Is the Aphex Twin completely mad?Is the Aphex Twin completely mad? Well, he has a new album out named after his dead brother. His neighbours in London are waging a hate campaign against him because he's so noisy. He finds supermarkets trippy. Oh, and his record company suggested he do the interview in a helicopter. Richard Hector Jones went head to head with the electronic punk. Patrick Henry got his chopper out.
Everyone's got an opinion about Richard D. James. To some he is without doubt the most talented electronic composer of his generation, to others he's a crackpot with a flair for ingenuity and to some he simply doesn't mean a thing—he's just up his own arse if you'll pardon the expression. And, truth be told, it doesn't matter any which way. It certainly doesn't matter to the Aphex Twin himself. Not one little bit. In fact if I've learnt anything about Richard James it is that all the confused perceptions of him might even tickle him. But don't count on it.
What I did find most interesting about the Aphex Twin is that very little actually matters to him; on the music front at any rate. The Wire might want him to be the champion of intelligence in new music, and NME might want him to be a spokesman for the techno generation. Truth is, if his record label dropped him tomorrow (highly unlikely as it is) he probably wouldn't mind that much, cheques aside, for the pure and simple reason that once the music is finished and out of his hands he genuinely doesn't care what you do with it. You can press it into a record if you want to, it doesn't matter. What matters is that he's made it for himself. You can slag it or praise it to the ceiling. Again it doesn't matter. You could even tape over it.
Somebody who genuinely thinks on that level is such a scarce commodity that the music world doesn't know what the fuck to think of him. From a business point of view he is a ball of confusion. He has a commodity, a daring and beautiful music, and he pumps it out like there's no tomorrow. He's not precious about it, he doesn't call it art, he's not even telling you how good it is. He's just making it for himself. And we are only hearing it because he is selling it so he can have a nice life. A genuinely bizarre proposition in a music industry filled to the brim with over-sensitive egomaniacs craving our acceptance.
His new album, his fourth, is called Richard D. James. It's more than just his name. More about that later. Its a very lean album; no excess fat to speak of. That the whole album weighs in at 32 minutes (and that's with ten tracks) is something of an achievement in itself given that techno (in the most general sense of the word) is the genre of music where sprawling is often no longer the dirty word it should be. It is also his most accessible album to date. That's not to say its compromised; moreover it shows an economy of expression, and a very deceptive simplicity. The first track "4" sets the tone for the album with its minutely detailed junglist rhythms pinned down by melody of near childlike naivete. Elsewhere as on "To Cure a Weakling Child" the simplicity is reconfirmed, albeit with a sense of malaise, with children's voices repeating the phrase "my feet," "my arms," "my ears," "and your feet" while Aphex creates a tight snare led track underneath. Half new school, half play school and with all the double edged fun of "Ring O Ring O Roses." Elsewhere he settles into the lush orchestral arrangement of "Goon Gumpas" or the new single "Girl/Boy Song," the wigged-out funk of "Cornish Acid" or the ZX Spectrum sampling "Peek 824545201" bringing back childhood memories of home computers—the things that probably got most of the electronic music folk hooked in the first place. It's a rewarding and peculiar listening experience. Anyway, enough about the music.
When moves were made to set up a meeting for an interview with Richard to tie in with the release of his new single and album Richard D. James the message came back that he wanted to do the interview in a place that was of special significance to him: the graveyard that is the last resting place of his dead brother, also called Richard James. From a personal point of view I didn't feel too sure about this so we tried to come up with something else. It was only subsequently that we were informed that the graveyard was in Canada anyway so, as it happened, it would have been a nice break—up to a point.
In the end, a helicopter ride was planned. Don't ask why the switch, it's probably just because The Aphex Twin thought it would be a lark. As it turned out flying over Manchester doing an interview was totally unfeasible; it's just too damn noisy up there. So instead we just went for a ride, Richard, the photographer, Captain Geoff Dodd, and myself.
The Aphex Twin remained fairly silent the whole journey, possibly due to hangover, which made the whole circus seem all the more absurd. Aside from switching the engine off at 3,500 feet and scaring the bejesus out of one and all, (it interested Richard as to whether you can glide helicopters) the only interaction was from the captain who made polite conversation asking the Aphex Twin what he did.
