Over the course of a career that has spanned more than three decades, Autechre’s Sean Booth and Rob Brown have transcended their origins as one of the most respected and beloved groups of the 90’s UK electronica scene to become one of the most remarkable live acts in the history of electronic music.
To hear Autechre perform in person is to encounter something extraordinary and unique. A numinous experience in which arcane manipulations of noise, texture, rhythm and melody are employed to create gargantuan phantasmagoric soundscapes which echo the dancefloor roots of the duo’s electro-tinged ancestry whilst also stretching the bounds of possibility in music itself.
Longtime Autechre aficionado; droid, co-host of the No Place Like Drone show on Dublin Digital Radio caught up with Rob and Sean prior to their widely anticipated upcoming appearance at Vicar Street on October 29th for an unusually lengthy discussion about live performance, creativity, public image, emotion, motivation, and (perhaps most importantly) funk.
“Dublin is one of the few places where people would actually rave to Autechre. There’s not many places where you can do that”
Droid: So this will be your eleventh gig in Dublin in Vicar Street at the end of the month – I don’t know if you’ve played anywhere else outside of the UK so often. What’s your impressions of Dublin down through the years? Have you noticed any changes? And what do you think of the reception you normally get here?
Sean Booth: The people I know have all gotten older, and they’ve moved away a bit. And it’s a lot like what’s happened in Manchester with our mates. People have kind of gone their separate ways and what used to be a tight knit little crew is now like, people who catch up now and again.
Rob Brown: Usually when we’re there as well – I might say something like: ‘oh, look at you all together’ and they go: ‘oh right, yeah – it’s because you’re here.’
Sean: Because I’ve been living away from Manchester now for three years. And going back there, it’s the same sort of thing, you know, people coming out of the woodwork just because I’m in town. It’s familiar, I guess, in that sense.
I’ve always found Dublin people to be quite relatable. I don’t know whether it is or not, but in the northwest, there’s just a lot of people with an Irish background. Like a lot of my mates have got some sort of Irish background.
Whether it’s immediate or distant family – like with me, it’s more distant family. And I feel like that just makes it easy to be there. I remember the first time I went it really reminded me of Rochdale. There’s architectural differences and stuff like that, but there’s just something about the way people carry themselves and talk that’s familiar. I’ve just always found it quite familiar, really. And quite homely. We always feel at home there.
Rob: I think it has got that extra factor. Like those things a port city has. We’d have to go out of Manchester to feel that, but we’d have the city thing going on in Manchester too.
Like Sean said, the people are really affable, but really deep characters. All the people there, it used to catch me out a lot. And I guess I learned never to underestimate anyone in Dublin.
Sean: Like everyone’s smart and quick aren’t they? I always feel like everyone’s super on-the-ball and gets it.
Rob: We would sometimes even sleep on the sofa of whoever got us in their town or to play their city, usually on a shoestring, and were effectively instant mates because of the small scene and the shared interests and their wider friends who inspired or supported their efforts to get us over there, nowadays sofas aren’t really an option (laughs).
Dublin was no different. And then we get to meet all these people – like Dunk Murphy (Minced Oath/Sunken Foal) who would drive us from the airport and he’d have a bag full of cassettes on the floor you didn’t want to crush when you get in the car with your flightcases and then you find out he’s probably one of the best musicians on the planet and you’re thinking, fucking hell, how is it always so under the radar with this lot, always under the hood, you know?
“We’re not getting any younger and our audience is the same. You know, they’re sort of quiet, they like to have a cup of tea and a sit down and listen to some Autechre.”
Droid: Speaking of Dublin – your Tivoli gig in 2014 was absolutely amazing. The interaction between you and the dance floor was like nothing I’d ever seen before from a live electronic act. I felt like I could almost see the waves of sound rippling through the crowd with you seemingly responding on the fly in some kind of instant feedback loop. I was just blown away by it. Was that one of the last dance floor gigs you did?
Sean: We did a bunch of gigs with that setup, and then when we came back, I didn’t really want to do banging, in-your-face stuff. We didn’t plan on playing seated venues from the off, I wanted to just stand there and do really weird, deep, slow shit. Like the last one that we did in Dublin, that seated one.
Rob: At the National Concert Hall.
Sean: That was the second iteration of a set that started out being a lot more – I don’t know how to describe it. It’s a different thing, it was still working on dance floors, but people didn’t really know what to do with it. So that was kind of the point of it, it was something that you wouldn’t normally get in a space like that.
We hadn’t made that music for seated spaces, we’d made it for a regular gig environment, knowing that it was quite challenging to hear something like that on a dancefloor – but that was what made it good, you know what I mean? So when seated venues started coming up as options, we were interested in doing them.
The other thing is that it was a bit of a land-grab really, we did the Royal Festival Hall a couple of years ago, and then last year, we did The Barbican, because not all the gigs before that had been seated, just these occasional ones.
The most recent ones that we’ve done have been like that, partly because we were a bit conscious about COVID, and at the time that we took the bookings – which was way before we did the gigs, we wanted to give ourselves the space to maybe spread the audience out a bit in the venue and it not be weird. So we knew if people were seated, we’d be able to do that without it being too fascistic, you know.
Rob: That was kinda by extension though, because even in 2016, we were doing that kind of widescreen – you could arguably call it cinematic – more cinematic stuff, sitting there listening to a 3D-sounding experience.
Sean: This stuff we’re doing at the moment isn’t really sit-down music, I mean, it is dance music, but I know that some people might struggle with finding where the beat is. So it’s not patronising the audience at all. And I don’t want to bother with giving people obvious anchor points, I’d rather just communicate with the people who do get it than have to make something that’s really clear about what it’s trying to do.
It comes down to the big question about ambiguity, really, because I think that it is dance music, but that it might be ambiguous to some people, whether or not it’s dance music – it’s hard to talk about this stuff without sounding weird and pretentious.
“This stuff we’re doing at the moment isn’t really sit down music, I mean, it is dance music, but I know that some people might struggle with finding where the beat is.”
Rob: I don’t think that argument has changed since we did our first ever live set. It was always going to be arguable that some people thought it was dance music or not, even back then we were seen as outsiders to that or something.
Sean: I’m probably focusing on the wrong aspect of it. I think it’s just because of the question, really, I’m not really sure how to answer a question like that otherwise, because I feel like we’ve always been doing that, I think it’s just that people in different places have very narrow ideas of what dance music should be or could be. So I feel like, depending on where we are, it will be accepted differently. Like if we were to take it around the States, some people wouldn’t know what to do with it.
Droid: You have kind of straddled that line between the avant garde and the dance floor all the way through though?
Sean: I don’t think we have – this is the weird thing with this. This avant garde thing came from journalists. We were never pushing that early on, we weren’t coming from that background, we came from an electro background, you know, we were trying to make electro that was developing in the same way that it had been developing. It’s just that electro stopped developing in the mainstream because it fell out of fashion, but we just carried on thinking about what that might mean.
Taking it forwards in the direction that we felt that it was already going in before we started. And so I don’t feel like that, that it is avant garde, I feel like it’s really accessible. To me, as a kid who’s grown up with electro, it’s totally accessible. I’ve talked to Detroit heads. A lot of the OG Detroit guys really rate what we’re doing, and I think that they get it because they were there as well, and they know what we’ve done, they can see what we’ve done.
Whereas if you just get your average kind of Midwestern American and hit them with it, they might find that it’s lacking something that they’re expecting to find. And then getting frustrated that that thing isn’t there.
“I’m quite happy putting out loads and loads of music, where you’re not really sure what’s happening. I don’t think you need to take everything in in order to have a good experience with the thing.”
Droid: I don’t mean it in the academic sense necessarily, more in the radical, cutting edge aspect of the work – though you’re headlining Unsound later this week, and you’ve played in Berghain, and just in terms of the symbolism of those two places, they’re both these big institutions, and you’re one of the only acts that can kind of straddle those two worlds successfully.
Sean: That’s what I meant about it being a land-grab doing The Barbican. It’s one of those places where you’re supposed to play by their rules. So you go in there, and you do your fucking opera or your classical shit, or whatever thing you’re trying to do, that’s going to somehow play by their rules, right?
So you might be a bit awkward about it, you know, maybe you’ll have like, five-year-old opera singers, or do something a bit, you know, radical, but it’s just gonna end up being their agenda being fulfilled, ultimately. You’ll just be kind of a slight renegade. Whereas we just wanted to go in there and do what we do anywhere else. That’s why it’s a land-grab, because it’s just saying: this is ours now.
Rob: As long as you’re in tune with the actual facility, literally the building, that space; the way people are sat, the orientation of their heads even, and the kind of sound system you’ve got at your disposal. Don’t take any of those things for granted, use them as fully as possible. I mean, that was a novelty in itself, that’s a new thing for us to do.
Sean: I’m hoping it opens the door for other people to get in there and do whatever shit they want to do, you know? I don’t think we’re the first band to go into The Barbican and just play their regular material by any stretch, but I feel like for us to do that was important. You know, we could have easily done something more avant garde and fit in with their agenda a bit easier, you know, but we just chose not to. It’s an active choice.
Droid: You playing in the National Concert Hall was a pretty big deal as well, from an Irish perspective… because that’s a traditional, state funded institution.
