A Brief History of Aphex Twin Trolling His Fans

Writer Michaelangelo Matos dives into the producer's trickster side.

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Jul 19 2016, 10:09pm

Photo courtesy of the artist

You know what you're going to get from the cover of an Aphex Twin release, right? It's either going to be his face or his logo. So one of the most immediately noticeable things about his Cheetah EP, issued two weeks ago, is that it featured neither. The other is that the design is more retro than Richard D. James has allowed himself since the cartoonish videogame character renderings on the cover of 1992's "Pac-Man," which he released under the name Power-Pill, and the classic board-game-style cover of 1995's Expert Knob Twiddlers, a collaboration with Mike Paradinas (µ-Ziq) credited to Mike & Rich, which Planet Mu just announced it's reissuing.

Cheetah features a clean blue design with a white border that resembles a Carpenters album, as well as a pair of ingeniously deployed vintage fonts: the title is written in Busorama URW Bold, the artist's name in Harlow Regular. The former has a 1920s Art Deco zip to its lines; the latter—along with a color palette of robin's-egg blue, white, and dull silver—feels decidedly 50s, with an echo of a Studio 54-era '70s aesthetic.

The throwback art helps fill in the music's backstory. Not only is the EP named after a piece of vintage gear, but much of it was made using that same box: the Cheetah MS800, a multitrack hardware sequencer unveiled in the early nineties. The Cheetah was an early utilizer of wave sequencing, a method of sound generation in which, as Aphex puts it in the press release, "Sounds [are] programmed to sequence through changing waveforms as the note plays, giving exceptional movement and character to the music."

An image sent with the email press release announcing the Cheetah EP

Korg's Wavestation synthesizer, produced from 1990 to 1994, was a commercially successful utilizer of wave sequencing. The Cheetah, meanwhile, never caught on. In fact, very few people could figure out how to use it. To begin with, the machine came with no preset sounds; you had to generate them yourself. The musical-software site G-Force Software memorializes the Cheetah as "one of the most unfathomable instruments ever made" and calls it "mind-numbingly confusing to program," though they add that the Cheetah also "had an almost unique tone and parameter structure which made it sonically interesting and reasonably useful back in the day." The EP demonstrates that by means of tracks that move with a stiff, rubbery lope, abetted by pointy bass lines.

Cheetah was accompanied by a press release that sung the praises of the instrument and (speaking of retro moves) was reproduced on flyers sent to record shops: "The Aphex Twin Cheetah EP uses digital sound generation techniques combined with wave sequencing technology to bring you sounds with movement and depth rarely found on records today," it read. "If you wish to experiment and create some sounds of your own, first try editing some sounds we've already made for you, before attempting to create a patch from scratch."

This is tongue-in-cheek: the Cheetah was unsuccessful because it was impossible to work, and part of the joke here is that the press release is a fake manual. But the ruse also fits James' presentational perfectly. From the beginning, James has been, as The Wire's David Stubbs put it in 2003, "perhaps the most serious and not-serious person" in dance music. He first emerged in 1991, when "Didgeridoo" caught fire on rave floors. The track's manic drive and mental-as-hell drones were right in line with a period in dance music history that could perhaps be best summed up by the rip-snorting "Hoover" synth noise heard on "Mentasm," a '91 track by Joey Beltram and Mundo Muzique's Second Phase project.

But while many of the period's notable techno artists, from Altern-8 to Underground Resistance, hid behind masks, James instead proffered a mad-scientist persona. In interviews, he claimed he was helped along by the habit of lucid dreaming—imagining new tunes and tones as he dozed, then creating them in real life. And his semi-rural hometown of Cornwall made his distance from the urban wilds of an Altern-8 or UR seem provident, not conspicuous—he fit neatly into the tradition, particularly in Britain, of rogue genius hermits squirreling away in the woods, crafting mad potions.

I've been banned from message boards [about me], kicked off straight away for winding up other people—which is ironic.—Richard D. James to The Wire in 2003

In one way, James's distance from the main action in London or even Manchester gave his compositions a weird kind of purity. He'd also been taking apart and rebuilding keyboards and recording his own alien demos since his early teens, and claimed to stumble upon existing dance-music styles only by happenstance. This backstory gave him the appearance of existing in a hermetically sealed vacuum, free of outside influences. James told Stubbs in the Wire interview that "Didgeridoo" came about as he "was going through a phase of thinking . . . that no notes was where it was at . . . but I subsequently found that it had been done before, not just in the avant-garde but in electronic dance music." He also told Select in 1992 that he'd been making acid tracks years before hearing the early Chicago acid records ("I was dead surprised").

That slightly out-of-time quality has been consistent through his career. It extended to his relationship with internet communities, even as the Web was instrumental in his rise. James' music had helped inspire the 1993 birth of the mailing list IDM, which, like all the era's mailing lists, was a discussion-board precursor where the discussions took place in your inbox. The name stood for "intelligent dance music," so named for the Artificial Intelligence collection released by Warp in 1992—but James was hardly an early adaptor to the online world. The member of another list, NE-Raves, recalled meeting James in Baltimore after he'd spun a rave in March of 1993 and telling the DJ "that [he] had [spoken] to [James'] friend, Ben, over the computer a few times." James, he remembered, "was really impressed."

By 2003, mailing lists had been replaced by online message boards, and James admitted to The Wire that he'd trolled them. "My message boards, I don't even understand what they're on about—they have their own private language and acronyms," he said. "I've been banned from message boards [about me], kicked off straight away for winding up other people—which is ironic."

