“Nice bit of porn!” Richard D. James says as he hoists a duffel bag off the floor, extracts a boxy black machine, and lays it on the table next to his empty juice glass. “That is a good piece of fucking equipment.” I wish I could tell you more about the gear in question, but honestly, his mini-tutorial flies by in a blur, because, well: Aphex Twin is sitting in front of me, showing off his fucking drum machine.
James has never been known as a terribly forthcoming talker. For years, what few interviews he gave, he conducted only by email—and those could be almost painfully curt. In one from 2011, for example, a reporter from Spain’s biggest newspaper asked him about his relationship with his public. “I hate them.” What does he look for when he composes? “Nothing.” How does he know when a song is finished? “When I’m sick of making it.”
Even when he was in the habit of giving face-to-face interviews, back in the 1990s, he could often barely contain his apparent disdain for those asking the questions, or the very concept of journalism itself. Hence the extensive Aphex Twin mythos that developed out of his wild and essentially unverifiable claims: that he lived in a bank vault, drove a tank, shared the name of his dead brother, was sitting on a trove of a thousand unreleased songs. Over time, he grew into electronic music’s very own misanthropic version of Paul Bunyan.
More importantly, the last Aphex Twin album, Drukqs, came out 13 years ago, putting an end to a prodigious decade-long run. It’s not that he stopped making music since. In 2005, he released 11 EPs of gritty acid techno via his Analord series. A pair of 2007 releases by an artist named the Tuss, on James’ own Rephlex label, were generally acknowledged to be his work. And he has continued to perform, including a string of live appearances in 2011 and 2012, along with a DJ set under his AFX alias at this year’s Glastonbury. But as the years went on with no new proper Aphex Twin album, it became easy to wonder if Drukqs would turn out to be his last. Perhaps he preferred taunting his fans with all those alleged unreleased songs to actually releasing music.
But this year, all those guessing games went out the window. First, James’ legendary “lost” Caustic Window album finally found its way to the public via an ingenious crowd-funding campaign, apparently with his blessing. And then, almost as though all that hubbub had roused him from his slumber, Aphex Twin’s long hiatus came to an end. A chartreuse blimp emblazoned with his logo was spotted floating over London; then came a tweet from his long-dormant Twitter account leading to an album title, Syro, and a tracklisting unleashed via the deep web. Finally, in late August, his longtime label Warp announced the album’s release date: September 23. The next day, I find myself on an early-morning flight to London to meet up with James at a hotel near Charing Cross.
To be honest, I had my doubts that an interview would transpire at all—or at least, a traditional sort of interview. Given the surveillance trickery involved in the album’s campaign—visitors to a Syro website were shown a virtual profile of their own computer—maybe I’d be speaking into a one-way mirror. Maybe he would interview me. Maybe, if I was really lucky, I’d get to go up in that blimp. But no: As I’m ushered to the rear of the hotel dining room and sit down at a cluttered table, there he is—ponytailed, bearded, looking pretty much exactly as you’d expect—pulling his drum machine out of a duffel bag and rhapsodizing about the benefits of analog sound.
There is one twist to it all: His wife, Anastasia, is also at the table, sketching both of us as we talk. My impromptu portrait comes out horrifyingly wooly, but it’s definitely me; James looks even more like himself, though his lips are odd, like two white worms. (“Look at my lips!” he laughs, when he sees his wife’s finished work, pursing them in imitation.)
But what might be most mind-boggling is how relaxed James turns out to be—how friendly, copacetic, almost jolly. This is not the cantankerous Aphex Twin of the monosyllabic answers and intentional provocations. Instead, here’s a 43-year-old guy you could easily imagine sharing a beer with at a hotel bar—slightly neurotic, a little mischievous, mildly self-deprecating, sure, but generally pretty down-to-earth. He speaks openly about the new album, which features tracks recorded across the last seven years, and cheerfully indulges my questions about his listening habits, ‘90s rave culture, and what he’s got in store for the future. He even talks about his kids.
Pitchfork: How do you pronounce Syro?
Richard D. James: “Sigh-ro.” It’s just a made-up word my kid came up with. I don’t know what it means, and he doesn’t know what it means, either. But it means something. And it sounds cool. That’s it, basically. [laughs] It’s really funny, because if you make up words, then people project their own meanings onto it, which I find interesting. I looked at a forum last night, and there was already about 10 pages of people doing acronyms of Syro: “Sell Your Rotten Ovaries,” or something. [laughs]
Pitchfork: What does the release of this album mean to you?
