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Surfing On Sine Waves
March 13, 2014 6:09 PM   Subscribe

Richard D. James is someone whose work can probably be considered outsider art. By almost anyone's standards, his work is eccentric, quirky and idiosyncratic. Its flaws (such as tape hiss and clipping) are arguably as charming as its finer points (such as whole worlds of original sounds), and its deviations from the norm are what make it so endearing, otherworldly and engaging. James seems a good subject for a case study due to how little music theory he took for granted, and how much he built his own musical principles from scratch, which is a noble goal for anyone trying to carve their own niche in the musical ecosystem.
posted by mannequito (46 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite

 
I don't see how his stuff can be called outsider art at all - he was signed to a big label in his field pretty early and was a central figure in the way his field panned out; he's hardly a Henry Darger. I also don't see his stuff as a crazy departure theory wise, unless you look a theory as a prescription as opposed to a way of figuring out what works after the fact. His stuff is great though. The first SAW is still my favourite - it doesn't have the crazy drum programming or any of the pinpoint jarring harshness, but everything on there has a job and it's crazy melodic, and the washy tape is actually very sympathetic with what he's trying to do.
posted by kersplunk at 6:26 PM on March 13 [17 favorites]


I don't mean to yell at kids to get off my lawn, but the electronic music from the early 90's still holds more of my interest than much of anything being produced today as EDM. Aphex was a big part of that and SAW, Polygon Window, and Qoth are all still brilliantly shining diamonds from an era when the genre was new.
posted by pashdown at 6:31 PM on March 13 [7 favorites]


Where the hell has he been? I looked up his discography to see if I missed something (all the EP’s apparently) and didn’t realize he had so few albums. I just thought I didn’t have many of them.
posted by bongo_x at 6:32 PM on March 13


Agree with the first 2 posters above. SAW1 was and is so incredible. But I don't see him as someone so outside the IDM/electronica world.

Random but: I still remember the Melody Maker (or was it NME?) review tagline of B12's Electro-Soma: "makes Aphex Twin sound like Kylie Minogue". Somewhat inaccurate...
posted by shortfuse at 6:36 PM on March 13


Where the hell has he been?

Apparently he's been releasing a lot of his stuff under various pseudonyms on youtube/soundcloud/etc. the past few years, possibly because of an ongoing divorce and money concerns (although that could just be rumor).

Check out The Tuss.
posted by mannequito at 6:37 PM on March 13 [3 favorites]


Where the hell has he been?

Oh you know, probably just driving his tank around the place.
posted by Jimbob at 6:38 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


he's been quiet since about 2007, though (and that was The Tuss, which he didn't really talk about). seven years is not a small time; Boards of Canada had about eight and people had given them up for dead.
posted by solarion at 6:38 PM on March 13


Yeah, outsider? His SAW I style isn't so far from 808 State and other bands from the same era. And didn't RDJ himself credit Squarepusher for inspiring his switch to more aggressive drum and bass?

For me, it's all about SAW II and the Hangable Auto Bulb EPs.
posted by mubba at 6:40 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]


I don't see how his stuff can be called outsider art

I remember seeing him at ATP back in 2003? 2004? Huge crowd there to see him spin records, beach balls being tossed around. Massive party. Outsider artists rarely have such large, happy followings.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:40 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]


Yeah, if anything RDJ is an 'industry leader'. 'Outsider Art' is more like Bryn Jones or the like. Dude barely communicated or collaborated with anyone, was constantly producing album runs of like 50 copies that would vanish into the mists of time, and then, as soon as people started taking notice on any kind of significant level, he died of blood fungus. I mean, damn. Blood fungus.
posted by FatherDagon at 6:41 PM on March 13 [9 favorites]


Where the hell has he been?

Hiding and releasing things in the shadows. Or what mannequito said. He's working with Die Antwoord now, I hear?

Just want to plug the recent 33 1/3 book from Marc Weidenbaum on SAW2. A great writer discussing a true classic (albeit a total anomaly within the RDJ discography.)
posted by naju at 6:41 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]


Probably just an impersonator with nice gear, but some people believe he's on Youtube.
posted by jchgf at 6:44 PM on March 13 [3 favorites]


He's working with Die Antwoord now, I hear?

