Aphex Twin: Protection Racket

It’s been a long trip for Richard D James, the notorious and misunderstood figure behind the Aphex Twin and co-founder of the Rephlex label. As the imprint celebrates its 12th year with a new compilation and UK tour, he grants us a rare interview to talk about the protective approach to his creations and his ‘icronic’ status, the motives and personalities driving Rephlex, and his current view on contemporary electronica. 

“TO BE HONEST,I’d be quite happy never to hear anything new again,” declares Richard James, aka Aphex Twin plus a host of further aliases to be taken into consideration. It’s probably not a line you’d expect from the co-founder of Rephlex, a label that for 12 years has provided a dazzling, almost unmanageably concussive output of the electronic, the eclectic and the new, racking up a million sales in the process. However, when it comes to aesthetic matters close to his heart, a sort of mist descends on the Twin.

“There’s an over-emphasis on the new,” he mourns, “especially on the part of the media who need this continuing diet of new things to write about. But if you’re really serious about listening to music, there’s so much great stuff already that’s out there — you’re not bothered about scenes. It’s bad enough when you’re running a label and you run into those moments when you make decisions you shouldn’t be making in order to pay the staff and keep them in work. But with a magazine, this need to have new things all the time is just a fiction — to my mind it’s completely wrong. It’s not reflecting reality, but a need to fill space.”

“Anyway,” adds Grant Wilson-Claridge, principal cofounder of Rephlex, “what’s considered ‘new’ nowadays is nothing compared to music I’ve been exposed to recently that was made 40, 50 years ago.”

“It’s like any other art movement,” concludes James, half-smiling as ever, “the best stuff is at the source, at the beginning. The rest is derivative.” But like many people who have been commandeered into Futurism’s fast-forward impulse, he’s genuinely concerned at the rapid-dating disposability of modern electronic music — how the precious metals that are his creations are either widely imitated, or chewed up and spat out. This is a man who actually refuses to release the music that he considers his best and most dear to him, afraid that it’ll be ripped off, reduced to tainted dross in the public domain, or become perishable and dated if exposed to the atmosphere, “so that you end up hating your own music. So you have to protect it.”

James is indeed protective. He refused a request from Madonna to do a remix collaboration. Or at least he set impossible conditions — such as asking her to bark, literally, like a dog. “I wanted her to do these animal impressions,” he said at the time. He was shrewd enough to realise that if he were to work with Madonna, he’d most likely be tossed aside like a pair of ‘so last year’ rhinestone-encrusted flared jeans, come next season. On his 2001 album Drukqs, his protectiveness reaches almost absurd degrees. He talks of subjecting his music to a “pre-ageing” process, such as furniture undergoes, in order to throw would-be state of the art beathounds off the scent “so that it doesn’t sound like anything new or revelatory”, he says, continuing, “if you put out something that sounds completely new, it might sound revelatory in its time but, as with a lot of things, sounds rubbish a few years down the line.”

Richard D James is perhaps the most serious and not-serious person I’ve ever met. Salacious details of his gleefully vaunted eccentricity have worked their way from profile to profile through the press cuttings, and duly do so again here — the tank he bought secondhand, in which he charges around the Welsh countryside; the submarine with which he supposedly augmented his collection of military hardware; the time when, in a bout of pop-neo-dada DJing, he dropped a microphone into a food blender and applied sandpaper to a turntable needle. He’s boasted in the past of his lucid dreaming skills,

where he was able to manipulate his scenarios, as on the holodeck in Star Trek. He currently lives in a converted bank in Central London, and insists on conducting interviews in a featureless, grotty cafe in the Elephant And Castle, where even to breathe in is to risk clogging your arteries. You half expect it’s a gentle prank at the expense of ‘middle class’ journos. Me, I’m impervious, having grown up amid even grimmer places up North. Nonetheless, James innocently delights in putting everyone off their sandwiches with a gruesome account of how he watched an old man keel over and die mid-omelette at the next table, with the waiters continuing to step over him and serve food even as they waited for the ambulance.

