“One of the best ways to become an object of obsession is to have some sense of mystery.”
This quote from English musician and author David Toop perfectly surmises the fundamental theme of BBC Radio 4’s “The Cult of Aphex Twin,” a radio documentary that takes a brief but in-depth look into the life, legacy and mythos of one of the music industry’s most enigmatic icons.
Whether you know him through direct fandom or simply by word of mouth, few modern-day artists carry as much ambiguity and intrigue as Richard David James, best known as Aphex Twin. Since breaking onto the scene in the early ’90s, the Irish-born musician has built a legacy composed of bizarre lies interlaced with even more outrageous truths, a fascinating combination that continues to intrigue listeners.
My introduction into the curious world of Aphex Twin began in middle school, when I accidentally stumbled across the nightmare-inducing “Rubber Johnny” music video on YouTube, a collaboration between the musician and Chris Cunningham. Though nearly a decade would pass before I would return to James’ morbid imagination, the impact of this brief encounter imparted a feeling I could never quite shake, and he actively strives to achieve this effect through his music.
“You’ve heard it all before,” James stated in an interview with Pitchfork. “But when [music] is something different, it actually will change you. That’s what I’m interested in. That’s the whole point.”
Admittedly, the music released under the Aphex Twin moniker is distinctive and, despite imitators attempting to replicate, warp and mask the formula over the years, the artist’s constantly evolving sound is unmatchable. The moment an opening melody or inciting rhythm of an Aphex Twin song hits your ear, the track transports you to a different space.
Although the majority of James’ work is entirely instrumental, a noticeably emotional current flows throughout the artist’s catalogue despite the lack of vocals, and while his discography serves as textbook dancefloor material, the music also possesses deeply personal underpinnings. This fact is best observed on the “Richard D. James Album,” a frenetically beautiful project named after James’ deceased brother.
In a rare moment of transparency, the musician spoke on his decision to dedicate the album to his brother during an interview with MTV in 1996. “I’ve always felt guilty because my mum named me after him after he died — she didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that he died. I always felt guilty that I [took] his identity.”
Further along in the “Cult of Aphex Twin” documentary, David Toop, who interviewed James early in his career, expounds on this connection between the listener and the artist. “It becomes difficult to distinguish the way you’re perceiving the music to the way you think about [James] as a person.
“And if there’s mystery there, it really, really appeals to a certain kind of fan. They begin to think that someone is speaking to them exclusively. It’s a very powerful thing.” At the risk of sounding snobbish, James’ music feels tangible, almost as if the musician speaks directly to the audience, communicating his emotions through the compositions.
Without incorporating any overt meaning through the exclusion of lyrics, the music allows the listener to derive their own interpretations. Personally, I find my understanding of particular songs to be entirely dependent on my mood, which serves as an incentive for repeated listens.
But who is Richard D. James? While you can easily find several recent interviews from the promotional run for his most recent album, “Syro,” the discussions revolve around the music or the equipment and software James uses to craft it — not about the man himself. The articles shine an informative light on the process behind the product, but the musician’s personal life remains on the fringes of the discussion, just barely out of reach for inquisitive fans.
Nevertheless, through his reputation as the mischievous, secretive genius, James’ stances on fame and recognition blatantly oppose the popular conception of notoriety, especially in the modern music industry. Seemingly every move a musician makes is either carefully calculated or willfully rebellious, though both are founded in the desire of retaining the spotlight.
For all intents and purposes, it seems James could not care less what the general public — or even his fans, to a certain degree — thinks about him. Consequently, Paul Nicholson, the designer behind the Aphex Twin logo, echoed this sentiment in the radio documentary when questioned about James’ attitude toward recognition and his continual hesitance to be interviewed.
“I don’t think he likes the whole process of trying to justify what he does,” Nicholson said. “I think the way that Richard’s managed his self-image is fantastic. It has people just absolutely obsessed.”
Despite my hesitance to declare myself as obsessed, I readily admit that the vague nature behind James’ persona plays a significant role in my fascination with his music. When combined with its already otherworldly, downright alien acoustic, the work of Aphex Twin stands out as some of the most atypical music I’ve ever heard, and yet the unassuming emotion interlaid throughout allows it to truly resonate with me in a fashion that few others accomplish.
The world will more than likely never know what goes on in James’ mind. Fans will undoubtedly never uncover why the musician bought a fully functional armored car, whether he actually owns a submarine or if he really composes tracks while in the midst of lucid dreams.
However, the greatest thing about Aphex Twin rests in that fact. By allowing himself to remain mired in so much mystery, Richard D. James will live on forever through his music alone, and I can’t help but think that this may have been his intention all along.