The impact of ‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92’ can’t be overstated. In the three decades since its initial release, it has minted the myth of Aphex Twin and redefined ambient, electronic and dance music. Richard D James, take a bow

Famously, Aphex Twin doesn’t really do interviews, but that hasn’t always been the case. In October 1996, I had an encounter with electronic music’s singularly talented but most elusive artist, when Richard D James was contemplating changing the course of electronic music history again.

At the time, Warp Records were about to release his eponymous new album, and there was growing momentum behind his transformation from ambient bedroom tinkerer to demonic Aphex Twin deep fake, a techno horror-show figure as likely to be seen leering from a TV screen as within the pages of a serious music magazine.

“I think my stuff will cross over – but not because I want it to,” James told me back then. “I like doing avant-garde music, but my favourite material is when I make it as complicated and as easy to listen to as possible. That brings mystery into it. When it’s just avant-garde, it’s purely mathematical and thought through.”

Many people have played a role in what has become an apocryphal tale – one befitting contemporary Cornish folklore – which was conceived at his family home in the village of Lanner at England’s southwestern tip, when James (now 51) was barely a teenager.

In many respects, though, the story of his impact on mainstream culture begins with his debut album, ‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92’. Currently celebrating its 30th anniversary, and cited by Warp as “the birthplace and benchmark of electronic music”, it stands as a singular testament to his prodigious talent.

The first official Aphex Twin record was ‘Analogue Bubblebath’, an EP issued by Mighty Force in September 1991. Its four tracks were culled from one of the many tapes distributed by James to the friends who saw him DJ as part of a burgeoning electronic music scene centred around Newquay’s Bowgie Inn, The Shire Horse pub in St Ives and outdoor raves along the Cornish coastline.

Mighty Force label owner Mark Darby, who had opened a record shop of the same name six months earlier in Exeter, explains how he came across James’ earliest recordings. A cassette containing 21 tracks (since lost in a house flood) was handed to him by a customer – a certain Tom Middleton, who went on to find fame as one half of Global Communication.

“Tom was at Taunton Art College,” says Darby. “He brought in a tape and said, ‘Play this’. I’d never heard anything like it. It was completely different to everything else. Tom suggested we make an EP but I didn’t know how to run a record label – I’d never really thought about it.”

Darby recalls being charged with choosing the running order for the label’s first release, which included the Middleton co-production, ‘En Trance To Exit’. Not that they had an agreement with the actual musician whose name was on the cover.

“What I didn’t realise was that Richard didn’t want to make a record at all,” he says. “It took quite a lot of persuading to get him to sign something saying that we could release his music. To this day, he’s still the only person I’ve ever had any kind of written contract with.”

A deal was eventually reached, in typically outlandish circumstances.

“Richard was playing at the Alpha rave in Plymouth,” continues Darby. “I spoke to him backstage. He was tripping, although I didn’t find that out until later. I said, ‘We really need to release this – it’s too good not to. Sign this bit of paper and it’ll be out in a few weeks’. I think he did it just to get rid of me because of the state he was in!”

The initial 500 pressings of ‘Analogue Bubblebath’ served notice of what was to come. Mighty Force’s limited distribution, which saw boxes hand-delivered to shops in Cornwall and beyond, was picked up by figures such as Kiss FM’s Colin Dale, tastemakers like Andrew Weatherall and publications including DJ and Mixmag.

This is also where the myth-making began. Darby says that Mighty Force’s original press campaign included claims that the demo “had arrived in a Cornish pasty”, and that Richard D James “DJed in tin mines”.

James was subsequently picked up by Colin Favor and Gordon Matthewman’s Rabbit City label, who issued ‘Analog Bubblebath Vol 2’ – featuring the ‘Aboriginal Mix’ track (later released as ‘Digeridoo’) – at the end of 1991. Then in November the following year, Belgian electronic music titans R&S Records signed James to a deal that would eventually lead to ‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92’.

By now, James was studying electronics at Kingston Polytechnic in southwest London, which is where fellow students Mike Paradinas – aka μ-Ziq and founder/owner of the Planet Mu label – and Paul Nicholson – the graphic designer responsible for the iconic Aphex logo – enter the story.

It started when Nicholson met a girl from Perranwell in Cornwall, who had frequented the Bowgie Inn and knew James. She introduced the pair and a friendship developed.

“I was with Richard in the student halls of residence when he got a call from Renaat Vandepapeliere from R&S asking him to sign,” remembers Nicholson. “At the time, it was the label, and obviously he was foaming at the mouth.”

A full-length release was planned, requiring a visual ident for a musician who already seemed to be operating on a higher plane.