RDJ: End of a chapter. It’s like, “OK, fuck that lot off.” Now I can now concentrate on some new stuff. And you can’t quite do that unless you’ve released something. I mean, you can, but you can’t properly. Because I’ve been making music and releasing it for so long, I’ve got that production-line thing in my brain: I can’t do anything new until the last one’s out.
Also, if you’re making things at home, there is no structure—no end, no beginning. So releasing stuff is a really nice way to have dividers in between what you do, and giving yourself a kick up the ass and saying, “OK, that’s the end of that period.” Otherwise, it’d be really hard to catalog it. But my filing system’s really crap because I can never decide whether to sort things by studio, or year, or where I lived. So with an album, at least it’s been set in stone and backed up 100,000 times, or however many copies you sell. Hopefully five million backups!
Pitchfork: What made you decide that either the tracks were done or you were ready finally to put an album out? What was the catalyst?
RDJ: It’s because I finished making a studio in Scotland that I’d been building for about three years. It took so long. I had this engineer helping me wire all the patch bays together, and he was doing it for about three months, every day, and then he realized he was doing it all wrong and had to start again. That was pretty brutal. So it’s kind of like, “OK, I’ve done that now, it’s the end of an era.”
But then I realized I actually like making studios more than making music, because I like the possibilities of what you can do. I make these setups that will achieve some sort of purpose, so the way I’ve wired it together becomes the track in itself.
Pitchfork: Is rearranging the studio part of your compositional process?
RDJ: It’s constant. When I look at commercial studios, I think, “Oh, they’re all so nice and tidy,” but it’s because they don’t actually write music in them. They’re just for producing stuff that’s already been written. Whereas if you’re writing stuff in studios, it’s always changing, and you’re always swapping equipment around. I just really wish I could bloody keep the same setup for more than about five minutes, because then I would actually get good at that setup. But I just get bored and swap things out. Fucking ridiculous.
If it takes you three years to set up a studio, and you’ve made one track with that setup, then the logical thing to do is not change anything and just do another one using the same set of sounds. Which I’ve done, and it’s always really good because it’s all ready to go. But I just can’t keep it the same. I’ve always got to change something. All the tracks I’ve done in the last five years were made in like six different studios. It gets a bit complicated.
Pitchfork: Yet Syro holds together well. As a listener, I wouldn’t think these were songs that had been made in different years and different studios.
RDJ: I suppose that’s good in one way. In another, I’d like them all to be totally different, because I’ve got all these different setups, so it should be really different. So it’s probably good for [the album], but it actually makes me think I’m pretty shit.
Pitchfork: Most of the track titles seem to reference classic hardware, like the Korg Mini Pops and the Sequentix Cirklon. Are those the machines you used on the songs?
RDJ: Pretty much. I actually made an equipment list that’s in [the limited-edition box set version of the album]. I’ve never done one of those before, so the fans will be like, “What? Really? Fuck me sideways!” I am so insane for equipment, so that story needs to be told. And the list is fucking massive. It is so stupid. It was really hard to do—I gave up about 10 times. I thought I would be able to remember what every bit of equipment was for each track, but I totally couldn’t. I was like, “What is that fucking synth?” So I didn’t put every single thing down, but I tried my best until I started going mad.
I used to be a bit secretive and didn’t want people to know what I was using, or get too fixated and waste their money buying equipment, because it’s not about what equipment you have, it’s what you do with it.
Syro equipment list:
Pitchfork: One interesting thing about the record is how every song keeps morphing—I don’t think there are two bars that are identical in any track. It’s like an organism.
RDJ: It can be quite impenetrable for most people, because you can’t latch on to something. It sounds quite random at first. I’m a quite erratic person: From setups to actually when I’m doing a track, it’s just turning and switching and changing all the time. But there is a method. People just have to take time to work it out.
Pitchfork: What was the thinking behind spitting back users’ own computer information on the Syro website?
