Interview: From the Back of the Fridge
From the Back of the Fridge: Aphex Twin (1997)
This one's a chat Andrez had with Richard D. James in 1997, for Melbourne rag Zebra, & Sydney's 3D World...
Aphex Twin / Richard D James
He's known as the enfant terrible of the electro circuit and he has a penchance for building his own equipment and his own music-writing software. He owns a building in London that was formerly a bank and he drives a tank around the outskirts of Cornwall. He's been known to DJ with nothing more than two pieces of sandpaper and a blender. He's recorded music under aliases like Polygon Window, The Dice Man, Mover and AFX, and perhaps more appropriately worked with Mike Paradinas - a.k.a. Jake Slazenger and u-Ziq - on a project called Expert Knob Twiddlers. His name is Richard D. James, but you can call him the Aphex Twin.
This is the guy who, as a teenager at the beginning of the 90's, turned dance music on its head and cut a breakbeat swath through the rave scene with tracks like 'Didgeridoo' and 'Isoprophlex' while at the same time creating a collection of ethereal ambient works.
Fast forward five years.
Richard's set in the Boiler Room at the Big Day Out earlier this year blew a lot of people away, not only in terms of the music he played - which was by turns remarkable and iconoclastic in its dancefloor setting - but for the fact that the audience went crazy and got into it. Anyone else would've cleared the floor yet the Aphex Twin soundsystem somehow rocked. "To be honest, I don't really think about that when I play - it's just what I do and to me it's quite normal," he says. "That performance wasn't any more experimental than others I would've played before or since."
The success of the performance is symptomatic of Aphex Twin's acceptance in recent times. While always steering the fringe and cavorting with idiosyncratic sounds, he's somehow won over the more mainstream dance music press in the UK and is now actually turning over a profit for major label Warner Music with records that are far from user-friendly let alone dancefloor oriented. Rather than compromise his style, these days Aphex Twin is given leeway to produce what he wants and people still get into it. "I've always done that," counters Richard, "it's just that I never used to get away with it before! Instead I used to get shut off or sacked, but that doesn't happen anymore."
So what's changed? "I don't know," he muses. "Because people are into it, I suppose. Sometimes I still wish that they weren't into it - I used to quite like it when people got offended by my music. I got really scared when too many people like it."
Richard's new EP is called 'Come To Daddy', and on first impressions it has a remarkable - if somewhat scary - cover that depicts a group of school children all bearing Mr James' visage - and a grotesque yet somehow sublime video by Chris Cunningham. What's the story? "I don't know, actually - it was a pretty good laugh doing it, though. We hired out this class for a couple of hours, picked out the kids that we really liked, and had them running around me. Then we went back to the studio and merged my head onto them . . ."
The lyrics, inscribed in the cover notes, read thus: 'I Want Your Soul, I Will Eat Your Soul', repeated over and over. "Those words were in this letter I got from a fan ages ago," reports Richard. "See I did the track in its original form about two and a half years ago, the same day I received this fucking mad letter from this fan that ended with 'I want your soul, I will eat your soul, I want your soul'. I couldn't make head or tail of it at all, but I thought it sounded pretty good."
The opening track is the Pappy Mix of 'Come To Daddy', and it's truly bizarre - imagine if you can Aphex Twin's early work immersed in Richard James' own sampled vocals, which creates in turn something akin to eclectic speedcore heavy metal. "That was actually the first version I did; I was having a laugh really, because there was never anything serious intended. I wanted to make it as dark and brutal as possible. I don't normally like to use vocals because I see it as a bit of a cop-out. It's an easy way to get across emotion in music, whereas I really like computer music because it's harder to express something."
Way too many richards...
When I last interviewed Richard James almost a year ago he commented that he found most contemporary techno and electronica to be tired and boring. Is this still the case for him? "There's a lot of music around that I quite like, but nothing that inspires me - in order to do that it has to be totally awesome. And the only two people around who are consistent enough for me are Luke Vibert [a.k.a. Wagon Christ and Plug] and Tom Jenkinson [Squarepusher] - they haven't faulted at all over the past year."
The Aphex Twin soundscape was itself an early starter with drum 'n' bass, fusing together electronic sounds with syncopated beats over six years ago; it's a preoccupation that Richard has continued with in the time since as he explains: "It's still interesting to me because in the last couple of years there have been some really smart tracks again and it's all really quite inspiring. A lot of the drum 'n' bass stuff is offering something new whereas techno hasn't."
Apart from his output on Sheffield's Warp imprint in the UK, Richard continues to run his own label called Rephlex. Through this outlet he's been able to release more of his own work as well as vignettes by artists like Leo Anibaldi, Squarepusher, Cylob and Mike Paradinas. If Richard has his own way, expect more of the same. "It's been a big part of my workload recently," he enthuses, "and it's wicked."