Autechre's interview to Grooves magazine - September 2001

Anger Management and Random Myths.Autechre's sean Booth gets serious about music journalists, generative music and biology

As I finish punching in a series of 20-odd numbers to reach Autechre's pastoral manor in the English countryside, the dial tone returns a series of eardrum-rending screams from a fax machine on the other end. I think to myself that the two musicians might be playing some new material for my benefit, or perhaps they're having a few laughs. A second call follows through to a human being--too bad,I thought, as I was grooving with the beat of the fax--and after brief introductions, the flesh-and-blood voice of Sean Booth mentions something cryptic about a baffle to filter incoming calls to explain the noise pulse:"I don't think it's very audible for international gates; it's confusing up me phone lines. 'Cause you got a noise gate on an international call you don't hearthe message 'cause it's so quiet."
Frank Zappa's oft-cited observation that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture" seems relevant to Autechre on several levels, not least in the way that the Manchester duo's work overthe last decade has been compared with the act of dancing to design,of building ordered structure from the mire of chaos: the arrangement of base elements into a richly detailed, multilayered architecture of sound for crowds in dance clubs. From the early Artificial Intellegence days of Incunabula, to the deeply hypnotic environments of Amber and Tri Repetae, to the chaotic. messy sculptures of regression and evolution in Chiastic Slide, EP7. and its latest full-length work Confield, the group has progressed not only in technical and conceptual complexity, but almost amazingly in its ever burgeoning popularity, despite the challenging and wholly unique nature of the Autechre sound.
Yet too much fame and respect have seemingly become impediments to the pair's progress. The act of translating music into words by the press has been largely a Zappaesque exercise in futility, in Booth's mind, and playing the role ofthe detached, manic autodidact. he jumps nimbly from the subject of telecommunications to answer my opening question about his reluctance to do interviews. "Yeah, I don't know if this [interview] will be the last one, but, ah, yeah, I don't want to do any for awhile," he says, frustrated about questions about his work with Rob Brown over the years. "I mean, I could just say something. But, whatever, I can't be bothered anymore.
"It's just too much bullshit game-playing, you know? It's like,I don't know--it's weird, that part of life. It's like a 'you're expected to do it' sort of thing, like you've got an onus from people that buy your records to explain what you're doing, even though you wouldn't even bother to explain it to your mates, you know what I mean? You feel like you should be honest. to a point I mean, yeah, why not just play the game and bullshit and keep everyone entertained? But I don't know, it's kind of like being a conjurer or something. I'd rather not. "The reason I'm bored with doing interviews is 'cause everything seems so obvious to me, you know? All the things I have to explain to journalists are just really obvious. I don't think I've ever said one thing to a journalist that wasn't completely, totally, patently obvious, you know? You know what I mean? It sort of gets... you get bored after a bit. It's kinda like playing tennis with someone who's really shit. I don't know; it's not my fault, so it doesn't bother me, really, stopping doing them. Anyway,I think journalists quite often think their readers are thick. And I think people know what we're saying most of the time, really."
If their popularity irks them,I ask, why not change Autechre's name and release works under some other alias? Booth laughs out an answer: "Yeah, we do all the time, but it wouldn't be a secret if I told you about it, would it?
"I think I'm just more interested in making music." he says. "You just get to this point and you realize you're being told that your music is sort of relatively popular ... how would you react? What would you do? Would you do loads more press and milk it? Or would you take the opportunity to maybe create something to be digested ... If you know lots of people are going to digest something, would you make something normal and typical forthem, or would you try to make them something special? It's like being a chef, you know what I mean? It's like you got 600 people in the room, and you know they're going to love whatever you cook ..."
While Booth might recognize that something Autechre puts out might not be the most accessible work, he gets audibly irate at any suggestion that the two musicians have taken advantage of their position in the music community to deliberately pass off subpar efforts on their fans. "The whole point of making music is to put something new into the world, you know?" he says. "To inject a little piece of yourself, and the more you can put in there, the more honest you can be with your expression, the better everything is, the more point there is in doing it. You only get one chance, really.
"What I'm saying to you is that you get one chance to make an honest expression, and you fuckin'take it And if you've been told, 'Yeah, your album is going to sell fifty thousand copies,' the best thing you can do is to make that album the best album that you've ever released, not to compromise it commercially at all just because you're guaranteed the sales. The whole point is to ignore commerciality and be as fucking honest as possible, you know, and the closer you can get to that the better it'll be. That's how it is for us, totally. We just want to get more interesting.
Shifting gears, I ask about the pair's latest release Confield, a work that has drawn as much criticism as it has praise. Reflecting development of some ideas first expressed in EP7. frameworks oftracks on Confield seem built up from sound information that reproduces and mutates at the behest of the two musicians. Beat genes, melodic genes, noise genes, all looping and constantly changing themselves and each other, fighting and cooperating within the parameters set by the artists. The end product heard seems a recording of the birth, growth, and death of these "generative" entities, a term that further annoys Booth, wording that he feels gets misused by the press. As the conversation gets drawn around the point of "generative music," I try probing around the edges, trying to pick out hints of meaning. starting with cover artwork to EP7and Confield.
"The graphics are just another example of what we like, really," Booth says. "Maybe everything seems like its personaL. If that's the case, then I guess we've done a good job of being honest of what we like, you know. I mean the images don't really necessarily relate to the music anymore then that they're just, you know, what we like at the time, the same way the music is, really. I guess the only thing that relates one to the other is that we did it."
