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A Quietus Interview

Beyond The Radar: Autechre Interviewed
John Robb , April 8th, 2010 07:41

John Robb talks to Sean Booth, one half of electronic duo Autechre, about how their experience of Manchester's burgeoning hip-hop and electro scenes influenced them for years to come

Operating very much on their own electronic trajectory, Autechre have shimmered away on the edges of music for a good decade now. They have stretched the fabric of post-techno into their own distinctive space, which combines quixotic beats with an almost dark film soundtrack atmospheric. There is no traditional sense of direction; just oblique swerves in sound and emphasis. We've heard this from the proto-IDM of Incunabula in 1993 to the stripped-down world of 2008's Quaristice, or the stylistic differences on their other albums that veer off at tangents, structured by a fantastic imagination.

The outfit, a key component of the ever adventurous Warp records, have just released their tenth album Oversteps - another aural adventure which sees them remain on that idiosyncratic path. Complex rhythms joust with neo-soundtrack atmospherics and sounds that affect you both mentally and physically.

Oversteps is another example of what makes the outfit one of the key electronic bands in the world today, beavering away just beyond the radar.

The duo of Rob Brown and Sean Booth hail from Middleton and Rochdale, two towns beyond the northern fringe of Manchester. They started making electronic music in the city but have never been part of the mainstream Manchester scene, although their electro roots are very much part of its seething musical history.

They met in 1987 through the plethora of healthy outdoor activities and hobbies that sprouted on the back of hip hop, like graffiti, and started trading mix tapes - that ubiquitous pre-internet mode of moving music around. Very much the product of the underground electro scene in Manchester, they were inspired by legendary DJs like Greg Wilson who pioneered the form at the Legends club in the city centre.

DJs like Mike Shaft and Stu Allen followed Wilson by playing the new music on the radio, and there was also Johnny Jay with his plastic bag full of hip hop tracks playing round the youth clubs. For a brief period hip hop was the currency of street cool, and Manchester was an epicentre of hip-hop street culture that easily led into the forms of electro roots with kids and their mats outside shopping centres breakdancing - a key scene in the city's musical development with breakbeat crews like Street Machine and Broken Glass winning national plaudits. The latter crew included Jason Orange and Kermit - even a young Liam Gallagher was inspired for a few brief weeks to take to the mat.

Autechre, though, were more into the musical side. Buying up their own equipment, they made the next logical step and started making their own music.

Their first release was 'Lego Feet', a twelve-inch recorded under an alias released by Manchester's Skam Records. Changing their name to Autechre they released their first single 'Cavity Job' in 1991. A year later they signed to Warp, the perfect home for their esoteric beats and willingness to push forwards from their roots - but it was these roots that were crucial in their development, as Sean recalls...

Growing up in Manchester's fervent underground electro scene...

Sean Booth: It was basically down to Greg Wilson and Mike Shaft. Electro was fucking huge when I was young, to the point that I was getting tapes from kids two years younger than me when I was 13. Tapes were how the music moved about and they were fucking good tapes. I've still got them now. You know a scene is popular when 11 year olds are getting into it. The music was all imports coming into the Spin Inn record shop in town and getting played by Greg Wilson when he was DJing, and that made me want to play music. Greg was really important to us, hugely. I can't state enough, really, that the fact that Manchester buzzed so much off American tunes is the reason why we exist.

The Manchester underground pre-acid house in the mid-80s was soaked in electro. Greg Wilson's famous nights at Legends in the pre-Hacienda days pioneered the scene. His club was a focal point for kids turned on by hip hop and its culture. Digging deeper they discovered electro and a whole new world of pop culture. Rob was typical of this scene: totally immersed by the new music and moving a long way from the traditional pop mainstream.

SB: I grew up with Kraftwerk. The first track I owned was 'Tour De France'. It was my favourite electro track. Another one was 'Clear' by Cybertron. Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter were all in there as well. I hated most things with singing on or anything with a song structure. I just wanted the beats and there was loads of them about. It was ubiquitous. At the time you either bought a Street Sounds album or you were listening to Stu Allen on the radio. Manchester was a bit of an island for American dance music full stop. There were obviously scenes in other places, but here we used to get exposed to that culture all the time. When I moved to Sheffield a few years later I found that they had been not into hip hop at all, but funk and reggae. It was so different from Manchester and not that far away. It was like another dimension.

Experiencing the brave new world of electro in the rainy city...

SB: We were never into the E scene, we were too young when that started I guess. 1987 was when I first went to Salford College to check it out. Two guys were in the studio in there doing an acid track and that's what made me want to go to college! I thought there's two kids in here doing an acid track; this is totally up my street. I was only 16. I didn't know much about drugs apart from two kids at school who smoked weed. I just kind of ignored all that. I didn't really have any roots in Ecstasy. I just really liked the music plus I couldn't get into clubs like the Hacienda. They wouldn't let us in because that Fiona [Fiona Allen- now famous comedienne and once scary door person at the Hacienda] was so brutal. She wasn't having it at all when we tried to get in because I looked about ten! I could get into some other clubs though, but I missed out on a whole chunk of that Manchester scene.

