[Disclaimer: Take what you read with a grain of salt. This is a translation of a translation. Also, my Japanese is far from perfect. I used Google translate and other tools (in a careful, piecemeal fashion) to help when I didn't understand something. There are bound to be errors, and discrepancies from what was actually meant by Sean and Rob. I take responsibility for all of these mistakes and infelicities, and welcome corrections. There are also some shorter "side articles" in the publication about e.g. their equipment and use of MAX/MSP, which I will also translate and post later. - joseph]
Surveying the endless sound of Autechre.
Questions, text: Tsutomu Noda (野田努), with help from Takune Kobayashi (小林拓音)
Interpreter: Mariko Sakamoto (坂本麻里子)
In 1998 Autechre sharply broke from existing bits and sounds with LP5, an abstracted “first climax” whose CD nevertheless came in a purely black case. Embossed on the cover was only the artist name, while affixed to the front was a sticker reading “this album has no title”. It was a fitting expression of the Autechre attitude: Here is only sound. We’re indifferent to anything beyond that. We hope you listen with an open mind.
It is a similar story with the two new albums released in 2020. More precisely, the attitude is exactly the same, yet Autechre have transformed themselves many times over. At times deeply moving, the music reveals a new side of Autechre. This is how the adventurers of electronic music have operated for nearly 30 years. Amazing, yet just where are they coming from? Just how have they connected Mantronix to Stockhausen? We hope to introduce their background as they reflect on their work.
Autechre, a 45,000 character interview: From hip-hop and pirate radio to Stockhausen and rave.
There is no supplemental meaning, no nifty words of encouragement. But there is sound, only electronically generated sound. In Autechre’s music, there is an innocent fascination with electronic sound, but at the same time, a sense of exploring unknown territory in order to shock the intellect – as if to say that the realm of the “categorized” is not all there is. This can be the source of a certain discomfort while listening to their music. Yet in this deviation from familiar territory lies their music’s interest.
Their debut Incunabula was released in 1993 as part of Warp’s AI series. This series included names which were totally unknown in Japan at the time, such as (in order of real-time popularity) Polygon Window, F.U.S.E., Black Dog Productions, Speedy J, B12, and finally Autechre. While other artists’ rhythms were roughly house- and techno- derived (with the subtly electro-influenced exception of BDP), Autechre’s came more from electro and hip-hop; the mood of their music also felt different. It resembled the differences between Derrick May and Juan Atkins.
Yet their music escaped these “categorized” domains -- house, electro, ambient -- turning into something indescribable, eventually approaching the likes of Xenakis and Stockhausen. That’s the history of Autechre.
Personally, I started following Autechre with LP5, and became most attached to the strongly electro-colored EP7. I also focused on Amber, which had received rare praise from Derrick May. But I was most deeply interested in the first two I mentioned. Also exciting were the split release with Tortoise Adverse Camber / To Day Retreival and the 1999 Peel Session. It took me five years to finally “understand” their music, which allowed me to familiarize myself with their other works. It is hard to believe now, but although some younger people like COM.A were able to understand the greatness of Tri Repetae and Chiastic Slide, until1999 when DJ Fumiya Tanaka invited them to Japan, Autechre were mainly appreciated by people who looked down on clubs and raves.
In 2020 Autechre issued a proof-of-life with two new albums, which musically might best be described as “experimental”. While pointing out connections to modern classical music can create the illusion of greatness, and Stockhausen is well-known, for those who don’t know Mantronix or Latin Rascals, this article will be enlightening. Just who are Autechre?
45,000 characters; yet the tape sent to us by Mariko Sakamoto (坂本麻里子) contained 62,000 characters. It took 2 hours to respond to just 10 questions. Sakamoto wrote that “They’re very much Northerners, with a Mancunian seriousness about music, yet there’s also a side that’s just ‘having a laugh’…”. I first covered Autechre in 1994 with they visited Japan, and have met them several times since; they truly haven’t changed. I want to emphasize this: They speak with a level of frankness that I’ve seldom encountered, given their level of fame. They’re really just a couple of friendly Mancunians! I’ve edited this interview to reflect not only the content but the style of the exchange with Rob Brown and Sean Booth. In this interview, I hope the reader will see another side of Autechre beyond the “categorized”.
Starting with Graffiti
First of all, I’d like to know about your upbringing. Where did you spend your childhood? It’s often said that Autechre are from Rochdale, but Sean, weren’t you from nearby Middleton?
SB: Yeah, I was born in Rochdale, but I only lived there until I was 3. Then my parents moved to Middleton, where I was raised. So I think of myself as being from Middleton.
And Rob, on the internet it says that you were born in Devon?
RB: After I was born I lived in Devon for, I guess, a few months? So that means I’m from Devon. But most of my relatives were from Manchester, and my mother would visit there. She’d been working in Devon, but after I was born, we returned to Manchester. Rochdale and Middleton are really close, just a few miles apart.
SB: Middleton is basically a part of Manchester. It’s just outside the M60 motorway that surrounds Greater Manchester. Distance wise it’s about halfway between Manchester and Rochdale, but a bit closer to Manchester. My family lived in the part of Middleton closer to Rochdale, while Rob lived in the side of Rochdale closer to Middleton. So I could easily walk to Rob’s place. It took me less than 30 minutes.
SB: Even though it was close, that area was a little strange. Growing up in Middleton, I didn’t know anyone from Rochdale. You could always find whatever you needed in Manchester, and had no reason to go to Rochdale.
RB: Manchester had more big-city charm.
SB: We Middleton people didn’t really associate with people from Rochdale. I met Rob through a guy from Rochdale who I met on the bus. This guy found me and my Middleton friends doing graffiti on a bus. As it turns out, he was into graffiti too. We didn’t really hang out with other kids, and this was our first time taking the bus towards Rochdale. We always took the bus towards Manchester. There wasn’t much in Rochdale, it was a bit boring, sort of past its prime. Economically it wasn’t particularly blessed.
So I met Rob and about 10 other people at around the same time. First there was Jed, the guy I met on the bus. Later I met Dave. It was Dave who first said “You’ve gotta meet Sharkey”. Sharkey was Rob’s nickname at the time.
RB: 苦笑 (grimace/wry smile)
SB: So I met Rob through them. It was really random, a chance meeting. Basically if I hadn’t met Jed that day on the bus, me and Rob would probably never have met.
RB: Yeah. Then again, who knows. Even without Dave or Jed, the odds of us meeting at a record shop in Manchester would have been pretty high.
SB: For sure. Although I saw Rob even before we were properly introduced, in front of a supply store in Rochdale where we went to buy spray paint for tagging.
RB: Ah, right! [Name I didn’t decipher - joseph] art supply store.
SB: Yeah. Rob was wearing a grey Kangol hat, and I remember thinking, “who is this guy in front of the art supply store wearing a Kangol?” (wry smile) It was super funny.
RB: (self-deprecatingly) I was a big deal, wearing Kangol in the sticks of Rochdale.
SB: (wry smile).
ABBA! How could I forget them?
In previous articles, it’s been mentioned that in his teens Rob was introduced to Yellow by an uncle, and that Sean edited “Pink Panther” music tapes. Is there any music that you got into before electro and graffiti that you still like?
SB: I didn’t really buy records back then. In the electro scene, people mainly swapped tapes. So even when the electro wave hit in ’83-84, I didn’t buy records. Instead I airchecked music from the radio or had a friend’s tape dubbed. Before that I didn’t really buy records either. I remember liking Dog Eat Dog by Adam & the Ants. That’s probably the first 45 I bought.
(Smiling) Sorry, I’m laughing. It’s a good song, isn’t it?
SB: (smiling) No, I understand. That’s the kind of stuff a 10-year-old will go for, right?
SB: Actually I may have only been 9 when that came out. I bought two records that day. The other was Cars by Gary Numan.
