Mike Paradinas and Aphex Twin are Expert Knob Twiddlers
The Planet Mu label boss details the reissue of his collaborative 1996 album with the elusive Richard D. James
When it comes to electronic music’s more experimental side, few labels loom larger than Planet Mu. Founded in 1995 by Mike Paradinas, the label has been a key outpost for leftfield sounds, including Paradinas’ own work as µ-Ziq and efforts from the likes of Venetian Snares, Luke Vibert, Vex’d, Pinch, Neil Landstrumm, FaltyDL, Ital and RP Boo, to name just a few. In the pre-Planet Mu days, however, Paradinas issued his work via Aphex Twin’s Rephlex label, and it was that imprint that issued Expert Knob Twiddlers, the UK producers’ joint 1996 album under the name Mike & Rich. Two decades later, an expanded edition of that LP is being reissued via Planet Mu. To mark the release, Paradinas spoke to Shawn Reynaldo for his First Floor show on RBMA Radio about its creation, and explained why he’s elected to pull the music out of the vaults.
Listen to First Floor on RBMA Radio here every Thursday at 1PM EDT.
Why re-issue the album now?
It seems strange, but it’s because Aphex Twin gave us permission to re-release it now. We’ve been asking him for a while, and he finally said, “Yeah, why not?” I think he gave his permission just after Syro was released. He’s suddenly got a taste for reissuing music again after his long fallow period. We wanted Expert Knob Twiddlers to be out digitally for a while because it’s part of the Rephlex catalog, and after Rephlex closed the rights became available again. It was Richard’s idea to do it with extra tracks, on physical formats and with the tape and t-shirts.
You’ve known Aphex Twin for a very long time – the tracks on this album were originally made in 1994, I believe. How did you actually meet Aphex Twin?
I first heard of Aphex Twin because we went to the same university, Kingston University, where he was studying electronics and I was studying architecture. There were a lot of us into music there in around 1990-91. The rave scene was at its height (at least in London, anyway), there was so much interesting stuff coming out in the local record shops and my friend Hal Udell (who ran Clear Recordings) said that he had a friend over in the other campus who was making really good electronic music. This is when I was making stuff with my four-track recorder, too. I didn’t have a computer yet at the time.
I gave Hal a demo of mine and it wasn’t long after that that the first Aphex Twin records came out. They were on the wall of the local record shop, marked as “local artist: Aphex Twin.” I bought Analogue Bubblebath 1 and Analogue Bubblebath 2 and I was hooked. The first time that I actually met him was in a club in London called Knowledge. I met up with him there after speaking to him on the phone about my demo. He gave me advice: “You should tighten up the drums,” that sort of thing. That was probably around mid-’92.
In the early years, did you ever feel any kind of rivalry with him, even a friendly one?
I know that a lot of the producers that I speak to – especially when you’re in an ecosystem of producers trying to do a similar thing, as we were in the early ’90s – feel a sense of rivalry, and I definitely felt a rivalry with Aphex Twin. We were trying to create an electronic music that the UK could be proud of, rather than just making pure dancefloor tracks or Detroit techno facsimiles.
How did you get to the point where you decided to make some tracks together?
That would have been a couple of years [after we first met], once my record on Rephlex had finally come out. That record took almost a year to come out – which I know isn’t a long time nowadays, I run a label and I know how difficult it is – which pissed me off. I used to hang out with Richard in his flat that he shared with lots of other friends. I was there one time, randomly listening to records, and he suggested we go in the studio together and try something out.
When you guys were working on these tracks, did you have an album in mind?
No, we were just messing around. He invited a lot of his friends in – producers and non-producers, his friends who were into music – who he liked to have write tracks, too, even though they didn’t have any experience with producing.
Listening to Expert Knob Twiddlers, it’s sonically all over the place. Did you have a style or concept in mind when you were making the tracks?
No, we didn’t, but we were listening to a lot of records that were around at the time. We wrote tracks every day. Whenever I went to see Richard he’d always be in the studio. I’d have to wait in his room and talk to his girlfriend before he would come out of the studio, emerging half an hour later saying, “I had to finish that off” before the Atari crashed or whatever.
