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Aphex Twin on New ‘Syro’ LP: ‘I’m Feeling Really Horny About It ”“ and Very Smug’

Richard D. James on his decade of unreleased music, drum-playing robots and adjusting to small-town life.

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Aphex Twin | Photo Credit:  Andy Willsher/Redferns/Getty Images

Aphex Twin | Photo Credit: Andy Willsher/Redferns/Getty Images

Not long ago, Richard D. James was swimming in the creek near his house when his next-door neighbor made an unexpected request. “I’d never talked to him about what I do,” says James, 43. “He’s not very friendly. But he went, ‘Oh, my daughter’s boyfriend is doing a thesis on Aphex Twin, can he phone you up?'”

Until that point, James says, he was pretty sure none of his neighbors had the slightest clue that he was Aphex Twin ”“ the hugely influential electronic musician whose ambient washes of sound and freakishly twisted beats have gone on to inform artists of all genres. Thom Yorke has credited James as a key inspiration for Radiohead’s reinvention on Kid A ”“ “Aphex opened up another world that didn’t involve my fucking electric guitar, and I was just so jealous,” Yorke said last year ”“ and Kanye West sampled him on 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Skrillex has called Aphex Twin’s 1997 track “Flim” his “fav song of all time.”

Since 2006, though, the reclusive star has lived in a tiny Scottish village (population: 300), releasing virtually no new music. That’s about to change. On September 23rd, Warp Records will release Syro, the first Aphex Twin album since 2001’s Drukqs. “Hooray!” he says wryly.

James called from a London hotel to talk about his home life in Scotland, the state of electronic music, why he’s done with traditional DJing and, yes, his collection of musical robots. Syro, which contains tracks recorded over many years, only grazes the surface of his recent work, he notes: “It’s about a fifth of what I’ve done in the last 10 years. One album out of many possible ones.” Releasing it now, he says, serves as “a psychological dividing line, just so I can concentrate on new stuff. It puts it in a category, and then you can leave it and get on.”


How are you feeling about the new album?
Horny. I’m feeling really horny about it [laughs]. And very smug.

Not a bad combination. When did you actually put this material together into an album?
It’s been an ongoing thing for the past few years. It’s the only thing I really use a computer for these days ”“ sitting in front of a computer, going through tracks. I gave it to Warp about six months ago.

How did the label react when you told them you had a new album for them?
Steve [Beckett, Warp’s co-founder] was like, “No fucking way! Fuck me sideways.” He’s pretty funny.

What made you decide to release an album now after all these years?
Well, I have wanted to do it; it’s just getting around to doing it. It’s a real ball-ache. It’s not what I’m interested in. I just like making the stuff. To be honest, I thought, “Who’s even interested anymore?” When Warp was really interested, I was like, “Really? Is this a joke or something?” I kind of expected them to say, “No, nobody actually buys any records anymore, mate. Sorry.”

But you must have known there’s demand for your work. Earlier this year, people put together $67,000 on Kickstarter so they could download your unreleased 1994 album Caustic Window.
You know, that actually did kickstart me into action as well. As much as I like to think I don’t really like fans ”“ I mean, it’s not very healthy. You can’t be thinking about keeping other people happy, going in circles. But that was really touching, and really sweet. And I’m getting a bit older. It’s like, “Okay. People out there really, really want stuff off me, so I can’t deny it. Let’s put it out.”

And after that the original vinyl test pressing of Caustic Window sold for $46,300 on eBay.
I was absolutely amazed. I think I might actually have gotten the highest amount ever paid for a record. I’d like to know what other records people paid more money for than that ”“ not that I’m obsessed with money, but it would be interesting to know. When I did a quick search, the only other ones I came up with were, like, a John Lennon one and a Paul McCartney one. But both of those, they said it was unconfirmed how much they sold for.

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Markus “Notch” Persson, the guy who created Minecraft, won the auction. Did you ever meet him?
No, never met him. But my children want to meet him. He’s like God.

How many kids do you have?
Two boys, eight and six. They make music, both of them. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of an artist called Mark Fell ”“ it’s avant-garde techno, not danceable. Someone said [my son’s music] sounds like a cross between that and Holly Herndon, who’s another experimental electronic artist. That’s really accurate, actually. He was five when he did it.

Has having kids affected the way you work?
You basically get a lot less time to do it. It affects your concentration ”“ that’s the worst thing. Kids fighting in the background, screaming in your ears. But it’s getting better now that they’re getting a bit older.

Tell me about the village where you live.
It’s near Glasgow. It’s a very close community. I love it, but you have to be stronger to live in the country, I think. You have to speak to everybody, and everybody knows your business. For someone like me, who’s a little bit autistic or something, it can be quite intense. The phone’s all right because you don’t get so much information, but when you’re face-to-face with someone, it’s an overload of information. I find it quite hard.

How do you get along with your neighbors?
Well, my next-door neighbor is a businessman. I think the first time I met him, when I moved there, I said, “Oh, that’s a nice flower in the garden, what’s that?” And he looked at me in this grim way, like, “What, can you smoke it or something?” Like, “Yeah, you’re just one of those fucking musicians on your drugs.”