SB: I’m just giving some references to help explain what I was feeling at that time. As for why I was interested in those things, I have no idea. Maybe it’s related to the fact that they both had a weird ending? Before that…I listened to the records my parents had. The Beatles. I didn’t really think The Beatles were all that great, but every now and then I’d think “that’s a great song”. I really loved Strawberry Fields Forever. Especially the way it ended with that modulated fade-out. For some reason, I’ve always been attracted to tracks with weird endings. Also, for a period, I was a bit – just a bit! -- into The Teardrop Explodes, along with the Police, the Stranglers. I also liked Blondie...I reckon among those, the one that caught my attention the most were the Police. They stood out because of their weird rhythms.
SB: There were other things too…like, my father was into Black Sabbath and other 70s rock, Thin Lizzy. I was vaguely interested in Black Sabbath. The track that had rain and church bell sounds in it.
(Smiling) You liked those sound effects.
SB: (wry smile) How’d you guess? Also, War Pigs [from Black Sabbath’s second album Paranoid]. That was great, I loved it. I got into all of this from seeing it on the telly. I’d see it on telly and think “Wow, this is great”, but that’s it. I’m Not In Love by 10CC was definitely the first music I remember hearing.
SB: Yeah. At first I was like “what’s this weird stuff”? It tricked my ears. I also remember I Feel Love (Donna Summers) well. My father played it often in the van. He also liked Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield, that sort of stuff. He also listened to Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds a lot. Listening to that album on Sundays with headphones was a great adventure for me then.
(Laughing) What about you, Rob?
RB: I was sort of similar. I was probably in a parallel world to Sean with The War of the Worlds, listening to it in a dreamlike state. When I went with my mom to her friends’ places, I’d hear older guys playing cool records all the time. Sometimes they’d babysit me, and they’d play music then, too. Before I bought my first record, I got some as Christmas presents. For example, the first Police record -- that’s definitely their best record. Also, Blondie’s Parallel Lines. ABBA’s Arrival was also big.
SB: (interrupting) Ah, ABBA! How could I forget them? They were huge when I was little. I was crazy about them when I was 5 or 6. They’re amazing.
RB: I got that one when I was 6 or 7. Some older friends who lived in public housing would play the Police all the time, so I got into them too. My mom was super into soul and funk as well, like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. I had The War of the Worlds. My first record player was the boxy type that opens like a suitcase. You’d load records and listen one by one. You could switch between 33, 45, and 78 speed. I remember (wry smile), and this is a bit weird, that my all-time favorite was Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf . It was a lovely record. The narrator was the most famous BBC newscaster at the time, Angela Rippon. She had a lovely English accent, but I was impatient and would play the record at 78 speed. I thought, “Wow, Peter and the Wolf sounds great at 78 rpm!”
SB: (smiling) What were you thinking, playing that at 78?
RB: (smiling) I’d also play it backwards. I also listened to Sinatra records in reverse. My mom lent me those. She had a Hi-Fi Hitachi record player , and didn’t want to play records with scratches that skipped. So she’d lend those to me. Anyways, I had my own record player and I’d listen to The Beatles…wait, actually those weren’t mine. I had the Police, ABBA’s Arrival…
SB: The best part about ABBA – everyone says it’s the songwriting, but really what made them great was their amazing voices.
SB: The pair of female voices was…really special. That was what really did it for me emotionally. Of course the songwriting was great, I don’t dispute that at all. But their voices were fucking awesome. Totally distinct.
RB: Those synchronized harmonies.
RB: I also received some records in secret from my uncle Derek. He was my mom’s youngest brother, just 5 years older than me. When he moved overseas he left behind a ton of records. This was just before electro blew up. I picked a bunch of records from his collection. Some of them were hard to get at that age, like some full-fledged 12” club mixes, but their importance grew with time. Later my favorite artists would use them as a source of breaks and samples.
RB: As a result I had a store of breaks and rare grooves that none of my friends could get. That spurred me on.
SB: Yeah. I got Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Hendrix records from my dad, but I didn’t like them as a kid. I didn’t even like the Stones at the time. I could understand Motorhead, but for some reason Hendrix was beyond me. Somehow it didn’t spark my interest. Once I got older I suddenly became interested. The same with Zeppelin. Like, some tracks had breakbeats. And I’d think “Have I really heard this before? When The Levee Breaks?” And so on.
SB: So I heard Zeppelin with a new level of appreciation. I got into their beats via hip-hop. Through hip-hop I was able to appreciate more of my dad’s record collection.
RB: As far as electronic music goes, I starting buying 7” records with my pocket money. These were usually products of pop culture. Chart hits like Cars by Gary Numan, which Sean already mentioned. I also liked Tears for Fears’ first single. Memories of driving with my friends in their family car at high speeds, playing that at high volume, are still burned in my head.
SB: Also Jean-Michel Jarre! Fuckin A!
RB: (smiling) Yeah, Jean-Michel Jarre. Equinoxe was on the radio, even the long version. Driving fast with that on, in the back seat, I’d think “This is so awesome! Why doesn’t my family do this?” Haha.
Mantronix: a momentous starting point.
What’s the biggest way that Mantronix influenced you?
RB: (exhales) Where to begin?
SB: I didn’t even know being a “producer” was a thing. Around 85-86, I got Mantronix’s album. It was appealing because everyone else was sort of ignoring electro and doing “hip-hop”, but he kept the electro. At least, it felt that way in England. So I loved that he kept those electro elements like synthesized drums and sounds, heavy use of synths, less sampling, with more Roland drum sounds than (Oberheim) DMX…he kept up that aspect of it. Anyways, my preference was for synthesized drum sounds instead of samples. Well, I also liked the DMX. Of course at that time 808 and 909 sounds were everywhere. I remember hearing Just Ice’s Put the Record Back On (1986) on the radio – the DJs were Lee Brown and Stu Allen. Actually, maybe it was Lee Brown and Mike Shaft? I don’t remember exactly, but the DJ said something like “this track was produced by Mantronik”. I had a moment there: “That Mantronix guy? He produced it? What does that mean??” That’s the moment when I suddenly became aware of the existence of “producers”. They’re “producing” something. In fact, they’re just “people who create music”.
SB: After that I’d get anything produced by him, checking the backs of record sleeves to see if he was credited. Because everything he did was amazing. For me Just-Ice’s Back to the Old School, was simply incredible. Hearing Cold Getting Dumb I remember thinking “Wow, this is the best, I’ve never heard anything like this”. He was peerless. And he kept putting out so many great, fresh tracks. It was possible for him to steadily put out these weird, fresh tracks, and for a good five-year period he was unrivaled.
RB: He did his own thing.
SB: There were others, too. Like Duke Bootee, his name was starting to pop up. Also Keith Leblanc. I’d check anything with his name on it. I loved how machinelike his drum sounds were. They hardly sounded like drums, they were so mechanical.
RB: He had this casual feel, like lightly plucking the bass.
SB: He was a ridiculous drum programmer. Of course, he was originally a talented drummer, and turned into a great drum programmer. His drum patters were fresh and truly different. Duke Bootee was also a terrific producer. His sound was always amazing. Man Parrish was also great.
SB: And there were others. Liggett and Barbosa, they produced Let The Music Play by Shannon and On The Upside by Xena, the first freestyle stuff. It was excellent. I reckon the biggest impact Mantronik had on me was in helping me discover what a producer was. Also, his music was hyper-detailed. He raised the bar, so other producers had to work harder. He hugely influenced a lot of people. At the time many producers tried very hard to achieve his sound, but they all failed.
SB: He had the craziest ideas for making tracks. For example, he had an 808, but he used it for sampling. That was totally weird – usually you wouldn’t use drum machines for sampling, but he did.
RB: He also messed with the pitch.
