Aphex Twin The Contrarian
Published Apr 01, 2003Richard David James is not nearly as crazy as he would have us believe. Best known to fans of electronic music as Aphex Twin (one of at least 12 pseudonyms he's coined for himself), the English producer is the quintessential postmodern artist. He has successfully merged high cultural traditions (e.g., musique concrete) with ostensibly low forms (hardcore jungle); he is incredibly prolific; and he has played the media like a drum, cloaking himself in false mystery to create an aura befitting a legend. Since James burst onto the British dance scene in 1991, journalists have repeatedly noted the man's dichotomous public persona. While he's widely cited as polite and soft-spoken interview subject, James has consistently resisted the role of boring techno producer, planting his altered mug squarely on the cover of his albums, and stringing his fans along with a series of mythmaking exaggerations. If the Brit is to be believed, his hard drive stores over 2,000 unreleased tracks; he's created many of his songs while in a dream state; and he's had over 100 near-death experiences. Bullshit artist or not, there's no denying James's genius. His legacy, which promises to extend long into the 21st century, is twofold. First, he created some of the most innovative music of the 1990s, veering nimbly from spastic neo-funk to devotional atmospheric pieces. Second, he mastered our era's cult of personality, advancing the cause of formerly faceless electronic music. Ladies and gentleman, Richard James: hardcore devil, ambient angel, artist for the ages.
Richard D. James is born on August 18 in Cornwall, England, an isolated coastal town six hours Southwest of London. Three years earlier, while residing in Cornwall, Ontario, James's mother gave birth to her first child, who died shortly thereafter. The deceased boy's name was Richard, a moniker re-used by the James's for their second son.
James's avant-garde impulses develop early. As a 14 year old, he is fast developing into a child prodigy, producing some of the tracks that will later appear on his debut LP, Selected Ambient Works 85-92. More interested in sound than in music proper, the youngster tinkers on the family piano, exploring different tuning scales and hitting the strings instead of the keys. To escape from his sister playing albums by Jesus and the Mary Chain, James begins experimenting with tape loops, recording and morphing found sounds by playing them backwards and changing playback speeds. Later, he buys his first synthesiser, a Roland 100M. Ever curious, James pops open the back of the machine and starts modifying the parts inside.
After an uneventful year studying electronics at Kingston Polytechnic University, James commences a DJ residency, spinning hip-hop and "mental acid" at the Bowgie, a tiny club in the surfer village of Crantock. There, he meets Grant Wilson-Claridge; the hard-partying duo will later form their own music label, Rephlex. In the summer, James releases his first twelve-inch under the name AFX. The record, Analog Bubblebath, stands as one of the few collaborations of his career. Co-produced by Tom Middleton, the track appears on the tiny Mighty Force imprint; it goes on to secure a cult following, earning play list support from KISS FM, an influential London pirate station.
Belgian's mid-sized R&S label licenses 1991's Analog Bubblebath for re-release; the flip, "Digeridoo," becomes one of 1992's key hardcore anthems. Based on the strange similarity between the Australian aboriginal pipe and the acid bass squelch of the Roland 303, "Digeridoo" hurtles by at a breakneck clip of 150 beats per minute (bpm). Topping out at number 55 on the British singles charts, the track makes the Aphex name James's preferred moniker. There are two accounts of how James came up with the Aphex Twin name; both have been propagated by the Englishman at various points in his career. The first posits James's first collaborator, Middleton, as the "twin"; both artists were, after all, born on the same day in 1971. The second explanation refers to James's deceased older brother, whose grave remains in Cornwall, Ontario to this day. Mystery unsolved, James moves to London to finish work on his first LP, Selected Ambient Works 85-92. A living tapestry of serene textures and luminous timbres, the record is widely hailed as a modern masterpiece. Meanwhile, James's business partner, Wilson-Claridge, remains in Cornwall, where he nurtures Rephlex's patented "braindance" sound, clearly a piss-take on the chic for "intelligent" dance music.
With both journalists and fans agog over SAW 85-92, the creation of the Aphex Twin myth goes into overdrive. In an interview with Melody Maker, James boasts that he makes music compulsively, sleeping only two hours every night. Further, the producer insists that he makes all of his music with his own homemade synthesisers, a claim later rejected by friend (and fellow Cornish producer) Luke Vibert as a bald-faced lie. (It is now widely believed that James worked mostly with mass-produced synthesisers, which he then modified to his own ends.) Flush with royalties, the Brit purchases a Daimler Ferret Mark 3, a five-ton tank armed with a machine gun. In the spring, he signs to Warp Records, the Sheffield-based label famous for conceptualising "futuristic electronic listening music." His first Warp release (as Polygon Window) is Surfing on Sine Waves; the cover of the album shows a beach in Cornwall where the producer claims to have almost drowned. Later in the year, James performs a live P.A., his first, at Berlin's legendary Tresor night club. The year ends with the release Aphex Twin's biggest-selling single; "On" climbs to number 32 on the British charts.
