James grew up in Cornwall
(pictured: the cliffs at Land's End)
James was born on 18 August 1971 in Limerick, the son of Welsh parents. He grew up in Lanner, Cornwall, with two older sisters, in a "very happy" childhood during which they "were pretty much left to do what [they] wanted". He enjoyed living there, feeling apart from nearby cities and the rest of the world. Some of his earliest musical experiments as a child involved James playing with the strings inside his family's piano, similar to composer John Cage's prepared piano experiments. At age nine he began purchasing tapes and tape recorders, and began recording partially as a refuge from the "bloody awful" Jesus and Mary Chain albums played by his sister. James attended Redruth School in Redruth, Cornwall, and claimed to have produced sound on a Sinclair ZX81 (a machine with no sound hardware) at age 11:
||When I was 11, I won 50 pounds in a competition for writing this program that made sound on a ZX81. You couldn't make sound on a ZX81, but 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.
According to musician Benjamin Middleton, James began producing music the following year. At age twelve, he bought his first synthesiser, which he reassembled himself: "I started off modifying analogue synths and junk that I bought, and got addicted to making noises. That was the buzz for me. At that point, I'd never really listened to music." As a teenager he was a disc jockey at the Shire Horse Inn in St Ives, with Tom Middleton at the Bowgie Inn in Crantock and along the beaches around Cornwall. James studied at Cornwall College from 1988 to 1990 for a National Diploma in engineering. About his studies, he said "music and electronics went hand in hand". James graduated from college; according to an engineering lecturer he often wore headphones during practical lessons, "no doubt thinking through the mixes he'd be working on later".
1989–1992: Early career
In 1989, James befriended Grant Wilson-Claridge when they were working alternating weeks as a DJ at the Bowgie pub near Newquay. Wilson-Claridge was intrigued by his sets, and when he discovered that James was playing tapes of his own music he suggested that they make records. At first, putting Aphex Twin's recordings on vinyl was a way of making music the duo's friends wanted to hear; because of their geographic isolation they could not access the music they wanted to hear, so they decided to create their own.
James' first release as Aphex Twin, later changed to AFX, was the 1991 12-inch EP Analogue Bubblebath on Mighty Force Records. The track "En Trance to Exit" was recorded with Tom Middleton, also known as Schizophrenia. The EP made the playlist of Kiss FM, an influential London radio station, which helped it become successful.
In 1991, James and Wilson-Claridge founded Rephlex Records to promote "innovation in the dynamics of Acid – a much-loved and misunderstood genre of house music forgotten by some and indeed new to others, especially in Britain". From 1991 to 1993 James released two Analogue Bubblebath EPs (one without a band name on it, one as AFX) and an EP, Bradley's Beat, as Bradley Strider. Although he moved to London to take an electronics course at Kingston Polytechnic, he admitted to David Toop that his electronics studies were being evacuated as he pursued a career in the techno genre.
After leaving the Polytechnic, James remained in London, releasing albums and EPs on Warp Records and other labels under a number of aliases (including AFX, Polygon Window and Power-Pill); several of his tracks, released under aliases including Blue Calx and The Dice Man, appeared on compilations. Although he allegedly lived on the roundabout in Elephant and Castle, South London, during his early years in the city, he actually lived in a nearby unoccupied bank.
1992–1995: Gaining success
The first full-length Aphex Twin album, Selected Ambient Works 85–92, was released in 1992 on R&S Records to critical acclaim; John Bush of Allmusic described it as a "watershed of ambient music". In 2002 Rolling Stone said about the album, "Aphex Twin expanded way beyond the ambient music of Brian Eno by fusing lush soundscapes with oceanic beats and bass lines." Pitchfork called it "among the most interesting music ever created with a keyboard and a computer". However, critics noted that the songs were recorded on cassette and their sound quality was relatively poor.
In 1992 James also released the Digeridoo (first played by DJ Colin Faver) and Xylem Tube EP as Aphex Twin, the Pac-Man EP (based on the arcade game) as Power-Pill, and two of his four Joyrex EPs (Joyrex J4 EP and Joyrex J5 EP) as Caustic Window. "Digeridoo" reached #55 on the UK Singles Chart, and was later described by Rolling Stone as foreshadowing drum and bass. He wrote "Digeridoo" to clear up his audience after a rave. These early releases were on Rephlex Records, Mighty Force of Exeter and R&S Records of Belgium.
