Richard D. James has seen the future of computers and it’s, well, touchy-feely. “Not just a keyboard and a mouse,” says the musician best known as Aphex Twin, pausing to visualize the shape of digital music to come, “some sort of wicked interface you can stretch and squeeze and blow into.”
The prediction seems fitting for someone who, under various pseudonyms, has stretched and squeezed electronic music, and as a result blown the minds of music fans. The statement also reflects the playfulness of James’ music–from the synthetic lullabies of his ambient work, to the video-game vitriol of his aggro techno tracks, to the improvisatory nature of his most recent jungle releases.
“I would be happy with my first set-up for the rest of my life,” James adds, lest he be mistaken for a technology fetishist. “I could be quite happy working with, like, about four bits of my favorite equipment forever, ’cause it’s got infinite possibilities.”
Infinite possibilities. James’ statement characterizes his generation of digital music-makers. Aphex Twin and his contemporaries, such as Luke Vibert, Alec Empire, Autechre and the Chemical Brothers, share the incorrigible presumption that dance music–long the preserve of self-conscious vapidity, proud of its scant shelf life–represents the very future of music. The claim would be utterly dismissible, were it not buttressed by the breadth of electronic musical activity these days. There is so much electronic music (most of it, like James’, shunning vocals) that a taxonomy has arisen to track its evolution: ambient, techno, trip-hop, drum’n’bass, jungle.
James, however, doesn’t believe that infinite possibilities necessitate infinite brands. After six years recording under so many pseudonyms (AFX, Caustic Window, Polygon Window among them) that he claims to have lost count, he has outed himself. Aphex Twin’s new album is titled, simply, Richard D. James (Warp/Sire).
“I used to make up names when I used to catalog my stuff,” says James of his proclivity for inventing identities. “They existed before I got into the music business.” So, to take a pop-psychoanalytic approach, what were his childhood nicknames? “Can’t remember any of them,” he says. “I got a feeling I had loads when I was in primary school, ’cause I had red hair; you know, like Duracell. That was one of them, anyhow.” Once again, Freud leads to a dead end, or maybe not: Branded from youth as a child of technology (“the copper-top”), James later adopted a trademark (from Aphex Systems, manufacturer of recording-studio equipment) as his public face, as his “twin.”
“It worked quite nicely when I got into the music business,” says James of his multiple identities, “’cause I just gave different names to different record companies. I thought it was quite a good idea at first, but now I really don’t like it. I want it to be all back together again; I want to go out to a club and listen to all different types, not just one specialist type of jungle. I think having different names breaks it up; so that’s why I’m sticking to two again.”
The two names are Aphex Twin and AFX. Aphex is signed to Warp Records in the U.K., licensed by Sire Records in the U.S. (Richard D. James, in fact, combines two British releases from late 1996, an eight-cut full-length called Richard D. James and a seven-cut EP called Girl/Boy.) AFX records primarily for Rephlex Records, a small label that James co-owns with a friend from his native Cornwall, six hours south of curent digs in London.
Richard D. James is, quite simply, the strongest art-pop record to appear since Laurie Anderson’s Mr. Heartbreak. Gone, for now, is the somnolent gauze of his Selected Ambient Works collections and the jack-hammer pace of much of his Analogue Bubblebath series. In their place are a series of lovely tunes atop a decisive, rhythmically fascinating girding of rapid-fire, turn-on-a-dime percussion. There’s even a hint of Anderson’s cut-up techniques on a track called “To Cure a Weakling Child,” which splices together a childlike speaking voice. Each word is tuned until a melody presents itself, at which point the words begin to be replaced, casually, with non-vocal tones. “That’s my voice,” says James, “going through my computer and come out the other end.”
That’s also his voice on a song titled “Milkman,” which comes as close to a vocal track as the exceptionally private James has yet to muster. “I wish the milkman would deliver my milk,” he intones sleepily, “in the morning,” which he manages to rhyme with “yawning” before a clatter of jungle drums figure the commotion of the morning commute outside his breakfast-nook window.
Throughout Richard D. James, electronic percussion darts among lyrical fare, seemingly antithetical to the music’s simple beauty. The magic of James’ compositions, however, is how the drums suggest the momentum, the logic, of his melodies. It’s as if one could glimpse the bones of a soaring bird, the efficiency of its intricate skeletal machinery manifest in the elegance of flight. And all of it he produces on a small battery of electronic equipment in his bedroom, aside from the odd string sample, which he scrapes out on two of his most recent acquisitions, a cello and a violin.