"I make music," came the reply.
"What sort of music?"
"Like Jean Michel Jarre?"
"Yeah, sort of."
"What's the name of your band?"
"The Aphex Twin."
"Where's the twin?"
Silence at 3,000 feet. It would have taken a long time for the pin to drop, but I bet you could have heard it.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in a pub on the A57 west of Manchester near Irlam. If it's any consolation, the pub had "airport" in its name so it still counts.
Slut: What is the appeal of a helicopter? Is it a step up from a tank?
RDJ: Well, it wasn't actually my idea.
RDJ: But it's the sort of thing I'd think of. It's lush.
Slut: So it was just the opportunity to do it that appealed to you?
RDJ: Yeah, though I had to pay for half of it. Riding in it was pretty fucking stylish though. I can't think of any mode of transport more stylish. In fact I'm thinking of getting one. They're quite cheap. Compared to a plane anyway.
Slut: Could you afford one?
RDJ: Yeah, but I don't think people who play computer games should be allowed to do things like fly a helicopter. Or drive a car. I'm learning to drive at the moment and every time I get in I treat it like a computer game. I think "This must be the old granny crossing the zebra crossing" bit or "The man with the trolley" bit and it's minus 20 or 25 points for that. I'm not exaggerating, that's what I'm thinking. It'd be the same with a helicopter.
Slut: Flying with a joystick can't help matters.
RDJ: No. When you play the latest computer game you take it to the extreme which is what I'd want to do with one of these. But you can't, so it would be really boring. I mean, if you clip off the blades you're dead. That's why I liked tanks. You can turn around afterwards and look at all the destruction you've made. Flying a plane's good too.
Slut: Have you got a license?
RDJ: No, I wouldn't want to get one. I just wanted to try it out. I'd been at this party all night doing speed and spliffs. So my mates and I went to this little airfield. The bloke who took me up had a bright red nose and smelt of alcohol. And it was a really sketchy plane with loads of holes in the floor. I reckon he was a total alcoholic!
Slut: What's going on with your neighbours and the noise at the moment?
[A recent report in one of the weekly papers stated that Richard's neighbours had a hate campaign out on him because of the racket he makes.]
RDJ: Oh, they don't even complain to us they just go straight around to environmental health. They're scared of us. We've had loads of run-ins with them at parties and they've smashed our windows too!
Slut: Would you regard yourself as unreasonable?
RDJ: Yeah, we are really unreasonable I reckon. But I also reckon breaking someone's windows is unreasonable too. I still want to do a free gig in the house, the first night of the tour. It would be brilliant. Though I think the house might collapse. I might get someone to check the structure and then just pay the landlord for any damages.
Slut: You get a lot of press attention for someone who doesn't seem to court it?
RDJ: I suppose so.
Slut: Which strikes me as surprising as there are so many aggressive self-publicists around in music. So how's that happened?
RDJ: Er. I don't know. I always get really confused when I think of things like that. It makes me feel uncomfortable although it is becoming increasingly the norm for electronic bods like myself. I suppose it's amusing but I don't think it's meant to be like this. Maybe it's for the generation after. I mean people like me didn't mean to be famous so it all feels weird but it's a fucking sorted way of living so it's all right by me.
[The cover of the single "Girl/Boy Song" is a picture of Richard's brother's grave. It is an interesting and inherently controversial move to make for a myriad of reasons. It will at the very least provoke a reaction. And obviously someone who makes such a statement is not going to be too precious about talking on the subject.]
Slut: What do you think people are going to think about you putting a picture of your brother's grave on the sleeve of your record?
RDJ: I don't know. I haven't got a clue.
Slut: Do you think it will be greeted with cries of tastelessness from the chatterers?
RDJ: Probably. Maybe. They'll probably think all sorts of things.
Slut: Does the response of people interest you?
RDJ: No, not really.
Slut: So you did it because...?
RDJ: As a tribute mainly.
Slut: You never met your brother because he died before you were born?