Sean: Yeah, it’s just all pictures of James Galway down the wall and stuff like that. We felt it when we got in there.
Rob: You could say the same for Berlin. We were playing concert halls in Berlin in the 90s because there were promoters that were prepared to just rent it out and put loads of electronics into it.
Sean: That was partly because back then there weren’t a lot of places for a band like us to play in Berlin. Berlin wasn’t really that happening back then, it was before the floodgates opened.
Rob: There was a lack of spaces.
Sean: It was either that or Tresor.
Rob: So for us, it’s not so much of a leap of the imagination, really, it seems to surprise a lot of people around us more than it does us.
Sean: We’re not getting any younger and our audience is the same. You know, they’re sort of quiet, they like to have a cup of tea and a sit down and listen to some Autechre.
Droid: (Laughs) I can empathise with that – but tell me, do you miss that visceral feedback you get from the dancefloor. I’ve been at your seated gigs and I hear people shouting and cheering and stuff, but it’s not the same thing.
Sean: I wouldn’t say we miss it – we played Sydney recently and they were really quiet until the end, and then they really went for it. Melbourne where they did have an opportunity to dance, a lot of them were just there out of curiosity. Part of the thing now is finding places where people are actually up for it enough to actually let loose, you know, because a lot of people are a bit self aware and self conscious. And they just don’t want to be seen, letting it rip too much because everyone’s got phones. And no one wants to kind of like, lose their shit. Everyone’s a bit uptight. And you do get some audiences being a bit more chatty now, as well.
Partly, it’s because we’ve become one of those bands that people have heard of, but haven’t heard. So a lot of them will just be there just to see what it’s like, you know, because our profile is quite big, so it’s not necessarily all hardcore people. And obviously, all those people will still be there and they’ll be trying to go for it, and you get this weird thing in the room.
Dublin is one of the few places where people would actually rave to Autechre. There’s not many places where you can do that. So it’s like, some gigs are weird, in that I don’t really respond to the audience as much as I respond to Rob.
On stage I just have the monitors in front of me. So I can’t see the audience. I get a sense of what’s going on out there. But I’ll be mainly playing to myself and to Rob really.
Rob: I think we’ve also come from this kind of approach where we’re not Danny Rampling waving vinyl around, or suffering from that sort of visibly loud ‘hot encoder/hot fader’ syndrome. We’re just really so past, beyond that, we were always too self aware to actually let ourselves get away with that.
It’s a paradox because you’ve put years into the music, and then you’re presenting it, so to speak, and then somebody could just knock up the simplest go-to kind of repertoire, wave their arms around and that’s somehow seen as doing the work. And it’s like, yeah, we just never really responded to those dynamics.
Sean: I’ve never liked going to gigs like that myself anyway, I just want to hear some mad shit. I don’t really want to watch someone, it’s not why I’m there.
Droid: Let me ask you about the soundboards, because you’ve released, I would think, over 40 at this point, which is more than your official releases – not counting your remixes. And I’m wondering, do you see that as the logical or ultimate manifestation of the project, in a sense, you know, these kinds of snapshots in time of this system?
Sean: Yeah, it is now. Originally, when we decided we were going to record stuff, we had a kind of trial run in 2010, where we took out the gear, and we recorded some sets. And these were the first gigs we’d ever recorded. Because we’d always had this rule before then of not wanting to release the live stuff. The live stuff was just for the night, that we’d done it – it had been mixed for a room, it didn’t make any sense to take it out of there. And I had quite a few people say to me that they’ve been preferring the live stuff to the recorded stuff. And this was just after Quaristice (2008) came out. And I thought, you know, fair enough, because I actually really liked that live set as well.
So I thought: ‘what if we angled it the other way around, so that the live thing became the priority?’ And so we did that, basically. When I started building the MAX stuff to use MSP instead of using MIDI – because we used MIDI in 2010, and it was a pretty good tour, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted to be doing, it was just what I could do on the gear.
So when we started building it ourselves, it took a while before it was stable enough to do the transitions between the different sections of the set. So we could do a track at a time but if we ever tried switching tracks, it would die, and it took me ages to figure out how to fix it.
So we ended up releasing Exai in between, which was basically trial runs with the system with individual tracks, which we then edited up into the tracks on the album. And then a year later, we managed to get it stable and working – so kind of a year of fucking around, basically. And that’s when we started doing this stuff. And then we just recorded all of them. And the idea was to record all of them and any that were good enough for releasing we’d release and we ended up having quite a few we wanted to put out so we just really started it all then and that’s what it’s been like since.
Rob: There was an antithesis to an extent that we’re always faced with – if you record one show and you screw something up, you kind of feel like you’ve spoiled it. Later when were doing shows where you do 30 gigs back to back, and people were saying: ‘oh, you’d make loads of money if you just did one big show every month or so’, and that to me was like Madonna, all the stress she’d be under just to do one massive Wembley show. I’d rather do 30 shows where we’re touring in a bus or a van, day-to-day and our skills are getting really sharp. And we’re learning a lot from each other and the system with the idea that if you fuck something up, you have to just move forward. The next day, you’ve bounced back from it. So the idea of recording them all suddenly just became easy, and removed a lot of stress.
Sean: When a venue said, ‘we’re going to record it tonight’, it was just the kiss of death, basically. You knew you were gonna fuck up, you knew you were gonna do something wrong, and it’d just be there forever.
Rob: There was a weird sort of superstitious side to it, and then just realising we could record every one of them regardless of what happens, accidents and mishaps.
Sean: Yeah, just not worrying about it, recording them that way, we’re just doing it. It just becomes part of the routine of doing a gig. It’s gonna get recorded, if it ends up not working, then it doesn’t get released. So it’s up to us, at that point. We just actively prevent the venue from recording it, and we do it instead, and then we’re in control of it.
Rob: The venues would always – like Sean said – shape the sound of the show. In the old days, we’d probably do a soundcheck and we’d carry on for the rest of the afternoon after the tech guys had all gone, change the set as we had it in the hardware, if you like, and morph it into something more adaptable to the venue. And that would give us our diversity every night, there’d be a different type of set, and we’d feel quite cool about how we would evolve on a daily basis.
The venue still feeds back into it being a more unique recording, if we did a 30 show run, like those North American sets, I think there’s 19 that came out in one big dump. It’s almost too much, really. But I like the fact that they varied in so many degrees, because of the shape of the spaces, the type of participation the audience had, and what we did from minute to minute. So yeah, it just seemed like a really good way to have all these things in focus at the same time and act on all of these things we wanted to do.
There’s a lot of trends in music production, where – I think I’ve talked about this before – where you’re supposed to have all your sounds upfront, which I find a little bit weird, because that’s not at all what life is like.
Droid: I’m curious about your perception of your own work. There’s a romantic scholar, Timothy Morton, who talks about these things called hyper-objects. He’s an interesting guy, he does a lot of ecocriticism, environmental humanities kinda stuff. So hyper-objects are supposed to be phenomena that are too vast and fundamentally weird for humans to wrap their heads around, like black holes or climate change. And I was thinking about musical hyper-objects. Something like an entire genre of music, I guess, would be a musical hyper-object, or even like, the work of Bob Dylan, all the stuff he’s written and recorded and said down through the years, all those weird entanglements – and it’s very difficult to get your head around it all. And it strikes me that your project is a bit like that. I don’t know if there’s anyone except maybe you two who have a real picture of what it is.
Sean: It’s funny that you mentioned Tim Morton. I’m really into nature. Well, everyone is on a fundamental level, but I feel like I understand the things about nature that I like. That you can walk through a forest, and you can’t possibly take it all in, it’s not about that. It’s not the way you’re supposed to engage with a forest at all. You walk through and you have your own journey through the space, and you maybe stop, probably more than once, and you might look at things or smell things or just feel what it’s like there and the way that the air moves there. There’s so much there to experience that it can be quite overwhelming, especially for someone like me.
I know I always mention Lynch and I am a huge Lynch fan. It’s just an easy reference point to communicate this. It’s very difficult to understand a Lynch film, but you can watch it and feel that you understood it. It might be very difficult to put into words later what the meaning of it is, but you feel on some level that you understand it.
I feel the same with Tarkovsky as well, I feel the same watching Stalker [1979 film by Tarkovsky], that there’s just so much in Stalker, and yet there’s so little. You couldn’t write down all the things that are happening. I mean, it just wouldn’t make any sense to do that. And there’s always going to be more there than you’re able to take in in one sitting.
Ambiguity is one of these things that I’m really drawn to in all kinds of art. Where I don’t really feel like a need to have one specific explanation that kind of narrows it down to a sentence. I feel like if you can describe a piece of work that way then the work’s probably not got much for me.
I feel like music actually can’t be described in that way either. I think this is a thing for most music, not just what we’re doing. There’s a kind of denial around the idea of what music is and how it functions, right? I’m quite happy putting out loads and loads of music, where you’re not really sure what’s happening. I don’t think you need to take everything in in order to have a good experience with the thing. It’s a bit like driving a car, nobody sees everything that they’re driving past, or like just riding a bike somewhere or going on a downhill or something, in those experiences there’s just way too much information for you to consciously process, but you’re still experiencing it even though it isn’t really possible to understand it in totality.
