Richard D James

Global Communication’s Tom Middleton remembers meeting a teenage Richard D James, who looked like a member of Bros and was conducting “binaural neuroscience experiments” in his bedroom

It was in the quaint Cornish village of Crantock, two miles west of Newquay, where Tom Middleton first met Richard D James.

“The Bowgie Inn in Crantock was where we all went to in the late 1980s,” says Middleton, formerly of Global Communication, who nowadays works solo as GCOM. “The room had this rough Turbosound system and held around 150 to 200 people, albeit illegally. The late, great DJ Paul Guntrip would come down every couple of Fridays and play a selection of import records – Chicago house, New York garage, as it was called then, Detroit techno… and then you had Belgian new beat, early rave sounds, as well as Dutch and German records.

“Suddenly there was this mix of really cool stuff, and we started to get a sense that there was a shift here – people were making music as a response to these imports coming in, and going to the clubs you got a taste for it.”

For a village with a population of less than 800 people, The Bowgie was an intriguing, if unlikely, meeting place of forward-leaning sonic activity. Located deep in the heart of Cornwall, it‘s where Middleton rubbed shoulders with the likes of schoolmate Luke Vibert, Rephlex Records co-founder Grant Wilson-Claridge, and Piers “PK” Kirwan, now a veteran DJ, who ran a fortnightly acid and techno night with a young whippersnapper going by the name of Richard James.

But pre-Aphex, even pre-Power-Pill, James looked a little different from the ginger-bearded rave hippy we’re so familiar with these days…

“Do you remember Bros?” asks Middleton, grinning. “One Saturday night, there was this really coiffured guy, wearing a leather jacket and a kind of 1950s slick quiff, with short cut denim jeans and Doc Martens. Richard was wearing that outfit – hilarious! His fans will be like, ‘What?!’.

“We’re on the dancefloor listening to some tunes from around that time, and then all of a sudden he plays this format that’s much faster, almost like proto-breakbeat. We lost our minds! It was the most manic SH-101 hacked acid squelch, distorted mindfuck, and then he slammed in a Julie Andrews sample halfway through. It was ridiculous!”

James had played ‘Human Rotation’ – a truly stonking breakbeat track sampling ‘The Sound Of Music’, which only saw the light of day in 2017 after a load of unreleased Aphex tracks were mysteriously dumped online.

Middleton says he beelined it straight to the decks and quickly got chatting to James about the music he’d just played (while also discovering they share the same birthday). James then asked if Middleton wanted to check out what he was working on at his home studio.

“I went to Richard’s house and in his bedroom, lo and behold, he’s got two speakers suspended from the ceiling on wire chains,” he remembers. “Richard was 18 or 19 years old, and he had already found out that isolating speakers by hanging them from the ceiling was going to create a better sound.

Middleton is clearly still in awe of what he witnessed.

“The lid was off the Roland SH-101, and he’d got a screwdriver and had attacked the potentiometer for the filter frequency range, he continues. “Roland had delivered this 20 hertz to 20 kilohertz range, which is roughly the human hearing perception range. He went subsonic, down below that, and then he increased the top to beyond 20 kilohertz, effectively creating a unique SH-101 that was now a signal generator. A scientific tool.

“We would experiment, and he’d show me what it was capable of, like sending a single one hertz sine wave into the speakers. So we were sitting there doing binaural neuroscience experiments, without knowing it! But it was exactly that – binaural beat entrainment.”

Within the context of producing electronic music, the pair were, in effect, creating their own informal curriculum for studying the physics of sound, and making up their own worlds if they fancied it. That playfulness would become integral to the life of James’ work as Aphex Twin.

“We were blissfully ignorant but also curious,” explains Middleton. “We joked about doing ultrasound and bats hitting the window, or upsetting dolphins in the sea. Obviously that’s the fun part of Richard’s mind – ‘Let’s expand on what’s real and what’s not. Let’s communicate with bats and dolphins’ – and I liked that.

“He’d go out into his garage and make beats by literally bashing cardboard boxes and bits of metal, recording to tape, then sampling them on a Casio FZ, pitching them up and down to make a new beat. That’s when I learned the art of creative sampling.”

Even after Middleton had left for art school, James continued to share his latest experiments with him and other friends through mix tapes.

“I was driving to the beach one day, and I put the mix tape on and heard ‘Analogue Bubblebath’ for the first time,” says Middleton. “The breakdown was almost spiritual, and I still think it’s pretty much peerless even now. There are instances in tracks today when I think producers have got it – I think Scuba has done it a couple of times, and some electronic artists can get to this moment of pure serotonin euphoria in sonics. But the harmony and frequency spectrum Richard found with that particular track – he made an SH-101 go ‘dooo dooo dooo’, melodically. Phenomenal!

“And the tracks around that time somehow had the essence of what started to become rave and breakbeat, but he approached it slightly differently. He wasn’t thinking in terms of The Prodigy. He wasn’t thinking in terms of novelty. And then he made the ‘Pac-Man’ tune, and then… fuck.”

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