RDJ: Yeah. He has the same name as me. It's not like I have a big hang-up about it or anything. I just think it's tight because my mum was so upset about it when he died that she kept his name on but forgot about him, thinking "The next boy I have, that'll be him." So I sort of took his place as if he didn't exist. That's why I feel tight.
Slut: I suppose that is quite strange because most people make themselves...
RDJ: But it's quite understandable.
Slut: ...happier by keeping a spirit alive. And yeah, it is understandable.
RDJ: What spirit?
Slut: Well okay then, a memory.
RDJ: Like I say, I've always felt tight because all there is to remember him by is this photo of his grave in Canada. I don't even know where it is. This is my way of not blocking it out, to make it more known.
Slut: So what did your mum think about it?
RDJ: She thought it was really cool. She thought it was a nice thing to do. Actually she thought it was a bit weird... No, not weird, just a bit odd when she first heard about it and she said "Let me think about it." Then she said she thought it was really nice.
Slut: Do you want to go over to Canada and pay your respects?
RDJ: Yeah, I have thought about it as long as it's still there and there's not a Sainsburys on it. Then I'd have to put some flowers on the baked bean shelf.
Slut: Is there any part of you that is courting controversy over this?
RDJ: What do you mean?
Slut: I mean some people are going to think you're just being sick, and the respect of your message will be lost.
RDJ: When you make a record you've got to put something decent on the sleeve and I think this is a decent thing to put on the sleeve. So that's just as much a reason for doing it as well. I reckon the main thing is that I'm indebted to my brother because I reckon he helps me out. You might think I'm weird but I always, well not always, feel this really strong presence around me which I can only attribute to that.
Slut: But you're not a religious person?
Slut: It's just that you called me up when I used the word spirit earlier on. Yet now you're referring to a spiritual presence.
Slut: So in a sense you are religious?
[This is interesting because it is precisely the unwillingness to talk about things to do with death that's going to lead people to misinterpret what is, make no mistake, a very sincere gesture of Richard D. James towards Richard James.]
RDJ: I'm not afraid to talk about it. It's just that I don't know you. This is an artificial environment. I have no problem talking about it with people I know.
Slut: But I don't just want to talk about music and I don't care much to write about the technology involved. You putting your brother on the sleeve is really expressing something personally meaningful. "Donkey Rhubarb" on the other hand isn't. So those are the things I want to talk about. Do you think this shows a shift in your ability to express yourself?
RDJ: Maybe, but I'm not sure if it's a development because I've always liked music without meaning. It's really lush. In fact that's what attracted me to electronic music instead of music with lyrics and stuff.
Slut: Because of its absence of meaning?
RDJ: Because it's abstract. I like that you can interpret things in different ways. Abstract things are more flexible. I get more enjoyment out of them.
Slut: Because it's a blank canvas situation?
RDJ: Yeah, sort of. But saying all that I like music with meaning in it as well. In a way I've come full circle. I used to be really narrow minded; anything with meaning used to get on my nerves. But now I've had enough of that and I think so has the rest of the world, or at least anyone who's been into electronic music from the start.
[The Aphex Twin insists that boredom is one of the strangest things to him. That strangeness is not doing anything as he puts it. It certainly would make a nice coda to those rubbish "Love is..." cartoons that were in newspapers in the '70s and '80s.]
RDJ: If I say someone is strange it means that they just don't do anything with their lives. I find people who are the same as everyone else really strange too.
Slut: Maybe, but I don't believe you actually feel like that. I mean, you don't walk down the street and think "I'm in an alien environment" do you? It's just an intellectual pretence you have adopted.
RDJ: I do actually. Like supermarkets. I find them well fucking strange.
Slut: I still think that's pretence. You're not that far outside a culture that finds supermarkets relatively normal.
RDJ: I think going to a supermarket is stranger than going up in a helicopter.
Slut: Have you thought this all your life about supermarkets?
RDJ: Supermarkets are well trippy.
Slut: Do you take many narcotics?
RDJ: Not really.
Slut: Do you smoke draw?
RDJ: Yeah, but not too much at the moment. I did when I was younger.
Slut: Is pot bad for getting work done?
