I still remember the exact day I became an Autechre devotee.
I was 17 years old, and on a very rare trip into London (trust me on this one, three hours of travel is a bloody long way in England) I ended up, predictably, at Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street. It was a far cry from my pokey little branch in Walsall, and as I went through the records one-by-one I stumbled across Autechre’s LP5. I was a massive Aphex Twin fan at this point, so I’d heard Autechre mentioned in the same breath, and heard the odd track here and there – on Artificial Intelligence for example – but I had never really given the catalogue a closer look.
A few seconds into ‘Acroyear2’ and I knew it was exactly what I needed – I grabbed Jurassic 5 and Elliott Smith’s XO too but to be quite honest, I just wanted to hear LP5 again. The album didn’t come off my headphones for the whole train ride back (and this was before the high speed train to Birmingham, let me tell you), and it changed the way I thought about music. I tried to pick it apart in my head – I was already producing tunes by then but for the life of me I just couldn’t figure out what Sean Booth and Rob Brown were doing. It was a befuddling, brilliant mystery to me, and I began collecting up whichever of their records I could afford in a desperate attempt to work out what the hell was going on. Aphex’s tracks were complicated and Merzbow’s were noisy – that all made sense – but to my ears LP5 was totally alien; it sounded like a bunch of different records playing at the same time.
Fifteen years later, Autechre have reached their eleventh full-length – the sticker on my LP5 CD has long fallen off, but Booth and Brown are still churning out music that serves to confuse new generations of listeners just as it did me. Exai is their longest record to date, and is also my favourite of theirs since ‘98 – it’s a double album in an era of quick, meme-friendly singles, and it demands not only your attention but also your patience. It’s not for everyone, but they never have been – in fact it reminds me of wandering into Plastic Factory in Birmingham to score a copy of Tri Repetae, and reading: “great stuff from back when they still made proper songs.”
It’s the continual back-and-forth in the duo’s catalogue that interests me, and talking to Rob Brown, I want to know if Exai was an attempt to look back at a conventionally structured material – “proper songs” if you like.
“Oddly enough I would think even Oversteps was more song-y in that there were certain passages that are tangible from one to the next. Exai was almost like melting down those ideas, keeping things really liquid,” he explains. “I’ve seen a lot of reviews of Exai that suggest that we’re reaching backwards a bit, but for us we’re just literally making music that’s not like our last record.”
“You kind of chill out a little bit if you know that something that resembles oblivion is available.”
Autechre toured considerably after Oversteps was released in 2010, and the music they performed was markedly different from the record itself (“it was such a mental type of music we were playing compared to the album”). On their return home they felt refreshed “knowing that whatever we do next is potentially more mental,” and it eased the creative process.
“You kind of chill out a little bit if you know that something that resembles oblivion is available. You end up totally loosening up and doing stuff that you always used to do. Personally we might have stepped backwards a bit in terms of being young and open minded and optimistic and almost like inverse brand awareness. At the end of the day we both thought we were doing something pretty new and pretty good and fresh.”
That’s certainly how the album sounds to me; it doesn’t sound exactly like any other record in the duo’s canon but there’s a certain feeling to it that undoubtedly traces a line back to their startling 90s run. I’m interested to know whether the fact that the album starts on a few seconds of gear hiss (a very familiar, and occasionally bothersome sound to anyone producing with outboard equipment) was related to an acknowledgement of this, or if it was simply a happy accident.
“The first fractions of seconds of our albums are usually highly intentional.” I had figured as much but tell Brown I’d hate to make an assumption. “Yeah, well I hate to admit it – there are happy accidents all around us, and part of our shtick in the past has been to capitalize on those moments. Before we were making music on computers we had computers organizing music being made on synths and samplers, outboard gear basically. And before that it was all outboard gear wired up, either in parallel or in series – one thing triggering another, or just two things running off simultaneously in a mix. So we’ve learnt along the way to capitalize on any accidents that might happen, like, say our Ensoniq [sampler] used to spaz out a bit, we used to sample stuff and I can’t remember what it was but if you pushed it in a certain direction all the samples in its memory would just splatter together and around and out and at high speed and it was really, really cool. It was like the most futuristic thing we could ever have imagined, and it used to do it as an accident, and if you knew where the accidents occurred you could sort of do it at will.
