APHEX TWIN is the first superstar of ambient, the crossover King of innovative pop. Which is why Seefeel, Saint Etienne, The Boo Radleys, Curve, hell, even The Lemonheads have been queuing up to be touched by the godlike remixing hand of the man they call ‘The Mozart of Techno’. With the release of Selected Ambient Works II – the ambient LP for indie kids this year – DAVID STUBBS speaks to Aphex’s eccentric alter ego RICHARD JAMES about daleks, sex dreams and being the ambient-with-attitude child of Brian Eno and Iggy Pop.
THE MAN MACHINE
I ARRIVE late at the greasy spoon cafe in the “well dodgy area” in north London near to where Richard James, aka The Aphex Twin, currently resides. He’s long since abandoned a half cup of cold coffee to pore over a copy of Loot and, in particular, the “For Sale” section. Somebody’s trying to flog a dalek. A rogue specimen, presumably, from the BBC props department that’s somehow found its way onto the market.
“Sounds well cool. What do you think?”
I don’t know. I knew someone who bought a dalek once. It was fine until they got it home. Then they realised it was too wide to fit through the front door. Probably one of the reasons the daleks never achieved world domination, come to think of it. They had to take it apart and re-assemble it every time they wanted to get it in and out of the kitchen.
“I wouldn’t keep it in the kitchen,” smirks the Aphex Twin. “I’d go out in it. Trundle out in it to do the shopping, collect my dry cleaning and that. No, seriously, I reckon I’ll check this out. I can probably knock him down a few hundred quid.”
He probably will, and all. Ever since Richard James was 13 and living in Cornwall, he’s been using music and machinery as a means of immuring himself from the outside world. To escape from his sister playing “bloody awful” Jesus and Mary Chain records in the next room to begin with but then later out of a preference for virtual worlds to actual worlds.
So the next time you see a dalek trundling down your high street, don’t be surprised if that’s The Aphex Twin inside, at the controls.
DESERT ISLAND DISCS…
AS POTENTIALLY ambient’s first superstar, it’s small wonder that Richard James is conscious of controlling his environment. He suggests that we do the interview in the park and selects a rickety bench way in the middle of a vast, triangular green, with the heavy north London traffic buzzing along way out on the peripheries.
He’s less conscious of environmental conditions, however – it’s a cold day and after an hour, we’re freezing our bollocks off. But Richard, a friendly and garrulous interviewee, doesn’t seem to notice.
Wouldn’t he rather be in the studio than doing this?
“I don’t mind this because I never make music during social hours, I always do it during early hours,” he says. “I still don’t sleep much [The Aphex Twin has in the past claimed only to sleep for two or three hours a night], though I do sleep more than I used to – now, I have to stick to f***ing schedules. It’s quite sorted. Most people flake out about three or four o’clock, when you’re with mates. And that’s it, they go off to bed and I go off to the studio.”
I ONLY CALLED Richard James “potentially ambient’s first superstar” to get your attention. In fact, his music is whole star systems beyond the bright blue atmospheres of most ambient, Sven Vath and the like. Selected Ambient Works II, his latest album, sounds like the prehistoric noises emanating from a distant, uninhabited planet a galaxy away.
The whole drift of The Aphex Twin’s soundtrack seems to be towards escape towards a private world in which he is in complete control of the conditions, sonic and otherwise.
“I’ve always had this idea of a machine that’s a porta-studio that you can literally walk around with.”
What, a sort of backtrack 24-track studio?
“Yeah! I love big old synths like that but if I had a system about this big I don’t think I’d ever listen to anything ever again, I’d just be creating the whole time.”
You seem to be wanting to get away from other people…
“You’d be sorted, you could just go up a mountain and write loads of tracks, go anywhere you want. Trouble is, if they did it, they’d make it for general use, the mass market, and I’ve never bought anything like that that’s any good.”
To avoid this in the past, Richard went so far as to construct his own instruments, so a s not to be relying on electronic noises pre-programmed by some Japanese manufacturer. He resists collaboration as far as humanly possible, attempting to control every aspect of the creative process, get as much of what’s his off his chest. He is pouring stuff onto tape as often as he gets the chance, far more often than he actually listens to music, either his or anyone else’s. “My problem listening to music is that I can never just do that, just listen to it. I have to analyse it, break it down into its component parts, y’know, like a twat. Unless I’m off my face, that’s the only way I can relax into it. Either that, or go to sleep with headphones on really loud.”
