Cagey, Canny, Krafty
The Aphex Twin
Never mind avoiding presets and programming your own patches... how about rebuilding the whole damn synth? Richard James - aka Polygon Window, Caustic Window, Diceman, Soit PP, Blue Calx, AFX and The Aphex Twin - isn’t happy with his hardware till he’s had the toolbox to it. Phil Ward enters the twilight zone of the lad from Cornwall who’s spearheading the ambient onslaught.
Some people aren't content with just wiring a plug onto a new synth. Some people make brilliantly original ambient electronic music. Some people are Richard James, the Aphex Twin...
"I buy about £200 worth of records a week. At the moment it's mostly 70s electronic stuff like Can - I've just got Popol Vuh's last album. I've been in Cornwall so long without any money, or any record shops, I've been making up for lost time." So says Richard James, who's got a bit more purchasing power now that he's moved to London, his pseudonym Aphex Twin has caught the imagination of the music press, and ambient music - of which he is one of the country's leading exponents - is threatening to be The Next Big Thing.
He buys his music on vinyl, as a DJ in regular demand throughout blissed out clubland, and he especially buys ambient material, with a bias towards early and obscure ventures in the genre that hopefully are free of bass and drums entirely, allowing premium live remix potential. Counting his own friends as the best DJs he's heard, he is typically blase about his own increasing status, and about mixing - if you'll pardon the expression - with the big names. "I was writing stuff before I'd heard any Derrick May material, anyway, so while I've got a lot of respect for him, especially his early stuff, I wouldn't say he's an influence. I'm a bit of a veteran, now..."
Quite. At 21, Richard's getting a bit long in the tooth. Just because it's less than two years since his official recording debut 'Analogue Bubblebath' on local label Mighty Force, don't imagine he's an absolute beginner at this lark. He was barely a teenager when he first started dismantling synthesisers, and first started cobbling together instrumental and ambient tracks with sticky-back plastic, dubbin, and used Fairy Liquid bottles. Some of these works survived onto last year's Selected Ambient Works 85-92, a debut double album on Belgium's R&S Records.
"There is stuff that goes back to when I was 12. I just used to do stuff with tape, really limited equipment, but when I listen to it now it still inspires me. When you create sounds without any kind of keyboard, you get something which is a lot more interesting. As soon as you start working with a keyboard or synthesiser, you're limiting yourself already to a certain set of sounds."
His friend Mixmaster Morris is his "walking information machine" in the hunt for new (or rather, old) records. "I'll listen to about 30 albums non-stop, get totally wasted and try and remember everything I've listened to. It's quite difficult. You can't listen to records in second-hand shops, but you can look at the grooves and usually see if there's any dodgy drums or basslines in them - and avoid all that stuff."
These are records to listen to - purely educational, of course - not to sample. Richard won't waste time trying to beat a filched loop into shape when there are so many original sounds of his own that he's scarcely begun to work on. It's a question of time. His prolific output has already led to more record contracts than most people see in a lifetime, and by choice each product is farmed out to each label under a different name. That way, the company only gets the rights to one name. Nothing is marketed as Richard D. James, because Richard D. James is his own man.
"But I've had to sort it out, recently. What it will probably boil down to is Aphex Twin, on my own label Rephlex, so I can put out anything I want on Rephlex. Probably licensed through Warp; they're not like a record company, they're friends, so I'm quite happy to accept less money and work with my mates. I hate this idea of talking to someone behind a desk about music."
Contrary to myth, the name Aphex Twin has nothing whatsoever to do with the EQ boosting studio apparatus that glories in the title Aphex Aural Exciter. "Just a coincidence," claims Richard. "I'll probably get sued or sponsored by them sooner or later, I suppose." In fact, it goes back to Richard's first musical partner Tom - they were born within ten minutes of each other, hence 'Twin' - and the acid house collaborations they created with an irrational predilection for the 'ph' consonant in the title. Aphex was just one of many words invented at the time, and it stuck. But it has a vaguely elemental and Greek flavour to it, in common with 'Heliosphan', 'Tha', 'Phec' and other track tides. Somehow the timeless Cornish landscape and the stark hieroglyphics of the school chemistry lab have combined in Richard's vivid imagination.
