Pitchfork interview Autechre 2005

Interview: Autechre. Story by Drew Daniel

It seems as if there are two schools of thought about Autechre. One says that what they do is abstract: they make highly formalist electronic music that eschews reference in favor of an absolute, sui generis creativity that is about nothing other than its own shape. The other school of thought insists that they are not all that abstract, but instead should be thought of as translators and manipulators of a rich, and richly musical, culture, one that they respond to and deform and mutate in a personal way.
The first school turns them into cryptic wizards who cannot be understood, only enjoyed or ignored. The second school connects what they do to the history of hip-hop, electro, musique-concrete, dance music, and "industrial" culture, and drags them back to the real world around them. The first school stresses (maybe fetishizes) the primacy of the tools/techniques/customized gear and software environments used to make the music. The second school says that it's really about an open relationship with genres, tempos, patterns, and habits that are shared and ongoing. Over the years, I've flickered between these two ways of experiencing their work. There's truth in both views, but neither is the whole story.
We spoke with Sean Booth, one half of Autechre, about both schools of thought, Russell Haswell's hair, the Human League, and wildstyle graffiti:
Pitchfork: Why do you agree to do interviews?
Autechre: You never know, you might get asked something decent. It might prompt you to think of something that you're happy thinking about. I don't come out of them thinking that anything negative went down, even if I'm not understood. I mean there's a not a lot you can do about that is there, really? It's nice when you can understand people as well, if they seem to get a handle on what you're doing, which is difficult to gauge from what they're saying, but if you feel it or think that they are getting it for some reason, then that's a good thing.
Pitchfork: The standard interview dynamic is to draw out the musican's or artist's personality and to get them to reveal themselves-- but it seems like that might get in the way of people experiencing your art.
Autechre: It might. I don't know if it would or wouldn't. I mean, I don't mind. People seem to think we don't do interviews even though we do loads. Probably because we don't really say all that much. Maybe we just don't get asked questions that we can answer. I think that's more the case. To be honest, I don't know if musicians normally have an easy time answering the kinds of questions that we get asked.
Pitchfork: It seems like people have a cartoonish cliche of what you do in mind and they are interviewing that rather than the actual person in front of them.
Autechre: Yeah. I mean, we don't go out of our way to be any of the things that we are described as...and the descriptions usually run contrary to each other anyway.
Pitchfork: What about the perception that what you are doing is abstract?
Autechre: Some people have this habit of projecting what they perceive your attitude to be onto what you are doing. We fall into that.
Pitchfork: It reminds me of a psychoanalytic encounter-- the less the analyst says, the more the patient wants to know what they are thinking.
Autechre: Yeah, yeah, you're right, it is a bit like that. I mean, when you read a review-- I'm sure it's the same for you-- you don't really learn anything. You learn shit all about the actual music, it's just all about the reviewer, isn't it?
Pitchfork: There's a kind of loneliness to that, when you realize that no one else will ever care as much as you about your art.
Autechre: Yeah, totally, though we're lucky because there's two of us, so we can kind of chuff each other up about the tracks.
Pitchfork: Although you guys probably have a few lone over-interpreters, people with stalkerish tendencies that feel that you're speaking to them in a very particular way...
Autechre: When you leave people to make their minds up about what it is that you're saying then some people can just infer so much-- because it's so easy for them to do, you've left it open. But then those are the kind of people that think that news readers are smiling at them.
Pitchfork: It's like that question of whether Charles Manson was the wrong listener to the Beatles White Album or the greatest listener ever...
Autechre: He had things upside down, didn't he, Charles Manson? He really could have done something incredible but he just went down the wrong path.
Pitchfork: Once you guys were asked about progress and you said that every record was an asymptotic approach to something-- that there wasn't a perfect Autechre record, just a series of tangential curves towards and away from the same point.
Autechre: Yeah.
Pitchfork: Maybe Manson was asymptotically approaching pop stardom but just curved off. So I was wondering about that metaphor, and tell me if I am just being a Charles Manson and reading too much into it, but about that point that you guys are approaching over and over-- is that point itself in motion? Is it changing?
Autechre: We're kind of following it, so yeah, it's traveling but not with any given trajectory. It's bouncing around. It's confined by moving walls.
