It has often been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. How, then, to approach U.K. duo Autechre? Their made-up moniker sounding slightly like the practice of designing structures, their audio creations more like liquid sculpture than any other form of music, electronic or not. The task is usually left to the most highfalutin of scribes, whose dissertations provide chat fodder for the truly obsessed but explain nothing. Perhaps a kid from South Park named Kyle said it best: Dude, that's pretty fucked up.
Sure, some of Autechre's work helped draw the ambient blueprint, making machines sound organic, warm and beautiful. Just as often, Rob Brown and Sean Booth have concocted a challenging cacophony of brain-bending electronics that put the "intelligent" in intelligent dance music. Their brand-new album, Confield (Warp/Outside), is a bit of both.
Their past or present will have little to do with what's heard at the Steam Whistle Brewing Company Wednesday, when Autechre makes a rare live appearance. As with all their recent performances, the set list will be unrecognizable to even the diehard.
"We used to render tracks that people would know from our releases," explains Brown on the line from Italy. "We'd do live versions, wigged out a bit. But we've gotten to the stage where only the development matters. We start off with a really simple system each night, so that the development starts instantly, then we build something up. Live, you've only got that one hour and every moment counts. We're just optimizing our time."
If Autechre's music is profound and complex, the live show is incredibly simple. A few computers, some synths and a mixer -- the kind of set-up that can leave an audience wondering if the act is just sitting onstage, checking email. The pair also rejects the growing notion that such shows require supplemental visuals. They bring no multimedia program, no special light show to make up for lack of "action."
"We usually go for complete darkness," says Brown. "It just gives rise to that surround vibe you get at a club. If the sound system is good, you want that all-encompassing, omnipresent sound. Visuals just get everyone to stare at one corner of the room."
It's a thoughtful policy, considering plenty of Autechre's core listeners don't see much daylight. Since first appearing on Warp's influential Artificial Intelligence compilation in 1992, the duo have been hailed as the leaders of the IDM movement, matched perhaps only by Richard D. James' Aphex Twin. Revered by those with a devotion to cutting-edge, experimental sounds (many of whom make music themselves), Autechre's every move is dissected and scrutinized on the IDM mailing list. Confield is being greeted like a New Testament, its tracks either holy or blasphemous depending on the fan. Brown calls the group's status "hot water" and admits to feeling "a bit shackled by it."
"Those IDM kids, they're all right, but Sean and I have been going for so long with other musicians and artists that it makes IDM seem a bit late in the day to be championing. When we first arrived in America, we'd been 10 years at it already. In America, it was like they had just taken an exam on it, reading every possible syllable and cramming their knowledge of the music. In England, it developed so naturally, but there you got the sense that it was hydroponically grown culture. That was cool, but now it's hardened and won't allow change. People get upset when it's not down with the formula, but anyone who imposes rules on us, we're going to switch off."
Ah yes. A group that tries its best to explode convention and invite paradox finds itself the victim of its own success, having created something so unique it is its own mould. Listeners originally enthralled by the unexpected now demand new work to be just as they expect. Yet Autechre continue to push, even when their ideas collide with the physical limitations of technology.
"We had a lot of trouble cutting this album to vinyl," says Brown. "Some of the tracks combine very high and very low frequencies with rapid dynamics between the two. You can do that with digital gear, but analog doesn't respond as quickly. We're almost considering making customized CD and vinyl releases because some tracks suffer in vinyl form."
Not to worry. Completists aside, it's not like there's much demand for Autechre vinyl. Beats mutated and syncopated defy dancing as we know it. Nevertheless, Brown has witnessed some crowds getting their groove on in the darkness.
"It depends on where we are, really," he explains. "In Manchester, they go crazy and climb on the stage. London is quite quiet -- they applaud if they like a track. Our experience in America has been a lot of kiddie raves. This tour feels more mature and we're not sure what to expect, whether people are going to go berserk."
I inform Brown that Toronto audiences are more like the polite Londoners than the freaks in Northern England.
"Oh well," he says, "if the people are open, we'll fill them up."
AUTECHRE AT THE MOVIES
With few exceptions, like a video for "2nd bad Vilbel" directed by Chris Cunningham (Madonna's "Frozen," Aphex Twin's "Come to Daddy"), Autechre is extremely selective when allowing their music to be used onscreen.
Yet one track licensed for an ad for mega-corp Orange Telecommunications took them by surprise one night at the movies.
"We knew they were going to use it, but we didn't know it would be aired directly before every Star Wars screening in England," recalls Brown.
"We thought everybody in the cinema was looking at us. Of course, they had no idea who we were, but it was clearly the weirdest thing they'd ever heard."