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.
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.
After he had passed, was there a distinct change in direction for the label?
We’d both been very much a part of the direction anyway, so it wasn’t like, suddenly, everything altered, but it was definitely. . . . From my perspective, you’ve got the company on two shoulders, and then suddenly, one set of shoulders has just completely disappeared. I think, at the time, I didn’t realize it was such an emotional strain, but looking back on it, I realize I was pretty lost for a year or two, I’d say.
How did you cope?
[Pause.] I really went inside and questioned the meaning of what I was doing, and why I was here, and all those sorts of questions—you know, really started looking inside myself, seeing if I could find some answers in there.
There’s this perception that Warp Records is all about IDM . . .
Oh, my God, I hate that term.
Oh, God, yeah! I can’t stand it.
Where had you first heard it?
I think it followed us putting out Artificial Intelligence. There’s a news group called Intelligent Dance Music, so it grew around that, so everybody who was interested in that genre was talking about it on that news group. It just got associated with the music that we were doing at the time. I just hate that title. It got completely bastardized, from something that’s about almost taking the piss out of the fact that people thought that that music was being made by computers, into a different term, which is almost making out that you’ve got to be intelligent to listen to that music.
Were there record labels after which Warp was modeled?
We grew from a record shop in Sheffield. At that time, we were selling records by Factory; we were just totally intrigued by that sort of beauty and mystery that’s on a sleeve, where you don’t quite know what surprises are going to be inside the sleeve. They were definitely an influence. Mute, at the time, as well, and Rough Trade—all the big indies we looked up to, because they had a lot of the records we were selling in the shop and then also, at the same time, the whole “techno revolution,” which, at the time, was just starting to take off, so we were getting all these amazing records from Chicago and Detroit. It was almost a melding of those influences, so obviously we were influenced by the whole dance thing because we were right at the start of that revolution in the late ’80s.
Is there a point at which there’s this enigma that goes beyond the packaging that doesn’t say anything on the sleeve—is that something, that sense, that you can transmit through a Warp record?
Oh, completely. I’ve been talking about this recently—what’s that quote? “Great design is a way of communicating human emotion through an inanimate object.” People can just tell by the effort that you’ve put into the design that you give a shit about what you’re trying to communicate, that there must be something worth listening to inside the packaging. So I totally believe that you can communicate that through your design. And it’s something like an intuitive, felt sense between the observer or the experience of the art form, and I just know if it’s just a couple of degrees off, it’s not authentic. It’s like the people who know they’re going to be communicated to through that inanimate object, which I think is fascinating.
Are mystique and mystery the same thing, then?
Mystery, to me, is just everything. That’s literally the creative energy that’s just flowing through everything that creative people can never really put a handle on. Mystery is totally authentic, and you can never name it or control it or identify it—whereas mystique is more of a contrived, sort of ego relation to it, and it’s more thought out, really.
So is one more tangible than the other?
Yeah, I think mystique’s a lot more—well, that’s the whole point. You can grasp mystique, to a certain extent, whereas the mystery, you can’t grasp it. That’s why it’s called a mystery.
When a band is on Warp, is it a lifetime relationship?
I was just speaking to George Evelyn from Nightmares on Wax, and he literally signed in the first year, 20 years ago, and he’s still working with us. The same with Mark Bell from LFO—even bands like Autechre and Aphex Twin have been with us for 12 or 15 years. Both those bands have finished their contracts and re-signed with us, so there’s definitely something that keeps them coming back. I think that part of it is that there is quite a family atmosphere to it—we’re one of the few indie labels that are doing 50-50 deals, and so I think that there’s something about it that makes it more of a partnership than a “them-and-us,” because you’re both making joint decisions on what you’re spending the money on and how you’re sharing the profits.
What’s the typical Warp consumer like?
You know, we’re always asking ourselves that question! There’s not a typical Warp consumer, because they’re different for different acts, so if you went to a Grizzly Bear gig, they would be a damn sight different from [those at] an Autechre gig. If you go to an Autechre gig, it’s going to be a lot of guys that are really intense and really into getting their minds blown by the psychedelic music, but at a Grizzly Bear show, there are going to be really young kids and loads of beautiful-looking people. It really does vary.
Do you think people are getting more beautiful as time goes on?
[Laughs.] I think we are, you know?
In the last 20 years—1989 to now?
Oh, my God. For sure. If you think of what people are wearing now compared to baggy, baggy T-shirts with smiley faces, fucking red bandannas . . .
Well, that was just depressing. Why must you bring that up?
[Laughs.] You didn’t have to live with it!
What’s the strangest place Warp music has appeared?
My sister went on holiday in some remote place in Italy, and she arrives in the village, and there’s some Warp track playing out the window—things like that. Getting in taxis in Germany, and it’s playing on the radio. The best one was when I went into a café, and the press person was supposed to give me a pitch on some band she was working on, and Autechre was playing in the café as I walked in. And then to start off the conversation, she said, “Fucking hell, I can’t stand this music—I can’t tell the difference between the cappuccino machine and this record!” I said, “This is my label’s band.” She was mortified.
The ‘Warp20’ celebration runs September 3–6 at the New Museum with a free Warp Films retrospective. !!!, Battles, Flying Lotus, and Pivot play Terminal 5 on September 4.
Chris Clark, Hudson Mohawke, and Warp DJs play the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center September 5; (le) poisson rouge hosts a closing performance that same night featuring Jamie Lidell, Born Ruffians, and the Hundred in the Hands. For more information, see wordlessmusic.org or warp.net/records/warp20.