Perfect Sound Forever


Richard D. James

Interview by Jason Gross (September 1997)

It's hard not to praise someone who's a pioneer and a star in techno/electronica- that's just Richard D. James (aka Aphex Twin) for you. His music stretches from calmness and medatative sounds to jarring noise and jungle- a pretty fertile and (by his own admission) restless mind who busies himself with other projects under different names. His music is as well-known as his antics- owns and drives a tank around, played sandpaper and a food mixer at a gig, loves to throw out outrageous statements that keep people scratching their heads (you'll find some doozies below). And there he is leering at you with evil grins from the covers of his CD's. All of this would lead you to think the worst about him as a person but believe me, it ain't true. He's a really nice guy despite all of his efforts to appear otherwise.

When I met him, he'd been up for the last 2 days with his new girlfriend. Now here I was with him in his tiny hotel room, interviewing him on his bed. Besides lack of sleep, he also had the misfortune of having his mixer blow out after a show where he only had a half hour (though he was the headliner): this meant that the crowd that night couldn't hear more of his experimental stuff. The set for the show wasn't ideal either- there was a couch on stage which he decided to sit in front of and no toy house for the background as he wanted. For all of this, he was very good natured, chatting about the Internet (he blew out his connection but he's ready to get ISDN because he loves being online) and his amazing lack of carpal tunnel syndrome ('I've been a computer nut for 20 years so I guess I'm immune now') as I fumbled to set up my tape recorder.

PSF: Could you talk about growing up in Cornwall and how that effected you?

I'm sure not but I liked growing up there, being cut off from the city and the rest of the world.

PSF: What about moving out to London?

I went there to go to college originally. I knew I would end up going there and doing something with music.

PSF: What made you want to go into music?

By the time that I went to London, four or five years ago, I knew that I was going to music forever whether it was going to be a career or not. I thought quite possibly that it could be a career but I didn't care either way if it wasn't. I thought it would be a pretty good way of living, an easy life. At the same time, I didn't really care though so I knew I was going to make it. (laughs)

PSF: What kind of music where you listening to that got you interested in doing this?

Nothing really. I got myself motivated to do this. I just loved creating things and making things. That's my motivation for doing this. I do get movitated by listening to other people now but I don't really NEED to do that. I could just lock myself away for days and get inspired by myself. That's my favorite way to do it. It's more like a pure form of motivation when it's all on your own. But you have to wait until you're really bored and you've got nothing to do. That's when it comes out. That's when I reckon it gets good.

PSF: You still find that so now?

Well, it's difficult to get bored now because there's so much going on. There's parties, good friends and a (former) bank in Central London where I was hoping I'd get more work done but it doesn't always work out that way. But I'm not bothered so I'm still getting enough work done. And I've got my laptop which is really good for working. I think that if I had gotten a laptop (before), I would have put out this music a couple of years ago.

PSF: Where does the inspiration for your work come from?

I don't know really. I never really worked that out. If I'm not in the mood to do something, I'm not going to do it. I'll just go and do something else. When I just get something new, I just want to get something out of my system. I know that when I'm feeling in that mood, it's going to be good and I'm going to enjoy it later. Then I can listen back to it and appreciate it afterwards.

PSF: There's a stereotype of a lot of dance music being made in bedrooms. Do you do a lot of that yourself?

Yeah, I can't do music anywhere else. It's got to be in the bedroom basically. You get to do tracks in the nude and if you're working in the studio, you just can't do that. It's not really practical. It's also really just removing it from any sort of pressure as much as possible and just making it more personal basically. I could never handle doing music in the studio- it's too cold. I'm sure I could do it but I just wouldn't want to do it. I just like doing it at home.

PSF: You've done some tinkering and reworking of the keyboards and electronic equipment you've used. Did you find that what they could do wasn't good enough?

Yeah. I knew that there better keyboards that were out there but it was costly. I really enjoyed doing working on them though. It's really taxing on your brain, making circuits. It's satisfying to make your equipment and then to make music with it as well. It's really nice.

PSF: A lot of performers don't bother and they all use the same equipment though. You think that leads to a lot of monotony and sameness with music?