"I sample all the time, but I don't sample other people's music. Not because they might recognise it, or anything like that, but because I'd get less satisfaction out of making the track. There are millions of things I'd love to sample, but I don't because I prefer to create the sounds myself. Even if I'm inspired by a 'found' sound, quite often I'll then go about making my own version of it. I certainly don't want to use sounds that some Japanese bloke has programmed into a drum machine. I've used them in the past, but now the idea just turns me right off - I don't want to use them, so I won't."
Echoing Meat Beat Manifesto's purchasing habits, Richard has recently bought a Roland 100M modular synth system. But not for the same reason. "I've been buying a lot of synths and keyboards, but only because I'm interested in the electronics side of it. I've bought ARPs and things like that, but I've taken them all apart straight away. With the 100M, I started taking some screws out before I got sidetracked into something else, but I'll get back to it. Everything just comes apart straight away, because I really like to see how people put these things together. I don't use them as instruments; I want to see the electronics."
So you won't actually hear a 100M, for instance, on an Aphex Twin album. "I'll probably use some bits of their modules, and incorporate them into my own. So that's half of it. The other half is taking them apart just to see how they did it..."
And he hasn't even got round to workstations, yet. It takes a lot to impress Richard James. When you can come up with an album like Surfing On Sine Waves without recourse to any preset hardware, let alone preset sounds, it's perhaps natural to greet most factory product with a supercilious air. "You're just that much more likely to come up with something original, which really matters to me. It doesn't seem to matter much to other people, but...
"I've never built a keyboard as such - I'm not into carpentry or anything. But I do use keyboards. I use bits of other keyboards all the time - for the sliders, the case, the keys. But I don't use the actual sounds. Although I have made a box about the size of a packet of fags which has got everything from a TB303 in it except the sequencer. Synthesisers are too big, they get on my nerves. Things like ARPs - they're excellent but they're so big. The sliders are massive. And you can't fine tune - they seem to cover all the wrong ranges.
"Of my music that's actually been released so far, the early stuff is a combination of standard equipment and my own equipment, but I haven't used any standard equipment on anything in the last year, apart from the computer and monitor. I made a sampler, but it's broken just now, so I've been using a Casio one. I've been trying to fix the sampler again...
"The nearest thing I've got to an untampered, intact piece of gear is the sampler, but I've put filters on it. There's not a lot you can do to digital keyboards. If you get a DX7, all you can really do is change things on the output. Because it's all chips, you can't really get inside it. I'm very interested in digital noise, but it's not as apparent as analogue customising, so I've only scratched the surface. I mean, I will record onto DAT and then fuck the tape up in different ways - like put a hair dryer on the tape, or sprinkle stuff onto it, or crease and fold the tape. You can get really mad sounds doing that.
"I remember reading in Music Technology about DAT machines, before I had one, and it said turning the recording level up too high gives you a digital distortion which is horrible and unusable. And I thought, that's a terrible thing to say, like you can't use that medium in that way... I took it as a challenge, to use that horrible and unusable effect in some way. Everything has got a good sound. I could get a good sound out of any keyboard, even a five quid thing with one preset. I don't get snobby about other people's equipment - like, 'you couldn't possibly get anything good out of gear like that.' You get demo tapes, and you think you know what it will sound like from the equipment list... OK, 90% of the time you'll be right, but for the other 10% they'll do something completely unexpected."
Indeed. Some of Demo Takes' best offerings have the shortest equipment lists. But, in the absence of any clearly identifiable products in Richard's audio laboratory, what characterises a unit that has been salvaged from his electric surgery?
