The Wheal Thing: Aphex Twin's Alternative Cornish Language
, September 13th, 2016 06:46
From the myth of the methane princess to a reflection of Cornwall's rich history of radiocommunications, his home county permeates the music of Richard D James far more than as a cultural backwater, says Laura Snapes
There's no rite of passage quite like taking a pilgrimage to the places that informed your favourite records. Usually, this entails a certain degree of romance, like bearing witness to the sprawling King Of Limbs tree in Wiltshire, or having sex on Jim Morrison's grave in Paris. Even the Manchester street corner that once housed the Hacienda, and now boasts luxury flats, has a certain grimy glamour. Sadly, this is not the case for fans of Aphex Twin, as several members of the We Are the Music Makers forum have discovered to their disappointment. As board member MC Glockers put it in one fan's guide to the area, "Whilst Redruth is a bit of a techno pilgrimage, it is also a dump."
In the 18th century, Redruth was a thriving market town thanks to its copper and tin mining industries, but little more than a hundred years later, Britain had begun importing its copper, and the area slid into decline. Richard D James went to school in Redruth, which is a sprawling metropolis in comparison to nearby Lanner where he actually grew up. I was raised a mile away, visiting my great-nan's bungalow overlooking the main road that cuts through the village: there's not a lot going on.
In the early 1990s, John Peel visited Cornwall for a documentary about rural British music scenes. He described it as "a county as far away from the music industry as it's possible to get, in England anyway, and therefore particularly blessed." He asked James what had led him to start recording. "Nothing, basically, that's what made me do music," James said. "It was out of boredom, which is the best way to do it." He claimed to often find himself in trouble with the law thanks to his pyromaniacal tendencies - in 2001, he explained to The Guardian, "I'm just some irritating, lying ginger kid from Cornwall who should have been locked up in some youth detention centre. I just managed to escape and blag it into music."
The story of a teenager coming up with their own entertainment to counteract stultifying surroundings is common enough. But whether or not James would acknowledge it himself, the music of Aphex Twin is rich with Cornish culture beyond the void of inspiration. James' work is rarely acknowledged in terms of its geographic origins, which feels strange given our understanding of the importance of regional identity to electronic music. In Cornwall, we share a single, narrow border with neighbouring Devon, far to the north, and in the absence of any bordering influence, weirdos flourish. "I liked growing up there," James has said, "being cut off from the city and the rest of the world."
Popular perceptions of the county convey little of the experience of living there: the weather and the coast are violent and capable of stalling productivity, the disparity between rich and poor is enormous, and there's a local character quite unlike anywhere else in the UK. Accordingly, Cornwall has its own militant separatist movement, An Gof, which has waned in activity since the 1980s, when they led some crap attempts at local terrorism - setting fire to a hairdressers and a bingo hall, and detonating a bomb outside a courthouse. In the UK, you usually see the St George flag on road signs for English heritage sites, but Cornish militants would vandalise every single one without fail, and now St Piran's flag appears on these signs as a matter of course. Many British regions have strong devolutionary ambitions, but there's no Yorkshire IRA.
Although it's not formally acknowledged, Cornwall is about 20 minutes behind London, and time seems to pass more slowly there. If you ask someone when they're coming into town, chances are their answer will be, "dreckly," a corruption of "directly" that means "anything between five minutes and half a day." There's a distinct, sarcastic, rural sort of humour that's rife in Aphex Twin's perverse presentation, expression, and impish avoidance of the facts. The county is thick with ancient folklore, pagan stone circles and traditions, but it hasn't produced a great deal of modern popular culture.
In the late 1980s, there were hardly any record shops in Cornwall - and there still aren't - but there was decent nightlife. Acid house had trickled down to the region, and James heard kindred spirits in their squelched 303 sound. He had been making music since age 14, after coming into some money that he spent on his first synths. Sometimes he told journalists that he bought the first one with £50 that he won in a computer programming competition, but other times said that the cash came from a brief stint working with his dad in the last of the Cornish tin mines.
As his music developed, he started DJing at beach parties, and throwing in his own tracks: with its intense 150bpm pulse, ‘Digeridoo' was originally designed to make ravers go home. James explained, "Friends of mine used to organise regular afterparties on the beach in Cornwall, but they always had trouble to make the people leave at the end. So they asked me to make something to shake the people out of their ecstasy trance, a track to end the party with a big bang." He called it the best scene he's ever been involved in: people would pay their way in weed to get into these parties, and you could trust the tight-knit community not to steal your gear.
Marcus Scott, who now manages Hyperdub, recalls great acid house nights at Bradleys Bar in Porthtowan, and the Quazars night at Cornwall Coliseum, which also held raves. The Shirehorse pub in St Ives was another lawless rave zone, and allegedly became one of the biggest spots for gabber outside of Rotterdam. Before the Bowgie in Newquay became a gastropub and the area turned into a kind of hellish Cornish Ibiza, it was a nightclub with a great dancefloor that drew people from across the county, and attracted DJs like Paul Guntrip down from London. That's where James started DJing in 1989, under the name Phonic Boy On Dope, and met Grant Wilson-Claridge. James threw his own music into his hip-hop, acid, garage, and jungle-heavy sets - early tracks like "‘Human Rotation', ‘Analogue Bubblebath', ‘Polygon Window' and ‘Parking Lot'.
