Richard David James (born 18 August 1971), best known under the pseudonym Aphex Twin, is an electronic musician described by The Guardian newspaper as “the most inventive and influential figure in contemporary electronic music.” He founded the record label Rephlex Records in 1991 with associate, Grant Wilson-Claridge.
Early career: early 1990s
In 1989 James met and befriended Grant Wilson-Claridge when working as a DJ on alternate weeks at the Bowgie pub, near Newquay in Cornwall. Wilson-Claridge was intrigued by James’s sets and was surprised to discover that James was playing tapes of his own music.
James’ first release was the 12-inch EP Analogue Bubblebath on Mighty Force Records in 1991. It was first released under the moniker Aphex Twin, later changed to AFX. The track “En Trance to Exit” was made in collaboration with Tom Middleton, also known as Schizophrenia. The EP got on the playlist of Kiss FM, an influential London radio station, which helped the release to become a success.
In 1991, James and Wilson-Claridge founded Rephlex Records to promote “innovation in the dynamics of Acid — a much-loved and -misunderstood genre of house music forgotten by some and indeed new to others, especially in Britain.”
Between 1991 and 1993, James released two Analogue Bubblebath EPs as AFX, and an EP under Bradley Strider, Bradley’s Beat. James moved to London to take an electronics course at Kingston Polytechnic, but at the time admitted to David Toop that his “electronics studies were already slipping away as a career in the techno business took precedence.” After quitting his course, James remained in London and released a number of albums and EPs on Warp Records and other labels under many aliases including AFX, Polygon Window, and Power-Pill. A number of James’ tracks (released under the aliases Blue Calx, The Dice Man, and others) appeared on various compilations. Local legend has it that James lived on the roundabout in Elephant and Castle, South London during his early years in the capital – in fact he lived in a nearby disused bank.
Gaining success: 1992–1995
The first full-length Aphex Twin album, Selected Ambient Works 85–92, was released in 1992 on R&S Records. It received high ratings and praise from critics. John Bush of Allmusic described it as a “watershed of ambient music”. In 2002, Rolling Stone wrote of the album: “Aphex Twin expanded way beyond the ambient music of Brian Eno by fusing lush soundscapes with oceanic beats and bass lines.” Pitchfork Media’s review called it, “among the most interesting music ever created with a keyboard and a computer.” Critics also noted that the songs were recorded on cassette and that the sound quality was “relatively poor”.
In 1992, he also released the EPs Xylem Tube EP and Digeridoo (first played by DJ Colin Faver on London’s Kiss FM) as Aphex Twin, as Power-Pill the Pac-Man EP based on the arcade game Pac-Man, and two of his four Caustic Window EPs. “Digeridoo” reached #55 in the UK Singles Chart, and was later described as foreshadowing drum and bass by Rolling Stone. “Digeridoo” was recorded initially for the benefit of FIZZ-BOMB (at the Shire Horse, St Ives, Cornwall).
These early releases came out on Rephlex Records, Mighty Force of Exeter, and R&S Records of Belgium.
In 1993, James released Analogue Bubblebath 3. He also released a single titled “On”; his second Bradley Strider EP, Bradley’s Robot; two more Caustic Window EPs; and his first releases on Warp Records, Surfing on Sine Waves and “Quoth” under the alias Polygon Window.
Warp Records pressed and released a follow-up to Selected Ambient Works 85-92, Selected Ambient Works Volume II in 1994. The sound was much less beat and melody-driven than the previous volume. All of the track names were described with pie chart symbols, each of which was meant to be paired with a corresponding image in the album jacket, with exception for one song, which was named “Blue Calx”. To decipher song titles, listeners had to compare the length of each track with the size of each pie chart symbol. For example, the first title, which is often labelled cliffs, is realised by pairing the first symbol with the first image, which is that of a rocky cliffside. James claimed in The Wire magazine and other media that these songs were inspired by lucid dreams and synaesthesia. Other releases are a fourth Analogue Bubblebath; GAK, derived from early demos sent to Warp Records; and Classics, a compilation album that includes “Digeridoo” and the Xylem Tube EP.
