Via their releases on Sheffield's Warp label, the Autechre duo of Sean Booth and Rob Brown are searching out new dimensions in electronic sound. Meanwhile, their Disengage radio show has become a community news bulletin for fellow digital denizens. Interview by Rob Young. This article originally appeared in The Wire 156 (February 1997).
Fade in. Reindeer on the streets of Sheffield: real flesh and blood reindeer, branches sprouting from their heads. A trad jazz trio materializing in and out of the crowded streets tootling Christmas tunes for the throng of happy shoppers. Music pumping from shopfronts, building sites, churches. This ain't no industrial hole: this is Disneyland.
Fade left. This is where Autechre live: the road out of town, shops flogging dodgy electronics, Boatworld. Past nosy builders; iron steps, door double locked for protection. Sean Booth, grinning, brewing up; Rob Brown mucking around in Photoshop. Conversation evolves, slowly, sprinkled by a gurgling mixtape from Miami.
For the past year and a half, this small room in Booth's flat has been the hub of Sean and Rob's daily life: it's here they crunch sounds around, burn tracks; absorb music from all the tapes, discs and vinyl they collect or receive; banter and smoke with whichever friends and associates drop by. The tools in this genial workshop are on display: assorted keyboards old and new; a mixing desk's studded plateau; Apple Mac, devices apparently cadged from the army; a battered autochanger turntable used on a Kinesthesia remix for Rephlex ("That Grundig's fuckin' hardcore", says Sean when I spill water on it).
On this array of electronic components the pair recorded their fourth album, Chiastic Slide, the title a cryptic reference to the mercurial qualities of the crossfader. On the DJ panel or the mixing board, this little slide acts as the magician's curtain, swishing from side to side to reveal marvels previously hidden. Only now, the way Autechre have engineered things the curtains have multiplied, there are boxes within boxes, screens hiding screens. Chiastic Slide harbours a maelstrom of fizzing detail, smudgy beats, shredded pulses, church organ, toxic noise hurtling towards the end of its half-life, pumice stones rubbed across the skull. Autechre and sound cant keep their hands off each other.
Fade right. "Disney-ality" is… crafted by hiding the mechanical, electrical, and labour-intensive production of the entertainments, rides and restaurants. The daily grand parade seems to come from nowhere, fill the central plaza with dancing and music, and then simply disappear. The parade's apparently effortless 'magical' appearance and disappearance is central to its overall effect" – Bruce C Caron "Magic Kingdoms" in The Sacred Mountains Of Asia.
Fade left. "Anality's pretty cool, innit?" says Sean with a smirk. "It's got its place. We like to dissect things, definitely. I think the trick is not to let the detail become the main…"
"…Attraction," says Rob, picking up the baton. "We just enjoy doing that so much. I think we're both very easily distracted, and we'll just keep moving from one element of the track to the next until we can't do any more. We throw things in that are like cars with square wheels."
"It's pretty extreme sometimes," says Sean. "It does get to the point where you're like: how far can we take this? And it's something that most people would think was totally finite, but we always manage to squeeze something out of it. All the best tracks that we hear are the sort of tracks that tweak you, by almost distracting you when you're listening to a part of it, and then something happens and you're forced to move around within the track."
Rob: "You're forced to focus on different levels."
The pair's involvement in the Manchester hiphop/tagging community in the late 80s has been well documented (including an honorary mention in the Manchester Constabulary's files, allegedly) and the influence of hiphop – its ninja aesthetics, on-the-fly tactics, insistent transformations – remains pervasive.
"The whole idea of transforming sound is hiphop, to us anyway," says Sean. "Taking something that almost already exists, and doing something fresh with it, fucking it over and doing something new, taking it somewhere we'd like it to be. Rather than the emphasis on it being different for the sake of it, it's more that it's different because we're different. We allow the fact that we don't quite fit in to be a positive thing.
"It's about sleight of hand, where you're revealing things and then pulling them back. It's that sort of dynamic. But I think that's hiphop: the whole attitude of wanting to do people's heads in a little bit but also give them something that they'll really appreciate comes from that – Mantronix to early Bomb Squad – where there were little tricks in there, and you knew the producer had stuck them in there because he knew it would do people's heads in. And it'd be like: fucking hell, how did he do that? Or, that's a totally mad thing to do with your track. But it didn't suffer because it wasn't…"
Rob: "Wasn't a showcase for those ideas."
Sean: "It was part of the flow and it worked. That's it really. That's how we've started describing it now."
Fade right. "Detailed modem maps exist for all the spaces and machinery above and below ground at all the Disney parks. These are reserved only for the eyes of those who engineer the Disney magic… Above ground, the pathways within the 'Kingdom' have a centripetal, Moebius effect, always bringing the visitor back from the edge to the centre. The entire park feels much larger than it 'really' is (no scale is provided on the map)" – Bruce C Caron, "Magic Kingdoms".