RDJ: It came from wanting to show the audience rather than me at gigs, because I don’t want them to see me. I wanted to do gigs where you’ve just got mirrors on the stage, and then you light the crowd so they look at the stage and all they can see is themselves. It’s just like, “There you go, it’s you, you cunts.” [laughs] But they couldn’t do the thing with mirrors, so the compromise was filming the audience and doing face-mapping, so the audience is just looking at themselves, basically. These sites were just a continuation of that—you’re looking at it and going, “Oh, that’s my computer.”
Pitchfork: Were you in the Aphex Twin blimp that flew over London last month?
RDJ: No, but it would have been good, wouldn’t it? Get a zeppelin and ride underneath it, DJing. Maybe next time.
“Forget all the equipment, forget the music, at the end of the day it’s just literally frequencies and their effects on your brain. That’s what’s everyone’s essentially after.”
Pitchfork: There seems to be a lot of your own voice on this album.
RDJ: Yes, it’s mine, my two kids, my wife, my mum and dad are on there in places. It’s all chucked in the mix.
Pitchfork: I can’t understand a word of it, but I like that it’s in there.
RDJ: That’s usually the intention. That’s another way of withholding some details for yourself. Because you don’t know what someone’s saying, whereas I do. Not that I would expect anyone to care, but it’s a way of keeping your privacy.
Pitchfork: I actually put one phrase into software and reversed it, because I thought that it had been reversed, but that just made it sound… more reversed.
RDJ: I was doing that. My wife’s Russian, and it always sounds backwards when they talk. “Nyuzz-nyuzz-nyuzz.” But if you reverse that, it sounds even weirder.
Pitchfork: I noticed the title of the last song on the album, the solo piano one, is “Anastasia” spelled backwards.
RDJ: Yeah, it’s written for my wife. When I first did that, I did this installation-y art thing at the Barbican with a remote orchestra. [The song] was made on my Disklavier [controlled piano], which was swung from the roof at that gig, and there was this massive Doppler effect. It is pretty mental. There’s a bad cameraphone version of it on YouTube, but in the flesh it’s amazing. To listen to this piano swinging, you almost see all the notes stretching out, so it’ll hit you at different times. I never knew if it was going to work, and everyone was like, “What the fuck is he swinging a piano for?” But when we actually got it going, we were just like, “fucking hell.” It was so extreme. My friends were like, “Are the strings stretching?” The pitch deviation is that big, it sounds like the actual frame is contorting. Maybe it is, I don’t know!
Pitchfork: In most of your music, there’s a lot of interest in detuned sounds and these very shivery, in-between sorts of harmonies. Do you remember when you first discovered those sounds?
RDJ: I don’t know when I did, but I’ve always liked these weird scales and tunings. I’ve been using my own scales for quite a long time now, since Selected Ambient Works Volume II. It’s got some scales I made myself, where I just make my own tuning and compose from that. I’ve got a weird balance problem as a human being, like I’m dizzy, and it’s something to do with that. I’ll fall over sometimes, just walk into walls. There’s something wrong with my brain, it doesn’t work properly! I can hear the same pitch in both ears, whereas for most people, if you listen to one pitch in one ear, it’s slightly different in the other. That’s how your brain works out direction. But mine’s really close. I don’t know what it is, something internal.
Pitchfork: Maybe that’s your problem—your pitch is too perfect.
RDJ: Maybe. But it always sounds more right to me when it’s detuned. When it’s right in tune, it’s like there’s something slightly off. But at the end of the day, it’s all about frequencies and what they do to you. That’s the real core. Forget all the equipment, forget the music, it’s just literally frequencies and their effects on your brain. That’s what’s everyone’s essentially after.
“My 5-year-old’s made loads of totally insane music on his computer, and I’m just like, ‘What the fuck is that?
What have I done to him?'”
Pitchfork: Would it be fair to say that you’re a sound artist as much as musician?
RDJ: Yeah. It is all about sound, but people forget that. They think, “Oh, I want to hear a nice tune.” But what you’re actually saying is you want to hear the combination of frequencies that make you feel a certain way. And more excitingly, it’s about finding out the new ones. A lot of composers before me have been on this mission to change the world by getting off equal temperament, and I’m definitely one of those.
