Autechre: Mathematics is the new rock’n’roll

Being formulaic is what techno duo Autechre do. Good, says Mike Barnes

“WE GOT all these letters telling us how to make our music more commercial,” says Sean Booth, recalling record company responses to Autechre’s early demos. “They said, yeah, it’s good, but the structures aren’t square enough. You can’t tell when the beats are going to drop.” One wonders, nearly a decade on, what those same record company people would make of Confield, Autechre’s sixth album. Its originality is striking; the music is often harsh, occasionally beautiful, and encompasses both repetitive beats and rhythmic systems of extraordinary complexity. It’s about as far away from any recognised form of dance music as you can possibly get.

Rewinding back to the early 1990s Autechre­ — Booth and Rob Brown — were in the vanguard of the “intelligent techno” scene. Booth is amused to recount that the landmark Artificial Intelligence compilations ­ put out by the Sheffield label, Warp ­ were in fact a pragmatic use of leftover tracks unsuitable for release as singles; music by dance acts that just weren’t dancey enough. But the ploy worked and a new genre was created. Autechre’s 1993 debut album Incunabula followed, a potent mix of melody, shadowy atmospherics and grooves influenced by hip hop and Eighties electro. It topped the indie charts.

Since then, Autechre have travelled off on their own personal tangent into uncharted territory, bypassing all the commercially popular forms of electronic music en route. Artistically sound, this course has also resulted in lessening sales. Not that this bothers them. “It happens with every release,” shrugs Brown. “We have to accept there’s a limited appeal to it or we’d got crazy,” adds Booth.

They met as teenagers in Rochdale in the late 1980s. They so obviously enjoy talking that it’s disconcerting to hear them admit that they would rather not have done any press interviews for their new album, preferring instead, in Brown’s words, to “let it spread like a virus”. The music press have been largely shunned and many interested parties refused interviews. Autechre’s attitude may seem puzzling but in essence it’s straightforward ­ they aren’t interested in promoting themselves.

In recent years Autechre have been active in designing their own music software. They are so highly regarded in this area that a certain big company sends them software to test. But Booth doesn’t want to talk about it. True, they have signed a contract of non-disclosure, but Brown asserts that it would, in any case, be “showboaty” to do so.

Due to a sophisticated use of mathematics in their programming, Confield sounds at times like all the formulae regarding the Music of the Spheres­ — from Pythagoras to Bach and beyond ­— have been fed into their computer, re-emerging in undreamt of combinations. That may sound fanciful but it’s not so far from the truth. “We use maths in our stuff ­ it’s impossible not to when you’re making electronic music. Most people’s idea of music is based on multiples of four. Ours isn’t, so we have to do weirder maths,” says Booth.

“The first track on Confield is quite hierarchical,” says Brown, with reference to its intricate rhythms which rotate like the motions of cogs within cogs. “We could have programmed that in a normal MIDI sequence,” Booth adds, “but it would have taken about two or three years. But we made a programme to generate it and told it what to do and just kept tweaking the programme until it sounded right musically.” Autechre are interested in the music of “serious” electronic composers like Stockhausen —­ and enthuse about Ligeti —­ but refuse to make a case for themselves being considered in the same light. “I know about the numbers but I can’t play an instrument to save my life,” Booth claims.

Initially they were more influenced by a very different type of sonic experimentation ­ that was coming out of the Bronx at the close of the 1970s. “You got guys making music with turntables, playback devices,” Booth explains. “So for us, getting spun out as kids by hearing other kids on decks”­ “manipulating time,” interjects Brown­ “and making beats out of existing beats,” Booth says, “that was a big inspiration.”

“Rap by and large is pretty formulaic,” Booth continues. “But back in the day, hip-hop was about being fresh ­ ‘fresh’ was the highest compliment you could get paid. It’s still that hip-hop pressure, to be totally honest. I think we just want our shit to be a bit original and a bit new.”

© Mike BarnesThe Independent, 29 April 2001

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