Yeah, sort of but then I'd reckon that I'd still be happy to work with shit equipment. I'd reckon that you'd still be able to squeeze out good things from it. A lot on today's equipment is wicked even though I wouldn't buy a lot of it. You can still give me any piece of equipment, any keyboard and I can do something nice with it. It's peoples' ideas and motivation behind it that makes it boring and monotonous. It just exaggerates it more if you do build your own stuff or write your own software. Then it's going to be even more personalized.

PSF: You're writing some of your own software now?

That's what I'm into now. I don't muck around with electronics anymore but I probably will get back into it soon because it's still got advantages. It's nice to have something in your hands rather than on a screen. I'm really into computers because obviously you can do something with it- I'll be dealing with electronics in a nostalgic way not in an inventive way. Using older electronics for an older type of sound. My prime motivation is to do something new all the time and keep exploring. Computers are so poweful now, there's so much to be done with them really.

PSF: What kind of programs are you working on?

Things to just get more new sounds and sort of twist my brain as well. It's that complicated. I really love it. It's really technical. That's what I'm interested in basically- really technical music as well as having it be emotional too.

PSF: Is it a problem to balance out time doing the programming and doing the music as well?

With programming, it is quite difficult. In the conventional sense, I love the programs I make. It doesn't involved any sort of interaction- you just put it in, press the button and it goes. That doesn't involved much interaction and that's quite hard to get the balance right. If I'm using a sequencer, I don't find it difficult to use it to get what I want into the music. I don't find the equipment to get into my way then. If I did, I wouldn't use it.

PSF: Any interest in working with interactive systems and components?

I haven't done anything like that but I'm really interested in that sort of stuff. Anything odd or unusual like that. Electro-acoustics like that. A lot of it makes me laugh though because it's kind of like a science lesson with no music. A lot of people forget to make it into music. It's very technical and not very emotional. When it's got the two, then that's when I really like it.

PSF: Anyone in mind when you say that?

At the moment, I suppose it's just my friends who do it and a few old composers. I like the old tape and avant-garde music. I really like Stockhausen's first record. It's awesome. Don't really like much else after that. 'Songs of Youth' is my favorite one. Tod Docstader as well. He's an American (composer) from the '60s, working with tape music. At the moment, I like Luke Vibert. He's doing this tour with me. I love his music. I like Squarepusher as well.

PSF: What kind of things do you like about their music?

I like it basically because it's music of today. It's really relevant to me. They're roughly in the same generation as me so it means more to me. That's the first thing but then I also love it because it's fucking good music. It's doing something different that's never been done before.

PSF: How would you compare their work to yours?

I think we're all really different but we're linked together. There are SOME simliarities to the music but I think we're all on quite different pathes really. I mean, we're similar compared to some rock bands but looking at it closely, it's not that similar at all.

PSF: You have a mischeavous side to you. I'm thinking of the 'sandpaper and food mixer' show you did where you played them as instruments.

It's just basically having a laugh and taking the piss out of that club. It was an avant-garde club and they asked me to DJ and I thought it would be too normal to play records so I just played something else. They loved it. They thought it was really good. They asked me to do it in New York a second time. I wasn't really into it though- it was a one-off thing. It was just basically a joke but loads of people took it really seriously. It was really funny. I love things like that.

PSF: You've talked about 'making music' versus 'putting out records.' What's the distinction you make there?

'Making music' is just making music and that's where it ends. It ends where I listen back to it. 'Making records' is taking the music you've made and putting it onto a CD and getting involved with all of the music industry side, which isn't really anything to do with music at all. It's all to do with career and stuff like that.

PSF: But that's a necessary part of what you do.

But I don't know HOW necessary it is at the moment. It probably isn't necessary and I really don't want to wind up doing it. I am enjoying it now because it's really great fun. That's probably why. But then there'll come a point when it's too easy. I am very lazy and I like an easy life but I like to have my brain fucked up as well. I might just pull out of it and do something totally stupid instead.

PSF: Like what?

I really don't know. I've got a couple of little ideas. It would be more a case of just quitting it and then thinking about it later. I'm not a really good planning person. I really don't plan anything. I just do things and follow my nose basically.