SB: Yeah. He’d subtly mess with the pitch on the snare and kick drums. Then others like Dynamix II would do the same. Herbie Love Bug(?? -- joseph) also copied Mantronik a bit. Imitators were everywhere. That intrigued me a bit too, how he was always ahead of the curve. I figured that to do that he must be a little weird. He wasn’t trying to get ahead of the others, he was just a bit weird and interested in somewhat different things. That put him one or two steps ahead of the rest. For me that was a huge inspiration.
RB: For sure. I’m sure he was the first. The Latin Rascals would do cutups, mixes, and edits with splicing, but Mantronix did that on his tracks too. One thing that blew my mind was how, somehow (smiling), he had this “time-traveling” feeling within a track. He would sample his own track, and then use that sample in the original track.
(smiling) Sounds complicated.
RB: (smiling) Of course, he was doing digital edits, but I didn’t know that then. He sort of didn’t reveal his hand. Not many people knew that he was using a Sequential Circuits Studio 440 workstation, which lets you do some really high-quality sampling. It also had a 196 ppq resolution sequencer(?). So, once he’d completed a track, he’d sample the whole thing and then overdub the sound. But to my ears, it was as if the very same track was being sampled inside itself. Those kinds of ideas made him like a wizard. Compared to that, the others were just run-of-the-mill hip-hoppers who liked to scratch. He built a reputation for wizardry [use of magic], which was totally deserved. For me…like Sean said earlier, he was a bit of an isolated, lone-wolf character, that kind of feeling. He was very fashionable, very sharp-looking. African descent. I think his Latin looks made him stand out a bit from a lot of producers? He was a great role-model for those admiring his tracks from afar.
SB: Also, he really overworked himself. I think around ’89 he was feeling burn-out syndrome. I remember reading in an interview that he was sleeping in the studio. He’d start working as soon as he woke up, and then eventually fall asleep again in the studio. Actually it reminded me of myself – I would completely immerse myself in making a mixtape. He made these cool edits of Omar Santana and Latin Rascals, that came out as B-side dub versions, which were awesome. Those edits were totally insane. Super detailed stuff you can’t do with a DAW, only with tape. Omar Santana did great edits too, which were very inspiring. I was also super into making pause-button mixtapes, basically trying to be like Omar Santana.
RB: We were both pretty hyperactive kids.
RB: When our new mutual friend Jed introduced me and Sean, he said “You two talk about music the same way. No one can stop you once you start talking. You’ve got to meet and talk to each other!” It turned out we were excited about the same things – Sean was the only person around who had that hyper-level of interest. I reckon Mantronix was the same? His tracks were like, full-on warfare? For me he was like a battle commander. Anyways, it was simply amazing.
SB: For sure. Mantronix had this battle mindset, absolutely. He was truly a “battle producer”. Mowing down all the others. If you listen to his stuff, you’ll hear that. But there were other good producers then, too. Marley Marl, he aimed in all directions with no mercy. But I reckon he’s a bit different -- like, he didn’t trick you? Mantronix would change directions mid-track. The tempo would suddenly change, say. The tracks had these sudden surprises. Whereas Marley was totally solid and reliable -- like a “mature” sort of producer? No one pushed the boundaries of the genre as much as he did. He was the first to start using breaks in a really interesting way. So Marley was a huge inspiration for the hip-hop that came after. But Mantronik was just super unique! No one came close to him. After a few years the momentum fell off. His philosophy of how to do things sort of vanished.
RB: We caught up, I guess.
SB: We saw this huge gap that he left. When we started making music in the late ‘80s, we felt that the journey wasn’t over yet.
SB: Hip-hip then was focused on breaks and cut-ups. In the long run, Marley’s style was more influential than Mantronik’s. But with Mantronik, there’s a certain…unfinished story there?
RB: He’s not the first name you hear in that world. But what Sean said is right. And there’s a few sitting between Marley and Mantronix that I love about as much.
SB: Yeah, like the Bomb Squad.
RB: He (Mantronik) captured my childhood. He was a bit more youthful than the others. When you’re a kid, don’t you try to grow up a bit? Unlike the others, he was kind of a Peter-Pan.
SB: One reason why Mantronix was appreciated in the UK more than other countries, was that he was involved in the “electronic soul” genre that was popular here at that time. Bands like Loose Ends and Deluxe. He was also involved with some very mellow synth pop. Mantronik was very influenced by synth pop, but since then in American it’s only Detroit techno that had that influence. For example, Juan Atkins definitely had that influence. You can tell just listening to his stuff. In a way Mantronik was closer to Detroit techno than to New York hip-hop.
RB: Yeah. So he was an outsider in a sense. But he won at his own game.
SB: For sure.
RB: That’s what’s so interesting.
DJing on Pirate Radio, Brushes with the Police
I’d like to ask about Pirate Radio. You were involved with that, from the late 80s to the early 90s. Sean made his Pirate Radio debut in 1988, and in 1991 Autechre did their first show on IBC (Illegal Broadcasting Company).
The Pirate Radio culture seems like very much a UK thing, and it didn’t exist in Japan. How did you get into it? And did you have any particular “achievements”?
SB: About the scene—basically, Jed, the guy I met on the bus, learned about it from another guy that he met on the bus.
RB: Jed, he was a catalyst for everything!
SB: Jed’s the kind of guy who’ll talk to anybody – that kind of personality. One time Jed was talking to this middle-aged guy on the bus. Well, actually he was probably about 30, but he seemed like he was approaching middle age. He was into soul music, and his name was Steve King. So Jed was talking to Steve…actually Steve started the conversation, I think. Jed was wearing hip-hop clothing. Steve said something like “Hey, know any good DJ’s?”, and Jed said “Of course. I’m friends with 2 or 3 of them.”
Hearing that, Steve said “Really? Wanna do a show on my station?” So it was a pretty random thing. Steve King was great, he reached out into so many things. We first appeared on his station in ’88. It was in a town called Bury, near Rochdale, broadcasting from the house of some guy who lived there. Bury’s one of those northern towns surrounding Manchester. I went to that house to record the show, but halfway through the police showed up—
RB: We got raided.
SB: Raided by the police.
RB: The decks were in the kitchen, which faced the backyard. The yard was connected to a big field, so I was able to escape, but I had to leave behind all the records I brought with me.
(Smiling) That’s tough.
RB: Yeah. They were all confiscated. The others were caught, but we ran away. That recording wasn’t exactly an audition or a demo, but it felt like a great honor.
SB: We were appearing as guest DJ’s.
RB: There were proper turntables, and we could play our own records.
SB: Right. We were asked, “Wanna do a show”, and were immediately like “Fuckin A, of course!”
SB: We didn’t exactly know what we were getting into. With the police showing up, Rob’s records getting lost, we thought “This is no joke, we’re not doing it again”.
SB: But Steve kept our numbers, and kept phoning us. In ’89 he asked us to come back, but we said “No, thanks”. But instead of a show, we did an interview. That was a bit weird, since at the time there was really no reason to interview us. We were just DJs.
RB: Definitely. But we were making making demo tapes as Autechre, right? Before we were just a couple of guys who were good on the decks, but a certain shift occurred.
SB: So he wanted us to do an interview on Homeboy JU JU’s live show – around ’90 or ‘91? I don’t remember the exact year. We went to the station and did it. Afterward Steve said he got a lot of phone calls about the interview. We had played 2 or 3 tracks after the interview. Steve said “Why don’t you come back and do another show? We thought you were good speakers too”.
RB: He said we were naturals.
SB: He said: “You’re good at DJing. Do you want your own show?” We were like “That sounds alright, hmm”. We were ambivalent. I was a little worried, since I didn’t have the money to keep buying so many records. So we approached the Manchester Underground record shop in Manchester. It was run by a guy named Kenny [or Kenney], who previously worked at a record shop called Spin Inn. I’d been going to Spin Inn since I was 12, sometimes buying records.
