Autechre's Electronic Music Has Its Roots in Hip-Hop and B-Boy Culture

Legendary experimental electronic duo Autechre performs at the Bluebird Theater this Saturday, October 17. Rob Brown and Sean Booth formed the project in 1987 out of a shared interest in electronic music and the hip-hop world in Manchester UK.

“Looking back, as a kid, it appears it was everywhere,” says Brown. “But I was to find out from interviews with Chuck D and people like that that radio was really local and hip-hop scenes are quite local. For it to blow up in the UK was quite a phenomenon that we took for granted, in a way. But it happened and it just nailed it for so many kids. For me and Sean that B-boy attitude just seemed natural. Just getting down your skills and competing on lots of levels and being creative and trying to be original.”

Before forming Autechre, Brown had become adept at using turntables, and Booth had become an expert in tape editing. Booth would also become experienced with using early computer technology and, in fact, the eight-character name of the project stems in part from the limitations of usable file names in that era of home computing. It, and later song titles, also related to the graffiti and tagging that both Brown and Booth had been involved with as youths. Integrating all those ideas in an organic way has resulted in a sophisticated aesthetic, for which the pioneering group has become known.

Booth and Brown aren't computer programmers, but they have simply discovered the aspects of existing hardware and software that can be used in unusual ways.“We're fans of software that allows us to fall through that virtual 'net, if you will,” says Brown. “Logic and Digital Performer are two DAWs, highly regarded [with a] massive history there with all the developers, lots of expert technique invented. But you could go into Logic and go so far in and you come across a floor as opposed to a ceiling. You hit that floor and a grid that creates sequences that are sixteen or eight bar sequences. With Max/MSP you can fall through that rigid framework to the other side with complete open-endededness with MIDI-DAW sequences. That also informed the way we could throw tracks around inspired by people like Coil and 808 State—people that would do amazing electronic material but unhinge it a little bit and pull it apart in ways that dance music people never really did because of that grid.

“So getting to know every little bit of equipment intimately and getting to find out what weird things it can do when it's not supposed to do that and you find these latent behaviors and original glitch stuff. We had a Casio SK-1 sampler and I think we spilled a drink on it once and it virtually modded itself. It circuit bent itself, basically. We were circuit bending without realizing it back in the first days of doing tracks. So we always knew there was some genie in the box somewhere that we could exploit. And if you go around with your gear long enough, and you know it well enough, you find those things. It's about combining all those bits...that becomes your signature thing.”

That willingness to go with accidents and intuition, informed by a spirit of experimentation, has kept Autechre's output interesting. And as one of the flagship bands of the Warp Records imprint, and pioneers of IDM, Autechre has become one of the most influential electronic bands of the past three decades. With its most recent record, 2013's Exai, Autechre continues to prove that a unique creative vision born out in compositions and very individual methods of making that music never goes out of style. 
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.