"If you want to create a tangible link, then we are it, because there isn't any other. We don't sort of go, 'Oh, well these tracks would look really good with this kind of graphic.' It's more like, 'I really like this, I want to put this in the sleeve, what do you think? Do you like this?'--'Yeah, I really like that, that's the kind of thing I'm into at the moment.'--'Excellent, let's do it.' And then it's on there-you know, that's it, I mean we don't really think any more about it, really. It's just what kind of mood we're in at the time, same as the music, you know.
"I think that the fact that there's only us tying the two things together makes it more interesting. I think, you know, we're revealing more about ourselves over the years, when we're doing it that way. I think the less contrived you are about the way you present music the better, really, although there is an opportunity for expression, so it's good to take it and to do something. I wouldn't call it art in itself, though. I mean obviously it only exists as packaging for music."
For all the bubbling chaos of Autechre's algorithmic music, don't talk about randomness or living, breathing music to Booth. "For start, the word 'random'--it takes the shit right out of me," he says with a laugh. "There's absolutely nothing random about what we do. There might be a lot of number crunching going on, but there's nothing random in there....
"No, I don't use random-number generators--I fuckin' hate 'em. They're rubbish. I use a few chaotic operators, but in terms of how much of it is bound to the system, I'm not really sure. It's kinda like saying, if you program a drum machine, that the drum machine is writing the track. If that's the case, then we might as well not bother doing anything. I mean, should we give up?"
It's okay to talk about generative music with Autechre, so long as the two artists get to keep control overthe output. Booth refers to their computer-program releases on Web site as recursive experiments, or "recordings of systems that generate recordings," but he regrets the loss of contact between the musician and listener that comes from such efforts. "We've done a few things like that," he says. "You don't get the familiarity aspects, you don't get the sort of direct communicative aspects you get with recorded music... For me personally, it's nota succinctercommunication. It's kinda like writing 50 different poems, that are all very, very similar. I tell you, it's almost like releasing every version of a track we'd do."
But he returns again to how software is not what makes Autechre unique. "Taste is what defines people; it's what makes us different to software," he says. "We're not software; you can't possibly consider a bit of software to be like a person. It's not 2001... We're not talking about fucking HAL; we're talking about a few bits of number-crunching objects that don't really do a great deal until you feed them numbers and tell what to come out with. "It's like any generative processes are so-called life-like algorithms; it's like cellular automatons supposedly replicating life-type behavior. It's all fucking rubbish! They don't do anything of the sort, but they make really nice patterns. But I wouldn't imbue them with intelligence, just because there is intelligence behind their creation. It's like saying pyramids are clever."
Skeptical about efforts towards carving music out of living information, such as a DNA-based music-sequencing project from the University of Aberystwyth in Wales, Booth rails against any kind of sound based on the use of static data. "It's kind of conceptually quite interesting, but it might sound crap, and, you know, if we thought it sounded crap, then we wouldn't pursue it," he says. "We wouldn't say, 'Well, like let's continue this project because it has to be a representation of a DNA sequence,' because then you'd be sort of denying your own taste, and I think taste is all that can define you in making something.
"You wouldn't be in control of the numbers--you'd be a slave to a number set that isn't anything to do with you. It might be that you really like that number sequence, but I don't think there's a great chance of that happening, not compared, say, to algorithms, where if you just keep increasing one number then another number changes and creates a nice curve, and you might really like that curve. But I don't think a DNA sequence is going to generate any really nice curves. I think it's just a set of switches, isn't it? I mean, it'll appear almost like a random sequence, so I can't see it being that aesthetically pleasing...I couldn't work like that. Nah, I'm into extrapolating data, but I think that you have to create it in the first place. You ca n't just start with somebody else's data."
Evolution might be creating new genetic information all the time, but Booth then asks in turn why artists should be relegated to the role of observers. I nstead, Booth and Brown's idea is to make evolving systems of their own, to avoid creative reliance upon natural processes as much as possible. "You're just reiterating something that already exists, and, alright, fair enough, it's beautiful," Booth says. "But you're not responsible forthat ...If you throw a rock in a pool, you're responsible for the ripples. So using the ripples for information would be quite nice. And also you'd be responsible for that, because of the angle of the rock going into the pool, and the shape of the rock, and the depth of the waterwould all be influencing the way the ripples worked, and you'd be wholly responsible forthe ripples. "If you just take something that exists from an independent interaction, then you're essentially sampling, which is like photography and like a lot of other things, which is not quite as i nteresti ng to me personally, though I do see there is a great forum for exploration, for communication or sort of comment within those areas. I don't thi nk these are necessarily as interesting to us as those of synthesis. I think we're more interested in synthesis, really.
"I think natural processes will inevitably... be a part of whatever system you use. I mean, without electrodynamic properties we wouldn't have any of the systems, any of the systems used to make music, period. I mean, in terms ofthe sort of music we make, I think it's there inevitably anyway."
In the end, what motivates and inspires Autechre's creative decisions boil down very simply to an evaluation of taste made between Sean Booth and Rob Brown. "The trick is to be aware of what you like within that, just the same way it is with everything," Booth says. "Probably all it comes down to is taste, that's the only thing you can say is constantly there and is constantly feeding what you're' doing, and it's the only thing you can possibly lay claim to... It's all about taste, completely about taste. Yeah, 100 percent. Totally."
Alex Reynolds
Originally appeared in Grooves, Issue 7, September 28th 2001. Copyright © Grooves