Interview: Autechre

By , Jan 1 2009
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In this in-depth interview, Kiran Sande talks to the consistently trailblazing duo of Sean Booth and Rob Brown, Autechre, about how tape-swapping and breakdancing in 1980s Manchester kickstarted their ongoing love affair with “mechanical futurism”.


So, how’s it going?

Sean: Yeah fine, it’s all been pretty relaxed. We didn’t even look at the schedule, it’s just not been hectic.

Was there a time when doing press was particularly stressful?

Rob: Oh yeah, definitely. The worst was the first time we toured the US. We did a lot of interviews and it was awful, the people interviewing us didn’t even know what house music was, didn’t understand…

That’s still the case with a lot of the music press. You have to ask, is it that readers don’t want to read about that kind of music, or that journalists don’t want to write about it? You feel like it’s not a lack of willingness or curiosity, necessarily..

Sean: But then you say, who are your heroes? Surely you really like Joy Division and New Order and I was like, you’ve heard these bands but you don’t know the stuff that they were listening to…

The thing is, a lot of people my age, myself included, spent the 1990s equating techno to 2Unlimited, there was no point of reference really, I wasn’t old enough to go to clubs or take drugs or whathaveyou, so all I the only association I had for techno was cheese.

Sean: I used to go out with this girl I knew who worked in a nursery – this was around ’94 or ’95 – and she was saying that in another ten or fifteen years dance music’s going to go really, really stupid, because she’d go into her school maybe a bit wasted from the weekend and all the kids in her school would be like ‘Have you been out ‘RAAVING, you been out RAVING?’ like that [mimes overexcited children]…

That’s it. When you’re a kid, you don’t know what drugs are, you don’t really know what clubs are, you have no reference or setting to locate dance music in, so it seem pretty cartoonish.

Rob: That was all like the third wave to us.

So what was the first wave?

Rob: Depends if you count your parents and what they played…

Sean: For me personally it was hip-hop. I saw punk from a distance and thought, it’s cool, I thought punks looked cool, but I was just like 11 at the time. It weren’t until I heard electro and saw people breakdancing and scratching that I really got into music. That was a massive turning-point. I think the fact that it was in the street, that they were kids that I knew, they were pulling these amazingly fly moves, I mean, they were ridiculously good dancers, and, the music sounded like it was from the future. I think all that together…I mean, it was pretty ubiquitous at the time, this was 83 or ‘4…

 

“The first time I ever saw breaking was when three or four kids turned up to school with a ghetto-blaster and started pulling loads of moves, and I just thought “WHAT IS THAT?””

 

And this was in Manchester and surrounding area?

Rob: Regional Manchester, yeah…

Sean: The first time I ever saw breaking was when three or four kids turned up to school with a ghetto-blaster and started pulling loads of moves, and I just thought “WHAT IS THAT?” , it looks totally futuristic and there’s a crowd around them and everyone was really into it, and I really didn’t know what it was…So I got a kid I knew called Scott to make me a tape, this brilliant tape – it had, like, half of [Street Sounds] Electro 5, a bunch of other tracks, ‘Step Off’ by Grandmaster Flash, erm, Techno-Scratch, people like that… It was ubiquitous though, all the kids at school were doing it, at lunchtime and breaktimes in the playground…

So it wasn’t an outsider thing as such?

Sean: No, not really.

Rob: I was about a year and a half older than Sean, I mean, I am about a year and a half older than Sean, and my ears perked up when I listened to electronic music generally – it might’ve been, you know, Tears For Fears, or it might’ve been Kraftwerk…

Music with a big synthetic element?

