31.12.2009, Words by Charlie Jones

The Dummy Guide To Warp Records

Warp turned 20 this year. Attempting to sum up in a few words the impact of this label over the last two decades would be a fruitless task. It has one of those annoyingly diverse rosters that over the years has become increasingly hard to pin down under any particular sound or scene. Each new release continues to surprise and excite. Just when you think you have them figured out, they move on. Their sleeve design, at one moment garish and brutal, the next pristine and beautiful, is an inspiration to every up-and-coming graphic designer worth their salt. The fact that they have stuck to their guns, not ‘sold out’, yet thrived when larger labels have long disappeared makes them the role model for countless independents.

Of course, there are already plenty of books, magazine articles and blogs about all that, and they’re written with far more intelligence and finesse than I could possibly muster in this article. So I won’t bother. Instead, I’m going to resort to the ultimate fallback for lazy journalists (and in my case, lazy non-journalists) – the annotated list.

It being the tail end of 2009 and what with the Warp20 anniversary events recently wrapped up, the more cunning mathematicians amongst you will have already figured out that the year of Warp’s inception was 1989, and that would be entirely correct. At the FON record shop in Sheffield (which later became the Warp shop), three employees, Rob Mitchell, Steve Beckett and studio engineer/wizard Robert Gordon devised Warped Records. Only after constantly being misheard over the phone did they simplify things and go with Warp. Other suggested names included Big Bass, Deep Groove and Twisted Records. I think they made the right choice.

Warp struck gold (albeit accidentally) at the very beginning in choosing the Sheffield based Designers Republic to design their logo, sleeves and promotional material, picked because they were local and they didn’t know anyone else who could do it. They grew to become one of the world’s most respected and inspirational design studios, with heavyweight clients such as Sony, Adidas and Coca Cola commissioning them for work. Unfortunately, they recently closed for business; victims of current UK economic troubles, yet to Warp fans, tDR will always be fondly remembered for the classic retro-futurist logo, purple 12” house sleeve and their brilliant record covers for all manner of Warp artists.

Throughout the first phase of Warp, the influence of early Detroit Techno and Chicago House is apparent. From the cold ‘ah-ah-ah’s of the first 12”: Forgemasters’ Track With No Name to Nightmares On Wax’s Dextrous, then on to utter classics like the bleep-tastic Testone by Sweet Exorcist, the gut-wobbling bass of LFO and beyond, a direct link can be drawn between the underground club scenes of those distant American industrial cities and what became known as ‘Sheffield Techno’. Drum machines, bass and bleeps. And a bit of clonk.

In 1991 Rob Gordon left Warp. Following countless arguments (culminating in massive disagreements over which Tricky Disco tracks to sign and whether they should license Can’t Stop by Plez), Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell voted Gordon out then bought his shares in the label, apparently for a huge amount that they could barely afford. Allegedly, the final straw was when Gordon threw a phone at Beckett during one of their ‘discussions’.

Rather than simply retread the same ground which had bought them considerable commercial success (tracks such as the aforementioned LFO, Aftermath by Nightmares On Wax and later on Tricky Disco’s Tricky Disco all selling and charting well), Warp took a radical new direction. Over the course of 10 albums, including 2 genre-defining compilations, they nurtured a new breed of so-called ‘intelligent techno’, music to listen and think about rather than dance to. The series included early tracks and albums from the likes of Autechre, Speedy J, Richie Hawtin (as Up! and FUSE) and Aphex Twin (as The Dice Man and Polygon Window).

Aside from Lex (which I’ll discuss later), early on Warp had ideas for releasing a variety of different music via sub labels, which (at the time) might have alienated their core fans. They set up Gift Records; its focus being pop/rock, releasing the first records from future stars Pulp (whose singer Jarvis also directed several early videos for Warp) and other less notable local Sheffield bands such as Various Vegetables and V. After Pulp signed to Island, Beckett saw no need to continue the label. Another of Warp’s early subsidiaries, Nucleus, focused on straight-up dancefloor material, including productions by the likes of Chris Duckenfield and The Forgemasters’ Winston Hazel. In the early 00s, Warp birthed yet another sub label, Arcola, releasing a dozen or so 12”s by the likes of Brothomstates, Milanese and Dub Kult. Of course, nowadays Warp have no such qualms about separating acts because of their particular ‘sound’, releasing what they want under one banner.

