Autechre Melts IDM
UK duo spans from pirate radio to the dark side of the Internet
By Conor Walker,
9:00AM, Thu. Oct. 8, 2015
The foundry of Autechre melts decades of dance and experimental music into plasma. Its indefinite shape and volume enables the Mancunian duo of Rob Brown and Sean Booth to mold electronic music into whatever they see fit. Three decades after their 1987 inception, Autechre loads into the Vulcan Gas Company on Tuesday. Booth spoke by phone from Chicago.
Austin Chronicle: Are the components of chance in your music premeditated or do you stumble upon elements and allow them to run amok?
Sean Booth: Even though a lot of it is deterministic, there’s quite a lot of feedback within the software. I’ll use conditionals. If one thing is occurring, another should occur, or if one occurs too much, another should occur or not occur, but the thing occurring may also have conditionals attached to it, which relate, to say, a third thing that may have conditionals relating to the first. You can quickly get into territories where you can’t necessarily predict the output of the system.
But I still wouldn't call that chance. I would say it’s a limitation of my brain, of not being able to perceive the pattern that’s there. When I discuss chance elements and randomness – because there are lots of different types of randomness – certainly where computers are concerned, there’s no such thing as pure random. It’s just implementations of different ways of achieving something that’s unpredictable to a human in a given context.
AC: You’ve shifted to a more software-oriented approach from strictly using hardware in the Nineties. How has that treated your work and how has it played with your sense of improvisation?
SB: With hardware, you can do a lot of things similar to software. You can use analog sequencers to overdrive each other. You can quickly get into areas where you can’t determine the output. Its output will change quite a lot, to the point where it might not perceptively repeat itself.
With software though, we’ve been able to make more complex ways of working. I’ve never had an issue with predictability. I’m going to respond to something regardless of whether I knew if it would react unpredictably or not.
So I suppose it’s different now. Obviously the nature of building software patches is different than working analog sequencers or drum machines. But we were always trying to get the most out of our gear. It led to using old equipment in ways that were perhaps unconventional at the time.
AC: What about Cygnus (Philip Washington of Dallas) inspired you to bring him on tour?
SB: I’ve been a fan of his for about 10 years. We used to hang out on the same message board. He would spam us with these fucking amazing tracks. They always banged out to me. They were quite electro-influenced, but early on there was more of an IDM feel. There was also this weird soul thing going on. And he just has an ace grasp of crisp soul chords that remind me of Detroit – that utopian futuristic soul sound that I can’t nail at all. I literally had no idea where this kid was coming from.
I don’t think he understands his talent. There are so many pretenders doing dance music to a real fucking entry level standard. He just blows my mind – both his talent and how unknown he is. You have labels signing lesser artists with more shine than he gets. Nobody's heard of him and he’s fucking amazing. I know there’s hundreds of artists out there who don’t get any shine with all these mainstream people out there ....
Philip is an example of someone who can be retro and forward simultaneously. Because he’s much younger than me, I see his interest in electro as fascinatingly asynchronous.
AC: Like a nostalgia for something he didn’t live through?
SB: Right. Exactly. A bit like Boards of Canada when they came out in the Nineties. A nostalgia for something he wasn’t there for originally. There’s so much house and techno coming out, but so much of it lacks the essence, whatever it is.
AC: In the early Nineties, you played a role in the rise of pirate radio. How did that experience influence the trove of material you bring to your music?
SB: It was an interesting thing to happen to us. We were initially invited to a station by these guys we met on a bus, which is so random. We ended up DJing for them in 1988, then we had a load of records stolen, and then we got invited to do an interview. At the time, we were just trying to promote our material. We would do anything at that point. We weren’t really getting many opportunities. We went to the interview on Homeboy Juju’s show. After the interview, they offered us jobs as DJs and we had enough records to pull it off.
We didn’t really have enough money to keep buying records every week, so we approached a local store to offer to do a Top 10 if they loaned us records for a couple of days each week. So we’d go in there on a Saturday, get a load of records, do the show on Sunday, and bring the records back Monday. That worked out really well. We had the pick of any new release we wanted. We’d buy the ones we really liked, and the rest we would play.