Later on drugs were an influence. Mushrooms- if you are making music while tripping it would change the focus, but it wasn't like we were tripping all the time. Though lot of other drugs were going on around us when we lived in that house that you interviewed us in years ago.

Autechre are more than just beats; complex and atmospheric, it's intelligent dance music.

SB: When we started I also liked John Carpenter and film soundtracks - that atmosphere and tension, and that informed a lot of what we do alongside the hip hop. There weren't that many things that got us excited apart from that. When we met each other we were spun out because both of us thought we were slightly alone in our quest to find madder sounding records! For us it was about the sound of the tracks and it was weird to meet someone into the pure sound as well. Autechre has grown from a desire to hear what we were not hearing anywhere else.

Autechre have spent the last decade travelling around - from Manchester to Sheffield, before Sean moved to London and Rob went to Suffolk before returning to Manchester. Such geographical upheaval has led the pair to create music in cyberspace and down phone lines, surfing the crackling possibilities of these modern times.

SB: We get turned on by sounds in the studio or working online but the eureka moment is when we find something out of the blue. It's not like we are discovering the sounds we just fart about and something will come out and we will think that we really like that and it will inspire other choices. Ultimately it's like an A to B to C way of working. A lot of trial and error is involved and when we find something it's usually by accident - obviously there is a lot of shaping going on and pushing it into some kind of direction but the best bits are the bits we don't think about. It's easier not to think about the influence and just know what we like.

What's more important: the sounds or the beats?

SB: It's all the same thing to me. It's about how the whole thing makes you feel. You discover a lot of things while you're working. A rhythm works or a harmony works in a certain with a certain sound tuned up in a certain way. A lot of the time you can't predict the way to react. More generally it's how a certain combination of things works, and I will think 'Oh yeah! that's really nice!'

It's not different to what a listener thinks. It's about finding stuff and liking it. On this record we wanted it to sound like real space, like a physical object. Even if we were using wave forms that sounded like synths, we wanted them to sound like a dynamic or whatever gives it a feeling of being real. We didn't want too much refencing - not backward effects or dub effects or obvious effects. We wanted it to sound like a real object. Having an atmosphere is a weird one. If a track you like has it and it becomes a component of the track that's cool, but it does not have to create an atmosphere. It's hard to tell what an audience gets out of it. Hopefully you feel like you are listening to something distinct.

Hanging on the telephone: how to write an album when you live at opposite ends of the country.

SB: When we are in the same city it's a piece of piss, we just sit together in the studio. But we have been living in different cities for a decade now. Because we live apart, the way we write nowadays is interesting. It's easy to stream audio over internet to each other. Rob will start his sequencer and I will sync to it and listen back. There's a huge lag online but we can make it work. Then we will split and work on it separately and then come back together in a few hours. I can send audio to Rob and he has the same hardware set up as me. He can run it the same way as me and it's nothing to chuck it over to him whole on the phone. You can also screen share on computers now as well so I can see his screen and work his computer from here which is great.

Translating their work to the live arena and back again.

SB: Originally a lot of the tracks were made in real time and recorded with old Roland gear, drum machine and synths and we would play it live when we were writing the tracks. When we got asked to play live we thought, 'Fucking hell that's a bit of a gamble, but let's try and do that same process live as well and see what happens'. It's easier than we thought and we got cocky! We would set up and just play...I wouldn't say live like guitar music because it's not the same kind of thing, but it does have the same consideration and there is a certain amount of spontaneity. We could decide on the spot a sound that sounds a certain way or a song that is going in a certain direction then respond to that with a kick drum. We played off each other, it was natural for us to do that in the studio and also live. We had to do it like that - just off the cuff. Intuition is a massive chunk of your brain constantly doing stuff like catching a ball; if you think about it you fuck it up, and that's how we worked!

You could consider everything you do. You could write it down and follow it or just have it all in your mind, but I just can't work like that. I end up feeling hemmed in. I have to subvert it or shelve the idea through boredom.

Keeping up with the times - techno-heads or instinctive electro pirates?

SB: I don't read techie mags that often. I may check out updates of stuff that I've got. I've got a few areas of interest but that's it. I don't go mad buying lots of equipment. It's not about that. I don't think of a sound in my head and try and find it on the keyboard. I just find the sound on the keyboard. There is an element of chaos in the way we work. It's easy to be clinical when using a computer. It helps to come at it from a different perspective.

Originally, when I was younger, I would be editing tracks from other peoples cassettes using the pause button. People talk about the warmth of analogue but I think warmth is a strange concept. I would like someone to explain the concept to me! I tend not to inherent descriptive terms I can't understand. That term warmth is a little bit weird if it does exist. I once heard Kraftwerk described as cold, but they are anything but. Kraftwerk are not just funky, their sound is amazing - like a weird, rotating, magic puzzle box from the future. Just an amazing most pristine, perfect sound. Just beautiful.

Autechre's Oversteps is out now. They play a secret location in London this Saturday, April 10th