“‘Clipper’ [from 1995’s Tri Repetae] starts with one of those bits, some other tracks too. And this was before people used to call stuff ‘glitchy’, in terms of a musical style, it was literally a description of something going a bit wrong and having that kind of static-y digital-y (or whatever it was because it might not always be digital) but you know, some kind of abrupt dysfunction. And growing up on Mantronix and Just-Ice and people like that, abrupt dysfunction was a pretty tasty goal. We’d always try and harness every little accident we found, we’d try and either reverse-engineer our timeline and what caused it to happen so it could happen whenever we wanted, or just make sure we were recording stuff at the time and keep looking. I think you make your own luck sometimes.”
I recall that the original Chicago acid tracks were made in a similar way – with everything recorded as a jam and then the good bits chopped out – and Brown reveals that he and Booth were “pretty good tape editors” themselves (using the well-worn pause button technique), albeit on a slightly smaller scale than the Chicago crew. “We were kids at that time, we didn’t have that big boy stuff.”
Exai is lengthy, and the most substantial offering they’ve emerged with to date – quite an achievement for a band that have hit their twenty-sixth year of activity. I ask if this was something the two had mapped out beforehand, or if it was simply just due to the bounty of material. “Both. We’ve got so much more material that we didn’t use for Exai that we could have, or that was just on the cusp of being completed to the extent that the Exai material was completed.”
Brown explains that the techniques the duo employed speeded up a usually lengthy process, allowing them a “creatively prolific period.” Whilst Draft 7.30 and Untilted had been composed incredibly intricately (“everything was put in note-by-note”), and Quaristice was “hardware jams edited down”, Exai was “the best of both” and was made easier by the duo’s homemade setup. They could now store small data files instead of “having millions and millions of hours [of audio] to trawl through.”
“I guess we have to trust our instincts that we enjoy this and some other people will too. A lot of people do talk our language – not that many – but just enough perhaps to make it worthwhile and to make enough people feel good, because that’s all we want. I’m not saying like we’re Groove Armada or anything like that, but if something happens in a track that we like, we want other people to like that bit as well. Not just in general, ‘oh I like Autechre, generally’ it’s like, if I see some post like ‘that bit at 5.06 just kills me’ that’s where it’s at for me.”
“We just learnt that way that having access to all this gear like nowadays, it’s down to the person and how they perceive what they’re doing”
The decision was also a reaction to the “day and age of downloads and two-minute-long tracks,” and I remark that the phenomenon seems to create a number of problems. As well as the disposable YouTube single, we’re left with a glut of fatty, overlong full-lengths that are basically just a collection of those singles, buoyed by a bunch of bonus tracks to differentiate it from leaks. “With us I think partly it was that, and partly it was the antithesis of the modern age, but at the same time it’s symptomatic of this modern age where formats are not restricted, music’s not restricted by format any more. You say double, well we had to split it on a CD because CDs are 74 minutes long and we couldn’t do anything else. We could have gone to DVD I suppose or SACD but we realized we could actually make the most of a lot of the situations in front of us, like it’s gonna be on 12” record, it’s going to feel big, it’s going to feel substantial.”
It was even a conscious effort to “separate the wheat from the chaff really, in terms of listeners.”
“We don’t mind admitting that, all our albums have divided people one way or another or people even domino effect get into the last one as soon as the new one’s out, and they hate the new one, but then the new one when it’s old and when it’s the last one is better and we just, over time, have learned to accept that some people just need a bit of time with it, and fuck, you know, give people 9 minute-long tracks – that’s the sort of thing I would hanker for.”
Autechre have long been a band that have represented certain changes in technology; they produce music that couldn’t exist without technological advancements, whether that’s in software or hardware, so I’m eager to find out what they think about the current situation. Now high quality software is basically free (and I’m not even talking about illegal downloads) and previously prohibitively expensive outboard gear – synths, samplers, drum machines – can all be acquired comparatively cheaply, I wonder if Brown feels that this is a good thing.
