Early life and education
James was born on 18 August 1971 in Limerick. In 1996, he said he had a stillborn older brother also named Richard whose name he inherited, though this may have been fabricated. He grew up in Lanner, Cornwall, and attended Redruth School in nearby Redruth. James said he liked growing up there, "being cut off from the city and the rest of the world".
James has stated that an interest in making sounds developed before he got into writing music, and that as a child he enjoyed playing with the strings inside his family piano and disassembling tapes and tape recording equipment. He took an early interest in electronics, and enjoyed modifying analogue synthesisers to create sounds. According to James, at age 11 he won a magazine competition by producing sound on a Sinclair ZX81, a home computer with no sound hardware: "I played around with machine code and found some codes that retuned the TV signal so that it made this really weird noise when you turned the volume up". This claim was subsequently debunked in a Fact article exploring a range of Aphex Twin myths and evidence indicates someone else won the competition, winning £6 not £50 as James claimed.
He began making music aged 14, partially as a refuge from the "bloody awful" Jesus and Mary Chain albums played by his sister. Cornwall had few record shops, but a thriving nightlife in which acid house was popular. James claimed to have been making music with similarities to acid and techno for years before hearing the genres, leading him to purchase every record he could find in the styles. As a teenager, James worked as a DJ at clubs and raves, and included his own tracks in his sets. He studied at Cornwall College from 1988 to 1990 and graduated with a National Diploma in engineering. According to one lecturer, he often wore headphones during practical lessons and had a "kind of mystique about him ... I think some of the other students were a bit in awe of him".