A feature for mad.co.uk about Aphex Twin’s Rephlex Records label. The story features an interview with Rephlex co-founder Grant Wilson-Claridge and traces the routes of Rephlex back to misty pre-rave Cornwall.
In 1989, Grant Wilson-Claridge started DJing at a club located just along the coast from Newquay, Cornwall. Called the Bowgie - Cornish for cattle shed - the venue seems at first sight an unlikely place to inspire the birth of Rephlex records, a label recently dubbed by NME “the coolest record label in the world”.
The Bowgie has now been turned into a sports bar and has recently obtained a license for civil wedding ceremonies. However, as Wilson-Claridge points out, back in 1989, “the Bowgie was the best club ever”. After all, he explains, “this was before Newquay turned into the Cornish Ibiza” and it was very difficult to hear new and interesting music.
As a hip hop fan wanting to find out more about acid house, Cornwall in the late 80s wasn’t exactly the best place for Wilson-Claridge to be. The Bowgie was one of the few places to hear and play new records. One of the DJs Wilson-Claridge saw play there - and subsequently cites as a formative influence - was Paul Guntrip of the legendary Wag Club in London, one of a rare breed who regularly made the long trip down to Cornwall. However it was when Wilson-Claridge met another young local DJ at the club that an important moment in the development of modern music was to take place. That other DJ was one Richard D. James, otherwise known as Aphex Twin.
Wilson-Claridge explains that he and Aphex Twin used to DJ on alternate weeks. He was intrigued by the music Aphex Twin was playing and on closer inspection discovered that he was not playing records but rather his own tapes. On noticing this, Wilson-Claridge suggested that they press up some records. In the beginning, committing Aphex Twin’s recordings to vinyl was a way of making music he and his friends wanted to hear. Due to their geographical dislocation they did not have access to the music they wanted to hear and so they decided to create their own. “We were doing it for a laugh” explains Grant, “We’re still doing it now”.
Indeed they are. Having attracted a following in Cornwall, early Aphex Twin tracks like Analogue Bubblebath and Didgeridoo were picked up by London stations like Kiss FM. Soon the artist was the object of popular and critical admiration outside Cornwall, and the fledgling Rephlex label took the decision to move to London in 1992.
The move was a practical one. As well as “wanting to spread our wings”, Wilson-Claridge explains that this was a time “before the internet was so big”. Indeed he points out that if the internet had been as well developed as it is now they probably would not have been forced to leave Cornwall. Wilson-Claridge explains, “in the old days I had to pick up the records myself and drive them round the shops”. With round trips to London, this situation very quickly became untenable.
Now in their 12th year, Rephlex has gone on to receive widespread popular and critical acclaim and has released over 1,500 tracks. The label also recently achieved over one million sales. As a result of this milestone, the label decided to release a new compilation called Rephlexions and has just completed a UK tour.
Interestingly, this success has been achieved with very limited marketing activity. As a small independent label Rephlex is in a much weaker situation to the major labels. The big high street shops base their buying decisions on previous sales and, if there are none to go on, insist on seeing favourable reviews in press. For Rephlex this means sending out CDs to every reviewer they can find. The major labels can afford to do that. For Rephlex however it is harder. Wilson-Claridge explains that in marketing terms the label does its best and “sends out promos until the cows come home”. However he goes on to explain “marketing costs money, and we have to balance things”.
The label’s reputation then has been built largely by word of mouth. While Wilson-Claridge explains that he is keen to get his message across, there is a cut off point: “We didn’t start this to be marketers. I don’t want to end up talking rubbish to people I don’t like”.
The involvement of Aphex Twin has clearly helped the label. He has recorded under a variety of different guises for the label - the Aphex Twin moniker being reserved for his work for Warp Records. If anything, recording under pseudonyms like Caustic Window, AFX and Q-Chastic has enhanced the mystique of the man and encouraged veneration of Aphex Twin to develop into cultish behaviour - one obsessive fan for example, a poet from Japan, was recently buried alongside her collection of Aphex Twin records.
In spite of this, Rephlex has not allowed one figure to dominate. The label which set out with the intention to fill “a void in the country’s dance music” has carried on this mission bringing out releases by artists like The Bug, DJ Scud and Rephlex old-timer Cylob. Rephlex has also attempted to bring to the fore lost classics, their recent re-issues of 808 State’s classic Newbuild and the Humanoid Sessions 84-88 being prime examples. The label has also sought out artists from far and wide. Among their current roster they can include Ovuca from Finland, Polish-born Bogdan Raczynski, and D’Archangelo from Italy.
Earlier this year too Rephlex released an album by Angolan born Victor Gama whose music is created using home made instruments, what he refers to as his ‘Pangeia Instrumentos’. Following on from this release, the Institute of Contemporary Arts is due to play host to an exhibition of Gama’s instruments on 6th December.
As a result of the label’s pioneering spirit and fierce independence, the celebrity industry has been keen to attach itself to the Rephlex badge in a quest for critical credibility. Bjork and Madonna are said to be big fans and have been spotted at some of the label’s live events. Radiohead too name checked the label as a major influence for their new sound on Kid A. In 2001 NME named them “the coolest label in the world” and this month BBCi are featuring Rephlex as its label of the month.
