Mad Musician or Investment Banker?Two nine foot teddy bears -- a green one and an orange one -- bounce off each other, and roll around. A young lad getting some milk from the milkman's wife's tits. A courier at the door there to pick up a remix of a Lemonheads' track -- the remixer has forgotten about the whole project, and grabs an unfinished song lying around, and gives it to the courier. A tank cruising through the city streets at 45 miles per hour. The man who bought a whole bank building, and lives in its vaults.
It's all part of the Aphex Twin legend. Not actually twins, but one guy named Richard D James. Maybe twins, the cover of the Girl/Boy EP shows a picture of a gravestone that reads "Richard James, November 23, 1968." It's the gravestone of Aphex Twin's stillborn older brother -- soon after, Aphex was born and given the same name. You can't help but be reminded of Elvis Presley's twin brother that died shortly before his birth, buried in an unmarked grave.
Aphex Twin is the Howard Hughes of the electronic world -- a man whose behaviour can so often be as strange as his music. Earlier recordings of strange ambient sounds were inspired by sounds heard in dreams. More recent recordings, like Richard D James Album and the Donkey Rhubard EP (featuring a collaboration with modern classical composer Philip Glass), featured a near perfect synthesis of easy listening, classical leanings, bratty techno, hyperactive drum'n'bass, and other madness. Still more recently, "Come To Daddy (Pappy Mix)" showed a more aggro Aphex Twin in heavy metal mode -- as in the case of Goldie on Saturnzreturn, note the tendency for techno stars to begin singing on certain tracks after they've reached a certain point of celebrity. Aphex Twin has reached it.
After being told twice in my life that, in fact, an Aphex Twin interview would be impossible to arrange, I was chuffed when an interview was finally arranged for 2:30 in the afternoon, before Aphex Twin's Vancouver show last November. I tracked him down at the backdoor of the venue on a rainy day. He looked scruffy. His shoes had big holes in the toes, his barefeet exposed. I'll never forget it. He claimed to have no knowledge about the interview, but said he never listened to his tour manager anyway. But all the same, he obliged.
The Common Morality of Advertising
On the day of the interview, Aphex Twin is pretty pleased with himself, cause he's just sold the usage of "Girl/Boy" to Bank of America for a cool $125 grand US. I once heard that Aphex is a millionaire just from making commercial music. I couldn't verify this number (it's certainly a bit impertinent to ask someone directly about their bank balance!), though he tells me that the record company (Sire in North America) still hasn't recouped on him, because of the huge advances paid out. Warp label (the Sheffield, England label that has been the longtime home of Aphex Twin, who in turn has very much influenced the label's sound) publicity statements will tell you about how Virgin Airlines paid Aphex Twin for a fluffy track, but instead he turned in a disaster movie soundtrack.
In a candid moment, he confesses to having just about no morals when it comes to advertising. In a very English way, he doesn't give a shit about what he advertises, just so long as it pays. But there is one exception. He was offered a certain sum to advertise for a private health care company in England, and due to his family's involvement with Britain's National Health, he turned it down. He tells me with great satisfaction that after turning the company down, they offered the same ad spot to Mike Paradinas of Jake Slazenger and Mu-zik fame -- but for half the money! Mike turned them down, too.
Aphex Twin doesn't need RRSP's. "I reckon," he says, "I'll probably sell more albums as things go on, but I'm still surprised to sell one hundred. I can't comprehend people actually buying my records anyway. So when you sell worldwide like a hundred thousand records, I just can't imagine it -- like a hundred thousand people buying my records. It's pretty bizarre. I wouldn't care if they didn't buy my music anyway."
But then he might have to work, I point out.
"Well, I might have to get a job," he says, "But I have loads of money now, so I might be able to live off my interest."
All I know is the day he goes public, I'll line up to purchase shares.
Business Savvy and an Eye for Acquisition
The mystery lies in his ability to turn a "can't be bothered' attitude into business savvy. You get the feeling he was born with rabbit feet. He tells me about how he didn't have any time at all to prepare for this tour. Right up until the last minute, he was enjoying his French girlfriend, and he had to scramble to get a few DATs together. He was in such a hurry to catch the plane -- well anyway, let him tell it, "It was mental. I locked all the stuff in the vault, and then I went around and locked all the doors. There's like hundreds of keys, and I left my fucking backdoor open. And then my mate went around like a week later to water my plants, and the door was open. I live right on a main street. I'm really lucky. When he told me, I was on the plane, and I just about shit my pants."
