Aphex Twin (Richard David James)
The Story of Aphex Twin
Richard David James (born 18 August 1971), best known by his stage name Aphex Twin, is an English electronic musician and composer. He founded the record label Rephlex Records in 1991 with Grant Wilson-Claridge. He has been described by The Guardian as “the most inventive and influential figure in contemporary electronic music”. His album ‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92’ was named as the best album of the ’90s by FACT Magazine.
Aphex Twin has also recorded music under the aliases AFX, Blue Calx, Bradley Strider, Caustic Window, Smojphace, GAK, Martin Tressider, Polygon Window, Power-Pill, Q-Chastic, Tahnaiya Russell, The Diceman, The Tuss, and Soit-P.P.
Aphex Twin has released recordings on Rephlex, Warp, R&S, Sire, Mighty Force, Rabbit City, and Men Records.
Richard David James was born in Limerick, Ireland, and grew up in Lanner, Cornwall, enjoying along with two older sisters, a “very happy” childhood during which they, according to James, “were pretty much left to do what (they) wanted”. He “liked growing up there, being cut off from the city and the rest of the world”. James attended Redruth School, located in Redruth, Cornwall. According to musician Benjamin Middleton, James started producing music at the age of 12. As a teenager he was a disc jockey at the Shire Horse Inn in St Ives, with Tom Middleton at the Bowgie Inn in Crantock, and also along the numerous beaches around Cornwall. James studied for a National Diploma in Engineering from 1988 to 1990 (aged 16 to 18) at Cornwall College. Talking about his studies, James has said that “music and electronics went hand in hand”. James graduated from college; according to an engineering lecturer, however, he often had his headphones on during practical lessons, “no doubt thinking through the mixes he’d be working on later”.
Early career: early 1990s
In 1989 James met and befriended Grant Wilson-Claridge when working as a DJ on alternate weeks at the Bowgie pub, near Newquay in Cornwall. Wilson-Claridge was intrigued by James’ sets and was surprised to discover that James was playing tapes of his own music. When he noticed this, Wilson-Claridge suggested that they press up some records. In the beginning, committing Aphex Twin’s recordings to vinyl was a way of making music the duo’s friends wanted to hear. Due to their geographical dislocation they did not have access to the music they wanted to hear and so they decided to create their own.
James’ first release was the 12-inch EP Analogue Bubblebath on Mighty Force Records in 1991. It was first released under the moniker Aphex Twin, later changed to AFX. The track “En Trance to Exit” was made in collaboration with Tom Middleton, also known as Schizophrenia. The EP got on the playlist of Kiss FM, an influential London radio station, which helped the release to become a success.
In 1991, James and Wilson-Claridge founded Rephlex Records to promote “innovation in the dynamics of Acid — a much-loved and misunderstood genre of house music forgotten by some and indeed new to others, especially in Britain”.
Between 1991 and 1993, James released two Analogue Bubblebath EPs as AFX, and an EP under Bradley Strider, Bradley’s Beat. James moved to London to take an electronics course at Kingston Polytechnic, but at the time admitted to David Toop that his “electronics studies were already slipping away as a career in the techno business took precedence”. After quitting his course, James remained in London and released a number of albums and EPs on Warp Records and other labels under many aliases including AFX, Polygon Window, and Power-Pill. A number of James’ tracks (released under the aliases Blue Calx, The Dice Man, and others) appeared on various compilations. Local legend has it that James lived on the roundabout in Elephant and Castle, South London during his early years in the capital – in fact, he lived in a nearby disused bank.
Gaining success: 1992–1995
The first full-length Aphex Twin album, Selected Ambient Works 85–92, was released in 1992 on R&S Records. It received high ratings and praise from critics. John Bush of Allmusic described it as a “watershed of ambient music”. In 2002, Rolling Stone wrote of the album: “Aphex Twin expanded way beyond the ambient music of Brian Eno by fusing lush soundscapes with oceanic beats and bass lines.” Pitchfork Media’s review called it “among the most interesting music ever created with a keyboard and a computer”. Critics also noted that the songs were recorded on cassette and that the sound quality was “relatively poor”.
In 1992, he also released the EPs Xylem Tube EP and Digeridoo (first played by DJ Colin Faver on London’s Kiss FM) as Aphex Twin, as Power-Pill the Pac-Man EP based on the arcade game Pac-Man, and two of his four Caustic Window EPs. “Digeridoo” reached #55 in the UK Singles Chart, and was later described as foreshadowing drum and bass by Rolling Stone. “Digeridoo” was recorded initially for the benefit of FIZZ-BOMB (at the Shire Horse, St Ives, Cornwall). These early releases came out on Rephlex Records, Mighty Force of Exeter, and R&S Records of Belgium.
