Taking their name from a vowel sound and a random mash of fingers on a keyboard, Rob Brown and Sean Booth started Autechre nearly thirty years ago, when they were still in their teens. The place was Manchester—home to Joy Division, the Smiths, and the Durutti Column—and the year was 1987, a time when American musical forms like hip-hop, electro, acid, and house music were crossing the Atlantic and mutating into new shapes in the UK. Inspired by what they heard, the duo set about making their own machine music, and after one EP, they were signed with Warp Records. In 1992, the label's Artificial Intelligence compilation included two Autechre tracks, leading Booth and Brown to be saddled with the media-created "intelligent dance music" tag alongside peers like Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, and LFO.
Like fellow Warp labelmate Aphex Twin, Autechre has reflected very little of the trends around them over their decades-long career, inimitable by other artists and irreducibly themselves. Early 90s albums like Incunabula and Amber made explicit homage to the group's roots in electro, hip-hop, and industrial music, but with 1995's Tri Repetae, they hit upon what would become their signature sound: cold, clanging, cerebral, merciless, and entrancing. Followups—like 1997's Chiastic Slide, and 1998's LP5—struck a balance between their early melodicism and their increasingly complex beat programming.
Autechre's sound is hard to nail down, save that every component is always in flux, minced and reconfigured into a wholly unfamiliar new shape. Crunchy crystalline drums turn to liquid; fragments of melody veer into dissonance. On any given Autechre track, you never wind up in the same place as where you started.
The duo's 21st century output can be daunting and dense. 2001's Confield abandoned the earmarks of electronic dance music almost entirely for something more experimental; 2013's Exai stretched out across two arduous but ultimately rewarding hours. The abstractions inherent in Autechre's music lend themselves to thinking about algorithms, cybernetics, and generative synthesis, but their music retains its sheer visceral impact throughout, suggesting their earliest influences—in dance music, especially—remain just below the surface. Think of a BMX bike with so many metal bars and gears and dozens of whirring pedals that's impossible to ride, and you have an idea of what Autechre's music does with sound.
These days, Rob lives in Bristol, and Sean lives in Manchester; instead of working out of the same house, they swap MAX patches from a distance, putting the finishing touches on some long-in-the-making custom production software they say will revamp the way they work and play live. After an eight-year-long absence from North America, they'll test out that new technology onstage this month, when they return to the US for a three-week tour, including a stop off this Saturday at Brooklyn's Masonic Temple. We caught up with the duo before their show in Chicago earlier this week to talk about coming to terms with the "IDM" tag, how their collaboration works long distance, and their enduring love for electro.
Considering that it was the birthplace for acid house, a huge influence of yours, is there something romantic about being in a city like Chicago?
Sean: A little bit. You can't really help it in a way. It's all part of the fabric of what playing on local radio stations in Manchester when we were kids. It was mainstream at the time, but perhaps a bit more localized, because Manchester got into that music a bit earlier than elsewhere in the UK. Manchester really got into the hard, aggressive sound of acid, the weird, wrong-sounding stuff.
Rob: There was lots of soul music around Manchester as well, and I think soul was also in the sound of Chicago.
Was there a connection between 60s Chicago soul and 80s acid tracks?
Sean: It split off in 1991, but early on, it was really mixed up by the DJs. The divisions you get now—things like freestyle and acid house were all played together. It was all about tempo and funk rather than genre definitions, which are really quite limiting.
How do you feel when Autechre gets pigeonholed as "intelligent dance music"?
Sean: People have to deal with a lot of information these days, coming in at all angles. If you can use a heuristic to navigate a map, even if it's music, it's a valid way to approach it. I don't mind that people come up with a term—it's kind of flattering to me, but it comes with this weird, self-praising mania. The term "intelligent dance music" is a purely American invention; Brits would never self-promote that way—it's kind of obscene to us. The American nature is to try and rationalize things, the genre-fication of things. Lumping us in with what was going on at Warp at the time, Americans were happy to wrap up this weird faction of artists via the Artificial Intelligence comp.
"Music is like that to me: it's this muck of things that relate to other things."—Sean Booth
You recently did a four-hour mix for Dekmantel that was a deep dive into the sound of early 80s electro. What about that music still appeals to you?
Sean: We played their festival a few months ago, and they asked us to do a podcast. They were intrigued by our love of electro, which comes before house music. There was continuity in Manchester—all the kids that were into house music had been into electro before that. You've got this weird blend of electro and hip-hop. That's what breakbeat hardcore was, basically: mashing the two together. Autechre grew directly out of that mindset, and the idea that you can make things out of bits of each one. That's what we think about music: using these elements and putting them together in different ways.