That is the trouble with living in a bank, I guess. The other trouble is the rats. They are the reason he hasn't set up his recording studio yet in the vaults. "I've got to get them out," he moans -- a determined glint in his eye.
Talk about strange purchases. A priori the vault aquisition, he bought a tank. A real tank -- it even fires, but he uses this function sparingly, cause he only has four rounds of ammo left. He bought it in Cornwall, but his mom and dad moved to Wales, so he moved it with them. He's going to try to bring it to London. The thought occurs to me that this must bring some grief from the government.
"But no one actually thinks of stopping you. Like the police laugh when they see you. They don't think of stopping you, because it's too ridiculous to even contemplate," he says. "[Anyway] I haven't got cat wheel tracks. It's got massive wheels, so you can drive it on the road. Normal tanks you can't drive on the road, because they churn the road up." Okay, the question we're all dying to know -- how fast does it go? "Forty-five mile per hour forwards and backwards. It's pretty fucking noisy though, if you go that fast. It's deafening near the engine. Once you go over thirty, it's so loud. But it'll do 45 over rough terrain -- really hilly, bumpy land."
Do you actually drive it around as your vehicle? "Well, that's what I want to do. I will do when I move it to London. I'm just going to drive it around, go shopping, and stuff like that." Remember this is the man who once said that supermarkets were stranger than drugs. I tell him that he should drive his tank onto the stage at a gig, and run over some amplified drum kits or something like that.
He's one step ahead of me -- "I was going to drive it onto the stage once, in Brixton, because you can get from the road onto the stage. But I haven't gotten around to doing it. It's quite fucking hardcore though to try and get everything organized for a tank, because to drive it from London to Wales will take about two days. And it only does 4 miles to the gallon for petrol, so you'd use up lots of petrol."
I ask him if he's ever thought of buying a helicopter. "Yeah, but I'm not going to buy one. I'd crash it straightaway, because I'm just an idiot in anything that goes fast. I'll just kill myself straightaway. I've written off loads of cars. I haven't actually passed my driving test, so when I drive my tank it's illegal."
Okay, the second biggest question I could think to ask him. If he got a whole bunch of money, like way more than he has right now, what would he buy?
"A Submarine. I don't know any models, but I just heard from the place where I can get ammunition for my machine gun -- they're selling off Russian submarines, and apparently they're really cheap. Someone said they were like 50 grand, but I don't know how accurate that is. I'd love it. I reckon I'll get one. It'll probably be a lot of hassle to do it, and you'll probably have to hire like a crew to work it for you. I don't know if you could properly operate it on your own -- maybe you could, I don't know. I don't know anything about submarines. I just know I'd like to have one. It would be wicked for parties, and stuff like that."
It occurs to me that there must be some incredible acoustic possibilities for recording in a submarine. It would like an FX box unto itself. "Oh yeah, totally totally. My bank now is wicked. I use that as an FX unit now. It's got a big stairwell with huge reverb, so I've got like really good mics and speakers on the stairs, so I use it as an actual FX unit sort of thing. The actual building sounds wicked."
Sorry kids, this is one studio that won't be hired out. "I'm going to be greedy, because I've had too many years getting grief from my neighbors for noise. So I'm just going to enjoy living on my own, and making as much noise as possible."
I could empathize. Last year where I lived, I would play my music so quiet, and my neighbor would still bang on the wall. On a creative level, it really messed up my rhythm the whole time I was working there. "Yeah, that does my fucking head in," agrees Aphex. "I almost killed my next door neighbors once, because I was trying to do a track, and they kept banging on the walls. And I was like shouting through the walls, 'Fuck off, I'm trying to do some music.' They threw rocks threw our windows and everything. They got well aggro. They got the council to try and evict us, and we used to have big fights with everyone in our street. They pinned up all these posters to the trees and lampposts about our house and how we ruined loads of people's lives, and everyone should sign a form to get us evicted. I couldn't believe I didn't do anything revengeful on them at all. A few years ago, I would have got revenge, but I must have grown up, because I just couldn't be hassled to do anything whatsoever. I just couldn't be bothered. They're too sad anyway. They don't need to be fucked up. They're already fucked up. It's just a waste of energy to try and do anything more. I used to be like, "Well, if anyone messes with me, that's it, they're fucked.'"