There’s a lot of trends in music production, where – I think I’ve talked about this before – where you’re supposed to have all your sounds upfront, which I find a little bit weird, because that’s not at all what life is like. Or if you were to consider all painting to be the same as graphic design, when they’re not the same thing at all. Graphic design is usually supposed to be communicating very quickly, a set of ideas or feelings to somebody. Whereas in art and painting you don’t have to do that at all – you can do that, but you don’t have to, there’s a lot of other things you can do. And with music, it’s the same sort of thing, especially with dance music, there’s a lot of things that you can do, that are not ‘that thing’, you know, where it sort of is an advert for itself. And so there can be depth. And there can be things that you might not even notice but that are there, or things that you don’t notice but your brain does. And you can have things that are happening, that are affecting people unconsciously on that level, and you are intentionally doing that, or you can have things that that you’ve put in there that, you know, that people might not even be aware of, at all, like even unconsciously. I think all those things are allowed.
Droid: The mystery of it.
Sean: Yeah, yeah, totally.
Rob: There’s a serial side to it too. Taking every successful recording, and putting them all out. Each show is different. But you might be setting off with the original set of tools each night – usually changed a bit, but I think that’s the same work practice we’ve had for years. And I think the ability to actually just share those with anyone who’s interested, you get so many different people, having different responses to it.
Like: ‘I’ll only get the one that I went to, because I want to see what I actually heard and what I actually experienced’. And there’ll be other ones that are like: ‘I didn’t make it to Denver. I want to hear what Denver was really like’, and then they’ll be like: ‘I’m getting them all because I want to see where they differ from each other, because someone said they’re not all that different at all, this is shit’. And then other people are like: ‘well, actually, there’s variations in the first section and the third section, but actually, when I hear them in series I feel it’s different every time, so I’m happy to listen to all of them in a day and treat it like I’m listening to one singular piece of work.’
Sean: I saw someone online after we’d done the last batch, and they were so confident that we had released different mixes to the set that we actually played. Like ‘I was at that gig, and I can guarantee you that the mix was completely different from what I heard’ and it’s literally the same two channel mix, and I’m, like – I don’t know what to say about that.
Droid: You know, I was just listening back to that Tivoli show there recently. And of course, it was like, a long time ago, nearly 10 years, but it sounded nothing like I remember, my experience of it at the time was radically different to the experience of listening to it on headphones years later. Time changes, your environment changes…
Rob: Your vocabulary, your mind changes, everything is different. Yeah.
Sean: Yeah, it’s true.
“I’d rather do 30 shows where we’re touring in a bus or a van, day-to-day and our skills are getting really sharp. And we’re learning a lot from each other and the system with the idea that if you fuck something up, you have to just move forward.”
Droid: Speaking of changes in context, I’m curious how you look back on the 90s, firstly, I guess, being part of a scene that once upon a time seemed like it was really going somewhere. There was so much stuff going on, you were touring with other acts, you were part of a cohort of artists that we’re all kind of pushing the same or related sounds. How do you look back on that period now?
Sean: We were rejected actively by everybody else. I mean, the thing is we’re from Manchester, and I don’t want to sound too kind of civic pridey about it, but like, everyone around us knew their shit, we all grew up with a very good musical education – informal, but you know what I mean. We all fucking knew our shit. All my mates knew their shit. Like, my whole crew knew their shit and all the other crews that we were to some extent competing with, they knew their shit. And then, you know, in Sheffield, everybody knew this shit but in a Sheffield way, and they had their Sheffield take on things and we were living in Sheffield but being a bit outside their scene because a lot of them didn’t like us, because because we were from Manchester and it was all a bit competitive, the Lancashire/Yorkshire thing.
Rob: And like they’d already been there and done it in a way, years ago, with artists there like Human League, Cabaret Voltaire etc.
Sean: Some of them had done it and the ones who hadn’t were really bitter because we were around. We knew Rich (Richard D. James/Aphex Twin) because I think we met him in ‘92, around that time. Basically I think part of the reason that Rob (Rob Mitchell of WARP records) signed Rich to begin with was because we kept bugging him – I think Rich had just started doing stuff on Rephlex then but he’d mainly been doing stuff on R&S and we had his Rabbit City thing. So we’re saying to WARP ‘you gotta sign Aphex Twin, he’s really good’. And then everything else that happened – other than Boards of Canada, which was a weird chance discovery because Andy (Andy Maddocks from SKAM) got sent a record of theirs. Other than that everything else that they did was separate from us. We didn’t really know anyone – I mean I got to know Tom Jenkinson (Squarepusher), and I like Tom quite a lot.
Droid: You were mates with Mark Clifford weren’t you?
Sean: Mark Clifford. Yeah, I knew Mark from really early on, from about ’93. He was coming to our earliest gigs in London and then we started doing gigs together so yeah, I liked Seefeel anyway because they had a different thing going on. Seefeel were a joy to be around, honestly. I really liked them, but they were always fighting.
Rob: They were really intense for such polite, sort of middle class, quiet types. They were really, really intense.
Droid: It was an interesting trajectory they had from making this joyous, amniotic, ambient stuff, to putting out some of the most desolate and devastating ambient music of the 90s.
Sean: The newer Seefeel stuff is amazing, it’s fucking really amazing. Like post-rock done well, I love Seefeel like proper love Mark’s stuff think he’s really good. His stuff with Scott Gordon is really good. And I really like Scott as well, it’s nice those two worked together for a bit. So yeah, we knew Seefeel. Who else did we know?
Rob: It’s funny because we really weren’t a band that had anything out before WARP, like all their other signings, arguably had stuff out, they’d be saying that we were the first signing off an actual demo, everything else had been played out at raves off tape or acetate whatever but not because of a demo tape they’d been sent.
Sean: Most of the Southerners didn’t like us I’ll be honest, like B12 didn’t really like us.
Rob: Most of them had records out before we did. They had their own labels. So I think the idea we were getting any shine at all was a bit up their nose.
Sean: I mean, my mates from back then were probably Mark Pritchard, Mark Clifford. And that’s kind of it.
Rob: We did get on with Richard, but there was that distance I guess, we were more remote geographically so we never really became that close. Apart from when we did gigs at the same time, things like that.
Sean: I used to like hanging out with David Moufang (Move D/Deep Space Network) a bit – like I met loads of nice people throughout the years, I don’t want to not name people who I was mates with, but I’d say my Mark Pritchard’s one of the ones I’ve talked to the most. I really got on with him. He was just super relatable, and he still is, you know, I always feel really at home with him. We just click. I always thought he should have signed to WARP a lot earlier than he did.
Rob: We got on really well with Mark Bell (from LFO) as well because we had the Warp Leeds/Sheffield connection. He was also a massive hero of ours. We were big fans.
Sean: Mark Bell is kind of the reason that we got signed to WARP. Because we’d been sending them demos. And it was him telling Rob Mitchell to call us that made Rob Mitchell call us originally. So he was like: ‘What’s this?’ and Rob was like: ‘Oh, it’s just a demo’. And he was like: ‘Where’s it from?’ and Rob goes: ‘It’s from Rochdale’ and Mark was like: ‘Rochdale! No way’, because that’s not that far from Leeds. Yeah, Mark was always super supportive, and we knew him pretty well. But he was off the map a lot. He was off doing the Bjork stuff and all that, so I just bump into him now and again.
“What we do musically is more like exploring a parameter space, if you consider each parameter to be an axis, then you’ve got a multi dimensional parameter space, and you’re exploring that space… you find which parts of the space you like the sound of, and you’ll realise if you move this slightly, that it suddenly becomes really attractive. It’s a bit like wandering around a fractal.”
Droid: There was a book that came out a couple years ago by Matt Anniss: ‘Join The Future’ – about bleep and bass, he tries to reassess the history a little bit by emphasising the importance of bleep as the first homegrown UK sound.
Sean: Unique3 were massive to us, like, really massive, Rob Gordon (of Forgemasters), and yeah, to some extent LFO – but LFO was a bit later, you know, like a year later. I remember seeing them on the chart show. It wasn’t a club hit that was just a straight chart hit, basically LFO – LFO. A good tune obviously, but I remember seeing it and being like: ‘what’s this?’ And then I found out it was on WARP and I was like ‘Oh really? Wow, okay.’
Testone (by Sweet Exorcist aka Richard H. Kirk) was the one – out of all the tunes. Even though Unique3 had done it before, Testone was the tune that was really the most bleepy out of all the bleep tunes. It was a big tune in Manchester as well, because it was so basic, it was so stripped down and so dry sounding and it was super futuristic. I’d never heard anything like Testone. And I still think of it as being just a massive monolith of a thing, conceptually and everything, it’s just an amazing tune.
Manchester had a bit of a thing for bleep techno, and we had a lot of love for Sheffield in Manchester, because a lot of the older guys who started playing hardcore had a weird affinity to Sheffield music as well. So there was a weird blend there. You can hear it in some of our old IBC shows. I don’t know how many are online now, but we used to flip in bits of bleep techno in there, and totally get away with it. Especially the more detuned sort of sounding ones, you know, like, Ital Rockers and shit like that. I definitely think bleep is underappreciated outside the UK – and even in the UK. Because a lot of things in there like the square wave sounds and the way that they combine the high and the low notes. It’s very grimey, bleep techno.
