A Classic Aphex Twin Interview. Simon Reynolds Talks To Richard D. James
, June 21st, 2010 06:16
"Schizophrenia is fuckin' excellent", said electronica's most gifted son in 1993. Come on you slags, let's have some Rock's Backpages Acid!
"Percussion music is revolution," proclaimed John Cage in 1939. The composer prophesied a future avant-primitive music made by and for dancers, using "machines and electrical instruments which we will invent." If techno answers Cage's pipedream (it's made by and for ravers), then Richard James aka Aphex Twin is where the process comes full circle, and dance music blossoms into "electronic composition".
James started acting out avant-grade impulses almost as soon as he was potty-trained . As a small child, he started messing about on the family piano, conducting experiments that uncannily parallel the ‘prepared piano’ technique devised by Cage and other 20th Century composers.
"I used to play with the piano, do things with the strings inside, rather than play tunes on the keyboard," says the newly-bearded ambient genius, sitting on a bench in the rather dismal park outside Shepherd's Bush tube. "A bit later, when I was nine or ten, I bought loads of tapes and tape recorders, anything I could get for next to nothing. I bought a synth when I was 12, thought it was a load of shit, took it apart and starting pissing about with it. I got really into making things with electronics. I learned about it in school until I was quite competent and could build my own circuits from scratch. I started off modifying analogue synths and junk that I bought, and got addicted to making noises. That was the buzz for me. At that point, I'd never really listened to music. Most people get into music and then decide they want to make it, but I started making sounds, and only later got interested in listening to other people's stuff. I didn't really listen to my own stuff, either, I just liked making it, making new stuff constantly."
In fact, it's only quite recently that James has retraced the history of avant-classical music and left-field rock, listening to Cage, Stockhausen, Reich, Riley, Eno, Can et al.
"All that stuff, it's fucking excellent. Riley's 'In C' is great. I really like... what do they call it? Minimalism. Selected Ambient works Volume 2 is full of the simplest pieces I could make. For years, I was ignorant of music, apart from acid and techno, where I bought just about everything. But, in the last couple of years, it's been a constant barrage of me catching up with stuff. This year, I've bought and listened to 6,000 or 7,000 records. And I know 'em all by heart".
He's probably exaggerating (it would take about 250 days to listen to each of them even once), but, then again, this is the superman who can knock out an album a week and who estimates that his library of unreleased material contains about 1,000 tracks. Given his creative incontinence, it's hardly surprising that not everything he does is gold-dust (some of the Caustic Window material is a bit ropey, and Universal Indicator is well worth avoiding), but a remarkably high proportion of it is brilliant. The thought of that 100 albums' worth of unreleased material (Can and Miles Davis are said to have a similar volume of treasure in their vaults) makes me almost ill with anticipation/frustration. But the staggering/disturbing truth is that Aphex has lost track of his tracks, has no real notion how much music he's made in the last decade.
Worse still, the stuff that makes it onto tapes is only a fraction of the amount of music in his head. James has been compared to Mozart, another infant prodigy, and it fits because fully-realised melodic ideas stream out of his brain (directly onto tape rather than the parchment that had to suffice Amadeus). Eighty percent of the time, James knows exactly what he wants to do when he enters the studio. He tells me that sometimes he'll be working on a tune, then become convinced he's ripped it off someone else, and abandons it. Later, he realises that where he first ‘heard’ the tune was in his own head, years ago.
"And that's well scary," he frowns. "I think I've lost about 2,000 tracks that way."
TO BE THIS (OVER) PRODUCTIVE is closer to an affliction than a gift. A week before our interview, James got stranded at his parents’ home in Wales (his car broke down); being separated from his studio nearly drives him mad. This need to unloose the flood of ideas is one reason why he sleeps such a famously small amount: two or three hours a night. He tells me he once went five weeks without a wink. Come off it, I say, sleep-deprivation is a form of torture, a way of inducing mental breakdown prior to brainwashing. Why does he do it? And how?
"When I was little, I decided sleep was a waste of your life. If you lived to be 100, but you didn't sleep, it'd be like living to 200. But , originally, it wasn't for more time to make music, it was just that I thought sleep was a bit of a con. I'd always been able to get away with four hours a night, but I tried to narrow it down to two. And you do get used to it. I reckon it'd take you three weeks to whittle down from eight hours to two. You should try it, it's wicked."
My theory is that sleep deprivation has everything to do with the eerie, spaced-out aura of Aphex's music. Neurologists say that humans have an in-built need to dream. Which is why you feel ‘unreal’ if you've stayed up all night or are jet-lagged: the brain is trying to dream while you're still conscious.
"It gets very strange when I don't sleep for a long time. Cos it's not that I'm actually that good at staying awake. I can only do it if I'm making music. If I watch TV during a period of going without sleep for three days, I always fall asleep immediately. But it's fucking excellent, not sleeping, you really should try it. It’s sort of nice and not-nice at the same time. Your mind starts getting scatty, like you’re senile. You do unpredictable things, like making tea but pouring it in a cereal bowl."
Sometimes, James will make a tune in an almost somnambulistic state.
"When I'm in the studio, my eyes get tired from looking at monitors, and sometimes I'll finish a track with my eyes shut, cos I know where all the dials are. I can do a track by touch."
But, even at his best, he appears to spend his creative life flitting between what neurologists call ‘hypnagogic’ and ‘hypnopompic’ states. Hypnagogic is the half-awake imagery (but not the surreal visions) you get in the classic R.E.M. dream-state.