Well he can just get other people to do it for you now. "Well, what I was going to do -- the original plan. I thought we were going to all move together as a household, and I was going to do a PA in my house, and advertise it in the newspaper, and do it for free. But then some people didn't move out at the same time, so I couldn't do it. But that would have been wicked, like take all our stuff out, and then just go back for one last party, and like destroy the house. If we had a party with like 400 people in the house, it would totally fall down I reckon."
Is it attached? "Yeah, it's attached on both sides. On one side is a bloke who's totally off his head. He used to go mental. My mate went around there once, cause he was playing music so quietly, and he used to come out and shout at us, and call us fucking cunts and bastards. And he came up to me and he was going, "You fucking hippie. You're playing voodoo music. That's what that is -- voodoo music." And he tried to kill my mate with a knife, with a fucking machete -- he was like jabbing it at him."
Sussing Out The Sounds of the Future
Aphex Twin's music might sound like it comes from another world, but, in fact, it is recorded in this world. Just like you and me, he puts his pants on one leg and a time. This music is not beamed down from space. This in mind, I ask him where he likes to normally record. "Just in my bedroom sort of thing. I've got to have my studio close to my bed. That's the only important factor." Really, I am asking the most serious questions on this day. I have unlimited tape and readers with an unlimited attention span. So do you like lie on your bed and make music? "I do that as well, cause I've got my laptop as well. So I go to bed with my laptop. It keeps the bed warm as well. If you leave it on, you can lie in the bed with your computer."
In fact, the day before I interviewed him, he had just bought a new laptop, a QY, and had already done four tracks on it. He has once said that people who play video games shouldn't be allowed to drive an automobile. I ask him if playing video games ever interferes with his recording. Well, apparently, not as much as shagging, but more on that later. He says, "I bought a CD with about 5 billion games, and I haven't played any of them yet. There's too much information going around these days. I don't know what to concentrate on. It's quite hardcore, I reckon."
Richard D James Album is probably one of the best illustrations that we are living in an age of information overload. It is music that changes every 30 seconds with tons of hyper, spazzy drum patterns and extremely poppy melodies. The individual sound is the most important thing. Where more minimal approaches try to build something up over time, with Aphex's recent music you get the impression that every second must be exciting. "Yeah, I used to like stuff to go on for ages, but not now. I like my ears to be alerted like every few seconds. I like something different to happen, something good to go on."
It's open eared music that lets everything in. While never referencing anything, the sounds remind you of so many different styles. "For that album," he says, "I was totally influenced by loads of things, cause I was living in a house with loads of my mates just listening to all this music all the times of the day. They all listened to wicked music. So I just couldn't help incorporating it into my music. I didn't mind, I just don't want to do that anymore. I've moved out on my own, because I prefer to get inspired on my own."
So does that mean that when you're on your own, you don't listen to music? "Well, I do. I just won't carry it across. I don't switch between listening-to-music moods, and making-music moods. I just get on a making-music mood for ages, and then I'll get bored of it. And then I'll go and listen to music for ages. It's like two separate things. I don't listen to records and get motivated to make music. Whereas, if you're in a house, and you're in a making music mood, and everyone's playing wicked tracks, you just can't help nicking things. The best way for me is to just wait till you're really bored, and that's when you make the best music. But I can't be really be bored these days, because I've got so much to do all the time. It's quite hard."
I had read on a previous occasion that he's a good Chess player. In the age of information overload, it seems like one of the hardest things I can imagine doing. "Well, I don't know if I'm good," he confesses, "But compared to someone who's shit, I'm good. I love it. I can get right into it. Concentration's not a problem. As long as I'm somewhere nice, and not distracting. I can't play Chess with the TV on. That's well fucking irritating. But I can play it when I'm listening to music. I'm rubbish when I'm stoned though. I just make really crap mistakes."
I ask, if he reckons that music making is an addiction?
"I'd probably get quite strung out, if I didn't do it ..."
