 'incredibly flattered'. Is Morris a friend?
'I've only met him once, round a friend's house, and he tried to kiss me, which was a bit scary. I wasn't expecting it at all! I'm a massive fan. I think that what he's doing is 100 per cent spot-on. I wish he would direct an episode of EastEnders. That would be so lush! I watched the paedophile Brass Eye with some mates, just thinking, "This is so extreme. Where will it end? With hime going to jail? Getting lynched?"'
Would you be offended if someone said your music sounded like cutlery being thrown down the stairs?
'Not at all. Cutlery being thrown down the stairs is sonically really
complex and interesting. If you slowed it down, it would sound like pealing bells.'
So you have actually tried it?
'I've sampled cutlery, yeah.'
Whats the strangest sound you've ever sampled?
'My mate shitting when he had diarrhoea. That was horrible. It was really wet. When you play it to people, they know what it is straight away.'
THE LOVE THAT DARE NOT SPEAK ITS NAME
<Me: I bet you're a closet fan of diminutive French synth clown Jean-Michel Jarre. It goes with dismantling computers when you were 11.
RDJ: (Laughs) He is so naff. I heard he's a fan of my music, though. I was going to offer to remix him if he agrees to let me use all that lush equipment he's got.
Me: I knew it!
RDJ: Actually, only the other day I emailed Sean from Autechre a 20-second chunk of 'Equinoxe VI' [from 1978's Equinoxe album]. The end bit. I was, like, 'Check out these spicy pitch bends'! (Looks suddenly mortified) Um...
Making electronic music is currently easier than it's ever been. All you need is a laptop. Even rock bands are going portable now. Radiohead wrote a lot of Kid A and Amnesiac on laptops. Similarities to your stuff were noted. 'I heard a bit of Kid A in the car coming back from somewhere,' says the man who, commissioned by Virgin Altantic to write some fluffy ad music, sent them the sonic equivalent of the bombing of Dresden. 'I didn't think much of
it. I thought it sounded a bit cheesy.' It's time to go. On our way out of the shopping centre we walk slowly, the better to absorb it's Logan's Run-gone-to-seed air of retro-futurist melancholy. How could it not have known when it was being built how shit it would turn out to be?
I head for the mural-bedecked underpass, James goes off to visit his
girlfriend, who's pregnant with their child. Or as he puts it: 'We've been dabbling in a bit of genetic modification. Should have some results sometime soon.'
Come to daddy, indeed.
Text John O'Connell, The Face Magazine October Issue 2001
Transcribed by Mela