Serial Killer for Sounds: Aphex Twin on His Comeback and Cloning Tracks

The elusive producer is plotting his next move while you’re sleeping.

Illustration Gwendal Le Bec
September 23, 2014

This is an extended version of an interview for the magazine: ISSUE 94, October/November 2014.

Everyone’s got an Aphex Twin story. It might be a late-night reflection on how Selected Ambient Works rewired your brain, wide-eyed gossip about him living on the Elephant and Castle roundabout in south London (he doesn’t) or, if you’re Kanye, how you sampled him on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I have two stories that I’ve worn thin over the years. The first happened in 2000, when I saw a girl make fresh sense of “Windowlicker” on an empty dancefloor in Leeds. The elastic lines of her limbs and the way she moved in half and then double-time pulled the track into new territory for me. I thought about music’s relationship to the body differently after that. The second is from 2004, when I was working as a waitress in a café in east London’s Spitalfields Market by day and writing the odd gig review at night. It was in that restaurant one spring day that it happened: I served Aphex Twin a plate of sausages and mash. Or at least I think I did. As I approached his table to give him his change, he must have noticed the hungry glimmer of recognition in my eyes because he jumped up, hopped on a bike chained up outside and sped off. 

Fast forward 10 years, and it seems just as hard to believe that the notoriously elusive Richard D. James is caught up in the middle of two stacked days of promo for his new album, Syro, his first since 2001. Over the phone from London, he sounds just as surprised about his return to the spotlight as I am: “I don’t know what is going on, actually.” When it comes to making the music, however, he’s right at home. Syro sounds like Aphex at his most Aphex. He builds densely populated worlds, then joyfully dismantles them. He runs squelchy acid farts over some of the most beautiful ambient passages he’s ever created. He pulls beauty out of chaos, and vice versa. While he takes the music seriously, he can be playful and even goofy when it comes to presenting it, sending out mangled photos and gobbledygook press releases. “It would be way too boring,” he says, to do it any other way. 

Why did you decide to release a new album now? I’d stockpiled up so much stuff and had to draw a line under it somewhere. By banging something out, it’s like the end of the chapter. It properly draws a line under it and allows you to move on.

When did you record the music on SyroIt’s a bit of a range. I think the oldest one is maybe six or seven years old? There’s quite a lot of new ones on there, too. But I’ve hopefully got a lot more stuff coming out as well. It’s kind of kicked into gear now. [The plan is to] get it sorted and chuck out loads of stuff.

What are you exploring in your music at the moment? Loads of stuff, actually. I’ve just got a snare drum robot, which is really good. It’s like a snare drum on wheels, and it’s got 14 features on it. It’s totally mental: you can control the tuning while it’s playing, and you can just do whole tracks on it. It’s like a producer’s dream, really. You don’t have to get the drummer to keep repeating the same thing over and over until his arms fall off. 

How much does new technology drive you as an artist? Well, there’s always something. But I haven’t got so many new things, actually. I’m kind of more into old stuff. Things that have been forgotten about, that I’ve chucked in a cupboard and then brought back out 20 years later and then instantly done things with that I never did before [because I’ve] learned so much in the meantime. That’s a really nice buzz.

Do you keep everything? Pretty much. I’m a real hoarder.

I’m just imagining a “synth owned by Aphex Twin” item on eBay. You could make a killing. I’ve actually sold a few things by mistake. There was one synth that I’d scratched the album credits on the bottom of it, and I totally forgot. Then I sold it ‘cause I didn’t really like it. Whoever bought it realized, “Oh! This has got the album sleeve scratched in the bottom of it.” Someone was chuffing about it on the net going like, “Look!” I don’t think anyone believed it but yeah, it’s true.

"There’s actually better music now than ever, that’s ever existed before in my life."

Have you been plugged into what’s going on in music over the last few years? Yeah, totally. I buy ridiculous amounts of files. When I was buying records when I was a teen, you sometimes had to know someone in the shop, and they’d say, “Oh, when the shop closes you can come and listen to all the records.” I’ve done it a few times—spent all night in a record shop going through every record and going out with a big pile. [But now, with sites like Juno], you can just do that any day, any time you want, and for as long as you want, because you’ve got everything there to listen to. What I do is go through masses of stuff and then mark all the things that I potentially might want to buy and just leave those playlists on, so that maybe when I’m sleeping I’m going through them.

What's in your virtual shopping bag? Loads of stuff. I always go to that thing, "Listen to the last eight weeks of whatever." And it’s all those billions of genres, like Scouse house. There’s actually better music now than ever, that’s ever existed before in my life. It’s all kind of good listening stuff, stuff to play in the car [but there's] not so much kicking stuff out there. There is, but it’s always a bit light in those areas.

Does new music inspire you? Actually, yeah. I’m constantly blown away by what people do on just a computer. It’s not for me—I don’t really like using a laptop. I hate touch screens and things like that. I like twiddling with things, getting up and moving around a room rather than just being plugged into a computer. I do try using loads of modern tools and get pretty amazing results—they’re just getting so good now. But you can’t distort things on the computer; it’s all completely linear. In a mathematical way, distortion is unmodellable. That’s a massive gap in what [computers can] do, but it’s getting closer all the time.

Do you ever make sounds and save them for the right track? Yeah, I do, actually. I’m like a serial killer for sounds. I collect sounds from other records, and I have to know where they come from and how they’re made. I bought every old sampler in existence and all the sample libraries. It drives me a bit nuts if I can’t work out where people got things from. It’s like a detective thing as well: wanting to know what people used and how they did it. There are not many sounds you can’t work out, basically. Well, there’s not been many for me. 

You could have a parallel career as a sound detective. I’ve started doing clones of tracks, which I didn’t release any of yet but that’s something I’m quite into. You find all the sounds, you see, and then you can remake them, which is quite good fun. They’re real kind of like nerdy things.

What else happens in the day of the life of Aphex Twin? I’ve been going to loads of little festivals lately, like little hippy festivals with friends and family. Been doing that for laughs, and trying to recover after my birthday party last weekend.

Oh, happy birthday! What did you do? Thank you. Just had loads of mates around and did a three-day mix and everybody contributed to it. We didn’t record any of it actually but I think I’ll do it again and record it. I haven’t really slept properly after that; I’m still a bit wired.

Serial Killer for Sounds: Aphex Twin on His Comeback and Cloning Tracks