Autechre. The Master Draftsmen - XLR8R - May 2003
Autechre. The Master Draftsmen
Since 1993, British duo Autechre have embodied experimental techno’s bolder agenda: to disrupt the listener and presage the shape of sounds to come. Their Siskel-and-Ebert-style critiques of technology, pop music and society reflect their love-hate relationship with the world around them-one in which they continue to forge significant breakthroughs in how we think of and hear electronic music.
“Interviews can really fuck up your day,” announces Sean Booth. It’s 9AM and the plain-speaking Lancashire lad is relaxing in the secluded charms of a faux-workman’s cottage in the grounds of a British hotel. Outside, a river gurgles with freshly melted snow, while inside Booth shares a morning spliff with his partner Rob Brown. Booth is explaining why the reputedly temperamental Autechre are receiving a weeklong procession of journalists. He doesn’t like to be disturbed. “Normally you do press on and off for two months and it interferes with our work. I’m not answering the phone in the studio.”
Booth’s sensitivity to his environment has led him to forsake the urban landscapes of his youth in Rochdale, Manchester for a technological world constructed among the thatched roofs of Suffolk, England. Draft 7.30 , Autechre’s seventh studio album, was recorded here. “It’s not like a bedroom studio where you might be influenced by outsiders,” observes Brown, who has his own studio set-up at his place in London. Booth says he’s happier here in the countryside because he’s not being force-fed information about other people’s daily cycles. He doesn’t have to hear them getting ready for work, and he doesn’t get bored so easily. He notes that previously, Autechre would knock out tunes in two weeks “to get them out of the way.” On Draft 7.30 , they averaged three to four weeks per track.
A journalist reputedly told Autechre that Draft 7.30 “made her feel like she was wandering around a bleak housing estate.” Although Booth accuses her of being “middle class,” he admits that the album sounds more urban than its predecessors do. “Maybe we’re harking back to bleak estates?” he speculates. “When we were making music like [that on our second album] Amber, we were living on a bleak housing estate, which made it more mellow sounding,” concludes Brown.
Autechre didn’t plan Draft 7.30 . Even the name is a working title that stuck because they couldn’t think of anything more appropriate when they sent the work to Warp. Originally, it was Draft 7.1 , then 7.2 , then different versions until it ended up at 7.30 . Despite holding a godlike reputation among programmers who love musicBoards of Canada, Pilote, Plaid and Aphex TwinAutechre’s main intention with this album was to curtail their use of new software. The duo agree that they overdosed on technology on their previous album, 2001’s Confield, so they refrained from downloading any new programs or plug-ins for Draft 7.30 . As such, the album found them harking back to their earlier circumstances.
“When we started out in ‘87 we didn’t have money to spend on gear. We’d buy a bit of equipment and really get to know it. Now it’s so easy to download 500 new bits of software in an afternoon,” says Booth, who, in an issue of Jockey Slut, claimed that the increased availability to gear has forced electronica into the hands of “Ford Fiesta owners” who lack creativity. Brown: “We’ve found interesting things in stuff we already have. Autechre has always been about squeezing the most out of what you’ve got, taking back-routes to do things, plugging a bit of equipment into something that wasn’t designed to receive its information. This time it’s about composition rather than programming.”
Consequently, they believe Draft 7.30 is a more “personal” album, although you’d have to be an aural genius to detect this among the abstract squeaks, groans and hisses. As clever as Autechre undoubtedly are, Draft 7.30 isn’t their most digestible albumit’s more an exercise in mastering technology. “There’s more of us in this one,” insists Booth. “We love Confield, but know it’s a little bit too ‘mathematical’ for some people who might think it’s not got the same qualities as other music. [It’s kind of like] when I first heard acid houseI thought, ‘This isn’t the way music’s supposed to be.’”
The promos of Draft 7.30 were sent out on cassette tape. “[Cassettes] hold a significance for us because we grew up swapping tapes in a music sharing culture based on high-speed dubbing, not dial-up speed,” explains Brown in well-rehearsed promotional patter. “Our early promos are on tape. They were the last universal format before everything went digital. People sling cassettes about and you find them on the floor. It’s totally different to the world of vinyl.”
Is their tape-loving wholly nostalgic? Autechre are aware that while vinyl copies of Draft 7.30 would have gone straight to eBay, digital copies would have been turned into MP3s flitting around the internet. It’s a format that Booth hates because he thinks their music “sounds pretty snuff on MP3.” Insists Brown: “Tapes give a good sense of the music without loads being shaved off, or the dynamics being altered.”
Booth says that he doesn’t object to fans downloading Autechre for freehe just prefers the sound of less easily accessible 44K versions (or ones released officially through Warp). Rather than seeing the internet as a great leveler, he believes it is a “highly exclusive worldwide web. Most people don’t have a connection that allows them to download high-resolution files. Look at a physical map of internet portals. They’re all in America, Northern Europe and a bit of Japan. The internet is more culturally exclusive than Coca Cola.” Brown, as ever, pinpoints the flaws in his partner’s grand theory. “You can get broadband in India and the Middle East because loads of programmers live there.”