Fade left. In the conventional language of music there are few maps to guide the listener around the textural chasms and plateaux of a sound such as Autechre's. It's not that it's intangible, because it seems to reach into your mental machinery and turn cogs that have lain unused since the dawn of evolution. But in the manner of all sound that inspires awe through immense, alien beauty, from AMM to Brian Ferneyhough to Sean's current favourite Tod Dockstader, there are few fixed stars to guide you through its universe. Track titles are a kind of refracted technical English ("Rettic Ac", "Cichli", "Recury"). Oiled rhythms run like clockwork, but slyly shift gear on "Cipater" a tense breakbeat shuffles into 3/4 swingtime before you've realised it's happened; "Calbruc" tricks the brain into thinking it's speeding up imperceptibly across four minutes; "Tewe" is a jungle of bleached, dry wood, the flesh of drum 'n' bass stripped down to its tree of nerves. Throughout, Rob and Sean shepherd their sonic flocking patterns with increasing confidence.
"I think a lot of people, when they're constructing complex music, have this idea that for something maddeningly complex to change into something else that's maddeningly complex you've got to do it suddenly," says Sean, "But there are millions of ways you can do it, because you can have your entire track changing piece by piece as it rotates, and that's what we're into. We like things like a puzzle where it's revealing itself and changing. And you can almost follow it, because it works the same pace as your brain works. The trick is not to get it to work faster or slower, but to get it in tune with yourself. And obviously there are some people who work faster than that, and they'll hear it and think this is boring, and there are people who work slower than that, and they'll think this is too much. For us it's the right pace."
Meeting Rob and Sean, you get the impression that they are rarely idle. Their first album, 1993's Incunabula, was a distillation of the tracks they had produced over the previous two years; at the same time, they'd been DJing on a Manchester pirate radio rig. They still have a regular weekly broadcast, but now it's strictly legal: their Disengage show which goes out live in the wee small hours of Sunday mornings on Manchester's Kiss 102. They treat this two hour window like a regular bulletin to their followers, friends or random tuners (one night, apparently, the show commanded 100 per cent of the area's listenership). "It turned out we managed to get total creative freedom," says Rob. "It's just so awesome because it's a direct link to people's thought. It's first hand, without having to go through someone's filtration system."
"It's like doing a tape for shitloads of people," adds Sean. "They don't see it as being any more than that, either, don't see it as being a new release or anything – none of that judgmental crap comes into it."
The duo evidently treasure the construction of close, personal links with kindred spirits, and during the conversation we listen to various mixtapes that have reached them via friends and musicians – "proper labcoat stuff," Sean calls it. Remaining at ground level and in touch with their audience is their way of keeping ahead of the game – a hefty preoccupation in a climate where, as they put it, "there's shitloads happening and it's way under the surface". Wider audience reaction doesn't enter into the equation. "You don't want to think about the way it's going to affect other people, but you do because there's that element of wanting to get inside people's heads and fuck around with them," says Sean.
They hint at a brief period of crisis, around the time of 1994's Amber. "We went through a really annoying phase a couple of years ago," recalls Rob. "It was like: is that it?"
"Is that all there is to learn, do you know what I mean?" adds Sean. "But that's wrong, obviously. You basically have to come right out of yourself and realise what it is that drives you in other people's music and in your own music. There's obviously learning, but you've also got to allow for the discovery of new things even if you might not be prepared to acknowledge that they exist, and new tricks will become evident. No matter how much you think you've learnt, you can't have learnt everything. That's what we've realised now. We listen to a lot of our new stuff and it seems to be coming from somewhere other than what we can understand. That's probably why it seems slightly magical, I suppose. It does to us, in a childish sort of way."
Fade right. "Far from the violence of the Tri Repetour, Ae as Gescom combined forces with the super-Ambient :sophie and franz: to provide about 1.5 hours of total head food. Gescom's subtle beats and rhythms empowered the ambience suggested by :sophie and franz:'s organic sounds, sliding sand, echoed and filtered whistles, hand claps and weather reports. The set was one continuous piece that had the whole crowd undecorously screaming for more." – From IDM newsgroup, www.hyperreal.org, April 1996
Fade left. For an outfit that claims, "We literally spend all our time up here in this room", Autechre are surprisingly well-travelled. A comprehensive tour of the UK's less salubrious indie backrooms in 1995 laid the groundwork for longer jaunts around the USA and Europe last year, by which time their sets had become fully improvised affairs, unsequenced and unpremeditated. They also found time to link up with Ben Ponton of Newcastle's :zoviet*france: for a couple of low key but highly rated collaborative performances. The experience changed them, "I don't think [:zoviet*france:] are afraid of anything when they're in front of their equipment and there's an audience," says Rob. "Even if something went wrong they'd totally exploit it."
Sean was impressed by the ease with which the Newcastle alchemists were fusing elements of free improvisation and electronic manipulation. "They've got such a clue about composition and when to do things, it's almost totally based on instinct. It's almost like gamelan: they just feel that it's all in there and all you've got to do is tap it, get the timing right and bring it out in front of people. Whether it was good or bad doesn't matter. We just came back and felt different: it was like somebody giving us license to basically do all the things we'd wanted to do."
