In 2010 pioneering British electronic-music duo Autchere — Rob Brown and Sean Booth — issued their tenth album, Oversteps. Sean Booth talked candidly with David Abravanel about the group’s legacy, producing their tenth album and another new direction for the group.
Few groups have inspired the level of listener awe and rever- ence as Autechre. A cursory glance at past writings about the duo of Sean Booth and Rob Brown suggests that even critics have a hard time describing the duo’s music without resorting to Dickian sci-fi clichés, or at least Russolo-esque statements about the paradigm-blasting future of music. Process always seems to come to the forefront in discussions of Autechre, with many an article painting them as shrouded computer-music alchemists, cloistered away in a lab from which come successive mindfucks of mechanical beat blasts. Ostensibly, the launching point is techno — looking back at their 1993 debut album, Incunabula, establishes this — but through embracing the kitchen sink of avant-garde compositional processes, haven’t Autechre moved into their own realm?
Given the tendency of his music toward such haughty, esoteric interpretation, Sean Booth is a disarmingly familiar interview. Early on in the conversation, the topic turns to graffiti. Discussing a track on Autechre’s upcoming tenth album, Oversteps, “krYlon,” named after the spray-paint brand, Booth waxes nostalgic.
“We were fucking up!” he exclaims. “I was in three crews in Manchester from ‘85 to about ‘87, ‘88, we were really up. I was a tagger, I didn’t do pieces — I was pretty shit with a can, to be honest. I wasn’t a piecing kind of person; Rob was, though, [he] used to try and do pieces, although they weren’t brilliant.” Booth alludes to other friends of his with “proper talent” who still write today, before confirming that, yes, he had a number of handles around Manchester, and no, he won’t share them (“that’s not how it works,” he says with a laugh). It’s a funny and honest look at Autechre’s origins as two excited kids into hip-hop culture, far from the cold- ly inhuman image their music tends to inspire in many (possibly technophobic?) reviewers.
A cursory glance at hyperactive fan-forum threads leading up to the release of Oversteps reveals fans who are willing to forego medical bills for a deluxe Autechre vinyl pre-order, and, in an even stranger turn of events, those who have, either to mess with people or to take advantage of the opportunity for distribution, published their own material labeled as Oversteps leaks.
Booth’s casual demeanor is appropriate in discussing Oversteps, an album with more empty space and gradual development than Autechre have released in some time. After delivering their sonically hardest album to date, 2005’s Untilted, and then their most disjointed (though in a striking way), 2008’s bursting-at-the-seams Quaristice, the duo took a step back into more contemplative, fleshed-out space for the latest record. When pressed about the studio process behind Oversteps, Booth describes it as “an unconscious studio effort: We didn’t start out with an endpoint in mind — we never do, really,” he explains. “It’s more like, you have an idea which is very simple, which leads you to have other ideas. We might just have one sound, playing one note, as a base point. But that will inspire other sounds, and eventually you end up with a track.”
While the tour in support of Untilted inspired the long jam sessions that were eventually pared down to the tracks on 2008’s Quaristice, the tour behind the latter album sent Autechre in a completely different direction. “After coming back off the last tour, we’d just been playing beats, basically,” says Booth. “We didn’t want to do any tracks with beats for a bit. Most of the material we did when we came back was like that; almost the polar opposite of what we’d been doing on tour. It wasn’t pattern-based, and it wasn’t for dancing to, really.” Booth reflects that he and Brown go through these phases regularly: “It’s difficult to play a live set for two months without getting a little bit bored with the type of material that you’re playing […] [though] we don’t really mind getting bored with stuff. It’s an important stage to go through, because it pushes you to do something new, or at least, not to do what you were doing. That’s where this album comes from—not really caring where we go next.”
Oversteps further reflects the lessons learned from the making of Quaristice, certainly a unique album in Autechre’s oeuvre. “It felt like the tracks didn’t really occu- py the same space as each other,“ offers Booth, “but it kind of made sense, from the point of view of having a lot of them and having them really sharp […] [Quaristice] was certainly more of a compilation than any of the albums we’ve done since Incunabula.” Not that this process, involving live recording of jams to two tracks, was perfect. “With hindsight,” admits Booth, “I know that there were things about it that we could have changed. But, we were kind of lost in the moment at the time. We wouldn’t have done the tracks that we [did], had we been that bothered about it.” Coming from the aforementioned more minimal and organic origins, Oversteps allowed for the meticulous and specific sculpting of tracks. “There was more focus this time on making the album a cohesive piece,” says Booth.