Rob: Unique3 were proto grime.
Sean: Yeah, totally. They were totally yeah.
Rob: Even the proposition of the entire musical style, like having your girlfriend or your mates or teenage mum, even your youth club leader singing on it, like Smith & Mighty were supposed to have done, you know, it’s totally UK estate music. It’s really local – you could tell they were off the streets, and they weren’t urban as such, it was suburban.
Droid: I have a quote here from a review – I just thought I’d read this to you, it’s from 1993 by Sarah Champion, who’s actually a pretty good writer.
Rob : (Laughs) I know the review.
Droid: It’s from a gig you did with Locust: “Take Autechre, the Northern duo are every young man’s envy, handsome, obscenely fresh faced and with the debut album on WARP, that’s the talk of the underground.”
Sean: (Laughs) Aw, yeah, okay. So I remember meeting her actually, it was at Quirky in London. She was cool. It’s a weird thing – the indie journalists getting onto it, because that was around the same time that we were getting exposed a lot. So we just kind of let it happen. It wasn’t where we thought we should be, but at the same time, when we were getting reviews written by people who were more on the club side of things, they really didn’t like what we’re doing. So there wasn’t anywhere else for us to put ourselves at the time.
Rob: That’s where Locust played with us, in the Brixton Vox. That’s where it would have been.
Droid: You guys got a lot of coverage in the music press at the time. I mean, that’s where I discovered you.
Sean: I don’t really remember the first couple of years of doing press other than a lot of photo shoots, and a lot of weird little TV bits. We were just doing anything WARP said that we should do, because that was what we thought we should do. We didn’t really know anything about saying no to things.
Rob: I don’t think that back then there were many journalists who focussed solely on a particular kind of music. Like John Robb, he would cover anything, everything. They had more of a curatorial role. So you’d never had anyone that was specifically all about just one thing by the time we came along. So the idea of Sarah Champion coming in and out was just totally acceptable. But at the same time, it didn’t really have much meaning, much depth, like it would have had if someone was really into the same scene we were into – but I don’t think people like that really existed.
Sean: Not in London. That was the other thing, most of the writers were in London. So you know, you’re meeting people who had grown up with just a different landscape, musically.
Droid: Have you ever read anything, or come across a piece that you thought came close to capturing you, or that said something about you that you hadn’t already thought of yourself?
Sean: For me, I think the problem that journalists face is that they’re competing with my mates and my mates really get it. So I always feel like you just can’t tell if you don’t know someone, you know. Nigel Truswell, who does Oberman Knocks now – he used to be a writer. And he really got it. But yeah, there’s been a few over the years, but I’m shit at remembering names now.
Droid: There’s a good Paul Morley piece at the Quietus.
Rob: Oh, yeah, of course, Paul!
Sean: Well, yeah, I know Paul. I really like him.
Rob: He’s above that layer in a way to me, there’s more to it – I wouldn’t consider him to be a journalist.
Sean: I have a weird thing with him where I’m a massive fan of his stuff, but he’s not as much of a fan of himself as I am of him. Whenever I was trying to say anything positive about anything he’s done, you know, and it could be loads of things – he’ll just be like: “Aw, it’s just shit”. I think he gets it, he totally gets it, but he’s just got his mad way of writing that most people find impregnable.
Droid: I think the most successful stuff I’ve read about you is kind of in the poetic register, oddly enough, it’s not analytic at all.
Sean: I think we’re one of the few bands who Paul Morley can review and actually justify his style. Because he writes like that all the time, he writes like that about Kylie or whatever, you know, but when he’s writing about us it makes sense. The sleeve notes on Art of Noise records were a big influence on what I thought would work in terms of presentation, being that oblique, you know, I didn’t really want things to be that easy to understand. And I always liked that about Art of Noise. I never quite knew where the fuck I was with them, if they were taking a piss or if it was deadly serious. You just didn’t know. And I really liked it. And the same with Frankie (goes to Hollywood) as well. I mean, the way Frankie was marketed, you didn’t know if it was totally legit, or if it was just totally manufactured. It’s both – they were a really legit band that then got pushed through the machine.
Rob: I think sometimes writers and journalists can be confused into a similar character, but I think Paul was always way beyond that. He was instrumental – for me even beyond Tony Wilson in facilitating things, you know, with all his other artists, to create movements and to influence kids from all backgrounds.
Sean: It’s easier when someone’s talking about themselves, or about something that’s not us, for me to know whether or not they get it. Like John Lydon’s early P.I.L. interviews where he’s just getting into fights with journalists, because they’re expecting some kind of crazy antics from him. Because one thing that the press often gets quite wrong about us is this thing of us combining avant garde influences with dance floor influences or saying that we’re coming at dance music from a more geeky perspective. And I think that this is based on the idea that – and it may sound quite harsh this, but I’ll just say it – this idea that people, usually from a black background, but sometimes if you’re British, it’s from a working class background – aren’t capable of being geeky, and so we must be bringing it in from somewhere else. It’s sort of this tacit implication that if we took hip-hop in a direction that makes it sound, like a little bit more brainy, that those brains have had to have been glued on from some other place, that can’t be something that we found within it, or ourselves, and that we’re amplifying, and exaggerating.
Droid: I think it is accepted now, the radicalism of black electronic music, the avant garde nature of it. That’s how I understand it at least – you have the classical definition of avant garde – artists from the academy, Stockhausen, all that stuff. But then, for me, jungle was like, the ultimate kind of avant garde music, this insanely radical dancefloor stuff. I know how people generally understand the term, but I think of it in the original sense of just being the vanguard, you know, at the front.
Sean: It depends. Like there are some artists – like for example, Tod Dockstader, who was totally untrained. But because he was making tape music, he gets filed alongside Stockhausen, but he is about as close to Stockhausen as we are. But I think, for a lot of more normal music consumers – for want of a better word – that he’s seen as being a kind of avant garde composer type person.
Droid: He’s an outsider artist.
Sean: Yeah, I think a lot of it is just cultural baggage. I mean, nobody described King Tubby that way, but he’s quite close to Dockstader in terms of my mental filing. I think we’re part of that stream of whatever it is, I think that’s kind of the world that we’re in, but it’s just difficult getting the press to understand that because they think in terms of categories and genres and scenes and these big cultural things. It’s not that we’re outside it – it’s just that in North Manchester, you have a very particular cultural blend that’s not necessarily recognizable for people who aren’t from there. You’d meet a lot of London journalists, and even the ones who’d worked in Manchester, and there were quite a few who worked up there around the same time that Madchester was kicking off. And they expected all bands from the North to just fit that template. And so if you didn’t, if you’re talking about other things, you were a total geek – because you weren’t just wearing flares, and doing heroin or whatever it was people were doing.
Droid: Kind of semi-related to all this is your own management of public image. How you’ve been, I guess, interacting with fans down through the years.
Sean: I’ve always preferred that to going through journalists, because journalists are a weird wack filter, a lot of them don’t get it. And so you end up where your message gets all garbled
Rob: It ends up seeming more prismatic, in a way, like their different viewpoints filter how they present you.
Sean: I try to do things like chatting with fans online or doing little streams and that, but I don’t like doing the constant social media posting, either. So I think that there’s a kind of happy medium.
Droid: I’ve been struck that you’ve somehow been able to maintain a kind of anonymity, in a way, in the sense of your performances, you know, obviously, performing in the dark.
Sean: I think it’s that we don’t act. It’s like, a lot of people act in this business, there’s a lot of actors around. Even on stage, you know, your average rock singer, he doesn’t feel that same emotion every time he sings that song. He’s just doing the performance, and I think, you know, it’s the same with the presentation as well. That’s why sitting on Twitch for six hours isn’t weird to me. But I think most musicians would be shit scared of doing that.
Droid: Well yeah, it is very generous, I think it’s really kind to the fans.
Sean: You burst the bubble – and it’s not actually that much work for me to do it. And I’m quite happy with people seeing me how I am, but I sometimes get accused of dumbing myself down because I think people expect me to be extraordinarily smart and engaged with every weird question that they ask even if their questions are ultimately unanswerable.
Droid: Like Morbius?
Sean Yeah, I don’t know what that is. Yeah, Morbius. (laughs) Yeah, I’ve still not seen it. I mean, I know what the memes are now. I think you can be seen as being anonymous if you don’t give the caricature that people expect you to give, you know what I mean. I can just sit here and be honest for hours, and then read it in print and people will be like: ‘they’re really obscure’. I keep reading about how we never do interviews.
Droid: Yeah, you’ve done a ton of interviews, there’s no question, and there’s still this weird thing where you’ve actually been really open and quite generous with your time, but you’re somehow still seen as being really hermetic or something?
Rob: Yeah, yes. But i think that’s because that’s on a one-to-one basis. And I think maybe that’s the difference. I think when we turn the lights off in front of 8000 people, that’s where the myth stems from maybe.
