words Chris Hall
Acid-trip abstraction, vampiric mutants and rebelling Japanese schoolgirls: Warp Records’ videos have never been conventional. And we interview Autechre video director Alex Rutterford.
Warp records has been home to some of the best experimental electronic music since it was founded in Sheffield in 1989. Just as the musicians attracted to the label tend to be one-off obsessives – Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, LFO, Autechre – so Warp has tended to be a home for similarly obsessive and unusual video directors.
Chris Cunningham is perhaps the best-known director in Warp Vision (The Videos 1989-2004), a breathtakingly varied and original collection of Warp’s music videos on DVD. His films for Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and Autechre – and for non-Warp artists such as Björk and Madonna, which can be found in the collection The Work of Director Chris Cunningham – show just why there is feverish anticipation of his first full-length feature film, which will probably be an adaptation of the comic book RanXerox (not William Gibson’s Neuromancer, as long trailed). At present he’s finishing off two shorts for Warp Films, Rubber Johnny and Spectral. Perhaps the technical quality of his work is no surprise given that he’s worked on Alien 3 and 4 and was head of FX for Stanley Kubrick on AI.
Cunningham’s Windowlicker video (1999) for Aphex Twin opens with an OTT Tarantinoesque argument between two homies cruising around LA: “Just roll, nigger, shit – yeah, nigger! I’m fucking horny as a motherfucker.” The high-end Panavision production values are immediately undercut by the fact that, despite their hoochie-hunting swagger, the guy in the passenger seat appears to be Dwayne Dibley in a black centre-parted wig.
After a few minutes of no music, you start to think: where the hell is this going? Cue the arrival of Aphex Twin in an absurdly stretched limo, who shunts them out of the way. The women get in, their heads morphing into horrific bearded Aphex Twin lookalikes. Windowlicker gleefully subverts the R&B moronathon of tits, arse and egos, and the quality, ingenuity and imagination stand out all the more so against that insipid production line.
Amazingly, the Cunningham videos aren’t even the best in this collection. In fact, his Autechre video, Second Bad Vilbel (1995), isn’t even the best Autechre video. Alex Rutterford’s Gantz Graf (2002) is jaw-dropping in its scope and insane attention to detail, comprising an abstract shape syncopated with the industrial aesthetic of the music. It’s a bit like Tron meets the exploded axonometrics of Zaha Hadid. In its way, this is as seismic a visual shift as A-Ha’s Take on Me (1985) or John Landis’ 15-minute epic Thriller for Michael Jackson (1983). It’s no surprise that Rutterford was asked to do a video for Radiohead on the back of it.
For all Cunningham and Rutterford’s complexity there are some startlingly simple and just as good videos elsewhere on this collection. Jamie Liddel’s The City (2004) is a single shot of an angrily expressive guy shaving. Luke Vibert’s brilliant I Love Acid (2003) has a trippy break-dancing Felix the Cat hovering above a seething morass of LSD tabs. There are also three fine early-1990s efforts directed by Jarvis Cocker, presumably done while he was plotting pop stardom with Pulp, the best of which is On for Aphex Twin (1993).
LFO’s Freak (2003) is a twisted homage to The Shawshank Redemption, featuring a Japanese all-girl school that looks more like a prison. The teacher is locked in a toilet cubicle while the girls override the tannoy with the LFO track – the whole playground is soon jumping to the chorus: “This is going to make you freak.” Indeed it does.
Another video to pay homage to film, this time Planet of the Apes, is Mira Calix’s Little Numba, whose relative anonymity is lifted by a terrific animation with amoebas evolving as they push their way up to the surface of a planet to become formicate humanity before blasting off to another planet. Apart from a few tracks – such as LFO’s LFO (1991) – the songs are closer to album tracks than singles, which makes the videos all the more incredible.
Truly a great deal of this gem of a collection is more art than promotional work. Videos this good – witty, inventive, subversive – should be seen on a cinema screen.
Warp Vision (The Videos 1989-2004), £19.99
How did the idea for Gantz Graf come about?
I’d been chatting to Shaun and Rob [from Autechre] for years about this idea of interacting sound with some kind of abstract shape. Without sounding like a druggy, they were the images I saw in my head while I was on acid a long time ago.
It’s incredibly detailed – how long did it take?
It took me about a month to work out a technique just to animate one little thing in particular. Months and months. I used the LightWave program, a 3D animation application. An architectural student in Italy is writing a thesis on it. He wanted to know the most detailed aspects of it – it’s a bit mad really.
Why has Warp been so successful with its videos?
They have an aura and a mystique and a bit of an attitude which is quite rare these days. You just see more and more videos that are commonplace and banal. I cannot stand the pop trash fodder, it’s so formulaic. You have to work five times as hard to get something special. Some people expect a video that looks like bloody George Lucas has directed it.
How obsessive are you?
I’m a lunatic. One of the things I’m working on at the moment – it’s very sculptural – is going to take about a year to do.