Interview: Heiko Hoffmann
A German translation of this article has been published in Groove 151 (November/December 2014)
Richard D. James has been releasing music for almost as long as Groove magazine is being published. When the 25th anniversary of our mag approached this year, we heard that James was about to put out the first Aphex Twin album in 13 years. Enough reasons, we thought, for trying a different way of interviewing the elusive Mr. James: We asked 25 DJs and producers, all of them former Groove cover stars, to think about questions for him. James answered all the resulting questions – plus an additional wild card – during a meeting in London.
1. Roman Flügel: What was the first musical experience that really touched you?
„Nature sounds have always been way more intense for me than music, especially when I was a little kid. I can remember as a kid, if you run up to a big wall, you get this flange effect. It’s just a constant noise, it works like wind. I remember that one from when I was really young. I still hear it now, sometimes I see a wall and then I hear this sound from when I was kid.“
2. Apparat: Why did you only put out very few records in the last years?
„Just because I don’t need to do it. I’ve been making music all the time, as much as possible, but releasing it gets harder and harder. Because I’m making so much music, everytime I go to compile it, I give up after a few hours, because it’s just so much stuff and then I get lost. But I’m now in this mode where I’m listening and compiling a lot. I think I will be putting out a lot of stuff, hopefully.“
„I’ve been making music all the time, as much as possible, but releasing it gets harder and harder.“
3. Tim Sweeney: How has the process of making music changed for you over the years?
„It hasn’t really changed. I’m probably just better in recognizing different moods now. You are just recognizing what mood you are in and then do the right things accordingly. There’s a time when it feels right to fix my equipment, tidy my space up and get ready to work. Every hour of the day is good for certain things. Imagination, for example, is always better in the night, so basically after midnight. The morning – when you get up, have a coffee – is best for finishing things.“
4. Mate Galic: How did you switch from using hardware to using software for making music – and maybe back again? Has that changed the way you write music?
„This is the guy from Native Instruments, right?. For me Traktor is like the beginning, but you could do so much more with it. You could make it more complex but also simpler. For example, they have got these two screens with the wave-forms. But basically all you need is one screen with the wave-form of the tracks you’re playing in different colours so you can put them on top of each other. Then you can mix without even listening.
On the new album it’s all hardware actually. It’s no computer on any tracks basically. There’s maybe a few plug-ins and half of it is sequenced on the computer with the other half being sequenced with hardware. The reason I prefer to work with analogue synths is – for me it’s like a mathematical thing when you come down to it. Basically a computer can’t do distortion, everything on the computer just sounds perfect, which is nice if you want to make perfect tracks, but if you don’t, then you’re kind of stuck. Of course you can sample, you can record things and you can create sounds, but I really prefer to make sounds on synthesizers.
I used to like to make music on a laptop. When I started to do it, it was almost impossible and I really liked that, because it was so difficult to make music on a laptop. There were almost no programs. So you had to put programs toegther, the first one I used was Max/MSP. There weren’t really any plug-ins or anything like that. But I really liked it. Now, it’s really easy.
But I’ve actually recently hired a Chinese programmer to make a music software for me. It’s taking the concept of mutation into music software. You give the program some sounds you made and then it gives you six variations of it and then you choose the one you like most and then it makes another six and it kind of keeps trying to choosing the variations by itself. It’s a bit like that, but more advanced, but basically it starts with a sound, analyzes it, then does different versions of variations. It randomizes, it compares all of them to the original and then it picks the best one. It sounds totally awesome, but it needs to be tweeked a little bit. I will continue with this. I have a whole book full of ideas for software and instruments.“
5. Richie Hawtin: Do you think growing up with these landscapes being on the somewhat most isolated tip of the British isles [Cornwall, ed.] paved the way for your musical style and passion to remain somehow isolated and anonymous?
