While mindlessly surfing the internet I stumbled across Autechre’s website and saw they were planning a North American tour. The San Francisco date was coming right up on October 16, 2015. Well heck yes I was going to go! Anyone who has listened to music with me knows that Autechre is #1 on my list. So I got in touch with a couple of Ae-friendly friends. It happened that Ben was as excited to go as I was, so I got us some tickets. Good thing I jumped on them, since the show sold out that week.
I drove up to Ben’s house in San Francisco, stopping for a quick charge at Peter Pan BMW service center near SFO. $10 for a charge – ouch! But better that than have to find a place in the city or on the way home. My car could maybe have done the round trip on one charge, but I’d rather not be stranded.
ANyhow, I got to Ben’s at about 8pm. We hung out for a bit, walked to get some food, and made our way to the show at a club called Mezzanine. Doors were at 8:30, and the first of two openers started at 9. We got there about 9:30, right in the heat of DJ Rob Hall’s set. He was playing some great music that I’d never heard. The place wasn’t quite filled up, but it was still early.
DJ Rob Hall
It was a surprisingly diverse crowd. I expected to see mostly clones of Ben and I, but there was a wide range of ages and styles. Most surprisingly were more than just a few women – there were a lot more ladies present than any Ae show I’ve been to in the past. Great! Everyone seemed friendly and mellow.
Rob Hall wrapped up his set around 10:15pm, then it was time for Cygnus to take the stage.
Cygnus is Phillip Washington, formerly known as Central Processing Unit. He put on a lively show, grooving out behind his equipment as he punched tracks in and out of the mix and twiddled knobs to transform the sound this way and that. Things started in a cool and straightforward way, but by mid-set things had gotten really deep and driving. It was a good evolution from Rob Hall’s setlist, and set a vector to Autechre’s mayhem. I’ve since bought a couple of Cygnus’ releases on iTunes and have listened many times. His latest EP called “Radical User Interfaces” is awesome.
Cygnus wrapped up and surprisingly Rob Hall came back on and played some tracks. It was almost midnight at this point.
The multicolor, perpetually moving club lights that had been in full effect for the duration of the show so far went black. There was just a single blacklight fixture in the middle of the room that stayed on, but that mistake was soon corrected and it was powered down.
We were left without visuals to plant any imagery in our minds. There were no lights on the stage either. Just from some ambient glow, I saw the baseball cap of Autechre’s Sean Booth peeking out from behind his MacBook Pro, and his fingers busy doing who knows what. He must have snuck onto the stage, hunched over so nobody could see. Slowly but surely, he seized control of the sound from DJ Rob Hall, manipulating the recorded track with effects surely from centuries in the future. He took what was an already abstract track, and did things with it that made the original seem positively bland. It’s such a challenge to describe what the sounds were at this point – words cannot possibly capture the moebius of sounds and tones in that room.
As the magic was getting into full swing, another figure appeared on stage. It was Rob Brown – the other half of Autechre. He swung his backpack off his shoulder, pulled out his laptop, opened it up, and plugged it into the club’s sound system (and who knows what else).
From here on out, it was all Autechre. Imagine a dark room, filled to legal capacity. A huge sound system pumping out noises that you have never heard before and probably will never hear again. Nothing to look at other than what happened to pop into your mind (and sometimes that damn nerd next to you SSHing on his Android phone. anyhow…)
They didn’t play any songs from any of their two dozen or more albums and EPs. It was all new and unique, and totally catered to a room with a giant sound system. The sound was so crystal clear, so deep, so physically engaging. One standout track was mostly comprised of a hammering, deep, clipped bass sound. Over and over and over it pounded, with little flourishes of higher spectral noise peppered in rhythmically. The music wasn’t so much what we were hearing (and feeling – literally from head to toe) but rather the spaces between the sounds.
Autechre’s music rewards patience and perseverance. There’s always beat in there, but sometimes it’s hard to find. They’ll sometimes throw us a bone with a snare here or a drop there right on the beat. But for the most part, focus and feel are the best guides to really understand what they’re trying to convey. Feel was a huge part of the experience. They made full use of the booming system at Mezzanine, which transformed it from a pure listening experience to one involving your whole body. Bliss.
After a short hour, they disappeared as quietly as they arrived. I could have listened for another seven hours though!
DJ Rob Hall came back on and kept the music going. The crowd thinned out considerably. Ben and I were both hoping this was some kind of intermission, but alas the show was over.
We walked back to Ben’s house in China Basin, and I drove home, getting back at 3am (!!!).
What Autechre does with sound is absolutely unique. Modifying dozens of dimensions of dozens of tracks continuously, while keeping it musical and organic is absolute genius on display. Nobody else in music comes anywhere close to their technical and artistic abilities. Most electronic music is rooted in repetition, which after listening to anything Autechre’s released in the last 10 years just seems like laziness. They’ve been doing this since the early 1990s, and have remained top innovators without exception.
Come back soon guys!
YJY UX from Autechre’s 2013 album Exai. IMO their finest work to date.