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Classic interview: Aphex Twin - “I hate the idea of using other people’s equipment - I’ve just got a bit obsessed, I suppose”

Aphex Twin
(Image credit: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images)

Speed restrictions? Who needs ‘em? In January ‘92, The Aphex Twin showed the techno world that his frenetic Didgeridoo could smash the 150bpm barrier effortlessly and still keep the punters dancing.

It’s taken a few months for his legend to spread, but now Richard James - aka The Aphex Twin, aka Polygon Window, aka AFX, aka God-knows-how-many-other-pseudonyms-he’s-got - is being lauded and applauded everywhere.

Jesus Jones seem to talk about him in every interview they do; Curve play Didgeridoo before their gigs; we’ve even mentioned him in three out of the first five issues of Future Music (cor!).

His two recently released albums, Surfing on Sine Waves (under the name Polygon Window) and Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (as the Twin) have shown that he’s not just a speed terrorist: he’s capable of producing music that’s electronic, but always varied, fluid and thoughtful.

The general agreement is that Richard and his music are something different in a scene where bands and tracks burn brightly for a few weeks and are then forgotten.

With Richard’s rise in reputation have come the stories. Yes, he does build or modify nearly all his gear; yes, he started doing it when he was 12; and yes, he comes from the depths of Cornwall. In ‘85 and ‘86 he was writing a style of music that would emerge two years later as acid house - pretty much a hint of genius in a guy who claims that, at the time, nothing but mainstream music was available to him.

“I didn't have any equipment when I started,” Richard recalls. “I used to make tape loops and put them on ghetto-blaster motors or reel-to-reels that I could get for five quid from junk shops. I did a hell of a lot with those, like creating finished collages of sound that I'd then make, say, five copies of. I’d sync up all the motors and play the tapes back, fluctuating the tape speed to create effects like flanging, chorus and phase-shifting.

“I bought a Roland 100M monosynth when I was 13 - it’s like an [SH-]101 - but I got really pissed off with it. I started customising my keyboards, then changing the components. When we started secondary school there was an electronic course, so music and electronics went hand in hand. Plus the fact that I didn't have any money! If I wanted to get anything different, I had to change what I had or make something.

“Through customising the stuff I got a working knowledge of the keyboards and the circuitry. I started building little modules, and that’s gone on to building whole circuits. I never made these from magazines; I like to do it myself. I just made filters and oscillators and stuff.

The biggest thing I built was a sampler - it took about a year as a college project. The teachers didn't know what a sampler was, so it was all down to me. It worked for about eight weeks and then packed up.

“The biggest thing I built was a sampler - it took about a year as a college project. The teachers didn't know what a sampler was, so it was all down to me. It worked for about eight weeks and then packed up. Half the time it didn’t sample, it just made really good noises - mad stuff - so I’ve got a massive library of sounds from that.

“When it came to getting an act together, I realised that making the stuff and coming up with sounds that no-one else could was my main asset, so I decided to keep working on it.”

It’s immediately apparent that Richard is a determined bloke. But his sense of purpose - impatience, even - has now taken him to a point where he can practically do what he likes; he’s inundated with offers of remixing, and several major record labels want to talk contracts. And all this without a Top 40 single, too.

The Aphex Twin is happy to talk about his music and his machines, but he’s loath to reveal his creations to the world, in order to keep up some sense of mystery about his methods. 

Most of his kit resides in the Rephlex studio in Cornwall, but he’s currently working and mastering in London, where his gear includes kit such as a Roland TB-303, a DX7, an old Korg analogue sequencer, an Atari ST and monitor, plus the usual CD player, DAT machine and amplifier. But there are a lot of disfigured synths, open circuits and devices decorated with copious helpings of wire and patch leads. 

Bodge and butchery

Very little survives without being butchered to some degree. “The only keyboard I haven't changed is the Korg MS-20; I’ve got three of those,” says Richard. “It’s a mad keyboard, it’s got a great range of sounds and I like it the way it is.”

The SH-101 certainly didn't survive the surgeon's screwdriver: “It doesn't look like a 101 anymore - I use the sliders, but for different things,” Richard explains. This is typical of how he works: if he hasn't got a sound, he’ll build something to make it using whatever is available.

“A lot of things I make don't respond over a keyboard range - they’ll make one sound, which I’ll sample. Some stuff I control with triggers and control voltages; I put a lot of control on these so I can alter the sound while they’re being triggered.

“I used to spend all my time building the stuff, but now I haven't built anything for ages,” he continues. “A lot of my stuff breaks down, so at the moment I’m just a technician repairing things I’ve built over the years.

“I don't need to make anything new now - I’ve got everything I need. I know I won't get bored with the things I’ve got for years to come. It could be five years before I build anything, apart from the odd little thing to fill a gap. I’ve got too many possibilities to mess around with.”

To ensure that these possibilities are fully explored, Richard has come to a decision over the last few months; to use only his own inventions in his music-making, and to leave conventional synths and drum machines alone.