“It’s quite a good way of writing tunes,” says James of his assemblage style. “Sometimes I just hit the keyboard in a way I’d like the rhythm of the tracks to sound. Then I’ll spend four hours moving all the notes where I want them to go.” All in the pursuit of infinite possibility.
Originally published in Pulse! magazine, March 1997.
This is the lightly edited transcript of the conversation from which the above profile was written:
Richard D. James: Sorry about that. I was right in the middle of doing stuff — everything got a bit hectic. I was just copying off a Beck mix. Marc Weidenbaum: What song?
James: That “Devil’s Haircut” thing.
Weidenbaum: I love that song.
James: Yeah, I did it — I did the mix ages ago, but, um, I didn’t like it. I thought I was just doing it for the money. But when I chilled out and listened to it about a week later, I really loved — I really liked it.
Weidenbaum: Before we start the interview, I wanted to tell you about the magazine where the article will appear. It covers all types of music, from electronic to folk, from hip-hop and trad jazz to reggae and heavy metal. People who read this article in Pulse! will likely have run across interviews with Philip Glass and Gavin Bryars — to name to names with whom you’ve been linked — in past issues.
I wanted to start by saying that what took me with the new albums, Richard D. James and Girl/Boy, is how playful they are. There’s always been an element of play in your music, but it’s especially apparent here. Not just on “Milkman,” but the record as a whole. I’m looking forward to playing it for kids.
James: Yeah [laughs].
Weidenbaum: I listen to your music at home, and I think that’s where most turn it on. Do you still think of it as a club music?
James: Um, sometimes. Like, I dunno, ’cause I like the beats and stuff — like, most of the tracks I do, still, I play out myself, and I do play them out when I’m DJ’ing. So, I suppose I do think about it as club music. I’ve thought about it less recently, but I reckon I’m gonna begin thinking about it more again.
Weidenbaum: A pivotal moment for me in terms of dance music was when I was at a club and heard, back to back, a really simplistic techno track I’d never particularly dug and a really great drum’n’bass track I loved. The techno track sounded great in the club, but the drum’n’bass track made absolutely no sense there.
James: It’s like that, when it’s really overcomplicated — like for club music it needs to be really simple, basic sort of stuff, and the bigger the club the more so, I reckon. But you can still get into it, ’cause I mean I’ve just done a live tour and I’ve been doing a lot of very complicated tracks and I think those go over people’s heads in the club, but I’m quite into that as well.
Weidenbaum: You like to confound them.
James: For me, I quite like it when it’s really loud and when I get real confused listening to it while I’m trying to mix it down.
Weidenbaum: Who’ve you been touring with?
James: Well, myself, and Luke Vibert. He does the Plug thing, came and DJ’ed on all the gigs apart from one.
Weidenbaum: I interviewed him about a year ago.
James: Ah, wicked.
Weidenbaum: About his Throbbing Pouch record, which I thought was amazing.
James: Yeah, decent.
Weidenbaum: I hadn’t heard the Plug stuff yet at that point. It hadn’t come out in the States. Both you and Vibert are from Cornwall, right?.
Weidenbaum: We’re you friends there?
James: He knew me quite a long time before I knew him, ’cause I used to DJ and he used to come and, like, listen to me play and that, before he got into, like, dance music. And then I always heard about him, and I was mates with him for a while before I found he actually used to make music as well.
Weidenbaum: He doesn’t seem to miss Cornwall. Do you?
James: Yeah, I think. Yeah. I mean, I do, I really love the place. But I think I will probably end up living down there when I’m older — definitely going to retire down there.
Weidenbaum: For many of us in the States, England seems fairly homogenous, at least once you get outside the cities. Could you explain what Cornwall is like for a little kid growing up.
James: It’s really beautiful — like, the countryside’s really nice. It’s got a really sort of quite mystical sort of vibe to it, as well. Lots of sort of folklore and folk tales and it’s full of stuff like that, and there’s lots of strange people, lots of sort of weird hermit people who live out in the middle of nowhere and there’s a lot of witches and sort of magic, black magic, and stuff like that.
Weidenbaum: Is that where the new song “Logan Witch Rock” gets its title?