Still, he’s here today for a purpose and a pointed one — not to promote any new material of his own, or boost his own “icronic” status (a word born during this interview), but to highlight the 12th anniversary of his independent label Rephlex, which is to be marked by, among other things, a November tour. He co-founded the label back in 1991 when still living in Cornwall, along with his friend and co-raver Grant Wilson-Claridge, who put up the initial capital from his savings. Fed up of depending on costly trips to London to acquire the records they subsisted on, they decided to take matters into their own hands. Their brief was simple — as Grant puts it, to release the sort of records they loved but were convinced would not be released elsewhere. Initially, this was a combination of Aphex Twin’s own material under pseudonyms like Caustic Window and AFX, unreleased material by artists who’d made their name elsewhere in the Acid boom (Baby Ford, Stakker Humanoid, 808 State) and a stable of mavericks such as Bogdan Raczynski, who have become part of Rephlex’s extended family.

Along the way, they have introduced a number of vital artists who bejewel the periphery of the electronica scene, including Bjork collaborator Leila, whose haunting, evanescent music is best showcased on her 1998 album Like Weather, Squarepusher, μ-Ziq and Luke Vibert. Many of the artists they’ve initially showcased have gone on to labels like XL or, in particular, Warp, with whom Rephlex sometimes appear synonymous but actually have no formal business connections. “They sell some of our records and we share a few artists, but if you compare one of our compilations with one of theirs, you’ll see the difference between us,” clarifies Wilson-Claridge. They also put out one of this year’s Top Ten albums, The Bug’s Pressure, Kevin Martin’s dancehall project.

Their present state of play is showcased on the Rephlexions compilation, released this month, a followup to 2001’s The Braindance Coincidence, featuring a cross-section of their roster. Not every single second of it works and there are moments, ironically, when you suffer the sort of novelty fatigue of which James complains. However, these moments are fleeting and the hit rate is astonishingly high. Although Rephlex’s manifesto isn’t much articulated beyond a vague clarion call for high quality and individuality, or encapsulated in the word ‘braindance’ — reflecting the mental rather than physical relationship that exists nowadays between music makers and their instruments — their A&R instincts are clearly very well developed.

Both James and Wilson-Claridge are at pains to emphasise that they no longer consider themselves merely a dance label. They insist that their operations presently extend to a variety of genres, from the limpid ambience of The Gentle People to the bizarre,

Meccano-operated, palindromically titled experiments of Pierre Bastien to the extremist investigations into the borders between electronica and musique concrete conducted by the likes of Ensemble. They envisage themselves as multiplying and cross-fertilising at an exponential rate “with release after release”.

“We like to work with different people,” says Grant. “We’re not interested in signing people up for five albums. You don’t know whether they’re going to be interesting in five albums’ time, or if they’ll be interested in you.”

The range of backgrounds and references of the diverse Rephlex artists is certainly impressive, as presented in a variety of thumbnail press release sketches, which also take a fair amount of licence with the actualite. There’s PP Roy, “ex-caretaker and amateur trampolinist”; Cylob (aka Chris Jeffs) is noted as a “composer of gay porn soundtracks”; DMX Crew took root in the year 1982, apparently determined to play out an infinite number of variations on an electrofunk theme; Global Goon is a character who has devised what he calls “health music” and whose whereabouts are presently unknown. However, both Wilson-Claridge and James refute the notion that they preside over a disparate pool of eccentrics.

“Eccentric? Not to us,” protests Wilson-Clardige. “To me, these are people who are as normal as you should be.”

“It’s the real ‘normal’ people who are the real fucking weirdos,” mutters James. “Or the people considered normal.”

“12 years down the line, I want our record label to be like Warner Brothers — I really don’t want us to be seen as a dance label,” re-asserts Wilson-Claridge. “That’s something we especially want to stress on the Rephlexions compilation. That might make us initially seem a bit eccentric but really, it shouldn’t.”

For all the ‘weirdness’ and sonic variegation, however, the vast influence of Aphex Twin is still cast over Rephlex. Abrupt contrasts between blurry, demented bursts of jackhammer rhythms and more lucid moments of soulful Ambient tranquillity still occur. More generally, there’s a balancing madness/mischief, a facetious evasiveness, a love of punning titles, with a stiller, more solemn intensity of purpose.

