This does not computeBack in the summer of 1994, when Richard James was still the poster boy for ambient music, he played a night at New York's Knitting Factory club as Aphex Twin. Instead of the ominous string swells found on Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II, the audience got a performance from James that underscored the musician's contradictory persona.
First, James dropped a tone arm on a sheet of sandpaper, sending an ear-shattering roar of scratchy distortion through the shocked crowd. Next, he stuck a microphone inside a blender and flipped the power switch. Was he a crackpot who enjoyed having a laugh at an audience's expense, or an inspired genius in the mold of John Cage and Brian Eno? The memory of that evening still gets a chuckle out of James.
"It stared off at a club called Disobey, around the corner from where I live," says James, sipping a Coke at a dilapidated pub in north London. "I'd go down there to see all the weird and wonderful acts they'd have on. They asked me to DJ, but since I couldn't really play any records, I just played some sandpaper. Thought that would be a good laugh.
"[Disobey] really got into it and invited me to go to America to do it again. It was only supposed to be a one-off, but they wanted to pay me and take my friends, so I did it. I just mixed some sandpaper together for a bit and then played a food mixer and threw it at someone. I hit the bloke on the head, and I thought I would get sued for that, but he wanted me to sign it afterward. He said, 'I will keep this food mixer forever.'"
Despite such audience-baiting tactics from James, Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II bombed in the US, selling so poorly that an internal memo circulated at James' label, Sire, stating that all ambient projects were forthwith canceled. But for an artist such as James, who has no interest in pleasing the public, poor sales didn't damage his confidence as a composer/inventor/theorist. James followed his US debut with ...I Care Because You Do, the sarcastic title matched by a leering self-portrait on the cover. On the album, James took his modified collection of keyboards, drum machines and studio gear to new levels of absurdity and beauty. He created a unique, peculiar soundscape of crippled beats and melancholic hooks.
Taciturn during interviews and confusing in concert, James earned a reputation as a mad genius. His reputation spread, just as stories of his sleep habits (he rarely does sleep) and armored-tank fetish (he still drives the tank he purchased with his initial royalties) multiplied. His latest full-length, Richard D. James Album, finds James performing his chameleon-like act again, and possibly for the last time. With a new girlfriend lifting his spirits, James has produced an undeniably warm and ebullient album. The songs range from those with childlike melodies underscored by drum & bass rhythms to nursery-rhyme ruminations to a spoken-word ditty about "[drinking] milk from the milkman's wife's tits."
James' newfound sense of humor carries over into his animated concert, during which he chomps on a cigar and grins madly while female bodybuilders flex their muscles and friends prance around in animal suits. In the interview setting, James' usual guardedness has seemingly given way to self-revelation. James looks intently at me when he answers questions, but his eyes remain distant. Laughing often, he seems to find almost anything humorous, from the strangers who have entered his home studio (one brought James a box of cigars) to the neighbors who have regularly called the police on him for playing his music too loudly. (He lives commune-like in a house with various male and female friends.)
James' choice of a cover photo for his 1996 "Girl/Boy" EP also suggests he's in a more sentimental mood. The artwork pictures the grave of his namesake. In 1968, James' brother died at birth in Canada, where his parents had moved for mining work.
"Mom and I were talking about it the other day," says James, who was born in Ireland. "She didn't see it as him dying. It's pretty fucking weird, actually, which is why I like [the photograph]. She basically decided I was going to be Richard James before I was born, not afterward. I can totally understand why she did it; she didn't want to accept the death of the child."
Whether James' change in attitude is due to his current love or his reflections on the past, he still isn't prepared to pen his soul after years of obstinate behavior.
"I don't reckon my outlook toward selling records has changed one bit," he says. "I just thought [the photo] was cool. I liked the look of it. You always want your sleeve to look nice," he says, snickering.
