All Mod Con'
you want awkward? great. meet autechre. the arcane band who prefer "tags' to, you know, words and who believe their once beloved electronica has fallen into the grubby hands of ford fiesta owners. neil davenport searches desperately for their funny bone...
"After an hour with us I think you're beginning to work us out," says Sean Booth in his strong, blurry Lancashire vowels. And indeed I had. For the past 60 minutes, innocent questions loaded with categories, concepts and comparisons were met with alarmed incredulity: "what do you mean?", "we couldn't possibly comment" and, best of all, "that's your job to work out, mate" were handed back with a mixture of arms-folded suspicion and knowing, faux naivete. So yeah, an hour later, questions that might have hinted at vague comparisons are quietly shelved. Sean grins underneath his tidy beard. His Autechre oppo, Rob Brown, puts his orange juice down and also cracks open a smile: "I suppose we can be awkward buggers sometimes."
Awkward? Well, yes, but not completely impenetrable. In fact, engage them in a bit of mental sparring and you'll be rewarded with scintillating conversations that range from Teutonic architecture to Timbaland's rough and ready beats. Like their supposedly controversial electronica ("what's that all about then?" whines Sean), once you've worked out their obtuse codes and put the time in, they're frequently profound, surprisingly accessible and warmly engaging.
We're sitting in the Tate Modern's clattering cafe some seven floors up with a bird's eye view of the Thames. Aside from marvelling at the London Eye, we're hear to discuss (read: disagree with) Autechre's sixth album, 'Confield'. It's been three years since the gently abstract spaciousness of 'LP' and 18 months since the lower profiled 'EP', itself a long jog at 70 minutes, plus a few releases under their alter ego Gescom. Even so, suggesting that Autechre are 'back' sounds rather odd. After all, it's not as if Rob and Sean are due to be interviewed by Cat Deeley on 'CD:UK' or appear with Lisa Steps on 'Never Mind The Buzzcocks'.
Predictably enough, 'Confield's rigorously disjointed beats and bongs is unlikely to change that. Actually, even for those who can pick up frequencies that make dogs bark, this is one to puzzle over. It's very direct and very extreme. Boldly eschewing (whisper it) electronica's vogue for pristine lines, glacial symmetrics and heart-warming melancholia, 'Confield' is shockingly raw and heroically fucked up. It's a needling collage of muffled found sounds and hiccuping gurgles and hisses that will either a) infuriate, b) intimidate or c) invigorate. As Sean shrugs, "it's a question of taste."
"A lot of people said 'LP' was overwrought and too complicated," says Sean. "I suppose this one is more compact and upfront. But we recorded this a long time ago and we haven't heard it for ages. That's the problem with reference points; most journalists will have a third of our picture."
Like a lot of studio-bound practitioners, Autechre record tracks periodically and prolifically. But after Sean moved down from Sheffield to Suffolk (Rob now lives in the capital), the need to rebuild their studio delayed their productivity somewhat. It's also partly responsible for their shift in ear-bending sound (key word: uncompromising). Whereas Sheffield's network of music bods kept them mindful of other's opinions, the tracks for 'Confield' were recorded in the kind of blissful isolation that would have made even Howard Hughes feel lonely. "Nah it's great," says Sean. "We're totally free from any pressure."
Apparently, the pair aren't vinyl junkies or particularly interested in the electronic competition. So while they don't sound like anyone else, they're not keeping self-indulgence at bay either. Doesn't an outside opinion offer a fresh perspective? Autechre definitely don't think so, making them oddly fascinating and rather unique. When Sean says there isn't highbrow and lowbrow but only good and bad tastes, he's essentially a relativist celebrating a judgment-free approach to art and music. Whereas the proverbial high and low measurements are based on a largely agreed upon canon, 'good' and 'bad' is merely arbitrary and personal, begging the question, how on earth can quality standards be maintained? Some people, after all, consider Hear'Say 'good'.
"All that's bullshit," huffs Sean. "There aren't genres or scenes that are better or worse than others. I don't see that we're appealing to highbrow tastes but just people who are open-minded. It's like at a recent gig; this kid who was into death metal really clicked with our music. It's not about rigid barriers, it's about open-mindedness."
It's distinctly paradoxical that Autechre should think this way. After all, for a generation of electronica obsessives, these two are the gods, the dons, the ones without peers and, yes, the standard bearers. Go back to their track 'The Egg' on Warp's seminal 'Artificial Intelligence' compilation, and it's more or less a fully-formed blueprint for Boards Of Canada.
What's more, their first two albums, 'Incunabula' and 'Amber', are still two of the greatest electronic based albums ever made, an ingenious display of how beauty and melody can be forged through tinkering with machines. Fittingly, when asked to pen their own biography a few years back, they wrote about their favourite equipment instead.