There are still technical limitations when they play live, but they're more enlightened about ways of getting round them. "It's just like DJing," explains Sean, "but with 30 tracks and FX and all the other shit that we've got up there. But you couldn't really write your next drum pattern while your present one was running, which is where we want to get."
"We could if we had different equipment," Rob amplifies, "But we opted for a really simple approach to the set-up we had on stage, but gave everything so many branches of branches of branches, you could virtually reshape the structure of what we were doing as long as we put enough there in the first place. What I'm trying to say is, we have so many loops all ricocheting around, if you know what you want in a certain place you just select it from a certain area of a certain loop, and you're thinking about maybe five or six of these simultaneously. You've got a really amorphous set-up."
"And we don't talk to each other any more," says Sean, "which is well smart. We're pretty on it, aren't we? I'm really into live stuff because it's the only time when you're subconsciously trying to make the track go the right way – that keeps us in sync. It's like DJing times 100, because there are so many options, so many ways you can take it just from your small area of work. People think that because it's electronic it has to be as tight as you can get it. It's not the point at all. The point of the electronics is just to give yourself extra pairs of hands so that you can do more than you can do with your own hands. And you should still be doing the maximum that you can do. Otherwise there's no point in being there you might as well send a fucking disk down."
It's refreshing to hear him say this, at the end of a year that was – how to put it? – trumped by the anal fraternity. Anal: that's the word frequently employed by musicians such as Richard James, Tom Jenkinson, Mike Paradinas and Luke Vibert to describe the painstaking programming of micro-incidents – beats, feints, slurps, squeaks, you name it. While the process undoubtedly created some of 1996's most dazzling records, it threatened to push the content and representation of the music into a kind of playground humour, fart-gag aesthetic, culminating in Aphex Twin's farcical "drink milk from the milkman's wife's tits" Benny Hill update on his Girl/Boy EP. Autechre are by their own admission anal to the max, and revere Richard James as "the most state of the art musical scientist there is". Yet they are searching for ways to incorporate complexity into a broader vision of self-transformation.
"We totally love and respect what he does and respect him," says Sean, "but it's different to what we do, because he doesn't allow his soul to show through as much, I think there's not enough emotion in music at the moment. There's a lot of people our age who are making music that I think is absolutely stunning technically, except for the fact that the emotion's been somehow lost in the process. A lot of people are getting on a complex trip, but I think they've kind of forgotten where it all came from: the reason why they wanted to make music in the first place goes out the window. It's that scientific approach: it's knowing you can do things, and that knowledge that you're capable of producing certain results is actually really negative, because it makes you forget that you have to discover things still.
"Feelings are cheesy, when you break it down," he goes on. "I think people see feelings, or emotion, honesty or integrity as being cheesy things. That's probably quite a high contributing factor to this."
Fade right. I meet Autechre on the 13th of the month. On the way, I purchase items in a chemist amounting to £13.13. The last track on Chiastic Slide, which I listen to on the train, clocks in at 13'13. My hotel room is 113. In the evening, at Warp's Christmas party in Sheffield's Music Factory, I'm handed ticket number 131 at the cloakroom.
Fade left. There are codes, messages and private jokes encrypted in their music, they tell me, but they won't talk specifics. I say I think what they do best is make tiny tweaks rather than grand gestures; except they make the tweaks in unexpected directions to achieve maximum effect. Even the secreted (their word) language of their track titles softens the hard-consonant Ks, Qs and Zs of phuturespeak into Celtic-sounding vowels: "Dael", "Tewe", "Pule", "Nuane". Their vision of the UK's political future is bleak, to say the least, and leads them into bitter silence. Yet their imaginative future, the one they are constructing in this little square room, is more optimistic than the Thatcher generation's Dark Age visions of riot police, 24-7 surveillance and Euro-conspiracy.
"It's just started, late this century, there's a quest for something," says Sean. "God knows what it is. Quite a lot of people have started to come full circle, and maybe it's because of the key configuration we use at the moment they're starting to resort to what was considered to be music three or four hundred years ago. You're almost programmed to believe that's the absolute. I think that's dangerous, I mean people who are going back to a classical approach, where things get a bit more technical and a bit more considered, and almost completely step-time programmed. It's completely to do with control, and very scientific and cold. Instinct isn't chaos, for us anyway. I think it's what most other animals rely on, and we've forgotten how to. More ancient music is the way we want to go. It'd be nice to get to the year dot. I think that's the whole point really: to find out exactly where it came from, because once you've found the base, you can explore new territory."
Fade right. Embedded in the fabric of the south wall of Sheffield Cathedral: a complete set of standard measures picked out in the city's steel, from the medieval rood and perch right up to the European metre, calibrated correct at zero degrees centigrade.
Fade left. "Make them think what you want them to think," Sean is saying as I switch off my tape recorder. "It isn't for any other reason than you'd think they'd enjoy thinking it."