RB: Spin Inn was an import shop. It had hip-hop and soul music.
SB: Yeah. Kenny knew us, and he’d play our edited mixtapes in the store, and get feedback from people who listened. Anyways, I approached Kenny and asked, “We’re doing this pirate radio show. Could we come by once a week and borrow some records to play?” He said “Borrow the records, play them, and return them immediately after.”
SB: We did this top-ten thing on the program, where we played the ten most popular records at Manchester Underground. Yeah, we went to that store a lot. Borrowing a bunch of records to play on the show, and occasionally buying one or two. So at the same time we were gradually building our own collection.
RB: We went to a few other shops, too.
SB: The gap between our failed attempt in ’88 and the show we did two years later sort of allowed us to prepare, in a way? For example, we’d go to some random tower block (housing complex) in northern Manchester. Mark, who ran the pirate station, was set up to broadcast from any flat that someone had lent.
RB: Someone would lend the key to their flat.
SB: The renter of the flat would vacate, for legal reasons, and we’d come in. From there we’d have to transmit to the main room. We had a weak transmitter, so we transmitted to a different tower block, which had the main radio transmitter. We received signals back from the main tower using essentially a small, personal radio. Basically, the monitor in the studio was re-transmitting the broadcast to us, so if the police shut it down, we’d know immediately. You had to use the transmitter to signal to the broadcast network, but if you stopped the transmitter as soon as the police showed up, the link is broken. If that happens you could see at a glance, gather your things, and run down the stairs of the housing complex.
SB: We were in that situation many times, but never got caught. That’s what it was like, basically.
RB: (Smiling) Although one time, as we were running down the stairs, the police were running up a different staircase in the same building. We could hear each other’s footsteps. But we escaped since they were headed in the wrong direction.
SB: That was a close call. We were in a tight spot several times, but never got caught.
(Smiling) You guys were involved in some dangerous stuff, eh?
RB: (exhales, in a sense conveying, “yeah, what about it?”)
SB: In a sense, yes.
RB: But it was fun.
SB: Before that we were into graffiti, and this was kind of a promotion from that. I’d rather have been caught doing pirate radio than graffiti. The penalty was lighter.
SB: Pirate radio wasn’t penalized too harshly. My dad didn’t care too much about it, either. He knew what we were doing, and just said “Don’t get caught.”
RB: It was something creative, and I think our parents got that, like we just had to do it. We were a product of our circumstances, and what we wanted to do just couldn’t be done legally. We just had to do it.
SB: It was really hard to get tracks played on the radio. There were about two stations that would do play them – one was Sunset 102. Once our pirate show got a good reputation, we DJed a bit on the “Sunset” program. That was Manchester’s community radio station. Also, there were other pirate stations besides IBC.
RB: Bigger and more established stations.
SB: Right, whereas IBC was run by a couple of somewhat older people, who focused on soul music. By the way, Steve King still does a nostalgic 80s soul program in Manchester, on another station. He graduated from pirate radio. He’s a fantastic DJ, with a great soul record collection, and is a great source of knowledge about the history of the music we love.
RB: Ideally, we could have broadcast from our bedrooms.
SB: Mostly we broadcast from the homes of people we never saw or knew.
RB: If we could have broadcast from home, we could have been more creative with it, I reckon. Still, it was interesting and exciting, a formative experience for us. We also played our demo tapes.
SB: Honestly, that was the main motivation. (Sighs) We were writing tracks and made demos, but no labels showed any interest. The only way to get them out was to play them on our own show.
RB: We also used the broadcasts as a mastering tool. The transmitter that Sean mentioned had a compressor inside. Unless you had special equipment or could afford it, it was impossible to apply compression to a demo. So we’d record demos at home through the radio, since the compressor would be in use while on air. So it was also useful on a technical level, since the tracks were compressed and amplified really nicely through the radio. Pro-sounding.
SB: Do you remember, I think this was in ’91, when we first started using a compressor, and realized you can use it to hide bad mixing?
RB: (Smiling) Yeah.
SB: It would mess up the timing slightly when DJing, but it made things sound great.
RB: It always made things sound pro.
SB: So through pirate radio we learned some production techniques, too (wry smile). It was a good learning process.
Evolving into Autechre
Lego Feet still had B-Boy feel, in the design and the sound (scratching etc.). I think there’s some interest in how you evolved from that, and the 12” Cavity Job, to your debut on Warp, Incunabula.
Certainly Incunabula has some hip-hop sounding samples, but it’s really a different creature. It also stood out from the other Artificial Intelligence releases from the same time. I didn’t really know how to listen to it at first.
I remember that a lot of my hip-hop friends who weren’t into techno reacted positively to it. So there was definitely a hip-hop element, but already there was that “inimitable Autechre” quality to it.
SB: I reckon we have Warp to thank for that. Without their involvement we wouldn’t have released that album. When we first sent Warp a demo…I guess we sent them the first track in 1989 or 1990. I still have their rejection letter.
RB: I think that track appeared on our first 12”? Like you mentioned before, we put out a 12” just before signing with Warp. We sent that demo to Warp as well as a few other labels.
SB: At the time, Warp wasn’t ready to put out hardcore tracks. They were still putting out bleep techno. They were a bit late to release stuff with hard breakbeats.
SB: But we kept on sending them demos. They started to react positively around 1992. They reacted to one track out of a tape packed with 90 minutes of music: “This is good. Got any more like this?” That one, Crystel, appeared on the AI compilation. By the time it came out, it was already somewhat old. The tracks on Incunabula span roughly a two year period, since sent Warp everything. They’d pick like one track off an entire tape. It was a really slow process. Occasionally we’d hear back “Yeah, this one’s good”. Now I originally contacted Warp because they put out LFO’s Frequencies. We noticed that on that album there are a lot of slower tracks, so we did our own slower tracks and started sending them to Warp. Then their reaction was highly positive. I met them at their office, and they said “We want to put out a compilation of your tracks, the ones that are less club-oriented and more for home-listening, with broad influences”. We immediately understood what they meant.
SB: The B-side to our 12” (Cavity Job) was a slower track, for example. We were like, “oh, that’s what they’re after”. This was before ambient music really became popular. Of course, that kind of music was already around then, but we weren’t super into it. The Orb wasn’t bad, but our focus was elsewhere. We wanted to do something different…I’m not sure how to explain it but, perhaps, “techno to listen to at home”?
SB: At least, something you didn’t need to go out to listen to. Warp were into the same thing. They were like, “Lots of people are making this sort of thing, and we keep getting these tapes, but we don’t know what it is.” They’re the ones who coined the phrase “electronic listening music”. The AI compilation was their way of marketing all these artists with similar interests and identify what they were doing. So part of the compilation was licensed tacks: The Orb and Speedy J tracks would have been licensed from Plus 8 Records, I reckon. The Black Dog had been doing that kind of thing for a while – they had a club background, but occasionally made some tracks not aimed at the dancefloor. Probably Warp heard those tracks and thought they fit with what they wanted – “This track’s got a mellow vibe”, “I like that one”. So they were thinking, “This group of artists is doing this kind of thing, and what you’re doing is kind of close. We keep getting tracks that sound like this, so why don’t you guys go in that direction too”.
SB: I reckon that’s why it took so long to compile. At the time most of our tracks were more club-oriented, and Warp steered us away from that. You could say they pushed us to do that [less club-oriented] sort of music, but it wasn’t really like that.
RB: They knew we could do it.
SB: We made those kind of tracks anyway. It was just a matter of selection. Within a demo tape with ten tracks there’d be one like that, and it would go on Incunabula. So we’d describe Incunabula as a compilation album. We’ve always felt like we didn’t make it on our own. If we had selected the tracks ourselves, it would have been more high-energy, beat-oriented. Warp wanted a more atmospheric sound, so that’s what it ended up sounding like. We made Amber for that reason. We were still thinking about what Warp would want, so we made those kind of tracks. Amber came right after Incunabula, when we understood what they were looking for. So those first two albums were guided by Warp. On the first one they chose very selectively from our tracks, and on the second one we were consciously thinking about what they’d like when making the tracks. We didn’t make many tracks that deviated from that path. We made a few, but they’d end up on singles or in live sets.