James: Yeah, that’s like a famous sort of witch in Cornwall.
There’s like no, there were no record shops when I was growing up, there were like two and they were pretty basic, and there were no clubs or anything; so we had to make our own clubs, make our own music.
Weidenbaum: How far is Cornwall from London?
James: Six hours. Yeah, we used to hitch up to London to buy records and then come down to play them.
Weidenbaum: Luke Vibert’s parents seem fairly young, his dad being into punk and Hendrix, his mom into Montovanni and the Beatles. Were your parents music fans?
James: My parents are quite strange ’cause they really like music but they’ve only recently got really into it. They’ve always listened to on the radio and stuff, but they’ve never been the type to go out and buy it. I suppose it’s a generational thing. They used to go and buy, sort of, rock’n’roll records when they were young, but …
Weidenbaum: The time of frivolity has passed.
James: Yeah, I dunno. I have never quite understood it, but my dad’s back now, he’s really into jazz and he goes out and buys lots of jazz things now. And Mom likes sort of classical music. They’re not, like, experts or anything, so they probably don’t know that much.
Weidenbaum: Do you listen to much classical?
James: I don’t really know that much about it. I don’t know anything about it, really. But you know things I’ve heard I’ve really liked. It’s something I’ll probably get into a bit later on, when I’ve got a few more creative urges out of the way.
Weidenbaum: Please talk about your work with Philip Glass. He provided the orchestration for a version of a song from your last full length album.
James: I needed — well, I’d done the track originally with, like, sort of, real instruments in mind, and I’d done the mix that’s on … I Care Because You Do — that’s the original one — and I thought it’d be really nice to get it done played with real instruments and stuff, and rather than to get someone sort of standard who could score it for an orchestra, I could get someone who I liked to do it. And Philip Glass was on my list of people, basically. I had Michael Nyman down, and he was well into it but he was really busy, couldn’t do it for like a year or something [laughs]. And Philip Glass was ready to roll with it.
Weidenbaum: That’s pretty unique, to be able to phone up Philip Glass.
James: Yeah, I just wrote him a letter. I was quite a big fan of his work; that’s why I picked him, basically. They did one take and I didn’t like it and I couldn’t quite work out what they’d done at all, I didn’t like it at all. And I was in New York at the time; so we went to meet him and I was like, yeah, I didn’t like what you did [laughs], sort of thing, and I said exactly why and he was, like, agreeing with me. And then they said, well, they would be up for doing something else — try again.
Weidenbaum: This is the track that ended up on the Donkey Rhubarb EP.
James: So I went over and, like, helped them. They did most of it and I just sat there and sort of said a few things now and again.
Weidenbaum: Are the string sounds on the new record real?
James: Well, they were originally real, yeah. I’ve got a violin, and a cello as well, and I’ve learned to play that enough to be able sample it, get some good notes, and that’s where they come from.
Weidenbaum: And the Gavin Bryars remix you did, of Sinking of the Titanic — did that opportunity develop out of your work with Glass? The remix came out on Glass’ Point Music label.
James: I think that was — I think it was about the same time. I don’t think the two were linked. They’re on the same label and they know each other, but I think it was ’cause Gavin Bryars’ sons are, like, really big fans of mine and they, like, told him to, like, get me to remix one of his tracks.
Weidenbaum: Are you serious?
James: Yeah. He was really into it. So, he was, like — wrote me loads of letters and phoned me up and used to go on about it.
Weidenbaum: He and Michael Nyman go back a ways. Bryars was one of Brian Eno’s teachers, and both of them released record on Eno’s first attempt at running a record label, Obscure. Could you talk about the playfulness of the new record?
James: Yeah. I dunno. It’s something that I’ve always liked. I like, sort of, mixing, sort of, like, complex things with simple things, so the complex things don’t get too avant-garde and, sort of, way out kind of thing, even though I like things that are really avant-garde for avant-garde’s sake; I do like things like that. But my favorite stuff is when it’s, for me, when I do stuff — ’cause to do really complicated things is just a matter of time, how much time you spend doing it, and you know you can produce it if you spend enough time, something that’s going to be complicated — the challenge comes from making it like really accessible at the same time; so I like to mix something simple, or deceptively simple, with it.
