Getting away with itWho is the Aphex Twin? Does anybody know any more? Does he, even? If you've ever seen his live show you probably think he's an angry young industrial noisemaker with a chip on his shoulder the size of Macclesfield. If you've ever sat back and chilled to either of his childishly simple, endlessly fascinating Analogue Bubblebath dreamworks, or got lost in the computer sincerities of Polygon Window's Surfing on Sine Waves, he's a genius. An Apple Amadeus, a Mac Mozart. Some people would just say he's a computer nerd who's been very, very lucky. Richard James himself would probably be one of them. But then being a contrary sod is his stock in trade, isn't it?
What is true is that every record the Aphex Twin has ever made has attempted to push the envelope, to expand the acceptable boundaries of what we call techno, of what can be safely defined as music itself. Be it the 150+ beats per minute advances of 1991's furiously hardcore techno classic "Digeridoo," or the ferocious attempt to subvert trip hop from within that was last year's ...I Care Because You Do. An album of breakdancing on broken glass, of dancing in a tractor factory, where, unlike his earlier ambience, tracks were no longer called "Xtal" or "Heliosphan" but "Come on You Slags!"
This year the Rephlex label he co-runs has given us Squarepusher, alias Tom Jenkinson, an Essex lad who combines an Aphexual love of the abstract with a penchant for dark jungle and free jazz. This was followed by a double album of distorted, four decidedly off the floor breakbeats that came as a double pack of two identical albums, in case any hip hop DJs should feel foolhardy enough to play it out.
Now there is a new album, called simply Richard D. James (more about this title later) and the Girl/Boy EP. And unlikely as it may seem, his new music is even more shocking. It's actually rather nice. It's got Squarepusher-style fungle breaks. It's got hummable melodies. It's got—get ready for this—the Aphex Twin singing.
Much of this new stuff, from his chilled out slipper-wearing, but still movingly melodic techno mixes of easy listening rug-god Mike Flowers, to the Girl/Boy EP's artless and utterly barmy "Milkman," is easy, calming, charmingly guileless music. "Milkman" is where Aphex makes his singing debut. He reckons he sings like a young Paul McCartney "only better." (He actually sounds like a harmless choirboy.) It's a simple song like all the best ones. You could call it a song of the people. It could be a song that touches the hearts of the nation in the same all encompassing, unifying way as "Three Lions" or "Wonderwall." Then again, it probably won't. This is how it goes:
I wish the milkman would deliver my milk in the morning.
I wish the milkman would deliver my milk when I'm yawning.
I would like some milk from the milkman's wife's tits.
I would like some milk from the milkman's wife's tits.
Like most of the things Aphex does these days, it's a joke. Like a DJ with sandpaper, or spinning fibs about his background in interviews. But if it is a joke, who is it on? His fans? The general public? Or himself? And is that joke really funny any more?
If you think all this niceness, this oh so harmless silliness, is to lull the unsuspecting Aphexhead into a false sense of security ready to have them battered over the head with the tungsten mallet that is his new album Richard D. James, you'd be wrong. It's just as quirky, barmy and basically Aphex as all the rest but it too shows disturbing signs of a musician at peace with himself. Kicking back and having a bit of a laugh. Demonstrating his disquieting ease, his mastery of this kind of music; beautiful when it needs to be, noisy when it needs to be. Aphex Twin being as awkward as he likes.
It's not like Richard James belongs in the world of dance music anyway. Dance implies clubs, glamour, excitement, and hedonism. Nice clothes on nice people bought from nice shops. He's a skinny bloke in a junk shop jumper. But think about it in another way. Who else takes such chances with his career? Plays such dangerous games? Aphex is well known for his contrary games with the press. But beyond the half truths and made up fun he uses to poke fun at journalists, fellow producers and techno fans, maybe he's protecting something far more simple: himself. Someone having a top laugh making music he loves, with no restraints, no reason to calm down his wildest musical excesses.
So why should he spoil all the fun by explaining it all, when the records say it all and he's down spending all the royalties in the pub with the six mates he shares a communal house with in Stoke Newington, North East London.
He asks to meet us by the gates of his local cemetery. It's an unkempt Victorian graveyard, the carefully arranged rows of graves having long ago surrendered order to the encroaching trees. Here he sits on a set of concrete steps, fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, and biting his fingernails. And with many long silences, monosyllabic answers and the odd manic giggle, he talks.
Mix Magazine: Why are you singing?
Richard D. James: [Silence]
MM: Is it a joke?
RDJ: Er, yeah. Well, no, actually I take it really seriously.
MM: What do you think the people buying your records will think of it?
RDJ: Don't know. Haven't got a clue.
MM: Do you think anyone might find the lyrics a bit offensive?
RDJ: Yeah, probably. Well, my mum doesn't find it offensive. My girlfriend sings it while she's out shopping. I made it after Tom [Squarepusher] said, "It's all very well making all this jungle, but could we make a proper pop song?" So I went and did one.
MM: How do you think it compares to, say, Gary Barlow?
RDJ: Who's that?
MM: He was in Take That!
RDJ: Oh, right. Why, has he done a song about milkmen?
MM: No, but it is pop music that is actually popular
RDJ: I don't like Take That! I think they're rubbish.
MM: What pop do you like?
RDJ: I can't think of any modern pop I like.
MM: I hear your neighbours are trying to get you evicted.
RDJ: It depends on how pissed up we get. We're all under some pretty serious surveillance from the Environmental Health at the moment. They're waiting for us to go for it just once.
MM: How can you make music without making noise?
