We control the dice

"We control the dice" Wire 2008 interview. With their fearsome reputation for complex electronica intact, Autechre's Sean Booth and Rob Brown have gone back to first principles with their latest album, preserving the instinctive spontaneity of live work and seeking the magic behind the numbers. Words: Keith Moline. Illustrations: Savage Pencil.

"It's like looking at gene cycles, who inherits what. You've got your X and your Y, and you mix them." Autechre's Rob Brown is attempting to conjure an apposite image to describe the electronic duo's impressively symbiotic musical partnership, which stretches back almost two decades. "The things that Sean's comfortable with are X, uncomfortable Y, and the same with me. I can be going through my Y phase while Sean's in his best X phase, and vice versa, but then there are moments when we're both on X, and that's when it really works. We try to catch those apexes." As metaphors go, it is, like the duo's music, convoluted, slightly odd, but somehow completely logical. Sitting in a Manchester bar, the duo spark off each other with the same infectious enthusiasm they had as callow 80s electro obsessives in their original hometown of Rochdale, and complete each other's sentences in much the same way that they elaborate on each other's musical contribution onstage. "Disagreements only happen when you enter the conscious world, when you try to consider things", explains Sean Booth. "It's more about our knowledge of what the other likes - though we try to push that as well - 'Have a bit of this'"

The slight distaste Booth evinces for the word 'consider' might seem odd coming from one of the architects of such groundbreakingly complex and painstakingly constructed albums as Confield (2001), Draft 7.30 (2003) and Untilted (2005), all of which are nothing if not 'considered'. With their new album Quaristice, however, Autechre have traded scrupulous construction for spontaneity, looseness and improvisation. Since the turn of millennium, a gap existed between their ever more experimental album releases and their (slightly) more straightforward live sets, in which their uncanny rapport reaches its fullest expression. The new album draws heavily on this live methodology. "We were putting live tracks down in the studio, messing them up, making them into versions, which eventually became new tracks," explains Booth. "We put down loads of hour-long jams of bits of the live set that we were going to edit later. But we found ourselves just writing new tracks on the same set-up. We'd got to the point where we were fluid enough for stuff to just come out." Brown elaborates: "Anything that existed from the live set we'd already been changing for a year or more. We were totally adept at getting stuff from nowhere. So the new tracks are like ghosts of what we'd been doing live." Bearing in mind their famed meticulousness - by Booth's own account they are "incredibly anal and precise people" - it seems remarkable that they made the decision deliberately to limit the scope for tampering with the fine details of the tracks. "I wish it were that romantic, but basically we'd barely set our studio up after I'd moved to Manchester," admits Booth. "It was just convenience. We can't resist temptation; it's more that we've learned to remove it. Once you record something as audio, two channels, you're pretty much stuck with it. So we've learned to prevent ourselves from being able to do it." The resulting album is their most relaxed and multifaceted to date, each of its 20 short tracks showcasing a particular mood of approach, from Ambient drift to tangles of distorted beats, rather than morphing from one extreme state to the next. It cuts back on audio sleights of hand and trompe l'oreille extravagances. By Autechre's standarts, it's almost throwaway, but that's not meant as a criticism. Rather, Quaristice is as aesthetically rigorous as you would expect, but its immediacy also reflects some of the rough charm that the duo exude onstage.

A romanticised view prevails of Autechre's supposed background as B-boy scallies terrorising the streets of Rochdale, tagging the local bus shelters before retiring to their rooms to devour mixtapes of the most obscure Stateside hiphop and electro. From there it's tempting to imagine them discovering acid (the drug) and Acid (House), half-inching some equipment to make their own tracks and then discovering that not only were they musical geniuses, but they'd magically invented 'Intelligent Dance Music' to boot. There's a raised-eyebrow snootiness to the notion that their early influences are too unsophisticated to be anything other than mere juvenilia, an assumption that such music should be disowned by the duo now that they are Serious Artists. The enthusiasm with which Booth and Brown discuss the music of their youth makes it clear that this is far from the case. They're far happier discussing old Man Parrish and Mantronix 12"s than the latest advances in MicroHouse or minimal Techno, It's more useful to assume that they heard the music in a different way to their peers, imagining phantoms inhabiting the wide-open spaces in the stripped down production, decoding the mathematical formulae underpinning the beats, revelling in the textural minutiae of the synthesized stabs and grainy samples. Perhaps it's not overly fanciful to conclude that their own music represents their attempt to reveal the secrets they had unearthed in those apparently simplistic early tracks: Autechre as a musical representation of the engaged imagination.

