Autechre – The Futurologists

Autechre – The Futurologists


The line-up also includes fellow Warp travelers like The Aphex Twin and LFO, as well as mavericks and pioneers like A Guy Called Gerald, Cannibal Ox and vant garde perennials :zoviet*france: – “I like the way they imply music,” enthuses Booth. Veteran electronic composer Bernard Parmegiani is also slated to appear in the unlikely setting of ATP’s campsite, amid the crazy golf, beach activities and go-karting. However, Booth’s pairing of The Fall’s Mark E Smith and digital music pioneer Curtis Roads is apposite. Road’s exploration of granular synthesis (published last year in a hefty volume called Microsound, by MIT Press) represents a different, academic approach to electronica from Autechre’s, but there are shared interests there too. They’re both, for example, immersed in electronic music that operates at a subatomic level. The Fall’s Mancunian contrarian obstreperousness, however, is also a key component of Autechre’s make-up. Strange but strangely logical are the forces that propelled Autechre to where they’re at today.

Brought up in the northern English town of Rochdale, Sean Booth was acquainted very early on with the joys of mixing and taping. “When I was really young I heard ‘Revolution No 9’ by The Beatles,” he recalls. “I used to love Sergeant Pepper and Pet Sounds. I didn’t know the first thing about making records. And my dad told me all about multitrack tape recorders. He’d got it into his head that The Beatles were the first ever group to use multitrack tape recorders. I was given my first tape recorder at 11 and taught how to do edits and stuff – so I knew about editing tape. I’d record stuff off TV and do funny little vocal edits but I wasn’t trying to make music or anything.”

Picking up on the electro-funk scene inaugurated in 1982 by the likes of Afrika Bambaataa, Booth ran with a “tagging” crew, making his mark around Rochdale with his own brand of graffiti art. “I did that for three or four years,” he relates, “achieved a really obscure, peer-based notoriety and then got bored. Tagging was just a social thing, at a time when I was too young to get into clubs. But I could meet my peer group. If you’re tagging buses, you might tag 30 buses a day but the only people who take any notice are other taggers, so you really are marking out territory.”

The parallels between tagging and Autechre’s later musical approach are not so far fetched – keeping a step ahead, compulsive creativity for its own sake, outdoing the already done. A meaningless pursuit, maybe – but not a mindless one. Booth denies that he was indulging in mere juvenile delinquency, drawing this distinction: “the worst thing for a tagger is a smashed up bus shelter,” he states. “You’re waiting for a bus, not only are you getting wet through because there’s no windows but you can’t tag either. There’s nothing worse than real, property-destroying vandals.”

By 1984 he was hanging round funk import shops in Manchester like Spinning. “It was the first time I’d been in a shop where virtually everyone was black and everyone was taller than me. I was a freak for going in there, living where I was, no one I knew went in there.” Brown, meanwhile, was making up tapes of early hip-hop like Run DMC and Man Parrish’s “Hip-Hop Be-Bop (Don’t Stop)” and “Boogie Down Bronx”. “I eventually bought the originals,” he says, “but ended up preferring the tapes I grew up on, even if they were second or third generation versions, because it was etched into me that way.”

Introduced by a mutual friend, Booth and Brown immediately struck up the symbiotic, almost telepathic relationship that exists to this day. The wordshapes they began to use as titles for their pieces from the mid-90s onwards are culled from a sort of private language between the two of them.

“We don’t discuss the music in conventional terms,” says Booth. “It’s a case of presenting each other with musical ideas and seeing if the other likes them, or if they’ve got a better idea. We’re brutally co-operative. We’re all over each other’s works. The first time we collaborated, I took a tape round to Rob’s and he did a hatchet job on it. But we were fairly synchronised to begin with, so that was OK.”

“And we’ve known each other a long enough time to be honest,” adds Brown. “We couldn’t get away with not being honest any more. We can tell from each other’s tones of voices…”

If Autechre were conceived in a moment of epiphany, it was when they listened to the {ln:Mantronix} megamixes and found themselves drawn to the lightning-fast edits and remixes of The Latin Rascals and Chep Nunez. The essence of these records, they discovered, was in the treatments. “We were always waiting for those bits and we were always thinking, it’d be great if music was like this all the way through, this cut-up,” recalls Booth.

With the brutalist minimalism of hip-hop, the sleek sheets of sound emanating from Detroit and those Mantronix megamixes still bouncing around the house, the 1980s were glad times for the teenage Booth and Brown. But things were about to go awry. “I got really annoyed when De La Soul came along in 1989,” groans Booth, “and everyone said how brilliant it was. But I just thought, how lame is that? You sample some white music and suddenly you’re cool? It’s the only way a black guy can get any sort of success these days. They were loved by the indie press when they came out but I thought 3 Feet High and Rising was a low point. It was really up itself. Plus my mate Ged met them in Manchester and they were cunts to him.”