What’s your home studio setup like?
I’ve got one, two, three, four … five and a half different studios. Different sounds, to get different results.

And you just wander between those rooms, making music?
Yeah, it’s quite erratic. There’s no structure. I really like it. I’ve got some electro-mechanical robots in one room and MIDI pipe organs in another room and a laptop setup in another room. There’s one room that I’ve got stacked full of records. The main one I’ve been using at the moment is a really big, massive room with a high ceiling. It has these towers in it, like a supercomputer from the Seventies. I can go inside my little Cray supercomputer in the day, and people don’t even know I’m in the room. You can kind of hide away in there. My wife will be calling me, “Rich!” My wife is next to me smiling as I’m saying that. She knows my secret.

I’m sorry, did you say you have robots in one room?
Yeah, I think there was some stuff on the internet that people found out about. This guy called God [Godfried-Willem Raes] made me some drum robots recently. I’ve been playing with those, and it’s totally fucking awesome, the best toy imaginable. They’re really good robots, and I’ve had a lot of problems with ones before that weren’t very good. Then there’s Disklavier computer-controlled pianos, MIDI pipe organs, stuff like that ”“ they’re real instruments, but they’re controlled by a computer.

Do you work mostly during the day or at night?
The best part is when everyone’s gone to bed, always. It’s a really good time of the day for creating stuff. Naturally I would stay up until about five in the morning, but when I’ve got to take my kids to school, I’ve got to go to bed early. It really sucks. At the moment, it’s holidays, so I’m fine. But it’s really fucking annoying. I really can’t stand it. That’s the only bad thing about having kids, I think, is that you’ve got to get up to get them to school. But I think I’m going to pay someone to do it soon.

Are you planning on releasing more new music soon?
I’m in that mode now, so hopefully I’ll stay in it for a while. I’ve got a few more things planned ”“ at least a couple more albums, some EPs, things like that. Some more dance-y things I did about 10 years ago. Experimental things, noise things, weird things. Shitloads of stuff. They’re all pretty much ready to go. I haven’t mastered them yet, but I should get that done pretty quick. It’s just trying to work out where to put it all and what to do with it, and nobody helps me. And all this time I’m spending now, I could be making new music, which is why I usually don’t end up doing it.

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Do you have instruments with you at the hotel right now?
Yeah, I’ve got this brand spanking new Swedish digital-analog hybrid drum machine-sampler-synthesizer. It’s fucking good. Pretty much everything I do has to be somehow related to making music ”“ when I came up to London to do press, I thought, “Oh, I can go on the train and make some music on the way up.” But then on the train, I didn’t have any power sockets to plug anything into, so that didn’t work out so good. I’m going to make sure that they have sockets in the one on the way back.

How did you like playing Glastonbury this year?
It was really cool, actually. I thought I’d never go back there again, but I went because my wife had never been before. I’m not so sure it’s a pleasurable experience, but it’s definitely an intense experience. I played a normal gig, and that was really good. Then I played an anonymous gig, and that was much better. I think there were about 10 people there dancing at first. After about five hours, it was all rammed and totally raging. Slowly attracted people in, like the pied piper. I felt like a proper DJ.

You’ve done quite a bit of DJing in the last few years, though.
Yeah, I love it. But doing it under Aphex, when everyone knows you, it’s always really good fun, but at the same time, it’s not really DJing. It’s better if you do it anonymously. If they know who you are, they give you the benefit of the doubt. They’ll just cheer even if you’re shit. Whereas if people don’t know you, you can’t get away with those little mistakes, and it’s much more enjoyable. I’m not going to do any more gigs as Aphex ”“ not for DJing, anyway.

None at all, ever?
No, no. I’ve just done it too many times. I mean, I might get weak if someone offers me a stupid money gig, maybe. But I like to think at the moment I won’t say yeah.

Do you think this is a good time for dance music, overall?
Oh, yeah, definitely. It’s taken people a long time to work these new tools out, and now it’s just now kind of like an acoustic guitar. We’re half-cyborg already, whether we like it or not. Everything is based on computers ”“ our whole economy, and most of our creative pursuits, as well. We’re not physically connected to them, but that doesn’t mean they’re not part of our brains.

Do you have a smartphone?
No, I don’t have any phones. They’re just not good for anything. They’re handy for loads of stuff, but I can’t think of anything that’s better because you’ve got them. I think there’s a risk of people becoming zombies with Facebook and social media. It’s really awful, that side of things.

Did you see Skrillex at Glastonbury?
Yeah, we arrived on the last note of Skrillex. We walked about an hour through that sticky mud to get there. We kind of forgot why we were going by the time we got there. But I don’t think I know his music well enough to comment on it. I don’t really know what’s going on in America. Are there many big electronic artists over there, now?

Yeah, there are tons.
The last few times I’ve been there, it was kind of like America was switched off for electronic music until further notice. Obviously raves have been going on in America, but nothing in the mainstream. Apparently that’s changed. Is it on the radio now?

Guys like Avicii, Calvin Harris and Zedd are all over the radio.
It’s a way in for people, isn’t it? That’s a start, the commercial things. And if you’re really into it, you can look further, investigate and find people like me [laughs].

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