You don't have to be mad to work here......but it helps!
Far from ambient, the new Aphex Twin single, "Ventolin." Running through the entire track is a high pitched, violent, ear-splitting chalk-on-blackboard screech that electronic experimentalist Richard D. James spent some time perfecting in his home studio with his much discussed array of self-made instruments.
He talks about that sound with pride: "I was trying to make it sound like wheezing. Like when you get asthma. Just the sound it makes... Without sampling myself."
Richard has been an asthma sufferer since the age of eight and had some pretty scary attacks as a child: "Very severe. Very aggro." He carries a Ventolin inhaler with him wherever he goes and thinks the high levels of radioactive radon in his native Cornwall might have caused his illness.
But it's typical of Richard's uniquely self-absorbed worldview that when you talk about this with him, the thing that should interest him most about his illness is not the pollution that causes it, or his three million fellow asthma sufferers, or it's medical ramifications, but the noise that asthma makes.
"I did it just out of interest," he says, baldly. "To see if I could get the sound. Or the same sort of feeling...kind of thing. That's it, really..."
In the world of electronic music, no one has had more praise heaped on them in recent years than Richard James, the man behind Aphex Twin, Polygon Window, Caustic Window, The Dice Man, Soit-P.P. and a handful of other projects whose works appear on over half a dozen labels. Critics like David Toop and Simon Reynlods, prophets of the avant-garde, lavish praise on his ability to create rich, ever-mutating new soundscapes, unfettered by the conventions of techno. In the four and a half years since Analogue Bubblebath was released, the rollercoaster of critical consensus falling in behind this young Cornishman has often exploded into wild hyperbole. James was an "infant prodigy," he is now "the new Mozart." And he's behaving like it, too. In the close-knit and trainspotter-infested techno subculture, "pushing boundaries" tends to mean a slight cut in the beats per minute, or perhaps daring to put a real instrument on your latest hammer-drill 12. Not so for the Twin. In recent months, James has written and recorded a full orchestral piece with systems music pioneer Philip Glass in New York. Aphex DJ sets have grown increasingly, shall we say, experimental—at Blast First Records' showcase Disobey in New York, his set consisted of dropping the needle onto a 12-inch sized piece of sandpaper and leaving it on for ten minutes. The resultant cacophony meant that there were few people left to witness his encore, which involved a microphone and a food mixer, and fewer still to see James toss the Moulinex off his podium and brain one of the audience (another fan made off with the mixer as a trophy).
More peculiar still, he's dabbled in swinging London's easy listening scene. His Rephlex label is about to release the debut single by The Gentle People, which is about as far from "Digeridoo" as it's possible to get. He was even rumoured to be planning his own easy listening record, under the soubriquet The Dick James Sound.
Richard James, what is going on?
The techno visionary with the long ginger beard and centre parting, drinking tea in a Soho cafe, has a matter-of-fact view of life that seems curiously at odds with his otherworldly music.
"How did I react when people said I was like Mozart?" he ponders, nervously avoiding direct eye contact. "Um. I didn't know what music he made...so I didn't react to it at all. I've heard some of the stuff he's done now. It's pretty wicked."
The parents of the electro-avant-gardist who reckons Mozart is "pretty wicked" met while working in a mental hospital. His father, Richard claims, used to dole out the LSD prescribed to patients. Sometimes, at the encouragement of the staff nurse, they used to take it themselves. His father moved to Cornwall to work as a miner in the county's doomed tin mines. After they closed in the 1980s, he worked capping old mines, filling shafts that were in danger of collapsing.
As Richard's long-time friend Grant Wilson-Claridge, who also lived in Cornwall, says, with the exception of playing in the sea, there isn't much to do there. The Aphex Twin experiments in sound started as a way of entertaining himself. The younger of his two sisters was into The Jesus and Mary Chain, and had boyfriends who played in indie bands. Richard never had much time for guitar rock. "I thought some of that stuff was quite good but I didn't really like it." Richard's favourite pastime was playing with sound, taping and editing on reel to reels, playing them backwards, and changing speeds. The family had a piano that he recorded too, messing up the strings and hammers to make different noises. It drove his mother up the wall. By his teenage years, he was playing with a cheap synthesizer, a Sinclair Spectrum computer and a £50 sampler. The fact that his music ended up on tapes, he claims, was a mere by-product of making it. It didn't occur to him to send them to record labels.
Like most youths in Cornwall, he hung out on the beach with the surfers, took drugs and got bored by the lack of nightlife. The mum of one of his childhood friends says: "Richard was a bit of a handful to his mother." One time, messing about on the beach, the undertow dragged him out from a freak wave. His friends walked on up the beach, unaware that Richard was drowning. For about five minutes he struggled against the tow, convinced he was about to die, knowing that the only way to get back in would be to surf on a wave. Just as he was ready to give up, another wave washed him back onto the beach.
