Autechre's own take on techno is so far from the mainstream that the duo, Rob Brown and Sean Booth, can scarcely understand why anyone shares their tastes. The fact is that they do, in their thousands. Christopher Holder heads to Sheffield to work on his studio tan.
Most techno artists will carry on about getting the most out of their equipment, but Autechre take this ethos almost to the point of absurdity.
I don't say this lightly, but after I was given a guided tour of the entrails of a Casio SK1 home keyboard/sampler, it got me thinking about what lengths you can go to get to know your equipment without contravening a local by‑law.
"See this chip here? If you connect any two of these points together, it crosses the samples together. You can get ring modulation, flangers, delays, and all this other timed‑based stuff. So we're going to try and get a switch fitted on the back that can move across the points, that way we can adjust it in real‑time in a live situation."
It's not like Sean and Rob of Autechre are so skint that they're having to fashion primitive electronic bleep boxes from bits of their neighbour's Skoda and a roll of double‑sided tape. Oh no, their studio is replete with covetable kit, it's more the boys' obsession with getting their equipment to do precisely what they want it to do. Nothing is spared: Emagic Logic Audio has been so heavily customised its barely recognisable, their ageing Ensoniq EPS sampler has had it's operating software replaced with something more in the Autechre image, while just about every synth in the studio bears some scars of customisation. Here is a group for whom 'Danger, no serviceable parts inside' reads, 'hack away boys, you might find something interesting'.
[Mental note: avoid buying used gear from any Sheffield number... just in case.]
Autechre's music, not surprisingly, sounds like a love affair with their equipment. The actual story of how the duo started takes us all the way back to 1987 when Sean and Rob were grooming themselves for the life ahead by running with graffiti gangs and dabbling in tape splicing, remixing vinyl cuts. Their edits were chunked up with the help of an 'acquired' Roland TR606 drum machine, and spiced up with the help of the beloved Casio SK1 'sampler'.
Their first big break came in 1992 after joining avante garde techno giants, Warp Records, in what would prove to be a partnership of mutual appreciation. Alongside such luminaries as The Black Dog and Aphex Twin, they came to prominence on the seminal Artificial Intelligence compilation. Soon after, their debut album, Incunabula, entered the UK Indie charts at Number 1.
...we don't know anything about music, we still don't understand what music is really.
Despite the best efforts of cynical 2 Unlimited‑style sabotage, techno is still an underground movement, but even so, the sonic rules of membership are strict and the purveyors generally adhere to those rules with striking diligence — this is what keeps the nucleus of the movement alive. Autechre are the exception that proves the rule. Their work is quite literally without compare (although there are some Aphex Twin overtones, and vice versa), and happily dispenses with conventions such as constant time signatures, resolving chord sequences, and the normal ebb and flow of song structure. This year, Autechre's new LP, Chiastic Flow, is a classic example: rich, flowing soundscapes counterpointing spikey, belligerent beats. But when is a departure from what's regular, one departure too many?
Sean: "That's the thing, what's regular?"
Rob: "You can go too far, but then that's for you to decide. We've found ourselves thinking at times that we might have gone too far. But we've always been in our own space — it's hard for us to imagine where that datum or line of reference lies."
Sean: "Maybe it's a curiosity thing as well. In the studio it's a case of 'wouldn't it be interesting if'. You then try it and you find that you like it, and once you've started doing it, then you don't think about any other way of working. You can't help but be single‑minded, you get addicted to finding things that you like."
Rob: "Discovery is really important."
Sean: "It's finding something and thinking, 'that's really good actually,' then trying to understand it. It's definitely not about the musical process, we don't know anything about music; we still don't understand what music is really."
Sean: "The first stuff we had was a [Roland TR] 606, a [Casio] SK1 and SK5, then a Boss delay unit. Then we got our [Roland MC] 202, a Tascam 244 4‑track and a Juno 106. It's grown so slowly that we're totally au fait with it all. But you can't forget, especially with the amount of software that we've got now, that it's very easy to get into a specific way of working and to forget what it's like to use an analogue synth, to have to deal with 40 controllers at once, for instance."