Sean: I’m online, I’m on Mastodon. Like, it’s not impossible to find me – it’s not trivial, you’d have to know where to look, but I’m there. I mainly just respond to people asking me questions. And sometimes I post little clips of things just for fun, because I want to show something off that I’ve done, but I’m pretty bare bones about it. I’m not going to be on there every day, like posting my opinions on every single thing. Because who the fuck cares what I think about anything really? I’m a musician. Like no one cares what musicians think. No one wants to hear what I think about some political thing, or whatever it is. If I’m asked about it, I’ll talk about it. But I’m not gonna just start volunteering it as if I think my opinion matters. I think in this day and age, if you’re not really going for it, then people think that you’re not doing anything at all because they’re so fucking flooded with stuff all the time they don’t notice that you’re around.
Rob: Like engaging in X, or something like that, there’s so many people shouting their mouths off that no one really gets a voice in the end, I almost sort of blow a fuse and don’t bother participating, if all that ends up floating are the viral rants.
Sean: You end up becoming more famous for your shitposting than for your music.
Rob: Like, say if I wasn’t a musician, but I was just some other person, a teacher or a mum just down the road. And I kick off about something a politician says or doesn’t say, or something like that. And then there’s millions of heated replies, and just know that if there’s 50,000 comments I’m supposed to read before I’m gonna get a real gauge or a gist of any of it, then the idea of engaging on such a vast yet granular level just switches me off. I think I just flatline. So, yeah, it’s all or nothing for me I think.
Sean: Well, I think I’m just a bit more real about presenting myself. I’m not trying to sell anything – you can’t do that on Mastodon anyways, it isn’t that kind of platform, it’s a platform for socialising. So it’s more like being down the pub with us. I’m not going to be like: ‘I’m different to you because I can do this.’ In fact, I hate it when people treat me as if I am, I kind of recoil and stop posting, because I don’t like it when people treat me like I’m different. I just want to be like everyone else really.
Droid: I think it’s a really good thing. It’s refreshing for a lot of people as well, especially new fans, just to see that kind of engagement.
Sean: We’re all in the same boat, aren’t we. We’re all trying to make a living. I mean, what the fuck?
Rob: The amount of musicians that we look up to since childhood is probably huge. So the idea that there’s all these people out there that are just sort of subjects of ours, listeners of our music if you will, is hard to get your head around but I don’t really see it any differently.
Sean: There are some people I’ve met – I remember meeting Egyptian Lover, we did a gig with him in Spain.
Rob: In Madrid. I think we approached him while we were nearby setting up, and he was on the decks.
Sean: Madrid, Yeah. And we first met him and he had shades on and we were like:
‘Yo, fucking hell we’ve grown up with your shit. You’ve been a massive influence. The snare drums on Egypt, Egypt, that delay, how tight that delay is, that’s amazing.’
Weird anal questions, and the entire conversation, he’s just there with shades:
‘Uh-huh, uh-huh’ …just nothing, you know?
And we were like: ‘okay, he’s playing the game we’re just a couple of little white kids from fucking England he probably thinks ‘you don’t get it’’.
And then the next morning we were in a van with him on the way to the airport and then Rob, let slip that his uncle used to live in LA. And then the shades come off. And he’s like, ‘Yo, yeah’, and he’s just totally like your mate, like another person.
Droid: The personal connection.
Sean: Yeah. And I was just like, that’s so nice – but at the same time I get why he’s like that normally, but I just don’t have that thing of being like that at all. Why not just be you?
Rob: I just assumed he gets that a lot, and maybe he just has an impenetrable shield, he just maybe doesn’t believe everyone is right up there when they say how much they admire what he did, or how life changing it was – or maybe it’s the responsibility of that, that he’s influenced so many people to such a degree that it’s actually too much to process.
Sean: I used to be worse. Like, early on. I remember a guy coming backstage in ’95 I think asking would we sign his copy of Amber – or Tri Repetae I think it was, it had just come out. And Mark, our tour manager, had brought him backstage. And he’s like, ‘Oh, this lad, wants you to sign the CD’, and I’m like: ‘Why?’ I was so turbo-autistic about it. I was just like, why do you want me to sign your CD? Why can’t you just sign it yourself? I’m just a person (laughs), I’m just like you. I’m not that bad now – I at least I kind of get that you have to kind of fucking honour the fact that you are a musician and stuff like that.
“The reason I do it is the same reason I used to do pause button mixes in the bedroom for fucking weeks on end, I’d have my headphones on and I’d just be stuck in this little micro-world of possibilities. I like being in that weird world, I like doing that shit. There’s nothing I like doing more than doing that. If I get bored with it, I’ll just quit.”
Droid: Something that comes up a lot in relation to your work is emotion – or lack of emotion. I see it in your interviews all the time. And it’s something I noticed, again, reading back, I think as early as ’95, the narrative was beginning to set in that you were becoming colder, less melodic, you know, the emotion was all being kind of hidden away, that the new music was denser, and more detached and so on. Now, I love the 90’s stuff all the way through, but even since then, I often find the emotion in your music to be almost unbearable – going back to tunes like, Yulquen, Overand, Nonima, and some of the stuff on SIGN. I almost can’t listen to it. I can’t even describe the emotion; It’s like a kind of ache, you know, this kind of mix of yearning and joy and loss. And even the happy songs like, Keynell 4 or Chicli seem to be touched with sadness.
Sean: I got a handwritten letter from Thom Yorke in the early 2000’s and I knew that he’d got it. I don’t know that much Radiohead stuff, but I know some tracks. There’s, like, there’s that track: Decks Dark. I remember when I heard that, it was on some TV show I was watching and I was like, ‘Oh, this must be Radiohead’, like I immediately knew it was because he has this, like, I don’t know if it’s him or or if it’s one of the others like Jonny Greenwood, but some of their progressions really get me like, like, I totally get this emotion. Sometimes they do one of those, and I reckon he can hear something similar in some of the stuff that we’ve done. But we don’t talk about that. I just know that he likes some of our stuff and which stuff he likes. That’s it, like it’s communicated musically and that’s all we need to do. And I feel like some people are getting it, and it’s there. And it’s, like, super obvious to me that it’s there. And I don’t really want to have to argue that it’s there, you know what I mean, I haven’t ever wanted to do that. I just want to put this stuff out there. And then if people find that it’s emotional, then then that’s cool.
Droid: Yeah, it seems obvious to me, and a noticeable tendency in 90s IDM as a genre even.
Sean: Cylob said to me once like that, he thought that all our stuff was deeply sad. You know, and I was like, I totally know what you mean.
Droid: I think he’s right though – and oddly enough Cylob was one of those guys – his second album on Rephlex: Cylobian Sunset is full of those kind of like, achey yearning feelings, loads of Aphex and Seefeel is in that area as well, or Bochum Welt whose stuff is outstanding.
Rob: Absolutely, yeah.
Sean: Like me and Chris Jeffs we’re well on the same page with some of this stuff. Especially the later stuff, the Ambient News stuff, fucking hell, some of that stuff is just so kind of – yeah yearning is the right word for it. He’s another one that people would just dismiss as cold computer music.
Rob: Yeah, it’s funny though isn’t it. Maybe it’s just the delivery sometimes for some people – it can be out of sorts. And if it’s not round edged, drums and guitars, and perhaps, you know, actual bass strings – there’s a lot to be said for how comforting the sound of actual strings are.
“I’d say that emotion – what you’d normally call emotion in music, is a part of a much bigger thing of what emotion really is, you know, all those other weird feelings you get while watching Lynch films. That’s emotion as well, because there’s no words for it. It’s just like a weird gut response.”
Sean: It might just be distracting – all the other shit. Because like, I noticed there when you listed tracks, you listed a lot of ones without beats, you know?
Droid: Well I have more, I have a long list (laughs).
Sean: Yeah. I mean, they’re the most obvious because, like, you haven’t got all that: shit in front of it getting in the way.
Droid : Actually, for me it’s like the combination of the radical kind of sound palette with that romantic core of emotion that hits hardest. Like, Drane2 and Rae are probably a peak of a kind of a particular melding of both those qualities, as if the contrast or the mingling between them brings out the emotion even more.
Sean: Yeah, I mean, Rae was written in a really emotional state as well. I remember exactly what I was doing, where I was and everything when I did that
Droid: It’s funereal, it’s just absolutely stunning.
Sean: Yeah, it was a hangover (laughs) It wasn’t even real sadness, I wasn’t even going through anything. I was just, I was just feeling really fragile that day.
Droid ; I often think about how such sad music became so popular. In the 90s a lot of stuff charted. You guys were in the charts a few times – at the edges but you still charted, Aphex charted a good few times, and you shifted a lot of units. And I often wonder if it’s something to do with the big hangover from rave.
Sean: We stopped going out late ’91, early ’92 We kind of stopped going out. And it was a combination of reasons but mainly that the music suddenly changed and the sped up vocals started appearing and then it wasn’t giving us the same vibe, if you listen to that track from Works of Atreus that (late 80’s/early 90’s Manchester club DJ) Jay Wearden used to close with quite a lot – it’s like a super emotional track. That kind of sadness was there in a lot of the earlier hardcore stuff you know, Total confusion by A Homeboy A Hippie And A Funki Dredd – that chord progression is really moving.
Droid: It’s all over Detroit as well.