"Sometimes it will respond over a range, sometimes it will make just one sound and I'll have to sample it, and use it that way. A lot of stuff is voltage controlled. I'm really into accurate control, which you don't really get with a lot of gear. MIDI gives you control, but there's always the problem of MIDI and old keyboards. Also a lot of digital keyboards don't respond instantly, it's too quantised. Sometimes you can use that to your advantage, but in general I prefer the analogue stuff because the transitions are so much smoother. But then obviously you need good interfaces, and that's what I've been trying to work out recently. You can buy CV/gates, and Kenton's is probably the best one I've seen, but they still don't give you enough control, so you can control loads of different parts of the keyboard and not just when the notes come on and off. Things are coming around - like there's this MIDI controlled analogue sequencer which I really want to look into, all in one box..." [see page 46, Richard... Ed]
"I've worked with Ataris, and little sequencers and things, and I've been quite happy to work with them. I mean, I first started with a Spectrum - I re-wrote all the software for the interface I bought - and I really liked it because I sat down and made it do exactly what I wanted it to. But obviously, being a Spectrum, it's got a lot of restrictions. I've used Ataris for live stuff, but they do crash a lot. So mostly I use a sequencer that I made myself. Sometimes I record on the Atari, transfer it to my own sequencer, and take that out on the road."
This is a hardware sequencer that Richard has built, not a program... "I'm still working on my own sequencer program for the Atari. It'll be really good when I've finished it, but I don't know when that will be... I'm simultaneously doing about 30 things every day, and I've given up sleep - I sleep about an hour a day, if I'm lucky."
Although associated with dance events, Richard is much more than a product of fashion. "The stuff I've released is not even one per cent of the stuff I've made. A lot of it is not what you'd call a conventional track; it's collages of sound. I could start anywhere, not just rhythms. Sometimes I get really inspired by sounds, and sometimes I'll get a good idea for a track." This means a sound-inspired piece will concentrate on the nature of that sound, resulting in a highly open and 'ambient' track, while the "good idea for a track" numbers tend to be more rhythmically or melodically structured. "Then I'll use sounds that I've previously saved onto DAT, or whatever, or I'll go about keeping that idea in my head and making sounds specifically for it.
"I've always really wanted to make my own music, and at first I wasn't bothered about making my own keyboards. But it just turned out that way - it became apparent that that was the way I was going to do it. I'm really obsessive about control; being in a band never excited me at all. I prefer to do everything myself because it's quicker and more satisfying. Apart from compiling sounds on DAT, I don't like travelling to make up tracks - ie, going to a big studio. I want everything at arm's reach. Same with visuals, in the future - I won't get involved in visuals unless I can do everything without getting out of the chair."
Thus spake the Nintendo generation. But don't get the impression that Richard is lazy - how many insomniacs can be described as lazy? The thing is, if you're obsessive about something, you don't want things getting in the way of expressing it. That's always been my excuse for not doing the washing up, anyway. But Richard has other concerns...
"I'm into things that make life easier - that's why I'm into technology. It's just a thousand times easier to write some music using technology than it is to form a band. You can do it all yourself. I've seen people in bands, and the whole idea of it is just embarrassing. I like to work on my own, and I don't like people watching me... not even my girlfriend.
"I do like playing live, though. But there are certain things I don't like. Such as people trying to steal your equipment for souvenirs... And loads of trainspotters, watching your every move. That gets a bit difficult, when you haven't got loads of roadies and security. When I go abroad, there's only three of us - me, my girlfriend, and my dancer - who also designed the Aphex logo. But I'm the technical crew; I'm the only person who can wire my stuff up. People can't understand why it's me that sets it all up and takes it down, but I have to be really careful, especially at the bigger events I'm playing at now. If I just walk off stage when I've finished, you get these hairy apes rushing on, ripping all my stuff apart and chucking it in a corner... They think they're doing you a favour, and they bust all the equipment. I enjoy setting up the gear, anyway..."
The crossover between musician and DJ forms a dividing line that's becoming more and more obscure. For Richard, the blurring of roles presents its own problems and its own unique opportunities.
"At gigs, it's OK to take about an hour to set up and soundcheck. But at raves and clubs, people don't understand what you're doing, they expect you to be just ready to go, so you've got to be really quick. But I've developed a technique of soundchecking about four or five times after the club has opened: mixing stuff over the top through the club sound system, which is quite fun. You can get something perfectly in time with the records, and you can slowly bring it in and out, so it fucks up the DJs when they're trying to mix 'cause they don't know what's going on.
"I always know when something's going to go wrong at a gig - call it telepathy, I just get a bad feeling about it - and when that happens I take loads of backup with me. And almost always I'm proved right, and I need that backup... but if I'm confident about it, I take minimum gear, and that's all I need. Weird.