You’re brainwashed in the West with equal temperament, so it’s quite hard for people who like following rules to get outside of that and see what you can do. But for me it’s easy because I don’t work like that. I work intuitively. I actually prefer it if I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. If you’ve got an equal temperament piano keyboard, then you know what you’re going to get if you play certain chords. But I actually like it if you don’t know where the notes are, because then you do it intuitively. You’re working out a new language, basically. New rules. And when you get new rules that work, you’re changing the physiology of your brain. And then your brain has to reconfigure itself in order to deal with it.
So if you hear a C-major chord with an equal temperament, you’ve heard it a million times before and your brain accepts it. But if you hear a chord that you’ve never heard before, you’re like, “huh.” And your brain has to change shape to accept it. And once it’s changed shape, then you have changed as a person, in a tiny way. And if you have a whole combination of all these different frequencies, you’re basically reconfiguring your brain. And then you’ve changed as a person, and you can go and do something else. It’s a constant change. It could sound pretty cosmic and hippie, but that is exactly what’s going on.
Pitchfork: Do you feel like you’ve changed?
RDJ: Yeah, you change all the time. Everything changes you. We’re different people since we sat down here, aren’t we. And it’s all really subtle. You hear a horrible track and it changes you in a really horrible way. But I think things that are shit don’t actually change you that much, apart from just getting on your nerves. That’s the whole point—you’ve heard it all before. But when it’s something different, it actually will change you. That’s what I’m interested in. That’s the whole point.
Pitchfork: How has being a father changed you?
RDJ: You can’t even begin to go into it. It’s totally weird. They’re like computer-programmed versions—clones—of yourself. They’re making music now. My 5-year-old’s made loads of totally insane music on his computer, and I’m just like, “What the fuck is that? What have I done to him?” He’s using Renoise. I didn’t tell him how to use it, he just downloaded a crack off Pirate Bay. Age 5! He set up a Bandcamp, and he’s published some tracks on there. I’ve since showed him how to record his voice and stuff like that. I just can’t believe that’s what’s happening.
It’s in his DNA. The way they treat computers is just mindboggling to me. He’s got quite an expensive Mac, and he just carries it around like [waves book in the air]. It’s like part of his body, swinging off his arm. It’s so weird. That’s kind of what I was always dreaming about, in a way. Like a cyborg. We’re almost there, aren’t we. Halfway there.
Pitchfork: Does having kids change your approach to music at all?
RDJ: Well, I made some music with them, actually. I played two tracks we made to the Warp people, and they said it sounded like a combination of Mark Fell and Holly Herndon. I’m trying to work out more ways to involve my children, because the way I do stuff is so anti-kid, it’s really boring. It’s not fun. It is to me, but not to them, because they don’t even know what I’m doing. I’m just sitting there doing nothing as far as they’re concerned. But sometimes I’ll be working on a sound for ages, and I’ll say to my kid, “Sorry if it’s too loud, I’ll put my headphones on in a minute.” And he’s like, “No, I really like it. I came in to listen to you doing that.” And he just turned 6. It was like, “Really? Fuckin’ hell.” He actually likes his dad working on one sound for four days. I think he finds it relaxing.
Next: Richard D. James on his own musical holy grail, why he prefers to remain anonymous, and what he’s planning to do next.
Pitchfork: In the ’90s, your music existed in a kind of dialectical relationship with rave culture. Do you miss that?
RDJ: Yeah, I do, actually. For years, I could listen to jungle and nick things from them, but they didn’t know I existed. It was a separate world. But that world doesn’t exist anymore. It’s all merged into this global Internet world. It’s a real shame. I really don’t like that. But that’s just globalization. It’s got good sides as well. But scenes aren’t allowed to develop on their own anymore. Everyone knows about everything.
The holy grail for a music fan, I think, is to hear music from another planet, which has not been influenced by us whatsoever. Or, even better, from lots of different planets. And the closest we got to that was before the Internet, when people didn’t know of each other’s existence. Now, that doesn’t really happen.
I used to love jungle. I still think it’s the ultimate genre, really, because the people making it weren’t musicians. The best artists are people who don’t consider themselves artists, and the people who do are usually the most pretentious and annoying. [laughs] They’ve got their priorities wrong. They’re just doing it to be artists rather than because they want to do it. And a lot of jungle people were actually car mechanics and painter-and-decorator types, like, pretty hardcore blokes. I wouldn’t want to get into a fight with them. I know a few people who were like that, and I don’t think that really exists any more. Maybe those sort of non-musician types do some dubstep stuff, or grime. But it didn’t exist in jungle for long. There was only a couple of years where people didn’t know what they were doing, and you got all these samples that are just totally not related in pitch. I really hunt down those records. They’ve got this ridiculous mishmash of things that totally don’t go with each other at all. Obviously, after they’ve done it for a couple of years they learn how to make chords and stuff, and it’s not so interesting now.