„It’s more trippy in nature. When I moved back to Cornwall after I had lived in London, I had this kind of fantasy about wild, beautiful nature. And it is, when the weather is nice, but it’s probably a fuckin scaring nature with the wind, the lightening and stuff. and it is also trippy. I also think that this feeling of being isolated has formed my outsider perspective.“
6. Caribou: Are you ambitious? If so, towards what ends?
„I’m trying to do the best thing imaginable – that’s my ambition. And I try this by making music. When you make music and you listen to it, it changes you and then it gives you an idea of something new to do. It’s a constantly evolving process. Everytime you make music, if you’re on form, you should be imaging what you want to hear, which is basically how you want it to be.“
7. Ben Klock: Do you think that some of your harsher or darker or more melancholic songs reflect a melancholic or paranoid part of you or do they just result from momentary moods?
„I think all the stuff you do is a part of you, but it doesn’t necessarily come out in the things that you make or feel while making the music. So you could listen to someones music and feel these things, but you would never know about what they really think. That’s the amazing thing about music – you can’t express it in words. If you get to know someone really well and he’s playing you some music, you’re like: Fuckin‘ hell, I wouldn’t have known!“
8. Ricardo Villalobos: Do you mostly make music just for yourself or do you make it for others?
„Well, the people come into your mind when you’re doing stuff. Sometimes people kind of flow past you. Sometimes you fixate on a person. Most of the time you’re not thinking about it, it just comes in. People just come into your head. Because when you’re making music it’s like meditating, when it’s good, when you’re really good. Sometimes, if I like the taste of a person, I try to make music I imagine this person really likes. Which is quite interesting. I don’t even think I want to play it to them.“
„When you’re making music, it’s like meditating, when it’s good.“
9. François K: As you’re getting into a phase of your career where you’re finding yourself among often much younger DJs and producers: Do you sometimes feel it is important to pass some of your ideas and techniques to those who are curious about them?
„Yeah, totally, it’s really important, I think! If people want to know, I’m not protective anymore about ideas. So, if someone wants to know, it’s fine. But people have to find me, it’s quite far away where I live in Scotland (laughs). I always tell people, if they’re asking me something. But I don’t really like to go into specifics like equipment or technical things. If I would teach, it would be purely philosophical. Because I don’t want to make someone good at using Traktor or whatever, I wouldn’t want to limit him to that. You want people to come up with something new and maybe make you learn something.
I have two children and they ask me all the time. They’re totally interested in music. They are six and eight and they’re just asking me more and more details. What software to use? How did I get this sound?“
10. Sven Väth: Which relatively new musicians have you been listening to or enjoying recently?
„There are so many! I suppose most are from the dubstep genre, it’s stuff I find on [the download and record store, ed.] Juno. There’s actually one thing that is pretty large: It’s some kid called Sd Laika. Generelly, I think, I listen to old stuff more than to new stuff. At the moment I listen to lots of early 90’s Techno, I’m pretty obsessed with it. I really like that, because it’s so raw and basic not so complicated or detailed like my own tracks. Most of those early techno tracks have only three things in them.“
„In a way, yeah, but I think I know my stuff so well. I’m really objective now, so no one could really say anything I wouldn’t have really thought about. If you make anything creative, you have to be your worst critic if you want to be good or in order to succeed. You have to tell yourself you’re rubbish in order to getting better! The only thing that can hurt me is, if someone criticizes me, and it’s true and I haven’t thought about it before. I selected the tracks of the album and made it pretty accessable. It’s one of my pop albums, so I kind of know what kind of reaction it will get.“
Stream: Aphex Twin – minipops 67 [120.2][source Field Mix]
12. James Holden: Does it suck to be you?
„No, I’m really happy with who I am.“
13. Nicolas Jaar: Have you ever had a ghost, a spirit or an accident speak directly to you through making music or while making music?
„Yeah, I always felt a presence or something, I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s just a human conditon, but it always feels like the gods are looking on us and are like: ‚Ah, let’s make him do this‘. And it’s really weird, because the other day I got stoned and went to bed, and I had the biggest intense feeling of someone watching over me.“
14. Miss Kittin: Do you still think you have very short attention span?
„When I’m doing my stuff, I got really good concentration. But when it’s someone telling me something to do, it’s terrible. Then I have to really concentrate. I think I’m a bit hyper actually.“
„Yeah, actually on Drukqs I only released the simple ones. Because when I bought it, I didn’t want to put things in it, prepare it. I’ve done algorythmic stuff as well with it. So I used patches [for it] to play itself. It’s really good for that actually. I just bought another one – the Mark 5 Pro. That’s like the best one you can get. I used it for the last track on the album [‚Aisatsana‘, ed.]. I program the piano now instead of playing it. I’ve also been doing like jungle on it.“
Stream: Aphex Twin – Aisatsana
16. Mathew Jonson: Messing around with the Yamaha GX-1, I came across certain things – especially in the rhythm and bass section – that reminded me of some of your tracks. Have you used it in certain tracks and what’s your experience with the organ?
