Autechre. IDM demigods
autechre From their crash onto the scene with early tracks "Cryslel" and "The Egg" to the abstract maturity of the Tri Repetae album. Sean Booth and Rob Brown have gone out of their way Lo make life difficult for music critics. Their intangible sound defies catagorization (some have been known to call it IDM), which explains their steady genre ccrossing appeal and their ambiguous influences. When they met in 1987, Mantronix and and the Miami Bass scene topped their list of inspirational forces, but the ultimate common ingredient was a capacity for radical thinking, and the idea that their strange ideas could be shaped from man made objects. It was this common ground that sparked a friendship and musical partnership that continues to knock down the preconcieved notions of art. Fast forward to the prescnt. Autechre has just released their 5th full length album to yet more critical acclaim. Their style of crunchy rhythms and minimal melody has become a standard ripe for imitating, and fans all ovcr the world wail in mass for release after rclease, guaranteeing the duo a steady income. What more could one want? Rob Brown tells us the deal.an interview with autechre's Rob Brown, by Walt Miller
FAOT: The new album tool, a little while to get out in America...
Autechre: Yeah", that's true. I think they were hooking up a decent network that was more suitable to our music, [only to] then rush it out in an appropriate fashion, It's one of them things you have to go along with for a start.
Were there any problems on the end of Nothing records?
No, not really I mean apart from finalizing the agreement, fully..."
The pressure you must feel with each album must be quite different than for someone who stands at a more commercial standpoint..
The only pressure we got is that those of our friends and the people we know and respect, sort of... like it. Anyone else doesn't really figure, We're trying to keep things really close to its natural course.
Do you feel any pressure to measure up to your last output?
No, because we know that whatever we're going to do next - If it becomes finished, it's obviously what we want to do at that pOint and the idea is that it's... I wouldn't say better, but ItS a good response to what we've been doing In the past. Otherwise, we wouldn't be happy with It. It wouldn't even exist It wouldn't even pass the first hurdle.
Do you consider yourself lud,y to have the luxury to disregard commercial agendas?
You sort of have a built in audience with each release...
What gauge do you use to distinguish your past albums from one another? Does each represent a change in the equation you use to make the music, or it based on more of a time period?
Both. It's a difference over a time period, It's curves and straight lines from one year to the next. Basically. as opposed to writing an album in a period, we just work on ideas and tracks or programming software to sort of develop music for us, And we take the best of what it all is, and complete it In the most interesting way for us after a year and a half of hearing it. Some of tile tracks might be nearly two years old perhaps. And we'll align them along side one another in the best way that we're into at tllat time, So even the album is subject to the compilation attitude, as opposed to the attitude to each individual track as well, It really charges things up a little bit, when it works well. When It works hadly, the tracks that don't fit in ai all mighy actually be a bit better on their own then tracks that might make it on the album. Its all subject to the overal! content, again.
What's your current writing method, these days. Do you still do a lot of sampling?
Yeah,yeah... We are always trying to banish old habits. But, computers play big role. We like to develop a lot of systems in computers, that enable us to start within a machine dnd build it outwards from scraich, as , opposed to using someone elses machine, someone elses interface. But still, there are machines that we consider be classic interlaces and classic machines we'll always use them. Certain samplers.
We use an Ensonlq ASR-10. Ensonlq generally, I've always liked their method of producing samplers, I know they're not the best in the world, but there's something about them that's a blt... they're American, really.
Do you still use a Nord Lead?
Yeah.. modular, as well. Recently.
The software that you use to get inside these machines... do you write the code yourselves, or is it something commercial that people can go out and buy?
It's usually a bit t3oth, you know.
So you modify existing software to make it do what you want to do?
Yeah, there's so much out there. You can build stuff up from scratch, uuing other people's method of code. Or, you can like, yeah, fuck up someone else's production and actually make it better. It depends really.
But, you're actually down messing with the code...
Yeah, to an extent we're not as low level as we could be, yet...
When you look back on a track like 'Crystel', what thoughts come to your mind?
I don't know..um ...
Do you still listen to it?
Oh, yeah, yeah.. I mean, the first thing that comes into my head is usually like the acknowledgement that most of my friends still think its the best thing we ever did. But that aside, its quite interesling thinking about the new music and what you were doing then. And how you're stili finding things to do in the new tracks. You're actually doing it unaware, unaware of doing it. It's a whole instinctive thing coming across.