Pitchfork: Is it moving in response to music outside of what you two make in your room? Or do you shut out what happens around you?
Autechre: I live in the middle of nowhere, which does help. There isn't any cultural influence aside from what I decide to let in. There's not a great deal that's just on the plate here. I mean, I have a lot of mates who buy hip-hop and garage and grime and what have you. Occasionally I buy hip-hop, but almost all of the hip-hop I buy is from my childhood, really–°mid-80s stuff y'know.
Pitchfork: I assume people will think from the title "Sublimit" that you are engaging with sublow at some level.
Autechre: (laughs) Let's just let them get on with that...
Pitchfork: This is nice because we can talk about people interpreting you as if I'm not doing that too.
Autechre: Well, but it's different with another musician, isn't it? You don't feel that you have to explain too much, because you know that they're doing similar things to you. When you get down to it, no one ever really sits down and has a given routine for making a tune, unless they're some programmer that's being told by a songwriter what to do. I mean, listening to your stuff it does seem like you guys are quite open in terms of who's doing what.
Pitchfork: Now you're projecting! Now you are Charles Manson! Anyway, about "Sublimit", I was interested in that moment five minutes in or so when that super ridiculous horn-like stab comes in and some very old school claps rise up in the mix-- it reminded me of, say, your song "Pen Expers"-- it seemed really funny. I was wondering, do you find what you do funny? Because it seems like no one is laughing out there in Autechre Consumption Land. People think what you're doing is very churchy and austere but sometimes it's kind of ridiculous.
Autechre: Yeah, I think there are loads of moments like that in our stuff, but I don't think every body sees it like that. Some do. There's a mate who mentioned one of the starts of another tune off this album, and he said "Now you're really taking the piss" but I said "No, no, I really did it, it's all modeling, it's not a sample, it's acid and it took ages to make". You know, we really get into the craft of it. But I don't feel that any of our stuff is particularly serious-- maybe it's just that a lot of serious people are into it.
Pitchfork: But after that moment everything in the mix gets quiet and muted and kind of shrinks down-- I was wondering if that was a register of some kind of embarrassment at it being so over the top?
Autechre: No, it just got pulled off into another direction. When we did that, we thought it was pretty ripping. It wasn't set up like a comedy, like "here's the gag," if you know what I mean. I think the bit after it is actually more humorous.
Pitchfork: That's really perverse. Is that piece a document of live choices?
Autechre: No, it was recorded using a couple of drum machines and a MIDI sequencer but it was all composed, nothing was done live. There are moments that have been captured that happened in real time but they've been contoured and worked on afterwards. We have been getting into space more, recently, little production tricks that help you use space.
Pitchfork: The timing on that "Iera" track is pretty disgusting-- were you using fader controllers to manipulate MIDI data?
Autechre: No, that was purely programmed, grid-programmed, all onscreen, just nudging MIDI events around. That track is totally just mousin' it-- but there are other tracks, as on "Sublimit", that are just a drum machine up and running, 16-grid style, no swing or anything, everything just completely straight. On this record there's no generative work or fader based MIDI stuff.
Pitchfork: What do you think is going on with people's kinda obsessive focus on what software you guys use, and the "how?" question in general?
Autechre: But the "how?" question is actually about loads of things, isn't it? There's a when and a why, and yet you don't know the answer because you were just in there doing the track maybe not giving anything any particular thought, just trying to form what is in front of you into a slightly better version of what it is already. You get a sound and then refine it until it is as good as it can be and you don't give it any other thought-- all these questions such as "why did you decide to do this track like this? Why put a heavy sound here?" I just have to say honestly, I don't know. I have no idea why, fucking hell.
We work for about a year, usually a bit longer, on an album, and then pick out tracks from what we've done that seem to have a thread, and then put them into an order. Then if there's any changes that need making, a snip here and there, then we make them and there you go, that's the album.
Pitchfork: but people want to know what is that thread and then they ask you to define it in language...
Autechre: But it never gets defined in language up until the point that we start doing interviews. Not by us, certainly. And only by inference and conversation, you know, some journalist saying "these tracks feel really.... whatever" and you just sit there saying "Okay". [laughs]
Pitchfork: I know you guys archive to tape-- were you sad when you heard the news that Quantegy went out of business?