PSF: Have you erased a lot of the work that you've done before?

I've deleted a lot of stuff that I don't like after I've listened to it. Not so much with the stuff I've released, not these days. I tend to know whether it works or not or if I'm going to like it later. Before I used to do so much stuff. I'd do four tracks before I knew what any of it was about. I don't work so fast these days- I take more time with things. I've got more time to exclude things. It's not better or worse- I just work differently now. I still do things that I don't like every so often but I just get rid of them.

PSF: For your tour, you're just working off a lap-top computer. How does that effect your work?

It's wicked. That's the only reason that I'm doing this now (touring). It's just that good to work with. I wasn't going to do another tour until I got a box about that big (the lap-top). I wasn't going to tour four or five years ago without it.

PSF: You find that it still gives you enough flexibility to do everything you want for a show?

Oh yeah. I write software that I use for live stuff. It's more flexible than anyone else's I reckon. I can do loads of stuff. In reality, I don't do stuff to the tracks. A lot of the tracks I'm happy with so I really don't want to change them around. The mood of the gig doesn't really change the music that much. Sometimes it does and I will change it later. It's not that big (the lap-top) and you can still make more noise than any fucking band. It's simple. You got to these festivals and you see these bands that are shit, just making noise. But you put this in and it's ten times louder with more bass. It makes loads more noise.

PSF: What about your side-project Polygon Window. Anything new happening with that?

Not anything new. There was another album that I did that didn't get released. It will get released someday I reckon. It's just stuff that was left over from the first one that I liked just as much.

PSF: You think that your focus for now is going to be Aphex Twin then?

Yeah, definitely. I'll do a few anonymous things as well. Also, I'll spend a lot of time on my label, Rephlex.

PSF: With your work, how do you see the difference between Aphex Twin and your side projects?

I don't know. There's really no big theory. It's just things that I feel right in doing at the time and I really don't know why. I select songs for certain things and I just do it. I don't know what it means.

PSF: You've been cautious about using the word 'ambient' for your music even though you've used it for titles. Any reason for this?

It's pretty funny really. I don't like the word but I use it on my own records. I didn't care really- when I used it, it made me laugh to think that I'd call something with a word that I don't actually like. (laughs) I thought it was funny. At the end of the day, I don't care what anything is called. It's just whether I like it or not.

PSF: You don't like 'ambient' music then?

Things like that are really just easy listening. If I want to fall asleep or I'm really stoned, I'll listen to something like that. I really don't like that kind of stuff now. I like fast stuff to keep my brain interested. I get really bored with loops going around for ages. I need something happening all the time to keep me interested.

PSF: Another term that's been used to describe your work is 'intelligent dance music.'

I just think it's really funny to have terms like that. It's bascially saying 'this is intelligent and everything else is STUPID.' It's really nasty to everyone else's music. (laughs) It makes me laugh, things like that. I don't use names. I just say that I like something or I don't.

PSF: Do you have any personal favorites of the songs or CD's that you've done?

My later stuff, both released and unreleased. There's some real favorites there.

PSF: What kind of hobbies or interests do you have outside of music?

Girls probably. At the moment, I'm not trying to get excited because I had a year of girls last year. I didn't want to do it again this year but I've accidently fallen into it again. Also, riding my bike really fucking stupidly through London, trying to knock as many people over as possible. (laughs)

PSF: You don't go cruising around in your tank now?

I really don't use my tank much nowadays because it's not where I live. It's around my parents. I was in it a month ago. My sister got married and it's out where she lives. But I ride my bike loads at the moment.

PSF: What kind of music are listening to now?

I don't buy new records now. When I want to listen to records, I just go listen to my old records. There are loads of them that I haven't listened to yet. It's a bit of rubbish because you're missing a lot of new stuff but you can't do everything.

PSF: Do you do a lot of clubbing?

Yeah, now and again. I've been doing a lot this year, going with my mates to see my mates playing. It's the same sort of thing again and again. I'm not really bored at all so I don't really need to look outside although I do. I'm at the maximum capacity of what I listen to I think. I'm not completely obsessed about listening to other peoples' music. I just deal with the gaps as much as possible.

See Aphex's favorite music