Physicists have verified a phenomenon called quantum entanglement, in which particles separated by great distances somehow exhibit perfectly matching behavior. It’s something like the workings of Autechre, the British duo of Sean Booth and Rob Brown, who have been tweaking and skewing electronic music since the late 1980s.
“In general, the more we feel restricted, the more we try to push against it,” Booth said in a rare interview via FaceTime, with Booth at “an undisclosed location” in Norway and Brown in Bristol, England.
Long before the pandemic, Booth and Brown had begun working in separate home studios using what they call “the rig” or “the system”: the only two copies of a frequently updated collection of hardware and software that produces their music, allowing them to record separately and then, when they feel it’s appropriate, to share and modify each other’s tracks. Often — as they collaborate via videoconferencing — they find that they’ve come up with similar ideas even before they’ve reconnected.
“We do behave differently,” Brown said. “We sometimes try to achieve the same goal, but with greatly differing approaches. But we really do get off on the fact that we’re on the same page most of the time.”
Booth and Brown are both from Rochdale, a town near Manchester, England, and they started collaborating on mixtapes and electronic music in the late 1980s. Neither had any formal music training; Brown studied architecture at art school, and Booth spent six months taking courses in audio engineering and electronics.
“I still don’t feel like a musician,” Booth said. “I don’t know what we are, because we came from messing around with other people’s records on tape. You just learn this stuff by listening to a lot of records and then having the equipment. Most of my training early on was equipment manuals.”
Over the course of dozens of albums, EPs and concert recordings, Autechre has evolved from making more-or-less club music — reflecting the techno, electro and hip-hop of the scene surrounding them in Manchester — toward ever more unpredictable instrumental pieces.
An Autechre track can be blissful or brutal, atonal or dulcet, pointillistic or enveloping, propulsive or hovering, minimal or maximal. Autechre’s project from early 2018 was eight hours of music commissioned by the wonderfully adventurous British online radio station NTS that Autechre later released as “NTS Sessions 1-4”; its finale, “all end,” was a 58-minute, subtly metamorphosing, ultimately transcendent drone piece.
Autechre’s chosen sounds are proudly synthetic and assembled with all of the post-human capabilities of computer processing. But even as it uses loops, programmed beats and complex algorithms, Autechre’s music defies the easy repetitions and obvious grids of so much electronic music. Tempos fluctuate, harmonies wander, timbres warp. No matter how unearthly the sounds are, there always seem to be hands twisting the (virtual) knobs at whim, always listening.
Autechre recorded the album it releases Friday, “SIGN,” through much of 2018 and 2019, and completed it in February and March, when the coronavirus was only beginning to affect Europe and the United States. As on nearly all of Autechre’s albums, the track titles are deliberately inscrutable: “si00,” “esc desc,” “psin AM.” The capitalized album title, Brown said, is “an initialization, but we don’t want to tell anybody what it stands for.”
Yet the albums’s overall mood — contemplative, melancholy, foreboding, subdued, but also jumpy and brittle at times — turned out to be prescient for a 2020 of isolation, uncertainty, political strife and economic devastation.
These are edited excerpts from a far-ranging two-hour conversation with Autechre.
How do you feel about the album when you listen to it now?
SEAN BOOTH It’s strangely jarring. It’s sort of too real. All this Covid stuff has put me in a really different place from where I was when we were just compiling it. Back then we were saying, “This is totally right.” But now I’m wondering if it’s too right. And I’m really feeling a bit self-conscious if I’m being totally honest. It’s difficult to listen to because it’s too emotionally resonant. I was going for making something pure and new and sort of surprising, and now I’ve ended up with something that’s almost predictable. So I’m reluctant to play it too much because I feel like that place it puts me in is perhaps a little bit too cathartic.
How was the album made?
BOOTH The actual process was all over the place. We tend to work better with as little direction as possible. It wasn’t probably for a year until we started to share tracks with each other.
ROB BROWN We were perhaps pushing our luck. We could have gone in completely different directions. But on the whole, we ended up strangely parallel. We found a weird, natural common ground.
The album’s opening track is “M4 Lema.” It starts out feeling less like music than like a rush of pure motion, and a lot of silences.
BOOTH That started out quite different. The beats were louder and it was more slamming. It went through various stages and Rob kept sending it to me slightly modified, and then eventually the beats were almost not there. It’s definitely a kind of slow builder. I think it probably took about three months to finish it in total. Sometimes I’ll just write bits of software, send them to Rob and then he’ll send to me these weird tracks. I don’t even know how he does half of them. Even though we’re the only people who use our software, he still manages to find an unorthodox way of using it.
BROWN I haven’t got a manual! [Laughs] You know, it depends what you want to do with an album. Does the track set you up for the second track or the third track? Or are there any loss leaders? Or is it a basic tonal vocabulary of what to expect throughout the album? It’s just basically a modern output of our current rebuilt system, you know, and some time spent with it.
Some electronic musicians create a program, let it run and select parts of the output. How does Autechre use algorithms?
BOOTH We don’t really do what you’d call generative music, where you just start the thing and then go away, and it just does its thing. Our music requires us to be there and to be guiding it and making changes in it. I’m still in the camp of people that says that, “Yes, you can probably automate things like the medical profession. You can probably automate things like the law profession.” But I’m not sure that art can be produced by computer. It may just be my limitations as a programmer. And it may be that someone will come along and apply machine learning in a way that’s actually emotionally gratifying. But for me personally, I can’t build systems that do that.
As I understand it, your latest system allows you to use many more channels, many more layers, than your previous setup.
BOOTH But when you’re building stuff up incrementally, even though you have the ability to add lots and lots of layers, you’re reluctant to add too many. I’ve done a lot of work to disguise the amount of stuff there is in there.
BROWN Suppose you are looking at a turned acrylic vase on a lamp stand. You might see loads of different layers, but it’s been on a lathe and it’s been curved and you’ll see a silhouette, and you’ll see light travel through it. You’ll get ideas about what its construction is or what its materials are but you still see one surface, one curve.
It seems that programming your own software and designing your own sounds is a crucial part of Autechre’s music.
BOOTH I’ve heard people say, “I’ll just pay somebody to do it for me,” and I’ll think, well, surely you’re not going to have all the weird little sort of ideas or thoughts along the way. It’s almost taking the joy out of it for yourself. I don’t know where it was decided that that work is necessarily soulless work, and that you can’t be inspired while you’re doing it. I quite like to build things and then forget how it works and then use it later on, and not really be able to remember what I was thinking about when I built it. It’s a little bit like working with yourself in a way, but from a time when you’re not aware of what you were thinking. You can get reacquainted with it in a sense, like you would with a person.
BROWN One charge that people level at us is where’s the emotion? Where’s the notes? Where’s the tunes? It’s nonsense.
BOOTH The issue for me has always been that I can feel it. So I wonder sometimes whether our emotions are too subtle for people to pick up on. You can’t think that we’re not feeling it. I mean, what would be the point in doing music if you weren’t feeling it?