His mates convinced James to record these songs onto cassette, and to send them off to record labels, which he wasn't wildly excited about doing, describing it as a load of unnecessary hassle. What he did want, though, was to press his own music onto vinyl, so that he could scratch with it live. With this aim in mind, James and Wilson-Claridge founded Rephlex Records in 1991, and James' Bradley's Beat EP, released under the name Bradley Strider, became the label's first release - which James had to drive two hours to get a copy of from a decent record shop.
Rephlex were conscious of their outsider status, and wanted to celebrate the work of a talented group of techno artists from the area. Though in true Rephlex style, they were also self-deprecating about their mission, coming up with the tongue-in-cheek genre "Cornish acid" to describe their work. "Everyone was talking about Sheffield and Detroit and Chicago as places where interesting music was happening," said Wilson-Claridge. "We just thought it would be funny to do it with Cornwall."
Rephex put Cornwall on the map musically, but Cornwall continued to penetrate and influence James' work. The cover of Surfing On Sine Waves, released through Warp under the name Polygon Window in 1993, features a photo of Chapel Porth beach, and thanked the seaside village in the liner notes. As kids, James and his sisters would stand on the wall at the beach and let the waves crash into them - a dangerous hobby, as you'd get thrown onto the rocks if the wave hit too hard. (He claims he nearly drowned there as a kid.) The record featured a tribute to his alma mater in ‘Redruth School,' and another to ‘Portreath Harbour' (where in 1984 An Gof placed broken glass under the sand in futile protest at its popularity with tourists).
A month later, in February 1993, James released Analogue Bubblebath 3 through Rephlex. It came packaged in a brown paper bag containing a poster of Cornwall and an information sheet of places of natural interest, showcasing the label's idiosyncratic sense of humour. Gwennap Pit, where Peel had interviewed Aphex, was described as "an absolutely extraordinary location, renowned all over the Lanner area for its fabulous acoustics," and also "a great place for a swift game of tig." They emphasised the creative history of Chapel Porth, where Da Vinci and Rembrandt were said to have stayed, but suggested, "alternatively, one can enjoy a famous croque-monsieur after a day's climbing." They invented their own myths, like the "methane princess" who would visit holidaymakers on the King Harry Ferry, which carries cars across the River Fal, and the apparently fabled pirate Martin Trezidder, whose screams are said to haunt Porthoustock Quarry. They cultivated an air of looming danger, urging visitors, "Remember to take your litter home with you and keep close to the hedge when crossing the meadows."
On the 1995 ‘Ventolin' remix EP, James titled his new renditions of the track after humdrum Cornish places with unusual names, like, Praze-An-Beeble, Marazanvose, Plain-An-Gwarry, Caharrack, and Probus. The 1996 Richard D James Album added more places to the unofficial Aphex Cornwall guidebook: ‘Carn Marth' is a hill in Redruth, and ‘Goon Gumpas', presumed by many fans to be gibberish, is another hill, near the now-defunct Wheal Maid mine.
Acid was an international sound, and in the press Aphex was regularly being likened to artists including John Cage, Stockhausen and Derrick May. But something about his uniquely twisted, harsh sound also reflects Cornwall's unique landscape and its disorienting freshness: qualities like the wild weather so accentuated by the sea, and granite's coruscating sparkle, which is so prevalent in the county that we experience significantly higher than average levels of radon radiation, to which James has always (perhaps mockingly) attributed his severe asthma. His ambient works, never as lulling as those of his peers, feel informed by that toxic wooze.
Although remote, Cornwall also played a strong role in establishing the UK's radiocommunication capabilities: Goonhilly Earth Station on the Lizard peninsula, the most southerly point in the UK, was once the largest satellite earth station in the world, receiving the first live transatlantic broadcast from the US. Much earlier, in 1870, nearby Porthcurno became the site of the UK's first and biggest international submarine communications cable station, connecting the UK to India. Cornwall has a strong tradition of powerful digital waveforms emanating from a rugged pastoral landscape, which feels reflected in Aphex's unique instrumental voice. James himself has discussed the influence of nature on his work. "Nature sounds have always been way more intense for me than music, especially when I was a little kid," he said. "I can remember as a kid, if you run up to a big wall, you get this flange effect. It's just a constant noise, it works like wind."
As The Quietus' own John Doran suggested, the last song on Richard D James Album, ‘Logan Rock Witch', might be Aphex Twin's only Cornish folk song. With its whistling toy rattle and eerie fairground organ, it doesn't sound much like a traditional folk song, but its absurd, comic, dark tone captures an equally bizarre story. In Cornish, "log" means to rock - and also to roll around drunk - and "logan rock" is a term for any large boulder that rocks from side to side. In 1754, the geologist Dr William Borlase paid special attention to a particular 80-ton logan rock on the cliffs at Treen, which he declared could be rocked, but could not be removed from its perch. Seventy years later, a group of navy men took Borlase's claim as a challenge, and managed to rock the granite boulder off its pivot using an array of bars and levers. The locals were furious, since the rock was one of the few tourist attractions in the area. They made the men put it back, which took months, and cost an absolute fortune. Back on its perch, it never rocked the same way again.