Autechre: Tape is beautiful. I love it. I still record stuff to cassette even now. We'll put things out [that were done with tape] and people will say, oh this is brilliant, such DSP blah blah just because the quality of it is superior and I think people are unaccustomed to it these days. A lot of kids don't even know what a cassette sounds like. It's weird. You can do amazing things with tape, as soon as you get into using half inch and stuff it's just a laugh basically, it's really good. It's probably the best format that was ever made, it's just a shame that they stopped the development of it as a medium because it could have become really techno by now. With the way that they are developing substrates for producing CDs and harddrives-- they could be making the best tape ever just with what they use for harddrives. Maybe you could turn a harddrive into a tape machine, maybe somebody could do it, I'm not sure.
Pitchfork: It would be spinning pretty fucking fast. So, the last time I saw Rob [other half of Autechre] was at the Throbbing Gristle show in London, and it got me to thinking, between the Hafler Trio collaboration and the way you guys used to namecheck Coil tracks back in the day, it seems that there is a link with what you guys do and what gets called "industrial" music that's just as important as the link with hip-hop, which everyone notices.
Autechre: Yeah, there is.
Pitchfork: I was wondering if this is because that scene was more of a Manchester and Sheffield scene rather than a London thing?
Autechre: Yeah, it was just, you know, around. It's just been around for ages and it's stuff that we're well into. We really like Hafler stuff, I think it's fantastic. It's got a rare humour. I think he's another one where people think that it's godlike but he's actually just having a laugh really. We have long extended dialogues with Andrew, he's really smart. We've done stuff with Zoviet France as well, a load of live sets back in 1994.
Pitchfork: If you compare the collaborative EPs with Hafler Trio to your new remix of "Earth" [on the Earth remixes CD on No Quarter records], it seems like lately you are really careful and respectful with other people's material.
Autechre: The "Earth" remix is something we've wanted to do for ages.
Pitchfork: I listened to it and I could barely tell it was you-- it's like you've disappeared into it.
Autechre: We wanted it to just sound like an alternative recording of the same song. We did the mix, we went in there and we did, well, I wouldn't call it a dub-- I mean I'm sure there's people that feel that it's not a dub unless you do a wild parametric sweep or something...
Pitchfork: Yeah, but they don't read Pitchfork.
Autechre: Okay, well anyway. There's what I think of as dub as a genre and then there's the actual process.
Pitchfork: That snare was the only part that sounded like you.
Autechre: Yeah. It's their snare but it's been gated and compressed and mixed differently, and messed around with. We almost could have done all of "Phase III", which would have been amazing. Having the opportunity to do that is just killer basically. I mean, I don't care about how it's viewed as an operation. It's something I've wanted to do for ages.
Pitchfork: It's at the opposite extreme from, say, your Skinny Puppy Remix.
Autechre: Well, it's the source material, what can I say? I mean, Skinny Puppy, don't get me wrong, they've done some good tracks, but when we got the source material we were like, what are we going to do with this? Those vocals...
Pitchfork: Did you do that in SoundEdit? I thought I heard the bender function being used there...
Autechre: Completely. The whole thing is SoundEdit. I've still got that on my computer.
Pitchfork: Sorry, I'm being a nerd now. It seems like the standard narrative is that when listeners are younger they want it hard and tough because they are full of hormones and as they get older and have a wife and kids and a job they just want novocaine. It seems like you are working to avoid that narrative. You guys have been at it forever, and you have a set of listeners who have kind of grown up with your music, but instead of getting softer with time you seem to be getting harsher. Are you just being difficult bastards who don't want to give people an easy ride? Or are you assuming that the people who are listening to you now have heard all the earlier records so you don't need to give them any traning wheels or handles?
Autechre: Those albums are out there already. If people want to listen to them, they can. We insist that Warp keep them in print, that's part of our relationship with them-- it is based on that.
Pitchfork: But what about this perception that you are getting harsher with time? Or that you've given up melody? It seems like your work tends to fuse together things that people like to oppose-- patterns that are both beats AND melodies at the same time-- but when you get comments like "well I hear all these beats but where are the melodies?" it must be frustrating, like they aren't really getting the point...