INDUSTRY BUM RUSHERS
Throughout their musical career, Autechre have continually name-checked hip-hop as an influence. What do they think of its increased presence in the charts? Booth: “Occasionally there’s a good tune, but even the Neptuneswho everybody [seems to like]they’re ripping off El-P’s beats. It’s all pop music.” And how is pop music different from what Autechre does? “Some people think it’s a genre in itself and you can make a good pop record,” Booth notes. “I don’t think that’s the case at all. It’s surely about sales, marketing and image. But it ain’t difficult to make a catchy tune and get it trapped into people’s heads.”
More than ever, Autechre aren’t about to take the easy option for the sake of commercial success. Booth: “I don’t think people are drawn to that type of music naturally. It’s just easy to consume when you’re driving to work. You don’t have to think about what you’re listening to.” The masses aren’t being lazy, he continuesit’s more likely that the programming directors are becoming increasingly conservative. “The music industry is becoming just like Hollywood. All the money for record labels and studios is getting centralized because there are bigger organizations to maintain.” Under different circumstances, in a parallel universe where knowledge ruled, Autechre could be number one.
Back in the real world, the duo reflect on current events in hip-hop. When questioned about Jam Master Jay, rather than reeling off the usual answers about a hero gunned down, Autechre are predictably critical. Booth: “Everyone credits Run DMC for taking rap overground, but “Walk This Way” wasn’t the first rap record to make the charts. Rap didn’t have to blend itself with rock music to be accepted by the mainstreamit was accepted four years before with Kurtis Blow, [Sugar Hill Gang’s] ‘Rapper’s Delight’ and Melle Mel.” Booth claims Jay was his favorite member of Run DMC, but the recent news of the DJ’s death was “meaningless” to him. “I thought, ‘everyone’s going to celebrate him like he’s this major-league hip-hop icon.’” Meanwhile, Brown is “surprised” about Adidas selling a pair of shell toes out of “respect.” Unsurprisingly, Booth thinks Adidas are “fucking cunts.”
IT’S THEIR PARTY
Not everything is so dour in Autechre-land. Booth has positive things to say about the Spain-based multimedia festival Sonarboth the way its organizers integrate hyper-commercial with experimental music, and how the popular night schedule funds daytime events (although he can’t help commenting that there were “loads of Spanish people playing crap records”). Draft 7.30 will be released the day after the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, the British version of which Booth and Brown are curating in 2003. They’ve pulled in a dream line-up that includes Public Enemy (Brown: “Like landing a whale”) and the Magic Band (“Our heroes asking us what they should play”), alongside their own Autechre alter-ego Gescom, and are enjoying the process very much indeed. They’re interested in how their slant will make this ATP different from ones curated by Sonic Youth, former Pavement member Stephen Malkmus and, er, Simpsons creator Matt Groening in LA. Although the fest was originally scheduled for Japan, Autechre opted for home-turf when Japanese organizers suggested Brian Eno. “We might as well have booked U2 to play,” quips Booth. Autechre liken the selection process to radio DJing. “Like when we did pirate stations,” claims Booth. “Or like putting a mixtape together for someone and being really anal about it.”
Similarly to curating, the making of Draft 7.30 required Autechre to look back at their roots, largely because they had advanced beyond the latest developments in technology. Booth: “By building our own sequencers, we’ve learnt so much about writing computer programs that we feel totally fluent. Technology has become transparent. We don’t have to worry about it presenting any obstacles, because we can take another route.” It’s a situation that inevitably makes them critical of the nerdy laptop culture with which they’re associated. “Laptops are such a lifestyle statement,” sighs Booth. “There’s nothing worse than walking into a bar and someone coming up with a Powerbook, opening it up and saying ‘look what I’ve been doing.’ For us, computers are great communicating and music-writing tools, but they need people to use them.”
Booth believes computers will be superceded by more advanced machines. “It’s pure speculation, but I’m pretty convinced they’re going to reach the ceiling soon in terms of throwing electrons down bits of wire.” It’s this ceiling that made them turn to analog technology on Draft 7.30 to create elements that new-school computers couldn’t. “I use computers and think, ‘This sounds a bit tight.’ Then I use an analogue synth and it’s universally tight,” explains Booth. “Analog technology deals with curving, constantly changing values, and it doesn’t reduce everything to a series of steps. By working with constant curves, you can do loads more full-on [mathematical processes]. I can see there’s lots of room for improvement in terms of computational technology.” While they wait for the scientists to catch up, Autechre must adapt old technology to draft sounds for the future.b Autechre’s Draft 7.30 is out now on Warp Recordings.
Originally appeared in XLR8R Magazine, May 2003.
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