Everyone knows of Aphex Twin, the eccentric, prolific and prodigiously talented Richard D. James. Whatever you think of him or his music, he is undoubtedly Warp’s most popular artist. Under a plethora of aliases (including AFX, Polygon Window, Blue Calx, Caustic Window, The Dice Man, GAK, Smojphace, Bradley Strider, The Tuss and many more) and utilizing a variety of styles and techniques, from the chilled, almost submerged reverberations of the ‘Selected Ambient Works’ series to the ratcheted snare rolls of ‘Come To Daddy’, on to the increasingly insane glitched, distorted and stretched complexity of ‘Death Fuck’ (as The Tuss on James’ own Rephlex label) via heart wrenchingly emotional prepared piano solos on ‘Drukqs’, the wealth of ideas and sheer originality of his work makes him one of electronic music’s true pioneers. His contact with the press, always interestingly difficult, is becoming rarer and rarer, but the rumours of bank vault studios, tanks and Yamaha GX-1s just add to his mystique and popularity. Will there be a new album in 2010? 2011? Even Beckett has no idea.

Quite possibly Warp’s most experimental artists (which is saying something), over the course of eight albums and many more EPs, Sean Booth & Rob Brown have created some of the most varied and mindbending ‘electronica’ out there. It’s music stretched, squeezed and tweaked into beautifully formed pieces. While you could detect their electro, hip-hop and techno influences early on, their sound has gradually mutated and become far more challenging (and rewarding) over time. There is an underlying rigidity, but not in the normal sense. It’s a flexible, endlessly evocative rigidity. Setting visuals to this kind of thing isn’t easy, but check out Alexander Rutterford’s remarkable video for ‘Gantz Graf’, a track so uncompromising, it seems to repeatedly splinter, self-destruct and reform over the course of its short four minutes. Incredible.

It seems Tom Jenkinson doesn’t stop making music. He is the man with a thousand styles; one moment you’ll hear blisteringly fast Amen breakbeats and squelching acid bass lines, the next cheeky 2-step drum programming or deftly strummed classical guitar, all chopped and sequenced into inconceivably bizarre yet funky sketches (and I hate the word funky, but in this case, it’s perfectly apt) with flourishes of six-string bass solos that would make Jaco Pastorius weep in appreciation (Jenkinson is a master of the instrument). Expect swift changes in pace, time signature and key that simultaneously tweak the nose of Jazz, slap Garage round the chops and drop Drum & Bass with a well placed knee to the groin. Thrilling stuff, as both Andre 3000 and Thom Yorke agree.

The mysterious Boards Of Canada are brothers Marcus Eoin and Mike Sandison, two Scots with a penchant for dusty old videotapes and a bit of good old isolation. Their music is wonderfully complex and layered (the duo allegedly spend days over the absolute minutiae of their tracks, such as a single hi-hat sound), and deeply uneasy yet utterly blissful listening. Named after and influenced by the nature films and documentaries of the National Film Board Of Canada (their family lived in Canada for a while when they were younger), and with an outward interest in the wilderness, pagan rituals and the occult, their music lives and breathes with an otherworldly nostalgia. The pair rarely grant interviews, yet through their supposed secret recording techniques and evident nods to geometry, numerology, and hidden messages submerged in their music, continue to cause fervent discussion among fans.

Their record shop closed in 1997, yet business was booming for Warp in the late 90s. They celebrated their 10th anniversary in style with a triple album release, ‘Influences, Classics & Remixes’, each lavishly issued as a double CD and quadruple LP, encased in what is possibly the Designers Republic’s finest and most cohesive sleeve design for Warp yet. At this time, Warp were synonymous with so-called (and I apologize for using this rubbish term) IDM. Thankfully, with the first two parts of this fantastic compilation, uninitiated listeners could unearth the roots of Warp, their prehistory as well as early gems, and join the dots themselves. The final part of this release, ‘Remixes’, contained some truly inspired match-ups, such as Pram remixing both LFO and Aphex Twin in one, Jimi Tenor’s superb version of Sweet Exorcist’s ‘Mad Jack’, Trevor Jackson (as The Underdog) remixing Broadcast and the unashamedly fun dancehall Oily Bag mix of ‘Testone’. Well worth tracking down.