“In terms of releasing music, there are different levels of intensity,” explains Grant. “Sometimes we put things out for fun, because it’s £2.99, because it’s Valentine’s Day or whatever. Other times we put out things because we consider them deeply and emotionally fulfilling; or we want them to be taken out by space colonists so that extra-terrestrials can hear what we’re doing. Sometimes we put out records because we’re just wondering what the hell whoever made them is trying to do.”

If this dichotomy does exist, it’s embodied in the art and antics of Aphex Twin himself, his seriousness/not seriousness. He’s always been master of his own fate, a clever player of the game, ever since he somehow managed to sign up his first hit single, ‘Didgeridoo’ to two labels at once. Cool, self-possessed and with a firm grasp of the plot, he ascribes his ability to negotiate the vicissitudes of his half-fame to a “thick skin” and a “nice upbringing”. Yet there’s also something convulsive, if not actually schizophrenic, about his music, whose rich variety luxuriates between two wildly disparate polls — Ambient Aphex, all amorphous, earnest and introspective, and the bpm mentalist Aphex of, say, ‘Come To Daddy’. He agrees there’s fun in playing one off against the other, and byway of illustration relates the story of an infamous early 90s Glastonbury appearance by fellow travellers The Orb.

“They were the only dance act at Glastonbury that year,” he says, “and all the E-heads and ravers turned out to see them en masse. And The Orb played this totally Ambient set — you know, the sound of the whales and the sea, and it drove them mad. There was one bloke stamping up and down, absolutely screaming and gurning with rage. And of course, The Orb they knew exactly what they were doing.

“Then there’s Cylob,” he continues, “who’s with Rephlex, who has the master example of this in his set. For half an hour, he’ll play really mental rave tracks that people know — then he’ll slow up, he’ll play the intros to them and then, just as the crowd are getting going, he’ll stop, chime in with these really depressing chords and this computer voice that drones the word ‘disappointment… disappointment’, over and over. He’ll do it for about a minute, then burst back into this really exciting tune.

“You have to confound people,” he insists. “I’ve been feeling this overwhelming need recently just to stop and stand and stare at an audience for an hour. I feel I’ve got to do it.”

Perhaps he feels the need to do so because certain less hinged members of his following do precisely the same thing to him — stare at him in a manner that goes beyond mere spectating or enjoyment, and borders on something a great deal more obsessive.

“It’s scary,” confirms Marcus, another of Rephlex’s people who joins us at the cafe. “It puts us out, really. He’s our mate and we’d like to protect him from it.”

As one of the few — perhaps sole — talismanic, ‘celebrity’ figures of the Warp/Rephlex axis, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Aphex Twin attracts such attention. The man himself doesn’t wish to talk about some of the stranger letters and emails he’s received over the years for fear of encouraging more of the same, but he does talk somewhat disdainfully about certain inhabitants of the IDM message boards where his name and work are jealously bandied about.

“It winds me up, things like that,” he spits, “because those people think they’re the be-all and end-all. I do like the Internet, the way it pricks the bubble of vanity that someone like Tom Cruise walks around in — then he visits a message board about him and someone’s sounding off about what a fucking prick he is. Brings you down very quickly. And with me it’s total criticism. My message boards, I don’t even understand what they’re on about — they have their own private language and acronyms. I’ve been banned from message boards of mine, kicked off straight away for winding up other people — which is ironic.”

But why this constant need to wind up? It’s not, as you might suspect, some selfconscious, laddish desire to deflate any pretensions or high-minded connotations attached to his music. As he once said, “I never take the piss out of anything I do creatively because I wouldn’t be worthy of existence if I did things like that.”

Rather, it’s born out of a deadly earnest, an almost pathological sense of purity and integrity when it comes to music making. Sometimes, that sense of purity is expressed in the noisenik stuff like his 1991 Techno masterpiece ‘Didgeridoo’, which is founded upon a drone effect on one note — not the kind of musical element that usually penetrates the Top 40 chart, as it did briefly that year.

“At the time I was going through a phase of thinking that notes were shit,” James explains, “and that no notes was where it was at. Turned out to be a winning formula. I was convinced I was the first person ever to have come up with the idea but I subsequently found that it had been done before, not just in the avant garde but in electronic dance music.”

