MIDI CIRCUS at Brixton Academy in 1992. Three men dressed in Creature From the Black Lagoon outfits are trying to eat each other, and a deranged, stripped-to-the-waist skinhead is dancing as Bruce Lee would if someone had really upset him. All but hidden behind his modest but deadly array of home-made instruments is the centre-parted head of Cornish wunderkind Richard James, aka Aphex Twin, aka Polygon Window, and other aliases too obscure and numerous to mention.
An eye of calm in a hurricane of sonic chaos, centre-parting just visible over the lip of the stage, James’ head juts out in the midst of his cluster of customised equipment like the stone from a peach. His music is an extraordinary assault of random tempo-changes, bass earthquakes, jackhammer treble and all-round electronic savagery: at one moment recalling the sound of a circular saw finishing off a particularly stubborn tree trunk, at the next becalmed — in ‘Audax Powder’, for example, from the double album Surfing on Sine Waves — on a sea of ambient serenity.
A few days later, Richard James cuts a swathe through North London’s Clissold Park on a battered black bike. He prefers to meet out of doors. The russet beard which he will later cut and send out chunks of as a promotional device is still intact. The rings round his eyes suggest that there might be some truth in rumours that he prefers to go without sleep. James is currently struggling keep a grip on the second volume of his ambient works, which is threatening to expand from two albums to five. “The amount of stuff I’ve got in my head that I’m keeping in storage,” he says worriedly, “I know I’m not going to get it done if I live to be a hundred.”
When you’re this driven the benefits of collaborating only with machinery are obvious: “You don’t need to wake a band up every morning and get them out of bed.”‘
The little rocky outcrops of surfing slang — the rads and mentals that dot the backwash of James conversation — break up the illusion of a slave to the work ethic. His On EP boasts with a rain shower, a little flutey keyboard line, a metallic drum sound and a mechanical squelch that makes your teeth glow Songtitles like ‘Xepha’ and ‘73 Yips’ suggest a mixure of computer notation and classical Greek, but is this the sound of old languages breaking up or of new ones forming?
At midnight on Hallowe’en in 1996, a steady stream of slightly bemused revellers pick their way through the gruesome historical tableaux of London’s Clink prison museum. A small piece of paper on the wall next to a particularly lurid account of Elizabethan prostitution says “Aphex Twin show this way”. Upstairs, the room echoes with the pummelling rhythm of a panel-beater in hell and the crowd are enmeshed in a fisherman’s net of exquisite string sounds. Two men in giant dayglo teddy bear costumes with Aphex Twin masks where their faces ought to be fight their way through the tightly packed dancers, embracing or attacking people as the fancy takes them.
A few weeks later, the soft-spoken, auburn-haired man whose face was on the mask, returns to his favoured Clissold Park rendez-vous. Cornwall’s ambassador to outer space, at 25 years old the self-styled “Grand-daddy of Techno”, Richard James has just released an album called — for ease of reference — Richard D James. It is an extraordinary record, packing more ideas into its compact and bijou 33 minutes than most big names in electronic music will manage in an entire career. For the moment, though, its the bears that are on his mind.
“One of them had to go to casualty next day,” James reports matter of factly. “There was all this dried foam stuff in his eye that had to be scraped off under anaesthetic.” Was he happy with the somewhat orgiastic atmosphere their presence seemed to induce? “It was excellent. The crowd was split between people trying to get them on the floor and kick them in, and all these sweet little girls who were trying to save them.”
The bears will go with him to Japan in January. A disturbing and dreamlike reminiscence from the last Aphex Twin trip to the Orient suggests he might need them. “I was having a conversation in this club, and when people noticed I was there, they just started to come up and poke me. I told them to fuck off but more and more of them were coming up and pinching me — my mate just looked at me shaking his head and said, ‘I’m sorry I can’t help you’.” James shudders, smiling. “We tried to get away, but there was just this stream of people following us, so we hid in this room that was like a cupboard for ages trying to work out what to do. That was quite a hectic evening actually, but I’m not going to say what happened after because it was too bad.” The concept of something Richard James would consider to bad to mention is quite a disturbing one.
