Michael Gillette is an accomplished illustrator & artist who has worked with musicians and publications such as Elastica, Saint Etienne, Select Magazine and the Record label Nude Records. In the mid ’90s Michael spent a few years house sharing with Richard D James and friends at 36 Clissold Crescent, A house located in the Stoke Newington area of London.
This was the residence where Richard was producing albums such as the “Richard D James album”, “Expert Knob Twiddlers” with Mike Paradinas (μ-Ziq) and other compositions that Michael describes as “a slew of beautiful, haunting music that sounded like a celestial ice cream truck.”
Many thanks to Michael who graciously lent his time and personal recollections making this interview possible. More information concerning Michael’s time with Richard at 36 Clissold Crescent can be found here & here on his personal website. I encourage all readers to check out Michaels wonderful art prints and book “Drawn in Stereo”
Hello Michael to start with could you please tell me a little about yourself and your career as an artist/illustrator?
I grew up in Swansea, and went to art school in Taunton and Kingston. I’ve always been inspired primarily by music. During the time remembered below I was making art for Elastica, Saint Etienne, Select magazine, Nude records etc. I moved to San Francisco in 2001, and have been in California ever since. My retrospective “Drawn in Stereo” was published in 2016. I first wrote about my time living with Richard as part of the book, I thought it was about time.
Were you aware of Richard before you met him, did you attend any of his early gigs?
No, I was a ‘60s obsessed indie kid, techno wasn’t really on my radar. The first time I saw Richard live was in the year we all started living together, either at the Polytechnic of North London, or Knowledge at the SW1 club. Richard began the North London gig with an endless, slow, beat-free flange, which Paul (Nicholson) danced to full tilt…
How did you first meet each other, what were your first impressions of Richard?
He was sitting with Paul across from Surbiton station. There was some in-joke going on between them, it was par for the course with Paul. We were both about to graduate from Kingston, and lived in the same house in different flats. Paul lived with Stu Harrison, also a Kingston illustrator, and we were all planning to move to Islington. A few weeks later we met with Richard and Sam Robinson, his delightful girlfriend, and they were up for moving too. Stu was the motivator and the glue between us. That visit we talked a bit. Richard would definitely test people. We got on ok. I think he was about to go to America, but I can’t find any evidence of that on the web.
What did you think of his first releases such as ‘Analogue Bubblebath’ or ‘Didgeridoo’?
I didn’t hear them until after we were living together. I think I heard Didgeridoo for the first time at Knowledge. I remember someone playing the didgeridoo live with him- that techno crusty Spiral Tribe scene. Anyone with an ear could hear his magic. In the summer of 1992, I worked for Saint Etienne, and I mentioned that I’d just moved into a house with Rich. They were totally in awe. They said they’d ghosted treated samples of his music under some of their tunes to establish the moods.
You first shared a flat with Richard at Southgate Road, the spare room was Richard’s studio, can you recall what equipment was being used at this time or what tracks might have been created during this time period? i.e. do you remember him using his Atari ST to sequence tracks?
I don’t know much about his kit. 184 Southgate Road, was where we ended up. Sam and Richard lived in a separate flat upstairs, Paul, Stu and I lived on the ground floor. Another Kingston designer, Jon Clayton, also had a room, but he was rarely home, he’d sleep at his studio across town rolled up in a futon like a hot dog in a bun. I don’t remember details of Richard’s studio, but it was right above my room, so I first heard his music, through the floorboards. Constant evolving wonder. I’m no expert on his music, I just enjoyed it. For one person to have the keys to so much new territory was incredible.
Did Richard ever explain the functionality of his custom circuits/equipment?
No, it would have been beyond me.
Presumably the flat was also the base of operations for the newly minted Rephlex Records, do you have any memories of activities relating to the running of Rephlex?
Grant was a regular visitor, a sweet guy, Maff too. I just knew they were setting things up. Eventually they put out records by some of the house’s extended cast, P.P Roy and Global Goon were Stu’s mates, and The Gentle People, were friends of Jon.
Do you have any other anecdotes or memories from your time at Southgate Road?