"I've been close to death about a hundred times," he says. "I almost drowned a few times and I've had more than 15 serious car crashes." Not that he takes anything as mystical as an after-life seriously. "It's nice to speculate about it, but I'm just too old-fashioned."
Grant, now Richard's partner in the Rephlex label, first came across Richard at a tiny club called The Bowgie in the surfer village of Cranock, near Newquay, where he was a DJ, playing hip hop records and slipping on occasional strange sounding tapes of his own.
In the late 1980s, house records were rare as gold dust in Cornwall. Starved of music, Richard's friends had long been taping his strange creations to play in their cars. Richard gave Grant a tape he'd put together: "I put the tape on in my car and the first track was all these really mental frequencies.
"I thought, My God, no way," remembers Grant. But that first track, typically, was Richard's strategy to disorientate the listener. Listening to other tracks which included The Dice Man's "Polygon Window," that later cropped up on Warp's Artificial Intelligence collection, Grant joined the growing number of people who collected Richard's tapes and urged him to send them to record companies.
"I wasn't really into it," recalls Richard vaguely, "but some of my friends wanted me to do it."
Grant and Richard started to set up their own record label, Rephlex, but were pre-empted when another friend, Tom Middleton, started recording a few tracks with Richard. Middleton was more ambitious. He secured a deal with the tiny Mighty Force label for a track, "Analogue Bubblebath," which was finally released in the September of 1991.
Relations between Tom and Richard have cooled since those days. Though Tom—now with Global Communication—has referred to himself as the "twin" in Aphex Twin, Richard underplays all that. Grant points out loyally that the Aphex name was around before they recorded together. Typically, when Tom started looking for a deal, Richard maintained his usual spacey detachment. Amusingly, the main thing that excited him about having a single out was that he'd have his music on vinyl, so he could scratch with it. "Apart from that, it just seemed a load of hassle, really." When it came out, he drove two hours to pick up his own copy. These days his records arrive by courier. "I still get excited, but not very much. It's annoying, the way you get used to things..."
If social doomsayers have predicted that the new technology would have far reaching consequences, then James is the sort of boy we've been warned about—a product of his age, dedicated to his computer. Even Grant complains that he rarely achieves much communication with him. "I'd love to be in touch more. I'm supposed to be his best mate and business partner, but he's always making music. He's kind of...very into sound."
Richard's patterns of consumption are very 21st century too. He loves films, but can't concentrate on books. He tried to read Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time but discovered it was taking him about two hours to recover from each paragraph. Instead he loves computer games and paintball, and admits to being intensely competitive. He loves to make music, but hasn't time to listen to it, except when he's in his car. The music he makes is consistently devoid of literal meaning. Famously, titles like "Xylem Tube," "Acrid Avid Jam Shred" and "Quoth" sound like mock-scientific messages from Hobbit-land, but they are deliberately opaque. It's no coincidence that the Cornish noise boy has chosen a genre that is entirely wordless.
"I don't really like words in music. It's too restricting... I don't like words in general because they mean something. Whereas electronic stuff—because it's so abstract and doesn't have any meaning...you can interpret it in so many ways."
Likewise he prefers a hermetic environment to work in. It has never been his ambition to be part of a band. His work is almost invariably produced alone. "It's uncomfortable when you're dealing with other people. If they do something for you that you don't like, you have to say you don't like it, and then you get upset... Oh, I can't be fucked with all that."
Instead of the inspiration of collaborators, he turns elsewhere. Growing up in hippie Cornwall, drugs were part of local life. One of his earliest memories is the "funny smell" in the house of one of his mum's friends. Sometimes he finds drugs come in handy when writing.
"I find it quite interesting, the way they make things turn out. It's like using a different sequencer. Drugs just make things sound different."
Likewise, there are his famous experiments with "lucid dreaming," deliberately sleeping intermittently to induce dreams that provide the inspiration for new tracks. He still uses this method for about one in every six or seven tracks. Those are most often the ambient ones.
"I never think of rhythms in my sleep," he says, slightly puzzled by this. "I don't know why."
Moving to London, he spent a year at Kingston Poly, studying electronics. More interested in making music back in his hall of residence than going to lectures, he jacked in the course after a year.
"It was doing my head in," he says. "I wanted to get out and make music."
By the time he left, his musical career was already taking off. His latest album is this month's ...I Care Because You Do, another intense journey through Richard James' strange and brilliant, self-subverting, self-created world; proof once again that James owes less to techno than to the funny sounds in his own head.
A major US deal has recently raised his profile across the water. He plans to build some new instruments soon—though this time he's thinking of hiring "some geek" to help him. And he remains reluctant to look too deeply into what he's up to, in case the whole project turns to dust. When I ask him why he's grown the pixie-like beard that looks so weird on his 23-year old face, he says, "No reason. I can't be bothered to shave, basically. Ginger pubes come out of my face. Shit happens."
Written by: William Shaw, May 1995, Select