James performing in Turin in March 2007
|Birth name||Richard David James|
18 August 1971 |
|Origin||Lanner, Cornwall, United Kingdom|
|Occupation(s)||Musician, composer, remixer, DJ|
|Instruments||Synthesizer, piano, softsynth, turntables, drum machine, sequencer, sampler, laptop|
|Associated acts||Universal Indicator, Mike & Rich, Squarepusher|
Richard David James (born 18 August 1971), known by his stage name Aphex Twin, is an Irish-born British electronic musician and composer. He is known for his influential and idiosyncratic work in electronic music styles such as IDM and acid techno in the 1990s, for which he won widespread critical acclaim. He is also the co-founder of Rephlex Records with Grant Wilson-Claridge.
Initially releasing acid and techno music as AFX and other aliases, James first received widespread acclaim for his 1992 album Selected Ambient Works 85-92 and his subsequent 1994 release Selected Ambient Works Volume II. He rose to mainstream popularity with his 1997 EP Come to Daddy and his 1999 single "Windowlicker". After a period of relative inactivity following the release of his 2001 album Drukqs to mixed reviews, James returned in 2014 with a new album titled Syro, which won him a Grammy Award for Best Dance/Electronic Album.
- 1 History
- 1.1 Early years
- 1.2 Early 1990s: Early career
- 1.3 1992–1995: Gaining success
- 1.4 1995–2000: Commercial height
- 1.5 2000–2003: Prepared piano and digital technology
- 1.6 2004–2009: Synthesizers and drum machines
- 1.7 2010–2013: Live performance and remote orchestras
- 1.8 2014–present: Syro
- 2 Musical style
- 3 Use of James' face
- 4 Pseudonyms
- 5 Influence and legacy
- 6 Personal life
- 7 Equipment
- 8 Partial discography
- 9 References
- 10 External links
James was born in Limerick, Ireland, and grew up in Lanner, Cornwall, UK, 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. 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. 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".
Early 1990s: Early career
In 1989, James befriended Grant Wilson-Claridge when they were working alternate 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
Sample of "Ventolin (Video Version)" from the 1995 album ...I Care Because You Do
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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 Media 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 Xylem Tube EP and Digeridoo (first played by DJ Colin Faver on London's Kiss FM) 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 Selected Ambient Works Volume II in 1994, with a less beat- and melody-driven sound than the previous album. 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 synaesthesia. 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.
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 his more 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 Media's "Top 100 Albums of the 1990s" list. It was also placed #55 on NME's Top 100 Albums of All Time in 2003.[not in citation given]
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.
2000–2003: Prepared piano and digital technology
Sample of "Vordhosbn" from Drukqs
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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" ("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.
2004–2009: Synthesizers and drum machines
Sample of "VBS.Redlof. B" from Analord
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In late 2004 James released his 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"
2010–2013: Live performance and remote orchestras
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".
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 Markus Persson, 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 Twitter 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.
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 (and counting) 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 his official Soundcloud account (the Aphex Twin one, not the user18081971 one) 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 will contain some of the tracks Richard uploaded to Soundcloud.
In a September 1997 interview with Space Age Bachelor magazine, James said he composed ambient techno music at age 13, had "over 100 hours" of unreleased music and had invented music-composition software consisting of algorithmic processes which automatically generated rhythm and melody. In the interview, he also claimed to have experienced synesthesia and could incorporate lucid dreaming into his compositions.
James' Rephlex Records, which he co-owned with Grant Wilson-Claridge, coined the word "braindance" in 1991 to describe Aphex Twin's music. According to the label: "Braindance is the genre that encompasses the best elements of all genres, e.g. traditional, classical, electronic music, popular, modern, industrial, ambient, hip-hop, electro, house, techno, breakbeat, hardcore, ragga, garage, drum and bass, etc." In a review of Astrobotnia's Parts 1, 2 & 3 Rephlex release, a Pitchfork Media writer said in 2002:
Breakbeats liberated producers from the impositions of relentless four-to-the-floor stomping, and "braindance" escaped the mind/body binary opposition of electronic music--here was a rhythmically hyper, complex genre that retained its club roots by appending fantastically supple limbs to the listener's fervid imagination.
In 2001, The Guardian described James' musical lineage as Stockhausen, John Cage, Kraftwerk, Brian Eno and Derrick May. Acknowledging another influence, James released Music from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop: a compilation of music recorded by the pioneers of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (including Delia Derbyshire) on Rephlex. Although he has said "I don't really like rock & roll" he appreciates Led Zeppelin (as a source of "great breakbeats") and Pink Floyd (for their psychedelic music).