I think of electro as the first fully mechanized music: pop music made using all the electronic components.
Sean: I glommed onto things that sounded artificial as a kid. I was into computer graphics and electronic music. Electro was the most "electronic" music I could find at the time. The trimmings in other types of music that I found maybe a bit boring or unnecessary were not in electro; it would just be some weird noises, some beats, and some really nice synth sounds. They were the nicest sounds I had heard at that point, and I was drawn to stuff on that basis. Even the hip-hop I'm into came from an appreciation of electro. I'm always drawn to that kind of futuristic feeling.
I can remember how I learned about how music worked—the dynamics of it. You can navigate this electronic music space, and it's flexible and it overlaps; it's interchangeable and disposable, too. Music is like that to me: it's this muck of things that relate to other things. I'm drawn to tracks that are hard-to-define, where you're not sure what the thing is genre-wise. I find boundaries a little bit stupid. I'm interested in working out why people think things are other different things and exploiting that. I get some weird kick out of that.
Do you guys play video games?
Sean: Not as much as I used to. I spend all my time making weird software, so I think about that in a similar way.
Rob: I never finished games [growing up]. But I liked ones where you could just explore and not achieve things. I preferred games that were open-ended, where you could make your own set-ups.
How would you say that your creative process has evolved over the years?
Sean: We've always got some long-term project in the background. Lately, it's making software to make tracks with; it's what we used on Exai. It's more Max patches, but it functions like a piece of software. It's quite straight-forward, but we've been designing it since 2008. There's still a weird bug in the software where it'll just die onstage. It really sounded like we planned it, though.
Rob: We just have to make sure it works for an hour.
How has your working relationship evolved?
Rob: Sonically, we respect each other's opinion, but we do have different tastes. We don't work in the same space as frequently. We don't live in the same house, and now we are quite a ways apart; I'm in Bristol, and Sean is in Manchester. Instead of sending over music files, we are quite happy to send over these lightweight Max patches instead. We exchange bits of software instead of bits of track ideas.
Sean: The software is smaller, but you can expand in so many ways. So rather than send Rob my part, forcing him to conform to it, I give him something he can fuck around with and make something out of that's more personal. We improve on each other's patches, retrofitting it. It's a more interesting way of getting utility out of our collaboration.
Rob: We can't both work on things at the same time. In a weird way, we're a bit spoiled now, sitting in our own space. It's like two studios with a glass wall in-between; sometimes we open it up, but we can shut ourselves off and report back later in the week with more modules. We're only in the same room when we're working on live stuff. If we're doing gigs, we'll splurge and jam in the real world. We have broadband, though, so we can jam from our own separate studios.
Where do the two of you tend to diverge, taste-wise?
Sean: Rob likes more 80s soul than I do. I can't handle the vocals, but I quite like the dubs of those tracks.
Rob: It hasn't changed since we first met. There was this radio station in Manchester that would go through the evening, a soul show that added in hip-hop and house over the years. But there was this two-hour section that would be soul music. You had these hip-hop kids and house kids and they all hated the soul bit in the middle, but they had to tune in to the show. But I liked the soul stuff.
Sean: Mancunians are too proud to admit this, but there's this naivety in the Mancunian approach to American music. It was more aesthetic and less about cultural meaning. We're not American, so when I first heard electro, it just sounded really abstract, inventive, and raw. Stuff like Knights of the Turntables—it was fun and playful, almost alien and artificial.
The political aspect of where this music was coming from in urban America didn't translate across the Atlantic then?
Sean: I had no idea of that. I was hearing it the way I heard Stockhausen, like, "What the fuck is going on with these sounds?" I didn't even know what scratching was at that point. This was in 1985, and I heard electro, and went, "Fucking hell. This is something else—pure and amazing." If you look at it purely in terms of the sound and science of it, it's not that far from musique concrète. But there's this cultural brick wall between the two things.
Rob: When you're that young listening to electro, there's not many people offering up classic electronic music as inspiration. We would have enjoyed musique concrète had we heard it as teens, but electro was the only thing around us that was that wild sonically.
Sean: The way someone like Mantronix took the music and made it about all these tiny edits and—that was a huge influence. We had heard these Latin Rascals edits with these fast bits with drums that sounded weirdly robotic, taking electro into this other zone. Mantronix was so micro—the details are so ridiculous and amazing. At the time, I just thought music was going to carry on doing that. Half of the tracks that we do as Autechre are about recreating the actual sensations I used to get from those things—just getting post-human and next level.