Richard D. James, better known as Aphex Twin, is one of the most storied electronic artists in modern music. The myths surrounding the producer are manifold: at various stages of his career, it’s been claimed that he owns a functioning tank (it’s actually an armoured car), came up with the majority of SAW II while lucid dreaming, and lived inside a former bank simply because he thought the four-foot thick walls would be good for soundproofing.
It’s well-known that James is prone to dispensing the odd fib in his interviews, and it’s likely that at least some of his most outrageous claims are less than credible. One of the strangest tales surrounding this visionary producer’s early years, though, has turned out to be entirely true. Way back in 1994, James delivered two unconventional performances incorporating two household items not often found alongside synths, drum machines and electronic music gear: a sheet of sandpaper and a kitchen blender.
The mischief began not at Home Depot, as you might expect, but an event called Disobey. This popular London club night, taking place at The Garage, was known for hosting trendy and experimental acts throughout the ‘90s. “It started off at a club called Disobey, around the corner from where I live,” James told the Alternative Press in 1997. “I'd go down there to see all the weird and wonderful acts they'd have on”.
As the buzz around James’ early material began to increase, the team running Disobey invited him to DJ. What they didn’t count on, though, is that James might take their experimental ethos to a wholly unexpected level. “They asked me to DJ, but since I couldn't really play any records, I just played some sandpaper,” James continued. “I thought that would be a good laugh.”
Speaking with Perfect Sound Forever in ‘97, James opened up on the intentions behind his antics. “It was just basically having a laugh and taking the piss out of that club,” he says. “It was an avant-garde club, and I thought it would be too normal to play records, so I just played something else.”
That’s right - after taking to the stage at Disobey, James affixed an electric razor to his turntable in place of a stylus and dropped the makeshift needle on a disc of sandpaper. Unsurprisingly, an ear-splitting cacophony of distorted noise echoed throughout the room.
What James may not have expected, though, is that his abrasive performance didn’t rub the organizers up the wrong way - quite the opposite. Instead of hustling him off stage, they showered James with praise, later offering to fly him and his friends out to New York for a repeat performance.
What’s more, at the end of his set, James gave away 200 labelled and packaged sheets of sandpaper marked with his logo as a kind of memento for attendees. These have since periodically resurfaced on eBay, listed as collector’s items for overinflated prices.
The second iteration of James’ notorious performance took place at NYC’s The Knitting Factory, which hosted a two-night billing of acts chosen by the Disobey team. “[Disobey] really got into it and invited me to go to America to do it again,” James told Alternative Press. “It was only supposed to be a one-off, but they wanted to pay me and take my friends, so I did it.”
This time, though, James was about to one-up himself, bringing along not only one but two unorthodox items that he planned to use in mixing things up. His trusty sandpaper, laid on the turntable, was joined by a mixer, but perhaps not the kind you’re thinking of. This was the type of appliance you might use to blend vegetables, not tracks.
When he was finished coaxing unearthly noises out of his sandpaper, the second half of James’ set saw the producer placing a microphone inside a kitchen mixer and flipping the power switch. Describing how the night unfolded, James recalled in a matter-of-fact fashion, “I just mixed some sandpaper together for a bit and then played a food mixer.” Just an average night on the decks, then.
A writer for The Wire magazine later described the scenes that ensued, observing that James “cleared the house of all non-noise-lovers with his sandpaper-and-blender turntable assault, though a coterie of devotees remained to Trance-out to his blanket of static and enjoy its subtle permutations.”
That wasn’t the only surprise of the evening, though. James has since confessed to launching said mixer into the crowd and bonking an unsuspecting fan on the head. “In New York, after I’d finished with the food mixer, I threw it over the balcony and it hit some kid on the head,” James told NME in 1999.
“I was shitting myself about the lawsuit that that would entail. But he came and found me afterwards and said, ‘Can you sign this, it hit me on the head?’! So I signed it! He wanted to put it on his mantlepiece.” Was he alright, though? “He was a bit spun out. But the food mixer looked alright,” James continued.
How should we assess this curious moment in electronic music’s history? Is this the IDM equivalent of tossing the television out the hotel window? There’s no doubt that launching a kitchen appliance from the stage was a senseless idea, but what of the performance itself? Was it merely an ill-advised prank, or perhaps a canny, calculated send-up of the pretentious culture surrounding experimental electronica?
Whatever you make of Aphex Twin’s antics, it’s somewhat reassuring to know that one of electronic music’s most critically acclaimed artists, a name almost universally adored within a subculture that’s often guilty of taking itself far too seriously, likes to poke fun at that very same self-importance.
“I wasn’t really into it - it was a one-off thing,” James told Perfect Sound Forever, reflecting on the escapade at a later date. “It was just basically a joke, but loads of people took it really seriously. It was really funny. I love things like that.”