Adding to the lore around the stubborn rock, myth has it that it was once a giant, who was murdered and literally petrified by his wife. These are not uncommon tales in Cornwall. On 2001's Drukqs, James used a vast number of Cornish words as song titles - ‘Jynweythek Ylow' means "electronic machine music", for example - and he named one song after St Michael's Mount, a tiny islet off the very tip of the county, which in the 6th century was supposedly once home to an 18-foot giant named Cormoran, who lived in a cave, where he hoarded the treasures he had stolen from local towns and ate cattle and children.
Aphex's song titles became an unofficial guidebook for fans, who have shared Google Maps pinpointing the landmarks behind his music. Browsing the We Are The Music Makers forums, obsessives talk about visiting the places mentioned in his songs, even though they know their unusual names are generally more interesting than any sights you might find there.
In March, I took a trip home to Cornwall and drove around the places mentioned in James' songs, while listening to his music. Revelations didn't exactly abound, but something about Aphex's hypnotic glitch sequenced perfectly with the landscape, which is intoxicating in its vast stretches of field and sky, and littered with the eerie relics of the mining industry. That day, I drove to Boscastle, a tiny seaside town on the north coast that is also the home of the UK's Museum of Witchcraft.
Aphex's distorted, ghoulish visual presentation, and his subtle referencing of Cornish mythology, made me wonder if there was a deeper connection to Cornish folklore than his occasional citation of local legends. It turned out that Peter Hewitt, the curator and guardian of the museum, had also been trying to work out the mythology of Aphex Twin. When he first moved down from upcountry with his wife, he took a drive around the cliffs while listening to Selected Ambient Works II, in an attempt to hear the music in context.
Guiding me around the tiny museum, he pointed out images of Baphomet, mandrakes, and crones in relation to James' own facial contortions and various Aphex avatars. Hewitt likens James' terrifying gurns to piskies, the "totally amoral, nasty" Cornish sprites that lived in tin mines and caused all kinds of havoc. "I do think that the essence of what he's doing with music is very similar to witchcraft in the sense that it's about subversion," he told me. "I always think of the ‘Come To Daddy' video - the asexual, prepubescent children in that, who look like him, flocking around him and his elongated, masculine, Marilyn Manson-type face. It's innocence and complete depravity existing in a single microsecond."
He continued, "I think that is witchcraft, really, because it's a total rejection of a Christian worldview. That doesn't mean it's anti-Christian. It just stepping outside a Christian framework in which you've got morality, you're rewarded by a saviour, God, which is essentially masculine. The witchcraft cosmology is that nature, and human nature, is a bit of both. Some people, even in their so-called misdeeds, can bring about change and growth in people."
Traditional witchcraft is post-Wiccan, but Cornish witchcraft has deeper roots, and is about tapping into the folklore of the landscape in order to root magical practice in something tangible and historical. There's a desire for continuity, and the Cornish school places great significance on the family bloodline. James' 1996 Girl/Boy EP features the grave of Richard James on the cover. Unusually, this isn't an Aphex prank - or at least, we don't think so - but an acknowledgement of the older brother he never knew, who died at birth. Without knowing this, Hewitt had said that Cornish witchcraft practitioners believe that if somebody has died in your family, you can take on their power.
Aphex would no doubt debunk all of this - he's never been one to cop to other people's interpretations, or ascribe his music with any great intellectualism (which is refreshing). He does, however, maintain a kind of purist approach to his work, waving away suggestions of being influenced by other artists, and insisting it all comes from his own brain. As he said in 2001, "The best musicians or sound artists are people who never considered themselves to be artists or musicians."
Despite the range of avatars he's used to present what he does, Richard D James' voice has always been unmediated. It's effortless, and innate. He found community in a wider musical realm, but he should also be understood in the context of the county that created him, and the way in which it resonates through his music. There is a Cornish language, which died out in the 1700s and these days is more of a hobbyist pursuit than a spoken vernacular. Richard D James' instrumental voice proposes his own unique Cornish language, one whose reflection of the landscape, its myths, beauty, violence, isolation, and weird traditions, is an uncanny Rosetta stone to this hugely misunderstood nation.
In 2011, to celebrate their 20th anniversary, Rephlex briefly broadcast a radio show from Redruth, which could be picked up on a local FM frequency. It's long since off air, but Music Makers fanatics talk about driving through the town, dials hopefully turned to 105.5FM, just in case they heard something, anything. I don't think they were looking for Richard D James per se, but that they were in search of his spirit; trying to tune into the weird local frequency he's always been attuned to - or the one he emits himself.
This piece was originally presented at the EMP Pop Conference 2016, under the title 'The Wheal Thing: Aphex Twin's alternative Cornish language'.