He tells me that early on, back in his home town of Rochdale, Darrell Fitton (aka Bola) was “horrified” that the duo hadn’t heard of MIDI, and gave them the keys to a music shop he worked at, that happened to have a studio in the attic. At the time they were working with just a few modest pieces of gear that they had “saved up for and split 50/50” – 606s, 202s, a Boss RSD-10 sampling delay, a DJ mixer and some “Casio samplers,” but the transition into a proper studio didn’t really work well for them. With the limited setup Brown tells me they got “really saturated with how much was possible, even to the point of hooking up pedal inputs from the drum machine to the delay unit and the [Casio] SK5 being triggered by little bits and bobs,” and moving into Fitton’s studio (“a reel-to-reel, a computer (an Atari ST), samplers, polyphonic synths, everything, you name it”) wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
“Back in the day when a laptop on stage was pure anarchy. Now it’s seen as the ultimate modern day folk.”
“We did our best to use it and we put a lot of tracks down, but there was something a bit, it almost seemed a bit plastic, and I think it’s because we didn’t know the gear as well enough as we’d like to. I think that even the idea of that concept of not getting deep with gear hadn’t occurred to us, we just realized that that was what we’d been doing, that’s how we’d been operating and suddenly given a wider scope, we had trouble focusing, basically. And we made some brilliant tracks, but we often feel a little bit twitchy around the collar about them because if anything they’re a bit embarrassing to the inner ego.
“Really at the time our early, early stuff should have technically been the more embarrassing stuff because it was more limited but actually it came across much more realistic and more likeable and more dynamic as a result. I guess we just learnt that way that having access to all this gear like nowadays, it’s down to the person and how they perceive what they’re doing, and perhaps not to get too greedy and have access to everything.”
He realizes the irony. “You know that’s funny, isn’t it, because we’re supposed to be this futuristic band that keeps breaking boundaries and all this but there I am saying that sort of thing. I think it’s more about the possibilities that you think are available to you at the time, regardless of what gear you’ve got. You’ll probably find a way to bypass some of its limitations you know?”
They’re certainly not about to begin jumping on the Eurorack modular bandwagon (“To be honest the only thing that puts me off is the weight and the size to building modular gear”), but Brown recognizes the continual push and pull that the scene embraces – one minute everyone’s obsessed with the possibilities of laptops and the next they’re desperate for ‘real gear’.
“It creates a need, a vacuum for something to fill and slurp in there and take over. I think with this scenario, I think back in the day when a laptop on stage was pure anarchy, now it’s seen as the ultimate modern day folk. It really is, I mean look – little loops and snips and scratches on a laptop and the idea of what is live and what isn’t, people being able to do studio-type material on stage with a laptop, that’s technically a studio band doing a live track on stage but chances are they’re just fiddling with over-developed DJ tools essentially, a bit like Ableton.
“No disrespect, all this software is really useful to everybody and you’ve got to pick and choose what’s right for you. Denouncing something because it comes from a laptop or a hardware box, it’s just missing the point I think. Of course there are nuances and there are fine points to the discussion about this sort of thing but I think in general terms, whatever gets your sound out as you want it as an artist is all that’s required. That’s why we get people dragging bricks across slates with mics on it, or Einsturzende Neubauten or something like that, or where it’s just pure, pure what I would think of as folk – guitar and a voice.”
With all this in mind, and knowing Autechre’s habit of performing in total darkness, I ask what Brown thinks about live electronic music right now, in the EDM era. “There’s a measured, considered thing I yearn for when I look at an artist,” he says. “I think we’ve all got our own approach to what is right, but it’s a big world and there’s lots of people and they’ve all got views and if what’s right is [right]. I used to hate it when DJs would tweak the EQ on a mixer. If they tweak the EQ on a mixer that’s fine if they’re shaping the track, but they’d perhaps do it over a snare rush or a filter sweep or even back before sweeps were big deals, it’d be like ‘I am procuring this sound for you lot’ and the people would be none the wiser.” I used to see through it and I used to get a little bit shirty about the whole thing of being gestural. I think that’s a symptom of my upbringing and my background, therefore my age.
