Born Richard James on August 18, 1971, in Cornwall, England. Education: Studied electronics at college in London, c. 1991. Addresses: Record company--Warp Records, P.O. Box 25378, London NW5 1GL, England, website: http://www.warprecords.com. Website--Aphex Twin Official Website: http://www.drukqs.net/.
Richard James followed a circuitous route through early musical isolation and rave DJing before becoming the leading ambient musician Aphex Twin. James, who was born in 1971, came from the remote coastal region of Cornwall, England, where his father worked in the mining industry. His exposure to music was limited to his sister's records, including those of Echo & the Bunnymen, Kraftwerk, and whatever John Peel was playing on his legendary BBC broadcasts. A few days after being introduced to the piano at age 12 by his parents, James decided he preferred playing the strings directly on the inside rather than through the keyboard on the outside. He then scavenged for one-of-a-kind instruments, learned the rudiments of electronics in school, and began composing various sounds he imagined--sometimes even while asleep. It was then, so the story goes, that he began sleeping only two to three hours each night.
James also began DJing in the Cornwall area's local rave scene when he was in his late teens. He furiously recorded his own tracks as well, many of which would later be heard on his first collection. His first hit, the single "Didgeridoo," was conceived as a piece that would help the listener wind down from a night of heavy rave dancing.
James's style, generally known as ambient music, carried on a fairly new tradition within classical music, and James brought his own edge to this tradition. Along with a handful of other musicians, he took the ideas of Brian Eno's late-'70s synthesized soundscapes, John Cage and Steve Reich's theories of minimalism, combined them with mid-'80s rave music, and further developed the nebulous genre.
Considered descendants of 1970s progressive rock acts Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream, James and fellow ambient musicians the Orb and Orbital had a much different approach to performance and marketing from the typical rock model; emphasizing the music over their own celebrity stardom, they performed by mixing their music and others' live as DJs in the shadows of their sequencers on stage. By not having any sort of spectacle to look at, the dancers and the rest of the audience--rather than the artists--became the center of the show as the music surrounded them.
In 1991 James moved to London and recorded a number of songs under a variety of names, including Aphex Twin, AFX, Caustic Window, and Polygon Window. He debuted his live performance in early 1992 at the Tresor Club in Berlin and later that year released Selected Ambient Works 85-92. With Selected Ambient Works 85-92, recorded as Aphex Twin for release by R&S in 1992, and Surfing on Sine Waves, recorded as Polygon Window for the fiercely independent British label Warp Records in January of 1993, James established his audience and his prominence. His 1994 album, Selected Ambient Works Volume II, created "eerie sound-paintings," according to the New York Times; the tracks on the release were described as "spooky" and "textured" by Rolling Stone and "deeply unsettling" by the Metro Times.
As the ambient style grew throughout the '90s, this completely electronic, elegiac variety of rave and techno began to match the sales of rock albums in Europe. In the United States, James's music gained its first broad exposure and popularity in 1994 when he released Selected Ambient Works Volume II, to acclaim on the Sire/Warner Bros. label.
Aphex Twin's fast rise to mainstream prominence was not without its wrinkles, however. First there was the small explosion during one of his concerts in Germany. "The only big problem I've had was when I electrocuted myself in front of 17,000 mad Germans at the Mayday techno festival," he told Matt Bright of Melody Maker. "I put my finger on a live terminal.... My finger just started to sizzle when it blew. I was thrown off the keyboard and all the power for the rave went down."
James didn't usually involve himself so explosively in his concerts. In fact, he often received criticism for his mediocre stage presence. Reviewing James's performance at the 1993 Midi Circus of underground dance acts in Britain as "lackluster," a Melody Maker contributor wrote, "[For] all the talk of ambient swirls, quiet genius and off-kilter imagination, he's ultimately pretty dreary.... The rock gig thing being what it is, everyone resolutely faces the stage, when they'd perhaps be better off with their backs to it." With dazzling high-tech and high-cost visuals, Melody Maker mused, Aphex Twin at Midi "would be redefining the stadium experience." Without those visuals, however, his show appeared a dud.
James staunchly defended his mode of performance against such criticism. "So?" he asked Melody Maker in response to the critique. "I don't want people to stand there staring at me. I want them to dance. What's so good about a guy bouncing around with a guitar? I'm too busy to bounce around. I usually forget that I'm doing a gig. It's as if I'm at home."
Reviewing the largest techno concert in New York ever in late 1993, Village Voice music writer Frank Owen maligned Aphex Twin's performance on similar grounds, eliciting a similar response from the musician. Asked whether he had intended an anti-performance, James answered, "Yeah, if you mean I don't ponce about onstage like some d***head rock star. I leave that type of thing to Moby." A rising ambient-techno star from the United States, Moby embraced the rock-style celebrity performance, aiming for "techno's answer to [U2's] Bono--a rave version of the rock and roll messiah." The Voice considered Moby "clearly the hit of the evening with the [New York] audience." Still, Aphex Twin ultimately represented "the artistic future of techno" for the newspaper.
The future also involved a splintering in rave music where much of it went the way of big beat trance anthems. Ambient, however, sided towards a slowed pace, often dispensing with beat altogether. This variation took on numerous names itself; post-rave, chill-out, intelligent dance music, electronic listening music.