Is it true that you guys once went through a brief period where you felt that everything you could learn about music had been learned, and that you were quite dismayed by it?
Yeah, I think.. that was a bit of a funny period I don't know.. it's just one of those things you go through In order to find more stuff out there, you have to realize that what you had was nothing as opposed to all of It. And we got to the point where we'd finished Amber, and in theory it was our first new album, because Incunabula was a lot of old tracks put together. And, I'm told most artists go through this. Its quite common for artists to go through a period after the first album where they think, 'Oh, we've gotta restart basically. We want to relearn everything.'
Is there a danger of that happening to you again?
I think it happens all the time, now once that switch had been made, it was permanently in that state of not taking anything for granted anymore. And only taking an effortless approach to what we're doing. Is that one of the things that drives you?
It's certainly one thing that enables us to keep going I wouldn't say 'drives us', because then it would be a rule.
And you guys hate rules.
They get in the way sometimes.
Your remixes are often abstract, bearing little resemblence to the source. How do you approach remixes, and why isn't it important to keep some familiarity to the original material?
Depends on what's there, for a start. If it's a good song, we'll probably respect it and maintain it. And do what we would have done if we were doing that song. Sometimes, the track might be really good or really bad, and we'll still completely brutalize it in different ways. I mean, you can brutalize something in sound editing, software development, or a sampler.. anything that can actually bend the audio in a section of sequences, and you still end up with some theoretical results. The actual track will sound completely different. Every approach we take, it's often one of dismantling something, but It's also one of taking It back down to its original bUilding blocks and starting up again as we would If we were using the bUilding blocks that they would have used And just do it to accomodate our tastes.
Are there times that you use remixing soley as a vehicle for a pre-existing idea? Yeah, kind of. But remixes are strange, because they're a very good opportunity to get something out quick. So if you've got a naming idea, and you want it out there quick, a remix is often a good way to do it. But then you've fucked yourself in a way, because your album ends up... all of those ideas used up on something else. So it's this weird offset. You have to keep a balance with it, I think.
So who benefits more from the remix? You as the underground artist gaining exposure, or the commercial artist gaining street credibility? Its both, but I think helping is the wrong word. Because people know the score, basically. If you got a good track on a shit band's 12", often full of shit remixes, it sets you apart in a certain way. It also sets the original artist off in a certain way. We'll get asked to do a remix for Phoenicia on Schematic, who are friends of ours, and then we'll get asked to a remix of a Japanese pop band doing a cover of a 300 year old folk song. So its like, you have to draw a line some time.
How did you approach the Merzbow remix that appeared on the tribute album, Scumtron?,br> Ouite traditionally, for us. In a traditionally, Autechre-y sort of way. Samples... Ouite a bit of respect for the original sonic content of the original track, even though the anginal track was quite... uh... odd.
Where do you see vocals as having a place in your music?
We've always had room for vocals. Some of the remixes have a heavy vocal content. The track on Artificial Intelligence actually had a friend of ours talking on it from one end of the scale to another, we use vocal samples as source waves all the time. It doesn't have to be a natural vocalist. It can be an assimilation of vocals for the same result for the same effect.
As opposed to just adding a pop vocal like Bjork, on top of it all...
