An adventure with Aphex Twin
US expat and Aphex Twin authority Jim Poe started writing for inthemix in 2011. This is his account of a long-ago tour with Richard D James and an ode to a genius career.
It’s always irritated me that for the casual fan Aphex Twin is most famous for a couple of weird album covers and videos from 15 years ago. Like you can’t have a conversation about his music without someone going, “Yeah, and what about that album cover!” That’s the way our mass culture reduces and regurgitates things. Unfair to one of the great innovators, who cleared the way not only for the likes of Four Tet, Boards of Canada and Burial, but for everyone from Radiohead to James Blake.
I have to remind myself that, whatever he thinks of MTV and the industry marketing machine, Richard D James is probably fine with being known to the general public as a freakish dwarf with a girl’s body.
To disturb is definitely on the agenda; perhaps because it safely deflects unsavoury attention away from his rather breathtaking genius. It’s an extension of the way his music functions: works of singular inspiration, moments of devastating beauty, punctuated, if not dismantled or destroyed, by pranksterish noise. As if it was too beautiful, it would be dangerous. He’s like a super-intelligent kid who solves a historic math problem and then sets his notebook on fire for fun.
“He’s like a super-intelligent kid who solves a historic math problem and then sets his notebook on fire for fun”
It was not the weirdness that drew me to Aphex Twin’s music at first but the power, the uncompromising sonic science, and what seemed to me a profound depth – especially compared to the sped-up cartoon samples and Belgian hoover noises that dominated techno and “rave” music at the time. And yes, I was attracted to its beauty too.
Didgeridoo was one of the first 12” singles I ever bought. I don’t think I knew what to make of it; I definitely couldn’t stop listening to it. It sounded like a signal from outer space. Or better yet, something perfectly natural and organic, but inconceivably vast and remote, and ultimately unknowable – much like Uluru, a distorted image of which memorably graced the sleeve of the R&S release. Along with classic films like Picnic at Hanging Rock, that sleeve – perfectly illustrating the ancient dreamtime landscapes suggested by the music – would become an icon of Australia for me long before I ever thought of migrating here. But I don’t think the music actually had much to do with the reality of Australia; in fact, there’s not a didge on the track – he made those sounds with analogue machines of course.
Digeridoo doesn’t seem to have aged much at all in 20 years – but then, none of Aphex’s music gets old, from the stuff he made as a teenager to breakout albums like 1995’s I Care Because You Do to latter-day works like drukqs (2001). It seems to inhabit its own time – to be out of time – while still being utterly visceral and of the moment. Maybe the way be-bop can sound exactly like 60 years ago and still be ahead of its time.
Later a friend gave me a copy of Surfing on Sine Waves, which James released as Polygon Window. Again I had the feeling of being not quite ready for this… transmission, whatever it was. I was especially fascinated by the dark hurtling energy of Quoth, which (along with the similar Flaphead, one of the B-sides to Didgeridoo ) was my first introduction to anything resembling minimal techno, long before I heard Jeff Mills or Surgeon. That is if anything so brutal can be called minimal – it called to mind the movement of giant futuristic war machines, like something out of a manga comic. I worked it into my sets but it made all of my other records sound small.
About a year after I first heard Digeridoo I met Richard Aphex and toured the US with him for two weeks. It was late 1993, just as his career was starting to take off. It was his first tour Stateside – in fact, it was billed as the first-ever “rave tour” of North America, and also included Moby and Orbital. I had been hired as a stage performer for Moby and doubled as a roadie. I also got to DJ from time to time which kept me happy.
I didn’t realise until I looked it up just now that James is a year younger than me – meaning he must have been 21 at the time. When I recall the tour it’s hard for me to get my head around that fact. I was a pretty naïve 22-year-old raver who had just started collecting records and digging deeper into house and techno. He had recorded and released Selected Ambient Works 85-92 and changed the face of electronic music while still a teenager.
So let’s just say we weren’t on the same level, and I didn’t have much to say to him about music or about anything. We certainly weren’t buddy material, though he was always decent to me as he was to everyone. He was a good guy, though very quiet and preoccupied, withdrawn and intense – as you are when you’re a bit of a genius, I guess.
“He was a good guy, though very quiet and preoccupied, withdrawn and intense – as you are when you’re a bit of a genius, I guess.”
I was in awe of him, as I was of the guys from Orbital and the whole UK contingent on the tour. To a newbie like me, who fetishised the UK scene but had little contact with it, they seemed like visitors from another world – a more advanced world with better clubs, fresher gear and cooler slang. I remember James using ”’Decent!” as an exclamation of approval, and for some reason thinking that was cool. He had a Nintendo Game Boy with hundreds of games on one bootleg cartridge that he’d bought in Hong Kong: cool. His girlfriend was sweet and lovely: of course.
All the Brits were really nice and genuine too – such a breath of fresh air compared to the scene in New York, which especially at the time could be so plastic and fake. It seemed they were all vegetarians and environmentalists. They gave me a glimpse of the kind of future I wanted to be a part of.
It’s hard to explain how out-of-tune middle America was with electronic music at the time, so for Orbital and Aphex Twin to be gigging in places like Denver and El Paso was something to see. It often seemed as if we were in a magic bus on the vanguard of a new culture, but at other times it was straight out of Spinal Tap. I kid you not, we played at the food court of a big mall in Indianapolis one Sunday afternoon. Just imagine hearing Aphex Twin play live in a food court. But there were a few local fans there, bless them, and they were into it. Maybe some Midwestern kid was inspired to become a musician that day.