“I think a few generations now, younger generations, don’t mind that too much because all they’ve got is a keyboard and a laptop to procure the music, so any gesture that suggests that they’re involved with the machine and the software and the music process on stage, they take it as valid, and I think the audience do that too. So when it extends to visuals and graphics and other multimedia approaches I think you get into murky territory really, as in what’s worthwhile. I think we had the right idea by turning all the lights off and making it so worthwhile that all you’re hearing is just the music, and there’s more mystique and more mystery and more free thinking. More people are making their own minds up about what they like about this, in their own weird place. There might be 750 people in a warehouse listening to one big soundsystem and not really being able to see us on stage, but at the same time you’ve got loads of people actually almost thirstily soaking it up.”
“Rap is like a really good glass of wine or glass of Patrón tequila or something like that – really strong, really, really tasty, it’s gonna mess with your mind, and you’re going to keep doing it.”
I saw Autechre for the first time back in 2000 when they performed at Warp’s 10th anniversary party in London, and at the time was a little startled that they didn’t play any material I recognized. “That’s a shame,” Brown replies. “We used to put tracks in before then – in the early to mid 90s.” It wasn’t a negative though, and was something that helped me understand what I wanted from a live performance as a listener – the show worked because it was nothing like anything that had been released then or released since, it was totally different.
Brown tells me that in the beginning they were just “proud that they could do tracks live,” as it was a rarity in the scene. It was a laborious process but after a few practices they realized that they “didn’t have to embellish it with overdubs and so on,” which meant in they could be far more confident. “Our first ever gigs at Miss Moneypenny’s [in Birmingham, England], Oscillate and stuff like that, they were live but it was just three tracks you know. We’d load up the sync code for every track – more often than not, the sync code would lose out because the bass was too heavy, so we’d literally be forced to fill a third of an hour with some improvisation based on what we were doing in the studio had it been recording. So it kind of fitted both situations quite well, and I think we just became a bit more happy to wing it should it all go wrong, and have a little bit of wherewithal for handling gear live.”
I wonder if the two have seen the recently unearthed video of Autechre playing live in Rochdale in 1991, and I ask how that whole situation came about. Seeing any act playing experimental music in Rochdale, let alone Autechre, isn’t exactly something that you’d expect to happen at a local nightclub.
“Ah man, there were a handful of clubs in Rochdale that were notorious, all of them were notorious, there was Bojangles, there was Bayleys, and they all changed you know, the amount of clubs that burnt down and would get opened up as different names. We used to go to a lot of them, and with the pirate radio thing, IBC [a local pirate radio station], the organizers, I think it was Sweatbox 2 we played at, the organizers had done a few nights where you come and, you know what it’s like, you can imagine the pirate radio advert ‘come down and meet the DJ and see the bands.’ We’d been involved with IBC for a bit at that point and somehow I think we ended up saying, ‘yeah we will do that.’ I think we were the only band they knew that could do anything on the spot, and it was kind of embarrassing at the same time but we weren’t sure what we were getting into.”
It was a “headfuck” for Brown especially as he was from the “embarrassing bit of Rochdale,” (Booth was from close-by Middleton) and was quite shocked looking back at the footage to see “kids I’d remember from my earlier schools, primary school and middle school. I had no idea that they were into that kind of music.” He was however pleased to hear the set from another perspective at last. “I think the tracks sound amazing to be honest, they sound brilliant. Some of those tracks never made it out, and to hear them again on a big soundsystem without having to concentrate on being the artist on stage at the time, because that usually takes up all your energy, and all your concentration. It’s quite sad when you’re a musician and you’ve done a good gig, because you didn’t really experience it, so this is great for that, we get to experience it. Albeit a funny bouncing-around Peep Show-style version of it, but I love it – I think it’s really great.”
