It’s pretty much a character-defining kind of thing: Either you think the seminal U.K. electronic act Autechre are taking the ball and running with it to places you didn’t know existed, or you’re convinced that they’ve gone bleak, technical and chaotic, and you just want them to write some damn melodies again. But really, that’s like criticizing surfing for being kind of wet, and if it’s the first thing you hear about Autechre, let it be something you quickly move beyond.
Comprised of Rob Brown and Sean Booth, Autechre are ambient/IDM pioneers, or perhaps godfathers, of U.K. electronica, along with Warp labelmates Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. From the 1993 release of “Incunabula,” through 1995’s “Tri Repetea++” — the pinnacle of the band for those who loved their harmonic, ambient side — and onto 2001’s “Confield” and 2003’s “draft 7.30” — where things got much more complicated, harsh and acutely digital — the duo has always challenged existing fans, while attracting new ones.
Critics may be unanimously unable to describe the music, but Autechre can be quite eloquent and lucid in their own defense. Before coming to Japan to perform at Electraglide tonight and tomorrow, Brown spoke by phone to The Japan Times about self-consciousness, Thom Yorke and Japanese audiences.
Your music is famous for being difficult to describe. Do you like to talk about your music? It’s hard to be objective about it. Sometimes I read reviews where someone thinks they’ve got a handle on what we’re doing, but it might be completely the other side of the planet from where I’m coming from. Me and Sean [Booth] have developed kind of together with our instincts. Doing that, you don’t really have to talk about the music as such.
So you’re not self-conscious?
Our music’s pretty honest. Self-conscious is usually when people are a bit guarded and a bit surreptitious about their sources or their influences. We’ve been at it for 15 years and we’ve been through all the various phases.
Are you feeling like an old man? Do you still have the passion you used to?
Depends on what day it is actually. The year before last I had a little baby boy, and he’s amazing, but it did disrupt the way Sean and I work together. With the last album [2005’s “Untilted”] we basically ended up working more fast and furious with the time we did have together. But at the same time we can get results more readily. Now its almost like we can turn some gear on, get some ideas going and very quickly decide whether its going to go forward or not and therefore to stop and change, or actually develop and enhance.
Has the technology helped you do things faster?
I wouldn’t say that. You could be sitting in a studio with say, Sly and Robbie, 20 years ago, and have the most enchanting music going on. Nowadays, maybe, attempt to re-create that with a few plug-ins, and you realize there’s a lot more to it than just achieving the quick fixes that modern equipment will allow you to do. Everyone’s got a multitrack studio in their bedroom, or in their pocket, these days — I think you’ve got to trust your instincts these days just as much as you did back then.
How do you respond to the divide between those who love your more abstract, chaotic work and those who long for the older, more melodic sound?
I think we’ve scorched a line where people end up black or white over this. I think for us, it’s always had feel. Depth and feel and emotion. When you’ve done, say, eight albums, you need to kind of satisfy yourself, and I think by flooding things with your ideas, you can alienate a few people. I find it takes people maybe two albums to, not catch up, but to actually get it, if you like. When a new album of ours comes out, some people who are maybe new to it go, “I can’t deal with this, I like the old one.” But then, two years later, another new album comes out, and they’re comparing it to the last one. It’s just takes a bit of time.
A few years back, Thom Yorke of Radiohead said something about being embarrassed by melody. Are you?
For us, melody and rhythm, they’re all part and parcel of similar things. It’s all frequency at the end of the day. Thom, I think he does worry about other people a lot. We’ve never really had that kind of idolic-band-leader-frontman-type vibe that he’s obviously tortured by, constantly. We’re allowed to sit in the studio at the back of the room and just get on with it, not worry about what people think.
Sure, it’s really important that other people like it to an extent. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have released in the first place. Music wouldn’t have been released publicly, by us, ever, if we didn’t think there were like minds out there that might give a shit or might like it. I love melody, and I do know what he means by melodies can be a bit embarrassing, but you know it depends where your head is at. The Beach Boys’ harmonies are so cheesy but so perfect at the same time. I’d cringe at something we may have done 10 years ago, because I know there are maybe a few fine points that could’ve been adjusted that would’ve made it 10 times better. But if we really like what we’re doing at the time, then nothing can really alter that, ever. Nothing better than making your own honest mistakes — making mistakes on other peoples’ behalf or with a view to pleasing someone else can get you in all kinds of trouble.
Do you improvise live?
We don’t start from scratch, put it that way. It’s not improvisation in the sort of Jim O’Rourke way — grab a guitar and detune it and then start. There are fixed ideas that we like to present. You might hear some bits that relate to the last album, some bits that relate to stuff we did years ago, but it depends on the night which bits we actually fold in.
Do you notice anything special about Japanese audiences?
Yeah, loads, I could go on all day. They seem really committed. They’re prepared to give you a big chance, but at the same time they’re really with you all the way. I’ve never known any audience to be so confident yet open at the same time.
The first time we played in Japan we thought they hated it, cause we didn’t hear a peep out of them. We couldn’t believe like, how bad it was going for them. And then at the end we finished, and we walked off, and the place just erupted. It turned out they were just being really polite — either they were all listening intently or they just didn’t wanna, what would you call it, pollute the air with their noise. It was unbelievable.
Since then we’ve played in different, more conducive environments to people giving a bit of feedback in a more club style. They lose themselves, which is fantastic. Europe and London and England can be so jaded sometimes, even the States. In Japan it just seems so genuine and positive at the same time without any prior knowledge about what’s likely to happen. I’ve never been a big showman or anything like that. I mean, we don’t really have visuals or anything on stage, so I’ve never been a big guitar-waver or wedge-jumper. It’s just nice to have responses without actually sending off flares for people.
Have you collaborated with any Japanese musicians?
There was a real tough threshold in our lives at one point where we needed to choose music or our shit jobs, and Buck Tick offered us a remix just at that point. And it allowed me to leave work and concentrate on music. I don’t think they realized how instrumental they were.