Autechre's interview to Grooves magazine - February 2003

Sean Booth tells grooves what he thinks about file sharing and why the duo's new album came to reviewers as a cassette tape

AR: Alex Reynolds
SB: Sean Booth
SB: Hello?
AR: Hi Sean, it’s Alex Reynolds.
SB: Hi Alex, how’s it going?
AR: Good! Thanks for doing this interview.
SB: No problem man.
AR: Good to talk to you again.
SB: Yeah, yeah, it’s been ah, what? About a year and a half?
AR: Yeah, about that...
AR: I noticed the promo is out on cassette. Was that your decision or the label's?
SB: It was Warp's suggestion and we jumped at the chance. I mean, it's kinda like, we love cassettes 'cause we grew up swapping tapes, you know what I mean? We grew up with music as a shared environment. Um, yeah, kind of a shout out to days of old and a shout down to days of new, I guess. Kind of odd for a little mechanism... a bit more difficult for people to circulate MP3s that are of any useful quality before the album gets released. Just 'cause I think its better if people can try and get hold of a... well, I think it's just better if people can hear a decent version of it the first time that they hear it, so... either off cassette or off CD, put it this way, at least if they're gonna get an MP3 it'll be so totally snuff that they wouldn't bother listening to it. But you know, I don't really like 'em ­ makes music sound pretty rotten, especially ours.
AR: I had some trouble finding a cassette player -­ had to dig one up...
SB: Brings us back to the past, in a way. Just last Tuesday this woman had to pull up a tape player and she thought it was quite funny. But, erm, yeah, it's been quite interesting, 'cause there's been a few people sort of saying, "Oh, we'd rather have a CD if we can," and we've just said no to it. Did you get a chance to listen to it, then?
AR: It's got some interesting tracks on there ­- I liked it.
SB: Thanks. Yeah, I mean, kind of a weird one. I really like cassettes, I think it [Draft 7.30] sounds quite good off cassettes. But, erm, I encoded some 320 kilobytes a second MP3s and they were just naff sounding, you know? You couldn't hear any detail really, so... I think it sounds better on cassette really, which is ironic, really.
AR: Bass is good, but high end stuff, you do seem to lose detail...
SB: Sort of sounds mushy, don't it?
AR: Flat...
SB: Yeah, yeah, and you can't really define the events as well, you know?
AR: I guess that's important for what you guys do.
SB: Yeah, the details are kind of integral, really. It kind of matters. A lot of artists can make music that'll sound good on MP3s, 'cause everything's totally maximized and over-compressed and stuff, but we don't really... that's mostly people who're music for radio or for clubs. We don't really consider them when we do that...
AR: When talking about copyright restrictions and curtailing file sharing...
SB: I don't know, I don't really mind file sharing, I just don't want it to happen before it [the new album] comes out, you know what I mean? Erm, there's not much you can do about people exchanging music. I mean, I grew up in an environment where my interest in hip-hop was sparked by getting tapes off mates. If I hadn't have had the opportunity to get it for free first, then I probably wouldn't have been able to find it later. So, you know, I can't look on music trading as a bad thing, and I never will. You know, I'm one of the newer generation, I guess, erm. And it doesn't really phase me that much, 'cause I think, well so long as we can keep making a living off, we'll carry on doing it. I mean, if it gets to the point where we can't earn enough money making music, then we'll just stop, you know? I'm sure it's the same for all musicians ­ but, you know... It's not a threat, it's just reality.
AR: Any thoughts on CDs with material, with dye that self-destructs?
SB: Really bad for the environment, man. I don't approve of that at all. Plus you run the risk of it not playing on anything, you know what I mean? Or maybe forgetting to play it for three days, or something. That just really scares me, the idea that we're going... If we're gonna start doing that, that means that they'll be sending out these CDs for free, you know what I mean? These CDs, they'll be going out in cereal boxes everywhere, so it's going to spoil things, definitely... I don't really approve, to be honest. If we can get to the point where everyone's got enough bandwidth to chuck 44 kHz on the air, they'll a lot happier. We'll get to that point quite soon, but, erm, as far as money and copyright restrictions goes, I haven't got any hand in any of it, you know what I mean? We just have to bend with the wind, really.
