PART MALL, part Moroccan Souk, Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre is a dilapidated mish-mash of late ’60s brutalist architecture that contains a bustling marketplace. It’s grimy. And no place for a ten-year-old’s birthday party.
But this garish South London landmark is where Richard D James and Grant Wilson-Claridge have chosen to hold court in celebration of ten years of Rephlex, the label they have nurtured into adolescence. The location seems like some kind of avant garde joke, picked for its congruity with the label’s fixation on beautiful-ugly contemporary kitsch. But as Richard lives nearby, it turns out that convenience was simply the order of the day.
Rephlex is not just a label, it’s a lifestyle for the disparate selection of savant genii and oddball individuals that make up its roster and cluster together at club nights, hatching plans and sharing in-jokes like a gang of miscreant schoolkids. The label is as much the vision of Grant Wilson-Claridge, as of his notorious other half. All the music released is given the seal of approval by both partners, but it is Grant who oversees packaging and promotion, handling the day-to-day nitty-gritty of running the label.
For the record, while Richard sports his familiar, worn green anorak, Grant is sporting a garish, vintage Run DMC/Adidas sweatshirt. He is also the proud owner of a large collection of late ’80s Run DMC-related merchandising. And the label seems to thrive on the adolescent obsessions he has retained. After ten years of slog, releasing one record a month, they still put out music to please themselves and no-one else, inadvertently selling anything from 1,000 to 60,000 copies of releases that range from the wilfully obscure and downright irritating to the carefully-crafted and achingly beautiful.
Poring over their shared history together, takes the edge off having to explain themselves, something that Richard is always uneasy about and Grant is unwilling to entertain. But they are more than happy to reflect on their provincial beginnings and offer insights into Rephlex’s ramshackle success.
Grant and Richard first met at the Bowgie, Cornwall’s largest club, in Crantock, a West Coast surfing haven that lies on the joint of Cornwall’s bony toe. The Bowgie (which is Cornish for “cattle shed”) attracted London DJs such as Mike Pickering (later of M-People) and Paul Guntrip (of the Wag Club). The visiting DJs were a lifeline of new music for the small-town fellows. “When Mike Pickering came down that was the first time I heard Derrick May,” recalls Richard. “I wrote down every record he played, I reckon, to find later on.”
Richard used to DJ in the club every second Saturday, mostly playing his own tracks. Grant, who spun hip hop and electro on the alternate week, felt compelled to run up and find out what he was playing, and eventually offered to use his savings to release Richard’s music. And so, Rephlex was born.
Soon after, while sitting in a Cornish stone circle (and without doubt intoxicated by something other than the countryside), the duo claim to have uncovered their muse. A genre of sound known only as “Braindance”, and represented graphically on Rephlex releases by a mass of mystic grey matter attached to one left foot. “We didn’t make it up,” Grant protests. “We just had this funny feeling. So we dug it up. Pure braindance plasma. A bit like the Holy Grail.” But he is vague and evasive when asked to define exactly what this mystical force is.
“Braindance is… boundless, eclectic, entertaining” runs the piffle printed on the sleeve of The Braindance Coincidence, Rephlex’s celebratory compilation. Maybe “braindance” is simply the sense of joyous wonder they experienced with their feet stuck in the sand at Cornish beach parties in the early ’90s. It is the sound of tidal flow and coastal corrosion folded into the euphoric chaos of rave’s digital delirium.
Before releasing any records, they moved to London, where Richard started an ill-fated electronics course at Kingston University. They drew up a flowchart of all the processes they thought were necessary to release records. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” says Grant. “We just felt around in the dark.”
The label operated from one room of Grant’s cluttered North London house (it still does). Records were stored in a garage with a broken door. Richard recalls that photographer Wolfgang Tillmans took a snap of him standing outside it, and was then corralled in to pack records, as was anyone else that came to the house. At first the record’s were distributed around Central London and suburban record shops by car. “We didn’t even know that record plants packed sleeves for you,” Grant explains of their early labour-intensive efforts.