O.M.G. I am so aroused right now.
posted by bongo_x at 6:53 PM on March 13 [8 favorites]


I love Aphex Twin. Here is a nice music video of Analogue Bubblebath.
posted by foobaz at 7:20 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


Popular music in particular is usually narrower in scope still, often (but not always) adding rules such as insisting almost every song be in 4/4 time, have an emotionally engaging lyric, and combine a pleasing complement of instruments, one covering a simple bass melody, another providing a higher, more rhythmically catchy melody, yet another slow harmonies such as strings or backing vocals, another providing percussive, atonal rhythms (drums), and most importantly a lead vocal to sing the lyric.

It got harmonically dumbed down as the 20th Century moved on, too. If you throw in an augmented chord, they will call you Beatles derivative, count on it.
posted by thelonius at 7:49 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


his work is eccentric, quirky and idiosyncratic

His later work, maybe. OTOH, Selected Ambient Works, now two+ decades old, is a catalog of broad technical mastery (over most of what came before it) without so much quirk.

Highly listenable for anyone liberated from acoustic timbres (but who still appreciates traditional musical values), well worth studying for any student of electronic music-making. A cornucopia of surprising invention.
posted by Twang at 8:00 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]


He's working with Die Antwoord now, I hear?

Shame...
posted by Cosine at 8:01 PM on March 13


Analord and Tuss rock my socks.

newish

a swinging piano

...and whatever this is
posted by Zerowensboring at 8:16 PM on March 13


Another unreleased newish (windowlickeresque).
posted by jchgf at 8:23 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


I've always wanted to give Richard D James a massive thirty second long bear hug.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:32 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


The first time I ate mushrooms On blew my mind. I was later able to build the best sound design I will ever do around that song. It still brings me to tears.
posted by Uncle at 9:54 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


Considering how small EDM is overall, Rephlex and Aphex Twin are pretty much giants. So many copycats came after, but not surprising considering how well his early stuff still stands up.

A mutual friend of mine (& RDJ) has a few hard drives full of countless hours of unreleased Aphex tracks in various stages of completion. I've had a chance to enjoy bits and pieces; his garbage tracks are better than most artists' finished work. Hopefully some of it will eventually see the light of day.
posted by p3t3 at 10:25 PM on March 13 [3 favorites]


A mutual friend of mine (& RDJ) has a few hard drives full of countless hours of unreleased Aphex tracks in various stages of completion. I've had a chance to enjoy bits and pieces; his garbage tracks are better than most artists' finished work. Hopefully some of it will eventually see the light of day

He is seriously becoming the JD Salinger of super dark and weird genius electronic music
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 10:44 PM on March 13


I think Aphex Twin is totally fun to play in the car on a road trip. But please remove that outsiderart tag.
posted by univac at 10:46 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]


The "outsider art" attribution is a direct quote from the linked article so the tag is apt in context. But, yeah, I think it's a weird and kinda' bad lapse of judgement on the essay author's part.

Unfortunately the essay mostly tries to leverage that "outsider art" premise to propose that James, due to being both iconoclastic and prolific, had created an entire genre of electronic dance music that you can't dance to, apparently unaware of the term "IDM". Or, for that matter, that RDJ might exercise his sense of humor and irony in his public statements. So it's a shaky building on a weak foundation.

Selected Ambient Works never really did much for me (go figure) although his stuff from the late 90s has been blessedly long-lived in my playlists. At least the essay's prompting me to give some of the older stuff another spin to see what I can see this time. So it's got that going for it.
posted by ardgedee at 3:56 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]


I don't agree with the outsider art tag either, but I suppose it comes from his having hand-built all his early gear and from having grown up in Cornwall where, according to an interview, 'If I wanted to hear a techno track I would have to make it'. Those early interviews were full of this sort of thing - on having written a sequencer for the Sinclair Spectrum; on having filled his dorm room at college so full of homemade gear that he would have to move out; covering his equipment at PAs so no-one could see it .. and so forth.

I read he'd exclusively switched to soft-synths since then, but the homebrew hacker profile persists.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 4:53 AM on March 14


My favorite living musician. He's at least 50 years ahead of his time.
posted by STFUDonnie at 5:05 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]


although his stuff from the late 90s has been blessedly long-lived in my playlists.