AR: This decision making is where your label comes in...
SB: Yeah, it's their business to make a profit wherever possible (laughs), so I guess it would be. Erm, but I mean, if there's money going around, I want some. But if there's not money there, then you can't start making demands, so. It's everybody's game in music, and if you can't afford to make it then the only option is to do something else. It could get to the point where we haven't got any choice, but, erm, I dunno ­ hopefully it won't. Yeah, it's funny innit, 'cause the very people that are trying to [copy music] are potentially making it possible for you to earn a living and the ones who like your music the most. Kind of ironic, really.
AR: With respect to media corporations owning both distribution of artists' work and the technology used to reproduce same work, as with Sony, do you have any thoughts on the migration to the "pay-for-play" system for music that is developing? Do listeners have any rights when an artist publishes a work? Do you as artist trade anything when you release something into the public?
SB: I think, in all sorts of relationships there has to be an agreement being two people trading. You know, normally if someone's assigned rights to something, its because he's given something in return. And there's an agreement between involved parties. If that's the situation, then I guess it would be fine, if you know what I mean.
AR: As an artist with creative relationships with other musicians, putting yourself in the shoes of a listener hearing others' work, what restrictions, what kind of trade would be fair?
SB: Well, dunno, just a little bit of money. Whatever the cost is of the medium, plus maybe a share of what it cost to put this thing together in the first place, you know what I mean? Erm, like I mean... at the moment, I only think it's fair because we can continue to make a living from it. It's a very personal profession, but I can't argue it any other way. Mainly 'cause that's the way I make a living ­ and I don't really think about the rest of it. I pay for almost all the music that I listen to; a few things I haven't been able to get, I've copied off my mates. But they're not available anymore and stuff ­ if I could get it, I'd be buying it, so. I mean, I have got most of the music that I really, really like in MP3s. I've got about 60 gigs worth of MP3s that are probably favorite things, but I own most of it, see? So, I've never had, never really... But at the same time, I've got no qualms about taking copies of CDs and stuff off people, just so long as its not available any other way. You know, I guess that's the way I look at it. It's like the live set trade. People who trade live sets on the web are so good for me, 'cause they're all bootlegs anyway. You know what I mean, they're not like official recordings that have been ripped off and are going around. These are just little bootlegs on discs or minidiscs, so, that doesn't really phase me at all. Never really had to bug with them, plus we don't record [live sets], so it is quite nice to go online and download them all! Yeah, I mean, as far as it actually preventing you from making money, you know, doing what you're doing, I don't reckon that's the case at all at the moment, do you know what I mean? Erm, we're nowhere near that stage. I mean, right now, the net effect of these MP3s circulating of our material is probably zero, given the amount of promotion this gives us. We might earn a little bit less money off selling CDs but there's a shitload more people getting our stuff, so it's kind of as good as it is bad. Until to this point, I've seen it as neither.
AR: Would you talk briefly about some of the licensing and technical difficulties you had with making the Gescom minidisc?