In 2000 Warp relocated to London. With the music industry concentrated in the capital, it made sense, especially with Mitchell and Beckett spending less and less time in their hometown, traveling elsewhere for meetings. Over their first decade Warp had transformed from a close knit family of friends to a disparate yet connected community of artists and contributors from all over the planet. The Internet certainly helped in all this, but by basing themselves in London, they could truly propel Warp into new realms of opportunity. They took the original Warp shop sign with them.

Tragically, shortly after their move, Rob Mitchell was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away at the age of 38 on the 8th October 2001. His importance to the label cannot be underestimated, and following a balanced 11-year partnership with shared decisions and responsibilities, Steve Beckett found himself alone, running a company in one of their busiest years (no less than 11 albums and nine singles were released).

Ever experimenting, Warp have released a number of unusual projects that other labels would think twice about. Their long lasting relationship with comic satirist Chris Morris, for example, has resulted in CD releases of ‘Blue Jam’ (the hilariously dark radio show which went on to become cult TV series ‘Jam’), ‘On The Hour’ and DVD of ‘My Wrongs #8245-8249 & 117’, which was also the first Warp Films release. Film director/actor Vincent Gallo has released two albums through the label, ‘When’ and ‘Recordings Of Music For Film’, and in 2006 Warp released ‘Warp Works & Twentieth Century Masters’ by long time collaborators the London Sinfonietta, featuring orchestrated covers of Aphex Twin and Squarepusher, modernist experimental composers Steve Reich, Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. They have also released soundtracks to films such as ‘Heaven’s Door’, ‘Donkey Punch’ and ‘Morvern Callar’. For the more adventurous among you, check out the devilishly catalogue-numbered WARP666, ‘Satanstornade’, a collaboration between noise artist Russell Haswell and Merzbow’s Masami Akita.

Warp’s most successful and long running subsidiary is Lex. Started in 2001 by Sheffield based Warp employee Tom Brown, its main focus was hip hop, but in its most boundary pushing form. Luxuriously packaged and designed by EH? , Lex stood apart from Warp, and boldly stated its manifesto with the Lexoleum compilation, featuring artists such as Boom Bip, Tes, Madlib and a good chunk of the Anticon roster (Non-Prophets, Subtle, Why? etc). Over the next few years with critically acclaimed releases by Dangerdoom (Danger Mouse & MF DOOM), Boom Bip and most recently, Neon Neon, Lex has gone from strength to strength. Brown has since bought Lex back from Warp, and it’s now completely independent from its former parent label.

Warp videos have always been visually strong (watch the 2004 WarpVision DVD for proof), and their interest in the moving image alongside sound goes right back to the very beginning, when directors such as David Slade and Jarvis Cocker made promo films for them. As a company, Warp Films began life in 1999 thanks to a NESTA award, but its first release wouldn’t come until 2003 with Chris Morris’ BAFTA winning ‘My Wrongs #8245-8249 & 117’, which starred Paddy Considine and sold considerably well. Considine featured again in Shane Meadows’ ‘Dead Man’s Shoes’, which, incredibly, took only two weeks to film with an almost non-existent budget. It remains one of the best British independent films, and alongside another of his Warp Films features, ‘This Is England’, possibly Meadows’ finest so far. In 2005, long time Warp video director Chris Cunningham released ‘Rubber Johnny’, a grotesque short film featuring a wheelchair bound mutant ingeniously spliced and edited to an Aphex Twin track. Warp X launched in 2006, funded by the UK Film council and FilmFour, to seek out and nurture new talent in Film. Recent Warp Film and Warp X releases include ‘Bunny & The Bull’, a comic road trip film from Paul King (director of ‘The Mighty Boosh’), ‘Le Donk & Scor-Zay-Zee’ a northern hip hop comedy by Meadows, again with Considine, and ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’, a documentary about the long running music festival of the same name.

