Future Sounds

Aphex Twin and Luke Vibert make music the old-fashioned way--but with computers instead of guitars.

Like the Internet, electronic music is often spoken of in futuristic terms, as if the mere fact that technology is involved implies a steely postmodernism. Yet to Richard D. James and Luke Vibert, two young men raised in England's southwestern Cornwall region, computers aren't so much passageways to the new millennium as convenient instruments with which to express themselves musically.
James, who records mostly as Aphex Twin, and Vibert, who goes by his own name as well as Wagon Christ and Plug, often create songs that could be described as organic-sounding if it weren't for the absence of traditional instrumentation.

"It's futuristic in so much as I try to do something new," James says of his music from a tour stop in Toronto. "I do use computers all the time, so I suppose it's a normal connection to make."

Listeners might call the songs on the latest Aphex Twin release, Richard D. James (Sire), something beyond contemporary. The shifting sonic textures, clipped breakbeats and synthesized blips form an ambient techno at times so coldly mechanical that it could be the soundtrack to a science-fiction film. But James isn't completely estranged from traditional
songwriting. His "Girl/Boy Song," written for his girlfriend at the time, is as compelling as non-vocal music gets, with synthesized strings, a skittering beat and low-end bass sounds enfolding into a graceful and fluid melody. James says he's taken up singing as well, and that most of the tracks on his forthcoming Come to Daddy EP feature vocals.

James' evolution has been surprisingly natural, nearly devoid of contact with other musicians and even music itself. He began experimenting with electronic sounds in Cornwall, where he went on to DJ and perform in small clubs before moving to London in the early '90s. With several acclaimed albums under his belt, including the landmark Selected Ambient Works '85-'92, James became a sought-after remix artist as well. He says he owes it all to his rural upbringing.

"I don't reckon I'd be doing what I'm doing unless I'd grown up in the country," he says. "I love the city now that I'm really busy, but I wouldn't have liked to grow up in the city; it would have been too hectic. Growing up in the country was wicked for me. You're left to your own devices, basically. You have to make your own entertainment."

Another person who benefited from James' isolation was Vibert, raised five miles from the man who would become Aphex Twin. "I met him just before he released his first record, when he was DJing in a Cornwall dance club," Vibert says. "That was the first time I ever heard techno-type music, because before that I was into live music, or just generally pop. I was into Prince, and a bit of hip-hop and punk."

Vibert followed James first to the electronic genre, then to London, then to international recognition. Though he's playing a low-key role on the current Aphex Twin tour, spinning records between acts, Vibert has many people in the record industry thinking he's a futuristic commodity. He's now signed to three different labels under three names--for contractual reasons--and leaning in divergent stylistic directions: As Plug, he will soon release two drum 'n' bass collections on Nothing/Interscope; as Wagon Christ, his next ambient record is due out soon on Virgin; and as Luke Vibert, he's releasing Big Soup, an album of electronic dance music composed primarily from samples, on Mo' Wax.

If electronic music does share a definitive trait with the Internet, it's the information avalanche that has resulted from technological developments. Vibert is living proof. He has agreed to do dozens of remixes, has turned some down, and works at a feverish pace. The 25-year-old musician seems confused by it all.

Asked how his approach to his own material differs from remixing other artists' songs, Vibert tries to explain: "When I'm doing my own stuff, I have to build it all up from nothing, and I never know how it's going to go. When it's a remix, you've got loads of stuff to use, so you immediately have a lot more to work from. I sometimes get into remixes more than my own stuff because the hardest bit for me is the first part of ma king tracks and it could be anything. I never think, 'Oh, I really want to do a drum 'n' bass track today,' I always just feel like making music generally. I never know what's going to come out. But then that's fun, too, because I'm never sure what's going to happen."

Written by: Richard Martin
Source: Willamette Week
Date: Aug 1997