Richard D James, AKA Aphex Twin, has played records to audiences for a long time. But he’s such an iconoclast his sets feel like events. This is underlined by the fact that most take place at festivals, such as this year’s Coachella, on whose poster Aphex Twin was listed in the second-largest font.
By now, he qualifies as an institution. ‘Syro’, the 2014 album that was the first James had released under any name in eight years, won a US Grammy for Best Electronic Album, an award it deserved. Nearly every dance producer to come after has cited him as an influence. And Aphex Twin tribute DJ sets abound online.
No wonder: under various monikers, James has stretched dance music’s self-made strictures in as many directions as anybody you could name. That includes his outtakes – 269 of which he uploaded to SoundCloud, under a variety of aliases, beginning in January 2015, not long after releasing ‘Syro’. You can find the entire cache on the Internet Archive – search for ‘user18081971’ (James’ birthday) – but a pair of mixes surveying the trove will start you off right.
Norwegian producer EOD, who issued a pair of early releases on Aphex’s Rephlex label, has an ear for James at his most rhythmically savvy. His Best of Aphex Twin’s SoundCloud Dump (December 2017), made for Crack Magazine, ferrets out an hour of deeply subterranean dance jams, albeit with the beats occasionally going doolally. When San Franciscan DJ Carlos Souffront takes a whack at the same material on The Bunker Podcast 98 (June 2015), the difference isn’t simply that Souffront’s is twice as long as EOD’s (at over two hours), but that his focus is less on groove – though there’s plenty of that still – than on presenting the outtakes’ tweakiest sonics, with mesmerising results.
Still, it’s one thing to hear even a very good DJ piece together James’ catalogue, and quite another to hear Aphex himself on the decks. For one thing, his sets are era markers; for all James’ vaunted musical timelessness, what he spins is firmly attuned to the present. Another notable thing about Aphex sets is how many were recorded by audience members. That’s the case with Live at Limelight NYC Mid 1990s (uploaded January 2019), which was caught on DAT. Despite this iffy provenance, it’s quite listenable; the blobby fidelity adds aura. Its tracklist screams 1993 (although Dave Clarke’s ‘Word To The Wise’ was released in 1994, it’s likely Aphex had a promo copy). Classics from Phuture, LFO, Green Velvet and Cylob rub elbows with Aphex’s own remixes of Meat Beat Manifesto and Mescalinum United, and all of it stampedes.
The one time I caught Aphex on the decks occurred a year or so later, in April 1994, in a fume-laden tent on a campground in rural Wisconsin, USA, at the climax of the first-ever Furthur Festival, which still happens annually.
A confession: I went to bed ten minutes into his performance – I’d been awake for three days sober and could no longer stand up. What I missed was surely the craziest set of a genuinely ridiculous weekend. The tracklist is similar to Limelight’s, but with clearer sound and more of James’ own recordings, including Polygon Window’s ‘Quoth’, which he cuts up two copies of.
It’s nearly impossible to imagine James accepting offers for b2b sets in the live stream age, but in the late 90s and early 00s, he teamed up semi-regularly on the decks with Luke Vibert. The most widely circulated set from this period is their radio set for KNDD 107.7 FM, Seattle (September 1997), a charming mosey through recent acquisitions, which included then au courant excavations into early electronic music from Tod Dockstader and Joe Meek’s Tornados, as well as early-80s New York records from Tom Tom Club and Liquid Liquid, the latter of which had just had its catalogue reissued in America by the Beastie Boys’ label, Grand Royal.
The festival-headliner phase of Aphex Twin’s career has been ongoing for a while, and his December 2016 appearance at Texas’s Day For Night is the definitive document so far.This is an audience recording, done with a phone, then uploaded to YouTube (it’s gone from there) and subsequently elsewhere. Once online, it became a sensation. James rips through 50 tracks in two hours – the flow is herky-jerky, but his left turns compel and the whole thing builds in speed and intensity, finishing off with some gabber. Eight tracks are his own, including two from user18081971, but just as significant are four tracks by Jlin, the brilliant Gary, Indiana psychedelic footwork producer. It felt like something of a torch-passing: Jlin’s records display as much sheer creative moxie as anybody’s since, well, Aphex Twin’s.
Michaelangelo Matos is a regular contributor to Mixmag, follow him on Twitter