SB: [Sony] DADC kind of... They wouldn't release any software for us to master the minidisc, so we had to use the same we'd use with CDs; that meant that we could only reach the maximum track limit at 99, because of the way it saves them. You can't get 255 tracks inside, even though the master minidisc specification allows 255 track IDs. So because of this we had to be really anal about every single PQ [track transition information] being in a really perfect position, for kind of random playing and stuff. When we got the test minidisc back from DADC, all the PQ points were like a few seconds early ­ but by different amounts. Really strange, so we got in touch with support and asked what was going on, as all the PQ points were different. And they said, "Oh, erm, well, we tried to transcribe them directly and it didn't work, so we just put them in ourselves." We were going, well, it really kind of matters that they're in the right place! So, here are all the PQ points, thinking, oh, its quite simple we centered them digitally at the right positions, we won't have any problems. Send it back again, and they were all moved even further ­ no, even more irregularly away from the original positions! Some were early, some were late. We had to get them to do it another two times, and we ended up releasing the third of the better ones. But it still felt really, really not right, do you know what I mean? We just kind of settled for the best of what they could offer for the time. It made it extremely difficult to produce it independently. They basically wanted everything from Sony or equivalent labels, erm, and they wanted the runs to be of a certain amount before they'll give you any time whatsoever, you know what I mean? And obviously we weren't going to get many more than a few thousand made, so, I don't know, it's kind of a strange situation, really. Obviously they're not going to have time for you 'cause you're not Mariah Carey. We had given them something that we thought was actually technically quite simple, but they just found it impossible to do. So yeah, it's a bit of a problem, really. Plus it was the fact that they were saying things to us like, "There is no noticeable loss," even though we were saying, no, but there is noticeable loss with ATRAC [audio compression algorithm for minidiscs]. When we originally got in touch with them just to try to get some technical details on ATRAC, they were well sketchy! And they wouldn't give us the minidisc Red Book either, for ages; I had someone get it downloaded from someone else in DADC. Just like its a mega-secret, you know what I mean? I mean, I'm sure it's just a corporate policy, but at the end of the day... We're just not big enough investors to matter...
AR: Sony won't release any information on the NetMD format, either, which would let minidisc users perform digital transfers between a MD recorder and computer. This leaves open source projects with a big empty chunk of needed code missing and hurts the MD user community.
SB: As with the PlayStation... they've just kept it sewn up. I think the SDK for the PlayStation is like 250K pounds. I mean, I don't know anybody with that kind of money! So, but I know plenty of creative people who, given the opportunity, could write really tasty PlayStation software, you know what I mean? You have to kind of unlock PS2 if you want to do anything interesting... Terrible, really. AR: Still stockpiling blank CDs?
SB: (Laughs) Blank CDs, yeah, jeez... We've moved onto DVD-Rs, now. I'm sure most people have, just the fact that you can get so much on one, you know what I mean, but. Erm, I don't know, I just keep moving stuff around, now. It's not like it even has one place. Just constantly moving, you know. I got through the backlog now. Best part of three months, finishing doing that. But, erm, yeah, finally got our last... the last of our old, really old material... back-catalogue off tapes. But, erm, yeah, it's kind of weird. Just kind of shifting stuff from drive to drive; backwards devices... hopefully the bits won't disappear much.
AR: Liner notes to Draft 7.30 have clips of Supercollider, Java, Pascal code. Any thoughts on this?
SB: That was just for our graphic designer. Originally I wasn't into it, really. He kinda wanted some text to go inside the tape... yeah, it is a bit of a joke. It was kinda like... 'cause I sent it to him hoping that he was going... 'cause we sent him a lot more than that, we sent him about five times as much as that. And he kind of... he ended up scaling it just so that it'd fit the page, but he was a bit irritated; it didn't reduce into the fit of the tape. So it doesn't totally reveal itself, but it didn't really matter the only least bit of it, 'cause it's nonsense anyway. But it looks better when you see the whole lot, erm, but it wasn't supposed to be legible, it was supposed to be texture, in a way. It was something for him to use really from a graphical perspective. He wanted text, so, yeah, we wrote some nonsense software. It's mostly Pascal, you know, kind of dated (laughs). Erm, yeah, it was our idea of a joke, kinda. We haven't used that much Autechre code on this album ­ a bit, not a massive amount; we haven't really used any generative sequencing at all on this record. It's all composed with straight-up sequencing we've knackered and stuff. So, erm, there's plenty bit of proper code on this sleeve, but only our idea of it. Probably the only ones laughing at it, as usual.
AR: With the subdued feel of the tracks on Draft , where does this work fit in time-wise with Confield and EP7 ?