Sean; Yeah, yeah fucking totally all over Detroit, completely 100% Like Moby’s Go. I don’t rate Moby at all but like fucking them Twin Peaks chords, you know, you play them over a beat like that. Go’s a bit of a tune, you know, I mean, it’s like I know he didn’t do fuck all to make it – it’s just two tunes jammed together but it’s just like, it works you know? I mean, it does what it says on the tin, it fucking hits people, and that combination of like really fucking moving chords with some really driving beats. It just gets me. It was a total core component of what we were doing, before we really knew how to do that, even when we were just trying to do super basic stripped down shit like what ended up on Incunabula but even some of the Lego Feet stuff was like that.
Rob: Even with friends back in the day, we used to mix, do acid and stay up all night and play each other tracks, there’d always be a pair of decks there, and nearly everyone would be mixing some proper Eric B and Rakim beat over some beautiful pads or synths – maybe from Vangelis or something. And you know, it would break our hearts, leave them smushed all over the walls.
Sean: That tune Acid Eiffel, fuckin’ Acid Eiffel – especially when you’re peaking you know, when you hear that, and it it should move you to tears, but it doesn’t, it fills you with this weird kind of joy. It’s like a weird feeling. It’s like a mournful joy. An amazing feeling. Yeah.
Rob: A lot of people say with psychedelics, there’s that loss of ego. I think a lot of people in real, normal life, maybe they’re dropping the ego when a really emotional moment hits them. And they don’t know why. Because that’s why that sad/happy thing comes out. And it’s all very mixed up and kind of confused. But at the same time, there’s something really deeply felt. And it’s very hard to explain.
Sean: And it’s like, partly why I like Lynch as well. Because, you know, if you get everything with him, you know, you get the kind of Badalamenti sort of Italian misery, epic sort of feeling, you know, and also a kind of deep, deep, very obvious, childlike emotion.
Rob: It’s high drama at the same time, isn’t it?
Sean: Yeah. But you’ve also got all this amazing, rich, immersive sound design shit happening as well. And these weird scenes that just make you feel weird, like, you don’t even know if you want to be feeling that but you’re really enjoying it. He’s ticking a lot of the boxes for things that get me. And I feel like, you know, across the spectrum of what we do, I feel like we’re in a lot of similar territories, or at least that’s the kind of places that I like to take myself. You know, like: ‘what the hell am I listening to?’ That’s another one – ‘what even is happening there?’ Emotionally as well. I like those kind of emotions that are like, ‘What the fuck am I feeling right now? What is this feeling?’ I’d say that emotion – what you’d normally call emotion in music, is a part of a much bigger thing of what emotion really is, you know, all those other weird feelings you get while watching Lynch films. That’s emotion as well, because there’s no words for it. It’s just like a weird gut response.
Rob: I don’t think there’s a polarity to either, I think emotions don’t have a north and a south or east and west, I think. I mean, the amount of times where I’ve had the best week in my life with recording and doing a track and then someone close to me in the family has died, and you’re like: ‘oh, shit, what is this life?’ you know, ‘How am I supposed to be right on top of things when things have been rock bottom simultaneously?’ Like, I hear Wu-Tang Clan as highly emotional for example, Ghost Face Killah, Raekwon, my favourite bits are always some dramatic epic scenario, steeped in its own sort of emotional tangle, describing some struggle or dramatic kick off on the corner or with a girl or whatever.
Sean: It’s actually really hard for me to lose it emotionally. If I’m actually going through a thing, if I’m really going through a thing, like a loss or something, it’s really hard to make music, really hard. It doesn’t feel right at all. It feels really pointless..
Droid: I wonder It’s not just the type of emotion, but also its intensity. I mean, something like Krib from the Cichli Suite EP. The hymnal beauty of that track. You know, for me, all that stuff is super fucking intense.
Sean: I don’t find it cathartic to make sad music if I’m really fucking going through a thing. Whereas I do find it really enjoyable to experience that feeling when I’m not, you know, does that make sense? You know, when you like, do you ever enjoy having a cold, like, just lying around and not doing anything, just watching Columbo or whatever you like, that’s what I do. It’s comfy in a sort of way, even though you feel like total shit and it’s horrible, but also weirdly comfy. It’s like a slightly dark kind of thing where I don’t want to really experience that emotion, because it’s a bit overwhelming. I sometimes feel that people don’t hear the emotion in the music, because maybe I’m more sensitive to emotion than they are or maybe they’re just not aware that it’s there or something. I mean, some people are just turned off by stuff that’s overtly emotional as well. I know a lot of people probably wouldn’t like SIGN because it’s so out there. And it’s not fashionable to do that at all anymore. People don’t really make emotional music. That’s the same reason I like Anodyne (Irish producer Colin Cloughley) as well. Because he does these super fucking moving things, you know?
But yeah, Krib, I mean, that’s another one, I don’t think I was even going through anything. specific with that, it was like, I was just doing it because it felt good to hear it. You know,
Droid: I guess the question – if there is a question here, is that after LP5, I can still hear the emotion, but it’s kind of, like, attenuated. It’s almost like you were giving so much of yourselves away in the 90s. All that stuff is so earnestly emotional. Like was there a conscious sense of like: ‘we need to pull back from this’?
Rob: Yeah, maybe there is a more traditional kind of body of work up until that point, where the backbone is a beat and a melody, before things did go less conventional and the composition of things became more wide open.
Sean: It’s funny because I’m thinking about bits of tunes now that are after that, but they’re like bits, but it’s a bit more measured, maybe like, I think Surripere, the opening chords to that are really quite emotional. And there’s other bits on draft as well like that.
Rob: LCC has got a bit of that as well.
Sean: That p.:ntil track, that’s got shit towards the end of it, that’s like really sort of tugging on something. Definitely Pen Expers has got it. Yeah, I think it’s still there, but it’s just sort of shrouded a little bit. Part of that is us getting better at doing that. I think if we could have done that kind of stuff back then we would have done that instead. In the 90s I felt a little bit like we had to kind of tick all the boxes and kind of ace everything – I think this is the wrong way to look at music now, but at the time I was thinkinge yeah, you’ve got to have a good beat and good melodies and then nice chords and some nice sounds. And it was this sort of very top-down kind of approach. Even though I wasn’t building the tracks up that way, I was trying to end up with tracks that sounded like they were made that way. Whereas now I don’t do that at all, I just kind of get it to a point where it’s making me feel good and then I’m there.
There’s definitely bits of the new live set that I feel are super moving, but it’s really hard for me to explain why. But I think the main thing is that it’s not as loopy. It’s not that it became algorithmic at some point, because all music is algorithmic really, it’s just that the algorithm is usually very simple. It’s like: ‘play these notes in this order, and then repeat that section a number of times, and then half the notes change’, and so on, but it’s basically still an algorithm, a set of instructions. So it’s always been algorithmic. And we’re not just improvising like a jazz band, but the algorithms are more open ended now. So it’s harder to notice certain feelings if we’re not just repeating the same phrase over and over again. So mainly, the thing that changed I’d say, since the late 90’s, is the way that we’re using repetition. And it’s like, the key difference – and it seems obvious to me to say it now – between something that repeats and something that doesn’t repeat is that you don’t have the time to review it that you would normally get. So you’re not consciously noticing the way that the feelings come through.
Rob: And there’s another side to that, I think there is a flip, where we started using computers differently. Obviously, we first had Ataris and stuff, but yeah, they were very loop oriented compositions. And you can only explore certain musical ideas like that. And a lot of music that is sort of sort of deemed emotional to me but doesn’t have those deeper musical ideas.
Sean: And you get like Mozart at the other end, where it’s almost smug, because he’s going through so many emotions in one piece, that by the end of it, you just think ‘oh fuck off – like what am I supposed to feel now?’ (laughs) Like, we’ve had every type of chord that there is. I prefer this thing of being sort of around a feeling you know, moving through it and around it and sort of experiencing it from different angles.
Rob: But I think by Confield, we were able to sort of try out different musical ideas, that we were less bound to the looping structure and that overdubbing and just basically adding a few notes to what already exists.
Sean: It becomes a formula after a while, dunnit? I remember, like, doing Tri Rep and it was literally like: ‘Right, we’re just going to do loops, and that’s it’. And it’s going to be that, and they’re going to be incrementally changing. And it was very much about it being looped. I was really thinking about that a lot at the time, that I’m going to loop this more than I should, it’s going to go on longer than it should. But it’s going to be just about tolerable, just within the kind of boundary of what’s acceptable in terms of how long things are going on for and how much repetition there is. And then Chiastic Slide was like: ‘what things can you have looping?’ and ‘what can you do with loops?’
Rob: Yeah, make it a bit more four dimensional.
Sean: Yeah, and then like, LP5 is more like, okay, so: ‘how does songwriting work?’ And how the structure of songs in normal music can be incorporated into this way of working. I’m not covering everything here of course, but it’s kind of a very vague view of what we were thinking about. And then after that, it’s like, okay, so what else can we do? We’ve done those things now, I’m not that interested in songwriting anymore. It’s sort of ‘yeah I can do that, you know, it’s okay’. It can very quickly become formulaic. That’s why I would mention someone like Radiohead, because I’m amazed that they’re still able to do what they do after all this time. And they still manage to do quite good ones occasionally, and I feel like that’s actually a skill in itself, just having the patience to still do that after so many years.