He's only getting better with age.
posted by Zerowensboring at 5:17 AM on March 14


Calling RDJ outsider art is like calling Elvis outsider art. The writer of that article - did they do any research?
posted by winna at 5:20 AM on March 14 [2 favorites]


The careers of obscure outsiders such as Thom Yorke and Trent Reznor plus everyone making electronic anything since the 90s is largely owed to RDJ and they know it.
posted by dosterm at 6:29 AM on March 14


I don't have much to add to what everyone said above, except that I like to listen to Ventolin when my ears get waxy and need a good cleaning.
posted by murphy slaw at 6:43 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]


If you consider "outsider art" to be art made by someone not versed in theory and not aware of similar-sounding work that already exists, then sure, early RDJ stuff counts.

If you mean "outsider art" as the definition is traditionally known, probably not.
posted by mikeh at 6:53 AM on March 14


three ring modulators and the truth!
posted by thelonius at 7:34 AM on March 14 [2 favorites]


I had to go and listen to 4 again.

It's still beautiful.
posted by winna at 7:45 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]


"Just want to plug the recent 33 1/3 book from Marc Weidenbaum on SAW2."

OMG. The 33 1/3 books vary hugely in quality, but if this is a good one, then that moves to the top of my list.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:50 AM on March 14


"Shame..."

I really, really like the sound of much of their music and especially Yo-Landi as a vocalist, but the outré pose is juvenile and egregiously offensive to me (even if that's the point and it's ironic) and so I'm ambivalent and will rarely listen to them even though I like some of their stuff very much.

But it makes sense to me that RDJ might find them interesting, because I think that they are interesting musically, if not thematically.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:56 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]


Artists don't 'create genres' and also you can definitely dance to RDJ
posted by mike_bling at 8:02 AM on March 14


Just coming in to say thanks so much, somehow I had overlooked Aphex Twin as a source of great "chill" electronica. The SAW album is great!
posted by joecacti at 8:43 AM on March 14


Just wanted to point to breakcore artist Venetian Snares as a potentially interesting artist for RDJ fans. He similarly veers between different tones on different albums, and his approach can seem almost dadaist and scattergun at first. A good introductory album is probably Rossz Csillag Alatt Született (sample track)
posted by Magnakai at 9:05 AM on March 14 [3 favorites]


Oh yeah seconding Venetian Snares.
posted by winna at 9:50 AM on March 14


I tried to get into Venetian Snares, but I started with "Higgins Ultra Low Track Glue…". I just couldn’t get into it at all and haven’t explored much else because it made such a bad impression.

On the other hand I think Die Antwoord is the most interesting thing to come out in a decade.

There’s no accounting for taste.
posted by bongo_x at 10:07 AM on March 14


Just goes to show you that your outside is someone else's inside.

[sighs, returns earbuds to ear, goes back to listening to SAW for the upteenth billionth time]
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 11:30 AM on March 14


there is a new album of psychedelic uhh... electropop by vsnares and a lady, called "poemss" its not as wtf as you might hope/fear but its OK.
posted by ennui.bz at 12:04 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]


bongo_x: Yeah, my first Venetian Snares album was the adorably-titled Music For My Cats, which actually sounds totally loopy at first. You get into his way of thinking though. Rossz Csillag Alatt Született and My Downfall (Original Soundtrack) are definitely worth listening to though, they're less breakcore-y and more melodic and lush than much of his other stuff. I defy anyone to listen to Colorless (preferably alone with headphones) and not get tingles.

ennui.bz: Thanks for the tip, I've been a bit out of the loop lately.
posted by Magnakai at 12:31 PM on March 14


The careers of obscure outsiders such as Thom Yorke and Trent Reznor plus everyone making electronic anything since the 90s is largely owed to RDJ and they know it.

I think a lot of people making electronic music since the 90s really owe Juan Atkins, Mad Mike and Larry Heard more than they owe Aphex.
posted by todayandtomorrow at 1:06 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]


I remember reading a story, years back, about him leaving an mp3 player on a train with many unreleased/incomplete works. Always wondered if it was true.

To say RDJ's output was prolific would be an understatement. I think he released around 25 EP's and 8 LP's in a 7 year period between 1990 and 1996. The next ten years his releases were less frequent, i think only half a dozen EP's and 2 or 3 LP's. I'm not even sure that's all of it due to his various pseudonyms.

I'm not a fan of the super early RJD stuff, or the recent (2007!) Analord releases. But everything between Surfing on Sine Waves (1992...ish?) and The RDJ Album (1996?) is top notch. Yeah, call me a heretic, but the whole acid house / 303 / 808 sound, well it's just shite if you ask me.
posted by lawrencium at 2:01 PM on March 14


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