Originally published in the July/August, 2001 issue of URB magazine.
Experimental music icons Autechre discuss death metal, trees, Miles Davis, BMX-biking and their obsessive fans on the IDM Internet mailing list.
Words: Daniel Chamberlin
“Autechre aren’t an easy band to get into.” Steve Beckett, a calm, middle-aged British man dressed in slacks and a comfortable-looking sweatshirt, is the co-owner of Warp Records, the landmark leftfield electronic label that counts Autechre among its roster. He’s sitting with me in the kitchen of his chalet at All Tomorrow’s Parties, a festival held at the Camber Sands resort compound on the south coast of England. He’s telling me how Sean Booth and Rob Brown, the faces behind one of the festival’s headlining acts, maintain their slavishly loyal audience in spite of releasing increasingly grating albums that they don’t really like to talk about. “They don’t put barriers up in their music, but because of the music they’re into, it has a lot of depth to it, a lot of layers to strip away…people have got to spend a bit of time and commit to them, and once they’ve done that, they’re committed long-term, I think,” he says.
Autechre have never been easy to get into, though it used to be a little easier. When the two Manchester, England natives signed to Warp in 1993, their melodic, rhythmically complex music wasn’t far removed from acid house and Detroit techno. But their first two LPs, Incunabula and Amber, were the first part of a trip that has passed through sickly-sweet contorted techno glide of Tri Repetae++ and Chiastic Slide, the chattering electro fractures and gibbering hip-hop samples of LP5 and EP7 to arrive at the daunting heap of elasticized compost that is their sixth LP, Confield. Along the way they’ve joined labelmate Richard James, better known as Aphex Twin, as reluctant figureheads of the self-evidently snooty genre of Intelligent Dance Music, elevated to the level of high avatars by the obsessive connoisseurs on the infamously bitchy IDM Internet mailing list (http://www.hyperreal.org/music/lists/idm/). Every bleep they make – their work with the collective Gescom; their Skam label; live minidisc bootlegs; remixes of Mike Ink, St, Etienne, Tortoise and Skinny Puppy – is immediately dissected by devout fans who present their IMHOs like geneticists unveiling chromosome maps at a Human Genome Project convention. As such an unavoidable point of reference, any contemporary artist producing choppy, psychedelic experimental electronic music – from Funkstorung to Phoenecia – has to proceed carefully to avoid Autechre’s aesthetic shadow. Their cult of personality thrives untended though, as they pay about as much attention to their audience as the bulk of the mainstream music world does to their multi-layered sonic sculpture.
It’s a sunny, cool Saturday afternoon in April and Brown and Booth have wandered away from the Camber Sands resort for the first of two interviews. Sitting amidst grass-covered sand dunes on the shore of the English Channel, we watch hopeless surfers wallow in the shallow, sandy water as kites drag three-wheeled carts across the wide expanse of beach. They struggle to keep a shared spliff burning while I struggle to record our conversation despite the gusting wind and drifting sand.
We start off by talking about hip-hop. Though the inspirational role of Kraftwerkian cousins like Egyptian Lover, Just Ice and Grandmaster Flash is their most frequent reference in interviews, Booth describes the underground sparkle of Slum Village as “well-fucking juicy” and asks if I’ve heard Kool Keith’s Matthew. “He hit so many nails on the head on that record,” he says. “It’s ridiculous, it’s fucking sick.
“I’ve still got a breaks mentality,” he continues, moving on to hip-hop’s powerful cultural presence and the lingual element of MCing that he thinks gives all hip-hop a distinctly American dialect.
“Hip-hop can suffer [for that], though,” says Brown. “Its communicable elements spread across the world, you get loads of imitations and as soon as there’s vocals involved with the imitations, it regionalizes it completely. Electronic music can sort of evade all that confusion.”
So there’s nothing to translate when it comes to Autechre?
“There’s nothing that travels with the music in terms of messages,” says Brown.
When I asked if they read the sea of interpretation on the IDM list, Booth asks if I’m joking. “I did for about two weeks, then after about two years I read it for another week. Every time I’d just get off. I just don’t understand.”
What’s missing from the translation?
“That’s the thing; we haven’t really got a subject, we’re just sort of doing it,” says Brown.
Though they’re reluctant to offer direct commentary on their new album, they’re happy to roll out asides about their creative process: A childhood interest in BMX biking that helped develop the real-time, equipment-manipulation dynamics of machine-music composition. The insider codes that song titles like “Dael,” “Sim Gishel,” “Cichli,” “Bronchus 2” share with graffiti tags. Above all of it though, their desire to avoid “pre-empting” any response to Autechre’s abstractions remains.
“Different kinds of liquid,” says Booth, offering a comparative description of their music.
“Growth subject to the environment,” says his collaborator. “Like a tree seems to be like an inside-out lung sticking out of the ground. They’ve all got a basic pattern to fulfill, but each one, every 10 yards, shows a different story of what exactly has happened at that locality. Whether the wind was stronger here or there, a bit less water in the soil. Like crystals growing, I suppose.”
Like rot, or mold?
“Rusty,” Brown corrects. “It’s just a meter of what’s happening over time.” While the sun remains high in the sky, the wind has turned cold and the sand-flecked gusts are slowing the conversation, so we adjourn for the day.
