Marking the 30th Anniversary of Selected Ambient Works 85-92

It was a pleasure to have been interviewed my Ed Power for his article about the 30th anniversary of Aphex Twin’s 1992 album, Selected Ambient Works 85-92:

“There was little that sounded like either record that came out much prior to them, especially Volume II. When we listen to them, not only do we hear them, but we hear an Ur-text for so much that followed,” says writer, critic and ambient music expert Marc Weidenbaum, who wrote about Selected Ambient Works Volume II for Bloomsbury’s 33⅓ series of short books about landmark records. “They resonate with listeners today because we sense so much of their impact on today’s music.”

Power also spoke with Paul Nicholson, the designer of Aphex Twin’s logo; Neil Mason, editor of Electronic Sound; and Aaron Kent, poet and founder of publisher Broken Sleep Books.

There was quite a bit more to our correspondence on the topic, so I thought I’d share my other thoughts here, responding to questions from Power. This is lightly edited from what I initially wrote in my email. We discussed both 85-92 and Volume II.

On whether Richard D. James’ rural upbringing had an influence on his music: I can’t imagine that it didn’t. I think being in a fairly remote place lends one to needing to entertain oneself and one’s peers. I’m a city mouse myself, so I’m prone to thinking that urban ghosts are no less interesting than are their country cousins, but perhaps part of the attraction for me to this music is its expression of a perspective alien to my own.

On the emotional content of these early recordings: For a long time, my emotional response to Selected Ambient Works Volume II was somewhat muted. The music was so beautiful, and when it first came out, so mysterious, so murky and confusing, that my appreciation of it was much more about admiring it than feeling something from it. Over time, I came to get senses of wistfulness, nostalgia, despair, and longing from it, and once in a while even joy and abandon. That came in time. When I was researching the book, one of the biggest surprises I found was how many people found the music to be scary, haunting. I understood that to a degree, but the sounds were so beautiful that the album’s beauty kept the sense of foreboding at bay for me. Apparently, though, not for everyone.

The challenges I faced when writing my book about the sequel album, Selected Ambient Works Volume II:

I only spoke with James once, when I interviewed him on the occasion of his self-titled album back in the mid-1990s. I was warned in advance, even by his record company, not to get my hopes up, that he was (and this is the word repeated by many) “difficult.” At the appointed time, the phone line connected, we confirmed we were each other, and … then the line went dead. I thought, “My god, it’s even worse than I’d been warned.” And then immediately he rang back and apologized. Turned out he’d accidentally dropped the phone or something. We went on to have a very nice call. He was totally clear-headed and plainspoken, and answered every question (very much as you describe in your question). There was no grandiose ego, no obfuscation, nothing cryptic. As for when I wrote the book, it wasn’t so much a challenge that I didn’t get to interview him specifically for the book so much as that I didn’t know if I’d get to interview him, so the whole time I wrote it, I had to keep in mind that at some point he might suddenly become available, which didn’t happen.

The year my book came out was an interesting one. It was 2014, the 20th anniversary of Selected Ambient Works Volume II. In the spring of that year, when the book came out, Aphex Twin was still largely spoken about in the past tense. That’s the world into which my book was released. It had been over a dozen years since his last album, Drukqs, and longer still since his last single, “Windowlicker.” But later that year, the blimp famously appeared over London right before his birthday, and then he came back. So I wrote the book toward the end of his extended quiet period, as it turned out.

When I set out to propose the book, which was for the 33 1/3 series published by Bloomsbury, I knew I’d need to write about a record that I could listen to endlessly. I’m not a historian. I’m not a writer about celebrities. I think in terms of critical essays, musical analysis, culture. This meant I wouldn’t be writing about him so much as I’d be writing from about the record: culturally, aesthetically. Whatever record I proposed to 33 1/3 was something I had to be able to listen to on repeat for a year, which is what I did. I’d once previously proposed a different book to the 33 1/3 series, the debut album from Latin Playboys, years earlier, but that wasn’t accepted by the publisher. This time around, I chose another inventive, experimental, intimate album. I think the main thing I took away from the whole process of researching and writing the book was how different people’s appreciation of the album can be, and how much cultural activity occurred in its wake (appropriation for movie scoring, discussion in then nascent online discussion forums, dissection by classical composers). When I started writing the book, a lot of people asked if I could write that much about a record that “didn’t even have any lyrics.” The book, as it turned out, could easily have been twice as long, if not longer.

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