At this point, someone brings in a flyer for the evening's show. Aphex Twin has a minor fit, when he thinks his name's not been given top billing. "I'm not supporting bloody-what-the-fuck-are-they-called Sneaker Pimps." As it turns out, what with the arty style of the design, his name was printed twice, once at the top, once at the bottom -- it was the bottom, however, that caught his eye first. Also, on the bill, is the Crystal Method. The Asian hiccup could have been staved off with all the money that has been spent on Crystal Method's advertising budget. They're the cheap American imitation of the Chemical Brothers that no one should have heard of. Says Aphex, "I tried really hard yesterday to not hear them, and I managed to do it, which was pretty good. But yeah I hate them. They'll be totally shit. I won't listen to it today either. I'll go sit on the bus."
I get the feeling, however, that Aphex will make it through this tour without too much grief, cause his mate Luke Vibert is along doing the DJ-ing. Otherwise known as Plug and Wagon Christ, I talked to Luke for a few minutes after my interview with Aphex. Luke complained about kind of falling through the cracks a little, cause to Squarepusher and Aphex his music is not weird enough, but to the DJ kids it's too weird. Aphex reckons that Luke and the rest of his mates along on the tour are amongst the hardest-core pot smokers in London. So, I asked if they had any trouble crossing the US border, while travelling from Seattle to Vancouver. "They kept us for four hours going back to America the other day, which was fucking shit. They tried to scare us, but this time around we were wise to it, so it was well funny. This woman was trying to scare me and Luke, and we just ignored her. They told us that we had cocaine residue in the back of the bus, and none of us do it, so they're just lying, trying to scare you. Pretty crap really, though, because anyone can tell just by looking at us that we smoke dope and not cocaine. We're such scruffy bastards. People who take cocaine are usually more smartly dressed I reckon. They wear more designer clothing. So they took the wrong guess. If we do another tour, I'm not going to go through the border. I'm just going to fly."
Doing Private Things In Public
"In Seattle, all the public toilets didn't have any doors on them. It was well strange. What's that all about? I had to take a shit, and they're was like twenty people in a row going for a shit, and I was like, "uh." So after about ten minutes, I thought it was quite wicked actually. I was quite into the idea of it."
Things get, well, very scatalogical and eschatological at this point. During the round of press on the album, I Care Because You Do, much was made of Aphex's use of lucid dreaming to compose music. I was confused at the time, cause I wasn't quite sure what was meant by the term "lucid dreaming." Is it actually dreaming or just daydreaming, I ask. "Well, both really. But what I meant was when you're asleep, like making sounds in your head, and trying to work out songs. I used to do it. I don't do it anymore. Like I had a dream on the bus the other day, and I had this tune in my head, and I couldn't remember it when I woke up. It takes a lot of practice to remember it when you're awake." How do you train? "Well, for about a year. The training is to remember it basically. Because most of the time, I have a dream and know that I've dreamt up a wicked tune, or sound, or idea, and when I wake up all I can remember is the fact that it was really wicked, so that's really irritating." Most people can't control their dreams, I tell him. "Yeah, I can change it. Not all the time. But most of the time -- 75%. That's why I love sleeping. For me, there's different degrees of control. There's ones that are like a movie, where you're in the movie, and you can control yourself, and those are the best ones. And then there's ones where you control everything, and that's really boring, because nothing happens."
It seems to me that breaking things is a very natural human impulse. I find it curious, in this regard, watching children. I say this in reference to one of the rare dreams I could remember controlling. I thought it was really funny to think that, knowing I could do anything, I decided to go a hardware store and smash a bunch of shit up. "Yeah, I've done that. I've smashed everything up, fucked everyone, blown everything up, burnt everything, done everything. I used to dream I was invisible when I was young. Those were one of my favorites. Now, I like eating in dreams -- smelling and eating are what I do now." I'm amazed, cause I've never smelled anything in a dream. "I've just worked out how to do it. It's really weird. It's like sound as well. Because it's not real, but it's like in your imagination. But when I eat food, it can be really vivid. I quite like looking in mirrors as well."