Weidenbaum: I love the mix of harsh and sweet in the song “Girl/Boy.” The rhythms of the drums seem to extrapolate from innate rhythms of the strings.
James: Yeah, they’re there. They’re all following the same sort of path. The drums are just filling in all the gaps, basically. The strings couldn’t — wouldn’t be fast enough to play.
Weidenbaum: It brings to mind something like a translucent bird, graceful in flight but with all its skeletal machinery visible. Have you heard the track with the children and the carousel sample on DJ Krush’s last record, Meiso?
James: Rings a bell. I’m not sure.
Weidenbaum: He has a track named for the Oklahoma City explosion. Anyhow, were you a weakling child, like the song title ["To Cure a Weakling Child"]?
James: No, I just got that title out of the top of me head. I don’t know where I got it from, just made it up.
Weidenbaum: Luke Vibert mentioned that you do suffer from asthma. Your Ventolin remix collection is named for asthma medication, and the cover features asthma images.
James: Yeah, but it’s never really bothered me, never stopped me from doing anything.
Weidenbaum: I wondered if the claustrophobic nature of that music was derived from personal experience.
James: With Ventolin I tried to get it really claustrophobic. I tried to get it like, sort of, similar to — similar sort of feeling to having an asthma attack, which is like claustrophobic, basically. But it’s not something that — I’ve got it, like, quite bad but it’s — I’m not sort of personally, let things like that scare me away.
Weidenbaum: Luke Vibert says your bedroom is far plusher than his. Can you verify that?
James: It sort of is at the moment, but I reckon his is better to work in at the moment ’cause he hasn’t got a girlfriend living in the same room with him. So he’s on his own. [laughs] I’d say his is better than mine.
Weidenbaum: I asked him about the phenomenon of people making music in their bedrooms. It’s amazing that, today, people have the freedom to work so productively in such a small place.
James: To me, it’s essential to be able to work — I mean, I didn’t realize it when I was growing up, until I moved my studio like out of my bedroom into another room — when I came to London I thought that was a really good idea: you know, studio in one room and bedroom in another — get really excited. And I just, for ages, I just wasn’t as happy and I couldn’t work it out, just ’cause I wasn’t sleeping in the same room as my stuff. There’s something magical about having all your equipment in the same room as your bed, and you just get out of bed and like do a track and go back to sleep and then get up and do some more and do tracks in your pants and stuff.
Weidenbaum: Many blues musicians traditionally sleep with their guitars. Jimi Hendrix had difficulty in the U.S. military because he would sleep with his guitar.
James: Right. You’ve got to, man; you’ve got to, like, get into your stuff loads before you can start producing good things.
Weidenbaum: What is you favorite instrument, electronic or otherwise?
James: Um, I think at the moment it’s just my computer — like, I tend to only use my computer now, like I’m just getting to [be] a total computer fanatic, always used to be and they weren’t good enough for a while — computers were too rubbish for me to get into them, but now they’ve reached really good heights again, and I’m really back into them.
Weidenbaum: What do you use?
James: At the moment I use things like ProTools and things like that. But at the moment I’ve been writing my own software, and I’m pretty much using that all the time now. It’s like in a programming language, and I’m sort of just exploring a totally different path in music, basically.
Weidenbaum: What on the new records do you track back to that technology.
James: Well, most of them were done with sort of standard, specialist sequencing packages, and some of it’s with some of the programs I’ve written.
Weidenbaum: Can you point to the latter?
James: Well, no, not really. I mean, ProTools is the main thing for me, and that’s written by someone else. That’s the best tool for me.
Weidenbaum: What kind of instruments do you see yourself using 10 years from now?
James: With a computer, definitely, with a really good interface, not just a keyboard and a mouse — some sort of wicked interface you can stretch and squeeze and blow into and lots of other things, as well as use with a mouse.
Weidenbaum: Were you a big new-wave fan, growing up in Cornwall?
James: New age?
Weidenbaum: New wave. Did you listen to the Human League, OMD and such?
James: No, I did like them, did like some of it; I don’t think I bought any of their records, though, until I moved to London. I didn’t really buy any music apart from techno until I moved to London, which is like four years ago.
Weidenbaum: There’s a proliferation of information about you on the Internet. Are you aware of this?
Weidenbaum: Do you check in on it?
James: Yeah. Sometimes it’s pretty amusing.