Knowing the band had grown up listening to hip-hop, I am eager to know if Brown was following the current explosion of contemporary rap in the U.S. I figure he might be reticent to name names (“I’m not going to put my name to anything specific”) but he did reveal that both he and Sean kept as up to date as they could.
“I’ve got a massive respect for American culture, in many forms. How things turned to trap, and footwork and hip-hop. To me it’s still all one thing. It’s really old fashioned to say that because it really does show that you’re way above 30 if you can say that with any conviction.” He says the big problem now is simply having kids around. “You have to decide between explicit and non-explicit now if you’re my age. It’s so weird to get your head round, you know what I mean, so I have to buy two of everything, one for the car and one for me, and it’s really frustrating.”
Even so, Booth and Brown actually occasionally get to listen to rap in the studio when they “need to fully kick back.”
“It’s almost like a needle in a haystack finding the right thing online”
“It’s kind of like a really good glass of wine or glass of Patrón tequila or something like that – really strong, really, really tasty, it’s gonna mess with your mind, and you’re going to keep doing it. I think it serves as a really good antithesis but at the same time displays some of the fireworks that you can employ as a musician yourself. I wouldn’t say it’s inspiring as such but it’s definitely showing other people play hard, and it makes you want to play harder, so it’s good like that.”
I ask what he thinks about Hudson Mohawke working with Kanye West, making a direct connection between Warp Records and one of the most popular rappers in the world. “You couldn’t have fantasized about a situation like that could you?” he replies, and I suggest that a kid could be listening to a Kanye track, and seconds later end up browsing the Warp site, finding tunes they’d never come across before.
“It’s nuts actually, because things used to be, they’d come your way through a really strong recommendation from a trusted friend on a bus.” He’s right, neither of us grew up with this kind of system, and it’s become somewhat daunting for those of us who were more used to nosing in record stores and fishing for personal nods of approval. “It’s almost like a needle in a haystack finding the right thing, and I’ve found so many friends who are a bit older than me say ‘oh well, you can’t find any good music now, I’m not going to go shopping for music online, I’ll be there forever.'”
“It’s really simple, you can just see what other people bought and listen to that. The fact that you can listen to everyone else’s taste is brilliant, but you need loads of time because you haven’t got that trusted structure, that infrastructure that was ‘the kid at the bus stop that you see every night after school’. He’s older – his older brother provides with him, in my case, Depeche Mode B-sides on 12” or imports, some funk band that you’ve never seen cause you were nine or ten. With the internet, now you’ve got access to everything, but you’re not going to be as sure as perhaps we were that this is the right thing for me.”
“As soon as something bifurcates on the internet it’s pretty much out there, so you can’t get into too much of a fuss about it.”
It’s hardly surprising that this leads to us talking about file sharing, and it’s a subject that Brown is very open about. “I’m sure giving people loads of access to stuff for free is great on one hand, but at the same time, downloading journalism for free literally limits your ability to become a journalist in the future for a living, same with music, same with stock photography. Opinions can be mimicked and duplicated nowadays ad infinitum, and it’s impossible to stop leaks and copies. As soon as something bifurcates on the internet it’s pretty much out there, so you can’t get into too much of a fuss about it. Just contribute to the strata that you prefer. So it’s basically, that’s the attitude, just contribute to the setup basically, as opposed to whinge about the stuff you don’t like.”
We’re cut short (I almost predictably overran my allocated time slot), but Brown concludes by suggesting that a way to handle the freedom of the internet in the future could be a system of micro-transactions, as suggested by virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier. “He was saying our last possible chance is with the 3D printing model, and how lots of designers are building models to give away for free on the internet – say my kettle breaks I can download my favourite kettle design and print my own out and not give the guy any money – but he was saying perhaps if we just spend a fraction of a penny or a fraction of a cent or whatever on these tiny things, that guy will get $70,000 dollars a year from 700,000 people downloading his idea and I think those tiny contributions are where it might have to go. Tiny little thankyous go a long way when it’s en masse.”