English electronic music duo Autechre might well treat the IDM tag with disdain; as most do laden with such illogical categorisation - yet they remain one of the most prominent and highly regarded innovators of the genre.
Returning with the 20-track Quaristice, one is led to ponder. Another sonic masterpiece? Or simply a rehash of what's already gone before? According to Rob Brown (pictured left), enthusiasts should only now be getting to grips with their previous album, Untilted...
Quaristice is Autchre’s 9th album, does it feel like you’ve been in this game 15 years? It’s funny, I was just saying to someone that me and Sean (Booth) have known each other for 20 years – we met in 1987. A lot of the kids that are getting into our stuff were barely born when the foundry was at it. I still feel like that 21-year-old guy who is still up against it with regards to what everyone else thinks about music and what it should be like, yet at the same time blessed that technology, music equipment and fashion in music has more or less retained all the things I wanted it to have. Even though it’s a shame that hip hop is so mainstream now, if somebody had told me that hip hop was going to evolve and become really mainstream and techno was going to last longer than, say from 1988-1992, then, I’d have been chuffed really. I’m more happy to be able to be doing what we’re doing for a living as well, it sounds like were still causing a bit of a stir once in a while.
I presume that was your motivation from the start? Putting music out in the first place on a CD on a record label was an ambition that wasn’t really supposed to be fulfilled; it was kind of a hobby, or more like a desperate pursuit to see if we could achieve something making music. We achieved that pretty quick from our bedrooms, realising that we could do mixes, then make those mixes our tracks, and make our tracks, hopefully, in our humble opinion, a bit better than what was going out because it was sort of trying to fill a gap in our lives of what should really exist musically and sonically.
Of course when you first started, the sounds you were using were not unique, but the method of creation was perhaps innovative. However, from a technological perspective, everyone’s starting on a level playing field now aren’t they? Absolutely, [technology] certainly creates a glut of every synth sounding the same - if everyone’s technologically-driven then there will be a common theme. I’d like to think it was different in our case but, being realistic, when we started everyone had the same gear – it was just a matter of how much money you had. People like 808 State did pretty well; they essentially had a gear line-up we would have died for - but we slowly built up over the years. I sort of disagree with you in a certain sense, I think we we’re being innovative in some ways, but to us there had already been Kraftwerk, there had already been Mantronix, and there had already been Eno.
But from a “sound design” perspective you were different? Yeah, we were aiming to do something different, that was the whole point. I think there was a yearning to have something special. I mean we’d send demos over to Belgium, because there were a lot of Belgian techno labels like Music Man and R&S, and then there were labels in Britain who would say, “Yeah, it’s really good – it’s a bit freaky. It reminds me of Brian Eno, but it’s a little bit protracted, maybe if you put an element on there and looped it a bit more regularly, like the Prodigy record does”, and we’re like, fucking hell, Prodigy’s great, but that’s done – we don’t wanna add vocals, that’s really horrible.
It was such a digression, we just rejected the whole policy of trying to get a deal and thought, fuck it, we can press up some white labels or some cassettes, or do a night of our own playing live – and things sort of stemmed from there. Before we knew it we were sending tracks to Warp Records. It took two years - we sent loads of tapes actually, and even though we stuck tracks on there that were created for universal listening, hardcore or ambient, they liked the mad tracks that we did for ourselves. We found that our own language was the one that was being pursued; it was more original and everything just fell into place.
Maybe you can help me out; because when I mention to people the name Autechre, I find that volcabularising your music is difficult, so how would you? Tell me about it. Say I meet an old uncle and he says, “what you up to these days”, I say that I make music for a living, and he says, “oh, pop star”, and I say no, not really, so he says “how do you make a living if you’re not popular”, and I say, we’re sort of popular, we just about break even and I don’t have to sign on and my rent’s paid. I try and describe it, but I can’t really. Or if an electrician comes round and says, “What’s all that gear for? Is it like 2 Unlimited?” I’d say, yeah, maybe, maybe, but not quite. I say it’s electronic; it can be really hard dance material or really cinematic stuff that can be quite enchanting or sometimes quite blurbing. As far as really trying to be technical about it, it’s impossible – and it tends to go over people’s heads if you do. At the same time you wanna big it up because you’re proud of it.