“A friend from the year above me, Charles Uzzell-Edwards – graffiti artist Pure Evil – was into skate fashion and had moved out to San Francisco to work with the clothing brand Anarchic Adjustment after finishing his degree,” continues Nicholson.

“He said they were working on new graphics and that everything in California was about UFOs, aliens, Area 51, probes and crop circles. I’ve always loved science fiction – authors such as William Gibson and films like ‘Alien’ – and I’d been working on a few things that seemed to fit what the label wanted.

“Richard saw my sketches and picked up on the soft-form, amorphic, curvaceous look. When ‘Analogue Bubblebath’ came out, he was using phrases like ‘squidgy acid’. He wanted something that looked futuristic but wasn’t all masculine straight edges and sharp corners – the opposite of the traditional industrial look of techno.”

Meanwhile, Paradinas was studying architecture and living in the same halls of residence as James. Friends told him about “this guy making strange electronic music, a bit like mine – you’d hear weird industrial noise when you walked past his window”. After sending James a demo tape, Paradinas eventually met up with him at London’s legendary Knowledge club and the pair went on to collaborate in 1996 on ‘Expert Knob Twiddlers’, as Mike & Rich.

Like Nicholson, Paradinas had already heard Aphex Twin’s music on the then-pirate-radio station, Kiss FM. He says both ‘Analogue Bubblebath’ albums had “wowed me with their unique UK take on techno”. By the time ‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92’ landed, Paradinas considered himself an Aphex Twin “fanatic”.

Of course, it’s important not to overlook the prolific and dynamic range of Richard D James records that appeared under a variety of guises during this period, some of which Paradinas had been introduced to when visiting Middleton and his Global Communication cohort Mark Pritchard, who were planning to release the first μ-Ziq 12-inch on their Exeter-based label, Evolution.

“Tom had played me some of his Aphex Twin cassettes with all the unreleased material, including tracks which came out on ‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92’,” says Paradinas. “This was what my friends and I had been waiting for from Aphex. Not just an ambient album, it was both pastoral UK techno that pushed boundaries and a pop record.

“‘Xtal’, which I’d first heard on Tom’s tape in a different, more drum-machine version, was one of the highlights – a heavenly melody smothered in reverb and tape compression, which gave it an otherworldly quality. The whole album was otherworldly. ‘Tha’ and ‘Hedphelym’ used the handmade sounds we knew from the 12-inch records but in a different context. It all joined up and made sense as a new sound world.”

Paradinas describes ‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92’ as a “cultural moment”, and the album’s various influences clearly made a big impression on him.

“A bit of Joey Beltram in the basslines, Neutron 9000 in the synths, and the choir stabs in ‘Ptolemy’ sounded like ‘Illusion’ by R-Tyme,” he says. “But he made everything his own. I think my favourite was ‘Green Calx’, which combined the ghostly melodies and acid from his Caustic Window EPs with a soaring ambience. The whole record showed that whatever we had thought about Aphex Twin from his previous work was right, but I think his ambitions were wider than techno.”

In terms of sound design, this was James taking the notion of ambient and the possibilities of techno way beyond Earth’s atmosphere – from ‘Music For Airports’ to ‘Music For Space Stations’, if you will.

“I really like it,” reflected James, four years after the album came out. “It’s nostalgic for me, more so than any of the others, because it was based on a tape that was going around when we were having loads of parties in Cornwall. That’s why it means more to me.”

The Aphex Twin logo first appeared on the ‘Xylem Tube’ EP in June 1992. This saw Nicholson’s vision expand beyond a basic initial (which James apparently likened to a sigil – a symbol derived from neolithic magic and occultism) into a full Xylem typeface. His design work is now internationally identifiable, but his memories seem somewhat tainted by the breakdown of his relationship with James after the pair collaborated on the spectacularly complex sleeve art for the second Aphex album, ‘Selected Ambient Works Volume II’.

“It’s kind of strange and a double-edged sword – I don’t mind telling people that I haven’t made a penny off the logo,” admits Nicholson, who signed an agreement transferring ownership of the brand identity to James when they were sharing a house in Hackney, east London. However, he considers their collaboration a “privilege”. It even included a spell as Aphex Twin’s dancer, commencing with his debut show at the legendary Berlin venue, Tresor.

The cult of Aphex has grown so many heads that it might be considered a visitation from the video for 1997’s ‘Come To Daddy’. It’s this film and the follow-up, 1999’s ‘Windowlicker’ – both directed by Chris Cunningham – that truly embossed Aphex’s mischievous, devilish presence on the imagination of popular culture. While the more insidious, fantastical and surreal storytelling started to emerge in the promo around ‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92’, James’ purported ability to make music while sleeping came a little later, shortly before the release of ’Selected Ambient Works Volume II’.