Weidenbaum: It’s quiet extravagant: mailing lists, discographies, essays.
James: Yeah, It’s quite bizarre. I’ve sort of got used to it. At first, I just couldn’t understand it at all, and then thought it’s quite sweet. I thought it’s quite nice after awhile. But some of it I find bizarre.
Weidenbaum: What’s the most surprising thing you can remember finding on the Internet about you or your music?
James: Yeah. I think the funniest one I saw recently, someone had written what the “Milkman” song had meant to them, or what they thought it meant, and it was really elaborate. Like, the milk is white and the milkman’s wife is God and the milk is the white whale, and stuff like that, and it was really abstract and went on for ages and got more and more obscure.
Weidenbaum: I’ll have to do a search for that.
James: There’s been a lot of stuff like that, a lot of that sort of stuff.
Weidenbaum: What was your first nickname?
James: Don’t know, actually. I did have one, but I can’t remember what it was, but I used to have one in primary school. Can’t remember, dunno.
Weidenbaum: Do you remember any of your early nicknames?
James: No, can’t remember any of them. I got a feeling I had loads when I was in primary school, ’cause I had red hair and stuff; so it was probably quite a few, you know, like Duracel and things like that. That was one of them, anyhow.
Weidenbaum: Why did you choose to name this particular record after yourself? Were you just being, oh, “cheeky.”
James: Yeah, sort of a bit cheeky, and a bit — it’s just me and no one else, basically, and it seemed like reason to call it that more than anything.
Weidenbaum: Luke Vibert calls you Aphex.
James: He calls me that; sometimes people do.
Weidenbaum: But he teasing you when he calls you that.
James: Yeah, yeah, sort of a bit of a joke, but I like it, quite like it — rolls of the tongue.
Weidenbaum: Do you keep track of all the pseudonyms you’ve used?
James: No, not really. I think it’s about 10, but I keep it down to two these days.
Weidenbaum: Just Aphex and …
Weidenbaum: Such as the Analogue Bubblebath records?
Weidenbaum: You titled one of the new songs “Girl/Boy.” Would you say much of your music is about girls and boys.
James: Some of it, not all of it, reckon. Like, the reason I came up with that [title] is ’cause I thought it was some tracks were girl tracks, and some which were boy tracks.
Weidenbaum: So, what’s “Yellow Calx”?
James: I reckon that’s a boy track.
Weidenbaum: Which word would you use to describe remixing: collaboration or graffiti?
James: Graffiti, definitely.
Weidenbaum: What’s some of the graffiti you’ve been doing recently.
James: The last one was for a German hip-hop band, called something like the Fantastic Four, and they’re sort of a really big pop/hip-hop band, and I did a pretty mad mix of that, like chopped the bloke’s voice up into millions of little bits and reorganized it, so you didn’t know what they were saying. I don’t know what I’ve arranged it into. I don’t know what I’ve made him say because I can’t speak German.
[Long-ish pause as he goes to sort something out.]
Weidenbaum: I take it you’re speaking from your home.
James: Yeah, it’s quite a hectic household; a lot of people live here. Me friends, me girlfriend, about six of us, like minimum, and they’ve al got mates.
Weidenbaum: Other musicians?
James: Yeah, the guy below me is called Global Goon — just put his first record out on Rephlex. I don’t mind living with the guy below. He’s really cool, really mellow, but I wouldn’t want to live with any more [musicians]; it’s too hectic. Like, Tom [Jenkinson] wanted to move in, Squarepusher.
Weidenbaum: The Squarepusher I’ve been playing, along with Spring Heel Jack, is some of my favorite material lately.
James: I don’t know about [Spring Heel Jack], but Tom’s just one of me mates.
Weidenbaum: Are you aware you’re part of a consortium, all this new pop music coming out of England?
James: Sort of, but I don’t really see it that way. I’ve always seen myself on me own. I don’t really want to be part of scenes and groups. I want to see myself on my own.
Weidenbaum: What is your next touring situation?
James: I’m supposed to be playing in New York on the third [of January], but I’ve broke my foot.
James: I fell down the stairs, and I gashed my hand out when I was like pissed a couple of days before that, and it’s gone a bit moldy and so I had to go to hospital and I couldn’t be bothered, so I went for both at the same time.
Weidenbaum: You could use the break.
James: Yeah, I’m going to Wales to see the parents on Friday, which should be nice.