In 1993 James released Analogue Bubblebath 3; the "On" EP and its accompanying remix EP; his second Bradley Strider EP, Bradley's Robot; two more Caustic Window EPs and his first releases on Warp Records, Surfing on Sine Waves and "Quoth EP", as Polygon Window. Warp Records released the second Aphex Twin album, Selected Ambient Works Volume II in 1994, which explored a more purely ambient sound than its beat-driven predecessor. The track names were described with pie chart symbols, each of which was meant to be paired with a corresponding image in the album jacket (except "Blue Calx"). To decipher the titles, listeners had to compare the length of each track with the size of the pie-chart symbols; for example, the first title (often called "Cliffs"), is realised by pairing the first symbol with the first image (a rocky cliffside). James said in The Wire magazine and elsewhere that the tracks were inspired by lucid dreams and synesthesia. Other releases were a fourth Analogue Bubblebath; GAK (derived from early demos sent to Warp Records), and Classics, a compilation album with "Digeridoo" EP and the Xylem Tube EP.
For his 1995 release ...I Care Because You Do James used an image of his face for the album cover, a motif which would be repeated on many of his later records. The tracks on this album were composed between 1990 and 1994 in a range of Aphex Twin musical styles. This was James' last record during the 1990s to emphasise analogue synthesizers. He commissioned Western classical-music composer Philip Glass to create an orchestral version of "Icct Hedral" (a song on this album), which appeared on the Donkey Rhubarb EP. Also in 1995, James released his Hangable Auto Bulb EP, which spearheaded the shortlived drill 'n' bass style.
1995–2000: Commercial height
In November 1995 The Wire published an article, "Advice to Clever Children". During the production of the interview a package of tapes with music from several artists (including Aphex Twin) was sent to Karlheinz Stockhausen, who said:
||I heard the piece Aphex Twin of Richard James (sic) carefully: I think it would be very helpful if he listens to my work "Song of the Youth", which is electronic music, and a young boy's voice singing with himself. Because he would then immediately stop with all these post-African repetitions, and he would look for changing tempi and changing rhythms, and he would not allow to repeat any rhythm if it varied to some extent and if it did not have a direction in its sequence of variations.
James, an admirer of Stockhausen, replied, "I thought he should listen to a couple of tracks of mine: "Digeridoo", then he'd stop making abstract, random patterns you can't dance to".
Richard D. James Album, James' fourth studio album as Aphex Twin, was released on Warp Records in 1996. The album includes his personal name (Richard David James) in the title and features use of software synthesizers and unconventional beats. John Bush of AllMusic noted that this was James' first studio album to work with jungle music, noting that the album was "more extreme than virtually all jungle being made at the time" with beats that were layered over the slower melodies that characterized James' earlier ambient works. Pitchfork opined that the album was one of the "aggressive combinations of disparate electronic forms when it was released", with its "almost-brutal contrast between its elements creates a seal that's locked in freshness since way back in 1996." The album garnered high acclaim from music critics, and was named 40th in Pitchfork's "Top 100 Albums of the 1990s" list. It was also placed at number 55 on NME's Top 100 Albums of All Time in 2003.
James garnered attention the following year after the release of his Come to Daddy EP. The EP's title track was conceived as a death metal parody, with James stating: "Come to Daddy came about while I was just hanging around my house, getting pissed and doing this crappy death metal jingle. Then it got marketed and a video was made, and this little idea that I had, which was a joke, turned into something huge. It wasn't right at all." Accompanied with a music video directed by Chris Cunningham, he became disenchanted by its success. It was followed by "Windowlicker", a critically and commercially successful single promoted with a music video also directed by Cunningham, which was nominated for the Brit Award for Best British Video in 2000.
2000–2009: Drukqs and Analord series
Aphex Twin performing in 2007
In 2001 Aphex Twin released Drukqs, an experimental double album featuring computer-controlled piano (influenced by Erik Satie and John Cage) and abrasive, fast, meticulously-programmed songs. Many track names are written in Cornish—for example, "Jynweythek Ylow" ("Machine Music"). Rolling Stone described the piano pieces as "aimlessly pretty". The release polarized reviewers, some believed that Drukqs was released as a contract-breaker with Warp Records, since James' next major release was on his own Rephlex label. The musician told interviewers he accidentally left an MP3 player with a large number of new songs (labelled "Aphex Twin—unreleased tracks") on a plane, and rushed the album's release to preempt an Internet leak. In 2001 James also released a short EP, 2 Remixes By AFX, with remixes of songs by 808 State and DJ Pierre. It also had an untitled third track, consisting of a SSTV image with high-pitched sounds which can be decoded to a viewable image with appropriate software (such as MultiMode for Macintosh or MMSSTV for Windows). In 2002, James was nominated for the Brit Award for Best British Male.