“Just before I started work on this album, I tried experimenting with the idea of dreaming about recording tracks,” he announced in a Melody Maker interview with Push in January 1994. “As the album progressed, I found that I was able to train myself to do it pretty much whenever I wanted to. Lucid dreaming is not really uncommon, but most people are only able to control the visual element. With a bit of practice, it’s relatively easy to dream about meeting a certain person or having a shag, but it’s more difficult to dream about sounds. Dreaming about tastes and smells is also great fun. I’ve even tried inventing new foods and dreaming about what they taste like.”

“I still lucid dream all the time, but I don’t really do tracks like that consciously anymore,” he told me in 1996.

“I can do whatever I like when I’m asleep if I’ve got good control over the dream – it’s like another existence. I reckon most people can learn how to do it. I taught myself by accident, and I didn’t even know I was doing it or that it was lucid dreaming until I got into the music business and people told me.”

Author and music critic David Toop, who first interviewed James in 1992, explores this in his 1995 book, ‘Ocean Of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound And Imaginary Worlds’, describing his subject as “either a serious person who has never been taken seriously or a practical joker who has been taken too seriously for too long”.

Toop also contributed to John Doran’s acclaimed 2018 Aphex Twin BBC Radio 4 documentary, his interviews framing a young man so utterly captivated by the arrival of a woodworm-infested piano at the family home that he reimagined the instrument’s function, turning the keys to the wall and playing the strings.

James’ childhood hobbies were “vandalising things, getting into stone fights, riding my bike, catapults, air guns, arcades”. So did he have any aspirations?

“I remember wanting to be a lawyer when I was about three because I thought that’s what miners were called, and that’s what my dad did,” he said. “After that, I remember not wanting to be anything. That was my ambition. I don’t like doing anything for anyone else. I never have. As I got older, I realised that music would probably be the way to do it.”

Selected Ambient Works 85-92’ is routinely described as having changed the course of electronic music history. But, arguably, Richard D James’ greatest achievement was bringing the most disturbing version of his work – aesthetically, at least – into mainstream environments. It was certainly a crossover he’d given some thought to.

“I don’t plan to do it,” he said. “I’d think for about 10 minutes and then do it. I’d know how to market it, and it would work.”

In 1999, ‘Windowlicker’ became Aphex Twin’s biggest single to date, charting at Number 16 in the UK, with Chris Cunningham’s arresting 10-minute video becoming a worldwide hit and earning a nomination for Best British Video at the BRIT Awards 2000.

A major influence on a whole slew of artists from Daft Punk and Deadmau5 to Skrillex, James is cited by Thom Yorke as being responsible for Radiohead’s transition to electronica on 2000’s ‘Kid’ album. But for electronic composer, producer and musician Gazelle Twin, it was this manipulation of identity that really struck her as a teenager and would one day inform her own artistic strategy.

“I’d never seen anything like that dark comedy body-horror of ‘Windowlicker’ on ‘Top Of The Pops’ before,” she recalls. “It was frightening and it really made an impression – the humour and those elements of the grotesque were captivating but scary.”

Paul Nicholson, meanwhile, describes James’ painstaking compositional technique as “haphazard meticulousness”.

“I think he has a real connection – almost like an OCD obsession – with music,” he muses. “It is everything he lives and breathes for.”

For Gazelle Twin, James attempting to deconstruct his creativity highlights a “neurodivergent way of thinking”.

“I get that sense from the mood of the music, the themes, the song titles and his reluctanceto be present and do loads of publicity,” she says. “Whether it was a conscious decision to keep away from promotional stuff makes it more intriguing. I think people naturally want to lean into something or somebody who feels mysterious.”

From Aphex Twin to AFX, Bradley Strider, Caustic Window, Polygon Window, The Dice Man, The Tuss and user18081971 – reportedly Richard D James’ current incarnation on Soundcloud – this is an incomparable story. From the analogue era right through to the digital age, it now stretches into a fourth decade and encompasses a daunting, sprawling back catalogue of cosmic, beatific and clangorous soundscapes.

‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92’ offers a clue to the journey. The track ‘We Are The Music Makers’ famously samples Gene Wilder from 1971’s ‘Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory’. To further paraphrase Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s 1873 poem, ‘Ode’: “We are the music makers / And we are the dreamers of dreams / Yet we are the movers and shakers / Of the world for ever, it seems.”

Hear and buy a selection of releases from Richard D James’ back catalogue at

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