In 1993, James released Analogue Bubblebath 3. He also released a single titled “On”; his second Bradley Strider EP, Bradley’s Robot; two more Caustic Window EPs; and his first releases on Warp Records, Surfing on Sine Waves and “Quoth” under the alias Polygon Window.
Warp Records pressed and released a follow-up to Selected Ambient Works 85-92, Selected Ambient Works Volume II in 1994. The sound was much less beat and melody-driven than the previous volume. All of the track names were described with pie chart symbols, each of which was meant to be paired with a corresponding image in the album jacket, with exception for one song, which was named “Blue Calx”. To decipher song titles, listeners had to compare the length of each track with the size of each pie chart symbol. For example, the first title, which is often labelled cliffs, is realized by pairing the first symbol with the first image, which is that of a rocky Cliffside. James claimed in The Wire magazine and other media that these songs were inspired by lucid dreams and synaesthesia. Other releases are a fourth Analogue Bubblebath; GAK, derived from early demos sent to Warp Records; and Classics, a compilation album that includes “Digeridoo” and the Xylem Tube EP.
For his 1995 release, …I Care Because You Do, James used an image of his face for the album cover, a motif that would continue on many of his later records. The album was a compilation of songs composed between 1990 and 1994 and represented a mish-mash of Aphex Twin’s various music styles. This was James’ last record of the 1990s to use mostly analogue synthesizers. He commissioned Western classical-music composer Philip Glass to create an orchestral version of one of the songs from this album, “Icct Hedral”, which appeared on the Donkey Rhubarb EP.
Jungle, DSP and laptops: 1995–1999
In 1995 (primarily with Hangable Auto Bulb, a near anagram of Analogue Bubblebath), James began releasing more material composed on computers, combining a jungle sound with nostalgic childhood themes and computer-generated acid lines.
James’ early adoption of software synthesizers predated the later popularity of using computers to make music. In the mid-to-late 1990s, his music gradually gained more mainstream appeal, as he released Richard D. James Album and Expert Knob Twiddlers (a collaboration with fellow dance producer µ-ziq) in 1996, “Come to Daddy” in 1997 (#36 on UK charts) and “Windowlicker” in 1999 (#16 on UK charts). Two pop songs that heavily use Digital Signal Processing (DSP) techniques, “Come to Daddy” and “Windowlicker” were shown on MTV and became cover features for music magazines such as NME. The videos for both singles were directed by British artist Chris Cunningham and caused controversy on release because of their disturbing images and themes.
In 1998, Aphex Twin’s track “rhubarb” (from Selected Ambient Works Volume II) appeared as part of the BBC’s digital widescreen test transmission, which was on loop for many months as the service was introduced across the UK.
Prepared piano, laptops and more DSP: 2000–2003
In 2001 Aphex Twin released Drukqs, a two-CD album that featured computer controlled piano songs influenced by Erik Satie and John Cage. Many of the tracks’ names are written in the Cornish language (i.e., ‘jynweythek’ translatable as ‘machinemusic’). Also included were abrasive, fast, and meticulously programmed computer-made songs. Rolling Stone described the piano songs as “aimlessly pretty”. Some reviewers concluded that Drukqs was released as a contract breaker with Warp Records—a credible guess, as James’ next big release was released on his own Rephlex label. James claimed to interviewers he had accidentally left an MP3 player labelled “Aphex Twin—unreleased tracks” on a plane, containing a large set of new songs, and rushed the album release to preempt an Internet leak. He also released a short EP titled 2 Remixes By AFX the same year as Drukqs. It featured two remixes, the originals being from 808 State and DJ Pierre. In addition, there is one untitled third track that consists of an SSTV image, which consists of mostly of high-pitched sounds, which can be decoded to a viewable image by proper software such as MultiMode (for Macintosh) or MMSSTV (for Windows).
Synthesizers and drum machines: 2004–present
In late 2004, James released his Analord series, an 11-part series of EPs with 42 total tracks, initially averaging 2–4 tracks per EP. The series was created by playing and sequencing analogue and digital electronic music equipment such as synthesizers and drum machines. The series was recorded on magnetic tape and then later pressed on vinyl.