RB: But it was interesting, how we cooperated with Warp…They had a definite sound they were looking for, but we perhaps understood it better than they did (smiling). We educated them. They were doing four-on-the-floor stuff, but we’d already gone beyond that. Our tracks were more syncopated and polyrhythmic. That perplexed them a bit, but we said “No, you’ve gotta try this!” They were listening to Cybersonik and B12, who were still doing four-to-the-floor stuff. We wanted to do something a bit different. We searched for that kind of sound on Crystel – there are tempo changes, lots of syncopation, beats that are more hip-hop. We knew we could explore that even more, but…right, Crystel appeared on AI, sort of bridging the gap between Lego Feet and Autechre? Like Sean said, Incunabula took forever to compile, with Warp selecting from the tracks we thought they’d like. But even more than them, we understood what they were looking for (smiling).
SB: (wry smile) We kept telling them to sign Aphex Twin, right? That was around ’92.
SB: We kept saying, “You absolutely have to sign Aphex”.
RB: Yeah, yeah.
SB: I mean, he was probably the best producer in the UK at the time – for us, the best UK producer besides LFO. So we insisted that they sign him. Eventually they did. At that time we were thinking a bit about how to position ourselves. Well no, we knew what to do. We knew of others with similar tastes to us, but we didn’t know them personally. One time we had an exchange with Grant and Claire from Rephlex – I think this was before Incunabula. We sent them a demo.
Back then it was kind of hard to find people on the same wavelength. For example Mark Pritchard and Tom Middleton were in London at the time, and we tried to get Warp to sign them, but it didn’t happen.
RB: There was also Beaumont Hannant, on GPR, right? We recommended that Warp sign him as well.
SB: So, there were several of these people who we knew, but we weren’t properly connected to any of them. I think Warp was wise to tie these scattered artists together into a scene of sorts.
Although, it really wasn’t a scene. It was just a bunch of bedroom producers doing their thing without knowing each other. So even though Aphex and Black Dog were putting out a lot of stuff, it didn’t feel like a scene.
Actually I reckon Kirk Degiorgio was the first to recognize this trend. Before Warp, he put out “The Philosophy of Sound and Machine” compilation. I think Warp heard that and thought, “This. This is what we should do”. I think AI was strongly influenced by Kirk’s compilation. Probably Kirk was the first to pick up on this vein of music.
Anyways, like I said, these people didn’t really know about us. Of course, they did a bit. For example, Rob Michel(?) took one of our demos to Aphex’s place and played it, and I know Grant and Claire from Rephlex heard some of our stuff. I also heard that somebody in the Black Dog knew of us? Richard did a lot of gigs, and knew us through that, but we didn’t know any of the others.
LFO was a catalyst for all of us. Frequencies has a few four-to-the-floor tracks, but most of them are not like that. There are a lot of irregular hip-hop-like beats, and Kraftwerk-inspired stuff. They opened the door wide open. Also, some tracks from Orbital’s first couple of albums don’t have the punch to play on a dancefloor. These tracks made you feel it was OK to do that sort of thing.
SB: We came with a harder, more hip-hop angle. It was Warp that pushed us to do more atmospheric stuff.
Listening to Stockhausen with AFX
At this time did you already have some knowledge of experimental composers like Stockhausen, Xenakis, and Varèse?
RB: No, not at first.
SB: No. We first heard Stockhausen sometimes in the late 90s. I think it was Aphex who first played it for us – why, I don’t know.
SB: Richard played “Gesang Der Junglinge” at this girl Nehimas’ (???) flat where we were staying in New York. We were all relaxed and smoked up. While listening I thought, “This sound is pretty interesting. It’s not so far from what we’re doing.” Maybe that’s why Richard played it for us. Basically what he meant was, “Listen to this. You thought you were futuristic…”
RB: “Enough already.” Haha!
SB: (Smiling) Like, “Wait till you hear this.” Those tracks are super old, from like the 60s. (Wry smile). We were like, “Really?”
RB: (smiling) Yeah.
SB: So yeah, I reckon it that was it. At that time I didn’t know anything about that kind of music. That was in 97, maybe? It might have been ’98.
RB: It was definitely around that time.
SB: Yeah. Until then I knew nothing about it, but I got into Tod Dockstader a while before. I heard Jez Potter (?) playing it. We went somewhere in Sheffield to do a gig, and Jez – he’s a guy who’d made some tracks with Mark Fell before. In fact, we met Mark Fell through him. Anyways, I knew Dockstader because he played it there around 94. But I didn’t know Stockhausen. But I had heard some, because my friend Danny played it for me around 92 or 93. But I didn’t like it at all. I thought it was directionless shite, and had no interest. It didn’t resonate with me – the sound, the sequencing, I didn’t like any of it. But later, maybe because I was older, I was able to appreciate it. It took me a while to start to understand that sort of music. It’s weird, I wish I was influenced by Stockhausen, ‘coz I think he was a genius. But I really wasn’t. At least, I don’t think so…We got into sound manipulation in a roundabout way, through hip-hop, and dub, which came before. Actually I think hip-hop was influenced by dub. Dub also has lots of tape manipulation and effects, with people making their own EQ circuits, filters, and so on. They came at it from a rather different angle than Stockhausen. That was what influenced us. Even when listening to Dockstader, I’d think, “This sounds like dub, or a tape edit”. I completely related to it.
SB: Maybe I could only interpret it that way. I didn’t know that kind of music at all, so I thought “Clearly this came before dub.” I reckon they were the first to bring these technologies together? In the 50s and 60s, you needed a good reason to use a tape machine, since they were pretty expensive. Once they became more inexpensive in the 60s and 70s, that’s when dub got going. Basically it was hip-hop and dub that got me into sound manipulation, and not at all the more academic music, as it were. Although I don’t think Dockstader is really an academic type. He’s pretty far from academia, actually. But for sure, he was in a position to use a lot of equipment to make music. He started off making sound effects for animated TV shows. He was really as much of an outsider as we are.
RB: He was even more proletariat, since he worked at a factory [i.e., for the film industry].
SB: Basically, yeah. I bet he heard Stockhausen and though “Wait, this sounds like what I do. So I should be able to release my own stuff!” That’s how he got started, I think, but he didn’t have formal training in that kind of thing. Even though Musique concrete already existed, he wasn’t especially interested in it, I think. He was more interested in taking his own path.
RB: We feel that way is more interesting, yeah?
SB: Anyways, he felt like an outsider. If someone starts from “Well, I know how to use a tape machine, why not try making music with it?”, then their results are likely to be more interesting.
SB: In my personal opinion, he was better than Stockhausen.
Nerds, Hip-hop, Academism
When using the term “Contemporary classical music” (現代音楽, e.g. musique concrete),there’s a risk of sounding elitist, or snobbish. Yet Autechre values certain hip-hop and dance music (which classically inclined listeners might not like) just as highly.
SB: Snobbishness exists. Or, I’d say there’s a kind of snobbishness. But it works on several levels. I don’t think something is great because of the equipment someone uses, or their qualifications. I care about what they’re actually making. Many innovations came from hip-hop in the 80s. It was quite a revolutionary genre, but it got swept under the rug, a bit. “It’s undeveloped, the technology is uninteresting”, that kind of thinking comes from the academic side, I think.
SB: But I don’t see it that way at all. King Tubby, say, was totally revolutionary, but he was somehow viewed through the lens of his cultural context. So people forget that he was a total nerd!
SB: People forget that black American guys can be nerds too.
