Richard James (aka Aphex Twin, AFX, Caustic Window, Polygon Window) is among the first generation of music makers to use the computer as primary instrument, not just as a manipulation/editing tool. His genius spans various electronic music categories including the ambient, techno, hard core and trance subdivisions of house music, as well as his own brand of electro-noise experimentation. His Selected Ambient Works are classics of the genre, as are his trance/hard core Analogue Bubblebath EPs.
Richard James was born Aug 13, 1971 in the seaside town of Truro in Southern England, and began his musical experimentation at the age of 10 with a modified piano and a tape machine. I spoke to him about his career a few years ago.
“When I was 10 it was just a game – same as playing with my cards, and it wasn’t even my favorite game to start off with – just mucking around with tapes. I steadily got more and more into it; I got more satisfaction out of it, and got more and more obsessive about it. I probably peaked in obsession about a year ago and have remained at that level only because I couldn’t be any more obsessed. I haven’t got any more time.”
James was 11 when he bought his first computer, which only had 1k of memory. Every time he would play a different game, he would have to reprogram it into the hardrive. He became so good at memorizing the programs that he figured out how to program the computer itself.
“I started writing my own software and games and such,” he says. “I even wrote a music program; it didn’t have any sound to it, but it won second place in a magazine software competition and I got 50 quid. I found this machine code that detuned the TV signal, and you get this really stupid noise out it. I did it on the keyboard and so I had like ten notes, but they were just all fucked up frequencies from the TV.”
Rural living, though peaceful and picturesque, afforded James little in the way of socio/cultural distractions (apart from getting into fights with his mates). Eventually an ad hoc dance culture began to evolve around him. “All my mates got into dance music around 1987 and wanted me to press out records of the electro music I was making so they could DJ with them. They made me do it, and I got addicted once I got in to it. We used to organize really brilliant beach parties. It was pretty exciting times.”
James is excited still; he describes a typical day’s work: “There isn’t any set method, I just approach it from whatever angle I’m thinking about. Today there wasn’t much music. I am programming my own language based on randomness combined with human input. You give the computer all the rules from ten [already completed] tracks and get the computer to jumble it all up at random. You get a really weird vibe from it because you are not traveling anywhere,” he said.
“With most music you get the feeling you are moving through the track in time – even if you listen to it backwards you still feel like you are moving forward. With this you don’t feel like you are going anywhere. I don’t think this stuff is really releasable because it just plays forever and it keeps changing all the time. As soon as you record it and listen back to that, then that’s completely different.”
This is a profound philosophical issue. Can random sound be music? Can music exist divorced from time? James reveals deep insight in pointing out that when his (or any) random computer sequence is recorded, it is ontologically transformed: recording “pins down” randomness, neutralizing its power to surprise by giving it direction, order, and fixing it in time.
“I love randomness and I don’t know why. I guess I think of it like an artificial intelligence. Basically computers usually do things we expect them to do. With randomness you have no idea what it’s going to do. With this program now it’s a bit like making words: you put in syllables of words, and it comes up with new words. You knew what all the original syllables meant, but the ‘words’ it comes out with haven’t been invented yet.”
Every day is different. “The other day I did a whole track in the nude, which is pretty good. I got out of the bath and was getting ready to get dressed and start doing a track, and just ended up sitting there for about seven hours with no clothes on. I just moved out on my own, so I can do things like that. It was pretty wicked.”
Perhaps predictably, James’ music veers between the very light and the very hard, with little in between. “I don’t like middle ground at all. I am an extreme person. I like to get extremes from music. You can use the same [middle] sounds as everyone else, but I don’t see the point in that.”
James looks to the future: “I want to get some pretty mental things under my belt so I can look back when I’m old and say ‘Yeah, that was pretty mental.’ I’ve had a pretty mental life already, but I want a more mental one. And to stay happy, which I’ve always managed to do. I want to do something where I get confused and don’t understand, and then understand it.”