The Madman of Electronica

How does Aphex Twin get away with his nutty musical stunts?

Aphex Twin: eschews good taste on principle

Aphex Twin, aka Richard D. James, is a reclusive electronic musician and producer known for his legendary mischievousness: For a while, he took to driving around the English countryside in a decommissioned tank. He is also prone to dramatic and silly gestures. His central London residence is in a former bank building. At one club appearance, his set consisted of grinding a turntable needle over sandpaper and then dropping a microphone into a running blender. Sometimes clever, sometimes not, his contemptuous behavior is regularly forgiven, even celebrated, by his many admirers.

So, why do his fans—people like Philip Glass, who did an orchestral adaptation of one Aphex Twin song, and Radiohead, whose Kid A borrows liberally from his work—put up with all this? Aphex Twin has continually re-imagined and reinvigorated the minor genre known as intelligent dance music, or I.D.M.—essentially a type of electronica fit for bedroom listening. Fans see I.D.M. as the vanguard of creative, boundaryless music making, and James’ discography is an object lesson in why. He started off crafting straight acid dance numbers like the 1992 single “Digeridoo,” but his first album updated Brian Eno’s ambient music for the contemporary club music scene. He switched gears again with his first major-label projects, releasing a pair of CDs whose gorgeous sprawl was almost orchestral in scope. Next, he fulfilled his stated ambition to bring I.D.M. to the British Top 10 with two EPs, Come to Daddy—a skewed take on the pop electronica of Prodigy—and Windowlicker, whose title track was a hip-hop tune set in the 23rd century. His next album was a double-disc set full of piano miniatures modeled on the works of 20th-century French composer Erik Satie.

When weighed against his I.D.M. peers—µ-Ziq, Squarepusher, Autechre—James’ flexibility seems almost perverse. They are known for being one-trick ponies, albeit ones with mighty cool tricks. Limited to the software on their laptops, they’re not expected to be any more adaptable than a classical violinist, an inveterate punk, or a hazy prog rocker. Aphex Twin, though, has made music that could satisfy all those constituencies and more. Classical music? Check. Pop songs? Check. Ambient works? Check. Dance hits? Yup. Occasionally he’s even played the roll of celebrity remixer. Hence his new record, 26 Remixes for Cash.

An ideal introduction to Aphex Twin’s peculiar approach is his “The Beauty of Being Numb Section B,” which is nominally, at least, a Nine Inch Nails remix. It starts off nearly shapeless with some meandering keyboards and a few deep-space dribbles, blurbles, and clicks. Star Trek fans might be reminded of Tribbles. A low woodwind sound kicks in after a minute—maybe an oboe or clarinet. Soon the keyboards take over, gain momentum, and become a bit less amorphous. The Tribbles seem to be growing teeth and start to stutter and beg and drool. It may be a respirator or one of those dental instruments that suck saliva from your gums. Three minutes in, the track comes to a sudden halt. All well and good, but what exactly does it have to do with Nine Inch Nails? Not much.

“I like doing [remixes] sometimes,” James said in a 1998 interview. “Basically, I’ll take a song and make it into something that I like. The original comes to me in a form that I hate, then I have to do a serious bit of alteration to it, and sometimes I don’t even bother—I just give them a track that has nothing to do with that song.” Aphex’s track appeared on a “remix” EP that NIN released following its The Downward Spiral album, but even the title of James’ song bears no relation to the original record. He claims he never actually listened to the group’s music, but I don’t buy it. A second NIN “remix,” “At the Heart of It All,” is a spot-on parody of the gothic industrial pretensions of frontman Trent Reznor. It sounds like a steam engine misfiring in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

With 26 Mixes for Cash, Aphex Twin is working on two provocative levels. Take the album’s title. On one hand, he wants you to know that he profited well from his remix work. The majority of the tracks on this record were commissioned by feckless labels and enamored artists in the mid-’90s, at a time when electronica was entering a period of go-go years as overheated as the stock market. The I.D.M. audience must have seemed like a constituency worth courting, rather than a bunch of smartass obscurantists. It’s a safe bet that I.D.M.’s biggest star was compensated well for his time—upward of $10,000 per remix.

At the same time, the title is also a kiss-off to the remix game and a wry comment on the consumerism associated with it. Generally, remixes are to pop music what sequels are to blockbuster movies. They are profit centers. They fill in gaps between records. They appeal more to the executive imagination than they do to the creative one. Two of the biggest celebrity remixers, Puff Daddy and Paul Oakenfold, were literally businessmen first— Puff was an A & R executive; Oakenfold was a club promoter and British agent for groups like the Beastie Boys. They have taste, sure, but their focus is on “making hits,” and they will happily oblige anyone who can pay them.

James, by contrast, has been oddly selective in the remix assignments he takes on. He deigned to work with artists such as German rappers (!) Die Fantastischen Vier and the Japanese pop duo Nav Katze, yet rejected big-ticket offers to remix Madonna, Limp Bizkit, and Björk. It’d be nice to think that he refused to work with the big names purely on aesthetic grounds—that he simply didn’t like their music—but that seems unlikely: Given how much he deviates from the source material, it sounds like James didn’t much care for the artists he did agree to work with, either.

Most of his remixes sound like Aphex Twin originals. Intangible synthesizers dissolve into echoes. Complicated, stuttering rhythms take on the quality of melodic lines. Vocal samples are enlisted, economically, to prime, freak-out effect. (One Aphex Twin album contains just a single lyric: “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”) His version of “Zeros and Ones” an obscure song by British one-hit wonders Jesus Jones, is filled with synth sounds that come in and out of focus, like Enya but not so cloying. (Check out the remix.) On Curve’s “Falling Free,” wordless voices float ethereally over a field of pinprick blips; in Saint Etienne’s “Your Head My Voice,” those voices speak with the basic phonemes of a small child.

A more plausible reason James didn’t want to work with Madonna or Björk is that he fundamentally doesn’t believe there is an art to the remix or, for that matter, that there is any reason to take an earnest stab at crafting hits. Say what you will about the aforementioned divas, they have good taste. Both have plucked artists and trends from relative obscurity: Madonna has been involved in a long and fruitful collaboration with William Orbit, another electronic musician with a taste for ambient and classical music. For Björk’s last album, she engaged the talents of I.D.M. artists Matmos, Console, and Matthew Herbert.

On paper, they align well with James and share some aesthetic goals. Work with Madonna or Björk, though, and you can bet that they’ll be the ones the reviewers label visionaries. James chose not to play into their taste-changing extravaganzas. Consider what he told the Webzine Perfect Sound Forever in a rare interview  conducted before he stopped doing them altogether: ” ‘Making music’ is just making music and that’s where it ends. It ends where I listen back to it. ‘Making records’ is taking the music you’ve made and putting it onto a CD and getting involved with all of the music industry side, which isn’t really anything to do with music at all. It’s all to do with career and stuff like that.”

James had a better way of playing the game. He got Aphex Twin’s music and name onto other people’s albums. By reshaping their songs in his image, he pulled a kind of Trojan Horse maneuver. He turned other artists’ records into advertisements for himself.