Warp Records: They Came from the Future

As <strong>Warp Records</strong> blows out twenty candles, The Skinny talks to a cast of characters from its intimidating roster about the indelible mark the UK's biggest independent label has made on popular music.

Feature by Bram Gieben | 27 Oct 2009
  • Warp Records

As Warp enters its third decade, it is increasingly difficult to imagine what the musical landscape of the UK would look like without the label and its impressive roster of iconoclasts. Warp’s ‘golden era’ of the mid-nineties – when they were releasing the seminal works of Squarepusher, Aphex Twin and Nightmares on Wax – may be over, but in the past ten years the label has evolved to incorporate the angular rock of Battles and Maxïmo Park, and has developed and nurtured the careers of film-makers like Chris Morris, Chris Cunningham and Shane Meadows.

Warp is a successful and highly recognisable British media brand: one that co-founder Steve Beckett has worked hard to ensure is perpetually changing with the times, embracing new technologies and new sounds as they emerge from the bedroom studios, gig venues and dancehalls of the UK and beyond. In Rob Young’s exhaustive study of the label, Warp: Labels Unlimited, Beckett is quoted on Warp’s chameleonic approach to signing artists: “There is no ‘Warp sound,’ there is no Warp: it’s just a concept, like the equator… I just want to sign, nurture and develop incredible new artists in whatever genre they practice in.”

Nightmares on Wax, the label’s longest-serving artist, reflects on Beckett’s approach: “That’s the nuts of the whole Warp success story – seeing potential in something, and then allowing that potential to come out in its own natural way. A lot of labels see potential in artists and then tell them how to be. Warp don’t do that.”

The nascent Warp was conceived by Beckett and his partner and friend, the late Rob Mitchell. The pair ran a record store together in Sheffield during the mid- to late- eighties, and with some advice and knowledge from legendary producer Robert Gordon, they began releasing records to capitalise on the emerging, unique rave scene in Sheffield, the dominant sound of which would soon became known as Bleep.

Coinciding with the decline of the Madchester scene, and with roots reaching back to earlier Sheffield pioneers such as Cabaret Voltaire (with whom Gordon had worked) and the Human League, the label developed a rich palette – incorporating influences from techno, house music and psychedelic rock. From the off, Warp artists approached music in a very open, liberated manner: cherry-picking sounds and techniques from every conceivable genre.

The history of Warp is in many ways also the history of the massive paradigm shift that has occurred in the music industry over the last two decades. Their first few releases, such as Tricky Disco, actually charted in the top 40, but by the mid-nineties the label was embracing the burgeoning internet community, selling records by courting fans on online forums, and on mailing lists such as Aphex Twin’s Intelligent Dance Music List. They were among the first labels to occupy a third space in the music industry, beyond traditionally visible sales conduits like the charts, or high-profile tours.

A Warp PR communiqué from 1994 shows remarkable prescience about the changes in distribution and creation of music that were to follow: “It’s not going to be long before an artist can make an album, film, or CD… in his or her own bedroom… advertise the product to hundreds of thousands of people directly via the computer networks, and sell directly to them. This will completely cut out the need for the trek around the usual entertainment companies looking for finance, and could lead to things getting really interesting.” This was a whole decade before the concept of MySpace and the netlabel had arisen.

By engaging with the burgeoning online distribution and social networks that grew up alongside dance music, Warp were able to nurture a generation of bedroom producers, with an emphasis on turning them into album artists, contrary to the approach of many shorter-lived techno labels.

It is not just Warp’s business acumen which has made them legendary – the label and its artists also did more than anyone else to elevate dance music to an art form in the eyes of the critics, with Aphex Twin collaborating with neo-classical composer Philip Glass on the track Icct Hedral, and the likes of Nightmares on Wax bringing new cinematic approaches to instrumental electronic music.

Nightmares on Wax describes how he saw the influence of Warp and its artists inspiring subsequent, seminal labels such as James Lavelle’s Mo Wax: “When we dropped our first album, A Word of Science, it went over so many people’s heads. Because James was working in Bluebird Records, he totally clocked it – especially the more downbeat stuff that was on that album – and that was what inspired him to start Mo Wax. When he came to me with that story and asked if we wanted to do a track for the Headz compilation, I was like: ‘Shit… somebody’s actually getting the other half of what I’ve been thinking about!’”

Since the tragic death of co-founder Rob Mitchell in 2001, and after relocating to London, Warp has made some controversial acquisitions, leading some to accuse the label of betraying its principles and abandoning its fanbase. But Warp never really had a genre: it was in the business of subverting established styles, rather than following them.

One of the label’s more recent signings, Chris Clark, gives his view: “I think Warp tends to go for artists who sidestep genres. To me, there’s nothing more banal than an artist who tries to please people within a narrow set of boundaries.”