I don't know, I'd like to keep on just doing what we do. I mean vocalists... it's just another instrument isn't It? Totally. Dropping a plate on the noor is just as large as having a girl In a singing booth Vocals have traditionally taken away from the music MusIc has always been guided by vocals, and I think we're more into the spinal structure of the musIc Standard vocals have been more integrated like a layer on the top that make people understand the record and identify with it We're identifying with the machines, really Besides Gescom. what is your involvement with the Skam label? We're good support Andy is a very good friend of ours. We started out at the same time. We used to live together for a few years. And then Andy set up Skam, with our sort of help and support and some ideas that we all shared And he basically runs the show, with Skam. And we'll give him tapes of stuff that we've done that he might like We're like an untapped supply of music for him. And also, we get loads more experience of meeting kids in clubs, you know, getting tapes and stuff, and we're a really good interface with him In terms of finding new artists, as well But he's got a very good ear for finding new kids as well. It's almost like a little competitive edge between us... it keeps us all strong Do you find that you're a heavy influence on any particular artists? For instance. Boards Of Canada... I think they're very much their own world I can appreciate that I think their taste is very much like a lot of our taste. But I reckon they're definitely out In their own world completely We totally subscribe to their world an alternative world And it's 100% pleasing to us It's been said that either a member of Autechre discovered them. Who, Boards? They sent Sean a record that they had pressed out themselves. They also sent Andy one, so It was sort of simultaneous awareness Can you tell me anything about the Mask releases. What is your involvement? Some of the Gescom stuff is on Mask. Andy manages Mask. I don't know if you've spoken to him before. You should call him, man. he's a top kid. He's always on the go with something We hook up with him quite often, but he's so in deep with it that we walt till hes procured something, or tell him what we think. So yeah, apart from supplying a few tracks and saying 'that's cool.' That's about It It's all pretty much all him There's some amazing demand for those first three Mask records. Yeah, over here. It's mad, isn't it? It's such a shame that he has a bit of a cnppling distnbution. It helps as well that only the right people - not to sound fascist or anything - but only the people who actually go look for it get a hold of It It's totally rewarding Yeah. but to press only 100 or 200 copies of a release. It's spawned some outrageous bidding wars over those records. Yeah, it's crazy. Its a shame really, cause it brutalizes the whole scheme of things. But that's the commitment Andy will make when he only releases a certain few Some people were making these tracks available on the internet using MP3 technology. What's your opinion about that? I think its just a shame that people don't have the object in front of them. I think that counts for a lot More than just the music as well. It embodies a lot of what the artist's all about And to get a little J megabyte, 6 minute track... it effects the performance of the music as well. I believe it does. But also, we're Into pro duction techniques and MP3s that are a pretty wicked source of. they're another filter basically. Like CD is a digital filter. MP3 IS a harsh digital filter Mini Disc IS a brutal digial filter But. we'll use really low grade filtering techniques In the way we make our music, so actually to become a format in itself doesn't really bother us. What both ers us IS when it replaces the connection you get with something physical, the object that really does embody.. it's more about the artist than you can imagine. What about copyright infringement? It's a big grey area for us, obviously Because we sample, and we get sampled. As long as people know whose idea it was, I think that's all that really matters to us. Suing people for sounding like you is rediculous. Being aggressive with someone who is just like lazy and couldn't be fucked to think of their own ideas is a natural response It really just depends, doesn't it? What are your thoughts on the term. IDM (Intelligent Dance Music)? [laughs] Thin thoughts, really I don't know If I lived in America, I'd probably have more to say about it. really Because when I first was aware of 10M it was very American. It's already a fully American approach to discussing music. It's too cathartic, I think, sometimes. It injects a load of mysterious aspects to discussing music and theories and ideas and styles, but also its just loads of opinions that might be misguided. There's a huge element of misjudgement going on But. yeah it's communication I'm into communication, at the same time, In a big way Genre terms are a necessary evil... I think words relating to music is always a difficult stumbling block. When you have to consume music and saturate it with vocal terms, it's pretty difficult Which makes a "meaningless" title like Autechre so appropriate. I believe some Greek terms use parts of the word, "Autechre", as a sound. Almost in a dif ferent arrangement. maybe The syllables actually represent some things. And some things are qUite cool. We found out that somewhere in the Greek language, 'Au-techre' basically rounds off as an idea of self necessity. Roughly Which IS quite unusual because it's a word that we didn't think existed But the sounds connected in that way represents Greek for self necessity It's a good thing it didn't turn out to mean "elephant's butt" in Chinese. or something. It would be cool if it did! That's exactly it . from one extreme to another, which we're totally up for Its well known that your musical roots include hip hop. Does hip hop still say anything musically to you. today? Oh yeah... do you know Company Flow? I'm totally into it Rawkus stuff and Company Flow Obviously, RZA. I buy all