The Aphex Twin has a strangely fixated, unhealthy attachment to music and the act of making it, which, he openly admits, puts him in perpetual danger of degenerating into a completely anti-social animal.
“It’s my fantasy, just to be locked away somewhere forever. I do enjoy other things, but whatever I’m doing, at the climax of it, however good it is, if I ask myself, would I rather be in my studio, the answer’s always ‘Yes’, I’m afraid. I try to persuade myself I’d rather do other things but it’s not really true.
“My parents, who recently moved to Wales, said to me, you never come and see us, and I said, well, I would do if I had a studio there.”
What does your girlfriend think of all this?
“Well – there you are, I make sure I do make a life for myself out of the studio, so that I don’t die of ill-health or whatever. I rely on my friends to rescue me from myself.”
But even The Aphex Twin’s recreation is machine-generated, solitary. He’s into computer games.
“Yeah, when I’m tripping, usually. I can’t play them straight. I like God games where you have a bird’s eye view of a city. Computer games when you’re tripping are like virtual reality but about 100 times better.”
ONE OF US! ONE OF US!
THE APHEX Twin may be a control freak but he’s not an actual freak. In appearance and general demeanour, he could be your regular indie head. His good-natured, rough and tumble conversation is sprinkled liberally with flippant expletives, and he doesn’t share any of the new age cod-cosmic mysticism that some of his dance contemporaries often seem to be verging on.
Pick out an ambient collection these days and it’ll usually be blighted by what’s little more than vast ridges of deodorised supermarket muzak, a sort of lukewarm Radox bath that bores you in its attempt to becalm you.
The Aphex Twin’s stuff, by contrast, has a rough and ready sensibility to it that’s in keeping with indie tastes, although he personally dislikes indie rock. This might be why he’s crossed over, attracted the attentions of artists such as Jesus Jones, Curve, Saint Etienne, Seefeel and now, it seems, The Lemonheads. Maybe he’s the missing link between Eno circa Music For Airports and The Stooges.
“I know it does sound like that. Maybe because the equipment I use isn’t professional equipment. Also, I do prefer dirtier, abrasive sounds. When you turn on the radio and listen to Kiss, all those records are top quality productions but I hate that horrible cleanness, it just puts my back up.
“Thing is, I record my stuff live most of the time. I do get these people, these trainspotters, who I allow around my house, they want to know how I do this stuff live. The thing was originally I never had enough tape so I’d just have to get it right first time. So I never really retake anything. If I f*** up, I just leave it in as it is.”
SELECTED AMBIENT Works II, however, doesn’t proceed at the jackhammer pace of Didgeridoo or the Polygon Window outings. It’s leading the trend towards a “darker” ambient (alongside the likes of Cabaret Voltaire man and Warp stablemate Richard H Kirk’s Virtual State).
Simon Reynolds gave a fuller topographic exploration of its surfaces in last week’s Maker; for me this is escapism into an inhospitable climate, the primitive, aboriginal noises of a world that is at once beautiful, unsullied by human habitation and yet hostile for not being able to support life as we know it, hence the oscillations between a classical, dewdrop lyricism and great, looming banks of electronic black clouds.
You can imagine how The Aphex Twin greets my blurted words to this effect. He writhes with embarrassment.
“There’s nothing worse than people telling me how much they like my records. I just get shudders down my spine.”
There have been low moanings from certain quarters that this isn’t what Sid Vicious died for, that we have come full circle to the prog rock of the mid-Seventies, Yes, late Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream, etc. Much of this has come from punk old farts now in retirement or in the media. This is nonsense, as what was terrible about bands like Yes was their virtuoso-for-virtuoso’s sake doodlings and their woolly, sanguine mysticism about the forces of goodwill being conjured up, Excalibur-style, through the magic of synthesisers.
The Aphex Twin shares none of these vices. Mind you, Led Zep IV style, there are no titles to the tracks on Selected Ambient Works II, merely “textures”. Why?
“Well, three-quarters of the album came about through lucid dreaming,” explains Richard. “That’s one thing in my life I wouldn’t swap for anything, my ability to control dreams, because I’m so good at it now. It started off when I was about seven or eight, I really wanted to drive a car, and I had this recurring dream of getting into a car but each time I’d fall out. So each time I’d try to do different things, like strap myself in, or put the key in the lock but I’d still keep falling out. Then, about the eighth time I got in, welded the seat down, padlocked myself in, welded all the doors shut, did all these ridiculous things so I couldn’t fall out, turned the key and managed to drive away in it.