Hypnopompic is My Bloody Valentine's "when you're awake you're still in a dream" feel, that early morning sensation of dis-reality when you haven't fully surfaced from the dream-depths.
In fact, there's quite a parallel between the Aphex vibe and MBV's dreampop. When they were recording Isn't Anything, MBV could only afford a week of studio time and so, to make the most of it, they slept only one and a half hours a night. At the time, I speculated that they'd invented a natural form of psychedelia.
Richard James is quite partial to artificially-induced ‘altered states’, too. He smokes a lot of dope, which must make staying awake more challenging, but also explains the marvellous intricacy of his bass-and-percussion patterns.
"I'm always stoned. I like it cos it's like turning a switch in your head. I like to make stuff in all kinds of different states. I like listening to music tripping, cos it's the only way I can get out of that musician mentality where you're thinking about how it's constructed, what equipment they're using. You just feel like a sad bastard when you do that, and the only way to turn that off and to stop taking it apart is to be totally off your head."
What I love about James' music is its rich emotionalism, the delicate tints and heady fragrances of poignancy, awe, melancholy, euphoria, unearthly eeriness, unbearable grandeur, that clash and chime together. Myriad-faceted where most techno is one-dimensional (not necessarily a criticism), his compositions can make me imagine pagan rites on an alien planet, or the theme music for a Fifties government film about the new garden cities (serene, symmetrical, euphonious, evoking the planned perfection of a post-war New Order), or the sound of an ice cream van doing the rounds on The Clangers' asteroid. All these magickal qualities are present and correct on the new Aphex Twin EP, On_. As for the forthcoming triple LP _Selected Ambient Works Volume 2, expect less of James' sheerly lovely tunes, and more electro-acoustic/musique concrete soundscapes.
Ask James where the emotions in his music come from, and you draw a blank. He's your classic muso, happier with the nuts-and-bolts of making music, rather than diagnosing what drives him to do it. A song just comes out with a particular feeling, no matter what mood he's in.
Does he relate better to machines than people?
"I'm quite a people person, actually. I hang out with strange people a lot. I like mentally ill people. I've always found schizophrenia fuckin’ excellent. I think it's the next evolutionary stage of humanity. My father worked in mental hospitals, so I got interested in it from all the stories. I like the idea of people having voices in their head that operate independently. I consider that to be an advantage, not a handicap. I see these people as having two minds, and two minds are better than one. It's just a shame that, with schizos, it's working against them rather than for them.
"We're really only supposed to use a small part of our brains, so maybe these people are evolving towards using a large amount. I reckon they should get a load of schizos and breed 'em, it could be the next stop for humanity. It would be great to be a schizo, you'd be able to work on two tracks at once!"
Well, the idea of doubling his work-rate was bound to appeal. But maybe he's right, the general trend of the culture – what with information overload, 500 cable stations, channel surfing, etc – is toward poly-phrenia. We're all going to have to be like Bowie’s alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth, watching seven TVs at once – simply in order to keep up.
Typically, James says he already enjoys watching several TVs at once.
WHEN IT COMES TO THE TRANCE vs 'ardkore/jungle wars. James doesn't like any of it.
"Trance come about this point where there was nothing happening, and then trance just made it even more boring." he says. "There's good trance, but only a very small percentage. It's weird, cos it's hard to say why one track is good where the others are shit. You could make a great record or a shit record using the same riffs, it's all in the production and the mixing."
He has slightly more time for jungle.
"I like some but only cos I think it's amusing. I hate trance and I hate jungle, but I'd rather listen to jungle cos at least it makes me laugh. When I'm in the car, I always put the pirates on for ten minutes – there's about ten jungle stations in my area, and no trance ones – but then my mates and my girlfriend punch me. They hate it! But I can totally see why people get off on jungle. Trance is more of a trend thing, whereas jungle has its roots. It's broken off its own branch of rave music, and it'll probably always be there, cos there are enough people who like it."
And the future? James has no prognosis for rave cultures as a whole but, personally, he wants to move towards a combination of music and visuals. But only when he's mastered every aspect of the production process himself. He'd also like to do soundtracks and, for sometime, has been customising his video collection, adding music to favourite films – like The Shining – wherever he feels the original score is obtrusive.
Then there's his label, Rephlex, which isn't just a vital outlet for his own music (since Warp and Sire, to whom he's signed for America, move too slowly to keep pace with his output), but also for his discoveries. There's a nutter called Mu-Ziq who has three double-albums in the pipeline, and there's a mysterious group with no name who visit his flat and play him tracks, but won't leave a tape in his hands.
Finally, there’s the remixing: obliterative in the case of Curve and Jesus Jones, respectful with Saint Etienne ("I think they're a good pop group, but I don't actually like them, if you know what I mean") and Seefeel (to whom he paid the rare compliment of retaining most of their original tracks). Generally, though, he says he's only interested in remixing crap songs, finding it more challenging to make a sculpture out of sewage.
Richard James is polite and far from laconic throughout, but it's clear that being interrogated is a chore, a distraction from the only thing he truly cares about: the moment of creation. As for the rest, he says repeatedly: "I just don't give a shit". As soon as I turn off the tape, he literally runs away: off to buy another LP at the Record & Tape Exchange, then to EQ some new tracks.
© Simon Reynolds, 1993