Though James has reached a new plateau musically and personally, he still rues having to promote his records by doing interviews, but acknowledges that he has gotten better at it. Unfortunately, James' confidence in dealing with the music industry has lead to boredom with its inner workings.
"I'm thinking of getting out of the music business after I finish my contract," he explains. "This time around I've gotten quite addicted to the music business, which is unusual. I want out 'cause it's getting too easy. I just want to make it a bit harder for myself. I like to have life really push 'cause I'm really lazy, but I don't like to have an easy life for my brain. I like things to fuck my brain up. Doing live gigs is the only challenging thing at the moment, outside of making music. I don't want to dig up roads [for a living], but I want my brain to be totally challenged. That in itself gets too easy as well. I like things to mess my brain up."
If this is the last Aphex Twin album, then James is leaving at a watershed. More than any of his previous work, Richard D. James Album combines both pastoral moods and mechanical beats; ominous, frightening melodies with sad, even lovely, themes. Like a metaphor for the crumbling architecture that dots the London landscape, James's music recalls the orchestral romanticism of the nineteenth century English composers like Edgar and Walton, while his skittering drum & bass beats evoke the sound of a mechanical giant whose limbs are afflicted with polio. His music is a collision of the past and the present, the sound of a glorious heritage being trampled underfoot by the thuggish droogs of A Clockwork Orange. Using an ancient Spectrum computer for some tracks, James incorporated all sorts of "tape loading" noises on songs such as the opening "4," where a sample of his dad's voice becomes the song's melodic hook.
"I'm actually letting my dad into my tank there," he explains. "My dad called me for tea, and I answered. My mum and dad's voices are in loads of my old stuff. Six years later I find these conversations I had with my dad while I'm in-between hitting something and recording it."
"Fingerbib" is a buoyant, melancholy tone poem. "To Cure a Weakling Child" features James reciting his own crooked poetry. And "Goon Gumpas," which sounds like a Christmas song with its plucked cellos and spacious, toy-organ melody, was actually inspired by an advertisement.
"Sounds like an insurance advert to me," quips James, who has composed numerous songs for commercials in the UK, including those for Virgin airlines, Lee jeans and Special K breakfast cereal. James found working in the advertising world to be a trying experience, and has less time for jingle-writing as his attempts at remixing other artists' work have become more frequent. In addition to remixing a Future Sound of London track, James recently finished a remix for Beck's "Devil's Haircut." He once stated that he only remixed songs he didn't like, but Beck's material is another story.
"Sometimes I will only do stuff I dislike, but if I am in a good mood then I'll do something I like. I did 'Devil's Haircut' but it was doing my head in. [Beck's label, DGC] gave me like five grand [to remix the song]; that was smart. I thought the song was okay, quite average. It got it in my head that I was only doing it for the money. Usually, that doesn't really bother me, but for some reason, this time it did. I just didn't give it to them. Then I heard a tape of Noel Gallagher's remix of the same song, and when I went back to hear mine. I really liked it. I might give it to them anyway now."
Despite having amassed a huge catalog of compositions and remixes in a relatively short career, James still doesn't consider himself a musician.
"Sometimes I think to myself that I'm just someone who is fucking around in a bedroom on the computer," he says.
So what will James do after his recording contract runs out?
"I'll write more music. But I won't release it; I'll just listen to it. It will just give me more time to do music. I'm tired of the publicity. This is the last [round of interviews]. I don't reckon I'll do it again. I've done 64 interviews in six days in five countries. It's an experiment. I'm doing everything I'm supposed to do, just to see what happens. There is so much shit involved even if you don't play live or do press. You have to get out [of the business] altogether.
"But I'm totally into the idea of making my own [computer] programs for my own music. It's yet to be seen if I can make a living off of writing programs. I've made quite a lot of money, so I can sustain myself. It's hard to say how much I've made. I'm not sure. It's usually not a good idea to tell people how much money you've got when you don't know."
Written by: Unknown, May 1997, Alternative Press