At the time, we saw it as an opportunity to play demos and the tracks we were working out. Most of the tracks we were doing were a little bit ahead of what was coming out, and we were more interested in making the kind of music for people to listen to at home. There wasn’t enough of that music coming out in ’91. There just wasn’t. There were bits and we’d sneak them into sets. We’d have this thing where we’d be playing really bangin’ Belgian techno tracks and then suddenly this abstract weird ambient techno track out of nowhere would pour out, and then it would be loads more bangin' Belgian techno.
That was the way music was being released; the weird, chilled-out, interesting tracks tended to be on the B-side of this hard brutal dance music. We knew the audience was the same. We knew the people making the tracks were the same people, but there was this taboo about mixing up these disparate types of music. In that respect, it was kind of genre-defining in a way. There wasn’t a genre for all these B-side tracks because there wasn’t a way to categorize them. We felt there was a lot of open territory.
On a Joey Beltram record, there would be a track on the B-side that was a 95 BPM weird hip-hop track. It wouldn’t get any plays because it was selling to all these DJs who would just play the hard tracks.
Occasionally you would hear one of these tracks in a mix or you might hear it in a chill-out room. And there was this weird thing where the only place you would hear weird dance music would be in chill-out rooms inside the clubs and at raves. You wouldn’t even hear them when you went back to people’s houses after the club. They’d all be sitting there listening to 140 BPM hardcore tracks waiting for their E to wear off.
Around the same time as our show, we would stay in on Saturday night. One of us lived in a shared house, so we’d all go there, take acid, and listen to records all night, because there were records we knew we wouldn’t get to hear if we went out. And they were really important records. Autechre kind of grew from this idea that you can make dance tracks that are primarily for people to listen to away from the club, because they just didn’t fit with other genres.
It was almost the stratification and the genrefication of the music that made what we did happen and become a genre. Even though we didn’t want it to be a genre. With radio, you have types of latitude you can’t find in the club. It’s a shame. When I first started going out, it was a lot more mixed-up.
AC: Since pirate radio, have there been other techno-cultural bridges that have had a similar impact on your compositions, and have you found a similar level of freedom with the advent of the Internet and how it took absolute pull?
SB: Not initially. Initially, the net grew slowly. It sort of exploded in the last 10 years. Beforehand, it was a little bit geek-level. You’d have a lot more debate and a lot less capitalization. People understood the Internet clearly back then, whereas now a lot of people getting involved seem to only understand social networks and content delivery systems, which are quite restrictive in a way.
Obviously we have an increase in speed and Web 2.0, but it’s more stratified. Where else do you go for information? You go to IRC? Loads of people I know now are on Newsnet, which is fucking weird. You don’t hear too many people talk about newsgroups anymore. They almost don’t exist. Obviously there was precedence. Once I got on the Internet, I started to understand it. In the mid-Nineties it was really different. Most of the kind of people who would be on the Internet and the kind of interactions that I was used to experiencing were all slightly somewhere on the spectrum.
Now, it’s restricted to domains and environments where people have a degree of anonymity. It’s interesting what people now consider the dark side of the Internet. Early on, that’s what the Internet was. People were fucking horrible. It wasn’t the techno-utopian paradise people make it out to be.
AC: We’ve definitely developed an online etiquette.
SB: I like the Internet a lot, but the majority of people using it aren’t going much further than Facebook or Twitter. They’re basically involved in some sort of ideological fight with a stranger or involved in some kind of weird circle jerk/echo chamber, where they all ping on some basic political issue.
AC: Not to mention that in the echo chamber, the pings are constantly mined by a corporation selling the data to another corporation.
SB: Exactly [laughs]. It’s the last environment you’d want to be voicing yourself. It’s just going to end in tears basically. I’m pretty sure it’s not good for music either, but I don’t want to get into why that might be. I can see music getting more and more stratified with people clinging to their definitions and heuristics in a way that didn’t exist prior.