In 2005 James released his 11-part Analord series under his previously used pseudonym of AFX: 11 EPs with a total of 42 tracks (initially averaging two to four tracks per EP). The series was created by playing and sequencing analogue and digital electronic musical equipment such as synthesizers and drum machines (predominantly the Roland 303, 808 and 909 machines) recorded on magnetic tape and then pressed on vinyl. James also utilized his collection of vintage synthesizers and drum machines, some of which were rare by that time. Some record inserts have photos of rare synthesizers like the Synton Fenix, the notoriously difficult-to-program Roland MC-4 sequencer and the Roland TB-303.
James was meticulous about the process of recording, mastering and pressing. He tried a number of pressing plants until he was satisfied with the quality of each EP. James prefers vinyl or tape to digital. However, label co-owner Wilson-Claridge convinced him to release a CD compilation (Chosen Lords) with 10 tracks from the Analord series.
Twenty more tracks were added in December 2009 to the Analord series (available by download from the Rephlex Records website), and each EP now contains up to nine tracks.
Media speculation in 2007 suggested that Aphex Twin was recording under another new alias, The Tuss, attributed to the names "Brian Tregaskin" and "Karen Tregaskin". The Guardian newspaper and others printed rumours of The Tuss being a pseudonym of or a collaboration with Richard D. James. Contesting that, Rephlex's co-founder, Grant Wilson-Claridge, stated in a 2007 e-mail interview that The Tuss is not James, saying, "People seem more interested in speculation and celebrity than content, quality or music. Be careful you don't miss something really great that isn't really famous." However, all The Tuss tracks are published in the BMI repertoire under "James Richard David", and the two The Tuss works use a Yamaha GX1, an exceptionally rare and expensive analog synthesizer that James is known to own.
When Syro was announced in 2014, Bleep.com confirmed that The Tuss was an Aphex Twin alias. In a pre-Syro interview with Dutch magazine OOR, James finally confirmed that he had been busy, in fact, "recording two EPs as The Tuss".
In an October 2010 interview with the British magazine Another Man, James said that he had completed six albums (one of which was a remake of the unreleased Melodies from Mars, originally produced around the time of Richard D. James Album).
In June 2011, James spoke to the Spanish newspaper El País. When asked about the six albums, James answered: "More than 10 or 11 are already compiled, and many more songs are orphans". He also said that a new album "[would] show in a while" and the reason for the delay since his last album was that he was divorcing his wife, though some fans assumed the latter comment to be a joke. In September 2011, James appeared as Aphex Twin in a live tribute to avant-garde Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Alongside Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, James performed his remix of Penderecki's "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima", as well as a version of "Polymorphia", at the tribute concert that was held in Poland. The following month, an Aphex Twin set was part of the lineup at the Pitchfork Music Festival Paris event.
In October 2012, James brought his remote orchestra act to London for one 3-act performance including the "Interactive Tuned Feedback Pendulum Array", which paid tribute and expanded upon Steve Reich's "Pendulum Music".
Street art promoting the Syro
album in New York City.
On 16 June 2014, the 1994 Caustic Window LP (originally a test pressing, of which at least five copies were made and given to µ-ziq, Cylob and Rephlex co-founder Grant Wilson-Claridge) was released as a digital download to backers of a Kickstarter campaign to buy a copy of the vinyl record from an anonymous seller on Discogs. The purchase of the vinyl and the subsequent vinyl rip was organized by We Are the Music Makers, an online electronic music forum. The crowdfunding was approved by Rephlex Records and James, with each contributor receiving the right to keep their digital copy of the album. When the campaign finished, the LP was placed for auction on eBay and purchased by , designer of the video game Minecraft.
On 16 August 2014, a green blimp with the Aphex Twin logo and "2014" written on its side was identified flying over London, UK. The sighting of the blimp was reported in both the NME and Pitchfork music publications. Soon after, a photo on appeared showing the Aphex Twin logo sprayed on the footpath outside of Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Two days later, the Aphex Twin Twitter account posted a link to a hidden service using deep web browser Tor, providing the title and tracklist of a then-upcoming album release called Syro, which was the first Aphex Twin studio album since Drukqs in 2001.
An official press release was shared by the Pitchfork online music publication on 21 August 2014, providing readers with both the album cover artwork and further album details. Syro was released on the Warp label on 23 September 2014 and the cover artwork, which reads like a tax receipt, is by the Designers Republic brand. A limited-edition box set version of the album was released through the Bleep label, limited to 200 copies. Interested buyers were required to enter a lottery to become eligible.
On 23 January 2015, James released Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments pt2 EP.
2014–2015: SoundCloud tracks
In a November 2014 interview about Syro, James revealed another set of 21 tracks, labeled Modular Trax, that were made available on SoundCloud – both the interview and the tracks were later removed.