"Sometimes you have to accept that you're a product of your environment," muses Brown, "and no matter what input you want to put into that environment, that's just your personal taste, the culmination of all your influences, being creatively voiced one way or another, like a painter might do." "With 80s hiphop," says Booth, taking up the theme, "I was too young to understand what was going on but I knew it was amazing, I knew which new records were good , and i still think the same ones are the good records." The first music the duo made at he turn of the 90s was ostensibly hardcore, but even then their unconscious musical instincts were pushing them in directions that didn't endear them to their peers in the movement. "When Hardcore started, it offered a lot," recalls Booth. "It felt like a collision of Acid and hiphop, everything. But people said our Hardcore tracks weren't obvious enough." Once they had found a sympathetic label that actively encouraged them to follow those instincts without compromise (Warp, to whom the duo remain signed some 15 years later), they shed the outer husk of their straighter dance influences - partly because Warp favoured the weirder, more Ambient tracks that were compiled for Autechre's debut album Incunabula - but you get a strong sense that they're driven by the same urges even today. It's evident in their terminology - a world of "mad sounds" where the most impossibly intricate passages of their compositions are called "bits" and byzantine programming results in tracks that are "proper intense" - as well as their deep suspicion of any analysis or dissection of their methodology.

From 1997's Chiastic Slide onwards, Autechre's music has provoked ever more polarised opinions. Naysayers accuse them of abandoning the sleekness of line and engaging depth of their previous work (1995's Tri Repetae in particular is still senn as an IDM primary text) in favour of a hyper-complexity that can become convoluted and inaccessible. "I usually ask people what they do when they sit on a train, look at every single blade of grass that comes past window?" bristles Booth. "That's bogus, that line of conscious appraisal, it's led by previous programming of how to appraise product. Some people are so tied up with the whole issue of understanding - they think you need to understand something in order to like it. People have been programmed by American advertisers and various other cultural forces throughout the 20th century. They feel they have to be rewarded on their terms. The want you to hold the mayo. That's very much where this comes from in my opinion, this idea that 'We're an audience, and we've got various expectations that you're supposed to fulfill'." Neither are they happy with the line of argument that characterises them as white-coat-wearing eggheads conducting sonic experiments in their studio-cum-laboratory. "That's when you get these bogus theories, because they've used one to explain what should be a basic feeling," complains Booth, Brown is slightly more forgiving: "Our music is there to be analysed if you want to," he concedes, "but there are so many events to consume, you shouldn't tie yourself down to worrying about whether one event is material to the one before it. you should let it come at you like a wave, not look at every bit of froth of a wave that breaks on a shore."

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"Maybe people have a problem when music sounds scarily futuristic to them, because it implies lack of human interaction. Yet a funk band can do infinitely more complex micro-arrangements than a machine" Rob Brown

In fact, each successive Autechre album seems more fascinating, beautiful, witty and, yes, funky than the last. The complexity of the programming, in which rhythmic tics and mechanisms slide in and out of sync with one another, can easily be viewed as attempts to push the limits of syncopation, to move the body, but in new ways. "I'm really into quantization and alignment, and coincidence, and syncopation's obviously a big part of that." agrees Booth. "I like various combinations and juxtapositions of feel. i'm massively into listening to drummers and their inflections. Funk is incredibly complicated, but it's very difficult to analyze." It seems odd, then, that funk rhythms are so readily accepted by a mass audience, while Autechre are considered rhythmically impenetrable. "Maybe people have a problem when it sounds scarily futuristic to them, because it implies lack of human interaction," Brown reflects. "Most of our machines only go to 196ths of a beat, in terms of space between events. A funk band can do infinitely more complex micro-arrangements, yet that's considered more welcoming and natural. People take it as a simpler thing but it's way more complex than any machine could do."

