Who Is Richard D. James?
The 57th Annual Grammy Awards. Disco legend Gloria Gaynor is onstage presenting the award for the best dance/electronic album of 2014. She opens the envelope. ‘This Grammy goes to Seero! Efecks Twin.’ A strange, almost other-wordly sound bite of barely audible voices plays over the muted cheers of the audience. There’s a few moments of awkward silence, broken by Gaynor announcing ‘The winners are not here, again. I thought I saw them coming…’
If this isn’t a perfect way to sum up Richard D. James I’m not sure what is. Not only does Gaynor mispronounce Richard’s most famous moniker, ‘Aphex Twin’, as well as his album, ‘Syro’, she also refers to him as ‘them’- but her clearly limited knowledge on James is not her fault. It’s not that RDJ is by any means an ‘underground’ artist, he definitely has received his fair share of praise and recognition throughout the years, and is constantly cited as an inspiration to many of the world’s best. It’s just that he has never made an effort to come across as ‘accessible’- quite the opposite. Throughout his career, he has carved out a dark and unconventional corner for himself in the music world that not everyone is willing to venture into and one that not everyone is entirely aware of.
More than anything, Richard D. James likes to break conventions. If a musician would normally do one thing in a certain situation, Richard calls them a wanker and does the opposite. A prime example of this is his representation at the 57th Grammy’s (or lack thereof). Choosing to not turn up to an awards show is a classic Aphex move. RDJ is not one to buy into the glitz and glamour of a multi-million dollar event, let alone to accept an award in front of hundreds of famous musicians, many of whom he seems to have little respect for (he once referred to Radiohead as ‘really obvious and cheesy’). The choice of song to be played in the event of Richard winning was (if by his choice or not) another succinct example of his persona. When Daft Punk won the previous year for the same category, their chart-topping ‘Get Lucky’, was played as they arose from their seats and got up on stage. Smart choice. A universally-loved single from the very album that won them the award they were about to receive. Makes sense right? Not Aphex. Instead of ‘Syro’s’ lead single ‘minipops 67 [120.2]’ or perhaps ‘XMAS_EVET10’, another well-loved track on the album, or even one of his famous, more accessible classics like ‘Windowlicker’, ‘Shit Smothered’ was chosen. Shit. Smothered. A 2 minute long track consisting entirely of distorted voices having a conversation. Richard really likes taking the piss.
And it’s not just the larger, more mainstream music industry folk that he likes messing with either. He’s very intentionally different from most other electronic music producers from his era. Pre 1995, Richard began receiving recognition through EPs such as ‘Analogue Bubblebath’ and ‘Digeridoo’. His highly acclaimed ‘Selected Ambient Works 85–92’, released in 1992 slammed him onto the electronic music map as a real-deal producer. But he wasn’t too unlike other producers of that time, perhaps sonically, but as far as his persona went, there was not yet much diversion. It wasn’t until the 1995 release of his album ‘…I Care Because You Do’, that Aphex really set himself apart from his peers as the eccentric musician we know him as today.
While his other releases were fairly standard in terms of cover art- there was the colourful design of ‘Digeridoo’, and the simplicity of ‘Selected Ambient Works 85–92’, ‘…I Care Because You Do’ had Richard D. James’ own face, grinning maniacally and facing directly forwards, staring into the soul of whomever may be clutching the LP. In James’ own words: ‘I did it because the thing in techno you weren’t supposed to do was to be recognized and stuff. The sort of unwritten rule was that you can’t put your face on the sleeve. It has to be like a circuit board or something. Therefore I put my face on the sleeve’.
This exaggerated representation of his persona began as a joke, but as Richard puts it: ‘I got carried away.’ Since ‘…I Care Because You Do’, James’ face is everywhere. On the cover of the ‘Richard D. James Album’, as a mask on scantily clad women in the ‘Windowlicker’ music video, and on children in the frightening ‘Come To Daddy’ clip. He even managed to hide his face in a song.
Richard D. James never strived to be like anyone else, and he has well and truly embraced his own weirdness. Whether it’s owning a tank, living in a bank vault or not accepting awards at prestigious events, he has truly set himself apart from any other musician out there. Not just with his music, but as a human being.