Though his rune-like logo did plenty of work in transmitting James's alien presence, his live appearances did so even more, further cementing his rep as both musical innovator and don't-bug-me crackpot. Every night on the fall 1993 See the Light tour (co-headlined by Moby and Orbital), James lay low near the back of the stage, tending to his machines while his mate did a lopsided dance. The New York Times' Jon Pareles rated Aphex's show best of the night, praising his "dense, ferocious assemblages," and adding that "even when Aphex Twin moved closer to the standard techno, there was always a startling syncopation or a dissonant sound—sawmill accidents, squealing tires, evil robotic ducks—to give his music an edge." Warp Records co-founder Steve Beckett later told The Believer that the tour marked a shift in Aphex's, and the label's, audience: "It was during that time when we first started switching kids who were into indie rock and had always dismissed electronic music as mindless music for idiots. And they started to realize it had a lot more depth than that."

When Aphex began playing before more experimental-minded crowds, his sonic dissonance and sense of prankery went even further. In January 1995, Aphex Twin DJ'ed at New York's Knitting Factory to close out a two-date residency by the London club Disobey, put on by the avant-rock label Blast First. It was two nights of, to pick a pair of choice descriptions from The Wire's review, "cycling overtones [that] functioned as the aural equivalent of a strobe light operating at the frequency of speech" and "feedback maelstrom[s] that sounded like an excessive moment 15 minutes into a Spinal Tap solo." James finished the whole thing off in the only way possible: by dropping a microphone into a blender and a turntable needle onto a sheet of sandpaper. Later, in 1995, he opened for Bjork, with Spin reporting that Aphex spent his performance "hid[ing] behind a plastic tree."

The stage gimmicks were more than matched by James' real-life mad-scientist eccentricities. Journalist David J. Prince—who'd helped bring Aphex Twin to rural Wisconsin in 1994 for the inaugural Furthur, a weekend-long campout rave he co-promoted—recalled running into James on a British train platform in the mid-nineties; the producer was wearing headphones and programming beats on a drum machine as he walked. James was also the proud owner of a second-hand military tank—yes, a tank—that he drove around the Welsh countryside. "My tank's for utilitarian purposes," he told Select in 1997. "It's got a gun and six flare-launchers on it. I've got a helmet to go with it with built-in headphones and a mic, but it must have been meant for a little kid, because it's really small... Our neighbors have been complaining to the Environmental Health because of the noise. There's this sheet that's been pinned up in our road, saying, 'We don't have our own lives anymore, these people must be stopped.'"

Those neighbors might have reacted similarly to the next phase of Aphex Twin's visual output. In 1997, he decorated (if that's the right word) the cover of the Come to Daddy EP with an eerie group shot of six kids whose faces were superimposed with James' grimacing mug. He amped this trick—and got on MTV's short-lived electronic-video show Amp in the process—with the "Come to Daddy" video, in which a village full of little Jameses runs amok as the track does much the same. It was the first of two Aphex clips directed by Chris Cunningham, and the second used a similar formula to even more insidious ends. For 1999's "Windowlicker," Cunningham and James crafted a nasty parody of Puffy-era hip-hop materialism, complete with ten-minute running time. Here, the Aphex face-paste recipients are a gaggle of scantily-clad models. James himself dances like Michael Jackson, complete with crotch grabs. The video occasioned a priceless CMJ New Music Monthly headline: "Aphex Twin: Only Perry Farrell has gotten more action in a limo."

"Windowlicker" was a masterstroke, the most "in touch" with the times he'd ever get. It was a parody, perfect for James's persona, which gets its grist from his being ever-so-slightly (or very) askew to the world. People like that tend to crack a lot of jokes, and while the kind of fans who'd peer at his equipment may have been very serious, Aphex catered to their goofy side as well. He's a little Frank Zappa-ish that way; a big difference, though, is that while Zappa actively took a political stand to protest censorship—testifying in September 1985 before a Congressional committee against a music organization founded to address songs with sexual or satanic content—it's difficult to imagine James doing the same, or with equal fury. James' brand of humor is apolitical, more hermited, inert, goofball for its own sake—stoner humor. His politics are pretty stoner, too: two years ago, he called 9/11 "an inside job," admitted that he believed in "pretty much all" conspiracy theories, and concluded, "The whole world is totally fucked, basically."

James's trickster side didn't show its face nearly so prominently for quite a while after the Cunningham collaborations, give or take his years denying that he was behind a couple of 2007 releases credited to the Tuss. Following 2001's double-CD Druqks, he spent much of the next decade lying low, surfacing with new music as he saw fit—notably, a series of floor-ready, mid-decade "Analord" 12-inches credited to AFX and eventually cherry-picked for the 2006 CD compilation Chosen Lords. As if to underscore those tracks' get-down-to-business mien, Chosen Lords was issued in a brown cardboard case, the CD equivalent of a white label 12-inch with handwritten credits.

He's been making up for that low profile these last couple of years. When Aphex Twin announced Syro, his first full studio album in thirteen years, he did so with a blimp flying over London on August 16, 2014 (the rune on one side, the year on the other) and spraypainted Aphex logos on New York sidewalks. Eventually the tracklist was located on a deep web browser, Tor; the effect was a low-key, almost analog version of a digital-era leak, true to creator and project alike. Syro's cover even featured a humorously pitched cost breakdown (most real-looking enough, though I suspect "Digitisation from tape archive copy of The Making of Windowlicker" is not), with the "costs" suspiciously low: "Venue and equipment costs for London listening event: £0.00163." Along with Cheetah's playful sales pitch, it's a sign that we'll see more tricks from this guy yet.

Illustration by Meghan Garvey

Follow Michaelangelo Matos on Twitter.

This story was originally published on THUMP.