I tell him about when I go to bed drunk without drinking any water. In my dreams, I drink soft drink after soft drink trying to quench my thirst. Says Aphex, "Oh yeah, yeah, I do that as well. It's worse, if you piss yourself as well. I've done that about three times, when I've been drunk. You want to go to the toilet so much, but you're drunk, so you just dream it. And then when you wake up, you go, "Ah fucking hell, I've pissed myself.' You've never done that?" Actually, no. I haven't pissed my bed since I was a kid. Some people say if you piss in dreams, then you'll piss in real life, but I don't think that's true. "Yeah, not always," agrees Aphex. "Like I usually start pissing in a dream, and then realize it's a dream, and wake myself up. But when you're drunk, I don't control anything. I hate drunk dreams. They're fucking shit. They just go in loops, and repeat over and over again. And I'll remember things in the night, and they'll just loop over and over again. So I have to wake myself up, and go back to sleep ...
"Have you seen those things in the toilet?" he asks me after breaking off in mid-sentence. "Those information ads. They say the average time for sex is 33 minutes and 42 seconds, including foreplay." Including foreplay! We agree it's probably a lie. "Don't know. I couldn't work out if they were bullshitting or not. I don't know what my average shag length is. I suppose it depends on what girl I'm with." Comparisons can be drawn between his dreaming methods and sexual practices. "I can go as long as I want now. It's up to me. It just takes a lot of practice, I think. Well, it depends. For the first shag, maybe I won't be able control myself, but if you have like two in the night or something, after the first one you can do whatever you like. I can anyway."
The Warp press release states that he "has been teaching his computer to write music so he can spend more time shagging. He continues, "I like shagging. The girlfriend I've got at the moment is totally up for shagging anywhere, like in the street. I had a wicked shag on a beach in France before I came to America, and it was really good. There was this quite pretty woman, who was quite fit and about thirty, and she started wanking like about thirty feet away from us. She was wanking herself off, watching us two. So when we finished, she just crept away."
That's pretty odd, but strange things happen in France. In fact, I've seen a French movie where that happened, except everyone was related to one another. "Well, I've got a lush French girlfriend right now. I'm well missing her on this tour." I ask if he's pretty popular in France. "No not at all. I think it's probably the lamest territory. I've only played there once. But I said yes to a festival there later in the year, because I thought I'd get to see my bird."
So when you meet a girl, do you meet her cause you're Aphex Twin, or has it got nothing to do with that?
"I try, if I meet a girl, to make it so that if they know who I am, then I'm not into it. That's why I wouldn't want to be any more famous. Cause basically the only people that know me are in some certain scenes. Like this girl would have heard of me, but she wouldn't have recognized me. So it was pretty sorted. She wouldn't give a shit about that sort of thing anyway."
Yeah, I figure there's going to be some bars, where you can get just about any girl in the place, because they know who you are.
"Well, she's the opposite way around. Being famous is probably more of a handicap for me, because if it's a girl who's intelligent, she'll probably think, "He thinks he's a right fucking stud, because he's famous, and he can fuck off.' So it can work the other way around. That's probably what my girlfriend thought, and then she met me, and realized how right sorted I was. I'm more into girls who don't like what I'm into, because it keeps you interested more. If girls are to into what you do, you just get bored completely."
Okay, the big question. Is there a big difference between Richard James and Aphex Twin?
"I don't know. I don't know what Aphex Twin is anymore."
So if you're screwing about with girls a lot -- do you think that affects your recording?
"Oh definitely, that's why I haven't made loads of music for like two years, because I've been shagging loads of girls."
For all the press accolades and the showers of praise from the press and critics' congratulations and fan's adulations, I can't help getting the impression talking to him that Aphex Twin is more preoccupied with debauchery than anything else, and any good music that results is incidental. Once you can make music all the time, he points out, it's less exciting. The days where he would ride his bike home from school as fast as he could so he could make some music seem to be passing. "I still get excited when I'm opening my computer up," he says, "But not as much as I used to."
Halfway through the interview, I confess to being low on questions. So he asks me a question. (Something I'll always remember and respect about interviewing Luke Vibert is that when my mind blanked halfway through, he filled in for me by just talking about various things he was doing, while I tried to think up more questions.) The interviewer becomes the respondent. "You haven't got any weed have you?" No. "Can you buy it in Vancouver?" Oh yeah, you can buy it. "Can you get it in cafes and stuff like that?" No, it's not like Amsterdam or something. "Oh someone told me you could do that in some cafes." Well, maybe some cafes have some illegal operations. "Yeah, we had to put all ours in a Phillies Blunt last night before we went through customs -- you know, when you empty out a cigar, and fill it full of grass. So that's it. We burned it all up." So you're looking for some more? "Yeah, I wouldn't mind. I'd love a spliff right now actually. I've got a hangover from last night." You should make someone give it to you on stage. "Yeah, I've done that before actually. I did it Detroit actually, because I didn't have any gear. So I said at the end of the set, "If anyone's got any gear, bring it to our bus, because we want a smoke.' But I forgot to say we wanted to buy some, so there was like 80 people outside the bus saying, "Do you want to have a spliff with us?' And I couldn't really have a joint with like 80 people one by one on the bus. So I was just like, "Well, I just wanted to buy some for me and my mates,' but I did get some in the end, so it was pretty good."