Another problem was in seeking out British hip-hop role models. “We didn’t have any major commercial examples to follow,” says Booth. “British hip-hop was hung up with the idea of authenticity, which tended to mean American-sounding. It was daft, you were chasing something you couldn’t have.”

They took some solace in the likes of Meat Beat Manifesto and Renegade Soundwave, although retrospectively, I suggest, they were at the tired, tail end of the Industrial funk noir aesthetic of groups like Cabaret Voltaire and Chakk. “But precursors to the whole Big Beat scene,” retorts Brown. Howver, Manchester was about to become swamped in baggy denim, as Happy Mondays and Stone Roses flooded the scene and the airwaves, drowning out all competing local musical possibilities. “It was a party we weren’t invited to,” remembers Brown.

And so the spurned pair took to their bedrooms. “I suppose we were given the opportunity to fester in our own space, keep in a really small circle, outside of the big volcano that was Manchester in the late 80s,” reflects Brown. With the burgeoning {ln:Acid House – The History ‘Acid} House grooves burbling through their headphones, however, they bided their time. Their first musical efforts met with the sort of befuddlement Autechre have had to get used to from certain quarters over the years.

“We’d take stuff into [Manchester independent record store] Eastern Bloc and they’d just stand there, looking confused, saying, ‘What is this?’” says Booth.

“I think with our music it was a case of ‘Keep it to yourself, guys’,” expands Brown. “We had loads of people telling us not to bother because it was a bit odd. It wouldn’t have worked in a hip-hop context.” But look at [British] groups like Hijack and Gunshot, the hard time they were having. And they were major full-on hip-hop bands.”

Hardcore became the catalyst for Autechre, as Booth attests. “It was part of what we grew up on,” he continues. “Clubs like conspiracy, Thunderdog in 1990, 1991 – they were proper, dark Hardcore clubs… that was the start of Jungle, hearing breaks starting to be cut imaginatively. I know Jungle, drum ‘n’ bass, the press scene started coming in about 1994 – but a lot of the electronica kids had already been there, you know, Aphex and people like that, before they’d worked out what category it was supposed to be in. Our first release [1992’s “Cavity Job”] was on a Hardcore label, a proper Hardcore 12” played on pirate radio. We had to make it, really, in order to get a deal, we had to make a balls-out Hardcore track. The B side was a bit more adventurous but that’s why it was the B side.”

Following a nightmare deal with a small independent label, Autechre took the seemingly unlikely step of approaching Warp in Sheffield. If today, Autechre are emblematic of the label, back then it was principally home to LFO and Nightmares on Wax. Their first real exposure came with Warp’s Artificial Intelligence compilation in 1992, which included the likes of The Orb’s Dr. Alex Patterson, Speedy J, Black Dog and The Aphex Twin, under various aliases. These artists thrived in the “comedown” zone that prevailed as E-fuelled partygoers chilled in the haze of the dawn. Autechre realised they were part of such a movement, making music aimed as much, if not more, at the head as at the limbs. “We were all completely unaware of each other,” Brown points out, “but we realised how much [we] had in common.” And their sound was still relatively organic, albeit bolstered by what Brown calls “massive samples”, as their AI contributions “The Egg” and “Crystel” showed.

Autechre’s earlier albums – Incunabula (1993) and Amber (1994) – were terrific adventures in homebrewed Techno but not radically dissimilar in method from the work of their Warp contemporaries. With each subsequent release, however, they took an increasingly remote turn, moving away from both the blissful pastures of the chillout zone and the wildfire, staplegun rhythms characteristic of the “Intelligent Dance Music” brigade. The Anti EP was a rare show of solidarity with the dance scene, a piece of musical satire against the 1994 Criminal Justice Bill and its risible injunction against “repetitive beats”. That was the last time Autechre were “about” something.

By 1997’s Chiastic Slide, their sound had taken on an increasingly disorientated, even mechanistic approach – “I’m quite into the idea of engineering being beautiful,” declared Booth back then – that not only defied all critical reference points but seemed to exist outside of nature itself. Crucially, however, there was never any doubt that Brown and Booth were doing all the work – not the machines. With each successive release, they tested both their own curiosity and that of their fans, culminating in 2001’s Confield, their most exacting, micro-surgical album to date.

Confield provided the blueprint for their latest work, Draft 7.30. It feels more fluid, accessible and shapely than its predecessor. Still, with its crunched and shredded textures, arrhythmic beats, the hothouse ping of particle bombardment, and amplified recordings of millipedes shuffling across glass, the music’s impact is astonishing. There’s an almost claustrophobic sense that Autchre are pawing and scratching at the very outer edges of what’s possible, as if the known musical universe is as constricting as a chrysalis: you’re stuck by the sheer minuteness of detail. Like the Incredible Shrinking Man, you can make out the very molecular structures of these sonic surroundings. Listening to it on headphones, you’re aware of tracks like “Xylin Room” tunneling through the nethermost regions of your cerebellum, beavering away to unclog the wormholes of the imagination.

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