Rob: "Modern software is so possessive, it draws you in and you stay there with it, you become a bit of a convert to it. I can see that happening to a lot of people around us as well: 'look at this, try that'.
"A couple of months ago we bought the Kenton Pro4, and our old Korg MS20 which we had to delay on the 4‑track because it was out of time with the trigger, was all sorted out. Now we can do anything again with our old gear; it's totally in sync with what we do on the computer. Wild really."
Sean: "It's decent being able to use the [MC]202 sequencer again."
Rob: "Yeah, it's not just slaved to the computer, with MIDI note velocities and all that, you can work within the 202."
Sean: "We could get the same results if we used the sampler but it's just having to use that interface. Some people might think it's a backward step, but it isn't."
Rob: "It forces you to be led into different territory."
So let's talk sequencers then.
Sean: "I like the 202 sequencer. It's like playing dominoes or something."
Rob: "It's more like working with Lego I think."
Sean: "As long as you know what you're doing it's like operating any machine, I think. For instance we can sequence patterns well fast on the [Roland TR] 606, and we can do stuff well fast on the [Roland] R8, and they're two totally different drum machines in terms of the way that you program them. They're polar opposites — with the 606 it's all flashing in front of you, while you're working blind with the R8.
"If you're using Logic you're not blind to anything, everything is totally visible. Quite often we'll find ourselves turning the monitor off in the studio because that's the only way of telling how much there is sometimes, especially using Logic or Cubase. Meanwhile with the R8, it has a pretty decent sequencer, but no real visual interface."
Rob: "With the R8 it's almost like you have to know the sequence inside out, through having it in there and in your head, rather than being able to quickly refer to it every time you're not quite sure about something. With something like Logic you can be totally consumed by the screen. You know what all the dots mean, but after hours of staring, it can lose all significance — you're not listening to the music."
Sean: "We've got a big enough computer to have three or four sequencers, but we use Logic over anything else because it's got the environment that we're most comfortable with."
Rob: "As it stands, Logic seems to have all the best aspects of all the available sequencers, and we grew up on Creator as well, so we just fit into that German thing quite easily."
Are there many knocks on the studio door to get the Autechre slant on a single?
Rob: "We get a few and we tend not to turn anything down. We're well into remixing."
Sean: "That is unless we're spewing with ideas, then we won't go near a remix, because you think, 'why would I waste these great ideas on this cheesy, made‑for‑Japan remix'. Usually we're not too busy and we have a laugh doing them. You can get a DAT full of anything..."
Rob: "... and from the onset you can picture the remix you're going to do. We did a Jap thing the other month and we knew it would only take a couple of days. Then we've got the Stereolab remix coming up and I can imagine that we'll spend ages on it."
Sean: "We've never made a judgement like, 'we only remix tracks that we like listening to'. In fact we quite like doing tracks that are shit, because you can always make something out of them that you like."
An Autechre remix might be remarkable for many things but not for its homage to keeping the original tune in any recognisable form.
Sean: "No, no, our remixes are all from the original, it's made from the original. Usually it's all samples of the original track."
Rob: "Although, I see your point, people hear it and think, 'erm...where's it gone?'"
Sean: "Our excuse is, we use the same source material as they do, we just approach the source material in a different way."
Rob: "It's quite rude in a way."
Sean: "No it's not. It's just taking remixing to its logical conclusion — well, not even a conclusion — it's still taking the constituent parts of the tracks and making a new track from those parts. Usually people stick a breakbeat underneath it and that's often seen as more of a remix than us just taking the sounds used in the original track."
...having the ideas, that's something you can't learn.
Rob: "That's the traditional view: dub it up, stick reverb on the hi‑hats or whatever. I reckon some people get offended by our remixes because it's almost like a rude gesture saying, 'we started with the same source material as you, but we've come up with this.' People might take that as a personal insult, although I doubt it."
