Aphex Twin: Tactics of a Popular Maverick

What are you to do, when your “strange sounds” unexpectedly become wildly popular? Many see this popularity as a validation of their endeavors and a reason to stay on course; others see fans as an unwanted but necessary entity that ties them to a world outside their own. The latter occurred to Richard D. James, better known as Aphex Twin. How was this atypical, even straight-up odd relationship with his audience part of his widely celebrated success? Rush Hour’s Ocke Weeda, a huge fan of the artist, searches for an answer.

James was born in Limerick, Ireland, in 1971. There, he lived a quiet and peaceful youth, free from the shackles of community. This situation produced an oasis of free time that introverted young James was able to expend as he wished. Much of it was spent in his room, experimenting with hardware and the sorts. Upon completing his degree in engineering, he was certain that his obtained knowledge could be used to take his musical ideas to the next level. In 1991, James’ first EP Analogue Bubblebath hit the shelves with support from Tom Middleton.

Confident in his sound, James followed that up with a second volume, gaining massive support from various pirate radio stations and Kiss FM, which was one of the most legit underground radio stations around at the time. R&S picked up on the Aphex frequencies and was determined to release “Digeridoo” as a single. Upon signing on to the label, the oddball artist watched as his track climbed the national music chart, where it ended at No.55, next to the likes of Lionel Richie.

Less than a year later, Ambient Selected Works 85-92 was released on Apollo, a sub-label of R&S. Within days, the entire underground scene in the UK and beyond was hooked, elevating Aphex Twin’s status from rookie to godlike. This situation landed him a contract with Warp, the label that not only distributed his music worldwide, but gave him a home for his oddities. James was now on the frontier of the UK dance scene, leading a pack of like-minded artists (Black Dog, Autechre, B12).

Aphex Twin’s identity was, however, shrouded in a cloak of mystery. Interviews were very scarce, and in the few occasions someone was able to get ahold of the young artist, they would be given weird and contrasting responses. Fans, however, were desperate for answers and soon developed theories of their own. Questions and delusions were floated around, but what was this mysterious artist’s motive for his secrecy?

In order to answer this illusive question, it’s important to get to the root of Richard D. James’ drive for making music and his views on idolatry. In an interview with John Peel, situated in the infamous “rave circle of Cornwall”, he told the interviewer that his village life meant a lot to him. It is an idyllic and secluded place which is very poetic and all, but there was little to do. It bored him immensely, and the only way to escape this boredom was to immerse himself in activities like music and work. To achieve the former, James worked in an old mine where his dad was employed just to scramble some money together to buy analogue synthesizers and drum computers.

As the music available to James was simply not interesting enough, the young producer set out to make his own with the gear he acquired. It was thus a combination of boredom and displeasure that motivated James to create music that would cater to his own musical fantasies. And while his surroundings were not the most inspiring, it at least gave the young mind an undisturbed place to produce music anonymously.

It’s now 2006, and James resides in an old bank in London, living the life so to say. In an interview with MTV he mentions some of his confrontations with fans, admitting that due to his success it was inevitable that he also gained supporters, yet he describes this relationship as “creepy and unwanted”. Stalkers were literally prowling in front of his house and disrupted his daily producing flow. This unwanted attention was a reason for his wish to return to the underdog status of his younger years, where he could live an unbridled life away from the public eye, free from any social responsibilities. To regain this feeling of freedom, Richard operated under various aliases (Polygon Window, Bradley Strider, AFX, GAK, etc etc), even though it was only a short time before his cover was blown each time.

Once we add up all of the above, it would be apparent why Aphex Twin is called “The Maverick artist”. His sole wish is to make music, and everything that hindered him in any way had to be eradicated or mediated through him. He acknowledges that his fans are an unwanted yet necessary consequence of his success, and he has to make the most out of it.

1.

Aphex Twin

Polygon Window (2001)

2.

Strider. B.

Bradley's Robot (1993)

3.

AFX

Fenix Funk 5 (2005)

4.

GAK

GAK 4 (1994)

5.

The Tuss

Goodbye Rute (2007)

6.

Aphex Twin

On The Romance Tip (1992)

1. Aphex Twin Polygon Window (2001)
2. Strider. B. Bradley's Robot (1993)
3. AFX Fenix Funk 5 (2005)
4. GAK GAK 4 (1994)
5. The Tuss Goodbye Rute (2007)
6. Aphex Twin On The Romance Tip (1992)

But how did he approach this relationship? In order to answer this, we have to splice Aphex Twin into two personalities, namely the natural performer in him, and his performance persona. The first side is his authentic self, and his intrinsic willingness to open this up to the public. The other side describes the way Richard wants to be perceived. James recognized this two-fold relationship with his audiences quickly enough and had exploited it once he became popular. By staying vague, even absurd, and covering himself in a veil of ignorance before, during and after the shows, James strived to create a performance persona that was as far away as possible from his own persona, so that he can continue to sustain the hermit life he once had in Cornwall.

James lives for his music above being loved by his audience, and his performance persona is thus a satirical image of himself that serves as a scarecrow and middle finger to all his fans. I witnessed an example of this attitude at Lowlands 2011. Totally encased by blackness, Richard did his thing, backed by the visuals from Weirdcore, a two-hour show filled with absurdities and weirdness. I felt the distance and the aversion, though I was drawn to it and ultimately intrigued by the whole thing. The shock was real, and when I arrived back home I merely wanted to know more about Aphex Twin’s music.

I believe the distance James created with his performance persona is a two-fold statement. The first is his desire for anonymity as a necessary move to safeguard his music, and the second is a message to fans, to refrain from focusing too much on the ideological aspects of an electronic artist and his creations, and simply perceive an artist’s music for what it purely is.

“I don't think electronic music is something that should be talked about” – Richard D. James