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Features / Miscellaneous

“It’s a psychological overload”: Weirdcore on creating Aphex Twin’s live visuals

Words:

Lucy Bourton

Photography:

Jane Stockdale

The mystery that surrounds Aphex Twin is like no other, outside and within electronic music, a genre he has shaped over the past 20 years. A man of 18 different pseudonyms, the rumours that surround Richard D. James are absurd but often true. It is difficult to name another artist who encourages such hearsay as to whether he lives in a box structure on the Elephant and Castle roundabout, when he was actually living in abandoned bank office. He’s a musician who announces upcoming albums via blimps flying over London or by hiding a track list in a deep web server, an innovator across all aspects of his creative output. It comes as no surprise, the visuals of Aphex Twin have evolved with the increased sophistication of technology.

The man behind Richard’s visuals is similarly of a fascinating alias, Weirdcore. Despite interviewing him, we are still unsure of his true identity, which makes him a suitable collaborator for Aphex Twin’s live visuals, which took over an aeroplane hanger at Field Day this weekend.

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“When people ask me what I do I tend to struggle a bit to be honest with you,” Weirdcore tells It’s Nice That. “I guess I just do anything that’s visual in some way. I think of myself as more of a designer, but it’s open to whatever medium. It has taken me years to get to this point though.” Originally studying graphic design, Weirdcore began working in computing, then marketing, before going back to graphic design when he moved to London, designing websites and DVD menus in Soho. In his spare time he began to create live visuals in clubs, “it was more like a hobby, well maybe not a hobby, but just something I would do at the weekend, not for the money,” he explains. “It just grew into getting bigger fees and became what I could do professionally.”

Weirdcore’s success in creating mind-altering visuals for the likes of MIA, Radiohead and Tame Impala, is the result of “perseverance really,” he says. “I was really struggling for ages, ages, but I just stuck at it. Suddenly it all came at once, it’s like London buses. It had got to the point where I was going to give up, that was it when it happened. I find that happens a lot in life, with various things, it’s when you take it to the point that you think you can’t take it anymore, that’s when it finally happens.”

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Each of Weirdcore’s creations always represent the musician’s sound with a warped sense of personality. “One thing I’m quite good at is trying to figure out what the artist likes. Initially I tend to send them a few different things, so I can channel through their taste in stuff,” he explains. “These days I rip tonnes of stuff off of the internet. I find my particular style is trying to uses digital techniques, but in styles that existed before computer generated graphics.” In working with Aphex Twin, this sense of style makes their collaboration straightforward: “With Richard, I kind of bombarded him with loads of different references and once I’d figured it out what he liked, it was fairly simple. He’s got a similar taste to me so I’ll be like let’s try this, I’m pretty sure he’ll like it.”

Weirdcore has been providing live visuals for Aphex Twin since 2009, joining him and the same crew on tour since. “I would describe it as the best job in the world on so many levels, but the actual gig, it’s the hardest job in the world.” This difficulty grows from the fact that the designer mixes the visual elements on the night. “It’s all live generated stuff, lots of it is footage from the crowd, fed into my computer and manipulated in real time, with some 3D generated stuff too,” he explains. “When it works, it’s fantastic but if there is one thing that doesn’t go quite right, it will affect the rest of the show. It’s a bit like the difference between theatre and cinema. With theatre there’s all these things that could go wrong on stage, but when it works it’s magical. Whereas with cinema, you’re safe, you know exactly what you’re going to get.”

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The designer’s set up for each show is situated at front of house, alongside the sound, lighting and laser technicians. “I tend to prefer it there, I’ve got a better view of what’s happening on stage and the screens,” he explains. “When it comes to gigs, I see myself closer to what the lighting and laser people are doing really, I never understood why some “VJs” go on stage and have their back to the actual screens. We’re emphasising what the audio artist is doing, embellishing it, visualising it. I wouldn’t be any other place than front of house. It does make it more tricky with cables, but it just works.”

For Aphex Twin’s current stage show Weirdcore uses footage of the crowd, causing a distraction from the artist at work. “For Richard, I tend to customise the visuals for each country we play in,” says the designer. “We only tend to play in one place per country, he doesn’t really do big tours or anything like that,” he tells us. “The usual face mapping we do involves filming the crowd and then I’ll put Richard’s face on them, but I’ve started doing this other thing where I place images of local celebrities, I’ll take the footage of the crowd’s faces and paste it on to them.” This idea developed simply from a seaside holiday, “you know those cutouts where you put your face in it and someone takes a photograph – it was inspired by them”. The audience’s response is immediate: “They react to it quite strongly because there’s evidence of some research. I tend to go for the most trashy, ridiculous, naff celebrity which makes it really ironic because they’re all raving at this Aphex gig and suddenly they see the last person they would expect on the screen, or possibly their face too. It’s hard to describe but it’s a psychological overload.”

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Speaking to Weirdcore in the lead up to Aphex’s performance at Field Day, a London show was proving to be more difficult. “It makes it kind of tricky because we’re the locals in this case! But there will be a bit of a monarchy overload, and I plan to use more trashy celebrities…Only Way Is Essex and Geordie Shore or something, all stuff that I have absolutely no idea what it is, but it looks total trash.” These images, alongside recognisable Aphex Twin symbolism take over a stage backdrop of screens in varying shapes and sizes. “Instead of one big massive screen there’s 12 little screens dotted around. I’m connected to the lighting guy who will black out individual screens, like an extension to his desk. That’s what I mean, there is so many things that can go wrong, it’s all live!”

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Instances where the show hasn’t gone to plan is usually because one element corrupts, causing a domino effect on the rest of the show’s visuals. “I usually find it’s the camera input that can go wrong. When we did the recent gig in Texas we asked for lights to be on the cameras filming, but they didn’t, and the crowd wasn’t lit properly. If I’m not getting the proper input of the crowd, it’s hard for me to do anything with it.” Continuing Weirdcore’s approach of shaping everyday objects into the unknown, the technology used to film the crowd was initially a Microsoft Kinect, a camera you can attach to an Xbox. “When that works it’s fantastic, but it isn’t a pro product, it’s designed to play games in the living room, not to have a cable extended from stage to front of house.”

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Channelling Aphex Twin’s visuals to concentrate on the crowd plays on the musician’s dislike of attention with extreme artistic license. Although, previous performances where Richard has remained hidden on stage has resulted in a disappointed fanbase: “Richard always tells us this story from when he played in Japan once, a really long time ago, he played side of stage and wasn’t properly lit. He actually played for three or four hours, but everyone in the crowd was waiting for him to come on. He went off, thought okay I’m done now, but the crowd really kicked off when they were told he had played already.” Since then, the team surrounding Aphex Twin shows think it’s “good to establish he’s actually there,” and display the artist towards the beginning and end of each set. “But still, there’s not much point for the cameras to stay on him, he’s pretty much motionless controlling a laptop or synth, there’s not much to see.”

The response of the crowd entering The Barn at Field Day to see his most recent show was a jaw dropping gawp. Housed in a temporary aeroplane hanger, the immense size of the structure was filled with multiple coloured lasers mixed with Weirdcore’s video footage, a sensory assault. It served to enhance the sound of Richard at work but to draw attention from a musician playing. Here, the enigma that is Aphex Twin was writ large, an intense marriage of sound and visuals that perpetuated the mystery surrounding the artist in a intensely entertaining way.

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