James was meticulous about the whole process of recording, mastering, and pressing. James has said Rephlex Records was strict on quality control, trying out various pressing-plant companies until they felt it sounded perfect. To James’ ears, vinyl or tape is better than digital, as no two copies are the same. However, label co-owner Grant Wilson-Claridge convinced James to release a CD compilation, Chosen Lords, which included 10 selected tracks from the Analord series. For the Analord series James used his collection of vintage synthesizer and drum machines, some of which were quite rare by that time. Some of the record inserts have pictures of rare synthesizers like the Synton Fenix, and the notoriously difficult-to-program Roland MC-4 sequencer, as well as the Roland TB-303.
In 2007 media reports indicated that Aphex Twin was recording under a new alias called The Tuss. Rephlex Records has denied that Aphex Twin is The Tuss, but Aphex Twin fans and the media have ignored Rephlex’s denial and The Tuss is treated as yet another Aphex Twin project; further evidence being provided by the fact that all Tuss tracks are published in the BMI Repertoire under the name JAMES RICHARD DAVID.
Twenty more tracks were added to the Analord series in December 2009, only available through download from the Rephlex Records website, such that each EP now contains up to 9 tracks.
In an October 2010 interview with British magazine Another Man, James stated that he had completed 6 albums, one of which was a remake of the unreleased Melodies from Mars, originally produced around the time of Richard D. James Album. In June 2011, he spoke to Spanish magazine EL PAIS. When asked about the 6 albums, he answered ‘More than 10 or 11 are already compiled, and many more songs are orphans.’ He also revealed that a new album ‘will show in a while’ and that the reason it has been so long since his last album was that he was waiting for a divorce from his wife.
James’ own face, grinning or distorted in some way, is a common theme in his album covers, his music videos, and the songs themselves. According to him, it began in spite of Techno producers who chose to conceal their identities.
I did it because the thing in techno you weren’t supposed to do was to be recognized and stuff. The sort of unwritten rule was that you can’t put your face on the sleeve. It has to be like a circuit board or something. Therefore I put my face on the sleeve. That’s why I originally did it. But then I got carried away.
The cover of …I Care Because You Do features an unsettling painting of James, while the cover of Richard D. James Album presents a close-up photograph. His face is transplanted onto other people’s bodies in the music videos of “Come to Daddy” and “Windowlicker”. Near the end of the second track of the “Windowlicker” single (commonly referred to as “Equation”), a photo of James’ face is embedded as a steganogram which is revealed when run through spectral analysis. Another embedded image of James, along with collaborator Tom Jenkinson, appears in the third track of 2 Remixes by AFX, “Bonus High Frequency Sounds”, encoded in SSTV format, with text relating to the release.
James has used his own photography for some of his releases, such as the elaborate album sleeve for Selected Ambient Works Volume II.
Richard’s own Rephlex Records label, which he co-owns with Grant Wilson-Claridge, coined the term Braindance in 1991 to describe Aphex Twin’s music. Rephlex Records’ official definition of Aphex Twin and his followers’ music is quoted as follows:
Braindance is the genre that encompasses the best elements of all genres, e.g. traditional, classical, electronic music, popular, modern, industrial, ambient, hip-hop, electro, house, techno, breakbeat, hardcore, ragga, garage, drum and bass, etc.
Braindance applies to forward-thinking electronic music that can appeal to the mind as well as the desire to dance and party. Examples including Ed-DMX’s Breakin’ records label, µ-ziq’s Planet-mu label, the Aphex Twin EP Come to Daddy and Astrobotnia Parts 1, 2 & 3.
At age 17, Richard D. James mentioned these influences: “Phonic Boy, Computer World, Mental Telepathy, Industrial Inc., Tomita, Tangerine Dream”. Mixmaster Morris mentions on the “I Luv AFX” BBC Radio 1 Breezeblock session that James’ preferred moniker while working as a DJ in Cornwall was Phonic Boy on Dope. More recently, he has said that he gets inspiration from “everyday sounds that can be emulated/reconstructed electronically, quality techno, especially from Europe, which overshadows the current hardcore pop crap”. When asked about what is next for electronic music, he said “acid-techno, ambient-techno”. Avant-garde music has been an influence on James, including artists such as Kraftwerk, Throbbing Gristle, Suicide, Can, Tangerine Dream, 808 State, Tod Dockstader, Xenakis, Piero Umiliani, Bernard Parmegiani, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and the French composer Erik Satie for his piano works and his ideas for furniture music.