For his 1995 release, …I Care Because You Do, James used an image of his face for the album cover, a motif that would continue on many of his later records. The album was a compilation of songs composed between 1990 and 1994 and represented a mish-mash of Aphex Twin’s various music styles. This was James’s last record of the 1990s to use mostly analogue synthesizers. He commissioned Western classical-music composer Philip Glass to create an orchestral version of one of the songs from this album, “Icct Hedral”, which appeared on the Donkey Rhubarb EP.
Jungle, DSP, and laptops: 1995–1999
In 1995 (primarily with Hangable Auto Bulb, a near anagram of Analogue Bubblebath), James began releasing more material composed on computers, combining a jungle sound with nostalgic childhood themes and computer-generated acid lines.
James’s early adoption of software synthesizers predated the later popularity of using computers to make music. In the mid-to-late 1990s, his music became more popular and mainstream, as he released Richard D. James Album and Expert Knob Twiddlers (a collaboration with fellow dance producer µ-ziq) in 1996, “Come to Daddy” in 1997 (#36 on UK charts) and “Windowlicker” in 1999 (#16 on UK charts). Two pop songs that heavily use Digital Signal Processing (DSP) techniques, “Come to Daddy” and “Windowlicker” were shown on MTV and became cover features for music magazines such as NME. The videos for both singles were directed by British artist Chris Cunningham and caused controversy on release because of their disturbing images and themes.
In 1998, Aphex Twin’s track “[rhubarb]” (from Selected Ambient Works Volume II) appeared as part of the BBC’s digital widescreen test transmission, which was on loop for many months as the service was introduced across the UK.
Prepared piano, laptops, and more DSP: 2000–2003
In 2001 Aphex Twin released drukqs, a two-CD album that featured computer controlled piano songs influenced by Erik Satie and John Cage. Many of the tracks’ names are written in the Cornish language (e.g., ‘jynweythek’ translatable as ‘machinemusic’). Also included were abrasive, fast, and meticulously programmed computer-made songs. Rolling Stone described the piano songs as “aimlessly pretty”. Some reviewers concluded that drukqs was released as a contract breaker with Warp Records—a credible guess, as James’s next big release was released on his own Rephlex label. James claimed to interviewers he had accidentally left an MP3 player labelled “Aphex Twin—unreleased tracks” on a plane, containing a large set of new songs, and rushed the album release to preempt an Internet leak. He also released a short EP titled 2 Remixes By AFX the same year as Drukqs. It featured two remixes, the originals being from 808 State and DJ Pierre. In addition, there is one untitled third track that consists mostly of high-pitched sounds.
Synthesizers and drum machines: 2004–2007
In late 2004, rumours of James’s return to an acid techno-based sound were realised with the Analord series, an 11-part series of EPs with 42 total tracks, averaging 2–4 tracks per EP. The series was created by playing and sequencing analogue and digital electronic music equipment such as synthesizers and drum machines. The series was recorded on magnetic tape and then later pressed on vinyl.
James was meticulous about the whole process of recording, mastering, and pressing. James has said Rephlex Records was strict on quality control, trying out various pressing-plant companies until they felt it sounded perfect. To James’s ears, vinyl or tape is better than digital, as no two copies are the same. However, label co-owner Grant Wilson-Claridge convinced James to release a CD compilation, Chosen Lords, which included 10 selected tracks from the Analord series. For the Analord series, James used his collection of Roland drum machines, bought when they were still at bargain prices. Some of the record labels display pictures of rare synthesizers like the Synton Fenix, and the notoriously difficult-to-program Roland MC-4 sequencer (a sequencer with a reputation for excellent timing), as well as the legendary Roland TB-303.
Media reports indicate Aphex Twin is now recording under The Tuss. Rephlex Records has denied that Aphex Twin is The Tuss, but Aphex Twin fans and the media have ignored Rephlex’s denial and The Tuss is treated as yet another Aphex Twin project.
In March 2009 Steve Beckett of Warp Records announced a new album for a possible release.