Despite the success and the plaudits heaped on them, Rephlex remains a group with their feet firmly on the ground. Wilson-Claridge is dismissive of NME’s praise and he shrugs off the interest of Bjork and Madonna commenting that he has seen numerous famous people at the label’s live events.
Perhaps a reason for this modesty is the fact that despite moving away from Cornwall, the label has maintained strong Cornish roots. What began as a group of friends passionate about music has remained remarkably unchanged.
To this day, all Rephlex staff come from Cornwall. They even attended the same school, the Wesleyan Methodist Truro School - although the Rephlex members are keen to point out that the school did not help in their musical development.
Another alumnus of the school was Luke Vibert who - with another school friend Jeremy Simmonds - recorded an early album for the label called Weirs and has just completed a series of five new releases under the guise of Amen Andrews. In January 2004 Vibert will be releasing a triple-DJ vinyl album called Kerrier District, named in honour of the local council in mid Cornwall where he grew up.
Another member of the early Rephlex group links the label with that other famous Cornish musical export, recent Fame Academy winner Alex Parks. According to Marcus Scott, who looks after Rephlex’s promotional and distribution operation, “her brother Dan Parks did the sleeves for some early Aphex Twin releases like the On and Ventolin singles and Ambient Works 2. He was a local DJ and part of the Rephlex crew”. Scott explains that in the early days he would also occasionally don a teddy bear costume as part of Aphex Twin’s tour stage show. A small world indeed.
Of the remaining close-knit Rephlex group, Aphex Twin is to some extent the odd one out. He went to Redruth School, a fact borne out by a tune named in honour of the school on his 1993 release as Polygon Window, Surfing on Sine Waves. The cover for the album also features a photograph of Chapel Porth Beach in Cornwall where Aphex Twin claims to have almost drowned.
This tendency to reference his Cornish roots is a recurring feature of Aphex Twin’s music. Cornwall features regularly in interviews too and Aphex Twin often refers to the area’s mystical qualities and outstanding natural beauty.
As evidence of this, earlier this year Aphex Twin participated in an event to raise money for the Cornish-based pressure group Surfers Against Sewage. Along with a number of artists including Damien Hirst, Jamie Hewlett and Banksy, Aphex Twin donated a long board of his own design to be exhibited around the UK before being auctioned off. In a curious turn of events, the current manageress at the Bowgie Sally Pickles explains that she made an attempt to purchase the board. “It would have been nice to have in the bar” she explains, but the £1,200 price tag was just too high. Aphex Twin may have moved away but still he is remembered it would seem.
Perhaps though Aphex Twin’s most telling reference to his Cornish roots came in 1993 with the release of Analogue Bubblebath 3. The record was packaged in a brown paper bag and came with a poster of Cornwall and an information sheet on places of interest in the area. (See Places of interest in Cornwall below). The guides described the natural amphitheatre at Gwennap Pit as “a great place for a game of tig” and Chapel Forth as a place where “one can enjoy a famous ‘croque-monsieur’ after a day’s climbing”. Ending with an exhortation to “enjoy many other splendid attractions in the South West - but remember to take your litter home with you and keep close to the hedge when crossing the meadows”, the guides simultaneously poke fun at traditional perceptions of Cornwall while displaying the label’s fondness for the area.
For Rephlex it is more simple. According to Wilson-Claridge, “everyone was talking about Sheffield and Detroit and Chicago as places where interesting music was happening, we just thought it would be funny to do it with Cornwall”. They have certainly achieved that. Now, with Wilson-Claridge holding the fort at the label’s headquarters in north London and Aphex Twin living in south London, Rephlex may be a long way from Cornwall, but still the roots remain. ———————————————————- Places of interest in Cornwall (from Analogue Bubblebath 3):
Gwennap Pit: This is an absolutely extraordinary location, renowned all over the Lanner area for its fabulous acoustics. It’s also a great place for a swift game of tig.
The King Harry Ferry: Enjoy a cream tea before travelling over to the beauties of the Roseland Peninsula. In the summer ‘The Methane Princess’ comes inland to greet the season’s holiday-makers.
Porthoustock Quarry: The deserted home of the fabelled pirate, Martin Trezidder. Some say that his screams can still be heard on the cliffs at full moon.
Hells Mouth: A bit frightening this one! Watch your step around this flabbergasting landmark as you might fall foul to a 520ft sheer drop to the hungry sea.
Chapel Porth: Both DaVinci and Rembrandt are said to have stayed here; it is indeed an awe-inspiring environment, suitable for budding artists of all ages. Alternatively, one can enjoy a famous ‘croque-monsieur’ after a day’s climbing.
Last but by no means least, the maze at Mawnan-Smith - This used to a place where only the most debonair gentleman could venture but sadly the area has now been overrun by youngsters who meddle in hallucinogenic drugs.
Enjoy many other splendid attractions in the South West - but remember to take your litter home with you and keep close to the hedge when crossing the meadows.