On the cover of his recent Girl/Boy EP, there was a photograph of a grave with some flowers and a brass plate bearing the inscription “Richard James Nov 23 1968”. Those assuming this to be a macabre Jamesian prank (this is after all the man) were shocked to discover that the grave was the actual resting place of his elder brother who died at birth, later inspiring not just his more fortunate sibling’s real name (The D in Richard D James stands, rather eerily, for Dick) but also his enigmatic nomme de guerre.
In all those long years of being asked where the name Aphex Twin came from, he’d never mentioned this before, so why did do so now? “The first thought I had was that it would be a sort of tribute. And the second was that I really like the photo — probably more than any other picture I’ve ever seen — just because it’s really personal. It was always on display; my mother had it in her room, and I remember the crossover point between not knowing what it was and knowing what it was, when I was about five,. I was a bit confused at first, then I got really into it: I used to show it to all my mates and say, ‘Look, a photo of my grave’.”
Wasn’t that rather a disturbing thing for a child to be doing? “Not really. I think basically the way my mum thought about it was ‘This child’s died, but it hasn’t really, because it’s going to be the next child and it’s going to be a boy and it’s going to be called Richard James’.” But didn’t that put him under an awful lot of pressure? “It never bothered me. I always thought it was cool.”
Since he first emerged blinking into the spotlight in the very early ‘90s, the former cornish tin miner’s son who built his own instruments — surfing the sine waves of ambience and the electric stormclouds of hardcore with equal facility — Aphex Twin’s career has never wanted for mythic resonance. The exciting thing about Richard D James is that he now seems intent on making music that lives up to the mythology.
The orchestral arrangements have a courtly unease worthy of the Titanic’s ballroom. Did Phillip Glass — who contributed a string sound of similarly pristine quality to ‘Iccht Hedral’on the Donkey Rhubarb EP — have anything to do with them?
“That was a real string section, but I made these ones up myself. I bought a violin for eight quid from a car-boot sale in Dalston and learnt enough to play a note — not holding it to my chin, but down on a table — I can’t play two in succession, but one’s enough to sample.”
Does he think of what he does as being the same as what a traditional musician does? “In a twisted sort of way it is… it’s always interesting to nick things, but if you nick stuff from yourself rather than other people you get more satisfaction.”
Ongoing Aphex Twin projects include teaching a computer to sing, and developing a programme to “introduce a random factor into electronic music”, which sounds like a more haphazard variant of Brian Eno’s Koan project. The first fruits of the former endeavour can be tasted on Girl/Boy‘s ‘Milkman’, wherein the effect of an entrancingly naive Syd Barrett-style first verse is cruelly undermined by James’s computer-doctored voice singing that he “would like some milk from the milkman’s wife’s tits”.
“I thought it was too nice,” he explains, not at all shamefaced. “It needed something else to go with it.” Does he not feel a moment’s guilt about such adolescent displays? “I haven’t really got much of a conscience — it’s quite lucky, really.” As if to back this up, he is currently bemoaning Warp’s prudent decision to put off a planned tour of UK ports in a specially adapted ship. “The record company said the water’s too choppy at the moment,” he observes ruefully, “and everyone would fall off the gangway.”
The good news for the Stoke Newington neighbours who have been driven to mounting poster campaigns on local trees by the remorseless noise pollution from Aphex Twin towers, is that Richard D James (“I want a crazy golf course and I’m at the level now where I think I should have one!”) is currently house-hunting. His eye has been caught by a disused bank vault in Elephant and Castle: “It’s got those doors with wheels on that are two-feet thick, and it’s totally soundproof, so I’ll be deaf in a year.”
Won’t it be lonely, living in a bank vault? “No,” James grins. “If I’m going to live in London, I don’t really want to see outside”.
© Ben Thompson, Seven Years of Plenty , 1998