Rob: I guess maybe they don’t. I mean, they did Atoms for Peace and these other breakout sort of projects. It lets them stretch their legs in different ways.
Sean: You can get to a point with it where you think, right, well, I’ve done that. And I think you have to believe in yourself and believe what you’re doing is interesting. I mean, for me, I only do whatever I’m interested in doing at the time. So it’s just kind of, I just do what I want to do. And all these sort of ideas, and everything I just said to you is in retrospect really, because I think I know where my head was, but at the time I wouldn’t have been able to say any of this stuff.
“If there was something so vast and quantifiable that you achieved just last year and then put out and everyone might agree that its great and it’s also how you see it too – how the fuck do you come out and just knock another one up thats better? So you don’t ever try to do that. You find yourself waiting for a while… and then you find a new corner and you go tunnelling.”
Droid: That’s something else I want to ask about – drive and motivation, and commitment, I guess. I mean, just in terms of how prolific you are – I think Sean, I’ve seen you talk about this before and you’ve basically said you’re just creating stuff all the time.
Sean: Yeah, that’s all I do really (laughs)
Droid: And this seems to be a quality of a lot of successful artists, you know, they’re just constantly working on something.
Sean: I don’t get bored.
Rob: I think if you have something to respond to, then you’re good.
Sean: I think people normally get bored, because they’re in it for different reasons to me. I think if you’re in it for the fame, the adulation, you know, you can’t handle rejection, so you need this, whatever it is – narcissistic supply even or women or drugs or the lifestyle or just, you know, just being out there. So there’s different reasons people do this stuff. None of those are really the reasons that I do it.
The reason I do it is the same reason I used to do pause button mixes in the bedroom for fucking weeks on end, I’d have my headphones on and I’d just be stuck in this little micro-world of possibilities. I like being in that weird world, I like doing that shit. There’s nothing I like doing more than doing that. If I ever get bored with it, I’ll just quit. Because it’ll be obvious to me that there’s nothing else to be interested in. But, you know, I’m kind of lucky. I don’t want to go on about Max, because it gets really fucking dry really quickly. But you know, the one thing about using that is that I keep finding shit to do, I keep finding stuff. The other thing is I don’t put pressure on myself. I don’t think of myself as a creative person. I feel like what actually keeps me going is that I’m just interested in it. So it’s like I’m exploring, I’m discovering things. I’m just randomly finding things a lot of the time.
Droid: Stanley Kubrick has this thing about generalised problem solving – from when he started out and he was trying to figure out how to be a photographer. And he’s going into dark rooms and figuring out to do shoots and stuff. And he realised that all the lessons he took from that could then be applied to the next thing he did. And he talks about how developing this kind of generalised approach to problem solving basically helps you solve any problem. And in a way, I guess, for me, for mixing, writing or for graphic art and all this kinda stuff, it’s all kind of the same thing, and there’s always new problems to be solved.
Sean: That’s interesting. I really like that. I had this conversation recently with somebody – it was Daniel Karlsson. And he was saying, ‘do you think that society is going to collapse?’ Which is a broad question. And I said, ‘no, actually, I don’t.’ And I think that it’s really easy to start believing this. But actually, no, I think that there’s a lot of people in the world and they come up with a lot of random shit. And there’s a good chance that between us, we’ll figure things out, basically. That, you might see changes, but you’re not going to see just a massive global catastrophe in that way.
One of the things I said was that when you’re in your house, and something breaks, and you need to fix it, and you think there must be something in the house I can use to fix this thing, right? So you look around and you find a weird, random little thing, like a bit of metal or something. And it’s right there, it’s in the house already. And you manage to fix the thing. I’ve always had this sort of optimistic pragmatism thing, where I feel like most problems are solvable. And the solutions are usually quite trivial, and within reach. And so, and it’s served me pretty well. I’ve always managed to find some random things in the house to sample, or some little technique to exploit or some new thing that sounds good.
And obviously, I spend a lot of time bug-fixing, coming up with ‘what ifs’: ‘What if it’s this? What is it that isn’t working?’ You can talk about creativity in the abstract and say that there’s some degree of creativity involved in that kind of problem solving. And that’s okay. But I’m more about what the options are, and exploring the options – without sounding too pretentious, what we do musically is more like exploring a parameter space. So like, a synth, for example, has a number of faders, or whatever. So they have a number of positions.
I mean, obviously, with an analog synth there are an infinite number of positions we could talk about. But with most digital synths, it’s not, it’s a finite number. And so there are a finite number of parameter possibilities, right, so if you consider each parameter to be an axis, then you’ve got a multi dimensional parameter space, and you’re exploring that space, right? So you find which parts of the space you like the sound of, and you’ll realise if you move this slightly, that it suddenly becomes really attractive. It’s a bit like wandering around a fractal. You’ll find bits of it that sound good, and other bits of it that don’t. And so I don’t think that what I’m doing is creating, what I’m doing is I’m getting a bit of gear in front of me, and thinking, ‘Okay, well, what do I like that this can do?’ Finding things that are within it, finding out what the possibilities are.
Droid: But Isn’t that a common theme, exploration of spaces – just in terms of creativity in general?
Sean: I think it probably is, I wouldn’t like to, I wouldn’t like to say that everybody’s lying about inventing things, and they’re just finding things, but it is hard to do, to invent something new.
Droid: I think it’s something to do with the process itself, and I know myself from writing – like, you’ll be writing something and you’ll get stuck, and then you’ll catch a glimpse of a word on the side of a passing bus or something, and it will trigger something unconsciously. So you’ll have solved the problem but you don’t know how you solved that problem. Your unconscious basically does it, right?
Sean: It just fucking, comes from somewhere.
Droid: Exactly. But you’re creating that space by engaging the process. And I think what being – I don’t have any pretensions here personally – but I imagine what being an artist is about is creating the conditions to allow for creativity, for the creative process to happen.
Sean: There’s a study that Richard Wiseman, the kind of pop psychologist guy, he did this study on luck, so whatever you think luck is. First they surveyed a bunch of people and asked: ‘do you consider yourselves to be lucky?’ And they got the responses from people and they logged the responses next to the person’s name. And then they handed everybody a newspaper, and they said to people, we want you to count the number of photographs in the newspaper. And on something like page three, there was an advert in the newspaper. Text only. And it said something like, there are 37 photographs in this newspaper. Right? And they found that the people who noticed the advert were the people who’d said that they considered themselves to be lucky. The whole idea of being lucky is that you’re just open to just noticing random shit.
This totally makes sense to me, because I’m super easily distracted. That’s been my big problem with building synths. I’ll start out trying to build a synth that has a very specific description, and then I’ll think: ‘what happens if I flip this into here?’ and ‘Oh, god, that’s amazing, why have I never thought to do that?’ That sounds totally much better than the thing I was trying to build. And then I’ll save that, and that will become the thing that I’m interested in more than the synth I was originally trying to build. I’ll still probably build the synth, but I’ll probably spend a week farting around with this other thing first, because that’s more interesting. And so a lot of our stuff just comes out of these weird, I won’t call them mistakes, because they’re not – and they’re not accidents, but they’re just sort of ‘what ifs’. So yeah, I feel like, if I get to a point where that stops happening then I will probably run out of commitment – if you like, if you can call it that, I wouldn’t call it that. It’s not commitment, it’s just that I’m really fucking self indulgent and easily distracted.
Rob: I think I would characterise that as a kind of resilience. Because I think what I most find when I’m short on ideas, and there’s our back catalogue of music, that I rate myself, and we both rate our own stuff highly. Is: ‘how the fuck can you top that?’ How can i do better than that, but you realise at the time, you weren’t actually trying to do something specific. And responding to it just by finding something else to do, ends up with results every time – and you think: ‘shit, this is why I do this, this is why it’s so enjoyable’. Because you’re achieving higher and higher standards to an extent, even though your idea of standards might change, your framework and your referencing is totally different now, and you might learn something new and decide that actually all this or that’s useless. That’s pointless, or like that’s what I was doing 10 years ago, so move on.
Sean: You can try too hard. You know when you just put an album out, and then you try doing some tracks?
Rob: Yeah, we call them try-hard tracks.
Sean ; And you’re trying too hard and they all end up being shit. And then at some point you find something weird that you couldn’t really have predicted that’s a million times more interesting than anything you would have consciously come up with.
Rob: Yeah. And as a result of that unpredictability, it makes it more impossibly valuable. And kind of deeper and special.
Sean: I don’t know if it comes just from critics, but you do get this weird kind of thing in the industry where people really like to have come up with an idea, right? So like, I had this idea, and I wanted to make this thing and so you, you know, people romanticise it, especially with the good bullshit. So you get some artists who are just really good. bullshitters, right. And they tend to say stuff like, oh, I had this idea for a track while I was out doing this thing. And I thought, what if you did this thing and then did this thing… and so they had this brilliant idea because they’re a brilliant ideas person and I always think ‘fuck off, no, you didn’t’.
Rob: It’s like what people would write for art grants and stuff.
Droid: I’m convinced – I’m not spiritual or particularly mystical or anything, but I’m convinced there’s some weird shit going on with the creative process. I think people are addicted to it, first of all. I think that’s why the best artists are so prolific because they can’t stop doing it.