The Aphex tank rolls vigorously onward. Early in the year, he is signed by Sire, a large American label. In the spring, he releases a double CD, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II. The album is James's most subdued work to date, returning to Brian Eno's neutral definition of ambient as simply "environmental music." Throughout, melody takes a back seat to percussive chimes and shapeless drones. The producer claims that 70 percent of the album's tracks were created using self-taught lucid dreaming techniques; James dreams up the sounds and translates them onto tape when he awakens. In the summer, he visits the United States for the first time, playing a show at New York's Knitting Factory. Instead of the ominous tones of his latest album, the audience gets a performance that underscores the artist's contrary persona. James drops a tone arm onto a sheet of sandpaper, sending an ear-singeing roar of distortion through the shocked crowd. Then, he places a microphone inside a blender and flips on the power switch. Patrons exit the venue post haste. Upon his return to London, James declares that he'll never play live again.
After collecting some early EPs for the Classics release, James drops a new single, "Ventolin," in March. The tune is a clamorous and appropriately wheezing ode to the drug on which he (an asthmatic) relies. The next month sees the release of Aphex's third long-player, I Care Because You Do. The producer claims to have recorded the album in his new home, an old bank building near London's Elephant & Castle tube station. The LP contains one of Aphex's best ever tunes, "Alberto Balsalm," a squelchy mid-tempo number comprised of factory-floor sounds that somehow cohere into a sublime whole. Still, when The Wire magazine presents the song to the legendary avant-garde composer, Karl Stockhausen, the old master tears the young man to shreds, advising that he "immediately stop with all these post-African repetitions." Coming from one of James' avowed heroes, the admonishment must be especially piercing.
In July, Rephlex releases the long-awaited collaboration between James and his experimental electronic cohort, Mike Paradinas (aka µ-Ziq). The album, Expert Knob Twiddlers (credited to Mike & Rich) proves a disappointment, further evidence of James's difficulties in collaboration. In August, James looses the "Girl/Boy" single. The sleeve bears a photograph of a gravestone inscribed with the name Richard James and dated November 23, 1968. According to James, the picture graces the wall of his parents' bedroom in Cornwall, commemorating his deceased brother. "The photo just freaks me out," he tells NME. "It's not every day that you can look at a gravestone with your name on it." Morbid cover or not, "Girl/Boy" is a smashing success, ferociously rhythmic and blissfully melodic all at once. The song is licensed for use in ads by such conglomerates as Bank of America, Compaq and Orange Communications. Asked by the NME if there is anything he wouldn't allow his music to advertise, James replies: "Only private health [care]. I've said no to that. If it's against my morals, I won't do it." November finds the producer releasing his next full-length, Richard D. James Album. The record marks two key milestones in his career. For the first time, he's producing most of his tracks on a Power PC, using a variety of software programs custom-designed for him by computer-savvy fans. Second, the record is his definitive foray into acid-jungle. Along with fellow Cornish producer Tom Jenkinson (aka Squarepusher), James heads up the arty drill & bass micro movement, an offshoot of drum & bass that cranks jungle's rhythms up to hyper-speed. Fused with his plangent melodies, James's drums of death take on an almost spiritual significance.
Working as AFX, James drops the fourth instalment in the Analog Bubblebath EP series on his own Rephlex label. In the spring, he heads out on a three-week, booze-fuelled tour of North America, thus reneging on the 1994 declaration that he'd never play live again. James's subsequent European tour amounts to an extended exercise in absurd performance art; while the cigar-chomping producer manipulates a laptop and a bank of analog gear, female bodybuilders flex their muscles and his friends prance around stage in bear suits. In October, Aphex releases a new full-length, Come To Daddy. Directed by Chris Cunningham, the video for the album's title track marks James's breakthrough to mainstream recognition. The video is a fever dream, opening with a shot of an old lady planning to walk her dog. Shortly thereafter, a television set comes to life, screaming, "I want your soul. I will eat your soul. Come to Daddy!" Dozens of feral children (all wearing masks of James's face) subsequently wreak havoc in the streets, throwing rocks, overturning garbage cans and generally scaring the hell out of their elders. The MTV generation rejoices, and Cunningham becomes the industry's most sought-after video director.
Early in the year, James invites Canadian techno DJ Richie Hawtin out for a spirited game of indoor laser tag. The match ends when Hawtin gets attacked by an unnamed participant, only to be rescued by James and his friends. In an interview later in the year, the Brit confesses that one of his favourite weekend hobbies is climbing atop the roof of his bank and lobbing water balloons at people lining up to get in the Ministry of Sound, London's premier superclub. Meanwhile, track making continues unabated in the bank's bowels. Like fellow English techno producer Robin Rimbaud (aka Scanner), James is experimenting with MetaSynth software, an experimental music-making program that generates sounds from scanned photographic images. James writes a fan letter to the program's creator, San Francisco's Eric Wenger.