The house was pretty smart, but we got burgled a couple of times. The police said we were in the midst of juvenile half way homes, and that we should expect more Artful Dodgers. They got in through a tiny bathroom window. We were out once the year was up. The landlords wouldn’t renew the lease.
“Here is a bit of trivia about 184 Southgate Road. The downstairs flat I was in got broken into. I had an NTSC VCR player nicked and other people in the flat lost bits and pieces. Given what they took, we reckoned they were just kids .Anyway, because Richard had all his keyboards which he absolutely could not have nicked, he would leave around £500 on the kitchen counter based on the logic that if someone broke into his flat, seeing the cash would grab that, not bother taking anything else and leave. Whether that line of thought would have saved his keyboards in the event of a burglary is open to conjecture.” – Paul Nicholson
After you left Southgate Road (and its questionable neighbours), you moved into Clissold Crescent, was the environment more conducive to creativity?
We could all create under almost any circumstances, working out of our bedrooms, day and night. Stoke Newington was called “Hampstead on the dole” back then, It was kinda villagey, albeit it a village where the police got caught dealing crack.
Who else occupied Clissold Crescent? Was it a hive of constant activity (like the young ones)?
Clissold was Stu, me, Jon (on occasion), Sam and Richard. Paul was out, and another illustrator friend from Kingston, Neale Thomas, joined us. It was a bit Young Ones like, yes. We all had distinct styles: Neale wore 20’s suits, I was in the 60’s, Stu dressed like a cartoon and Sam and Rich- you know their look, they dressed alike. Stuff got smashed a lot. Stu was a fan of BB guns, so stuff got shot a lot too… We lived on the top three floors. The landlord, Mr Hussain, had a vacant flat below (one less neighbour to enrage). It was back to a student level house: wood chip wallpaper, lino and dark, indestructible nylon carpets. No attempt at decor made on our part. It was gloomy. There were always visitors passing through, often staying on the floors, or Jon’s unused bedroom.
Do you remember what Richard’s studio was like? What equipment he might have used during this period? for example, had he switched from his Atari ST to an Apple Macintosh to sequences his music?
His studio was a little room about 10ft by 8ft, crammed with gear, like a plane cockpit in a closet. He was starting to collect rarer, old analog stuff like the Synthi in a suitcase, a gadget for prog rock spies.
Mentioned in an interview from this time period is that Richard created his own artwork with a fax machine. Do you remember this or any other art he might have created? i.e. the cover of ‘…I Care Because You Do.’
I have a vague memory of that. Sometime in ’94 Richard got a beige Apple Mac. Jon Clayton took over from Paul helping Richard with the sleeves. Jon was a versatile designer, a master typographer, the perfect collaborator. He taught Rich (and me) to use Photoshop. It was pretty basic then. Rich started making his portraits for the sleeves. Considering the technology, they were pretty accomplished. He actually made distorted portraits of all in the house and gave us copies. I can’t find mine, I hope it’s tucked in a folder somewhere back in Britain.
Richard mentioned in contemporary interviews that he liked to play computer games quite frequently, do you have any memory of what games these might have been? or what other hobbies he might have indulged in?
He bought a pub tabletop version of Galaxians from Loot. It was up in the bedroom. The room was quite large, double bed, modular ‘70s Habitat sofa, his decks and records, a TV and video. That was the only TV in the house. When he had visitors, Rich would Dj and we’d all hang out. We didn’t have a living room, and the kitchen was dinky. Occasionally he and Sam would come paint balling, laser tagging, go-carting maybe, but his music was always the focus.
Do you remember what tracks were created at Clissold Crescent? Did you witness anything in particular being created?
I remember Expert Knob Twiddlers being made. Mike Paradinas was another Kingston guy. They were drinking vodka which brought a more lairy vibe. One of the samples on that record is from a mix tape a friend had made me: Catch a falling star by Francoise Hardy, they must have pinched it. It’s my unwitting contribution to the canon, oh, and a sample of a kid saying mashed potatoes from a BBC LP on another
track… You are all so very welcome!
Note: The track that samples the Francoise Hardy track, ‘To Catch A falling Star’, is ‘Jellyfish’ from Expert Knob Twiddlers. The track that samples the BBC’s Children Talking’ is ‘Children Talking’ from the Hangable Auto Bulb EP
Melodies from Mars was apparently created mostly during this time period? Do you know anything about that project? or any other aborted projects?
