Fish and microchips
"Classical music for the next millennium," said The New York Times upon the release of Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II in the spring of 1994--a hefty label for a young lad from Cornwall who was only 22 at the time. Richard James--aka Aphex Twin--has gotten used to this kind of commentary since then. Over the phone, he shrugs off the generous praise. Miles Davis once said that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture," and critics can dance all they want when describing Aphex Twin--James couldn't care less. Richard D. James, his latest album, will likely gather the same amount of lip service, and James will keep writing well into the next millennium--even though he already has "thousands and thousands of unreleased tracks."
"I'd like to tour at the end of the year, but it'll probably be for another album by then," he says half-jokingly.
A busybody who started tweaking his mother's piano at an early age and who'd acquired his first electronic devices before puberty, James has always been fascinated by sound and technology--the sounds of blenders and vacuum cleaners mean as much to him him as those of guitars and saxophones. Unhappy with his first synthesizer, he explored its functions further by "altering" it. By the time electronic music--and techno in particular--claimed millions of younger ears, he already had his own bedroom studio.
Following the independent channels typical of electronic music, he went into a frenzy of issuing his work under a variety of aliases. Albums and tracks running the gamut from quiet ambience to hardcore techno by Polygon Window, AFX, The Dice Man, and Metapharistic (among others) constitute the prolific output of James'--or rather the artist currently known as Aphex Twin's--haywire genius; he has also remixed songs by musicians as diverse as Meat Beat Manifesto and the Lemonheads. It took Selected Ambient Works Volume II and I Care Because You Do on the major label Sire to expose him to a larger audience and earn him the reputation as the enfant terrible of British electronica.
It is true that electronic music stays in the periphery of pop culture; some view it as background music for snobs or the playground of elitists. Others find it lacking the supposed urgency of radio-ready pop, and many consider it cold and impersonal. It is a fact that--with the exception of raves and a few reviews/mentions in print media--it lacks any kind of exposure. Still, Aphex Twin belongs to a strata of artists in the genre who are better known than others. His view is rather solipsistic:
"My stuff...(pause)...I don't care what crowd buys my music as long as they buy it. It earns me money. I make it for myself, and I don't care if other people like it or dislike it. I'm in a quite lucky position, really.
"The media basically decide who gets to listen to what," he continues. "It's the job of the media to bring new things to people. Especially in America, a lot of people are denied the chance to listen to it."
Aphex Twin's only Dallas appearance found him as the knob twister/DJ who opened for Bjork in August of 1995. "I remember being down there. It was really hot!" he recalls. Whether it was the sardine-can conditions of the sold-out Deep Ellum Live show or his clever brand of electronics, the response was more than warm. Between that show and some highly praised New York headline gigs, James finds that--given the opportunity--stateside audiences can be quite receptive.
"The thing about me is that I never look at the audience that much," he says, laughing slyly. "I do know that, these days, more and more [American] people get into it. I think British audiences are probably more familiar with a lot of things."
British critic Simon Reynolds once wrote that the effect of ambient music and electronic dub is so magical because it serves as "an echo of our personal prehistory: womb-time, when sound reaches the unborn child via the fleshly amplifier of the mother's body--ultra-resonant, dubbed up." This view goes hand in hand with James' idea that humans are "blood and electricity," a pumping rhythm that acts as a circuit.
"I like arguments like that; they are quite nice," James says with typical English reserve. "The same applies to music with rhythm. Rhythm appeals to us because the first rhythm that you hear is the heartbeat of your mother. It's quite true."
Richard D. James incorporates rhythm in many different ways. "Fore Street" rolls along a serene, melodic rhythm reminiscent of Kraftwerk. "4" has an eerie science-fiction melody broken by random drum 'n' bass beats. "Cornish Acid" is like mid-period Cabaret Voltaire: nervous beats with disjointed, funky riffs. At the same time, Aphex Twin makes restless forays into classical music with "Girl/Boy Song."
"I used classical instruments in that one," James explains. "I put some violins in. I don't know anything about classical music; I got three records in all, and I haven't gone out to buy a big selection."
As is usual for Aphex Twin, Richard D. James jumps all over the place: Some parts are pensive and serious, while others are bouncy and playful. There is very little stylistic congruity, but that's what is really fascinating about the album: the wide range of territory it covers, like a brief synopsis of all the different directions that electronic music is going. (At this moment, at least: since everything moves so fast in the genre, Richard D. James could be old hat next week. Especially for Aphex Twin.)
Other than his constant desire to experiment and tweak, a lot of the diversity has to do with James' creative MO. Unlike many traditional musicians who start a song from a certain point, like "My girlfriend left me and I'll write a song about it," James starts with sounds and rhythms and follows where they take him.
"With electronic music, you find things out as they happen," he says. "I write a lot of music all the time--every day. So it becomes a diary of your life, basically. Sometimes it goes further than 'your girlfriend left you.' You write little segments, and every little segment has different emotions wrapped up in it. It makes it a little more dimensional, more exciting, more complicated. Which I find nicer."
As a result, tracks like "To Cure a Weakling Child" or "Milkman" have a more concrete theme and mood, while others are merely exercises with playful or nonsensical names like "Goongumpas," "Yellow Calx," or "Carn Marth," titles that James calls "rubbish." "Most tracks don't have names; they're just pieces of music," he maintains. "I make these names up, and it has something to do with my life."
Even though James' crowded stream of consciousness generates a constant flow of recordings in his home studio, he keeps an eye (and ear) out for other innovators by listening to all kinds of music. So far, his two favorites in the field of electronic music are Square Pusher and Luc Vibert; if he ever needed to put lyrics to his sonic meanderings, he would turn to two Americans for possible collaboration.
"I quite like Beck, actually. I like his lyrics. I don't really know much about the guy, but what I've heard sounds pretty interesting, pretty twisted stuff. A group called Ween, also. I like their lyrics," he says.
Recently James' typical studio work routine--getting out of bed and writing--has been interrupted by tours and promotional trips. Still, he keeps those microchips well fed, recording his ideas continuously.
"I got a laptop, and I put things down constantly," he says. "I wrote a lot of stuff on the way back from New York. I find that if this is the way you write, it just comes out, like, whatever mood you're in. You're affected by things every day, and it changes the way you write melodies and stuff. It becomes really personal.
"I love electronic music if writers can express themselves properly in their music," he concludes. "I find a lot of people are really technically minded, [but] they just put together real technical tracks without any sort of mood to their songs.
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