Pitchfork: How did you feel about the recent success of the Kickstarter campaign to distribute your previously unreleased Caustic Window album from 1994?
RDJ: It was just really touching, the whole thing. Because I try to distance myself from my fans, but something like that is just so nice. And when they reached the goal on Kickstarter and it kept going up—people just wanted to give it money, even though they didn’t need to do it, because they’re just going to get a download from someone. It’s like, “Oh wow, humanity is nice after all.” But it’s totally weird, just thinking that people like your stuff that much.
Pitchfork: Why had you not released it in the first place?
RDJ: Just got forgotten about, basically. Just got shelved. I wanted to change one track and never got around to it. I just thought people would be like, “Yeah, it’s all right, kind of average.” But fans were just so happy to get it, fucking hell. I’ve got thousands more like that at home. I should release all that stuff as well. That’s the thing, I did a lot of tracks for quite a few years before I released Ambient Works, so there’s this whole other persona people don’t even know about, and probably wouldn’t even recognize.
Pitchfork: It’s funny, because I’ve read so many interviews with you where you’ve talked about this enormous archive of unreleased material, and I always thought you were being cryptic, coy, or self-aggrandizing. But hearing you explain it now, I suddenly believe you.
RDJ: “It’s probably true!” Yeah. Well, when it comes to my stuff, things totally go missing: I still lose them and erase them by mistake.
Pitchfork: You’ve said that you prefer to keep some of your music to yourself. Is it nerve-wracking to be sending it out into the world again?
RDJ: No. Basically, if I start doing something new, the reason for doing it is because I haven’t heard anyone else do it. That’s usually the main inspiration. So if I started doing something new today, and it’s the first experiment, I get excited because I haven’t heard anything like that before. But if I released that on the Internet tomorrow, then it would totally put me off continuing that experiment, because people would hear it and copy it, and it wouldn’t be new anymore. I’ll take something to its logical progression on my own, and then when I’m done with it, it’s like, “OK, chuck that out there.”
But I don’t think these [Syro] tracks are particularly innovative. Maybe in really subtle ways they are, for me, but there’s nothing there that I need to explore more, so it’s not going to put me off releasing anything. It just totally makes me want to not do anything else in that particular style.
Pitchfork: Is that why you’ve used so many different aliases over the years?
RDJ: Actually no—I’ve just done that for a laugh. And I might keep doing it, just keep being anonymous and doing different names.
Pitchfork: Since the last Aphex Twin album 13 years ago, have there been other things you put out that we don’t know about?
RDJ: Maybe, maybe not! [laughs] I might keep doing that as well, because it’s more interesting for me to stick things out anonymously. You get more of an honest reaction to what you’ve done. There’s no expectation in what people say. But that changes from culture to culture. In America, it’s quite admirable if someone’s done well or been successful at whatever it is. Whereas in Britain, they’re not. They only like it when you’re the underdog. As soon as you get famous, they’re like, “He thinks he’s fucking God, that guy.” So in Britain, it’s good for me to be anonymous, because they just think it’s a nobody. “Who is this guy?”
“It’s more interesting for me to stick things out anonymously—
you get more of an honest reaction to what you’ve done.”
Pitchfork: You seem to perform more often than you put out records. Is there a reason for that?
RDJ: Well, the last load of gigs I just did it for money, basically. I really didn’t—I did enjoy it, but the good gigs are always the smaller gigs. The few I’ve done recently, just for fun, totally anonymously, were so much better than a normal gig: The soundsystem’s usually shit, but it’s really nice when nobody knows who you are. I did this normal gig at Glastonbury that was really good, and then I did one the next day, and only one or two people knew I was doing it. There was 10 people in a little bar in Glastonbury, dancing, when I got there. I DJ’d for about five hours, and by the end, it was just totally rammed. They slowly got attracted in. That was so much more fun.
Pitchfork: What were you playing at that smaller gig?