RDJ: With headphones. But I'm fed up with compromising the whole time. In Cornwall I could have it as loud as I liked. Since I've been living in London I've had to compromise everything the whole time. I can't listen to it that loud on headphones, because my ears are fucked. As I get older I'll have to put more treble in my tracks because you lose top end as you go deaf. In ten years time there'll be just loads of treble in my tracks. Either that or they'll develop some wicked implants into your brain. So it won't make too much difference.
MM: Do you think your music has gone too far?
RDJ: No, not really. I hate making music that sounds like other people. I make my music consciously different, the same way that other people make theirs sound consciously the same.
MM: Does it annoy you how so much dance music sounds the same?
RDJ: Yeah, because I hate having to listen to something twice. It's a waste of time. I don't know why people do it. Safety in numbers, I suppose. Most of the people making music are really insecure and basically just want to be loved. It's not really important to me. I don't really care.
MM: Your music appears to be getting much nicer, though.
RDJ: I think that's the stuff I'm putting out, rather than the stuff I'm making. I make a lot more music than I release. Before I didn't really know what I was doing. I wasn't really doing it to be commercial. I didn't really want everyone to be into it. I still find it entertaining when people up and run away from me playing live. When they've all gone, the two percent who're left are always going mental.
MM: But do you want people to dance to your music?
RDJ: No, not really. Well, there's stuff there I'd definitely dance to, but I know a lot of people won't dance to it, because it doesn't go boom boom boom.
MM: What have been the most important events in your life?
RDJ: Buying a ZX81 computer. That was a really sorted event. I won a couple of programming competitions actually. I made a program for the ZX81 to make sound and won 50 quid from a computer magazine. I always loved those noises. I got into computer games for the music. I've been starting to sample sounds off my old Spectrum actually.
MM: Any other vital events?
RDJ: I don't think anything has happened to me.
MM: Apart from buying a computer, that's a pretty empty life isn't it?
RDJ: Well, loads of things have happened to me. I just don't think they're all that important.
MM: Why did you move to London?
RDJ: To get a record deal. I knew the stuff I was making was as good as anyone else. Now I could do it from Cornwall, because I know lots more, and I've got power.
RDJ: I've got a certain level of power.
MM: What kinds of people buy your records?
RDJ: They're fucked up. I can only go by the people I meet, and they're pretty weird.
MM: Do they still ask you about your equipment?
RDJ: They used to, but I never told them anything anyway.
MM: Is your music still techno?
RDJ: Yes, it's just music made from technology.
MM: When you're making music do you get sudden urges to fuck it up?
RDJ: What and make it sound shit?
MM: No but you've made some music that's very beautiful, and other things that are just angry noise. Don't you ever start off making something musical, then fuck it up completely?
RDJ: Yeah, that's all I do right now actually. I've got about five tracks on the go, which is why I never finish any of them. I don't think I've actually recorded the last 50 tracks I've done.
MM: At what point do you become a parody of the Aphex Twin?
RDJ: Always have been.
MM: Is what you're doing now a parody of yourself?
RDJ: Of course.
MM: But isn't that what people expect from you now? If you really want to shock everyone, why don't you do a live set of accessible, straight four to the floor house?
RDJ: [Laughing] Yeah, I've been thinking about that. I might tape Underworld's set at Tribal Gathering and play that instead of mine. I'd have to add some more snare rushes though.
MM: What else have you got planned for Tribal Gathering?
RDJ: I'm trying to get something that will blow Underworld away. Which shouldn't be too difficult.
MM: Something different?
RDJ: No, just better. I'm not a big fan of theirs at the moment. It's just watered down music.
MM: Don't you ever think you should just give the people what they want?
RDJ: I try to strike a balance. There's no point releasing records nobody's going to buy, 'cause I like making loads of money out of making music. You can't beat it. Making money out of something you love.
MM: How much money do you have?
RDJ: That's a personal question.
MM: It's a very personal question.
RDJ: Well, I've got loads. Basically, I'm loaded.
MM: Do you take a lot of drugs?
RDJ: No, not any more. My mates and I used to smoke loads and take loads of drugs but I'm not really into that at the moment, because I'm getting back into making music. The best music's always made straight so it sounds better. Drugs like E make me more critical.
MM: Do you drink much?
RDJ: Yeah, all the time. Anywhere and everywhere. Getting pissed is good.
MM: Do you basically want to stay a child, playing all your life?
RDJ: Yeah. I could never handle doing a job. I've always just wanted to play. I don't see music as a job. If I did it would fuck up my plans.
MM: What plans?
RDJ: My plans for never doing any work.
There he goes again. "I'll take the piss out of anything," he reckons. "Except maybe death. But if my mum and dad died I'd probably only leave it a week before taking the piss out of it. You've got to really."
The Aphex Twin has an interest in death—and here's where that album title comes in. His new album is named, not after himself, but after a brother who died at birth in 1968, three years before Richard was born. He was also called Richard. The new album's cover pictures his dead brother's grave. It sounds like a typical Aphex mind game, but for once he means what he says.
"That's why I'm the Aphex Twin," he claims. "I feel as if I nicked his identity. I reckon he looks after me, like a guardian angel."
The Aphex Twin is so many things, has so many faces, that it's hard to tell which is real. He's a contrary sod, but he's an individual. Someone who makes the music he wants to, not the music he feels he should. With dance music increasingly spaced out into opposing musical camps, into people following each genre's set rules past "go" to collect their measly pay cheque, any lone voice is welcome. Particularly when it's as occasionally brilliant as this.
"I love rules," he tells me, before wandering off through the gravestones. "I think they're wicked." Awkward sod. Don't go changing.
Interview taken from Mix Magazine, October 1996.