Still hacking after all these years

He's one of the most brilliant (and bizarre) electronic music makers on the planet. But how in the world does Richard "Aphex Twin" James find time to record, tour, and build his own instruments? Filter boxes, drum machines, custom keyboard modifications, and even a sampler—there isn't much he hasn't tried.

"When it worked," he said of the latter in May 1994, "I reckon it pissed on just about any manufactured sampler." And nearly three years later, we're happy to report he hasn't changed a bit. Richard is still a tinkering maniac, but now his focus has shifted from hardware to software. "I've got three Macs," he tells us, "two laptops and a PowerPC. I use all the sequencers on the market, but at the moment I've been solely using my own program to create new algorithms." Not with Opcode's Max. He's been building the algorithms from scratch. "It's like using a programming language—a bit like Pascal. I've been doing it for about three months, so it's all quite primitive, but it's looking really interesting. This language—you can bring in your own samples and mess around with them. And it's got DSP functions you can't get anywhere else, but you have to program it in. There're no fancy sliders, although they're easy to construct. I've made loads of graphical interfaces for things.

"The algorithm I just finished," he continues, "is a percussion thing that lets you swap and change the sounds. It does bass as well, but it's really acidy. You can leave it on for, like, an hour, and it really comes up with some mad shit. I made it learn to gradually change [the music] over time." While he doesn't plan to market his software, he has been showing it off at recent gigs. "I just finished a tour, and I used it for one of the tracks. It was pretty interesting watching people dance to my algorithm." His touring rig consists of, get this, "One laptop computer, a little mixer, and an effects unit. But soon I'll be eradicating the mixer and effects. So basically it'll be one computer. It does everything I did before with live samples and sequences. I've put every element down on a digital track [in Digidesign's Pro Tools], so I can mix between tracks."

Speaking of Pro Tools, "It's wicked," he enthuses. "You don't notice it's there, which is what you want with computers. It doesn't get in your way." While he's purchased most of the third-party plug-ins for it, Richard, true to his tinkering image, has also created one from scratch. "Within about two weeks I came up with one with this programming language I've been using. It's really, really cool. You can loop between sections, and loop individual tracks the same way you could with a sequencer. And I've got this thing on there so you can re-synthesize each track, change its pitch..."

Talking to Richard about his homemade software almost derailed us from the main purpose of the interview: to discuss his new self-titled album on Sire. Richard D. James is like nothing we've heard before, and frankly, we're still not sure whether we love it or loathe it. It's a bizarre 15-song blend of feeble synth sounds and jagged jungle loops. "Most of the album was done on my Mac, basically. Even the keyboard sounds were all pretty much computer-generated. Native audio." And when Richard sings, the sound gets even weirder. Give "Milkman" a spin, for example. "That was modulated on the computer," he says of the twisted vocal track. Richard's drum programming is particularly impressive—rife with triplets and unpredictable stops and starts. "I think the main influence is Luke from Wagon Christ. He really inspired me to get into it more. I used to do lots of crazy triplets and stuff at a slower pace, but he really got me into doing it at a faster pace. He gave me the spark to do it faster, but now I'm trying to take it to all extremes, basically." Richard's jungle influence comes from "any of the drum 'n' bass and breakbeat artists. It's nothing new to me. I've been into breakbeat culture ever since it started through hip-hop, hardcore, and jungle. So I've always been into nicking other things, recycling 'em, basically mashing 'em up and making something different. I just like to mash things up a bit more than most people, that's all."

One of his favourite mashing tools is Steinberg's ReCycle. "Yeah, it's quite a wicked program. The most useful thing about it is it creates a bank on your sampler, and gives it loads of sample names. And that saves you an hour, at least. You can cut something up into, like, 90 samples, and transfer it over SCSI in a minute. That would take two hours normally." And not just for breakbeats, Richard uses ReCycle for melodic material as well. "I might play a violin or a trumpet scale into Pro Tools—every note I can think of—and then bang it into ReCycle, chop it up into little bits, bang it into the sampler, and you've got a complete bank of sounds in your sampler in about five minutes."

Richard and his laptop are currently on tour in the UK, but he hopes to circle the States sometime later this year. "This is the next step for me," he says of his strange new sound. "It's like the first step for a much bigger step that I hope to take later on."

Written by:Greg Rule, April 1997, Keyboard Magazine