This edition of Treatscast is about when Aphex Twin recently uploaded a huge volume of previously unreleased tracks to a secret Soundcloud account. Over 200 tracks were added.
It didn’t stay a secret for long, and a few months later they were almost all mysteriously deleted.
Richard David James' output has ranged further than pretty much any other electronic artist, from the most blissful, beatless ambient to the most spine-blisteringly frenetic breakcore and jungle - sometimes all in the same track.
The unreleased uploads had a similarly wide range of textures and tempos, so that listening to all of them together was quite a challenging experience. I decided to curate them into subfolders of different climatic zones, so it was easier to visit particular places.
After listening to all of them, I decided to collect some examples of his most warm and somnambulant tracks into this Treatscast, as a tribute to his early Ambient works, and their relationship to sleep and altered states.
First though, Let’s make sure that we understand the context of this music - from his upbringing in Lanner near Redruth in Cornwall, to being, according to Sacha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker, “about as important as a single figure can get in Electronic Music.”
His entire career is shrouded in myth and legend, everything from his track titles to his interview technique to his advertising is somehow hidden or obscured, playfully contradictory, or incomprehensible. Whether this is all innocent cheekiness or carefully thought out plan of “lush disinformation” is satisfyingly unclear.
There was an NME article from the mid-Nineties, headlined 'You Lying Cunt', which compared stories it alleged he'd made up about himself with The Truth as determined by the journalist. Richard chuckled, “In nearly every instance what they said was false was true and vice versa.”
In another interview he says “I find it weird to spend my time sitting down with journalists who end up writing things about me that I never said. I mean, who’s telling lies here? I read interviews that I have apparently given in various newspapers and think, ‘Wow! I said that? That’s a lie!’. Oh well. I can tell you that I never say things that aren’t true … I cannot think of any lies that I have ever told.”
But then, “If everybody always only told the truth, we would all get bored pretty quickly. I like not knowing if someone is telling me the truth or is lying to me.”
With that in mind, here’s a few true facts about him, along with some of my own experiences.
He owns an armoured car, (a Daimler Ferret Mark 3 Armoured Scout Car) for recreational purposes, describing it as being “like a womb, with a gun”. He also bought a submarine in 2001 for "about £40,000. They're really cheap."
He believes Chris Morris is “the best comedian of all time”
In the late nineties, he bought a former bank vault in Elephant & Castle, the four foot thick walls providing excellent soundproofing for his studio.
When once asked to do a remix for Madonna, Richard sent her a letter detailing the exact noises she would have to make with her vagina in order for him to take the job. He feels her approach is almost vampiric. "Her whole career's been like, 'Oh, they're the trendy person of the moment, I'll work with them to make me younger.' They're using you."
In his opinion, the 624 vocal overdubs in 10CC’s I’m Not In Love is the best moment sonically on a pop record
He loves Cornish and Celtic culture, and many of his track titles are in Cornish. Jynweythek = electronic machine. Ylow = music. So Jynweythek Ylow could mean music of the electronic machine. A vor = cutter, rowboat or sailboat. hos = a "big" noise. So Vordhosbn most likely means a noisy boat. As for Avril 14th, recently sampled by Kanye West, April 14th is the date of the Kernow festival in Cornwall.
He once cut off his beard and sent it to his Dad, “He got well confused. He's really straight, so he didn't understand.”
He once emailed Sean from Autechre a 20-second chunk of 'Equinoxe VI' from Jean Michel Jarre’s 1978 Equinoxe album. “The end bit. I was, like, 'Check out these spicy pitch bends'!”
In New York in 1994 Richard once performed using a blender and discs of sandpaper. People danced enthusiastically, believing the horrible noise to be death metal. The evening ended with James throwing the blender at a man in the crowd, who later asked him to autograph it as a souvenir.
I once saw him DJing using some of these sandpaper discs in the billiard room of a Butlins holiday resort. One of the Aphex branded sandpaper discs subsequently sold on ebay for over 200 pounds.
My personal favourite live experience of his was in Barcelona at Sonar 2003. He was playing after UK Garage duo Oxide & Neutrino. As he was about to start, while the two MCs were repeatedly exhorting the crowd to “make some noise”, he seemed to subtly adjust their voices, distorting them, recontextualising the refrain, and adding some of his own glitched out rhythms, creating a juxtaposition of two sides of the UK underground that was way before it’s time, and extremely inspiring to my young ears.
The ‘Twin’ part of his name is due to his brother who died at birth. “He was also called Richard James. By the way, that’s not a lie. My mother really struggled to deal with it, and therefore named me after him when I was born. My brother was supposed to continue to live through me. As a result, I have felt guilty my whole life … because I could never get rid of the feeling that I should assume the identity of my brother”
His parents met while working in a mental hospital together, one of their duties was to “dole out LSD to the patients”.
As a child, he used to play his family piano from the inside, pulling it apart, then inserting objects in between the strings and the hammers. He studied electronics at school, learning how to make circuit boards from scratch. He started work on his first Ambient works when he was just 14 years old. It is claimed that James was seen producing music in his Cornwall bedroom at age 12.
“I bought a synth when I was 12, thought it was a load of shit, took it apart and starting pissing about with it. I got really into making things with electronics. I learned about it in school until I was quite competent and could build my own circuits from scratch. I started off modifying analogue synths and junk that I bought, and got addicted to making noises"
He began by recreating tracks he had made while sleeping, during lucid dreams. In a 1994 interview he explained, “I go to sleep, dream I’m in my studio with imaginary bits of gear and do a track. Then I wake myself up and recreate it.”