More than perhaps any other album, Oversteps is a delight for synthesizer enthusiasts, with tracks like “pt2ph8” and “see on see” functioning as showcases for sublime digital patches. Frequency Modulation, a form of digital synthesis which is commonly used for modeling unusual harmonic material — and, it should be noted, requires diligent editing for such purposes—takes a front seat on the record. Booth is particularly fond of the Yamaha FS1R and Native Instruments’ virtual FM8, two instruments that exemplify both the limitless possibilities inherent in FM synthesis, and the ceaseless tweaking required for it to really pay off. Oversteps is also padded by rich analog sounds, like the AAS Tasman virtual modular synth, and Booth’s beloved Nord Modular. “When I look at a Nord,” gushes Booth, “I get this warm feeling.”
Booth and Brown work in different studios, but thanks to technological advances, that’s less of a barrier than ever to the collaborative process. Speaking about studios provides a good opportunity to probe into Autechre’s ever-changing gear setup, both for studio and live works. For the last few tours, Autechre have eschewed laptops in live settings in favor of hardware samplers and synthesizers. It’s a more stable setup, suggests Booth, but one that also limits them to triggering and manipulating patterns when performing. “We’ve become better programmers,” boasts Booth, “and our systems don’t fail as often [as they used to]. We’ll be using computers again in ven- ues in the near future.” Using Max/MSP, they’re are able to perform more specific and sweeping manipulations to the control sequences being sent out to their gear.
Perhaps the greatest thrill about Oversteps is the feeling that Autechre could release something next month with a sound miles apart in origin.
Autechre’s live sets are reputable for being dense pastiches of largely unre- leased or heavily retooled work. The idea originates from long before Max/MSP entered the fray. “The whole idea of the live stuff being different,” explains Booth, “started because originally we were work- ing with Roland drum machines and Roland sync — the [MC-]202, [TR-]606, and stuff like that. The most efficient way of making tracks with a setup like that is just to record them in one take, and do the track live. The tracks have more vibe if you do that, basically — all the best house tracks were recorded that way.” This live lightning-capture process, explains Booth, is exemplified on a track like “Oval Moon,” Autechre’s contribution to the recently- released Warp 20 compilation: “That was made in the time you’d take to listen to it, basically […] made in an afternoon, really.”
Reminiscing about their days as an unsigned act playing on pirate radio, Booth reveals that there are potentially hundreds of tapes of unreleased early material floating around. “At the time, we were too embarrassed to consider releasing [it],” says Booth about this early work. “But it’s funny, listening back to it now, you realize some of it’s not that bad!” Not that fans of the group’s early sound should hold their breath for reissues, an uncomfortable prospect that Booth considers “a bit like publishing your childhood diaries.”
Going back to the myth behind Autechre, particularly after such an honest conversation, it’s clear that Autechre’s fan community plays a large part in the pedestal upon which Booth and Brown have been placed. A cursory glance at hyperactive fan-forum threads leading up to the release of Oversteps reveals fans who are willing to forego medical bills for a deluxe Autechre vinyl pre-order, and, in an even stranger turn of events, those who have, either to mess with people or to take advantage of the opportunity for distribution, published their own material labeled as Oversteps leaks.
“Reputation carries a lot of weight,” says Booth, “it’s an interesting phenomenon that people would want to take advantage of. Ultimately, the whole thing’s a huge compliment, you can’t read it any other way.” It’s interesting to note that Booth is a keen observer to these communities, and has listened to every fake leak released — some of which he enjoys. Regarding the Ae fan community as a whole, Booth seems stuck between enormous gratitude and bewilderment. “We seem to attract people who are really into detail, and quite often those people find it hard to see the big picture,” says Booth, in reference to Autechre fans who attempt to obsessively document the group’s compositional process (particularly their Max/MSP patches), before going back on his statement with a bit of tongue-in-cheek uncertainty — “fuck knows!” Booth himself is also clearly a process-head, having been into building things on a granular level from an early age (unsurprisingly and like many electronic-music makers, he loved LEGO as a child). This focus on process might be that golden-nugget secret to the irresistibility of Autechre. Looking at the precedent for warping existing processes in electronic dance music, Booth credits as major influences Newbuild and 90, the first two albums from 808 State, a group that features past Autechre touring-mate Graham Massey.
Whether it’s 808 State with acid house, A Guy Called Gerald with jungle, or J Dilla with Detroit hip-hop, Booth’s favorite artists seem to be the ones who manage to make the most lasting impressions for a particular genre by reinventing it for them- selves. So, too, have Autechre done this in their career, bursting out of the intelligent techno scene from the early ‘90s to define (and then, again, supersede) the popularity of glitch music, finally settling in their cur- rent status as impossibly ageless and perpetually ahead-of-the-curve musicians. The reverence is well justified, and perhaps the greatest thrill about Oversteps is the feeling that Autechre could release something next month with a sound miles apart in origin, yet still uniquely their own and unquestionably brilliant.