Autechre: Hmm, the trend of people saying it's hard, I don't know, I don't hear that. I mean, certainly it's more dynamic now, but [sighs]...hmm, how can I say this? People's focus-- you can't ever take it for granted. It's absolute. It's essential. When you listen to a track your focus shifts and moves around within it; obviously, we're really aware of that, and that's a big part of what we do. [the track itself] is often not that complex, it's just that the way that you listen to it is, the way that you are guided through it as you listen.
Do you know about wildstyle graffiti? Kids battling to get the least legible but the most fly interpretation that you can get. That's how we see it, really. It's that kind of abstraction-- it's not a disregard for the form-- you still totally, totally admire and respect what it is that you've got to work with-- and by that I mean traditional patterns that are recognizable to some extent. So, we're kind of flirting with available formats. What we're doing, we don't see it as any different from DJing or doing a cut-up or an edit mix. A re-application of rules and ideas and twists on them, with new moves if you like. Like popping or breaking, it's trying to come up with slight variations and new moves, variations on subsets of other moves.
Pitchfork: I was listening to "Pro Radii" on my iPod at the gym while doing stretches and that song goes really well with the sound of lesbians boxing in the background. But then I tried to read Shakespeare criticism, ride an exercise bicycle, watch CNN out of the corner of my eye, and listen to Autechre at the same time...
Autechre: how did that go?
Pitchfork: It didn't work well at all. It was a disaster. Do you feel that the world now is less receptive to the kind of detail-oriented complexity of your music because people are often listening with only an eighth of their attention?
Autechre: That's definitely the case. But we listen with so much attention, that we're probably absurdly interested in what we do.
Pitchfork: What about listening stations or the iTunes store, where people don't listen to more than 30 seconds of a given song? Your songs change all the time within a single piece-- do you think you're a bit too demanding for Ye Average Consumer?
Autechre: I think we've got the clout to operate in a way that makes that irrelevant. Well, sorry, that's a crap way of saying it, but really, I think it doesn't matter. We'll just have to figure out a way around it, rather than just submit to it. Imagine what it would do to your music...
Pitchfork: ...If you wrote every song so that it covered the listener in maple syrup and sprinted into a chorus within the first 30 seconds.
Autechre: Maybe we could just start songs like that, and then take them off somewhere. Make songs that start like Britney for the first 30 seconds and then turn into Hecker or Yasunao Tone.
Pitchfork: So, what's up with Russell Haswell's hair?
Autechre: Yeah, it's growing, isn't it?
Pitchfork: What the fuck? I was just in London at this Melvins show and I saw him and damn, he looks like Aragorn in Lord of the Rings or something. Totally cute. Is it a girlfriend thing?
Autechre: It is, yeah.
Pitchfork: So you're bringing SND with you guys on tour. What do you think of that "Reproduction" record? [Mark Fell, one half of SND, has done a freaky mutant rendition of the entirety of the Human League's Reproduction LP under the name Secular Musics of South Yorkshire on the Bottrop Boy label.]
Autechre: I love it-- but have you heard that new one, "Ten Types of Elsewhere"? That's the one. It's really good. It's the best thing he's done, I think. I sent him shitloads of externals as well, he's really going mad, it's getting really intense and brutal. We are maybe going to do some work together. We've been discussing doing some remixes of "The Dignity of Labour" and calling it "The InDignity of New Labour".
Pitchfork: So you're talking to the Human League about that?
Autechre: No. [laughs] I keep saying to Mark that he should approach them as they live in the same city. He still hasn't shown them his Reproduction project, which is mad, I mean, if it was me I so would have gone up to them with a CD and passed it on.
Pitchfork: One last question. Umm, why do British people roll joints that mix tobacco and weed? In California nobody does that.
Autechre: Do you want a real, literal answer?
Pitchfork: Yeah.
Autechre: Spliff smoking came to England from the Caribbean, and they roll their spliffs with tobacco.
Pitchfork: So it's not an economic thing.
Autechre: Partly that, and it becomes habit forming in a different way, and it's consumed differently as a result. Maybe it's that people don't want to get that wasted all the time. People do things more slowly, over a long period, and it gives you just a slight rounding of the edges.
Pitchfork: Thanks for that.
Autechre: Sure.