How would you say Quaristice has developed stylistically since your previous album, Untilted? It’s a shift in some ways because when we started working on the material it wasn’t actually supposed to be album material. Basically, Sean had moved house and the studios were in limbo for a while. I’ve got a studio at home, but when I’d go and work with Sean there was no major setup to work with, and all we really had was our live set equipment that we’d been doing one-off festivals with and touring. So there was a lot of material in the hardware that was relative to the live set of the last album, which was a fusion of studio-based computer hub material containing painstaking stuff we did on computer, but the majority was hardware interfaces doing a lot of the commanding and telling the computer what to record as opposed to the computer telling them what to do.
It just meant we had loads of hands-on availability to sounds and creativity, so this album came about from having massive recording sessions of jams, and before long we thought that this stuff was actually pretty wicked so we just kept recording and if we made a mistake we’d edit it out later.
Me and Sean have both got our own particular set-ups in a live situation; usually with album material we’re both behind a computer or at the workstation and it’s like a relay race, a tag-team, but this time we had two particular set ups side-by-side, like we would on stage. A lot of the album is material cut down from these huge jam sessions that we’d done, then put all the best work together, condensed if you like into a tangible passage of music – then boiled down into discreet sections that would make a good track.
I can see the lineage in that it does sound a quite varied album. Dare I say, some tracks are, not commercial-sounding, but have a bit more immediacy? Yeah, but they’re usually backed up by a serious amount of detail; it just doesn’t meet the eye at first glance. We want longevity in every track, so even the ones that appear to be the most robust, balls-out, that’s all you’re getting – there’s a lot more to it. There were tracks taken from limbo, using elements of tracks that weren’t finished when the last album was done, or tracks that were just tiny ideas that needed something substantial behind it. But, yeah, in a slightly old-school way, some of these tracks were started from the ground up.
"I would hope we’re trying to be a bit more magical than to just laden tracks with loads of events to blindside people."
What are you trying to communicate through the music and what emotions are you trying to elicit from the listener? We don’t know who is listening, what they’re doing and thinking or where they are, or even what sound system they’re using, so those givens don’t exist in music from our perspective.
But surely you’re attempting to provoke them in some sort of way? Yeah, I think so; it’s got to come across as fresh. I think the listener has got to be open to it, allow for a few uncomfortable moments. I’ve seen it time and time again; every time we put a new album out a lot of people reject it. It seems like everyone needs two years to get their heads round it, but eventually fall in love with something that’s going on. The new seems like a bit of an unwelcome gesture, but before long they’re digging it – I mean hopefully, that’s the idea.
We grew up on hip hop and electro, break-dancing, graffiti, tagging and BMX, all these brand new things that were specific to our generation – apart from old Farrahs and Pringles or whatever – but the reality was doing something particularly unique, perhaps even genre-specific – so you could argue we were just following a trend, but it was also about blowing everyone out, blowing them away within certain parameters. I think there’s always this competitive freshness that we’re trying to achieve, so that’s all there is in terms of statement or communication - if you’ve heard music like this before you’re gonna like it, if you haven’t maybe can you stick around long enough to appreciate it.
You mention the technical aspect of recording tracks, and that there’s a lot more going on in the mix than is immediately apparent. Do you think the listener requires some sort of technical understanding to get the full benefit from your music? Not necessarily. Like you were saying, there is a lot of technical stuff that people don’t notice, but I think a lot people level accusations at us, or there is an implied level of detail. I would hope we’re trying to be a bit more magical than to just laden tracks with loads of events to blindside people. A lot of people that are technically-minded or driven to listen to technical music presume that’s what it’s all about. And yeah, we really loved Mantronix early work. In the late eighties you would usually have an edit where a track that was 9 minutes long would be edited down to a 3-minute hit, whereas Mantronix tracks were almost from the edit upwards, as if he used the edit as the basis of the track, and I used to love that inside-out technical magic.