All this, of course, hasn't gone unnoticed. Amongst Warp's esteemed roster and beyond, there's a hushed reverence surrounding them and everything they do. Plaid, Plone, Sean's girlfriend Chantel, aka Mira Calix, and Aphex 1\vin think they're the absolute bee's knees. Pilote, in fact, thinks their last album, 'LP', is a work of pure, unadulterated genius. Sean, though, screws his beard up. "Elder statesmen?" he whines in his slightly comical accent, "we're not even 30 yet. When we first emerged, nobody was talking about electronica. And now all of a sudden we're called electronica."
Sensing their pathological fear of fixed categories, talk turns, swiftly, to the early '90s. How were they for you?
"We used to sit around our mates' house setting the gear up," says Sean. "Get fucked up, nothing major. We didn't think we're going to take this out to the world and blow everyone away. I do remember thinking that this a modern form of folk music and it did feel like pastoral music to about six or so people. Now with everything cheaper, everybody has access to cheap hardware and can make music. That's why there's been a sudden upsurge in this kind of music."
"And it's why we're no longer interested in following it," adds Rob.
"There's just a big slab of stuff with very little imagination."
Indeed. There's a growing consensus amongst machine-gurgling fiddlers that cheaper software has made everything too easy and too formulaic (funny - guitar traditionalists used to say the same about Kraftwerk). In contrast, Sean's first piece of equipment demanded some brain-work. He was in his teens when his grandad, a keen audiophile, gave him a reel to reel tape recorder complete with microphone and shoulder strap.
"Oh, I just got really busy with it," says Sean, "taping outside noses and what was on the telly. It was better than making Lego spaceships."
The young Rob Brown was also remoulding sound, only with turntables.
"I'd always scare my friends when I messed with records," he says. "It can sound well austere when a record is played one per cent. None of my mates digged it."
Which is where Sean would eventually come in. Introduced by a mutual friend in their native Rochdale, the pair quickly bonded over Mantronix, Arthur Baker and, above all, looping and cutting up sound. For practical reasons it was an ideal pairing: Sean with his reels and Rob with decks. "It was important," says Rob. "In a place like Rochdale nobody else was doing what we were doing. Most of our friends would be out fighting."
Tracing Autechre's development, it's noticeable just how everything is absorbed into the group. Rob went to an architects' college, which kind of led to them conceptually unifying music with ideas of space and surrounding. They also take artwork and design very seriously. At school, Sean had difficulty with handwriting and often wrote "tags", which are combinations of letters that don't mean anything but kind of look "right". It's how they get those inexplicable track titles. And when it came to choosing music, they point to Stu Allen's show on Manchester's Sunset radio where hardcore, hip hop and leftfield tracks were intertwined.
Having built an admirably distinct sound and aesthetic, Rob and Sean have been steadily refining the Autechre blueprint, becoming more abstract ("I don't understand," yelps Sean), more out there and more confrontational. It's as if any outside influences would unravel this carefully methodical process. It's also extremely arrogant, and that, of course, is one of Autechre's greatest assets. For all the mocking, monosyllabic answers and evasive mumblings, we know they're a bunch of extremely clever sods messing up our heads with fucked-up sounds. "For something to be avant-garde it has to push out from a movement," says Sean, "and a movement isn't worth shit unless it has a developmental force and avant-garde is a distinctive movement. The trouble with electronica now is that it's done by Ford Fiesta drivers out on a Friday night. How could we not be methodical about what we do?"
Rob and Sean clearly know where they're going with 'Confield'. Everyone else, it seems, will just have to catch up.
noise annoys? The Slut took to London to ask the man - and woman - on the street what they thought of the Warp-ed duo's latest offering. Here's what they had to say:
GARY, 27, MUSICIAN 'That's bizarre. I really wasn't expecting what I heard there, man. I'm a bit of a rock'n'roller; I like dance tunes, but I've just never heard anything like that before. It's got kind of an Eastern feel, I think. I dunno whatto make of that. I dunno whether it's chilling me out or getting me excited or what."
SOPHIE, 24, LAWYER "Is this your music? It sounds like digestion. You can't dance to it unless you're off your head. There's no rhythm, nothing. I think it's shit. Sorry. Haven't you got anything a bit better?"
STEVE, 26, GRAPHIC DESIGNER "It's pretty minimal - it reminds me of Eno until the beat comes in. I like something with a bit of impact, but there was none there at all with that track. It's very Warp. Who is it? (It's Autechre) It's very chilled out, very Sunday morning, you know what I mean? It's quite nice and sparse."
MIKE, 30, GRAPHIC ARTIST "It sounds kind of like something from a film soundtrack. It's like a mix of Euro-dub, Asian, African stuff, but electronic. I like it."
SAM, 22, WEBSITE CO-ORDINATOR "It's got some really nice beats. I am really interested in the beats. It's pretty intricate. It sounds like when they play back records what's that called? The rewind, yes."
ADAM, 30, DESIGNER "It sounds like a really bad recording. It's not doing much for me. It sounds like music from a party six or seven doors down the street. It's a bit too intelligent for me. I do like those metallic, fast-forwarding sounds though. Can I go now?"
Originally appeared in Jockey Slut, May 2001. Copyright © Jockey Slut