“I really hate the idea of using other people’s equipment - I’ve just got a bit obsessed, I suppose,” he admits. “I don't want to use pre-programmed drum sounds. I’ve used modified [Roland TR-]808 sounds on Ambient Works, but that's because the tracks are around four to five years old. And the Polygon Window tracks use updated 808 sounds because the original recording quality is so abysmal.

“I’m surprised the ambient stuff came out as well as it did. Someone phoned up to ask how we got the quality so good; I thought ‘What are they talking about? It’s shit!”

The recordings do seem a tad rough in places on the Ambient Works album, as though they were recorded on just a four-track at home. But the truth is even stranger.

“Everything was originally mastered on standard tape on a hi-fi cassette deck. I’ve only had a DAT for just over a year,” Richard reveals. And considering that the tracks were selected by his friends in Cornwall, who were listening to the tapes on car stereos and Walkmans, some of those masters have seen the wear of around 50 cassette players, so he reckons. “With the first track [Xtal on Ambient Works], the tape had chewed in about seven places.”

Richard resisted the temptation to edit the tracks for the album. “Not much has been EQ’d. It would have been easy to edit out the glitches digitally, but it's a retrospective look, and the tape munching was all part of the stuff I was doing, so I’ve left it in.”

I’m surprised the ambient stuff came out as well as it did. Someone phoned up to ask how we got the quality so good; I thought ‘What are they talking about? It’s shit!

The sampler - a Casio FZ-10 with custom filters tacked on - is used on a surprising 80% of Richard’s tracks. Samples either come from home-made electronic sounds, or from an afternoon spent in a scrapyard with beaters and hammers - Quoth, on Surfing on Sine Waves uses such rattling ‘found sounds.’

In keeping with his ideals, Richard is opposed to using samples from others - though Julie Andrews and Gene Wilder do make the occasional appearance…

“I don’t sample records I buy,” he says, which must be difficult to resist when you're buying about several dozen techno records each fortnight. “That's not the way I work. I mean, a lot of the BBC sci-fi sounds effects records are wicked. Some of them are like ambient tracks - I don't know whether they realised they were writing music or just doing it for people in theatres! I like to listen to it, but I won't sample it. I generally only sample sounds I’ve made. I’ve got three DATs’ worth of breaks that I’ve made over the years.”

The FZ-10 is a MIDI sampler, so maybe synth communication is not all triggers and CVs, then?

“Some of the old stuff is converted or triggered. I’ve bought a few MIDI-to-CV converters; some are good and some not so good. I’ve never made my own, I’ve messed around with ones I’ve bought. I like some of the converters, but I think they’re a bit expensive for what they do, ‘coz they’re quite easy to make. I don't think they put enough controls on them for things like cutoff frequencies.”

Sequential style

There’s far more sequencing in Richard’s work than the sometimes improvisatory-style suggests, too. “It's 99% sequenced,” he says. “Strings I’ll play, but everything else has to be accurate. Music that's out of time does my head in.

“I used to write my own sequencing programs on the [Sinclair] Spectrum, believe it or not. I then used the Atari stuff live, but it kept overheating and crashing. So I’ve built another sequencer; I write something on the ST, then transfer the data down to my sequencer for live work. I really like the Korg analogue sequencers ‘cos you can control every note and change all the frequencies. It’s a different approach.”

So with all these wonderful toys at his disposal, how does he compose? 

“Sometimes I have a plan that I've got to get out from start to finish. Other times I've got no pre-set ideas: I just sit down in front of the stuff and see what happens.”

“I never keep sounds on disk,” he adds, dropping another bombshell. “This does record companies’ heads in ‘cos they like you to remix, but I just don't like to do it. Sometimes I might spend three of four days to get the sounds together, then do a track with them. The next time I work on something, if I have a wicked idea for a melody and I’m feeling lazy, it would be too easy to use a disk of drums that I’d used before. That's why I don't save anything because I like everything to be different.” 

I prefer to remix something I don’t like and then turn it into something I do - it's more fun that way.

Remixing is something the Aphex Twin is keen on. And he reckons he can turn his hand to most things remixable.

“I don't have to like the band or the music to remix something, I get more satisfaction making something good out of something that's shit. If something is good in the first place it's not too hard to make it as good; I prefer to work on something I don’t like and then turn it into something I do - it's more fun that way.

“I listen to the track and pick out the bits I like, then get the engineer to put it down on DAT. Originally, remixing meant just making it ten seconds longer, or adding a different drum track, but now you have to rewrite, which is exactly what I want.”

But Richard sees another cause begging for his talents.

“I want to get into film scoring. Soundtracks have been stuck in a groove for so long - I think people are pissed off with bad filter sounds in scary films, and Tangerine Dream type soundtracks. What they lacked was a beat, which is where my new stuff comes in.”

Asked if he’s heard of the soundtracks of John Carpenter, Richard answers; “Like most things, it's not essential for me to know what other people do. I know what I want to do.”

And let nothing get in his way. 

This interview originally appeared in issue 6 of Future Music in 1993.

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