Rob: Yeah, it had to be synthetic. We’d have the school disco every Friday, and it’d be the usual cheese tunes and then they might play something like Kraftwerk, ‘The Model’, and we’d be doing these rudimentary breakdance moves that we’d seen on say, Malcolm McClaren’s videos – that was the leading edge to it, really. And then soon it was ‘Breakdance Electro Boogie’ [by West Street Mob / Junior Cartier] and ‘Mosquito’ [by West Street Mob], and the things that came out on Sugarhill, suddenly it all just became widespread in Manchester and Rochdale and everyone in my little sphere at school were just into tracks and would make cassette mixes and copy each other’s tracks, and then pirate radio came along – to us, anyway, obviously it had been around in some form or other since, whatever, the 60s – suddenly they were playing music we liked and suddenly they were playing records from America. That’s obviously where it [the music] all was coming from, and we thought, “We’ve got a direct line now to this stuff”…

Were there any particular pirate stations that you listened to?

Rob: Yeah absolutely, Southside Radio. We were North West of Manchester and a lot of people in Manchester and Merseyside were probably getting much better broadcast quality than we were, so it would have to be people who were maybe a little older, had jobs, maybe travelled to Liverpool and recorded it. So all the older blokes used to get them and we’d just copy them and copy them. I never bought any until I was about 13 or 14.

Sean: Mike Shaft was good too…

Rob: Yeah…

Sean: On mainstream radio we had, like, Greg Wilson, Mike Shaft, what’s his name, Lee Brown? Sam Brown…

Rob: Sam Brown was pirate though…

Sean: …and Stu Allen…and all those guys were playing this stuff. We had a shop in Manchester called the Spin Inn, which is now a drum ‘n bass shop, but back in the day it was the only import shop in Manchester. I used to go in there when I was, like, twelve, and I’d be surrounded by these massive blokes –

Rob: – big black Manchester dudes!

Sean: It was the first time I’d ever been in a shop like that…a really, really small shop with loads of records and loads of people. Putting on tunes really loud for two minutes at a time, people would buy whatever was playing on their soundsystem ‘cos the sound was so good! Yeah, every record they put on you’d buy, ‘cos they had Technics and the sound was amazing…

Rob: Yeah, you’d just go in and buy everything you could – I mean, there wasn’t much of it around…

Was there much quality control in terms of what they sold?

Rob: Yeah, what you were getting was high quality…

Sean: It was a specialist shop..

Rob: They were making an effort to get good stuff…

Sean: Yeah, it was a specialist shop – they were importing all kinds of music. Bit of rare groove and breaks…

Rob: …to the latest Schoolly D or…

Sean: The buyer at Spin Inn at the time was a guy called Kenny Brogan, there was another guy there called Ross and they both really knew their shit. But they were still at the whim of the distributor, they’d still have to get their shipment once a month from the distributors – and then that Sunday on the Stu Allen show or Lee Brown show you’d hear a bunch of the tunes, so on the Monday you’d go into town and you’d get ‘em. So, it wasn’t like there was a massive review policy going on, it was just a case of, we put the tunes on and bang them out…

I’m guessing that along with the radio, the record store was the only place you were hearing stuff like this. Was there anywhere you could read about electro or the music you liked?

Sean: No, though there was one magazine called Streetscene, which was one of a kind. When I was in college Melody Maker would come out once in a while with something, NME might too. There was another one that was smaller…

Rob: Record Mirror?

Sean: Yeah…That used to be really good. And Lime Lizard as well, before that went off…These were mags I’d buy because they’d have, like, Mantronik on the cover…

Rob: It would just be one small feature, never anything big. I was getting off it radio, really…

Sean: I mean, by sort of ’86-’87, I was still wearing tracksuit bottoms – and I was massively unfashionable, it wasn’t cool anymore, everybody else had got into James or whathaveyou…Yeah, even in ’86 I was getting dissed…

Rob: You know, as soon as something’s become saturated, you have to move on. But if you’re affected by that something, saturation or not, you’re just moulded for life. All your criteria, all the moves you make…

Sean: I used to think [of other people], “How can you not be into it anymore?” I was competitive about it, you know? I was like, it’s so futuristic-sounding, what does fashion have to do with it?

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I guess that “futuristic” element was particularly appealing to you as youngsters.