Though their sound invites comparisons to electro founders and musique concrète composers, Confield‘s torn-frequency bass cackles and snickering streaks of granular melody feel more like death metal to me. Early punk, like early hip-hop, was simple three-chord genius. Hardcore punk, like hardcore techno or jungle, was artless beauty hammering along at overdrive velocity. Death metal picked up the same tools, returned the prog-rock intricacy that punk had been fighting against but maintained the obnoxious, confrontational stance. Totally exhilarating for those on the inside, mostly inaccessible and alienating for everyone else. At this point in their career, Autechre are too complex to be the Sex Pistols. The raw, caustic intricacy of Slayer, or maybe Sonic Youth’s art-thrash though – that’s getting closer. “Autechre destroys NYC” is the title of a thread on the IDM list. The poster reports that his 87-minute DAT bootleg of Autechre’s May 4 Bowery Ballroom show is “death IDM at its best.”
“I think the most interesting work to come out of any academic institution is the stuff that tries to change the institution that created or fostered it,” says Booth, slumped up on a couch with Brown in their Camber Sands chalet living room. A spliff is passed around – the two smoke almost constantly during both interviews, either out of habit or from anxiety that results from leaving the seclusion of their remote East Anglia studio for the pressure-bubble of life on tour. With the basic skeleton of the interview secured on microcassette, our conversation roams free in search of some meat to hang off the bones.
Booth’s doing most of the talking today (making generous use of “fucking” as a descriptor), but the two longtime friends and collaborators seem to be of one mind when it comes to interacting with journalists. The artists they’re most interested in discussing are all controversial in one sense or another, whether it’s Eminem’s vice-grip control of his pop-music persona or Miles Davis and Karlheinz Stockhausen revamping the avant-garde.
“It’s fucking ace because it’s all on his own terms,” Booth says of the first white MC to duet with Sir Elton John and make the cover of The Source. “He’s going, ‘Yeah, I’ll just say this now. I’ll just do this MTV presentation. I’ll just do a record with my old mate.’ It’s all really very careful, quite like Beck in a way, but loads more aggressive.”
“He can rhyme anything,” says Brown. “That’s why he’s got so much leeway.”
Even though your music’s instrumental, do you think it’s controversial?
“We get confronted with people saying it is,” says Booth. That’s not what they intended though, falling back on the claim that they just make sounds that they want to hear, not sounds that are reacting against anything. At the same time, he supposes that Autechre’s music might seem like a threat to pop artists because “it’s got shit-loads more content.
“The opportunity is presented now to be able to take it in so many little directions, to be so personal about what you’re doing,” he continues, talking about the increasing accessibility of audio software. “There’s absolutely no reason why two bands should sound the same – you can do anything now.”
The evolution of music-creation technology is something that the two trace back to early 20th-century avant-garde composers like Stockhausen, Tod Dockstader, Gyorgy Ligeti and their efforts to return the electronic audio research of academic institutions to the population at large. “You don’t have to do 12 years studying technology to use this stuff,” Booth says. “Their whole point was to make stuff usable…
“Stockhausen…he was basically going, ‘Fuck off, everyone.’ The same way Erik Satie was, the same way loads of fucking top composers have been. It’s dissident as fuck, but that’s what creates the future. It’s the dissident element – it has to exist,” he says, gaining focused momentum. “No fucking structure’s worth anything without it.”
Mentioning Miles Davis provokes more enthusiasm. “He upset so many fucking people!” Booth exclaims. “All the jazz blokes are going, ‘Oh, fuck, this isn’t fucking right. He’s brought all this shit in and all this noise’…Bitches Brew, it just gets there all the time – it’s not like it had its moments. It’s just fucking something else completely.” Fried avant-rock bluesman Captain Beefheart is also a favorite: “Beefheart’s fucking techno,” he says, almost to himself, assembling another spliff. “He’s ridiculously good. He’s fuckin’ really good, he fuckin’ is.”
So while Autechre can seem exclusionary, and while label boss Beckett doesn’t hesitate to put them in the same category as influential minimalist composer Steve Reich, the two reserved artists see what they do (and computer-based music in general) as more in line with the populism of pre-RIAA, old-timey music.
“We used to set gear around the house in Manchester, just a few drum machines and bits of shit, bits of effects units and TVs, and just get fucked up and just sit around playing and then, we were saying then, ‘This is a bit like folk music, innit?'” says Booth.
Brown shows a small grin. “We would all cringe.”
“We’d be going, ‘Shit…it is a little bit,'” says Booth. “One of us would be sitting there going eeeeeyum, eeeeeyum with something, not having a purpose, just to play with it. I love that. It’s like the first time in ages, it’s almost a level playing field and a kid can come along and start doing music. It’s fucking brilliant. It’s totally what we wanted when we were in school. We would’ve killed for the opportunity to do the things we can now. It’s going to get really interesting…”
“…as people become more comfortable with it,” Brown finishes his thought, and with it, the interview. Autechre retreat to put the finishing touches on the live set they’ll be delivering in a few hours.
No lights. Even the bar has shut down. Just massive sound, dark towers of equipment and their two faces reflecting Powerbook radiation. During their 90-minute performance, I stand in the one empty area of packed venue, directly behind a post. As far as sound goes, ironically, it was the sweet spot, the best seat in the house. But the crowd – a rowdy lot of enthusiastically spazzy Britons – remained intent, like their brethren on the IDM list, on scrutinizing the unblinking visages of the two artists as they improvised their shuddering, dissident grind through the bass-filled blackness.