Intelligent dance music (IDM) is mentioned on the home page of the Intelligent Dance Music (IDM) mailing list (created in August 1993) about the music of Aphex Twin and the Artificial Intelligence Series released by Warp Records. The series features James' recordings as Polygon Window and early productions from artists including Autechre, Black Dog, Richie Hawtin's FUSE project and Speedy J. The term spread to the United States and internet message boards. James responded to the IDM term in a 1997 interview:
I just think it's really funny to have terms like that. It's basically saying, "this is intelligent and everything else is stupid." It's really nasty to everyone else's music. (laughs) It makes me laugh, things like that. I don't use names. I just say that I like something or I don't.— Aphex Twin
In an essay for the UK magazine The Wire published in February 2013 (15 years after James' comment in the 1997 PerfectSoundForever interview), Joe Muggs reflected on the Artificial Intelligence Series in relation to the IDM label:
So, although genre speciation was accelerating even as these albums were being made, and even though they have been seen as representing a separation of non-dancefloor Electronica as a gentrified genre in its own right, the Artificial Intelligence series could equally be seen as an extended attempt to hold on to the rave explosion's all-inclusiveness in opposition to its fragmentation. This stands in direct opposition to the philosophy of Intelligent Dance Music (IDM) which followed, and which tended to consider itself above mere dancefloor music. Post-1994, the idea of ‘listening Techno’ would become lost as IDM, Triphop, chill out and mellower strains of drum ‘n’ bass occupied its place in the ecosystem, while the Artificial Intelligence diaspora would follow wildly different routes ...
Use of James' face
James' face, grinning or distorted, is a theme of his album covers, music videos and songs. According to him, it began as a response to techno producers who concealed their identities:
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. That’s why I originally did it. But then I got carried away.— Aphex Twin
The cover of ...I Care Because You Do features a painting of James, and that of Richard D. James Album has a close-up photograph. His face is superimposed on the bodies of other people in the music videos for "Come to Daddy" and "Windowlicker". Near the end of the second track of the "Windowlicker" single (known as "Equation"), a photo of James' face is a steganogram which is revealed as a spectrogram. Another image of James and collaborator Tom Jenkinson is embedded (in SSTV format) with text in the third track of 2 Remixes by AFX, "Bonus High Frequency Sounds". He has used his own photography for some releases, including the album sleeve for Selected Ambient Works Volume II.
James has recorded as AFX, Blue Calx, Bradley Strider, The Universal Indicator, Brian Tregaskin, Caustic Window, The, Smojphace, GAK, Karen Tregaskin, Patrick Tregaskin, Martin Tressider, PBoD (Phonic Boy on Dope), Polygon Window, Power-Pill, Q-Chastic, Dice Man, The Tuss, and Soit-P.P. In a 1997 interview, James commented on the difference between works released under different names, saying "There's really no big theory. It's just things that I feel right in doing at the time and I really don't know why. I select songs for certain things and I just do it. I don't know what it means".
In a 2001 interview, Richard D. James has commented on the ambiguous nature of his own releases and the speculation that surrounds many anonymous artists working in electronica: "a lot of people think everything electronic is mine. I get credited for so many things, it's incredible. I'm practically everyone, I reckon—everyone and nobody".
Influence and legacy
In 2005 Alarm Will Sound released Acoustica: Alarm Will Sound Performs Aphex Twin, acoustic arrangements of James' electronic tracks. Although he has influenced Radiohead, he does not wish to tour with them: "I wouldn't play with them since I don't like them."
In 2007 Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk cited Aphex Twin (particularly "Windowlicker") as an influence for the duo's 2nd album Discovery. Bangalter said he liked it because "It wasn't a big club beat, but it also wasn't a laid back, quiet one.". Former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante said that Aphex Twin is "the best thing since sliced bread", and his Outsides EP and PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone are examples of James' influence.
James premièred new music with Radiohead guitarist-composer Jonny Greenwood in a 2011 collaboration with Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Animator David Firth has much of his work soundtracked by Aphex Twin.
In 2013, Thom Yorke of Radiohead named Aphex Twin as his biggest influence, saying: "He burns a heavy shadow ... Aphex opened up another world that didn't involve my fucking electric guitar ... I hated all the music that was around Radiohead at the time, it was completely fucking meaningless. I hated the Britpop thing and what was happening in America, but Aphex was totally beautiful, and he's kind of my age too."
In June 2014, Answer Code Request (Patrick Gräser) called James "one producer who always inspires" him in the "Influences" section of the Ransom Note website. Gräser used the Aphex Twin song "Analogue Bubblebath 1" to exemplify James' influence: "I guess being obsessed with your own music is what makes him that brilliant."
James described himself in a Guardian interview: "I'm just some irritating, lying, ginger kid from Cornwall who should have been locked up in some youth detention centre. I just managed to escape and blag it into music."
In a 2010 interview with the FACT publication, James revealed that he was living in Scotland at the time after relocating from London—according to FACT, he "extolled the virtues" of his new residential location. As of 2014, he lives in Scotland with his two sons—from his first marriage—and his second wife, a Russian art student.
- Studio albums as Aphex Twin
- Selected Ambient Works 85–92 (1992)
- Selected Ambient Works Volume II (1994)
- ...I Care Because You Do (1995)
- Richard D. James Album (1996)
- Drukqs (2001)
- Syro (2014)
- Studio albums as Polygon Window
- Surfing on Sine Waves (1993)
- Studio albums as Caustic Window
- Caustic Window (2014)
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MTV: Were there any specific events or records that affected the shift in styles between albums? Bangalter: The only one that I can really see is "Windowlicker" [the 1999 single] by Aphex Twin. We asked ourselves what would be the meaning of the music we were doing: Could electronic music, outside of a club, be the soundtrack of our lives? "Windowlicker" was a real shock for us because it was neither a purely club track at one extreme of the electronic-music spectrum, nor just a very chilled-out downtempo relaxation track at the other end. Right now the two categories in electronic music are this downtempo music and DJ/club music, and we found that there is a middle that could have a very strong emotional dimension and that was instantly accessible to our ears and very experimental at the same time.
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