A sort of stereotype.
SB: Right. Like, the producers I mentioned earlier – or even someone like Madlib now, most hip-hop producers – if you talk to them you’ll see they’re quite otaku, you know?
SB: Nerds, basically. It’s the same everywhere, from Stockhausen to Madlib – they’re all nerds! Juan Atkins is a total nerd, too. I identify with that deeply on a very personal level. Like, “of course they’re nerds”. I think, in a way, the distinction between academic music and hip-hop is a bit artificial. Hip-hop could become more academic, there’s just not a framework for doing that; only hip-hop people know that it can be done. It’s like graffiti. Lots of graffiti artists do it because they want to be recognized by others. There’s this aspect of wanting to be esteemed, and it creates a sort of elitism within the graffiti world. Like when there’s someone who, everyone within a given scene agrees “this guy has insane skills”.
SB: It’s a world that’s hidden from the average person. The general public doesn’t notice it, because they’re not watching closely enough. You know? It’s like they’re not looking in the right direction anymore, and care more about context and culture. Those things aren’t important for us.
RB: It’s harder to see something from the outside when it’s tightly embedded in a certain culture. People are performing more for their peers in the group.
SB: That’s right.
RB: Some people aren’t particularly willing to reach out, so have no way of knowing what’s happening on the inside.
SB: You know, academic types are relentlessly competitive, right? Ultimately what they’re doing is competing. And hip-hop is the same – they’re super competitive. Everyone’s trying to make the best shit, learn the best tricks and techniques. If you really dig in, you find that hip-hop is a rather academic-like discipline. I’m undaunted by that aspect, I don’t mind it at all. I think that’s what makes exciting things happen in music. It’s how people keep on pushing the boundaries.
Works that sell differently in different countries (start of part 2)
By now Amber is legendary, but at the time, I recall that Autechre wasn’t selling in Japan at all. After that you continued the attack with Tri Repetae. Where did your motivation, passion, come from?
RB: Warp truly gave us a lot of creative freedom. Maybe they wished we’d sell more records? But regardless, they always made us feel like we were “doing the right thing.”
SB: Initially Sony put out our stuff in Japan, and maybe Sony didn’t know how to handle us.
RB: Yeah, could be.
SB: Like “What’s this?” They were a bit confused by us.
RB: Maybe Sony were thinking about how Incunabula and Basscadet Mixes topped the indie charts in the UK, but I think that was a fluke. They weren’t guaranteed to sell well. Still, Sony licensed all the Warp artists, the same with American labels. In America Sire licensed a few, placing their bets.
SB: Tri Repetae did quite well in America; not so much in Japan. It did well in the UK.
RB: The label expected it would do well [in Japan], but the reality was different.
SB: It’s weird. For example in England Chiastic Slide was a misfire. It wasn’t even sold in the USA, coz Wax Trax!, who licensed us in America, was acquired by TVT, and TVT didn’t pay Warp.
RB: It was a big archive label, with no interest in that sort of thing. (Wry smile).
SB: Warp didn’t get a penny.
SB: TVT defaulted on their contract. So for a while we didn’t put anything out in America. Then Trent Reznor’s label Nothing welcomed us, and waited to put out LP5. He took a chance on us. At the time we were looking for a Japanese label for different reasons. At the time Warp artists were all signed with various Japanese labels. For us it was Sony, for Aphex it was Sire.
In Japan, Warner Music released via Sire.
RB: Ah, Warner.
SB: He [Aphex] did better than we did in Japan, and I think Warp thought, “Hmm”. So we met with Ray (Hahn (?), who ran Beat Records); we’d worked with him on a gig before.
RB: An independent event.
SB: In a certain period we’d get such random offers. Like once, we were asked to support The Grid. That was such a weird offer. We were like, why?? Actually The Black Dog was supposed to support them originally, but they couldn’t do it for some reason, and we were asked as substitutes. So for that reason we went to Japan, and met Ray. We thought he understood us better than Sony did.
RB: We hung out with him in Japan. We’d listened to similar music in the 80s.
SB: So we liked him, and we gave him a chance to release our stuff in Japan. That’s when it actually started to sell. Although it’s hard to say whether that was thanks to Ray, or because Japan started understanding us better, or if our style at that time was somehow more “compatible” with Japanese listeners.
We might consider the period from Chiastic Slide to LP5, Peel Session and EP7 as your “second phase”. I suppose your equipment changed quite a lot? From this period on, the times caught up with what Autechre was doing somewhat – in Japan your fans increased, at least that is my impression.
SB: Ah. Now we feel really welcome in Japan. The first time we came, I thought, “Why are we here?” It was strange (wry smile).
RB: We were introduced to the higher ups at Sony as this newly signed act, we received various gifts, there was a dinner party – the luxury was very impressive, but I thought “this won’t last long.” (Wry smile).
SB: (wry smile)
RB: Sooner or later, they’d notice that our stuff wasn’t selling as expected.
SB: But once we got this offer to come to Japan, remember? It was from Steve Bicknell, who ran the “LOST” club night in London. He invited us to do a gig with Fumiya Tanaka. That was probably the first time we played to a decent-sized audience who were really into the music. It was a kind of turning point for us in Japan, that gig with Fumiya.
RB: That was a huge party, a large-scale gig. Quite interesting.
SB: Yeah. Seeing that we thought, “OK, things are happening in Japan. Maybe we can do something here.”
RB: Also, it was an independent event, which was astonishing. They were independent clubbers coming from the East London warehouse scene. They knew audiences would throng to see live performances from Jeff Mills or Claude Young at LOST, and they wondered how to do it in Japan. So basically Steve and Sheree brought the whole family over and hung out together and played, giving a snapshot of the underground and showing how far it’d come.
SB: Yeah, right. (Sighing and hesitating somewhat) The situation in Japan has changed a bit. Sometimes I get the impression about Japan, and this could be my own misunderstanding, that when we put out something controversial on our home of England, it’s better received in Japan. Like Confield, for example.
(Smiling) I see.
SB: In Japan, people like us…not like we’re weird artists or something, but people seem to want us to be ourselves. Like it’s good to be as you are. In the west, if you do that you get a “stop trying to express yourself, you weirdos!” reaction, a bit.
The Autechre philosophy
You just mentioned Confield; in the 2000s, Autechre’s music got even more complex. Gantz Graf, Draft 7.30, and Untilted followed. In interviews at the time I remember you saying something along the lines of, “resisting what is comfortable”. I guess this is part of the “philosophy” of Autechre.
SB: It’s my nature. Usually after I deliver a new album, I have an urge to look around and check on what sort of music is out there. And I listen to loads, until I get sick of it.
SB: Usually when I do that, I listen until I feel like, “OK, I get the point of this track, it’s not doing much else.” You can find a common thread in the music that most people make. That’s…I don’t want to say trend, but perhaps an implicit trend, where people are doing things in similar ways. Hearing enough of that, I get bored. I end up thinking, “this is not what I’m looking for”. Everyone’s doing this, and I’m sick of it. So I get an urge to make something that is not “this”, and do it. It’s not really intentional. I don’t set out to make something different. I just get saturated with whatever I’m hearing, and I think,
“I’d like to hear something different”. I want to do something a bit different, is all.
We don’t have a doctrine that we have to stand out from everyone, or never conform. We’re just like that. What else can I say? I’ve been trying to figure it out myself. I used to think I had a personality that wanted to do something just because it was different. But I realized that’s not the case. I really enjoy a lot of the music that other people make. Probably, the problem is that I’m so obsessive. I listen to stuff obsessively, and get absorbed in it, until I feel like I don’t want to hear it anymore.
RB: Listening exhaustion.
SB: Yeah. Listening until I get exhausted, exactly. So I think “I want to hear something else”, and as a result, I end up making that something that didn’t exist before. If there’s a trend, everyone moves in that direction, which means that conversely there are regions where there’s nobody. That’s where I tend to lean toward.