RDJ: Loads of different stuff, like weird disco or cosmic funk—stuff I would never play at an Aphex gig. That’s like proper DJing, because when I’m DJing at a bigger gig, it’s not really DJing. You’re not like working the floor, and people are going to get into it whatever you play.
Pitchfork: But you’ve never been one to “work the floor,” exactly.
RDJ: Well, at bigger gigs, I sort of know what people are doing, and I do react to them, but not in the same way as if nobody knows who you are. Because then you have to. You can’t rely on the fact that people know you. At Glastonbury, when they all knew I was DJing, everyone was cheering even though they’d never heard some of the tracks I was playing before. Then I played the same tracks in this other place, and people are like, “What’s so good about that?” They don’t know what it is. You get the benefit of the doubt if people know who you are.
Pitchfork: What’s living in Scotland like? How long have you been up there?
RDJ: About 8 years. It’s just brilliant, living in the middle of nowhere, a small community. People are slowly getting to know that I live there, and that’s not so good, but they don’t really care if you’re famous or semi-famous or whatever. It’s only interesting when you’re from somewhere else, like America or Japan. The further away the more interesting it is.
Pitchfork: Do you get recognized much?
RDJ: Occasionally, yeah, which is a bit annoying, but it’s usually at gigs or festivals or music shops. I got recognized in this vegan café the other day when I was with my kids, and they got so excited. There were these people at the same table as me, and they sat right there. Normally you can kind of run away, but we were stuck in this really close situation. And this guy was looking at me, like, “Oh, are you so-and-so?” I was like, “yeah.” We were waiting for our food before we could go, and I was just like, “oh, fucking hell!” And my son was like, “Yeah! I’ve seen somebody recognize you!” He was really happy.
“If you’ve got a stick hitting a drum and you’re programming it on a computer, it’s more interesting than a sample playing back—
it’s something in the air, that’s the magical ingredient.”
Pitchfork: Have you been working on any other new music as of late?
RDJ: I’ve been doing loads of electro-mechanical stuff with drum robots and things like that. I’ve got four MIDI pipe organs and a Disklavier controlled piano and computer-controlled percussion. I’ve done loads of stuff with those, and none of that’s on [Syro], that’s all for other projects. That other material is maybe even better than—well, I prefer it to this album, but I don’t think it’s as accessible. But it’s more unique. Maybe these [Syro] tracks are more pleasurable to listen to, but it’s not that new for me. Maybe the composition’s changed, but there’s no next-level beats on there. I’ve kept it like that on purpose. All the other stuff, which is kind of uncategorizable, is waiting to be fitted into another folder somewhere.
Pitchfork: Are you actually building these electro-mechanical instruments yourself?
RDJ: No, I’m usually buying them or giving people instructions how to make them, and they go and do it. I’m not any good at doing stuff like that, or wouldn’t want to, anyway. There was some crazy dude on eBay selling these MIDI pipe organs for people to have in their living rooms. They sound fucking brutal! Soon as I turned it on, I played some Christmas carol, and it totally sounded like—fuck knows—some Ligeti piece. I mean, the amount of time you’d have to spend getting it to sound nice would be ridiculous, but it sounds good to me straightaway, because it was all sort of bashed in.
Pitchfork: Is that like the stuff Squarepusher was working on with his recent Music for Robots album?
RDJ: Well, when he released that, I was like, “Oh, fuck, I’ve been doing that for ages.” But mine’s totally different to what he did. And I was reading about one of the Autechre guys, and someone had said to him, “Have you done anything with MIDI robots?” and he was like, “Every cunt’s doing that now.” [laughs] But it’s definitely a super interesting thing to do. Maybe people are doing it to be cool or whatever, but to me it’s what you want; if you’re controlling real instruments, it’s better than a synth. You’ve got more to start with straightaway, so it’s easier to work with. The practicalities are more difficult, but if you’ve got a stick hitting a drum and you’re programming it on a computer, it’s so much more interesting than a sample playing back, though it ends up kind of sounding like samples anyway. But it’s real, it’s something in the air, that’s the magical ingredient—when something moves through the air, it’s automatically going to sound more interesting. You can do that with samples, too. They call it re-amping, where you take sounds, stick them out through a speaker or guitar cabinet, and record it again. Then it’s been in the real world and put back into the computer. It’s a nice thing to do.