Rob: That’s pretty much what we’re saying to an extent. I think of trying to outdo yourself, like if there was something so vast and quantifiable that you achieved just last year and then put out and everyone might agree that its great and it’s also how you see it too – how the fuck do you come out and just knock another one up thats better? So you don’t ever try to do that. You find yourself waiting for a while, trashing all your bounce-back ideas. And then you discover a new corner and you go tunnelling. And I’d like to think that our characters shape – our partnership shapes whatever we do next, and always with an eye on the past, like we know what we’ve done before so we know what not to do next. And suddenly, you end up with all these options, and you exploit them all one way or another and you end up with something good again.
Sean: I do find myself accumulating a list of things that I don’t want to do. So I guess maybe if that list ever gets so big that there’s just nothing left to do, maybe, maybe I’ll just stop.
Rob: That’s the thing, being in a changing world, a moving society and getting older and experiencing different things, you’re gonna develop a different perspective on things.
Droid: The reason I’m so interested in creativity, is that I’ve had some weird experiences where I’ve been working on something very difficult, and I’ve been completely stuck and then somehow it all just flows out of you – you find a key to the problem and then you just cant stop working until its finished, and you look at it afterwards and just go: ‘How the fuck did I make that? Where did it come from?’
Sean: I’m quite resistant to this sort of woo talk, but I think that there is definitely like, a sense sometimes that I have no fucking idea. Like, I feel like some things are just beamed straight into my head. Its fucking weird, – it can be weird little epiphanies, you know. I had one a couple of weeks ago, and it was about a technical thing. But as soon as I had it, I was like: ‘oh, god, that’s so obvious. Like, why did I not think of this years ago?’ It seemed like such an obvious solution. And I don’t know where it came from. I can’t think of what led to it, it just seemed to just appear, like out of the ether.
Droid: There’s that thing about the discovery of the structure of benzene. It appeared to Friedrich Kekulé in a dream – and there’s a bunch of major scientific discoveries that came to people in dreams. I guess the accepted explanation is that your unconscious is constantly working away at this shit. And once you engage with it in the process in a very open kind of way. It just gives you an answer, without you asking for one.
Sean: I did read this thing about brain activity being higher, there’s a lot more neurons firing – or whatever it is – when you’re just staring into space, because apparently, that’s when your brain does most of its long range prediction. So you might be consciously thinking about some aspects of the future. But it’s mainly just a kind of daydreaming, staring-into-space thing. And this is why I think a lot of this mindfulness stuff that’s quite fashionable now might not be the right play. I think always living in the moment is denying your unconscious this opportunity to do this. I feel like actually, what keeps me sane is having a bit of staring into space time. You know, like waking up in the morning and just staring at the ceiling for a good 20 minutes, I always feel much better during the day than if I just dive out of bed.
Droid: I’d give it an hour at least (laughs). I wanted to ask you about funk. It’s something that’s a constant throughout your work, especially in the stuff you’ve done over the last, like 20 years, this insane funk popping through in your tunes. Funk as an emergent property. Is that something you consciously do?
Sean: Yeah, completely 100% There’s so many things I could say about this, it could be another interview in of itself, really. Even just taking a loop of some almost random sounding stuff, and then looping it in the right way, and suddenly, it’s got this kind of lurch to it and this movement that kind of gets you. It’s kinda like about finding this thing that makes you go: ‘Oooph, fucking hell’. And it’s funny when I hear producers who have a similar rhythmic template in all their stuff and I think: ‘How are you not intrigued by all the other funks that there are, there’s so many ways that you can have funk in a track.’ And when I hear people doing a new one, I get really drawn in. I think it’s one of those things you kind of just have a nose for.
Rob: We’ve inherited it from somewhere. But also yeah, we flex it too. But I’d say that there’s more to it than that, because I think we’re looking at going back to those other points about getting bored and finding stuff out of nowhere. Or to be inspired by stuff. For example we used to have loads of hardware compressors and limiters and gates etc, and sometimes we’d have days where we didn’t have any ideas for any music, we were just putting stuff through our gear onto CDR, recording almost everything we did or the best bits and then saving that as a library for some other time in the future like a kind of archive or sound library. Just put stuff down – its quite an effective ‘off day’ or ‘hangover’ process actually, you just do it because you’ve got no ideas, you dont give a fuck, nothing’s important. And basically, we used to have all these different hardware compressors, some of them would have different dynamics and we put our favorite beats through one or the other and then just basically try all the parameters and end up just almost amazed at how fucking funky some stuff came out. I think it’s the dynamics of things sometimes – you can go from one dynamic and A/B compare them and find all of the space in between. And I think we were just lucky that when we were kids we were messing around with approaches like that where we would discover something really powerful, before we even knew how to program those sorts of things musically.
Sean: I’ve a load of old New York hip-hop radio tapes, I fucking love the sound of them a lot of the time, if it’s been well recorded – and by well recorded, I mean, badly recorded. Yeah, so I’ve got this one, I think it’s an Afrika Islam tape and he’s playing Sucker MCs, which is a beat I know, backwards. I mean, I’ve been playing it since I was a kid. But it’s like, this recording has pure radio noise, a lot of compression. And it’s just got all this sucking, and it’s just the best recording of that beat I’ve ever heard, and it’s obviously complete trash by most people’s standards, it’s just a mess. It’s ugly, everything’s wrong you know, it’s slightly out of tune and it’s a bit slow. There’s loads of fucking radio noise, it’s super compressed, but it’s just doing this kind of weird lurching thing. And this totally changes the shape, the feeling and the timing of the loop.
I used to think Mr. Oizo was super good at that, I know that there was that vogue for over-compressing everything in French house. But that Oizo Moustache album – there’s a couple of tracks on that are just so unbelievably right. He couldn’t have improved it by changing one thing about it, he’s just nailed it. You can tell he’s homed in on it: the ‘this is about as good as I can make this loop sound’ thing. And it’s just so beautifully done. It’s like cooking, you know, getting that balance right is a big major part of how funk works. You get these groove patterns that used to come packaged with Logic Audio, I don’t know if they still do, but you used to get a bunch of groove templates from famous drummers, and one of them was Sly Dunbar, and you can throw it over any bit of music, and it’ll sound okay. But then if you listen to an old Grace Jones album, like Nightclubbing, there’s way more to it than just the position of the events, it’s all about the shape of the events – it is about the way that the kick and the bass are working together, and all that standard funk knowledge. But there’s a lot more about how it’s produced, and how the elements are sitting together and the weight of different parts of the loop and how they all work with each other. And that shit is something I feel that some people know, and some people don’t. It’s the same with Quincy Jones’ Michael Jackson stuff, it’s so unbelievably fucking balanced. It’s just so right, in loads of ways. And, you know, you can talk about what exact compressor they used and what desk they used and how they recorded stuff, and Quincy Jones always talks about space. So how many gaps you’ve put in the music and stuff like that. And these are all attributes of that thing. But the way that it all works together, is something that you can only really assess if you get it – and some people get it and some don’t.
Rob: Some people push it too far. And it flatlines. But yeah, it’s true. I think my point with the hardware stuff was that we had so many different variations on the equipment that we could put the same reference unit of material, like a beat through it, our own stuff, or a break or a sample, something we’re really familiar with. And we’d find that there were so many different takes on that so-called standard moment, that funk just oozes out of all these different extremes and the potential from one end to the other is massive. And it’s a choice, like Sean’s sort of implying, that you’ve got to kind of know what you want out of it, know what’s good about it. But the amount of surprises we got from a simple thing going through different forms through the processing, the dynamics would give us perhaps what musicianship would give a band, you know, a glimpse in a day of 40, 50, 60 different types of musicianship in a certain beat. And with Emagic Logic, as Sean was saying, we could do lots more quantizing lots more swing combinations, and just aim for something.
Sean: Like that track. Nuane. That’s like a groove template.
Rob: Exactly, that’s like, one of the first times we started messing with all that.
Sean: The thing with funk is that it’s impossible to really say what it is, and yet, you’ve got people like James Brown running around screaming at musicians for not being in the pocket enough – and I bet he wouldn’t have been able to say exactly what was wrong with the performance, you know. He would just say – you’re shit, you’re off, you’re just wrong, and it would just be these vagaries that you were supposed to understand if you were in his band. It’s a bit like comic timing, you know? You can’t really explain it to people. It’s like that guy who plays Johnson in Peep Show. Why is he so funny? Like, what is it about him? It’s so funny. That’s one of the best comic performances I’ve ever seen, him playing that character. It’s just unbelievably good.
Droid: (Laughs) There’s a lot of competition in that show, everybody’s really good.
Sean” That’s true, but I just think he’s just like, I don’t know. He’s probably my favourite character. Super Hans is amazing. I mean, all the timing in that show is amazing. They’re all pretty good.
Droid: Before we finish, can I ask you about your next non-live album release? Do you have any ideas about it?
Sean: I don’t want to talk about it publicly at all. So I just don’t talk about it, I’d rather just enact it. Our plan at the moment is that we’re just going to keep playing live, basically, and recording and releasing them. So this is it. This is the new material.
Autechre play Vicar Street on October 29th.