„Yes – there’s even a track called ‚GX1‘ – and it does have a great rhythm and bass section. But I gave it to this guy who makes this amazing sequencer Cirklon. He’s a Scottish guy and he’s a kind of genius. I gave it to him and asked him to clone it for me. That has been three years ago, but he’s getting closer.“
Stream: The Tuss – GX1 Solo
„That’s my face. It’s my nephew talking to me. He was about four years old or something at the time. I was following him around and trying to get samples and he wouldn’t say anything. So I started to make all this stupid faces and that’s what he said. He’s about 20 now and knows about the track.“
18. Fritz Kalkbrenner: Are you putting out the new album because of money?
„No. I’m doing it to draw a line, to close a chapter. When you finish an album, it’s like drawing a line so that you can get on with the new stuff. It feels like I’ve reached a certain point in my life. Now I can probably concentrate on new stuff. The music on the album is from quite a long period, some of the tracks are already six years old.“
„Chris Cunningham – who did the video – should answer that question. But it’s him who’s playing the guy in the wheelchair. I would like to work with him again, but he lives in Los Angeles now. I’ve talked to him several times, so there might be something happening. I remember him telling me he does a zombie film and then he decided not to release it, cause there was another zombie film coming out. I think he’s too sensitive.“
Video: Aphex Twin – Rubber Johnny
„It has finished, it’s closed now, a few months ago. So that has also been another chapter. So that’s something that needed to be done a long time ago. Me and my friend would have drifted apart, but actually the label did keep us together. It got to a point where I’d actually rather be his friend than be in business with him. So I’d rather play those Chicago records and get stoned and not talk about business.“
„No, but I want to do this! It’s one of many undone ideas.“
„No, thankfully not! But the story is totally true, I left it on the plane. I think there were 80 unreleased Squarepusher tracks on it as well. I felt really bad about this.“
23. Radio Slave: If you were curating a party or festival, what would be your dream line up of artists?
„I don’t know! But I have this musical fatansy, where I would like to rewind and follow bands and producers back in time when they made a special recording. To watch how ‚Strings Of Life‘ got made or how Kraftwerk put together some of their music. What they did in their lifes leading up to recording this …“
24. Darshan Jesrani (Metro Area): Have there been any funny examples of people biting your style?
„In the beginning it was quite hard to accept this – you can get obsessed by it. But now it’s fine. I think Bochum Welt is someone who did well. He’s producing some stuff pretty like Ambient Works, but his own kind of sound as well. Some of those are a bit like: ‚Yeah, I could put my name on a couple of those, maybe.‘ Coldplay was the weirdest one, where I thought it sounds like me. They probably haven’t even listened to me. They have probably only heard someone that has heard me. Also some of the soundtrack of the Minecraft game. My kids were playing that and I thought that sounds pretty much like some of mine. And then this guy ‚Notch‘ [Markus Persson, ed.], who made that game bought one of my records on eBay for 40.000 Dollars. My kids loved it. They told all their friends in school. That was pretty cool.“
25. Luciano: What are your thoughts on the explosion of „EDM“ worldwide, but especially in the US, and all those massive LED light shows with only one guy performing on a stage?
„It’s fine. I actually don’t care what people are doing. I just care about what they’re actually playing. It doesn’t feel related to anything I’m doing. This guy Skrillex, I’ve only heard about his tracks, because my kids played them. It sounds like he has a good grasp of technology. I think it’s pretty poppy, isn’t it? It’s too poppy for me.“
Bonus question – Skrillex: Do you still own your tank and if so, can I come visit to you, try it out and drive it?
„He can come, yeah! It’s still at my sister’s house in Wales. It still works! Amazing old technology, when things were designed and they lasted forever. So, it’s 50 to 60 years old and it sounds fucking amazing.“