When asked if lucid dreaming was actually dreaming or just daydreaming, Richard replies "Well, both really … when you're asleep, like making sounds in your head, and trying to work out songs. I used to do it. I don't do it anymore. Like I had a dream on the bus the other day, and I had this tune in my head, and I couldn't remember it when I woke up. It takes a lot of practice to remember it when you're awake … most of the time, I have a dream and know that I've dreamt up a wicked tune, or sound, or idea, and when I wake up all I can remember is the fact that it was really wicked, so that's really irritating."
He says he can only control his dreams some of the time. “Yeah, I can change it. Not all the time. But most of the time -- 75%. That's why I love sleeping. For me, there's different degrees of control. There's ones that are like a movie, where you're in the movie, and you can control yourself, and those are the best ones. And then there's ones where you control everything, and that's really boring, because nothing happens."
When asked if his dreams are more real than reality, Richard replies, "I think dreams are a bit more honest, because you don't lie to yourself in dreams. I don't think you have an ego and all this business; it all seems to disappear. The way you are in a day is basically the way you were shaped the night before when you were sleeping; and when you're asleep, that's when all your thoughts are put into order - it's when your brain does all its filing; prepares you for the next conscious day. You could argue that when you sleep that's when all the shit goes down."
Conversely, he has also spoken about putting himself into altered states through sleep deprivation, sometimes going as long as five weeks without sleeping.
"When I was little, I decided sleep was a waste of your life. If you lived to be 100, but you didn't sleep, it'd be like living to 200. But, originally, it wasn't for more time to make music, it was just that I thought sleep was a bit of a con. I'd always been able to get away with four hours a night, but I tried to narrow it down to two. And you do get used to it. I reckon it'd take you three weeks to whittle down from eight hours to two. You should try it, it's wicked."
"It gets very strange when I don't sleep for a long time. Cos it's not that I'm actually that good at staying awake. I can only do it if I'm making music. If I watch TV during a period of going without sleep for three days, I always fall asleep immediately. But it's fucking excellent, not sleeping, you really should try it. It’s sort of nice and not-nice at the same time. Your mind starts getting scatty, like you’re senile. You do unpredictable things, like making tea but pouring it in a cereal bowl."
There are conflicting reports about his drug use, some sources say he never does drugs, others say he smokes a lot of weed, but in another interview he has stated "Don’t do anything creative with drugs. It's just a bit of escape, like a laugh. I like to be totally straight, when I do my music, so I can think about what I'm doing. I don't like being stoned. And I could never do stuff pissed. Well, I've done some stuff pissed. I did some stuff with Mike Paradinas - the Mike and Rich album - most of that was done drunk and on acid, as well … it was a bit messy."
"I never wanted to big up any drugs, because I don't reckon they deserve it. It's just something that you choose to do. I probably come across as, like, 'Yeah, acid and weed are amazing.' But I don't think that at all, really. And if I did, I wouldn't want to say it in an interview. Plus, I'm never under the influence of drugs when I make music. Whenever I have been, it's always been totally rubbish. It's a real disciplined thing, making music. When you're tripping, you're just fucked. You could never get it together to make a track. When I'm stoned, I go to bed."
However, he has also detailed inspiring hallucinogenic experiences. “I had an extremely moving, enlightening experience when I was 17 after taking some schrooms: lying in a field at night on my own, the wind talked to me through the grass. I find wind incredible; it can be the darkest of dark, totally ancient. It is completely alive but that hasn’t been discovered by mainstream science yet. I could also hear sounds before they happened, they had a kind of reversed delay with the pitches rising which got louder until the event happened – that completely changed my perception of time and made me realise that we perceive time in just one way, which is maybe useful to our species but is in no way universal”
In the same interview, he goes deeper. “I know all of us have the potential to do almost anything we want but we aren’t encouraged and that is no accident: The human spirit is kept down, and mostly by the media. Education should not be about remembering facts someone else thinks is important but how to think and how to be encouraged to do whatever we want – as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else”
He has invented his own musical scales. “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 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 the effects on your brain. That's what's everyone's essentially after.”
"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.”
“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”
The New York Times has described him as 'forever future bound'. From his unorthodox means of inspiration, through to modifying synthesizers and writing his own music production software, and performance (notoriously collaborating with female bodybuilders and giant neon teddy bears), every aspect of Richard's music has remained defiantly unique throughout his career.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Daniel Avery, “Aphex is a continual reminder that the most interesting musicians are the ones who create their own world and don’t particularly care about existing outside of it. In today’s pop culture, where extroversion and gushing collaborations are seen as the most desirable attributes for success, Aphex remains the ultimate anti-careerist. Everything he creates has a beautiful cohesion to it: whether it’s serene ambient electronica, laser-guided acid, or disconcerting, dystopian glitch, the work clearly comes from a singular mind but one that is not affected by outside trends. Aphex is one of those figures who has always done things exactly on his own terms and I see many new artists with the same mindset. The next few years could be very exciting.”
Shoutouts to DJ Food, who did a great mix of rare Aphex tracks including some of the tracks from the soundcloud dump, that I found out about after making this Treatscast
Special mention also to Eskmo who made this beautiful blend of Tom Waits songs with Aphex Twin’s recent EP (Diskhat ALL Prepared1mixed [snr2mix])