Warp, home to sonic pioneers such as Aphex Twin, and Boards of Canada is arguably the most influential electronica label in the world. But don’t tell Warp founder Steve Beckett. For Beckett, who began the label with now deceased partner Rob Mitchell in a Sheffield record store in 1989, genre, and in particular “electronica,” is an irrelevant concept.
Indeed, asked to name a few albums currently crowding his desk, Beckett comes up with an eclectic list, including recent releases by Americana group Lampchop and Argentine tango accordionist Astor Piazzola. Look a little closer at the Warp roster and the electronica label looks even farther off base. Yes, it continues to be a haven for artists that broadly fit under the electronica rubric — the upcoming i-Warp events in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya are an electronica smorgasbord featuring techno prodigy Jimmy Edgar and uberproducer Luke Vibert. But recent signings have been more all-embracing: Maximo Park makes bright pop rock, while Grizzly Bear’s dark music owes much to postrock. As Beckett explains in a telephone interview from London with The Japan Times, Warp isn’t about any one genre; it’s about innovative music.
Ten years ago, if a kid wanted to make music in his bedroom, he was probably using a laptop and a sampler. Now he is probably using a guitar. What happened?
I don’t think he is doing it with a guitar; I think he is doing it with his laptop and his guitar. I think what has happened is that music has come full circle. We went through a cycle where guitars were seen as very old and uninteresting. Everyone got interested in this new technology and computers and being able to make amazing sounds that they’d never been able to make before. And then that went full circle where everybody has heard everything there is to hear in terms of revolutionary sounds.
I think Aphex Twin and Squarepusher have gone about as far as you can go in creating sounds you have never heard before. A lot of people followed them down that avenue and realized that they weren’t able to do anything new. They have come back inside of themselves, back to making more personal, more organic.
People really weren’t so concerned with song structure because they were so excited by the sounds they were hearing, and the sounds were so powerful they were overriding any need for a song. But now, because everything has been heard, things are going back to being more personal, which is always going to be that traditional song structure. . . . I think a thousand years from now, people are going to be listening to songs.
Where does that leave electronica? Is it a passe term?
It’s passe to me. It was passe when I first heard it, which was at least 15 years ago. I never liked the term and I’ve never used it.
I am interested in individual artists that can express what is unique about themselves. I think people will still use electronic instruments and electronic ways of making music in the same way they can still use a tape machine or use a guitar, but the interesting bit is not what they use but how the use it.
But when Warp first started out, you focused on music that could be termed electronica — technology-driven, very dance-oriented and not song-structured. How has Warp evolved from that initial focus?
It is like anything when you grow and develop — you go through different stages. When we first started, that was the only music that was of any interest to me whatsoever.
We were selling rock, punk, dance music, metal and stuff like that at our shop. And then this revolutionary music came out — acid house — that wiped that floor with everything else. I just wanted to be involved with the most exciting music at that time, acid and then techno . . . Now, I just want to be involved in what excites me now, not what excited me 15 years ago.
Is there a common element among your artists that says, “this is a Warp band?”
I think most of the artists I deal with on the label have a maverick spirit. They aren’t concerned about what other people are thinking or doing. They are creating their own world and letting people into it.
Sometimes I meet bands and they are very aware of what everybody else is doing, and they know what everybody else’s releases are, and those aren’t the sort of acts I am interested in. The ones I am interested in are the ones like Boards of Canada. I go up to visit them in Scotland and they are just in a unique space that isn’t really effected or influenced by other people, or the media, or whatever else is going on in the world.
When you first started signing “guitar bands,” did you get any flak from devoted followers of Warp, or was there an acceptance of that evolution?
No, we’ve always had flak for whatever signings we make, which is usually a good sign to me. The fourth record we ever put out was a hip-hop record by DJ Mink. When we put it out, people said, “How dare you put out a hip-hop record!” And we put out Vincent Gallo and people said, “How does that work?” If I’m putting out releases and people say, “That’s exactly what I’d expect,” then there is no point in doing what I am doing.
You’ve said the most interesting things going on in music are what is called “blend” music in Japan. Where do you think music might be going now?
There are so many “rock” bands in the U.K. now. It is a logjam, but for every Franz Ferdinand or Arctic Monkeys that goes crazy, there are a hundred acts selling two or three thousand copies. So you can already see the pendulum swinging back — possibly with people this summer getting into the “dance rock” thing.
A lot of people are combining rock with rave music and house music and it’s really influencing a lot of the rock acts. They just want to get up and party a bit more. We have a new !!! album coming out this year . . . and with other bands like LCD Soundsystem, and other DJs fusing the sound, it just feels like the pendulum is swinging back.
What effect has the Internet had on music in general and on Warp in particular?
It has completely revolutionized it. My Space [an online social network] has just completely changed the way people are listening to music, especially for new bands that aren’t signed. They are getting to the point where they have a huge following, where you turn up to a gig and, instead of like it used to be five years ago when there were five people there, the place is totally packed out and everybody knows the songs — and they haven’t even got a record out.
The other way it has changed things is that artists have an unintimidating way to talk directly to other artists. Before, if an artist wanted to work with another artist, they had to get their manager to phone the record label to find out the name of the other person’s manager and then speak to them and whoever was in the way would stop it from happening because it’s not in their interest.
Do you see anything coming up on the horizon that hasn’t been heard before?
I definitely don’t see anything like the whole techno/acid house thing anywhere. There are loads of genres and sub genres that are still interesting, but I think the excitement is coming from the differences rather than massive revolutionary explosions. There are underground scenes building again on the dance side that are completely out of the media’s eye: fusions of really dark drum ‘n’ bass and really happy breaks. But there is nothing coming up that is completely new to my ears. If there was, I’d be on a plane.