"I've usually got four (home-made) sequencers, with different things going from each one, and I can compare things as I'm going along. But I've made something that I couldn't imagine gigging without as well, because I can control everything from it: it's a sequencer, which can store samples, trigger filters, trigger bits of equipment, turn filters on and off. Sometimes it's all twiddling, everything sequenced..."
And what is Richard's generic name for this wonder device? "Dunno... er, master control box. I've also got a small mixer on stage. I don't know why, but I'm anti-big mixers, for some reason. The mixer I record with at home is only about so big; it's 8-channel, and I've got a 16-channel one which is even smaller. I don't know what it is. It's got no writing on it - I found it in a second-hand shop... I think it was home-made, and some of the pots were a bit dodgy, so I've changed it around."
What a surprise. You'd think he had Japanese ancestry, such is his concern for miniaturisation and inventing his own presets.
"I just really like small things. Big mixers are a rip-off. I can't imagine spending £100,000 on a mixer for 20dB less hiss. Turn the treble down at the output and you've saved yourself a hundred grand. You have extra features, but the sheer size outweighs those advantages. You can't reach everything. And I don't like going into studios because if you start playing with something, the engineer has a fit because it's been set up a certain way for 15 years. Plus the effects units are probably in another room...
"I want everything in front of me, so I can do stuff as it's happening. I'm not into multitracking, I like things to be live. I record everything live, and I'm not bothered about saving sounds. In fact, I erase them on purpose. I have a library of stuff, but it's stuff I haven't used yet. Once I've used it, I wipe it so I don't use it again. For instance, if I have a DAT with 500 clonks on it, and I use 20 of them, erasing those 20 means I've whittled that backlog down to 480. Just as when you're DJing, you'll put the records you've already played to one side, so you don't have to look through them again.
"And also I don't want to use a sound I've used before. There's an infinite number of sounds in the world, and it's a waste to use the same sound twice."
Sony DATman? - don't leave home without it. There's many a modern musician to be found on the streets, following in Cage's footsteps with a microphone pointing at the 'environment'. But Richard sets himself unusually thorough tasks. "One session is enough to last a long time. I've already got too many possibilities to work with. My biggest buzz is taking a sound and turning it into something new. Or taking anything and making it into something specific. Like, I had a competition with some friends to make a string sound from any source - even a fart. Things like that. So if I get a 9lb sledgehammer and smash it into a galvanised plate, I can make a string sound from it, rather than a snare. I like not to do the obvious."
Neither is Richard concerned about connecting a sound with its original source, to give it a 'subject matter' or context in reality. In fact, reality has somewhat disintegrated in his sampler... "When I started analysing sounds, I was kind of disappointed. I always thought a bird was a bird, and a car was a car, and these were sounds to be explored. But you can reduce a bird to a sine wave when you sample it, and to me that was a shock. All sounds break down into really simple things. You'd think a sine wave is a sine wave, and a bird is a bird, but they're not: they're the same sound, but controlled differently. Once I'd got that idea into my head, that a lot of sounds are pretty fundamental, I could concentrate on the subtle differences.
"In daily life you get used to blanking out sounds, you get out of the habit of listening, and only listen when you sit down and make the decision to turn your tape deck on. Like, when you turn it off, you stop listening. It's difficult to be alert to sounds all the time. When I've got the DAT in a supermarket, I'm not thinking 'this ambience sounds really wild', but when I get home and listen back to it, especially if it's underneath a track, it sounds great. Even my Mum will say it sounds good. It's just impressive. And when she's in the supermarket, she's not impressed by it at all. That's strange. It's to do with placing it in a different context."
The ambient boom could well culminate in a free event in Hyde Park, at which Richard, Mixmaster Morris and Alex Paterson would chill out thousands of stressed cityfolk in an echo of a previous era's emblematic show featuring some rock band from Surrey and a load of butterflies. That, at least, is Richard's dream. Meanwhile, we wish him luck in his quest to record and transform the whole world.
"I need to spend several weeks making tracks right now. I've built so much stuff, collected so many sounds, I'm going to be busy for a long time. Till I drop dead, actually. I'll be doing music till then, and it still won't be long enough."