We do celebrate the futurism of that behaviour, but we’re here, it’s 2008, and kids might just presume the requirement to be hit with loads of detail and overlaid effects is there just to be valid – and I think that’s where it goes a bit wrong and people miss the point. We’ll get hit with, “oh it’s all random, algorithmic and generative” and if somebody can’t work out its metric arrangement, and can’t worked out if it’s looped or not, then they’re going to hit it and say it’s random twaddle. And that’s quite hurtful in a way, we don’t really get too upset by critics, but it just means that some people have missed the point.
You mention Mantronix, are there any artists who excite you in a similar way, currently? Erm, we’re usually a bit too absorbed to go buy loads of material. It’s interesting to just watch the scheme of things; nothing’s really happened to us, or for us, in the last 5-10 years. Real producers, producing things uniquely, like Basic Channel and their kind of think on dub and electronic house has been ripped lately, there’s more grime involved - Burial’s quite nice, but I think sometimes things gets an over-accolade.
Maybe if I throw a name at you like Chris Clark, a label mate of yours? Well, to be fair – I don’t listen to it shitloads, but I check out the new stuff. I think because we’ve been at it so long, we can see a flag being flung up where we know it’s third generation Warp or second generation electronic/IDM – I mean I hate that term, when it was coined in the early or mid-nineties, it was already outdated, it was a silly term. Every now and again you hear something; I mean Jackson was nice, but unfortunately it was overused and I heard the shit aspects on TV. Clark’s nice yeah, but in a way it’s a bit too knowing – there’s a blueprint just being used natively that wouldn’t normally be natural, but then I guess some people could say that about us, because Kraftwerk, Eno, Keith LeBlanc and Tangerine Dream had already existed for 15 years before we started doing stuff, so we were pretty late in the day.
Kraftwerk’s probably the reference point for nearly all electronic music really, would you be proud if one day they said Autechre was considered a reference point? It’s hard to say, because it’s all electronic isn’t it? I mean Richard James, when he came out with Didgeridoo, even Locust and people like that were already shaking the ground with new ideas and feelings. But at the same time if you play something like Selected Ambient Works alongside Eno’s Apollo or Music for Films you’ll find complete evidence of the same ideas. It’s not to say they’re being ripped off, it’s just that some people can stumble across the same thing. I mean, let’s face it, we’re all like sheep in a high tech world in that we’ve all got the same gear now, we’ve all heard of DX7s, an MPC or an Apple Mac. It’s a weird world we live in; if you want to be super-cynical about it, we’re all fucking clones - do you know what I mean?
If you want to get philosophical about it then we are. You do get philosophical about music, you’re sitting there and trying to justify to yourself why you should spend more time with a drum machine than with your family. It’s a weird want to sort of justify, and at the end of the day you’re just pursuing your own weird little goals, and I think those goals are based on your environment, and you’re a product of your environment. I guess hopefully our achievement is finding chinks in the armour, or cracks in the machinery that most people haven’t found yet - just because we go a little bit deeper with the gear, that otherwise is a clone of someone else’s studio.
File sharing, do you have an opinion on it, has it affected you? I think Sean’s a bit more interested. I dunno, I used to record everything off the radio when I was a kid, and swap tapes. I think now, with file sharing, the only problem is you have a lower quality recording, but within the digital domain that genuinely is a lower quality recording. When I was taping off the radio, or taping it off a friend who had taped it off the radio, I’d grown up on these kind of ghostly versions of records that existed, and I’ve chased up the original 20 years later and found that the original is a actually little less enchanting than the one I’ve got on my cassette because of the weird, esoteric nuances that bootlegging gives you.
What about ethically? I’m sort of borderline, if someone rips of a riff of ours it’s really nasty and more embarrassing for them really, but at the same time I don’t claim to have any brand new ideas, if you want to get historical about it, some of our ideas have been put forward since the 50s and 60s.