MARKETING IS anathema to them. Early Rephlex releases followed the twisted logic of Richard’s output as Aphex Twin, with a marked eccentricity that made them almost impenetrable. “The ‘Joyrex’ ones didn’t sell at all when we first took them out, did they?” says Grant. “They came back again because people didn’t understand them. Then a month later they all sold out. It was really bizarre.”
But not altogether unsurprising. One of their first releases, the Joyrex 4 EP, contained what was essentially a spirited rave remix of Hot Butter’s jaunty ‘Popcorn’ (by Moog maestro Gershon Kingsley) filtered with ear-bleeding frequencies. Other tracks included ‘AFX114’, tribal techno with off-meter interruptions, and the synthetic Yemenite lullaby of ‘Italic Eyeball’. In retrospect, this unchecked eclecticism is pure AFX, undiluted braindance. But to a rave scene that was rapidly subdividing sound along stylistic boundaries, its all-embracing influences and nonconformist nature must have sounded like a mortal threat to the status quo. Initial press reactions, not always encouraging, bore this out. “Dave Clarke started a thing in Mixmag called ‘Pooh Corner’ especially for ‘Joyrex J9’,” beams Grant, “although he’s since apologised to me for that.”
“I’ve always thought that those were the best sort of reviews that you can get,” Richard adds with glee. “If you can get someone really slagging it off, and you can see that they’re angry. Not just saying it’s bollocks, but so that you can tell there’s something wrong with them.”
“Yeah,” says Grant. “Zero and ten both mean the same thing.”
The simplicity of the Rephlex set-up, although obvious, can not be understated. The aim was (and still is) to put out music that they want to listen to at work and play. Part of the charm is that absolutely nothing is contrived to sell records. In fact, it’s almost the opposite. Business ploys that set up an inequality in the power relationship between label and artist, allowing one to grow at the expense of the other, are turned on their head with Rephlex. Artists are signed on a one-off basis with the door left open for them to return should they wish. Their cachet is such that music which is considered unreleasable (read: unmarketable) by other labels suddenly acquires “brand recognition” once it’s been on Rephlex. Luke Vibert, Squarepusher and Leila were swiftly signed up to bigger labels following their respective debuts. Others like Cylob, Global Goon and DMX Krew have become stalwarts of Rephlex’s constantly shifting roster (which now numbers over 40 acts).
Obsessive fans attempting to collect the entire catalogue soon realised the impossibility, and instead set about trying to decipher and dissect every detail of every release. They discovered that Analogue Bubblebath 3‘s alphanumeric track titles were ciphers made up from Grant and Rich’s telephone numbers and post codes. The Green Universal Indicator album – unconfirmed rumours peg it as the work of Paradinas or Richard or Grant (or any combination of) – came in a plastic sleeve with a day-glo green Cornish road map on its cover. Tracks were each titled with a letter and a number, which spelt out a distended ‘UK ACID’. The record apparently came in 7, 10 and 12-inch versions. There was no big plan to this sort of game-playing with intimate details other than to keep the process fresh and fun.
Records were pressed in ridiculously low quantities – there are just 100 copies of the Q-Chastic EP and 300 copies of the Joyrex J9i EP – and released anonymously in multiple formats and permutations, fuelling fan speculation ad infinitum as to who recorded what, when and why. Packaging was cheap and charmingly naive, using plain paper bags, polystyrene sleeves and (in the case of the Analogue Bubblebath 3 CD) bubblewrap and an 80s-retro, bargain-bin design aesthetic that continues to this day. “But,” says Grant, “as the ball got rolling there simply wasn’t time to sort special packaging out for every record.”
The Rephlex policy on videos are that they are an extravagance to be avoided unless made for little or no expense. “They either make it themselves and send it in or we’ve got our man, hiding in his dark North London bedroom,” says Grant. “Stray Dog!” Richard interjects. “Yeah, that’s his name,” Grant continues. “He’s our tech/computer/science officer. But he’s only awake at night. He does our videos. He just films everything.”