While still performing the odd show, James became a bit of a studio recluse after the release of his 1995 record, I Care Because You Do. The album struck a fine balance between his signature ambient works and his newfound interest in experimental hardcore. His time in the studio paid off though, as it yielded the following year's Richard D. James Album, a further exploration into acid house, jungle and experimental music.
The late-'90s saw James turn harsher in his tastes as he released two fractured drum-n-bass EPs--Come to Daddy and Windowlicker--to much acclaim. As well, the Chris Cunningham-directed videos that accompanied tracks from these records received their share of airplay and were lauded for their inventive visual style.
2001's Drukqs came almost without warning as James had been spending so much time involved in remix projects of all sorts. Over the years, a number of diverse bands had invited him to remix their songs and the band Curve acknowledged seeking out his influence for their own work: "What seems to be special is the way he hears sound," band member Dean Garcia was quoted as saying in Melody Maker. "Have you heard what he did with our track 'Falling Free'? He's taken one little bit of it--we can't work out where he got it from--and made it into this kind of choral thing. It's really spaced-out and very, very sparse, very womb-like: it's actually inspired us in the way we work, and sparked off other ideas." James also reworked sides by Curve, Jesus Jones, Saint Etienne, PCP, and Meat Beat Manifesto, among others.
In 2003, he cheekily titled his remix collection 26 Mixes for Cash and it went on to receive favorable reviews from the music press, cementing his prowess as not only an ambient producer but as a gifted re-interpreter of electronic music.
Perhaps because of ambient's roots in contemporary classical music, Simon Reynolds of the New York Times deemed Aphex Twin a pioneer in the classical as well as the ambient-techno field. "While a horde of Aphex imitators have reduced ambient to little more than a soothing soundbath for the stressed-out, Mr. James has opened up a new frontier for techno," Reynolds began. "At times, he's making what sounds like classical music for the next millennium."
Despite his status as a leader of ambient, Aphex Twin created a sound that remains difficult to classify. "Richard's music isn't easy to pigeonhole," Matt Bright wrote in Melody Maker. "One minute he's crafting something which Eno or Philip Glass would be proud of, the next he's making enough racket to give Butthole Surfers a migraine.... Aphex Twin is the Midi Circus' trapeze artist." Bright concluded that the artist's sound is best described as having a texture to it: "He doesn't so much make tracks as sculptures. It's as if the melodies and the beats have a physical presence." James reportedly beamed in response: "That's exactly it! I mean, some of the tracks I've recorded for Ambient Works 2 consist of just one sound. I'm trying to make music which surrounds you, which fills the room."
by Nicholas Patti and Ken Taylor
Aphex Twin's Career
Began sampling sounds and DJing at raves in Cornwall, c. 1986; developed first hit, "Didgeridoo," in Cornwall raves, c. 1990; moved to London, DJed, and recorded singles--including ambient hit "Analogue Bubblebath"--as Aphex Twin and AFX for Mighty Force Records, 1991; debuted as Aphex Twin at Tresor Club, Berlin, 1992; recorded Didgeridoo for Belgium label, R&S, early 1992; as Caustic Window, started own label, Rephlex, and recorded "Joyrex J4" and "Joyrex J5," 1992; as Aphex Twin, recorded double-album Selected Ambient Works 85-92, 1992; as Polygon Window, signed to British independent label, Warp Records, and recorded Surfing on Sine Waves and Quoth, both 1993; as Aphex Twin, recorded EP Phlegm, 1993; signed to Sire Records/Warner Bros., mid-1993; embarked on first U.S. tour, late 1993; released Selected Ambient Works Volume II, Sire, early 1994; released I Care Because You Do, 1995; released the Richard D. James Album, 1996; released Drukqs on Warp, 2001; released remix collection, 26 Mixes for Cash, 2003.
- Selected discography
- (As Caustic Window) "Joyrex J4," Rephlex, 1992.
- (As Caustic Window) "Joyrex J5," Rephlex, 1992.
- (As AFX and Aphex Twin) "Analogue Bubblebath," Mighty Force, 1991.
- Didgeridoo R&S, 1992.
- Selected Ambient Works 85-92 R&S, 1992.
- (As Polygon Window) Surfing on Sine Waves Warp, 1993.
- (As Polygon Window) Quoth Warp, 1993.
- Phlegm (EP), R&S, 1993.
- Selected Ambient Works Volume II Sire/Warner Bros., 1994.
- I Care Because You Do Elektra/Asylum, 1995.
- Richard D. James Album Elektra, 1996.
- Come to Daddy EP, Warp, 1997.
- Windowlicker EP, Sire, 1999.
- Drukqs Warp, 2001.
- 26 Mixes for Cash Warp, 2003.
- Billboard, July 23, 1994.
- Chicago Tribune, November 5, 1993.
- Details, May 1994.
- Melody Maker, January 30, 1993; June 19, 1993.
- Metro Times (Detroit, MI), May 11, 1994.
- New York Times, March 13, 1994.
- Rolling Stone, June 30, 1994.
- Village Voice, November 9, 1993.
- "Aphex Twin," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 28, 2004).
- Additional information was obtained from biographical notes provided by Formula Artist Development & Public Relations, January 1994.