the stuff still, and I'm totally into It'S navor. How about Mantronix? Kind of a hero of yours. from the beginning. right? He's not as inspiring as he used to be. It's just a shame to see people misjudge how strong their own ideas are. But he spent so much time away When he stopped making tracks, he did loads of soul productions which was fine, whatever. But It was a bit of a watered down approach for him, because he couldnt be as frantic. His own basic sort of Mantronix sound, it was sort of brutal... it was qUite maverick, you know? And to move out of that and to be sort of quite conservative, and then come back at It again now in the 90's, he's sort of burned his books I heard you did a mini-clisc release. Was there anything you wanted to say by releasing something like that? The mini-clisc isn't exactly a widely used format. at this point. Not in the states, It doesn't seem to be. In Europe, I think it's getting a real grip. But that's not the reason we did it There's a few reasons really The format has a lot going for it. and the type of music we had totally designed itself naturally in a distinctive way And the format totally supported that Certain loops and random play functions that a good mini-disc player supports. That's the idea we were having where tracks could repeat or be inconsistently rearranged without gaps, If you like It just totally supported the music, and the music supported the format And the type of music on It also exposed lots of naws In the method of compressing all that digital Information of 74 minutes onto a tiny CD type disc They did psycho accoustic tests on a few people to find out what frequencies they couldn't percieve, and they brought this brutal regime out where whatever sound they believed you cant percieve, they removed from the audio data. So you've got these tracks that are qUite noise based, totally abstract. and the format would struggle with it But it was almost an experiment for us to see how well It works, and how badly it works What its strengths and weaknesses are. That release alone is probably going to jack up the demand for mini-clisc players in America. Yeah [laughs]. it's wierd though. Cause, we didn't forsee this but loads Of kids ended up getting them on the strength of seeing if it's worth listening to It on a mini-disc player. As opposed to Maria Carey and Oasis. So it's quite funny really It shows the power you have over your fans. [laughs) Well, I don't know, man It's the best dark side of the trip, really
"We used to sit around our mates' house setting the gear up," says Sean. "Get fucked up, nothing major. We didn't think we're going to take this out to the world and blow everyone away. I do remember thinking that this a modern form of folk music and it did feel like pastoral music to about six or so people. Now with everything cheaper, everybody has access to cheap hardware and can make music. That's why there's been a sudden upsurge in this kind of music."
"And it's why we're no longer interested in following it," adds Rob.
"There's just a big slab of stuff with very little imagination."
Indeed. There's a growing consensus amongst machine-gurgling fiddlers that cheaper software has made everything too easy and too formulaic (funny - guitar traditionalists used to say the same about Kraftwerk). In contrast, Sean's first piece of equipment demanded some brain-work. He was in his teens when his grandad, a keen audiophile, gave him a reel to reel tape recorder complete with microphone and shoulder strap.
"Oh, I just got really busy with it," says Sean, "taping outside noses and what was on the telly. It was better than making Lego spaceships."
The young Rob Brown was also remoulding sound, only with turntables.
"I'd always scare my friends when I messed with records," he says. "It can sound well austere when a record is played one per cent. None of my mates digged it."
Which is where Sean would eventually come in. Introduced by a mutual friend in their native Rochdale, the pair quickly bonded over Mantronix, Arthur Baker and, above all, looping and cutting up sound. For practical reasons it was an ideal pairing: Sean with his reels and Rob with decks. "It was important," says Rob. "In a place like Rochdale nobody else was doing what we were doing. Most of our friends would be out fighting."
Tracing Autechre's development, it's noticeable just how everything is absorbed into the group. Rob went to an architects' college, which kind of led to them conceptually unifying music with ideas of space and surrounding. They also take artwork and design very seriously. At school, Sean had difficulty with handwriting and often wrote "tags", which are combinations of letters that don't mean anything but kind of look "right". It's how they get those inexplicable track titles. And when it came to choosing music, they point to Stu Allen's show on Manchester's Sunset radio where hardcore, hip hop and leftfield tracks were intertwined.
Having built an admirably distinct sound and aesthetic, Rob and Sean have been steadily refining the Autechre blueprint, becoming more abstract ("I don't understand," yelps Sean), more out there and more confrontational. It's as if any outside influences would unravel this carefully methodical process. It's also extremely arrogant, and that, of course, is one of Autechre's greatest assets. For all the mocking, monosyllabic answers and evasive mumblings, we know they're a bunch of extremely clever sods messing up our heads with fucked-up sounds.
"For something to be avant-garde it has to push out from a movement," says Sean, "and a movement isn't worth shit unless it has a developmental force and avant-garde is a distinctive movement. The trouble with electronica now is that it's done by Ford Fiesta drivers out on a Friday night. How could we not be methodical about what we do?"
Rob and Sean clearly know where they're going with 'Confield'. Everyone else, it seems, will just have to catch up.
'Confield'is out on Apri1 30 on Warp
photos. Eva Vermandel
Originally appeared in FAQT, May 2001. Copyright © FAQT
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