Then, his attitude was that melody represented a contrivance, a shameful refinement of the raw and the real. However, so natural was his grasp of melody, as he reminds us time and again, that he would swiftly gravitate to the opposite position — beauty is truth.

“You mustn’t torture yourself over it,” he concludes. “I still find myself thinking that tunes are old hat. I end up thinking that keyboards are shit, they shouldn’t exist. It’s machines. It’s wrong.”

Much of the early acclaim heaped on Aphex Twin was based on the notion that even by the mid-80s, when the electrification of modern music was well on the way to completion, such was James’s remote Cornish upbringing and disconnection with the grid that his self-taught, self-generated music on self-built instruments rendered him tantamount to a Kaspar Hauser-type enigma. This myth was doubtless exaggerated, but James does insist that neither he nor any of his friends had any knowledge of electronic music beyond the odd rave or event featuring, as the posters vaguely put it back then, “top London DJs”.

“It all just came from me. I only thought about this recently, but if anything really influenced me, it was playing computer games when I was in my early teens. It was realising that you could control things through computers — even the sounds of computer games and the fanfare they make when you’re loading them in. I didn’t see computers as connected with music-making at first. I don’t think many people did. Even Kraftwerk was electric keyboards, really.”

In the early 90s, when I interviewed him for the first time, he talked about his music as if it were something that emerged incessantly from every pore. He said he wished he could devise some sort of studio backpack so as to ensure that his constant creativity were properly funnelled and recorded, if he’s slowed down at all — his last album ‘proper’ was 2001’s Drukqs — then he has at least one explanation.

“The Internet!” he laughs. “For a while computers were very liberating, but now the big problem with computers, apart from the fact that they keep going wrong, is that you’ve got so many distractions — email, looking at downloads. Once all you could do was make music but now you really have to be disciplined…”

In the late 90s, James made his most darkly significant merger in the domain of the serious/not serious, when he collaborated with film maker Chris Cunningham on the alarming video for “Come To Daddy”, where, in scenes not dissimilar to the self- replicating faces in Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, a bearded James appears in a variety of guises from children to OAP. Coupled with a photoshopped image of him in a bikini on the front of NME, this was leering, bonkers, disconcerting Richard James, taking up at the very point where The Prodigy drew the line. He also worked alongside dark TV satirist Chris Morris, an avowed Aphex fan, who made significant use of his music during his Blue Jam radio

show and subsequent TV version Jam. The effects were troubling and clearly involved the input of genius, the impishly perverse James and the deadly mordant Morris. Yet, like mixing gravy and chocolate, the notion of “dark Ambient comedy” didn’t quite take. James, despite praising Morris as the “best comedian of all time”, sort of agrees.

“Chris is a fan,” he says, “and that’s how the collaboration came about. He wanted to find an excuse to use Warp’s music. But it’s a bit weird — the same with Chris Cunningham, who also does something very different from music. It was as if they were both fantasising about being musicians, so they both looked for a way of working it into what they did. As well as respecting each other’s works. I have to say, though, I’ve got a copy of the Blue Jam album he did for Warp without the music and I do think it works better that way. Mind you, it’s great to watch when you’re stoned.”

Converse to the Internet-hungry, tank rampaging, city dwelling Richard James is the more bucolic Richard. Mike Paradinas of μ-Ziq is not the first to note a strong pastoral leaning in his music (see Invisible Jukebox, The Wire 234), which inevitably connects with his rural upbringing. It also makes sense in that rave culture took electronic music out of the city, placing it beyond the M25 motorway’s ring around London and into the fields.

James considers this point. “I don’t know,” he ponders, “because all you know is what you’ve grown up with… I suppose there is something. Put it this way, if you live in the countryside, it’s totally boring. You’re living out in the middle of nowhere and the music has a completely different role. For instance, if you’re in the city, a piece of Ambient music might be very relaxing. You play that same piece of music in the countryside and it ends up giving you The Fear! They sound so sinister when you’re alone in the house, you need to rush to put the radio on.”

