Warp Records and the Don't-Call-It-IDM Revolution

Celebrating 20 years of weird radicalism with a label that didn't quit

After 20 years of being and becoming an institution, Warp Records is nearly impossible to sum up in one weekend of shows or one box set, no matter how extravagant. And yet the label—alternately christened Weird and Radical Projects or We Are Reasonable People—thus observes its two-decade anniversary in September, weathering changes in fickle music fashion and surviving the 2001 death of co-founder Rob Mitchell. Justifiably, they're celebrating with both a multi-night, multi-venue, multi-media birthday party (much of it free, all of it aurally cataclysmic) and, for those who prefer objects to experiences, the Warp20 collection, whose size and breadth rival both Arthur C. Clarke's lunar monolith and Ace Hardware's common doorstop.

What's in the box: everything from Autechre's "Gantz Graf" to Jimmy Edgar's "I Wanna Be Your STD," Grizzly Bear's "Colorado," Aphex Twin's "Bucephalus Bouncing Ball," and beyond. There's a CD of Warp artists covering the label's "hits," a dicey opera of a concept, as American Top 40 charts don't feature Warp tracks so much as subconsciously betray Warp influences—listen to the glitchy, burping breakdown in Britney Spears's "Toxic," and you'll hear just how much. There's also previously unheard material by label stalwarts Autechre, Nightmares on Wax, Boards of Canada, and Broadcast, culled literally from a drawer in co-founder Steve Beckett's desk at Warp Central in London.

Elsewhere, there's a fan-selected 10-track compilation (featuring Aphex Twin's "Windowlicker," Boards of Canada's "Roygbiv," and Luke Vibert's "I Love Acid," to name a few), alongside an exclusive hour-long mix by Osymyso, the palindromic nom de guerre of Mark Nicholson, incidentally the brother of designer and Aphex Twin logo creator Paul "Terratag" Nicholson. Visually, a 192-page artwork catalog covers every Warp release from 1989 to just a few days ago, showcasing work by Universal Everything, Kim Hiorthøy, and the recently shuttered Designers Republic, a package that nicely accompanies the locked-groove vinyl set that, all told, makes the box, as graven idols go, something that practically demands supplication. Emerging just in time for autumn, the CDs themselves carry the faint scent of maple syrup.

Oh, Aphex Twin.
Courtesy Warp Records
Oh, Aphex Twin.

Precisely for this flash and filigree, Warp Records may just be one of the most perfect record labels ever conceived. Founded in 1989 by Steve Beckett, Rob Mitchell, and Robert Gordon, in Sheffield, the imprint took "dance" music from candy-colored 4/4 head-nods into deeper, darker territories involving everything from the tortured antifolk of Vincent Gallo and the 17/2 twisted-body ruminations of Aphex Twin to the psychedelic digital glossolalia of Mancunian duo Autechre and the more recent pop-choral ecstacies of Grizzly Bear. Warp was a label born out of the bedrooms and the back of borrowed cars, offering limited editions and hand-stamped mystique. A lack of mainstream promotion propagated the public secret of their records (which sold in increasing thousands); in 1992, the Artificial Intelligence compilation brought a new, more skewed and abstract sound from the likes of the Orb's chill-out architect Dr. Alex Paterson, Richard D. James's Aphex Twin, and Autechre, a phenomenon punctuated by press blackouts and lights turned all the way on at concerts.

Aphex Twin became perhaps the most emblematic of all Warp signings: The harrowing, grotesque videos for "Come to Daddy" and "Rubber Johnny" brought Warp Films and the career of director Chris Cunningham to greater prominence. The label moved to London in 2000; the following year, co-founder Mitchell died of cancer. In the past half-decade, Warp's focus has turned to spreading the good word through Bleep, their online digital-music outlet, which also functions as a newsletter concerning all Warp output. Their more recent focus has moved somewhat from the dreaded "intelligent dance music" signifier to more expansive bounds: the spasmodic, technically stunning New York quartet Battles, the wildly successful Grizzly Bear, and Canadian post-punk trio Born Ruffians.

"They let us do pretty much anything," says Autechre's Sean Booth. "They take 50 percent of profit; we get artistic freedom. . . . I can't imagine anyone else being able to do what they do. Usually, when a label expands, it becomes less flexible, but in Warp's case, the opposite has happened. Here's hoping they never sell to a major [label], like Mute did." Steven Ellison, a/k/a experimental hip-hop purveyor Flying Lotus, agrees: "Warp are always supportive of my moves and ideas. They've given me a huge stage to play my story. I'm glad to be part of their history."

To celebrate all this history and activity—crowned by an event in Sheffield on September 19 in the Q-Park, with Squarepusher, a reunited Nightmares on Wax (EASE and Boy Wonder), Clark, Andrew Weatherall, and Forgemasters, the very first Warp signing—we chatted recently with Warp co-founder Beckett.

Tell me about Rob Mitchell.

He was my partner who started the label back in 1989, so we were very much just working next to each other for probably 12 years, and then, in 2001, two weeks after he got married, he got diagnosed with cancer. Over a six-month period, his health deteriorated, and six months later, he died of cancer. There are quite a lot of memories associated with this box set that we put together, obviously name-checking him in that box. We're doing a little memorial service for him, and when we do the Sheffield live event—because that's where all his family are—he'll definitely be pretty close in a lot of people's memories during these events.

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