In acknowledgment of another influence, James released Music from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, a compilation of music recorded by the pioneers of BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which included artists such as Delia Derbyshire, on his own label, Rephlex Records. Aphex Twin has said: “I don’t really like rock & roll.” Despite this, he has mentioned being a fan of Led Zeppelin, citing them as a source of “great breakbeats”, as well as Pink Floyd for their psychedelic music.
Many songs include sounds from and references to the ZX Spectrum. For instance, “Carn Marth” from Richard D. James Album includes the tape-loading noise of the game Sabre Wulf.
Influence on others
The London Sinfonietta has performed arrangements of Aphex Twin tracks. In 2005, the orchestra Alarm Will Sound released Acoustica: Alarm Will Sound Performs Aphex Twin. The album consists of acoustic arrangements of some of James’ electronic tracks. He has also had an influence on rock bands like Radiohead. However, he has dismissed the notion of going on tour with them: “I wouldn’t play with them since I don’t like them.”
Despite his previous comments, he premièred new music alongside Radiohead guitarist/composer Jonny Greenwood in a 2011 collaboration with Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. The animator David Firth has much of his work influenced and soundtracked by Aphex Twin.
In recent interviews, former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist and solo artist John Frusciante has stated that he thinks Aphex Twin is ‘the best thing since sliced bread’ and his recent albums and EPs, Outsides and PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone for example, have been heavily influenced by him.
Intelligent dance music
The term ‘intelligent dance music’, or IDM, was coined in August 1993 by the IDM mailing list based at hyperreal.org, as a term to describe the sound pioneered by the Warp Records Artificial Intelligence Series. The series featured Aphex Twin tracks (under a different pseudonym), as well as early productions from labelmates such as Autechre and LFO. The usage of this term spread in the USA and on internet message boards, but the term is still a source of controversy and derision amongst the artists and fans, including Aphex Twin. As of October 2011 the list is still active.
I just think it’s really funny to have terms like that. It’s basically 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.
Grant Wilson Claridge has stated about the IDM name:
IDM was invented by a journalist who used to work for… What’s that magazine? iD, do you remember iD magazine? I hyphen (-) D, big in the 90’s and they did an article, we did the CD with A.R.T records’ Kirk Degiorgio and they did a big feature and called it IDM and as soon as we saw it we were like “Oh no”, cos they already had intelligent drum’n’bass and it was just like “Oh God”. Which is why we made up braindance cos it’s like a bit of a piss take of like you know, it’s just silly. Just anything, but intelligent dance music.
Aphex Twin’s press
Describing himself in an interview in The Guardian, James has said:
I’m just some irritating, lying, ginger kid from Cornwall who should have been locked up in some youth detention centre. I just managed to escape and blag it into music.
James said he composed ambient techno music at the age of 13; he claims to have “over 100 hours” of unreleased music, and to have made his own software to compose with, including algorithmic processes that automatically generate beats and melodies; in addition he claims to experience synaesthesia, and that he is able to incorporate lucid dreaming into the process of making music.
He lives in southeast London in a converted bank, which was formerly the Bank of Cyprus and then HSBC. Contrary to popular opinion, however, he does not own the silver structure in the centre of the roundabout at Elephant and Castle. This is, in fact, the Michael Faraday Memorial, containing a power transformer for the Northern Line, which James jokingly claimed to be buying in an interview with The Face magazine in 2001. Some of these rumours are hard to confirm as he has been known to spread mistruths in the prankster tradition, making such claims as only sleeping two to three hours a night.
Stockhausen vs. The Technocrats
In November 1995, The Wire published an article titled “Advice to Clever Children”. In the process of producing the interview, a package of tapes containing music from several artists, including Aphex Twin, was sent to Karlheinz Stockhausen. Stockhausen commented:
I heard the piece Aphex Twin of Richard James (sic) carefully: I think it would be very helpful if he listens to my work “Song of the Youth”, which is electronic music, and a young boy’s voice singing with himself. Because he would then immediately stop with all these post-African repetitions, and he would look for changing tempi and changing rhythms, and he would not allow to repeat any rhythm if it varied to some extent and if it did not have a direction in its sequence of variations.
Aphex Twin, a fan of Stockhausen, responded:
I thought he should listen to a couple of tracks of mine: “Digeridoo”, then he’d stop making abstract, random patterns you can’t dance to.
Richard claims to have produced sound on a Sinclair ZX81 (a machine with no sound hardware) at the age of 11:
When I was 11, I won 50 pounds in a competition for writing this program that made sound on a ZX81. You couldn’t make sound on a ZX81, but I played around with machine code and found some codes that retuned the TV signal so that it made this really weird noise when you turned the volume up.