Sean: "I don't think they give a shit!"
Rob: "But you could see how that point could be made. You're not just adding bits and pieces."
Sean: "That's almost the opposite of remixing though, it's not mixing at all is it?"
Rob: "But does that make what we do 'reproduction'?"
Sean: "No, it's a re‑interpretation from a certain viewpoint, that's all it is."
I had to intervene before the lads reached for the Roget's and Oxford Concise.
What about remixing/reproducing/reinterpreting Autechre, what's the policy?
Sean: "We haven't really given anybody the opportunity."
Rob: "We sometimes get people sending us unsolicited versions of our tracks."
Sean: "To be honest I think it's quite hard for people to separate our tracks to remix them. When we do a remix, most people send us the sounds, the individual tracks or they'll send us individual samples. Our music isn't always that easily separated."
What about a more conventional approach to remixing an Autechre track. Take 16 bars of a tune that has some conventional club appeal for instance, and have it remixed by David Morales, Todd Terry, Tiny Tim or whoever?
Sean: "It's certainly something we've contemplated. The only people that we'd want to remix our stuff at the moment would be Stock, Hausen and Walkman. They're the only people I reckon who would remix it in a way that we would be happy with."
But just when I had Sean thinking more conventionally about the remix process, Rob steps in.
Rob: "Some PR agency sent us this free portable MiniDisc player, that could remix our tracks."
Sean: "Yeah exactly, f**king wicked!"
Rob: "You can just give each bar a different ID mark then press random play, and it's seamless. That way you get a different mix everytime."
Who said MiniDisc players would never catch on?
Autechre write very much to their own agenda and are seen in techno circles as being the purist's purists. Superficially, many will note that a purist in this sphere is anyone who can sacrifice all musical content for the sake of showing off what their gear can achieve. This couldn't be further from the truth in the case of Autechre. For them their compositions are about shapes, colours, movement, and the process of coaxing their equipment into more challenging ways of reproducing those pastiches that exist in their collective consciousness.
Rob: "It's interesting looking back on our old stuff. It's mostly pretty amusing, but sometimes you'll find ideas that you're still pursuing heavily now, and you didn't even realise you were pursuing then. That's the real magic in it — knowing you had the ideas all along. We think we know loads about what we're doing, but then you realise you instinctively knew it back then, without having a clue about how you were doing it."
Sean: "We had all the ideas back in 1988, we just didn't have the gear. The only thing that helps us on our way, or accelerates our progress, is being able to assemble things more quickly. In terms of having the ideas, that's something you can't learn."
For more about Autechre, check out one of their most detailed fan sites at www.autechre.nu
Rob and Sean had been regular visitors to the Mancunian airwaves for years, transmitting on a late night weekend spot for KISS 102. Fans will be interested to hear of the politics surrounding the show's demise.
Sean: "They kicked us off. I think because the advertisers complained. They phoned Andy who lives in Manchester and did the show most weeks with us: 'It's going really well but we'd like to bring you in and discuss some ideas. You know that one track you played that we talked about? Well it would be great if you could play more music like that. It's supposed to be a chillout show.' So they were giving Andy this lecture and he walked out...as you do."
Rob: "They'd done a report on listening figures and that show was getting 100% listenership in that slot, and I think the sponsors got well into the idea of all those people listening and wanted to move the show in their own direction. KISS are also franchised out to Yorkshire as well."
Sean: "They said they might book us for that, which we'd consider as long as they don't give us any of that bullshit."
Do you miss it?
Sean: "Definitely man, it was a laugh. We were able to take in DATs and shit loads of stuff to play that wouldn't normally leave these four walls."
As they say: keep this frequency clear.
Sean: "The Nord is f**king tasty, I don't know why you guys don't totally rave about it. Last year it was all Prophecy this, Prophecy that, that's all I read about."