Rob: Yeah, but then if you only preach futurism, you can only let go of the past. The further we got from ’83 and ’84, where the intersection for me and Sean was, it was all becoming more retro…

Sean: I know it doesn’t sound like a long time, but to us at the time it was an eternity. By ’87, it started to go mainstream, because of Public Enemy, LL Cool J, and the sampler really took over – everyone was suddenly very aware of the sampling. But those three years, 85-87, to me personally were the most productive years of hip-hop…That’s when all the amazing production happened –

Rob: – it’s when everything was laid out.

Sean: And that was the time when I used to cut the most flak for being into it! So for that brief period, it was an outsider thing. And yeah, by about ’87 it started to become cool again, but I was massively into house by then…

Rob: Yeah, but that was when the music had been watered-down when it came back again, you’d get people like Lakim Shabazz , and then ‘The Power’ by Snap would come out, and it was basically the same record, and you’d be like, “That came out too years ago! No!”

When house arrived, did you see it as a natural extension or continuation of your love of hip-hop, or was it something altogether different? Was it disseminated through an entirely different network, or did those same channels that brought you the hip-hop begin to deliver house too?

Rob: At this point, Sean and I were poles apart. I used to listen to the same radio station – it started with soul in the early evening, would go into hip-hop, and then – they used to move the schedule around over the different years, obviously – but at one point it became soul, hip-hop, then acid, then house, though house was obviously first because it was more soul-ly. And the more hard it got, to acid, I think Sean was getting more into it…

Sean: I didn’t like house. When I first heard it, I thought – this is a joke. I mean, I’d like Larry Heard but I’d not heard any; when I first heard house I was hearing, like, Farley records, but not the acid ones – the soully bassline ones with all the singing over the top…

Rob: That’s down to the DJ, innit…

Sean: …and I just didn’t really like anything like that. I didn’t like the singing, I didn’t like the 4×4 beat…

I think that’s a transition lots of people fail to make – that of breakbeat to 4×4…

Sean: I really didn’t like house or 4×4 until I heard acid. It was Armando that did it…

Rob: Yeah, I mean, if it was a basic 4×4 track it would probably get rejected by us, but if it was an acid track…

There’s a real skippy element to those Armando tunes that made them stand out rhythmically from the rest…

Sean: A certain Latin element, yeah. Armando was what I was into: still 4×4, but a bit slower than the rest, and the acid lines were properly funky – you know, they had really good funk on ‘em – and it sounded really weird. They were all on off-beats and I really liked that, ‘cos it was a lot less [impersonates tinny, pedestrian bass and hi-hat house beat]

Rob: Yeah, with most house our immediate reaction was to think how lazy it was to put the same beat on every record…

 

“Acid’s what got me into Tangerine Dream and all that stuff. I heard those synths and I’d be like, “This is like acid but without the beats.””

 

Sean: For us, house was shit songs made and played by people who couldn’t do good beats, you know, just rubbish…until I heard acid and then I suddenly went, “Oh no! It’s the same but it’s changing!” and I had this weird epiphany where I’m thinking, “OK, it’s the same loop, but they keep changing everything” and I really like that, I really liked the feeling that the track was going somewhere…

Rob: And it’s tuning was different, ‘cos resonance on an acid synth – I’d never heard of such a thing. I’d be, like, “What? It’s going up in tune but it’s going down at the same time?!?”

Sean: Acid’s what got me into Tangerine Dream and all that stuff. I heard those synths and I’d be like, “This is like acid but without the beats.” It was a really big thing. I mean, obviously I was massively into electronic music because that’s what hip-hop came from, but still…

Were you living at home at this point?

Sean: Yeah, I met Rob in ’87, and moved out of my parents’ about ’91.

At what point did you actually start making tunes?

Rob: ’88.

Sean: I used to do pause button [i.e. cassette] mixes and Rob used to do mixes on decks. So when we got together we’d be, right, let’s do the mixes on decks, and then we’ll do re-edits…

Rob: ..and we used all our records, so we had all our tastes on there…

Sean: We had so many overlaps, didn’t we? The tunes I bought, it would turn out Rob had bought too, so there was that connection thing going on…A lot of the tunes were outsider tunes, like Meat Beat Manifesto or Renegade Soundwave, Keith LeBlanc, Art of Noise, that sort of thing…These were really good tracks, they don’t tow the line, and I think that was the big thing for us, realizing it’s the weirder tracks that we were most into. By ’88 we had a drum machine and a sampler, and we were sort of doing more work with our mixes.

