Lost in space

Bleak moments number one: Shopping mall, located in an antiseptic zone of North America. Grey warriors mall-walk and lunch. For their entertainment, Orbital put aside tunes such as "Planet of the Shapes" or "Halcyon + On + On" and sound check with mall-muzak. Warm moments abound until the Aphex Twin announces the presence of a bomb in the toilet. Pleasant mood evaporates.

Bleak moments number two: Front entrance to supermarket, located in septic zone of north London. A man wearing purple suede Robot shoes plays melancholy soprano saxophone, seated on a newspaper to protect his trousers from the wet pavement. Rain falls incessantly. An old woman walks past the saxophonist. "They make more fuckin' money than we do," she spits. A heavy bull terrier tied to railings pulls at its harness. "Bark, bark, bark," it goes. "Bark, bark, bark," go the mongrel beggar dogs.

After 30 minutes of the second scenario, I give up. Richard "Aphex Twin" James and I had arranged to shop together, during which activity we could discuss food, beer, house cleaning, packaging, bar codes, electronic shopping trolleys, electronic music and his new album, a triple set entitled Selected Ambient Works Volume II. He is not here. He forgot.

Two days later, I have the opportunity to think about revenge. The scene has moved to a photographic studio in Chelsea. Richard is leafing through photocopies of a security and surveillance catalogue sent to him by his friend Robin, producer of the two "Scanner" albums of intercepted telephone calls released on CD in the wake of Squidgygate. Richard has a scanner himself. He drags it out of a bag full of DAT-MEN, Gameboys and other boy's toys. "This is the best one in the world," he says proudly. Dismissing a few inserted photographs of blowjobs (examples of the sick mind of Robin, apparently), Richard shows a keen interest in infrared binoculars, a miniature camera disguised as a Marlboro pack and an anti stab vest.

"Useful," I say.

"Fuckin' is, where I live," Richard says. He is referring to Stoke Newington, in northeast London. For 15 minutes we discuss his armoured car, currently parked in a neighbour's front garden in Cornwall where it attracts nostalgic attention from passing war veterans. My father drove a similar vehicle during World War II and would still drive one if he could. Richard has every intention of taking his wheeled folly out on the road, although there are some hurdles to overcome. First, he must pass his driving test. We can only imagine the reaction at the test centre. Second, although an armoured car can demolish a house, given the correct speed and line of attack, the amount of road that can be seen when the top is closed can be compared with watching a Cinemascope film on a wristwatch TV. A navigator has to look out of the turret and kick the driver whenever turns are necessary. Not content with the prospects of mayhem that this arrangement suggests (even without stimulants in the blood), Richard is hoping to buy some rocket launchers and flares, perhaps in lieu of joining the RAC. "I'm not an army freak or anything," he says.

Two years ago, I interviewed Richard over the telephone. Still living in Kingston Polytechnic's halls of residence, he admitted that his electronics studies were already slipping away as a career in the techno business took precedence. He had released Analogue Bubblebath 1, a conversation between simple breathy chords and a selection of rich squelches; and the follow-up, "Digeridoo," had been snapped up on white label for being fastest and maddest, prior to an official release on R&S. The legend was this: Aphex Twin was a mad inventor from Cornwall who built his own synthesisers. Surfing on sine waves, he would lead a pack of young boffins out of the computer screen glow of their bedrooms, into the public domain of clubs, shops, and charts, then back in and out of more bedrooms in a feedback loop of infinite dimensions.

So far, all true. "One of my hobbies is looking into old analogue synthesisers," he told me then. His enthusiasm for the music of other people was restricted to acid, hard techno and experimental ambient from impeccably underground sources: Underground Resistance, Jack Frost and the Circle Jerks, the New Composers of Leningrad. "I just like music that sounds evil or eerie," he said. His biggest problem in life was the challenge of moving his instruments to clubs. "They haven't got cases," he explained "They're just circuits. If I took them out at the moment they'd all bust up."

At that stage, he had not yet discovered that his favourite adjective was "fuckin'" and his favourite noun was "shit." If omitted from any quote that follows, these words may be inserted at random. Thank you.

Fast forward to January 1994. We adjourn to a King's Road outpost of Dome, where we drink coffee and I eat a cinnamon bagel. Despite the cold, a fan sweeps the air above us, and when I listen back to the tapes two days later I hear periodic rumbles of distortion as this air is blown over my microphone. "If you're into wild stuff, it sounds better if it's dirty," Richard said back in 1992. That could stretch into an entire philosophy of life, but let's focus on music for the moment. Working under a variety of label-hopping pseudonyms, The Dice Man, Polygon Window, Aphex Twin, he has made a virtue of distortion. Not since the days of Throbbing Gristle or the earliest, crudest Chicago house tracks of Farley Funkin Keith and Sleezy D, has tape overload been redeemed so thoroughly or celebrated so fruitfully.

