His approach to making music is unlike that of any artist in any genre, but that's not to say he hasn't had a bevy of musicians look to him for inspiration. In fact, there are few more influential figures in the realm of electronic dance music.
Richard D James proved himself to be an anarchic music and technological genius very early on in life. He claimed that, when he was 11, he produced sound on a 1981 home computer system called a Sinclair ZX81. A huge feat, given the computer didn’t feature any sound hardware. He has continued to blow minds ever since, constructing otherworldly sounds and arrangements.
The J Files has spoken to journalists, classical music experts and some renowned and burgeoning electronic musicians to examine what it is that makes Aphex Twin such a unique and formidable artist. His music, his controversial, difficult and hilarious antics and the impact he has on those who hear his compositions are fascinating and unlike any other modern musical story.
People tend to remember the first time they heard an Aphex Twin song. Whether they enjoy it or not, the music is so distinctive that it leaves a firm impression.
Canadian artist Dan Snaith is best known as electronic music producer Caribou. It was Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works 85 – 92 that guided Snaith towards the kind of electronic music he would go on to make himself.
He was turned onto the record by his childhood friend (and later Stones Throw recording artist) Koushik, who brought it back from a trip to the UK as a teenager.
"This was really one of the records which introduced me to electronic music for the very first time," he tells Double J. "I remember it being such an exciting and, in retrospect, life changing point in my life.
This album, with its beautiful melodies and harmonies and kind of more feminine sensibility about it, really, really connected with me and showed me there was a different potential for electronic music.Dan Snaith, Caribou
"I remember [Koushik] and my friends – I didn't smoke weed at that time, but most of my friends did – I remember us all sitting down in my friend's basement and him playing this record to us and all of us really enjoying that moment," Snaith recalls. "It stuck with me. I still listen to his record and still DJ some of those tracks, but I always go back to that moment. It's one of those comfortable musical places that I can go back to and enjoy at any time. Something I'll always remember from my teenage years."
Some casual observers might consider Aphex Twin's music grating and discordant but it was the beauty of these songs that Snaith initially found endearing.
"I was hearing lots of much more tough, industrial sounding electronic music at that point. This album, with its beautiful melodies and harmonies and kind of more feminine sensibility about it, really, really connected with me and showed me there was a different potential for electronic music."
Everything changed for PVT drummer Lawrence Pike after he heard an Aphex Twin record for the first time.
[It] was like this whole new universe of sound opened up to me.Laurence Pike, PVT
"I was at Kim Moyes' (The Presets) house – we were studying music together at the time – and he had the new Aphex Twin record, Richard D. James Album (1996). I remember he put it on and it was like this whole new universe of sound opened up to me. It was so exciting, it really felt like this music could be from Mars, I'd never heard anything like it. It kind of really changed the course of my musical life and my thinking on music. It was one of those records that really just changed the game for me."
Nils Frahm's first experience hearing Aphex Twin was particularly unique. He bought a not particularly well-known remix package of the 'Come To Daddy' single with a vibrant, striking cover from reputation alone.
"When I was 17 I was going to buy some records in Haight St in San Francisco. It's a place where you can't really listen to records before you buy them, so I listened to my first Aphex Twin record after I bought it," he says.
"It was certainly an EP, not so famous, it's called 'An image of a boy chasing an ice-cream van after an orange' – I think that's what it's called.
The EP in question is a fairly obscure 'Come To Daddy' remix EP, released in 1997, which has the words "an image of children chasing after an ice cream van from an Orange TV commercial advertising text messaging" emblazoned on the front cover.
Freaky clips, but the beauty of 'Selected ambient works' is just phenomenal.Vanessa Lisa via Facebook
"It's very crazy Aphex Twin IDM kind of stuff, I was just blown away by how different it was from anything I had heard before."
Fenella Kernebone, host of triple j's The Sound Lab, was in high school when she first heard Aphex Twin. Like Snaith, she was drawn to Selected Ambient Works 85 – 92 in high school, though also devoured EPs released at the time.
"Things like (1992 EP) 'Didgeridoo' and Analogue Bubblebath (a series of EPs released under the name AFX), all those early releases were really pivotal in my early listening. They got me out of the grunge era. Aphex Twin is one of the big reasons why I still, to this day, adore electronica.
"For me, listening to that stuff in Year 11 meant that I was a bit of a freak. People wanted to listen to pretty predictable, boring music."
The mystery that surrounds this architect of such bizarre music is another alluring part of the Aphex Twin story. Since his very first releases, he has not only bent our minds with his music, but kept us guessing with complementary creative oddities.
I think all these things add up to a mystery that his super fans really want to puzzle out.Philip Sherburne, Pitchfork
When certain songs are fed through a spectrograph, the frequencies of his music represented visually show up patterns and pictures of his face. Rumours of him sleeping in a bank vault and driving around in an army tank are common and the mere imagery around his releases range from creepy to confounding.