I don’t know, it was just coming out of him all the time. I’m not familiar with what ended up where. I do remember music that sounded like Nannou around the time of Portishead’s Dummy in 1995 It was pretty and haunting.
Richard was inundated by offers to create remixes for various artists in this era. Do you remember any artists he rejected or artists perhaps he wanted to work with? Do you remember what the infamous lemonheads song it was that he was meant to remix?
He knew that bands, or likely labels A&R, were using him for the kudos. He liked Seefeel, you can hear on Mixes for Cash the ones he engaged with. I think the Lemonheads song was Big Gay Heart. The more he said no, the more people offered. He didn’t want to tour- too much hassle to break down his studio. Warp offered to duplicate his set up, still no. The King of tech-no.
You mention on your personal website that Madonna was keen to work with Richard? Do you know how he felt about this? Do you know if the incident were she was asked to make animal noises down the phone was true or not?
Richard had complete control over making and releasing his music. He wouldn’t have had that with Madonna. Most of us would have gone for the $’s or justified it as a way to reach a bigger audience. He didn’t care about those things. Richard wasn’t hungry for attention, and that’s a superpower. When he toured the US with Moby, he was sniffy that Mr Moby came out playing an electric guitar. “He wants to be a rock star” He thought that was lame.
Richard used his success to be totally independent. He had great business instincts. Who else writes, plays, records, runs a label and manages themselves to worldwide acclaim? One December afternoon ,he took acid (the only time I recall) went out and bought Sam a watch on Oxford Street and then did his accounts. The animal noises sounds plausible, you may have noticed he likes to play with people’s minds!
I don’t want to dispel any of the Aphex mystery. Scott Walker was like a mythical beast to me in the 90’s and I’m sure that Richard is like that to many people. They have the music and their own imaginations to fill in the blanks. That’s a rare and beautiful thing in an age where you know what everyone’s eaten for dinner
You also mentioned on your website that neighbours complained of noise pollution? was this due to Richard playing music incredibly loud?
We were all loud. Richard really could crank it though, and as we know, much of it was the sound of nightmares.
Do you remember the incident where a neighbour was wielding a machete in a threatening manner?
No, but I can believe it. He was an old lunatic rattling around the whole house next door with his poor dog. That place must have been a real horror show inside. He would hoover his back garden shouting “FUCKING ARABS!” at us, (because of the landlord Mr Hussain). We were a pretty odd looking bunch of Arabs. He was already cracked when we arrived. The other side lived a writer. She was going nuts, she couldn’t work with the noise. Posters started to go up about getting us evicted. Sam got mugged on the doorstep. I decided to move when the neighbours started lobbing rocks at the windows.
Do you have any other anecdotes or memories from your time at Clissold Crescent?
I don’t know whether this story is out there in Aphex lore. Richard said, when he was a teenager, he stayed with relatives on the edge of London during summer holidays and worked at a Wimpy bar. Part of his job was to dress up as the Beefeater mascot for kid’s parties. He’d come around the corner and the kids would attack him with a full force shoeing, like the traditional battering of a piñata. I can see the link to the Donkey Rhubarb teddies. Randomly, my flatmate from Kingston is in one of those bears in the video. He developed a boil the size of a golf ball on his forehead from the sweat and heat.
Do you think Richard enjoyed living in London or ever missed Cornwall?
I think he was happy to be making music wherever. By the time we moved to Clissold, he could have lived anywhere he wanted. We were all young, maybe he didn’t want to settle down. He liked full on people and the house attracted a carnival of them.
Do you consider this a happy time in your life, do you look back on it with fondness?
It was a really interesting time, with lots of talented, funny individuals, Techno Bohemia. We were all following independent creative lives. There were plenty of Withnail and I moments, but generally it was a gift. The scene would make a great film, and what a soundtrack! I reckon there should be a blue plaque on 36 Clissold Crescent eventually. It was the end of an era, just pre-internet. I’m glad that there was no social media or phones about. I respected everyone in that house and learned a lot from each of them. I was very lucky to be a part of it.