Rob: Yeah, we’d sort of hype up other people’s samples, but then maybe somehow get rid of other people’s samples, and put our own beats over other people’s tracks in the mix…

Sean: It got to a point where culture had caught up, where sampling was sort of alright, and it was alright to consider yourself a musician and not just someone who ripped off other people’s tracks.

Rob: Yeah, there was a creativity in the mix. If you listened to radio stations, like Stu Allen’s night or Mike Shaft, at the end of the year they’d have a ‘best of’ mix, and it’d be like the DMC regional best guy and he’d do a mix that was often quite cheesy overall, but there’d be certain parts where there was elaborate creativity going on to get one track into another, and those moments were like what Mantronix were basing their entire career out of and we were just like, “Yeah, I want to do that kind of nuts and bolts thing, that tick-tack of a track you know but it’s new, and as soon as we got a drum machine and a sampler, we were doing that.

But you know, it’s funny, those moments in a remix or megamix, suddenly became especially celebrated in the late 80s, you know, there’d be the chart version and then there’d be an Orb remix or something and suddenly it was cool to be into remixes…But back when we were listening to stuff, when we couldn’t get our hands on any of the equipment, to me it was blinding to hear Mantronix do a track and then next week you’d hear the remix and Mantronix chop up…and it’s like, “how can he have finished the mix if he was chopping?” It was the fact that he could re-approach it, and the fact that the re-approach was actually the starting block, that excited me. Because suddenly things could be jerky from the outset…

Sean: You know, and then reading ‘Omar Santana edit’ on the back, you know, hearing an edit of Mantronix that was easily the best one, and it said, ‘Omar Santana edit’ and I’d think, “Who’s Omar Santana? I wanna be that guy, he’s doing all the best versions…”

Rob: And at the same time, Latin Rascals would be making big mixes on WBLS and that in America…

So this stuff is where you’re still present love of, well, chopping things up came from?

Sean: Oh, totally. Direct.

Rob: It’s where it all came from for us. Mechanical futurism…with an expressive soul at its heart.

Sean: I mean, there were obviously people before Omar Santana doing re-edits, but he just took it to another level. There’s lot of precursors, and since we we’d turned 13 we’d heard all that other stuff. But sometimes it just comes down to what you feel is your earliest connection with music – that’s the thing. That and mad noises! You know, like Depeche Mode having a pair of scissors as a snare…

Rob: Or a ticking over a combustion engine for a beat, stuff like that. The foghorn on a boat in a foggy, sea environment, you know having a track that’s a moment of, say, the Baltic sea at night, in dense fog, or something like that, you can almost feel it.  DJs used to play ‘Beatbox’ by Art of Noise, which is blatantly not a hip-hop record, but played in that context it works just like a hip-hop record…

Sean: It’s how it’s produced, the sound…I think that’s been a big thing for me – knowing that things can get into scenes, and be respected by scenes, without having to completely adhere to the scene.

I guess that’s something you feel with your own music now?

Sean: Hopefully, yeah.

Do you let new music infiltrate your music, so to speak? Do you listen to much new stuff, do you go back to the old a lot, or…?

Sean: It’s been a while…I’m out of the loop terribly now…

Rob: Yeah, but there’s the media. You can’t ignore that completely…

Do you think you have the same appetite for new music that you did when were you younger?

Sean: Oh no, no, you couldn’t…It can’t be like that again..There’s so many factors. Like living at home, your age…

Rob: Your peers…

Sean: Your peers, yeah…

Rob: Spending all day talking about stuff, in a room, where all you’ve got to do is think of something that isn’t the subject matter at school…

Sean: Nowadays, I just talk to Rob about those things [laughs]…

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So, the new album…Quaristice? Is that how you pronounce it? Is that alright?