Weidenbaum: A couple more pseudonym questions. Rock bands have names, but there’s something unique to quality of electronic bands/artists’ names.
James: Yeah, like the thing is, they existed before I got into the music business. I used to make up little names on tapes and stuff when I used to catalog my stuff, and that’s why I made up most of the names. And then it sort of worked quite nicely when I got into the music business, ’cause I just gave different names to different record companies and I thought that was quite cool. But now with so much music being out on the, sort of, scene, splintered up so much into different bits, and people have like five labels for different types of music and stuff. I thought it was quite a good idea at first, but now I really don’t like it. I want it to be all back together again; I want to go out to a club and listen to all different types, not just one specialist type of jungle. I think having different names breaks it up; so that’s why I’m sticking to two again, now, to keep it all under the same names.
Weidenbaum: How does Warp fit into all this?
James: Yeah, the guy who owns it just left, actually. That’s who I was talking to a minute ago. We’re just really good mates. Just sent him a tape after being not wanting to stay on R&S anymore, in Belgium, which is the label, the first sort of big label, I got signed to. And there, they got straight into it straight away, called me back straight away. Got really good mates from there, and I quite like the people who live there.
Weidenbaum: Rephlex is your own concern. How did that come to be?
James: Well, Grant Wilson-Claridge I know from Cornwall. And, before I, like, made any records, he always said — ’cause he used to play my tunes at this club; that’s where I met him — and he always said he was gonna press them up on record. He was the first person that ever said that to me. We didn’t get round to it until after I’d pressed up a few records, basically, and we decided we wanted to start our own label up: It’d be really nice to do. It was originally for my stuff, but then we started to get loads of tapes, of everyone, so we started releasing other people’s as well.
Weidenbaum: What does Warp think of this?
James: Well, I tied it into the contract, so I can basically release what I want on Rephlex, as long as it’s not Aphex Twin, and that goes with Warner Bros., or Elektra, now, too. It’s a cool deal.
Weidenbaum: Why did it take so long for the records to come out here, Girl/Boy and Richard D. James?
James: It’s just that they’re slow, basically. I mean, yeah, they do get the stuff pretty much in advance, but they just — like, with the new one, they’re gonna package the album with the single, which I thought they were gonna do.
Weidenbaum: They’re slow because they’re a big company, and they have to get everything going, marketing, production.
James: I’m pretty in the dark as to the whole American side of it.
Weidenbaum: Markus Popp, of Oval and Microstoria, said the reason he has pseudonyms is because the more pseudonyms, the more record companies he can record for.
James: It was for me, but the thing is, after a while, like, I wanted to record at different labels, to see what they’re all like, see, to experience working with different people, but when I started working with Warp I realized I was really happy with them, and they’re really together, like business-wise and people/personality-wise. I want to stick with them. I’ve got no regard to releasing records anywhere else. I don’t want to sign with a major or anything. I’m happy to be on an independent.
Weidenbaum: A lot of British people can stay on small labels, at least in England: Elvis Costello on Demon, Depeche Mode on Mute …
James: I reckon the majors are pretty shit, see. They’re loads better these days, signing up people like Luke and Mike Paradinas. They’ve got a lot of freedom, on Virgin. They’ve got their own labels. Mike’s got High Rise. It’s quite amazing.
Weidenbaum: What’s next thing from you?
James: The next single is pretty much the same sort of thing, although it will be different, and I think after that it probably will be a lot different again, ’cause I’m off on another — I’ve done the next single, did it ages ago — like, I’m off on another tangent now; I’m off in another world now.
Weidenbaum: Something less childlike?
James: No. I’ll always try and keep that in. I can’t quite work out what I’ll release. All I can say is what I’ve been doing, and some of it has been really complicated, sort of, programming with my own language I’ve been doing. Bit like Pascal.
Weidenbaum: Are you aware that your stuff is apart from most pop music, yet is still considered pop music?
James: Yeah, it is quite amazing. It is quite a weird time for music. It seems to be, people doing different things seems to be really accepted, which is really nice. I can’t believe it’s quite happening. But at the end of the day, the only reason it’s nice is for the money, ’cause the recognition and stuff is not important for me. It’s a nice little bonus, but it’s not important.
Weidenbaum: I get the impression some people make music in order to be interviewed. This isn’t the case with you.