Aphex Twin has also kept most parts of his personal life private, going so far as to establish and spread a series of myths about his life.
"From the very beginning he's used so many different aliases.” says Pitchfork's Philip Sherburne, who is one of just a couple of journalists to have spoken with Aphex Twin in recent years.
"Recently I was going through the old IDM mailing list archives. These dated back to the early-'90s. It was interesting to see how, even back then, people were really treating Aphex Twin as much as a myth as an individual. Even 20 years ago this was already how he was received by his listeners.
"I think a lot of that has to do with the limited editions, with the aliases. He's gone as Caustic Window, Bradley Strider, The Diceman, GAK, Polygon Window, so many different names over the years. His relations with the press, his habit of telling stories, I don't know to what extent they're lies or stretching the truth or creative retellings of things, but he's never exactly been a very faithful narrator. I think all these things add up to a mystery that his super fans really want to puzzle out."
The IDM mailing list Sherburne speaks of was an email list established dedicated to discussing the music of acts like Aphex Twin, Autechre and Mike Paradinas' μ-Ziq – so-called Intelligent Dance Music – and was an important part of the genre's development.
"Somewhere around 1995 someone claiming to be Aphex Twin mailed the list and started interacting with people in all capital letters," Sherburne says. "I remember at the time having heard about that and it wasn't clear if that was actually Richard D James himself or whether it was somebody pretending to be him. He's such a prankster, he could have put somebody else up to it. A lot of lore around this music is rooted in this mailing list."
This anonymity and playful toying with the audience is influential in itself, Sherburne says, as it inspired certain artists to retain a mysterious anonymity.
"He's certainly not the first trickster in electronic music," Sherburne says. "But he kind of paved the way for Boards Of Canada to have their reclusive, mystery men persona, he paved the way for Burial, he paved the way for anybody that worked under an alias or that fed disinformation to the public. Deadmau5 is definitely a descendent of Aphex Twin in a very direct way."
Aphex Twin has been known to stir up his audiences at his live shows, as well. Tales of him DJing with sheets of sandpaper and performing with a food mixer are popular examples of his immense cheek and Lawrence Pike had some bizarre early experiences with seeing Aphex Twin perform in Australia.
I think he was going through a weird period there where he was deliberately trying to antagonise people, I'm not sure why.Laurence Pike
"I can really distinctly remember the first time I heard Aphex Twin, I was 17, I'd just finished high school and I went to the Big Day Out in 1997," he recalls. "I'd been hearing the name Aphex Twin around the traps for a while so a few friends and I went to the Boiler Room. We went in there and there was no discernible stage or anything but there was this incredible music playing and there was maybe 100 people in there, dancing in the middle of the afternoon.
"I looked around wondering 'where's Aphex Twin?' and I finally saw this guy lying on his stomach in the corner of the room, on the dance floor, with a mixing desk and a laptop next to him. I thought 'well that must be Aphex Twin, this is pretty odd' and then these three fluorescent green bears came into the crowd with the iconic image of his face on these fluorescent green bears.
"They started dancing with everyone and everyone was freaking out, I remember at one stage someone threw a bear onto the ground and started spinning him in circles and the poor guy couldn't get up because he was in this massive bear suit."
Things were a little less playful, at least for the audience, the second time around.
"The second time I saw him was in the early 2000s and was a very hostile gig at the Metro in Sydney that I actually walked out of," Pike says. "I really hated it. I'm not sure if that's the response he was trying to elicit from the audience, it kinda felt like it, he came out and did this really obnoxious two hour set of acid house music that was really aggressively loud. I think he was going through a weird period there where he was deliberately trying to antagonise people, I'm not sure why."
He's not out there for the fans... He's just interested in making music and amusing himself.Philip Sherburne
Sherburne has a very simple hypothesis about why Aphex Twin continues to mess with his audience. He just does not care.
"He's not out there for the fans," Sherburne says. "Maybe there's a generation of listeners that think that artists owe them something, that they owe them this window into their personal lives. I think Aphex Twin is a different model, he's out there to make music that satisfies him, hopefully people will like it but I don't think he cares that much. He's just interested in making music and amusing himself. And I think that's enough."
He'll never be a household name, but the influence that Aphex Twin has had on a wide variety of artists and even different musical styles over the years is immense.
"It's hard to imagine contemporary electronic music without him having created the body of work that he has," Sherburne says.
"You can hear styles that he pioneered trickling into popular and semi-popular music all over the place. You can hear his influence in Radiohead, you can hear his influence in Skrillex, you can hear his influence in Buriel. "
Dan Snaith agrees and says the influence of Aphex Twin can increasingly be heard through styles of music that go well beyond the underground.