Nevertheless, the duo do concede that they started to feel they had reached a point of no return with the non-real-time approach to composition that had come to characterise their work. "Untilted and Draft 7.30 were very much about tentacles reaching out into the studio that are controlled by a guy with a mouse inputting discrete points, checking that it's 83 not 84, ridiculous amounts of pre-emptive precision," Brown explains. "You can get bogged down and become really cold. When you're reviewing every three seconds of material, it almost becomes like when you say a word over and over again until it stops making sense. You put too much weight on a minute amount of detail. And you can't abandon it because you've invested so much in it. You have to make it work." Booth expands on this point: "We largely revolve around process. We spend all our time doing the stuff, it's afterwards we have to conceptualise it. You might do a bunch of tracks non-real-time where things get taken away from the initial template as they develop, where you know that is you started a piece with just the end bit people would be saying, 'What the hell's this?'. But in a way, that's predictable. You don't realise where routine and schedule become habits, and then become rules. Before you know what's going on you're super limited. It's good sometimes to remove a lot of the conscious process. That's the thing with doing live arrangements, you're not thinking about it, It's informed by every experience you've ever had. It's the way you behave naturally."

Where Autechre's live sets in the past consisted of mutated studio compositions, the core of Quaristice comprises deformed versions of live tracks. Booth believes that the live approach means they are collaborating more closely than they have done on recent albums, whose tag-team methodology, with each in turn developing what the other had produced, was one they were keen to avoid. A further by-product of this technique of distilling their live sets in a studio setting is the influence of the audience dynamic on the way the tracks are constructed. "The music is based what they're feeding us," asserts Booth. "It gets more cohesive and succinct. That's obviously been framed by interaction with the crowd. Things were occurring in more concise positions, and we'd learned how to get the most out of each bit before we moved onto the next one, in shorter time." It could perhaps be argued that this suggests their freedom to move the music in whatever direction they choose might be curtailed by the more functional, prosaic demands of the average club or festival crowd. Booth disagrees: "If you go in with a fixed idea of what you want to present and they don't like it, that's problematic, that's an ego thing. If you're adaptable, that's not bad, it's good."

By bringing the live set into the studio, they were able to maintain creative autonomy. "We shut everyone out again." relates Brown. "We had the results of all this audience input, embodied in the gear because the settings tend to stay where they are, or we'll update and save that night's parameter changes which will be the starting point for the next night. It'll flip head over heels within five nights. We were left with the residue of two years of influence and input and development, and then we could be completely self-indulgent in the studio. But it felt like we were making something really sharp." The real-time approach also influenced the laptop based pieces each was supplying as the album took shape; they are marked by a concision and immediacy that stemmed from not allowing themselves too much potential for revison,"A lot of our tracks from Untilted and before would reach a peak of, say, funk, then fall apart and be in transition until one of us would figure where it was that it was really happening," Brown elaborates. "That track needed a history, or a language lesson, to explain how it became so weird. Now, the openness of what we're doing means we can skip the language lessons. It's like,"You should know it by now. This is freaky, it's really good - it's a track."

Whether or not their current insistence on liberating themselves from the tyranny of analysis continues, for the moment they seem determined to make the most of their freedom. "This psychologist told me that there's a drug that blocks production of the proteins necessary to create memories," relates Booth. "When you remember something, in recalling it you rewrite it. So if you take this drug, and people ask you to remember something,you forget it forever. Imagine burning a load of tracks taking those drugs!" He sounds almost wistful, imagining a state where he might be capable of experiencing the pure excitement of music unencumbered by knowledge or critical scrutiny. With Quaristice, Autechre have altered their methodology to allow for more spontaneity, bypassing where possible their more analytical tendencies in order to rediscover a sence of their early idealism (or innocence, perhaps), relishing the experience of falling back on their instincts. "Apperciation of music is instinct, it's innate," asserts Booth."You know what a large metallic changing sound represents probably at the age if six months, Whether it's in tune or the production sounds sweet. it's all innate. That's become more and more interesting to me."

"It goes beyond hardware, beyond equipment," insist Brown. "It's about the magic behind the numbers."

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