James: It’s kind of the opposite case. Even though I’ve got used to doing interviews, they used to really freak me out at first. People like me aren’t meant to do things like this. What you said is true of loads of people, but me and my friends, people like Luke, we never set out to be interviewed. And it’s, well, freaky, but I’ve done so many now I’m quite used to them.
Weidenbaum: What have you learned in your many interviews?
James: Well, the thing that freaked me out is that you’re forced to analyze what you’re doing and I didn’t used to do that before, just did the music naturally, and I couldn’t work out for ages if it was good or bad thing, and eventually I just came to the conclusion that whether I like it or not I’m doing it, so I’m gonna really get into it. So now I totally analyze everything I do, because I’ve done interviews, and I’ve got no trouble with it.
Weidenbaum: Has it affected your music?
James: Yeah, I reckon it has. I’m not quite sure how, but I reckon it has. It’s probably made it more aware. It’s definitely got its disadvantages and advantages.
Weidenbaum: Luke Vibert mentioned that he gets assignments to do remixes from people he’s fairly certain have never heard his music before. Have you had the same experience?
James: Yeah, but I think it’s quite interesting. It doesn’t bother me at all, wouldn’t bother me if they’re total fans or they’d never heard anything — like, that’s not a contributing factor.
Weidenbaum: People have mistakenly referred to Aphex Twin as a genre, not a person.
James: Quite nice, like Hoover.
Weidenbaum: Or Duracel.
Weidenbaum: Have you taken the opportunity to correct people?
James: Not usually. If people say my name wrong, I never say anything. I just think it’s quite funny — I don’t care how people or what they think of me.
Weidenbaum: How else could computers improve.
James: I think something you control with your eyes could be really nice, something where you don’t have to touch anything, so you have like something that scans your retina, and so you can work out where you’re looking. I know it’s possible ’cause I seen it on TV like 10 years ago, where they did sex observation, see where guys are looking and stuff. You see their eyes going on like their tits, and then their face and then their ass. It must be possible. I’d like something like that.
Weidenbaum: Where did the girls look?
James: I think the face, and then the butt.
Weidenbaum: Would this free your hands to do other things.
James: Yeah, you’d have to select something with your eyes, I reckon. So you’d probably have to use your finger to select something, but maybe control it in a third dimension.
Weidenbaum: There was a lot of science fiction imagery, or UFO imagery, on your records for a while. Not any more.
James: No, not really, I’ve always found stuff like that quite cheesy. It’s not really, doesn’t really do a lot for me. ‘Cause everyone else does it, so — it’s always interesting, but it’s not interesting if everyone else is doing it.
Weidenbaum: Who is the child speaking on “To Cure a Weakling Child.”
James: That’s my voice, going through my computer and come out the other end. I said loads of words and then I chopped them all up and made a tune around all around them words, like, the way I said it and stuff. It’s quite a good way of writing tunes. It’s a bit similar to, like, sometimes I just hit the keyboard in a really sort of way I’d like the rhythm of the tracks to sound, like just hitting 12 notes at a time, and then I’ll spend four hours moving all the notes where I want them to go.
Weidenbaum: Devo has said it would find a sound the band liked and then write a song around it.
James: I do that as well, not always but sometimes.
Weidenbaum: In the time of Bach, people would write tunes based on their friends or loved one’s names, each letter become a note. It’s still done today, a kind of parlor game.
James: You’d have to have the right name. I don’t know what the note K sounds like.
Weidenbaum: You just start the alphabet over.
James: That’s cheating. I think I’d split the scale into 26 microtones.
Weidenbaum: Well, I think today we’d write tunes about the tunes on our friends’ phone numbers. You don’t seem to use many recognizable sounds, like faxes or busy signals.
James: I love all those sorts of noises, like I used to really get into using them, but I don’t use them now, because you just hear them all the time anyway; so it’s kind of like part of my life. I’m always hearing motors whizzing around, ’cause I’ve got so many gadgets in my house, that I’m always hearing those sort of noises.
Weidenbaum: Part of the reason people like to record in their bedroom is because it isn’t a clean space.
James: It makes it more personal, I think. When you go into studio, it’s just really clinical. It becomes a job and I’m rubbish at doing jobs.
Weidenbaum: What kind of challenges do you set yourself. What areas do you think you’re weakest in?