“Ever since then, it’s got belter and better, from shagging anyone you want to, meeting anyone you want to, eating anything you want to… eating and smelling things are my favourite.”
Are we allowed to ask who you shagged in your dreams?
“No! Actually, I’ve stopped doing that one. It was probably mostly people I knew.”
Wot, no actresses?
“Well, yeah, but I can’t remember who… they’re too sad to remember.”
HMMM. ALL OF this reminds me of the “holodeck” in Star Trek: The Next Generation (vastly superior to the Kirk’n’Spock original, kids), in which crew members can programme computer-generated, three-dimensional fantasies, virtual reality brought down to a fine art. Being a bunch of goody two-shoes, and with younger viewers watching, they usually go horse-riding or simulating old Sherlock Holmes stories rather than act out sexual fantasies and hose out the computer chamber afterwards.
“But when you make up things that don’t exist and start smelling them… I prefer it to reality, basically.”
Since you have such a good time, I’m surprised you don’t want to sleep more.
“Well, you don’t need much time. Dreams don’t take place in actual time. A 20-minute kip’ll do. I’ve always had sounds in my dreams and that’s where stuff from the album came from. I couldn’t do it at first. I’d sleep for 20 minutes, dream a track, wake up and then forget it. Be pissed off. Do it again. And finally get it right. It’s something I’ve just started doing. My most successful thing is to go to sleep in the studio, then dream I’m in the studio along real or imaginary bits of gear, do the track in my dream, then wake up and recreate the whole thing. I was so amazed when it actually worked. In about two years time I reckon I’ll have the whole thing completely sorted.”
WHEN ALL you want to do is be left alone to commit a Mozartian, unstoppable stream of musical ideas onto tape, the pressures of a burgeoning career can be a strain. The Aphex Twin even differentiates between his creative output and the act of making records, which involves the tedious processes of editing, selection, the whole press round, which is expanding all the time. Other people. Hell.
“I hate making records, which I only do for purely commercial reasons. I find live appearances totally embarrassing. And doing photo sessions with these middle-aged papers like The Face who have art directors turning up to the photo shoot showing me all these drawings they’ve done of me posing on a surfboard and I just have to say it’s shit. Then you see them huddle in a corner with their mobile phones getting grief from their editors, then they ask me what I’d like to do? And I say, ‘Well, I wouldn’t mind sitting in that armchair’.”
“I have this thing about business. Because I think it’s crap, I end up instinctively wanting to do something crap. I have to fight against that. I have to persuade myself not only to do it, but to do it well.”
Have you ever thought about doing soundtracks?
“See, I’ve got two ambitions. One is never to get a job, the other is to make music until I drop dead. But now there’s a third, which is to do soundtracks. Maybe even a big Hollywood job if I put my mind to it. But then, I’d have to work to some f***ing twat director’s wishes, I’d have no freedom at all and I know I couldn’t bear that. I’d just end up hitting them.”
And with that tactful and barely concealed plug for a commission on Paramount’s next big budget project, we part company.
Who’s the other Aphex Twin? There couldn’t be another Aphex Twin. One of a kind.
IF YOU LIKED SELECTED AMBIENT WORKS, YOU’LL LIKE..
Some avant-garde antecedents to chase up (if you can find them)
KARLHEINZ STOCKHAUSEN: Kontakte
RECORDED IN 1960, a classic of early electronics, musique concrete that attempts to defy every received notion of musical narrative. An attempt at a new musical lexicon that was never really followed through.
ERIK SATIE: Complete Piano Works
ECCENTRIC but much more accessible turn of the century French composer (you’ve heard ‘Les Gymnopedies’ on a million adverts) who coined the notion of ambient, declaring that his music was to be listened to between the clattering of knives and forks at table and once rebuking an audience for paying too much attention to him as he played.
BRIAN ENO: Music For Airports
TAKING UP his cue from Satie, Eno devised his beautiful but functional aural sounds having sat in a German airport and wondered what the perfect soundtrack to this setting might and wondered what be. The rest is not just history but sonic geography.
THE RESIDENTS: Eskimo
CALIFORNIAN oddballs who resolutely kept their identities a secret. Eskimo is a collection of synth-driven pieces which depict in sound stories arising from Eskimo culture. They also made an album called Not Available, which they vowed never to release until they’d forgotten they’d made it. Relevant to The Aphex Twin, who’s made so much stuff he’s forgotten he’s made most of it…
© David Stubbs, Melody Maker, 12 March 1994