Eponymous Rex ArticleRichard D. James has seen the future of computers and it's, well, touchy-feely. "Not just a keyboard and a mouse," says the musician best known as Aphex Twin, pausing to visualize the shape of digital music to come, "some sort of wicked interface you can stretch and squeeze and blow into."
The prediction seems fitting for someone who, under various pseudonyms, has stretched and squeezed electronic music, and as a result blown the minds of music fans. The statement also reflects the playfulness of James' music—from the synthetic lullabies of his ambient work, to the video-game vitriol of his aggro techno tracks, to the improvisatory nature of his most recent jungle releases.
"I would be happy with my first set-up for the rest of my life," James adds, lest he be mistaken for a technology fetishist. "I could be quite happy working with, like, about four bits of my favorite equipment forever, 'cause it's got infinite possibilities."
Infinite possibilities. James' statement characterizes his generation of digital music-makers. Aphex Twin and his contemporaries, such as Luke Vibert, Alec Empire, Autechre and the Chemical Brothers, share the incorrigible presumption that dance music—long the preserve of self-conscious vapidity, proud of its scant shelf life—represents the very future of music. The claim would be utterly dismissible, were it not buttressed by the breadth of electronic musical activity these days. There is so much electronic music (most of it, like James', shunning vocals) that a taxonomy has arisen to track its evolution: ambient, techno, trip-hop, drum'n'bass, jungle.
James, however, doesn't believe that infinite possibilities necessitate infinite brands. After six years recording under so many pseudonyms (AFX, Caustic Window, Polygon Window among them) that he claims to have lost count, he has outed himself. Aphex Twin's new album is titled, simply, Richard D. James Album.
"I used to make up names when I used to catalog my stuff," says James of his proclivity for inventing identities. "They existed before I got into the music business." So, to take a pop-psychoanalytic approach, what were his childhood nicknames? "Can't remember any of them," he says. "I got a feeling I had loads when I was in primary school, 'cause I had red hair; you know, like Duracell. That was one of them, anyhow." Once again, Freud leads to a dead end, or maybe not: Branded from youth as a child of technology ("the copper-top"), James later adopted a trademark (from Aphex Systems, manufacturer of recording-studio equipment) as his public face, as his "twin."
"It worked quite nicely when I got into the music business," says James of his multiple identities, "'cause I just gave different names to different record companies. I thought it was quite a good idea at first, but now I really don't like it. I want it to be all back together again; I want to go out to a club and listen to all different types, not just one specialist type of jungle. I think having different names breaks it up; so that's why I'm sticking to two again."
The two names are Aphex Twin and AFX. Aphex is signed to Warp Records in the U.K., licensed by Sire Records in the U.S. (Richard D. James Album, in fact, combines two British releases from late 1996, an eight-cut full-length called Richard D. James and a seven-cut EP called Girl/Boy.) AFX records primarily for Rephlex Records, a small label that James co-owns with a friend from his native Cornwall, six hours south of current digs in London.
Richard D. James Album is, quite simply, the strongest art-pop record to appear since Laurie Anderson's Mr. Heartbreak. Gone, for now, is the somnolent gauze of his Selected Ambient Works collections and the jack-hammer pace of much of his Analogue Bubblebath series. In their place are a series of lovely tunes atop a decisive, rhythmically fascinating girding of rapid-fire, turn-on-a-dime percussion. There's even a hint of Anderson's cut-up techniques on a track called "To Cure a Weakling Child," which splices together a childlike speaking voice. Each word is tuned until a melody presents itself, at which point the words begin to be replaced, casually, with non-vocal tones. "That's my voice," says James, "going through my computer and come out the other end."
That's also his voice on a song titled "Milkman," which comes as close to a vocal track as the exceptionally private James has yet to muster. "I wish the milkman would deliver my milk," he intones sleepily, "in the morning," which he manages to rhyme with "yawning" before a clatter of jungle drums figure the commotion of the morning commute outside his breakfast-nook window.
Throughout Richard D. James, electronic percussion darts among lyrical fare, seemingly antithetical to the music's simple beauty. The magic of James' compositions, however, is how the drums suggest the momentum, the logic, of his melodies. It's as if one could glimpse the bones of a soaring bird, the efficiency of its intricate skeletal machinery manifest in the elegance of flight. And all of it he produces on a small battery of electronic equipment in his bedroom, aside from the odd string sample, which he scrapes out on two of his most recent acquisitions, a cello and a violin.
"It's quite a good way of writing tunes," says James of his assemblage style. "Sometimes I just hit the keyboard in a way I'd like the rhythm of the tracks to sound. Then I'll spend four hours moving all the notes where I want them to go." All in the pursuit of infinite possibility.
Written by: Marc Widenbaum, March 1997, The Pulse Magazine