SB: It’s not really intentional. It comes from boredom.
RB: There are “philosophical” things below the surface, but they don’t matter much. From the beginning, we did things that we thought were unique.
SB: That goes back to Lego Feet. Back then everyone went and bought an Akai sampler, and used Cubase. But we were still messing with drum machines and a 303. When was that, the start of the 90s? That equipment was already considered a bit out-of-date.
SB: But we thought, “No, there’s still so much you can do with this.” That was the time of the “second wave” of electro. But when we did Lego Feet, that wasn’t really the new sound in the UK. The new sound, so to speak, was getting an Akai sampler, using Cubase, and sampling breakbeats.
RB: For sure.
SB: But we…and this is the influence of Mantronik, perhaps – we always felt there was a sort of gap. There was no one else doing what we were doing, so there was a gap there. We started from that.
RB: Right. That being said, we weren’t under the illusion that we were doing such incredible things. We just had a 606. A lot of those records I got from my uncle, which I mentioned before, were 12” singles, from soul bands that were using the 606. So we got the 606 almost 15 years late, which was pretty embarrassing in terms of equipment.
RB: But, we had this strange, rebellious attitude. Like Sean was saying, our attitude was, “We will do more with this equipment than anyone else has.” Like, we can win a kind of game by using the same ordinary equipment that everyone uses. What matters is the person using it. On stage we’d use an Ensoniq keyboard, Juno-106, and an R-8. It wasn’t super new or exotic, nor was it very old. Basically, it was stuff anyone could go and buy.
SB: Another thing is, in a way, we make music for each other to enjoy. It’s almost impossible for us to make music for people we’ve never met without making certain compromises. You can’t do it without thinking, what does everyone want to hear? That sort of base-level generalizing.
RB: “This wouldn’t work”, that kind of assumption.
SB: Yeah. But I make tracks for Rob. If he likes a track, and I do too, we reckon some other people will too, and that settles it. I also make music for friends and people I know well, but it’s basically impossible for me to make tracks for a general audience. I don’t know if this is our own peculiarity, but when me and Rob get bored with something, then I make something that I like instead. I send it to Rob, and if he likes it too, it’ll likely get released.
You know, we could just crank out Drum-and-Bass EPs. I don’t think that’s very interesting, though…that kind of music already exists, and some of it is really good, too. We’re not trying to compete with anyone, that’s not what we do. We make stuff we haven’t heard, can’t go and buy. If we didn’t do that, why bother making music? Discovering something is more important than catching up with something. I don’t consider myself an inventor. I’m more of an explorer.
The relation between SIGN and PLUS
Compared to your other recent works, SIGN has many more melodious tracks, with more subdued beats. In the 00’s I feel like you pruned off the easy-to-understand melodies and beats, pursuing complexity and abstraction. But in the 2010’s, you’ve relaxed this “constraint” somewhat, until this latest release which leaves an impression of being completely free of it. Do you approve of this view?
RB: I think we’re making tracks that seem simple and easy-to-understand on first listen. But actually there is as much care put into it as in all our records, including the “complex” ones you mentioned before. The production is rather complicated, but it doesn’t give the listener the impression of being hard to listen to. I think we’ve balanced those things quite well. At least, there’s not a big hurdle to clear when you first listen.
SB: For me, SIGN was a bit of a detour. It kind of happened unexpectedly. There was a 6-month period where I produced loads of material. Then me and Rob shared the material we’d been working on. We were working separately a lot, but there were places where we worked together, too. We put together the rig in the System together. That was a collaboration.
RB: We each didn’t know how the other had progressed.
SB: Right, we didn’t listen to each other’s music. I didn’t know what his stuff sounded like at all. I just knew what technology he was using. Then, when shared sounds with each other again…we noticed something. About a quarter of what I did fit with about half of what Rob had done, and that became SIGN. So SIGN came about from us finding a common thread in what we were doing. On the other hand, PLUS…after compiling SIGN, we had a group of tracks left over. They were different from what went on SIGN. But I don’t want to say that PLUS consists of “leftovers”. You could say it’s tracks that leaked out from SIGN, but that’s not really right, you know?
RB: Anyway, it’s not like that (wry smile).
SB: It’s a different thing. Tracks that didn’t fit in SIGN. SIGN has a clear aesthetic, and tracks that didn’t fit with it were missing. So they’re different in various ways. So in a way, SIGN arose unpredictably, and PLUS…was also unpredictable, I guess.
SB: (wry smile) An unpredictable result of the creation of SIGN. So they both sort of came about by chance. The weird thing is that the COVID-19 outbreak began as we were compiling SIGN. We felt like the album would be good for listening while stuck at home; it’s not really meant for a club; but it should go well with people listening at home.
SB: That settled it. We didn’t agonize over it beyond that. We felt it was absolutely right to put it out, so we committed to releasing it.
Today’s rave scene is too fashionable…
How do you perceive the “rave revival”? In England, government restrictions are especially tight because of COVID.
RB: It’s not really rave, not the real thing.
SB: It’s not a rave revival.
Because it’s different from the past?
SB: Yeah. A different thing. Rave nowadays, is whatever the club kids are doing.
RB: Kids with nowhere to go.
SB: It’s done by bored kids with nothing to do. Rave wasn’t like that; it was pretty much the exact opposite. It was done by people who were totally fed up with the UK club culture. They did it as an alternative to the clubs. So “rave” nowadays is basically the opposite of what it was?
Got it. I just thought of Anti EP. That was a response to the Criminal Justice Bill. I was just wondering, maybe you guys could do something like that again?
RB: If you look at pictures, you might think the current rave scene looks similar to how it was before…[I didn’t understand this – joseph]
SB: (in a slightly miffed manner) Nah, we don’t even think about jumping on this or that movement! That was something we did totally on our own, and has nothing to do with this. The people who go to raves now, a lot of them…You can tell from pictures: the girls are wearing party dresses and heels, the guys are also dressed sharply. You see? The actual rave scene wasn’t like that at all. People weren’t dressed fashionably. The attitude was, let’s get as dirty and sweaty as possible.
RB: People were unconcerned about how they looked.
SB: It was really different from, “Let’s dress up and head to the club.” Throughout the 80s, club culture in the UK was about going out, finding a girl to dance with and hook up with. That’s it. That was the purpose of clubbing. Raving was the beginning of the end of that culture. It didn’t last long. It its pure form, before the alcohol industry swallowed it up, it lasted for about 4 years. Once the “super-clubs” opened, rave was facing its end. That marked the ending.
That’s sad, isn’t it.
SB: Yeah…But, I don’t mean to mourn the death of rave either. It’s a lot like punk, how it burned brightly for such a short time. Very DIY. Even though the big club industry was encouraging it, people did what they wanted. There used to be this TV show “The Hitman and Her”, which took place in a nightclub. For me in 1988, no other show made me blush more from embarrassment. It was complete shit.
SB: I thought, “This needs to end right away”. The whole culture of dancing in trendy clothing to shit music.
SB: It really gave you a “dead” feeling. It took a while for that program to get the spirit of rave. One time it was shot at “Eclipse” in Coventry – more of a “rave” club. That one is really … (wry smile) really good. If you want to smile I recommend checking it out online. It’s brilliant, seeing someone like Pete Waterman mixing with all those full-on clubbers. Those clubbers are what we think of today, kids using ecstasy and speed, drenched in sweat. What’s funny is Pete Waterman is really sweaty throughout the show, and he doesn’t seem to know where he is. He looks a bit worse for wear.
RB: At the time clubs had been losing their importance. Rave was important in bringing them back.