I tell him about when Tricky was in Vancouver a few years back. At one point in the set, he refused to play another song until someone brought him a glass of brandy. "A Brandy? What on stage? That's pretty good. What did he do, while he was waiting?" It was just like thirty seconds. He just stood around on stage. "It should take longer than thirty seconds to get a brandy. It must have been a few minutes. That's quite good actually. I might do that tonight actually. But no one will have any gear in this place, will they?" Yeah, sure it's Vancouver. "It's good shit up here, isn't it?" Yeah, it's the Pacific Northwest. "It's got a bit of nature around you." Yeah, I don't really smoke much weed -- it's a bit of a badhead.
I tell him about how I've been having some arguments with a friend on e-mail. Cause at the time of the interview I'm in a bit of a creative drought. I'm restless. I need my fire lit. And my friend's telling me I should take some drugs. But the thing is I've got lots of ideas waiting to get out, and drugs'll pollute them. They'll never be the same ideas again. That's the argument anyway.
Aphex agrees. "Oh yeah, don't do anything creative with drugs. It's just a bit of escape, like a laugh. I like to be totally straight, when I do my music, so I can think about what I'm doing. I don't like being stoned. And I could never do stuff pissed. Well, I've done some stuff pissed. I did some stuff with Mike Paradinas -- the Mike and Rich album -- most of that was done drunk and on acid, as well." I never heard of that album. "Yeah, it was a bit messy."
Apparently, the album came out on Rephlex, which is Aphex Twin's own fast growing label. I ask if Rephlex has a publicity department. "It's just my mates," he says. "They're Teddy Bears tonight. They work for Rephlex. And the other person is on a tour with Squarepusher in Europe. We've got five people working for us right now, which is pretty good, I reckon. It's a good business. I employ my mates. It's well bizarre. Like my mate, he was really clever at school. He was always in the top class, and he's working for me now. It's bizarre. I pay him to work for me. It's pretty good actually. I like being the master.
"I give him days off work though. It's wicked. I was sitting around my mate's house, just getting real stoned, and he's like, "I gotta get up, and go to work.' And I was like, "Hold on, but you work for me. Just take the day off, take the morning off, take the week off, and roll up another spliff."
"I've got given loads of weed on this tour. People just come up and give you stuff. It's pretty good, but it's not as much as I would like. Someone gave me some mushrooms in Colorado. Me and Luke did them on the bus on the way to Las Vegas. It was wicked. It was the best part of the journey definitely, the best drive in the whole three weeks."
Fortunately, a guy working at the venue, a regular good Samaritan in fact, gave him some weed. After the exchange, they sat chatting about similar exchanges past for 5 minutes, before the guy realized I was conducting an interview, and what he was saying was being recorded. To put him at ease, I volunteered to rewind the tape and record over what he said. What I won't forget is that after I rewound the tape too far, Aphex seemed to remember everything he had said, as he gave me directions as to how far I still needed to fastforward. He gives the impression that he is just saying whatever comes across his mind, but it strikes me that he is still very aware of what he is saying. More precisely, what I want to say is that his music comes across as something uncanny, but after talking to him I get the impression that it's the result of a very deliberate, intentioned process.
As for the future, will he be consumed by his excesses, or is possible that the best is yet to come. "Oh yeah, I'm looking forward to it. Hopefully, it'll get better. I feel like I haven't made anywhere near as good a stuff as I'm going to make. I've just been so lazy. I can't possibly have made good music at all yet. I will get around to making a good bit of music sooner or later, instead of fucking around."
In the end, if anything's clear, he is clearly one whose greatest virtues are his vices.
Copyright 1999, Space Age Bachelor Magazine
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