"That whole kind of sound has permeated all of electronic music and lots of pop music," Dan Snaith says. "I hear it in R&B production, I hear it everywhere. His influence has just spread and spread and spread."
The artists we spoke to were happy to admit the direct impact that Aphex Twin's music had on their own output was substantial.
"If you listen to the first album that I released in 2001 [Start Breaking My Heart – as Manitoba], his classic mid-period albums were coming out or were really fresh around that time," Snaith says. "When I listen back to the first record I released, I just hear me trying to find out how to make those sounds, those kind of woozy synthesizer sounds, those kind of droney melancholic chords. Those sounds are still there in my music now."
Nils Frahm says that Aphex Twin's frank, uncompromising attitude towards making music was hugely inspiring.
"Anyone who really listens to Aphex Twin has to admit that his music is absolutely different from all other music out there. That fact alone inspired me," he says. "To see that someone so successful was absolutely doing his own thing and didn't seem to care about anything else but his own output and his own language.
You can hear his influence in Radiohead, you can hear his influence in Skrillex, you can hear his influence in Buriel.Philip Sherburne
"Also the piano tracks on the Druqks album, they impressed me because he was modifying his piano in a very nice way and the compositions are really beautiful. I thought it was a great mixture to mix a piano with electronic music."
The influence of Aphex Twin's music on Lawrence Pike's creative output is more general, he says, but still considerable.
"There are many instances of me pilfering ideas from Aphex Twin in my own music," Pike laughs. "Rhythmically I feel like his ideas played a big influence on me on how I play the drums. I discovered his music at a really formative time and it really reframed a lot of ideas about rhythm and how to apply ideas he was making on computer to a physical drum kit. That's something I became really interested in and undoubtedly has influence the way I play the instrument."
We decided to explore the influence of classical music on the work of Aphex Twin further and have one of his most popular pieces, 1999 single 'Windowlicker' dissected by an expert in the field.
Virginia Read is an ARIA awarding winning classical music producer and engineer who currently works as Recordings Manager for ABC Classics and Jazz.
Read had never heard 'Windowlicker' before we gave her a copy of the song and wasn't at all aware of who or what Aphex Twin was. She was able to identify plenty of interesting things about the song, however, which makes it seem a little more typical than you may have initially thought it to be.
"What I found interesting about the music was that it, in many ways, is coming very much from a classical music tradition," she said of the song. "Musique concrète is the whole principal of creating music by using sounds that you've recorded and manipulating them in various ways to create a piece of music. This piece is very much from that tradition of musique concrète which started in Europe in the '30s.
The structure of the song is a little left-of-centre, but there are still plenty of comparisons to be drawn to classical music, Read says.
"It's not a standard structure of a typical song, but nevertheless there is a structure to the music that is also quite classical in its execution," she explains.
"Very basically, there's an introduction, where he establishes the sound world that the song is going to inhabit. Then, once he gets into the song proper, the beat is established. There's a harmonic pattern, which is repeated over and over, which is a very classical technique.
"What comes to mind is Pachelbel's Canon, which is a harmonic progression, quite short, just repeated over and over. On top of that you have much more complicated melody and things happening – you can go off into all sorts of interesting areas with your melody while being grounded in this repeating pattern. That's sort of what he does. He brings in the melody with a voice, someone is singing a melody, and that is repeated a lot but always manipulated."
Windowlicker has always been up there as one of my favourite electronic songs...That mind blowing ending gives me goosies even nearly a decade after first hearing it.Laura Frazer via Facebook
The way in which Aphex Twin pulls away from and refers back to the main beat and harmonic progression means that he is able to get away with it without it sounding too jarring.
"While keeping the same, nice, even tempo, there's the repeated harmonic progression. He can then easily, quickly jump in and out of that and throw you off the beat for a moment. But he only does it in very short little episodes. We're going along tapping our foot and then suddenly it's like 'whoa, it's different!', but then he goes back. He never takes you too far away, he's always keeping you grounded. Although he'll take you in different places, he keeps bringing you back to the same track.
"That's what allows him to bring in all sorts of different sounds from different places and layer things up quite complexly. He's managing to do that without you being bombarded or you lose interest because there's too much information coming at you because he's maintaining the beat and maintaining the harmony."
You can take your pick of reasons why Aphex Twin is one of the most fascinating artists of the modern era. He has shied away from the conventional method of operating for his entire career and we can only imagine he will continue to do so as the years go on.
This year's Syro was announced via a blimp flying over London, graffiti in New York and, finally, its title and tracklist were unleashed via the deep web. For a man who hadn't released an album in 13 years, it was refreshing to see he wasn't going normal on us.
Of course he had released material in that time. An album and an EP under the moniker of The Tuss came out in 2007, with compositions credited to Karen and Brian Tregaskin. Because that's just what he does.
Try as you might, we doubt you'll be able to guess what Aphex Twin does next.