Richard D. James, more commonly known as Aphex Twin, is the epitome of experimental music. The Cornish recluse set off in the mid-1980s as a pioneering ambient music producer following in the footsteps of Brian Eno. His debut album Selected Ambient Works 85-92, released with the Belgian label Apollo in 1992, garnered his first glimpse of critical and popular acclaim. The album collates a number of ambient tracks, which also carry strains of early techno music. Selected Ambient Works 85-92 has become one of the most iconic electronic albums of all time and is seen by most electronic artists as the holy grail of ambient and techno music.
James released his most important album at the beginning of the 1990s, a decade where electronic music appeared to follow James’ example into the realms of house and techno during the blossoming rave scene. As a pioneer by nature, James looked to further warp the conventions of music with his increasingly experimental music throughout the ’90s.
In 1993, James signed to the influential label Warp Records and subsequently released his second album ...I Care Because You Do in 1995. The album showed him taking a step into the bizarre with a diverse collection of electronic tracks that even featured a sample of him dragging a chair across the floor in the most popular track on the album, ‘Alberto Balsam’. James’ second album showed his indisputable talent and also gave us the first experiences of some of his more unlistenable experiments – yes, I’m referring to ‘Ventolin’, the track that will irritate not only you but also your neighbour’s dog.
Through the remainder of the 1990s, James continued to diversify his sound and released the Richard D James Album in 1996, which was followed by the top 40 singles ‘Come to Daddy’ (1997) and ‘Windowlicker’ (1999). His work refused to stand still, always offering something fresh and a little strange for listeners to feast their ears upon.
Towards the end of the decade, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke had become somewhat disillusioned with conventional rock music after his group’s first three albums. In 1998, following Radiohead’s tour in support of their masterpiece Ok Computer, Yorke had become exhausted and opted to take some time away from their non-stop lives of touring and recording. During this period, he sought shelter from rock by listening mostly to electronic music by the likes of Aphex Twin, Autechre and Squarepusher.
His flirtings with experimental electronic music inspired him to create the 2000 experimental electro-infused rock album Kid A which was followed by Amnesiac in 2001 which was compiled using material from the same recording sessions. Radiohead cited Aphex Twin as one of their key influences following the release of these two albums — but what does the elusive Richard D. James think of them?
In an interview with Heiko Hoffmann in the early 2000s, James was asked for his opinion on Radiohead and their experimental electro-rock work: “Your music has been hugely influential. One of the more prominent musicians who’ve said that they’ve been inspired by your records are Radiohead? Did you listen to any of their last two albums, Kid A and Amnesiac?”.
James replied bluntly: “I don’t like them. I heard maybe five or six tracks, and I thought they sounded really really cheesy.”
“Cheesy?” asked the surprised interviewer. To which James replied, “Yeah, really obvious and cheesy. I mean, I’m just comparing it to my favourite music, and I think it’s terrible compared to that. But compared to all the shit boring R&B tracks, it’s probably alright. Compared to those teen punk sort of bands or whatever they are supposed to be called, who think that they are really anarchic and stuff like that, they are probably amazing. If you’re only exposed to that kind of stuff, and then Radiohead come along, you will probably think that they are geniuses.”
While James’ opinions may have upset a few of the die-hard Radiohead fans among us, we can find comfort in the fact that James isn’t easily pleased and enjoys being contrarian. Elsewhere in the interview, James explained his idiosyncratic taste: “I’m quite happy with the state of things at the moment. I like there to be shit music around. I like people to not be informed of what’s around. If too many people would listen to what I listen to, I wouldn’t like it. I always wanted to be seen as being different. I like to like things that other people don’t. If Merzbow was in the charts, I wouldn’t like it anymore. Some people don’t wanna do what everyone else is doing and some people do. It’s very simple. (laughs)”
Listen to ‘Freeman, Hardy & Willis Acid’ by Squarepusher and AFX (Richard D. James’ lesser-known alias) below. This track was one of Thom Yorke’s selections during his appearance on BBC Radio 2’s Desert Island Discs in 2019.