SB: Seeing that, you realize there’s a bit of a culture gap – between older people who ran club nights in the 80s after disco, and the younger movement which was a bit dingier, more DIY, more punk. There could be a parallel with kids who defy lockdown orders with raves nowadays – simply because there’s nowhere else to go, with clubs shut down (due to COVID). They’re recreating the club nights they know in fields and forests. But what we did was different. We created something different. It was an alternative to what “club night” meant in the UK then, and alternative to “head to the cattle market, where there’s a lot of women, find one you like, flirt with her”. In our experience, raving wasn’t about getting closer to the opposite sex. The point was always music, and maybe some ecstasy. Feeling “one love”, meeting random people and becoming friends.
Well, I’m sure that aspect still exists now, but it’s different from how it used to be. One reason is the drugs. Now, I don’t want to concentrate on drugs, and for me they are not the goal. But in the old raves, you had ecstasy, speed, acid. Nowadays it’s mostly alcohol and cocaine. Also, some nitrate [nitrous oxide?]. Some kids do ketamine, and some do E, but generally it’s a different scene. Alcohol and cocaine are big, it’s more glamorous, the make-up and hair are perfect, the clothing is slick. That wasn’t the point of raving at all. It’s completely unrelated.
RB: It didn’t matter where you were, you could do it in the back of your house. That was the spirit of raves and free parties. If you took pictures of those events, and compared them with pictures of today’s raves under a microscope, you’d find a totally different crowd. A different type society before your eyes.
SB: Although in a way it’s unfair to compare them. They’re separated by 30 years of time.
SB: A lot has changed; it’s a new generation. They don’t have to have the exact same values. They may see no grounds for rejecting club culture. If it works for them, why reject it?
That’s how it became mainstream.
SB: Right. The stuff I mentioned is what you get in a more mainstream setting, as you can see from the trash left behind after a rave nowadays. I think now they generate a lot more waste, and don’t see it as a problem. It’s not the amount, but the nature of it that I notice. It’s empty cans and bottles, red plastic cups for alcohol, that’s it. You didn’t see that in the older raves. Maybe some cola cans, that’s it. Everybody drank water, not alcohol.
Which Autechre album would you gift to a 15-year-old?
If you had to give one of your albums as a gift to a friend’s 15-year-old kid, besides the new ones, which would you pick?
RB: I have lots of friends with kids that age. Actually, they poke fun at me a lot. They like some of it, but at the same time, they don’t understand.
SB: Maybe Confield?
RB: You think?
SB: Definitely, no hesitation.
SB: Yeah, they probably wouldn’t like it.
RB: No, there’s a better way – let them choose. Like, (singing as in a commercial) I believe in the children of the future! It’d be good to let them pick for themselves.
SB: Pick for themselves?
RB: Kids are smarter than people think.
SB: This is bad, we haven’t answered the question!
(smiling) Pretend you’re picking a Christmas present.
RB: Maybe the oldest and the newest releases, then. At least, that’s the simplest answer!
SB: Incunabula and SIGN, really?
RB: Yeah. Simply because they’re the oldest and the newest. Not because of the sound.
SB: If you want the first then it’d be Lego Feet.
RB: Well, sure. But then I’d pick the Warp Tapes.
SB: Warp Tapes or Lego Feet. I’d probably pick Lego Feet. Yeah, that’d be good…No, honestly I would give Confield. Definitely. Coz they’d think, “What the hell is this?”
That might be quite a shock for a 15 year old.
SB: Right, but really, it’s pretty old by now. I still think it’s a weird album, but maybe by now it’s not so weird?
SB: Nowadays you have people like SOPHIE and Arca, so maybe people won’t think Confield is so weird anymore. People are aware of all these options.
RB: When Sean said “Confield”, I was thinking, “That came out when a 15 year-old today would’ve been born”, but that’s not right. That would be Untilted. Maybe it would be good to give them an album that came out when they were born…Saying that, I’m imagining a dad watching reruns of some old TV program, saying, “This is what was cool when I was young!”, and their teenage kid is totally uninterested.
RB: So giving them a record from their birth year might have the opposite of the intended effect? Hmm.
SB: But don’t kids latch onto things from when they’re 2-3 years old?
SB: For me that was the middle of the 70s. I latched onto Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno.
RB: What would it be for 15-year-olds now? (Self-questioning) Something from 05, 06?
SB: Quaristice, I reckon.
RB: Yeah, that fits.
SB: I guess, yeah. But that’s a weird one…
RB: For us, that one’s a bit unusual. Can we just give them our whole discography (wry smile)?
SB: This is a really tough question. I don’t know anything about this 15-year-old…If we suppose they live in the UK, then they’ve probably heard a lot of UK Drill, and some grime, maybe? Kids are still listening to grime, which I find a bit surprising. As a scene it’s already fairly old. Of course, people still listen to shoegaze and drum-and-bass. Maybe it’d be good to pick something that connects the mid/late 90s to the spirit of the times now…LP5, maybe? Or EP7. That’s what kids nowadays might like the most.
RB: Bristol [where Rob currently lives] makes me laugh. All the 10-year-old kids are talking about boom-bap. For them that was the golden-age of hip-hop, like they want to return to the early 90s.
SB: That’s pretty far back. Boom-bap has already had a revival.
RB: It’s a strange phenomenon. They’re really young, not even teenagers.
SB: So they’re especially disconnected from boom-bap.
RB: Right, yeah.
SB: If everyone and their dog gets into boom-bap, they’ll think, “Shit, I can’t do this anymore!” And start working randomly with different people. [I’m not sure who this is referring to, maybe boom-bap musicians? – joseph]
SB: I don’t know. Anyways, I feel like answering your question is impossible.
RB: It’s a tough one.
SB: 15 years was quite an age, musically speaking. And the world has changed a lot since then. You used to be able to guess with good accuracy what a 15-year-old would be listening to. But now you can’t. Who knows what a kid will be listening to nowadays? I think people don’t know how to market records, either. Anyways, I reckon there’s a good chance some of them are listening to fucking Autechre? It’s weird.
SB: Like, who wants to listen to us? We’re an old-man band, our hands are dirty. But for some reason, our stuff keeps moving. Anyways, things are a bit more mixed now. You can listen to music from any time period, not just whatever is newly released.
RB: When we grew up, eclecticism was a big deal – some funk, some dub, some synth-pop. Nowadays it’s commonplace. Thanks to the internet, you can see what’s around you, and learn a lot about when a certain musical work was recorded, and so on. Like Sean said, this question is sort of impossible to answer. I feel like people nowadays check out all sorts of wonderful music as a rite of passage, and then get really into a given band for several years. It’s strange.
That’s all the questions I had. Thank you for spending so much time answering them. I’m so grateful.
RB: Thank you.
Please take care, and stay healthy. Watch out for COVID.
SB: Right, of course. The same to you as well. We’re doing what we can, avoiding crowds, washing our hands frequently.
(Wry smile) That’s really all you can do.
SB: (wry smile) You can’t do much.
SB: You know, I’m tired of just reading the news. I haven’t been learning anything from the news lately. You just hear the slogans, “Avoid crowds”, “Wash your hands”, that’s it.
It seems like that’s all we know.
SB: Yeah. Basically that’s it, and the rest is left to chance? Well, I can only hope the experts will figure it out.
RB: Hope for the best.
Definitely. Hopefully the situation will be under control sometime next year.
SB: You think? If we get a vaccine then I think it will, but if not…in the UK, still only 3% of the population has been infected.
SB: Yeah. But (if there’s no vaccine) to get herd immunity you need around 60% to be infected.
SB: It could take years to reach that point.
That’s not good to hear.
SB: No, and that’s why I said it! The question lurking is, what if there’s no vaccine? That’s what I’m thinking about. Vaccine trials are going on right now.
SB: Anyways. Sorry it turned dark there.
No, I feel your optimism. Thank you very much.
SB: Alright, see you. Thanks.
RB: I’m hoping for the best. Take care. Thanks a lot.
SB, RB: Thank you. Bye bye!