[both laugh]

Sean: Is that alright? Yeah, we’ll accept that [laughs more]…

How do you feel it fits into the run of albums you’ve put out since you began making music? Do you feel like every time you make an album you’re setting to make it unique and entirely separate to the last one, I mean, are they discrete projects, or are each of the album’s born out of a continuous process of music-making?

Rob: In a sense, it’s not a direct reaction to what’s been done, but I guess if it’s just recently been done, then why do it again? You’ve got two years to do something different…

Sean: We’d just kind of been touring loads after the last one, and playing the same live set every night, and from the same material, and then having no other time to compose (apart from practice). Doing it at home’s been harder – he [Rob] moved house and there’s been lots of weird little things getting in the way of actually getting a studio set up and running, so we find ourselves working on our live equipment, because it’s the quickest way to get up-and-running and to do new things.

Rob: Usually with an album, the gap might be two years between each one and it will in a way be the result of us not trying to do the same thing again. We don’t actually have album criteria when we start…

Sean: Straight after giving an album away, you immediately want to not do that album. You want to let go of that, that’s all…

And talking about it must make you even more sick of it…

Sean: Yeah, can you imagine after a month of this, you know what I mean? You just want to see the back of it. I mean, obviously when it’s coming out you think it’s the best thing ever, but when it actually gets released –

Rob: – you’ve already moved on. It was delivered in September, so…

Sean: We usually do a couple of months after the album’s come out of great ideas, you know, “This is what we should do next!”, but then within another two or three months after that we’re back into a normal groove. It [inspiration] tends to come when you’re thinking about it at least…

Rob: There’s no plan like, “This would be good for the album” or  “Let’s make an opener for an album”. It’s a case of making loads of good tracks and then seeing which of ‘em jostle themselves to the top…

Sean: It takes a bit of time to get over that “We’ve put an album out, we better do something different” into just thinking, “Let’s just do some tracks”, you know…

Obviously you’re making a lot of tracks, recording of material which doesn’t necessarily see the light of day. Do you archive what you do? Do you ever go back to it?

Rob: Yeah, DVD-R.

Sometimes, when I’m banging a demo of it, I’ll record it as it’s going. We’ve got programmes like Digital Performer where you can even show a timeline of when a track was most worked on. I mean, it’s that particularly anal. You can be like, “It seemed like we did about 15 minutes on that one, and then you’ll be like maybe it was 24 hours” and then you’ll look and realize it was actually 4 weeks… At other times we’ll just save a track in its last state, but then you move it from computer to computer you have to format all your drivers before you can open it up and start again. You’ve got to keep your studio in the same MIDI channels, you know, all your synths on port 1, that kind of thing…But at the same time, to make sure I’ve got a good ear for what it was supposed to be at the time [of conception], I’ll do a 5 minute version – it won’t be finished quality but sometimes we’ll use them. You know, sometimes you realize that the first time you did something was the time it was really…fizzing right. So yeah, it’s all archived to go back to, but sometimes you just don’t…

With this album [Quaristice] we were using an odd method, ‘cos we were doing hour-long jam versions of the tracks, cutting them down to twenty minutes, then ten minutes, and then three minutes. The three minute versions uses all the same audio parts as the one-hour version; once you’ve got the one hour down, that’s it, that’s the hook of the audio there. All the other versions of that are just edits of that, so they’re just files that refer to that day. There tiny files, each edit is a tiny file, you can just do loads of them…

So when the day comes, god forbid, for you to, er, leave this earth; what do you want doing with all your files?

Rob: My will says all mine’s going to be burned [laughs].

Are you troubled by the idea of someone going through your music, releasing stuff without your permission when you’re gone…

Sean: I don’t give a shit, I’m going to be dead, so why would I care? [laughs]. Obviously it’d be great if my kids could make some money off it if I’ve got kids, sort them out with some cash. But that’s about it…

Rob: Like I was saying there’s so many demo versions; if someone came across an old computer in my back garden, how will they know if it’s they’re listening to a shit version or the good version? They’ll bring their own subjectivity towards it.