With their visceral twitter, clubbing percussion and stone age moans, tracks such as "73-Yips," "Iketa," "Phloam" and "Flap Head" sounded like reasonably conventional dance tracks that had been sabotaged in the cutting room by a driller killer. That particular Aphex Twin is not present on the new Warp triple LP. A serene, disembodied collection, Selected Ambient Works Volume II is the aural equivalent to a photo album filled with gorgeous Polaroids.

Too many current ambient tracks lack the content to bear repeated listening, but I can imagine returning to these 25 (what are they? crepuscular vignettes?) at any time and in any environment: sun, darkness, dawn, twilight, the bath, the car, in the sea, flying, loud, soft, to be sad or to feel good, alone or with people, in my body or out of it. For the record company. Richard has compared them with "standing in a power station on acid." For the record, they sound mighty close to Brian Eno's "Another Green World" period, but the power station analogy is apt.

"Power stations are wicked," Richard says "If you just stand in the middle of a really massive one, you get a really weird presence and you've got that hum. You just feel electricity around you. That's totally dreamlike for me. It's just like a right strange dimension."

Broaching this subject of dreams, he becomes animated and talks a long streak. "This album is really specific," he says, "because 70 percent of it is done from lucid dreaming... To have lucid dreams is to be conscious of being in a dream state, even to be capable of directing the action while still in a dream. I've been able to do it since I was little," Richard explains. "I taught myself how to do it and it's my most precious thing. Through the years, I've done everything that you can do, including talking and shagging with anyone you feel that takes your fancy. The only thing I haven't done is tried to kill myself. That's a bit shady. You probably wouldn't wake up, and you wouldn't know if it had worked, anyway. Or maybe you would.

"I often throw myself off skyscrapers or cliffs and zoom off right at the last minute That's quite good fun. It's well realistic. Eating food is quite smart. Like tasting food. Smells as well. I make foods up and sometimes they don't taste of anything—like they taste of some weird mish-mash of other things."

So this contributes handsomely to the Aphex Twin myth of the mad inventor, rarely sleeping, lost in boyish obsessions with combat, voyeurism and the internal workings of non-sentient, scientifically explicable machines. How appealing to a new generation of teenage mutant phobic white (game)boy screenies. But that's just revenge for being made to stand outside in the rain.

Judged in a more positive light, the Aphex Twin is staying true to his intuitive sense of the world. This is a world in which words and writing are overshadowed by more fluid, ambiguous media. His reason for playing live, which he no longer relishes, is to hear his music loud. Sound-checking, he locates the resonant frequencies of the room in order to ripple floors with sub-bass and shatter glass with high pitches. The reason for not naming the new tracks is related to his synaesthetic ability. Synaesthesia is another word for hearing colours or seeing sounds. Whenever he hears music he enjoys, he sees one of his least favourite colours, which is yellow. Rather than fix music with words (even invented nouns or numbers), he is searching for a way to identify compositions with colour.

"About a year and a half ago," he says, "I badly wanted to dream tracks. Like imagine I'm in the studio and write a track in my sleep, wake up and then write it in the real world with real instruments. I couldn't do it at first. The main problem was just remembering it. Melodies were easy to remember. I'd go to sleep in my studio. I'd go to sleep for ten minutes and write three tracks - only small segments, not l00 percent finished tracks. I'd wake up and I'd only been asleep for ten minutes. That's quite mental.

"I vary the way I do it, dreaming either I'm in my studio, entirely the way it is, or all kinds of variations. The hardest thing is getting the sounds the same. It's never the same. It doesn't really come close to it. When you have a nightmare or a weird dream, you wake up and tell someone about it and it sounds really shit. It's the same for sounds, roughly. When I imagine sounds, they are in dream form. As you get better at doing it, you can get closer and closer to the actual sounds. But that's only 70 percent of it."

The remaining 30 percent is divided up between hard work, a talent for organising sounds and an understanding of the software and hardware. Before he leaves to add up his VAT receipts, Richard explains his fondness for those semi-dysfunctional friends such as -ziq, who are currently recording for the Aphex Twin's Rephlex label. "They've all got these strange personalities you've never seen in the pop stardom world," he says. "People like me, bedroom bores, coming into the public eye. That's quite amusing."

He admits to only two ambitions in life: "One was never to get a job and the other was to make music before I dropped. I'm sort of doing that at the moment. In my life I con myself into doing other things. I'm playing Paint Ball, say, which I really like playing, and at the climax of Paint Ball when I'm having the most fun, if you put the whole thing in freeze-frame and say, 'Hang on, wouldn't you rather be in your studio making tracks?' the answer's always going to be 'Yes.' Deep down, I know that I'd always want to be in my studio, like 24 hours a day, every day. I don' t do that, because my friends wouldn't let me. They'd come and drag me out. The other reason is, I don't think it's healthy. I want to do other things. I think I do, anyway."

You're trying to be a more balanced person, I suggest.

"Yes," he answers, "but I don't really want to be. I just do it because I think it's the thing to do".

Written by: David Toop, March 1994, The Face