“We’re very proud of this work. It has a lot of depth to it, so it might take people awhile to understand.”
...that is what Autechre told me when I asked them to share their thoughts about their new album. I had the unique opportunity to Interview Rob Brown before the release of Oversteps, their tenth album, which sees Autechre brimming with confidence even as they have come so far in the electronic music scene since their inception.
Their previous album, Quaristice, represented a break with the multilayered, complex stylings of their past work. Many songs are danceable, the structures recognizable, and in a certain meaning, easy to understand (although in Autechre’s case “easy” is never that easy). However, this meant that with Quaristice, which was a collection of reworkings from Autechre’s live set, there was not much room to make changes or additions to the songs when they were being finalized. Rather than continue to develop the meticulous, thoroughly detailed method of their previous work, Quaristice saw Autechre abandon their unique brand of perfectionism and instead place emphasis on each individual song. The casual, frank collection of tracks found on Quaristice still have the usual dark, majestic tones, but rather than the tense, nervous energy of their previous work, the tracks embrace a relaxed atmosphere, as if some burden has been released. From my perspective, this heralds (in a positive way) a huge change for Autechre.
But let us return to Oversteps. This time, the opposite approach was used from Quaristice. Because their live performances were not split up onto a multitrack, they did not use them as the source; rather, this time most of the work was done using computers, allowing Rob and Sean to really get immersed in the fine details of each piece. When asked about their process, Rob had this to say: “We really utilized the studio to its fullest this time. We used desktop computers a lot this time. Of course, in addition to our usual computers, we also used synths and samplers, but the software base allows a kind of musical notation, you might say, which really allows us to change the tiniest details of each sound. In the past when we’ve been working on a piece, if you finalize it, it becomes really difficult afterward to change the song. But this time, we were able to pick out the constituent parts of each sound and change them. I’m very satisfied that we could work on the sounds this way, almost at the microscopic level of detail. More than our other albums, I really feel like we were in control over the sound design, that we had a more nuanced and subtle control. The recording environment was just perfect this time, so the album may sound more refined to people. It’s a perfect album to us, just packed with all our favorite ideas on sound.”
I see. Being able to pick an individual sound out after mixdown and work with it is key--the ability to follow one’s instincts and make any last changes before the final mixdown. For their already carefully wrought songs, this just must allow for one more layer of precision... well, their process may far exceed the scope of my general impressions, but either way, it is certain that Oversteps is a work of rare creativity and meticulous attention to detail.
“Because we were able to alter the details of each sound at every step of the way, it took even more time for us to be satisfied.” And yet, surprisingly, in contrast with the amount of time and energy spent on Oversteps, when compared with their recent work, the album is composed of comparatively simple gestures. With simple, beautiful melodies, it is likely that many will see Oversteps as a return to the style of their early days and the now-famous Artificial Intelligence compilation. And while that reaction is only natural, this is decidedly not an atavistic work or a mere exercise in nostalgia (for Autechre, it should be known by now that such a move is probably impossible). Admittedly, Oversteps contains straightforward beats which recall electro from the first half of the 80s, such as Man Parrish and Mantronix. There are also gestures of older acid techno. However, the emphasis on the space and tonal color of each sound (Autechre’s distinctive trait, one could say), as well as the deceptively simple organization of each song, are unmistakable as the Autechre of today. While one’s first impression is that things are so simple as to be almost carelessly brusque, as you listen more and more, a startling creativity and ingenuity reveal themselves. This is surely the “point” or theme of Oversteps. It is also what I meant by a positive change. Although Booth and Brown themselves stick steadfastly to their statement that they do not make albums with some conscious agenda, it can probably be said that Autechre (as well as the rest of the electronic music community) has by now explored the limits of “complexity.” By daring to abandon those heavy shackles with Quaristice, Autechre has opened themselves up to a world of new, strange possibilities in their music. These possibilities can be none other than the new emphasis on and investigation of melody and tonal color, and an intrepid attempt to reclaim the space between sounds, which had hitherto been buried. While their creativity had previously been applied to experiments in complexity, here it is the individual texture of the sounds themselves, as well as the spaces between, through which an enigmatic tension is conveyed. Representative of this style are the beatless “pt2ph8” and “see on see.”
“Yeah. Its all about beauty, there. I think by leaving space we were able to express our ideas more fully. The songs might lack obvious beats, but leaving space like this creates a complex effect in the listener’s mind, I think. Sean and I have been making music together for a long time, you know. This time we didn’t want to make a beat-centric album, but we wanted to challenge ourselves with using space while still retaining a rhythm. A glockenspiel is a good example, how it carries a melody but also serves the role of percussion… we tried this kind of approach, using percussion that wouldn’t harm or muddle our ideas. This was the first time, I think, that we were able to integrate such delicacy to our satisfaction.”
Using the attack of traditionally-melodic instruments to create rhythms is kind a complexity of its own, but more striking is the otherworldly beauty of these melodies themselves. The creativity and authority of these tracks is enough to convince the listener that the space Rob speaks of, so meticulously and laboriously constructed, is not the result of an exhaustion of ideas. Rather, it represents a new presentation of sound for Autechre which was not present in their prior works.
Anyone who was a fan of the extreme complexity of Gantz Graf and Confield and reads this Interview before listening to Oversteps might feel some hesitation, but there is no need to worry. All one needs to do is simply listen to the long silence that opens the first track “r ess,” and like a curtain being drawn on a stage, you will be led quite naturally into what Rob referred to above as the complex world of sound within your own mind. Rob had the following insights to share about the first track: “We wanted to try to reformat the listener’s mind (laughs). Its sort of that moment where some 60’s spacecraft or something docks on the moon. We wanted the listener to feel like the world of the song he’s about to enter has always existed, while the swelling sounds slowly scan the listener’s mind in an inviting, relaxed way. It’s a synchronization process between listener and music. The first song has a somewhat different atmosphere from the other tracks… its warm, and yet something about it is also dark. But the really slow, long resonances really tie everything together perfectly. Its like slowly, slowly hitting a target you’ve been aiming at… not violently, but gently.”
And thus Sean Booth and Rob Brown continue, as before, their ceaseless evolution and change as Autechre with their newest cd Oversteps. And yet, it could also be said that this is not the “newest” Autechre at all. In truth, there was more to what Rob Brown told me at the start of this interview:
“We’re very proud of this work. It has a lot of depth to it, so it might take people awhile to understand. Making an album is really an important thing to us, so of course we talk of it with pride, but to be honest, we’ve already set our sights on the future. Since we’ve been working on this material for 2 years, now that its finally being released, all those challenges we faced are already past us.”
Autechre is already forging ahead. What unpredictable sounds of the future will they present to us next?