SB: Oh, they're quite recent. I mean, we only finished the album in October and they sort of been... sort of the fifteen month period before that, so. Yeah, erm. Yeah, that's kind of it, really. Fifteen month period before last October... I mean it was all written after Confield , this stuff.
AR: Any technical direction aimed for here that wasn't done with Confield , other than its generative technique?
SB: Yeah, we're still using it, it's just that we've kind of, erm...
AR: Moved on?
SB: Yeah, I've kind of just moved back into composition again. I just got really back into dealing with individual events again, and having a kind of real, face-to-face relationship with the data, you know? Rather than kind of, seeing it move in an abstract sense, sort of thing, like you have to do with generative music, even though you kind of... you're fully aware of what the sequencer can do and you're moving the faders to make... to produce a certain result. The chance to review the data after you've recorded it, might bring in maybe the possibility that you could do a few edits. It might be really difficult, 'cause you know when you're working with code-based stuff, it's really difficult to go back in to edit one individual event. 'Cause that takes so much coding just to initiate that change in the way that the tones fill in, you know? It's almost pointless, you might as well just edit it over itself anyway, so we just went back to doing that. I think my brain is probably a better generative sequencer than anything I've written, anyway. I think, if anything, this album's a little bit more hands on, it's been a little bit more directly interacted, produced... I think... I sort of feel like I know this album better, as well, just because... really 'cause we didn't stream the data out, but virtually rolled it in. Just better acquainted with it, really, so. It kind of feels like there's more of us in there. I don't know whether that's the case, 'cause its sad... If you've written a program and it spits music out, I guess you're responsible for the output of the system, as much as you are if you're running a 303 and 606, you know what I mean? But, erm, it still feels like there's more of us in this recording than in the last one. Yeah, I dunno. It's also the fact that we've kind of got a little bit comfier working where we're working. I think we've only just finished Confield and we've been living in the country for about a year, and we probably spent most of the year acclimatizing to the new studio and stuff. So I think this is probably the first album proper that we've been in this studio and felt relaxed, you know? Plus I haven't been doing much downloading, really. I mean, in the last couple of years, I haven't really downloaded any new packages. I've upgraded things, and sort of, you know, stuff that you sort of need to kind of keep in check. But I haven't really being chasing any new techniques or technologies at all; I've just been refining what we've got already. I think that was the thing that we kind of noticed fairly recently, but before Confield , probably before EP7 , but we kind of noticed you know that... the kind of trend that you can see everyone getting into, just dropping plug-ins like they're trading cards and like they've got social value. But kind of, erm... just noticed with us, because there was less of an economic limitation and all this software is basically free anyway, we found it's quite easy to fall into that trap of not learning how to use what it is that you've got. And I wouldn't say that we're really guilty of that, so much, but I definitely felt the need a couple of years ago to just stop chasing new stuff and actually trying to get a little better acquainted with what we've got already. 'Cause I knew that technically it could do pretty much anything that I wanted it to do. Just merely a matter of not looking for easier and better ways to do it all the time and just getting used to what we've got, you know what I mean? I think in the beginning we had like... we had limitations; we'd have to wait for years between buying any sort of major pieces of equipment and that'd give us pure time to get into it and get into using it. And I think, erm, unless you can spend time with one thing at a time and really get to know it, that it can be very cloudy if you're making music. I mean I know people that'd... I mean, I remember when we first toured America, there was one kid over there who'd basically duplicated our studio in the space of a week, so when we got 'round there, he was like, "Oh, I bought all this gear last week, maybe you can show me how to use it." And we were just looking at him thinking, you're mad! He had like, an 808, a 303, a 202, a 606... He didn't know how to use any of it! We were just kind of looking at him thinking, you're insane... Whereas now, that's a pretty commonplace thing, where kids just get an entire studio in an afternoon; it's not that unusual, you know. It just comes on a CD nowadays. I guess, really, we just kind of realized what it was that made us inventive in the first place, you know, and tried to kind of limit the amount of new ideas that were just flowing through. 'Cause it is just like a river, you stick your hand in and a load of stuff comes. We were just thinking, oh, rather than going lookin' and seein' what's new all the time, let's just ignore it. You know, the most exciting thing that I've heard that anybody's told me about recent is like Send 7, you know what I mean? I mean, things must be pretty dry if that's the best thing around. There is loads of stuff, but... I think the one plug-in that did it for me, that was the last straw, was a delay... I remember getting shown it by someone at some gig and just thinking, "Yeah, it's alright, but what does it sound like? Does it only sound like this? Is this all it does?" And I think the person showing it was quite impressed with it and thought they could find some real great application for it, but I was just listening to it, thinking, this sounds so fuckin' specific, I'd never put it in anything that I'd make; you'd know instantly what it was. It's kinda like saying, oh, I'm not really an artist, but the guy who made this program is, you know what I mean? So, I mean, I just got kind of irritated by people sort of saying, "Oh, I've got a better way to do that than you have." You know, and just thinking, what have you done? Because do you know how to use it and stuff?