Slut: So the myth of the creativity of pot smoking is just that, a myth?
RDJ: I don't know anybody who says that.
Slut: You could call it the Sgt. Pepper legacy.
RDJ: I suppose so, but it's a myth put about by crap people who've never taken drugs. All I know is that all my mates bar one like to be straight when they make music. But having said that I think drugs are fucking sorted basically, because you have the time of your life on them. I reckon that if they halved your life span I'd still do them.
Slut: I've never had a bad time on acid.
RDJ: Nor have I. If you're pretty sorted then you're going to be sorted. I've had some pretty hectic times when I thought I was never going to come back but I love it when my brain is fucked up. If I'm having a bad time (even if it's not to do with drugs) I have this perverse nature whereby I'll hate it for the first five minutes and then I'll begin to love it. It's really lush.
Slut: That shows a remarkable strength of character (not to mention optimism).
RDJ: I suppose so.
[His parents weren't loaded and his background isn't musical. Some reference to a traumatic period spent in a brass band is made but that's a funnier image if left to the mind to picture. Well, I think it is anyway.]
RDJ: I think regimented people are cool because for a start they get things done. But I'm also glad that other people work so I don't have to.
[The strange thing about the Aphex Twin is that he is obviously a hard worker. It's just that he doesn't regard making his music as work.]
RDJ: I only call remixing work—if I don't want to do it. I turned down a Beck remix the other day for £5,000 because it was doing my head in. I've given tracks to friends to remix but it's never worked out. If I liked it I'll put my name to it though. It would be a right cheat. My whole philosophy in life is getting something for nothing really.
Slut: That's a rubbish approach to life. It's not rocket science to know that if everyone did it the world would fall apart.
RDJ: Yeah, but everyone doesn't. If they did then I wouldn't be like that.
Slut: Then what would you do? Get an office job?
RDJ: Yeah, that would be interesting. I've thought about getting a job in McDonald's. I don't know why.
Slut: That's just a prank isn't it?
RDJ: No, really. I miss doing things I don't have to do. I've made my life now so that I don't have to do anything I don't want to. I thought that would be lush but I was wrong because you don't look forward to doing the things you really like so much.
Slut: I think that's really bourgeois.
RDJ: What's that mean?
Slut: I mean you putting yourself in the position of getting a shitty job because you choose to rather than out of necessity. It makes a hell of a difference. [Though having said this I almost believe him.]
[An interesting thing you notice about Richard is the way he refers to non-electronic music as real music. Most people in the business of making electronic music would recoil at the thought of not being real. It seems almost like an insult. There's no reason why though. Aphex music sounds totally synthetic.]
Slut: Do you maintain respect for conventional musicians?
RDJ: Oh yeah, I think they're mental because they can play things differently every time which is fucking hard to do with a computer. The randomness is what makes real music really lush. I've been trying to find out ways to do it with computers and I reckon that in the next couple of years I'll have something sorted out.
The thing at the moment is that everyone is trying to make jungle sound like real music. And that's really bizarre because the reason people made it originally was because it didn't sound like real music. This is because they all got bored of listening to the same thing and wanted that random element back. So it's understandable it's just that everyone's going about it the wrong way.
Slut: But Aphex music thrives on the simplicity particularly with the melody lines?
RDJ: I do like to make things as simple as possible. I like the sound of pure things. I don't like it when things get too cluttered so you can't hear everything. My aim is to make music that sounds as simple as possible but is really complicated underneath. I've only just started to do that so things are going to get well hectic over the next few years.
Slut: Do you love your technology?
RDJ: I love it if it's used right. I love to talk about new technology, not old technology. I love the people who are into it and talk about it all day—the people who are really anally nerdy about it.
Slut: Are you sure?
RDJ: Yup, I love them. And I love to look at them.
RDJ: It's because people like that think like fuck and you can have brilliant conversations with them.
Slut: Does this mean the computer nerd is now a myth?
RDJ: No, it's just that they're all really famous now like me.
Slut: Is this the revenge of the nerds?
RDJ: Yeah...and it's wicked.
Interview taken from Jockey Slut magazine, October/November 1996. Written by Richard Hector Jones