I really would not like to be coming up right now. If we just arrived and we were doing music at 19 again, honestly, no one would notice what we were doing. I’m pretty sure of that. Not because it’s musically more different, but purely because of the numbers involved. It’s really hard to get people’s attention for more than five minutes. It’s getting to the point where it’s almost pointless to put releases out. You work on something for two years and then it will get tweeted for a few days. It can be pretty fucking soul-destroying.
With Autechre, we’re in a strong position. I’m not saying any of this by way of complaining, but I wouldn’t want to be a strong artist trying to make a name at the moment. I would know where to start, but I don’t know if I would achieve a level of fame.
I don’t really know much about the history of American radio, but seemingly, it used to be more local – at least in the Eighties. And you’d have scenes getting built up and eventually some of these scenes would get strong enough to be able to be exportable to people outside of the cities giving a fuck. Whereas now, you don’t really have that opportunity. The midsize clubs have closed because of gentrification. They’re either apartments, shops, or restaurants. It’s difficult for anything to flourish. You’re either tiny or fucking huge. Making that jump is really difficult.
It took us about seven, eight years of hard work to get through the transitory phase. Nowadays, I don’t even know where we would start. You have to achieve a huge level of success early on or forget it. People today put out records knowing they won’t turn into a career. It’s normal now. It used to be that every artist was naïvely idealistic. They expected to achieve a certain level of success.
I’m meeting more and more young people who know they’ll never make a job of it. They’re just doing it for fun. It seems horribly defeatist.
AC: I’m curious as to what that psychology does to the music.
SB: I reckon it just makes it really stale.
AC: Can you talk about your longstanding loyalty to Warp records?
SB: They don’t give me any stress about content. I can just deliver whatever I want and they’ll put it out. They trust us to come up with something that’s vaguely decent. We didn’t expect to be working with them after 20 years, to be honest, but I’m cool with whatever they want to do.
AC: And what about Warp’s role in the visual design of your records?
SB: Warp literally has no involvement in anything creative we do. If you see any graphics, it’s because we’ve approved them and worked with the artists. We’ve worked with a few different designers over the years. Mainly Designers Republic, who have done the vast majority of our releases. But also, a guy called Alex Rutherford. And then we did a few sleeves ourselves. In terms of Designers Republic, they’re the most awkward and the most likely to do something we don’t expect, but it’s usually something we’re into. We have occasionally not liked ideas they have come up with, but more often than not it’s something that grows on me quite quickly and I end up really liking.
Visual aesthetics obviously play into what we do. We’re visual people, which is why we put the lights off, otherwise we just think about visuals. But we don’t really think of the visual aesthetic when we’re making music. We only think about presentation when compiling for releases. And that’s partly why we use designers. They offer different vantage points.
AC: What does remaining contemporary mean to you?
SB: It’s impossible to judge what’s relevant now. The Internet has made things too diffuse for people to even know what’s fashionable. People are quite often wrong. I live in a city that has a lot of interesting music. Manchester, which is a bit like Chicago, has scenes that have been slowly developing and growing. At the moment, there’s this jungle/drum n’ bass scene that’s not being reported at all, even by journalists living in Manchester.
You can have a whole scene that's really vital and producing a lot of good records, but you won’t see any evidence of it online or in magazines. It’s partly due to the clickbait nature of the Internet. It prevents information from getting in. And it’s to the point where I don’t even know anymore; being concerned about relevance is old-fashioned now. It’s had its day.
It’s not bad to not have presence, not to be relevant. It’s more about producing work and putting it into the network to see what the results are, rather than creating some work and then promoting it until the network is aware of it. I don’t know about the contemporary thing. We’re old, right?
AC: Lastly, is Autechre side project Gescom deceased?
SB: It’s on life support. There’s been this internal pressure to produce more stuff, so it’s just a matter of getting people together. Now people are older, they have kids, they need more space, they’ve moved further apart. Getting everyone together isn’t as easy anymore. Opportunities for collaboration are rare, but there’s still material being recorded.
AC: Whatever happens, I’m looking forward to it.
SB: It all depends on who’s visiting for the weekend.