AR: Some of Draft feels like layered sketches or one-takes, or is this very intensely, deliberately programmed?
SB: Really, really worked out. But we wanted this to sound effortless and not overwrought.
AR: It does have a kind of live performance feel to it.
SB: A few people have said that, yeah. I mean, I've been listening to loads of new hip-hop, you know? But also listening to like, Beefheart and old funk records and really hearing the difference, you know what I mean? I mean I know a lot of people here really feeling the Neptunes at the moment; they're really hyped over here ­ I'm sure they are in America, too ­ but even like electronic acts are really testing Neptunes now. And I kind of listen to it and think its alright, but once you've heard it loop 'round a couple of times, your brain switches off.
AR: You know that Neptunes hook when you hear it.
SB: Yeah, it's true. There's a kind of vagueness to it; it gives you the feeling that it's a kind of like a funk track, it's got that looseness and that life in it. After four tries, you realize it is all loosely programmed and its really nicely, loosely programmed, but it's loose at the end of the day. And it's got that feel to it, as well, that it's kind of holding itself in, if you like. Its a kind of hip-hop thing which I can kind of feel, but I've always kind of... really I prefer funk records, 'cause they'll do the same thing. They'll give you the impression that it's just a reading, but you and I both know that if we try to codify the actual music, it wouldn't be possible. 'Cause the variations between each loop are so vast, so diverse, even though they do actually sound similar to a human brain, they aren't mathematically the same at all. In fact, there's probably nothing the same about two bars of any funk track, you know what I mean? I think really getting into the kind of general groove, the kind that your brain'll make out of what's there, and the difference between that and the kind of actual groove... Yeah, I mean, a lot of [ Draft 7.30 ] is probably based on the notion of those things. I've been listening to dub and stuff as well. All kinds of stuff.
AR: Probably always there, in your music, those aspects...
SB: Yeah, I mean, the live aspects of it, 'cause we've got more space in this music. It's not as quite... encrusted. It's got gaps, it breathes.
AR: Talking about hip-hop roots and you and Rob curating All Tomorrow's Parties this year, how difficult was it to get Public Enemy? Do they know you? You know them?
SB: Erm, they don't know us at all, man; they don't have a clue about us. But they don't know anything about the festival, either. I think [Barry Hogan, tour promoter] from ATP was really on their case for quite a long time; he sort of helped them out with a few dates in the UK, as well, so I think it kind of worked out. His deal with them was, like, "Oh, I'll bring you over," and they were like, "Well, we might be touring the UK and we're looking for promoters," so I think he just got in there. It's quite good; big name. The other one was like The Magic Band; we couldn't believe it, when we got told that Captain Beefheart would play.
AR: Thanks again for doing this interview.
SB: Right, no worries.
Alex Reynolds
Originally excerpted Grooves, Issue 10, February 2nd 2003. This is the full transcript that appeared here.