In March, Warp releases Aphex Twin's Windowlicker EP, bearing the producer's most absurd cover art yet: James's smiling face superimposed over the visage of a busty bikini model. While pop groups like the Beatles and Black Sabbath were accused of sneaking satanic messages in their songs, James ups the ante for the digital era, using MetaSynth to embed a picture of his devilish face in the audio portion of Windowlicker's second song. The sinister face is revealed when the CD is played through special software that translates sound waves into visual images. Wired magazine describes the ploy as "the aural equivalent of steganography: the practice of hiding secret watermarks in images." The video for Windowlicker's title track marks the second collaboration between James and Chris Cunningham. Set in Los Angeles, the clip parodies stereotypical rap videos and echoes "Come To Daddy" with its digital manipulation of James's face. The clip's gratuitous dance sequences and booty shots engender criticism from prudes, but Cunningham vigorously denies any charges of racism. "It's not racist," he tells the NME. "It is sexist, but it's a piss-take of R&B videos, which are all sexist." Piss-taking accounted for, Windowlicker also finds Aphex revealing his tender side the EP's last track is "Nannou," named after the Brit's long-term girlfriend, a French woman whom he describes as his "most special human."
While James continues to produce music at his regularly prodigious clip, 2000 marks the first year in a decade without any releases. He does, however, score the music for Flex, a short Cunningham film exhibited as part of the "Apocalypse" exhibition at London's Royal Academy. Flex is a hardcore video installation filmed in the murky depths of an underwater pool; the accompanying music is appropriately cheerless. Rumours surface that Cunningham will direct a screen adaptation of William Gibson's cyber-punk novel, Neuromancer. James is tipped to score the film, but the project never evolves past the developmental stage. Late in the year, on a flight to Scotland, the Brit loses his MP3 player. According to James, the player holds 273 unreleased Aphex tracks and 80 by Squarepusher. Warp plans the release of his next album to beat bootleggers to the market.
Early in the year, the producer buys a submarine for £40,000 (approximately $100,000), an amount he reckons is "really cheap." In August, James and Squarepusher establish a new record label. The unnamed imprint's first release, "2 Remixes by AFX," contains remixes of songs by two of James's acid house heroes, DJ Pierre and 808 State. The year also finds the Englishman playing two of the strangest DJ sets of his career. The first occurs in June, when he drops an old-fashioned acid set at Dublin's Temple Bar Music Centre. The producer appears at the invitation of a 21-year-old fan who pays for the show with money inherited from his late grandmother. The second quirky show is an ambient set in November at the Tropical Conservatory in London's Barbican Centre. The performance is a veritable 60s-style happening; as the 400 ticket-holders enter the venue, they are handed cordless headphones through which they will hear the set. If the patrons take off the headphones, they hear no music, just the murmur of conversation and the trickle of water features. Most importantly, 2001 sees the release of James's new full-length, a double-CD titled Drukqs. The producer steadfastly maintains that the title is not a reference to psychedelic drugs, and the beautiful music within bears him out. Initially given a lukewarm reception by the critics, the record reveals its charms slowly. The album's most interesting tracks are its simplest: delicate piano pieces that recall the work of John Cage and Arvo Pärt. These tracks are played by James on a grand piano whose keys can be controlled via a computer interface. In order to make the tunes, the Brit places bolts and pieces of rubber between the strings inside the piano to change the sound produced when the hammer strikes. Interspersed within a handful of Aphex's trademark mental acid tracks, the piano tunes demonstrate the artist's continued progression toward sublimity.
James continues to promote Drukqs, playing several shows in Europe and headlining England's prestigious Carling Festival. In an interview with London's Guardian, the producer reveals the details of a possible collaboration with Madonna. "I actually wrote a track for her and I had all these ideas," he says. "The track is this fucked acid thing and I wanted her to just do stupid noises; there wasn't to be any singing on the track, just like grunts and moans and pig impersonations. I really wanted to hear Madonna doing a pig impersonation!" The Material Girl abandons the project.
Warp releases 26 Mixes For Cash, a sprawling two-disc collection of James's remixes, ranging from the majestic (Gavin Bryars's "Raising the Titanic") to the absurd (the Mike Flowers Pops' "Debase"). The compilation's cynical title merges nicely with its producer's mistrustful view of the music industry. While James has turned down remix requests from the likes of U2 and Björk, he's gladly taken on work from obscure artists, like female Japanese duo Nav Katze, German hardcore specialist Mescalinum United and British pop retreads Jesus Jones. In interviews, the Englishman's explained the perverse satisfaction he derives from taking a bad song and turning it into an gabba freak-out. Still, while he's carefully portrayed himself as an eccentric in the public eye, he insists that he's deadly serious about every track he makes, remix or not. "I never take the piss out of anything I do creatively," he once told Melody Maker. "I wouldn't be worthy of existence if I did things like that."