Between January and November 2015, an anonymous user posted 268 tracks on SoundCloud (later removing the tracks "4 Red Calx" and "5 Girl Boy Dark Version"), under the names "user487363530", "user4873635301", "user48736353001", and finally "user18081971". Philip Sherburne stated on Pitchfork:
||... the hallmarks of the production recall specific moments in James' catalogue ... you can hear the same machines, the same processes, and above all, the same ideas—if this isn't James, then it's a musician who's every bit his peer, and what are the chances of one of those going undiscovered for all these years?
Mike Paradinas (aka μ-Ziq) who worked with James on the 1996 Expert Knob Twiddlers album, confirmed the authenticity of several of the tracks. That same day, the official Aphex Twin Twitter account tweeted a link to the SoundCloud page for the user named "user48736353001". In a piece for the Guardian, Stuart Aitken argued that Aphex Twin's experiments with SoundCloud and other digital media should encourage musicians to similarly explore the creative opportunities of the internet.
On 27 February 2015, James created the "saw 1.5" playlist on SoundCloud, comprising 11 tracks from the hundred or so posted over the months, presumably tracks that did not make it onto Selected Ambient Works 85–92. He commented that "there are more, inc. versions of the tracks that were released on SAW 1, those will come out on a re-release one day hopefully, so saving those for that." In May, James compiled 36 of the posted tracks as the playlist "Surfing on Sine Waves 2", with the statement "Would love to release this on Warp, all mastered properly, maybe a double album."
On 6 May 2015 James' secondary SoundCloud account, along with the 200+ tracks shared, were deleted without any explanation. Two days later the account was resurrected with all 200+ tracks and comments intact under the name "user18081971". The new username refers to Richard's birthday, which is 18 August 1971.
On 1 July 2015, Richard uploaded a new track to the official Aphex Twin SoundCloud account, announcing a new EP, titled Orphaned Deejay Selek 2006-2008, returning to his AFX moniker for the first time since the Analord series. Almost all of the SoundCloud tracks on the user18081971 account have since been removed.
On 5 June 2016, Aphex Twin released a poster teasing his upcoming EP Cheetah. The EP contained some of the tracks Richard uploaded to SoundCloud. The EP was released on 8 July. A music video was released for "CIRKLON3 [Колхозная mix]", directed by Ryan Wyer, a then-12 year old Aphex Twin fan from Rush, County Dublin. Wyer had been uploading videos about his interest in Aphex Twin for some time, which caught the attention of James and Warp, who asked him to create an official video. It was the first official music video for an Aphex Twin track to have been made in 17 years.
On 17 December 2016, James performed in Houston, Texas at the Day for Night festival, his first American appearance in 8 years. An untitled 12-inch vinyl was sold exclusively at the festival, containing two 10-minute tracks, which appear to be alternative versions of the same material.
On 3 June 2017, James performed at the Field Day festival and released the limited edition EP London 03.06.17. James' performance was livestreamed by NTS Radio and uploaded to YouTube. The next day, following his performance at the Forbidden Fruit Festival in Kilmainham, County Dublin, Ryan Wyer was brought out onstage with his parents to greet the audience. Wyer uploaded a vlog of his experience backstage during James' performance.
On 19 June 2017, a Ypsilanti record store called Technical Equipment Supply (TECH.EQPT.SPLY) released an in-store only Aphex record that featured two tracks from the SoundCloud dump.
On 5 June 2017, an unexplained timer appeared on his website. On 20 June 2017, this was revealed to have been a countdown to a new online store. The store includes about half of his albums, each with unreleased bonus tracks, some of which were previously released on SoundCloud. The store also includes an official, expanded version of the album released during his Field Day performance, plus an album accompanying his interview with ex-Korg engineer Tatsuya Takahashi.
With the new store open, James has stated that his current project is a compilation of ambient tracks from his early period to be released as "Selected Ambient Works 1.5" (which will be somewhat similar to the playlist of the same name he released in 2015). The compilation is planned to be released digitally as well as on vinyl.
On 28 July 2018, the Aphex Twin logo was found posted on the walls of the Elephant and Castle station in south London, on a wall in central Turin in Italy, and on the side of Amoeba Music on Sunset Boulevard. These sudden appearances of the logo prompted rumors of a possible new album release. On 7 August 2018 it was confirmed that a new EP, titled Collapse, will be released on 14 September 2018. The name of the EP was first announced on August 5 in a garbled press release written in broken English and visually distorted with the same Aphex Twin 3D graphic found in London, Turin and Hollywood.
A promotional video for the Collapse EP was going to be broadcast on Adult Swim, but it was cancelled after failing the Harding test. It was made available online instead and the official music video for the song "T69 Collapse" was uploaded to YouTube.