There was no great plan but once it started to take shape, I think we went down a slightly funky direction. Music in ’94 was quite po-faced. There was a very serious techno scene. Jeff Mills is still very big today, but that sort of thing was in the ascendant and we wanted some light-heartedness for ourselves.
What was it like working with Aphex Twin in the studio?
We split duties because we occupied different bodies. We didn’t talk about what we were going to do. We just sat in the studio and did it. Richard was good at controlling what was happening without particularly giving instructions. He would set up a pattern and say, “You use that synth there and do me a bassline.” I’d suggest something or other and he’d say, “Yeah, great. Let’s record that,” then we would go through records for samples.
We were both used to working alone in our own studios and that’s perhaps why we worked well together. There wasn’t a conflict. There were a few times when we recorded several versions of each track, and I would prefer one and he would prefer another version. When that would happen, we’d go upstairs to the shared sitting room where someone would be smoking a joint, and we’d play them the different versions and help us eventually chose one. It was a pretty laid-back process.
Aphex Twin remains a mysterious figure for most people. Could you tell us something about him that most people don’t know?
That would be up to him. I wouldn’t want to destroy any of his mystique. He has hairy arms and slightly wonky eye. He goes to the toilet. All of these things are in the public domain, aren’t they? He was just a regular guy who was very dedicated to making the best music that he could – and he still is, in many ways. What you see when you read or hear an interview with him, much of it is honest. Look at the SoundCloud dump he did last year. Look at the comments and how he interacts with people. That’s all him.
When you looked back on Expert Knob Twiddlers and how it was made, how did you feel about it?
It’s quite nostalgic. I always think back to the time when we created it. I’ve always really loved it and a lot of my friends have always loved it, too, but I was a bit taken aback when it did appear because a lot of other people hated it, especially Richard’s fans. I think that they didn’t like it because they felt that it wasn’t serious – that he was taking the piss – but I don’t think we were taking the piss. The ridiculousness of it sometimes made us laugh, maybe, but it wasn’t done with malice.
Hopefully this comes through in the music, but it’s honest and authentic (whatever that means). A lot of people still say that it’s an album that doesn’t particularly fit in with Richard as Aphex Twin, but then it’s not an Aphex Twin album, is it? It’s Mike & Rich, which is something completely different. The resulting entity of two collaborating artists is always very different to what you would do on your own.
Why did you and Aphex Twin never collaborate on another release?
He moved [away] soon after [the making of Expert Knob Twiddlers] and I had kids. There just wasn’t another time. We lost contact for a bit in the late ’90s, too. When I signed to Virgin Records, Richard was a bit put out that I wasn’t releasing other records out on Rephlex. That might have been why I wasn’t invited to write any more tracks with him. There was a lot of politics going on at that time and certain people might have been saying things to Richard that changed his mind. I’ve talked to Richard about all of that recently, actually.
The reissue contains seven new tracks. Were these tracks finished at the time but left off the album, or were they pulled from the original recordings that were never finalized?
They were finished in ’94 during the original sessions and have been edited recently, but they didn’t need much editing. Some of them are just as they were. I think the reason that they weren’t included in the original album was that they didn’t fit stylistically or we didn’t think that they were very good. It’s as simple as that, really.
Sonically, how else does the reissue differ from the original version?
It’s better mastered this time. We’ve used the same mastering engineer who did part of Syro and Richard’s recent EPs on Warp, a guy called Beau Thomas of Ten Eight Seven Mastering. (He also, coincidentally, does all the Planet Mu stuff, too.) Richard had the uncompressed digital masters that I made the edits of. Everything’s been kept in a digital domain and there’s less distortion [in the new edits] than in the original versions. It should be cleaner and have more of a presence, which I feel that the original lacked. It sounds full of life and very musical to me. When it comes to the sound of it, I think everyone [who has worked on it] has done a good job.