Rob: "I think people underestimated what the Nord could do, and it was quite expensive when it first came out."
And the polyphony wasn't so great.
Sean: "There's a couple of tracks on the Cichlisuite single that are entirely Nord. I think you'd say that our music is well f**king complicated, so how much polyphony do you want?"
Rob: "People assume that the amount of polyphony equals the breadth of your options, but with the Nord you might have a sound that runs for eight seconds and doesn't sound the same more than once."
Sean: "It's so lush having that (pointing at the Nord's control surface), you have no idea. Most of the gear that we like to use gives us a good result because it has this sort of interface."
Rob: "I think the the Nord has been the most inspirational piece of gear that we've worked with, it's pushed us to get all our other gear to try and emulate it."
Sean: "We use modified software on the sampler for live work. We found some nerd in America who writes interesting software."
Rob: "We were then able to take the sampler input and convert it to a thru for a start. Then we were able to use the software to write our own effects in the EPS."
Sean: "It's even better than the [newer, more powerful] ASR‑10. You can select samples independently from the sequencer, which means that as the sequencer is running you can select your sample and edit it, turning it into a synth really. It's already got a decent OS in there, but it's really easy to modify as well.
Rob: "It's really only the American manufacturers, Ensoniq and Emu, that turn their gear into synths and not just sample playback machines."
Sean: "The EPS is just like using the Prophecy really. Everybody beats on about how smart the Prophecy is but we've been able to do that with samples for years. Much of the multiple LFO routings and the assigning of controllers to modulate controllers and so on, we can do on the EPS — setting up quite elaborate patches on it really quickly. It's weird that Ensoniq is getting ignored in preference to Akai, which admittedly is a tighter more accurate sampler, but it still lacks a lot of scope for exploration, you can't really do a lot with it. With the EPS and the ASR‑10 we're still finding things, like changing aspects of effects that you're not supposed to be able to alter."
Although when you originally bought the EPS you obviously didn't know what you know now.
Sean: "No, we bought it because we got a good deal."
Rob: "And it had on‑board effects. We thought, 'it's only got two outputs but then it does have effects — f**k it, we've only got this much money'. Before that the only sampler we had was 1.4 seconds worth on our Boss delay, so anything on top of that was a luxury."
Sean: "By necessity we've struck up a good working relationship with our samplers. The only current sampler that we would get, knowing what we know now, is probably the Kurzweil. It's the only thing that I've used that intrigues me.
Rob: "Emus as well, they seem to have a lot to them."
Sean: "Just in terms of the editability if you put a sampler into a synth you know you'll be buying all those synth facilities, whereas if you're just buying a sampler then that can be limiting. I think a lot of manufacturers still see the sampler as being limited in those respects, which is bullshit, considering the amount of DSP chips that they pack in there. There's so much you can potentially do with them."
Warp are one of the more prominent independent labels in the UK. On their rosta you'll find names like Jimi Tenor, LFO and Square pusher. Autechre have been with the Sheffield‑based label for five years now.
Sean: "Warp are cool. They're still solidly into this thing where if they like something they'll stand by it. Warp has this self belief that I don't reckon most labels actually have."
Rob: "I think that was what got us interested in Warp in the first place, they were just such an icon as well."
Sean: "And they were prepared to take chances."
Rob: "From the outside you don't see that, all you hear is new music that's totally different to anything else, and you can't understand why it's being played, because it's so different. My response to first hearing Warp tracks was,'I'm into it, so why is everybody dancing to this?' Then we found out that they're from Sheffield. So we have loads of respect for them, where they've come from and where they're going as well."
Sean: "It does go back to being fans of the label. When Frequencies came out, and Test Tone, we were like, 'shit!'. You think that you're the only ones interested in this weird music that you can't put your finger on, and there's this label that's banging loads of it out — hearing exactly the type of stuff that you think is where music should go, and it's all on your doorstep. We're not fans of anything really, but in Warp's case we can almost make an exception — instant respect."