James: When you’re busy, usually it’s the time sort of thing, which I don’t like, I don’t like to feel pressurized with time. That’s the main challenge, ’cause I’m quite busy, but I’d like to have as much time as I want. The challenge is getting something that’s as complicated as possible but making it sound really accessible.
Weidenbaum: What would you say is your greatest success on this album in this way.
James: The song you just mentioned, “To Cure a Weakling Child.” There’s quite a lot of complicated stuff going on you don’t really notice.
Weidenbaum: Couple more questions. It’s interesting to have an opportunity to talk with you before I hear some of your music. Could you describe the Beck single?
James: Yeah, it’s got a quite tasty beat I got off an old ’50s percussion record, called Repercussion, like sampled it, chopped it up into little beats. It’s very cool, really did my head in, the vocal on its own, ’cause it’s really untuneful, unmelodic, and I’d rather have done another track off the album — ’cause I really like his track, the way they’ve done it, but it’s quite a challenge because I really wanted to make a tune around his voice, a nice melody. That was quite a challenge doing that. And I speeded it up, and changed the key, and there’s like a middle section of it where I didn’t bother getting it in time, I just let his vocal go slow over my tune and it’s quite weird because the time signature changes every time his bit loops around. It’s not in time with my bit at all. Gives it quite nice a feel, I think. And I put some mad acid noise over the top of it all, in tune with his vocal. It quite kicks, I reckon.
Weidenbaum: This is my next to last question.
James: The penultimate question.
Weidenbaum: As electronic musicians’ careers progress, the technology with which they work progresses, whereas jazz musicians were for the most part playing the same instruments throughout their careers. This parallel progress changes how we read the progress in your career.
James: I would be happy with my first set-up for the rest of my life. I could be quite happy working with, like, about four bits of my favorite equipment forever, ’cause it’s got infinite possibilities. You’re not limited — well, you are limited with some sound generation sort of things, but you’re still only limited by your imagination, and getting new equipment is sort of like being spoiled, really. You’re spoiling yourself getting new toys and stuff, but it does obviously change the sound totally, and change the way you work. To be quite honest, I’m quite happy either way. I’d be happy using the same rubbish equipment ’cause you’d just be forced to get better stuff out of it every time — like, I wouldn’t repeat myself, so I’d just be forced to think of other ways to use it. And that’s usually where electronic music is best, people like Squarepusher — he’s got no equipment, he’s so bored of his equipment, and he just has to squeeze more and more out of it all the time. He told me six months ago he had to get a computer. He’s just got a crap drum machine and a crap sampler, but then he changed his mind, said he’s not going to get one now.
Weidenbaum: I was listening to two Analogue Bubblebath records this weekend, one all straight-time, quick, familiar, the other complicated, resplendent. There’s such a vast change between those two records. If someone was to hear the second one and then go back to the first, what would they hear in the first that prepared them for the second?
James: It sounds like — [laughs] I can’t really explain it. I kind of almost don’t want to explain it. I like not knowing. It’s a good question, but this is like I was talking about, where analysis comes in with interviews. I reckon the first one’s better. It’s more personal. The other one’s quite aggro.
Weidenbaum: I tend to mistake aggression for complexity.
James: It’s different for me, ’cause the first one is so old so it’s got lots of nostalgia linked into it, and that’s always confused me. ‘Cause sometimes I’ll play someone who’s only really into dance music for a couple of years, I’ll play them something that’s like six years old, and I’ll say this track is amazing, and they’ll just go, Yeah, but it sounds really rubbish — and you suddenly realize that they’re not listening to it in the same way you are. It’s quite confusing. They haven’t gone through that whole evolution of dance music, they just got into it a couple of years ago and they couldn’t understand why that’s good. They wouldn’t be able to comprehend it. They just see it because all the sound and stuff has been superseded by other things.
Weidenbaum: One last question: You have done some true collaborations, as with Mike Paradinas. Do you see yourself doing more of that?
James: Yeah, hopefully, the only people I want to work with in the same way are Tom and Luke. I don’t want to work with anyone else. As soon as I move, I’m gonna work first with Luke.
Weidenbaum: Where are you moving?
James: I’m buying a bank, gonna record in a vault.
Weidenbaum: And you’ll live there, too.
Weidenbaum: Well, thanks a lot.
James: Take care, then. Bye.