Then again, it isn’t the Ambient work that signifies the rural. Like random ball bearings, his frequent forays into proto-drum ‘n’ bass, always had a distinctly ‘homebrewed’ feeling to them, which made him such an inspiration to other bedroom beatheads — the equivalent of a fearsome cider concocted in a dirty vat in a garden shed. “Yes, that’s quite a good analogy,” agrees James.

Perhaps there’s more going on than aural watercolouring. Speaking about the city of Turin, Nietzsche once alluded to the “nostalgia for the infinite”. Ambient music, not least Aphex Twin’s, often harbours a variation on that — nostalgia for things you never experienced, places you’ve never been (prime example: ” Brian Eno’s “Dunwich Beach, Autumn 1960”).

“I’m really nostalgic, certainly,” says James. “And I like the idea of being taken out of your surroundings, out of reality, into another place. But for me the music is about creating moods which you can identify with but can’t explain. That’s my favourite type of music and my favourite thing that music does, because it’s abstract — it expresses and represents things which language or even pictures can’t.”

When James was first interviewed, he professed absolute ignorance of people to whom he was compared and to the great figures in the ancestry of electronic/minimalist music, including Eno, Terry Riley, Stockhausen, et al. “Yeah,” he recalls, “and that used to scare me a little because I was afraid that I’d listen to these people and it’d stop me making music, or make me become over-analytical towards it. I’m aware of those things now, I certainly wasn’t back then.” Indeed, he alludes to Luciano Berio among others in the course of this interview and raises a lowbrow chuckle with his reference to BEAST’S Jonty Harrison and the “Sonic Arse Network”. But he knows his stuff. In their drive to dispel perceptions that they’re just a dance label, Rephlex can point to the significant feelers they’ve put out in the direction of the more academic climes of musique concrete — not just Ensemble, but also Robert Normandeau, a composer of ‘acousmatic music’ whose ‘Bede’ on Rephlexions, which comprises the cut up and rearranged recitals of a single 11 year old girl, is an obvious descendant of Stockhausen’s Gesang Der Junglinge.

“When you go through our entire back catalogue you could build a whole set of stuff from any genre — including ‘acousmatic’,” asserts Wilson-Claridge. “We like sounds. Never mind rhythm and melody. If you don’t have a sound, you’re flailing from the start.”

“It was pretty cool that Robert decided to do some stuff with us because a lot of people we’ve contacted tend to dismiss us as a rave label,” adds James. “People from that world tend to turn their noses up at us, but when they see that they can sell 3000 records instead of 200, they tend to take a lot more interest.”

As Rephlex look to expand into new territories, they’re uncomfortably aware of the paradoxical nature of the contemporary music scene — caught between the empty, groaning feeling that there’s “nothing happening”, most prevalent among those perpetually waiting for some guitar-toting ‘saviours’ to paint the next white stripe along rock’s never-ending grey highway and the galactic glut of the Actually Happening, which is so amply reflected in the myriad and infinite adventures of their own label output. “People who think there’s ‘nothing happening’ aren’t actually music fans,” insists James. “There’s a huge amount going on out there.”

And you can understand why he sometimes wishes there weren’t. “We try and work less off demos,” he continues, “and concentrate more on seeking out things. It’s time better spent. It’s depressing, it fucks you over listening to demos, the hit rate is so low. I try to remember the time when I had no money and nobody would listen to my music. When we started the label, I vowed I would listen to every single demo. But that’s one of the few promises I’ve had to break. When we first started we got virtually no demos. But nowadays, we get more demos than we sell records.” “Everybody has access to everything,” says Wilson-Claridge with an ambivalent sigh. “It’s easier. But the good-to-rubbish ratio is the same. That said, because there’s more music being made, it stands to reason that there is more good music being made.”

This prompts Richard into a momentary reverie as, during a brief lull, the wash of distorted piped Muzak swimming round the rafters of the Elephant And Castle Shopping Centre, coupled with the mass of rebounded echoes of chatter, clatter and bustle resound in a manner resembling some sort of avant garde installation. Finally, a naive, homegrown yet as you think about it, strangely inspired musing. “Imagine a situation where you were into all music,” he dreams, “absolutely everything turned you on. You’d be in pure ecstasy. But what kind of music would you make, if you blanked absolutely nothing out? It’s almost scary.”

© David StubbsThe Wire, November 2003

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