The last few years have really seen Warp expand in every direction, especially musically, signing bands such as !!!, Battles, Gang Gang Dance, Grizzly Bear, Pivot, Born Ruffians and (possibly their most controversial signing since Broadcast in the mid 90s), Maximo Park, plus explosive young producers like Jackson, Flying Lotus, Clark, Bibio, Tim Exile, Hudson Mohawke and Jamie Lidell. I’ve barely scratched the surface really, and it’s clear to see that if Warp ever had a formula, they ripped it up long ago. Whatever your particular tastes and thoughts regarding these acts, it’s hard not to admire Warp’s unflinching gusto for exploring new sounds.

18 WARP20
So here we are, the end of the decade. 2009 saw Warp celebrate their second 10 years with a long series of events and an ultra-deluxe box set, plus for a brief time, the opening of a small Warp shop in Sheffield. Through shows in Berlin, New York, Paris, London, Tokyo and of course, Sheffield, Warp didn’t disappoint, with epic lineups featuring everyone from Aphex Twin & Hecker to Battles, Flying Lotus, Nightmares On Wax (both EASE and Boy Wonder), Plaid, Lone Swordsman and Sabre of Paradise Andrew Weatherall and many, many more. The box set was crammed with goodies, a double CD of what can only be described as the ‘greatest hits’, the first CD featured tracks voted for by Warp fans online, the second compiled by Beckett. Another CD featured an exhaustive megamix of Warp tracks past and present by cut up king Osymyso. We are also treated to a double CD of reworked Warp tracks, much like the Remixes CD of the Warp10 release, and three 10”s of unreleased tracks from the likes of Boards Of Canada, Autechre, Nightmares On Wax and more, plus two 10”s of endless loops from classic tracks. The box is rounded off with a bumper book with every sleeve released over the last two decades lovingly displayed. Phew.

19 2010 AND BEYOND
As the recent 2010 sampler indicates, the future looks very bright indeed for Warp. New signings such as LoneLady, Gonjasufi, Nice Nice, De Tropix, Babe Rainbow and Rustie all have exciting new material coming up this year, plus old hand Mark Pritchard (of Jedi Knights, Global Communication, Link and Harmonic 313 etc. fame) will be releasing new material under yet ANOTHER alias, Africa HiTech. Flying Lotus, whose ‘Los Angeles’ album garnered him worldwide critical acclaim, returns with his new full length ‘Cosmogramma’ in the spring. I suspect we’ll see the return of some of the old guard too, but at the moment, it’s all speculation. Jackson, if you’re reading, finish your second album!

Unfortunately, in writing this article I’ve had to skim over many important artists and releases, and I strongly suggest digging deeper and seeking out many of the other Warp releases out there from the likes of Broadcast, Tortoise, Jimi Tenor, Prefuse 73, The Black Dog & Plaid, Mira Calix, Brothomstates and the rest. Do it.

Finally, in no particular order, here’s a list of 20 great Warp albums I love. Perhaps you will too.

1. Aphex Twin – Drukqs
2. Jackson & His Computer Band – Smash
3. The Other People Place – Lifestyles Of The Laptop Café
4. !!! – Louden Up Now
5. Broadcast & The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults Of The Radio Age
6. Chris Morris – Blue Jam
7. Autechre – Quaristice
8. Boards Of Canada – Geogaddi
9. Flying Lotus – Los Angeles
10. Battles – Mirrored
11. Clark – Totems Flare
12. LFO – Frequencies
13. Prefuse 73 – Vocal Studies & Uprock Narratives
14. Bibio – Ambivalence Avenue
15. Squarepusher – Ultravisitor
16. FUSE – Dimension Intrusion
17. Two Lone Swordsmen – From The Double Gone Chapel
18. Harmonic 33 – Music For Film, Television & Radio Volume One
19. Tim Exile – Listening Tree
20. Gang Gang Dance – St. Dymphna

Credit is due especially to Rob Young for his fantastic Labels Unlimited book ‘Warp’, which is out on Black Dog Publishing, and Warp themselves for the ‘Complete Catalogue 1989-2009’ book (part of the Warp20 box set), both of which I used extensively for this article.

Alex Egan is a DJ and producer. Visit his website and download a mix he made us a a few months ago.

Go to Bleep and buy some music from Warp.

Warp’s website.

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