Classics of this no-budget genre can be freely downloaded from the Rephlex website. Dressed in skunk wigs and big bird masks, New Jersey P-Funk descendants, Freakwincey, produced a smell-a-second ghetto guff-fest for their Christmas single, ‘I Farted’. Bogdan Racyzynski made a monochrome time-lapse film of himself sleeping. Cylob splashed out and hired a cute karate-kicking contortionist to choreograph a routine to his touching ‘Rewind’.
BY THEIR own admission, it’s hard to find musicians of a similar bent to themselves; people content to music simply for its own sake. “Times have changed,” says Richard, ” people aren’t that bothered about demos because they know they’re not going to make any money anyway and they can just put it on their website. And I reckon, they’re the kind of people who don’t even know what electronic music is, so they’re definitely not going to be sending us any demos!”
When Rephlex started, sourcing material was less of a problem. Mike Paradinas and Luke Vibert were both pals from Cornwall. The Gentle People, purveyors of soft-focus exotica, were one-time neighbours of Richard’s. Mild-mannered gabba freak Chris Jeffs (aka Cylob and Kinaesthesia) was spotted gooning in the front row of an Aphex gig in Sheffield. DMX Krew was contacted on the strength of one release on a Dutch label, whereupon he and Grant bonded over a shared fetish for all things electro.
Latter day Rephlex signings, Ovuca and Bogdan Racyzinski were the rare exception of those who got spotted by sending demos by post; although this was the only conventional thing about their musical solicitations. Bogdan, whose musical madness is characterised by cd-skipping beats and flailed attempts at the singer-songwriter genre, sent six CDs all under different names from different countries. Was he just hedging his bets? “I don’t think he cared,” laughs Richard. “He was just living out his personas,” says Grant.
Ovuca, whose electronic oeuvre is as meditative as distressed whale song (and includes Onclements, a 100-plus tracks of scattershot sound sketches), submitted three demos credited to someone called “Rachel Thompson”. One was a recording of ground hum, another just tape hiss, and the last was record crackle. “I just thought anyone who sends a tape of that to a record company needs to be called up,” says Grant. “When I rang him on his mobile he was in the Arctic Circle. It was minus 20 degrees and he was nude outside his log cabin looking at the Northern Lights, totally pissed up with Analogue Bubblebath playing at maximum volume. As soon as he answered the phone, I heard [Richard’s] track and I said, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I’m in Lapland.’ And I just thought, yeah, he’s the man.” (It’s probably worth pointing out to fame-hungry URB readers aching to submit a demo that the same trick won’t work twice.)
Richard now spends hours scouring the internet for new music. Although this too has caused some logistical problems. “I’m trying to work out a system so that people know it’s me. If I just go, yeah it’s me from Rephlex, they get really annoyed.” It’s left to Grant to write and explain to anonymous web denizens that, yes, it really is the Richard D. James contacting them.
THE LABEL’S tendency to attract wayward individuals can also cause some headaches. “It’s that pain and pleasure thing,” says Grant. “Yeah,” continues Richard, “but the harder they are to handle, the more fun and interesting they are.”
A case in point is Bogdan, whose mere presence got him effectively barred from the UK. Grant explains. “The first time he came over, he brought hundreds of CDs with him and no money. And he used to wear dead people’s clothes salvaged from funeral parlours. So he looked really dodgy. He’s American with a name like Bogdan, but he’s originally from Poland. Immigration were just like, ‘What is this! No, mate, you’re going home on the plane.’ So we sat in the prison with him for eight hours. And you can’t overturn a deportation. I was on the phone for six hours trying to find someone to help. Eventually we got hold of a friend of a friend of a friend, who’s a bigwig lawyer and blagged it. He was meant to come over for three weeks but they stamped his passport for a year. But now he’s got a big X on his passport which causes loads of problems.”
But the life-blood of Rephlex is the weird and awkward characters who don’t fit in anywhere else; it is the grief they cause and the noise they make. And no one, it seems, has been barred from the label for causing too much trouble. “We’d only ban someone for being boring,” Richard says defiantly. Amen to that. All hail the problem child.
© Chris Campion, URB, June 2001