Sean: I mean, I guess one day it’ll all be public, but I’d rather not be around when it happens. Because we edit <I>for a reason</I>, you know.

 

“Someone told me that Ricardo Villalobos said he really likes our music and that he’s trying to channel it into his tracks, but we’re like, you’re a house producer, don’t look at us.”

 

Rob: And the edits are important because sometimes it’ll give you a clip that you can take in a new direction later. And of course there are times when we go back and find an earlier edit was better than a later one. There are edits that don’t necessarily make into the album too…

Sean: Yeah, there are times when the context of an album didn’t provide a good enough platform for the track, you know, it didn’t fit so it didn’t go on it. But maybe that track is better; it just didn’t fit. You get a few like that, but they usually get used at some point…or they get shelved. I mean, if they don’t make it onto the current album the chances of ‘em making it onto the next album are very small.

Rob: We have another side project called GESCOM, where we work with our mates. So sometimes we’ll have a track that’s sort of finished but not quite finished, but we don’t know what to do with it. And our mates come round and go, “This is good, can I have a mess around with it?”, and then it goes off to them.

Sean: I mean, usually there’s place to put stuff, but you can’t always be bothered to find it, so…[laughs]

I get the sense that a lot of your work is concerned with ideas of originality. Fair?

Sean: No..

You’ve been quoted as saying something along the lines of, “Given all the technology that musicians have at their disposal, there’s no reason why anyone should sound the same”…

Sean: I read that on our Wikipedia page – it’s not a quote from us, I don’t know where it comes from. It does sound like something we might say, misquoted [laughs]…But I think where that comes from…

Rob: I think it’s more like, how can people keep repeating the same pattern with the choices of available…

Sean: I mean, I keep getting asked this question, “How come you guys have got into doing guitar music, because so many from your scene have deserted dance music?”. I mean this is mostly from foreign journalists, and people in the fashion. They’ve basically got this idea that, you know, “perhaps you should broaden your horizons a little bit” – and I’m like, that’s just wrong. Making guitar music isn’t broadening your horizons, it’s just narrowing your tonal palette. Why would I want to do that? Why would I want to be in a band where we just play six-string guitars?

For us, we get bored listening to the same thing over and over again which is why we don’t make the same thing over and over again.

I mean, why would Band A sound like Band B if they weren’t either both into copying the same thing or one’s just copying the other? Why else would that occur? I bet if you got four untrained musicians and put them in a room with a bunch of gear, eventually they’d come out with some music. And I bet if you got another four and stuck ‘em in the same room with the same gear, they wouldn’t come out with the same music. Everyone’s drawing on the same stuff, unfortunately. It’s like the charts at the moment, it’s full of records that all sound the same to me. I’m sure a lot of young musicians think their music has to sound like that, within really strange parameters…

How do you feel about current techno and electronica?

Rob: Apart from hearing stuff at our mates’ houses, I don’t really listen to anything new.

There are developments in the way electronic music is made that you and other artists in your sphere pioneered (especially in the 90s). Do you feel like a lot of those ideas, techniques and sounds have been absorbed into sort of house and techno as much as they should’ve been?

Sean: I don’t really care.

I mean, the reason I ask is, a lot of techno made now – only now are a lot of people are working with the kind of textural and tonal sophistication that you were demonstrating way back. I guess that’s partly that’s due to technology…

Rob: Technology affords you the ability to be referential to such an accurate degree.  You know back then, everything you did had its rotten side effects: it might be tape noise on your master, or a dodgy edit on your cassette…

Sean: There are house and techno producers who are unbelievably good. Jeff Mills might always use presets but his presets don’t sound like anything else [laughs].

What about modern producers?

Lots of people talk to me about Burial, but I’ve listened to that a bit, and you know, he isn’t nearly as good a producer as Basic Channel or… Someone told me that Ricardo Villalobos said he really likes our music and that he’s trying to channel it into his tracks, but we’re like, you’re a house producer, don’t look at us, look at the real house producers, the masters, the people we were influenced by. Don’t go through us.

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