Nevertheless, the much-derided tag of IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) has followed Warp around like a bad smell. Another recent signing, the talented live electronic performer Tim Exile, thinks the last few years have helped Warp distance themselves from any such pigeonholing: “It’s plain to hear in what Warp have been releasing recently that there’s a move away from the more ambient sounds of the nineties. I think there’s almost a bit of trepidation when it comes to anything that seems like it’s overtly geeky now. Warp’s had this millstone – this ambient, IDM millstone – applied to it… When I go into the office and start talking about how I’ve programmed a new machine, they’re kind of like, ‘Oh shit, its another geek!’”

One of Warp’s most exciting additions to the roster of late has been wunderkind Hudson Mohawke, who emerged from Gasgow’s LuckyMe crew. He found the Warp approach to artist management was very hands-off: “I could really just do my thing. I think that Warp is one of the few labels where you can still do that. It’s one of the only labels that is really well established and still gives its artists total freedom.”

At 23, HudMo was too young to really explore Warp’s output in the mid-90s, although he does cite Aphex Twin and Squarepusher as big influences. “I was much more into really silly jump-up jungle and hardcore and that kind of stuff,” he says. Many of the Warp artists seem keen to distance themselves from any specific influences, but he admits to being very influenced by video games: “For years and years my big passions were DJing and scratching and playing games. That was pretty much my entire life.”

Staying humble, HudMo tries not to get too complacent about his newfound success: “It’s all I’ve wanted to do since I was eleven or twelve years old… to one day be able to do music and be able to travel with it. It’s somewhat different to how I expected it to be, but it’s still incredible. It still feels like it could evaporate at any moment. I’m not getting too used to it.”

Warp has had its fair share of controversy over the years, from the acrimonious departure of Robert Gordon to the long and drawn-out debate over IDM and ambient. Through it all, the Warp focus has remained squarely on high-concept music and design, with the artists themselves in the driving seat creatively. This kind of freedom engenders a fierce loyalty from artists, as Nightmares on Wax attests: “I think they’re about ten years deep into not being looked at as a techno label now… Really it has always been expanding to become just a good music label. I can only say, just as Steve would say, that we couldn’t have done it without each other.”

Tim Exile describes the somewhat restrictive trajectory of the fast-moving dance scene: “Labels have a choice: if you invest too early in a scene it’s risky. Or you can flog a dead horse. So you have to tread the line between going with new stuff and investing in established stuff. I’m excited about what I want to do with my music, and I can imagine how Warp would be involved with that, because they are an open-minded label who are always getting into new things.” Perhaps this is the key to Warp’s success – to never get so involved in any specific ‘scene’ that its demise is a problem.

The experimental rock of Battles’ Mirrored was perhaps the most critically-acclaimed album of 2008. The group’s de facto leader Tyondai Braxton has just released his debut solo LP on Warp, and he is full of praise for their approach: “They put their trust in you, but the great thing about being on a label like this is it pushes you to go that extra mile in your own work. I can't come out with something half assed – this is gonna be in the bin next to Aphex and Boards of Canada man!”

Braxton is also enthusiastic about the strong design ethic that Warp has always maintained, from their early minimal sleeves by The Designers Republic up to the busy neon cut-and-paste of Konx-om-Pax, who works with Hudson Mohawke. For Braxton, the aesthetics are almost as important as the music: “Why record pieces for a large orchestra and electronics if you're gonna release it in a manilla envelope and have the title written with a sharpie?”

Nightmares on Wax agrees: “I think there’s only one time that I didn’t have a hundred percent control of the design. The core idea has come from me, and I’ve seen it all the way through.”

From the early excursions into Bleep with the likes of LFO, through voyages into the ‘Electronic Listening Music’ of Autechre, B12 and Boards of Canada, to the far-out noise terror of early Squarepusher and Aphex, and beyond, into the looped guitar madness of Battles and the purple aqua-crunk of Hudson Mohawke, Warp’s sound is one that is impossible to pin down. It is not experimental for the sake of it, neither is it populist – it’s a body of work that could only have been produced by a roster of artists given free reign to explore new sonic and visual territories. As Warp move into feature-film production and continue to stay ahead of the curve with their digital distribution and creative marketing, it’s just as difficult to imagine a future without Warp as it is to imagine a present without them.

For the label’s current stars, old and new alike, the future looks bright. Chris Clarke is working on a clutch of remixes for the likes of Massive Attack, Tim Exile is performing live and experimenting with his self-created music software (details of which can be found on his blog). Tyondai Braxton is splitting his time between promoting his solo LP and writing the new Battles LP.

Hudson Mohawke is enjoying the attention brought to his music by the Warp PR juggernaut, despite a self-confessed shyness towards publicity: “It’s a total experience – I’ve never had such a high workload before, but it’s really exciting at the same time. There’s new opportunities every single day, new leads, new things going on.” A video for his Prince-tastic track Joy Fantastic is in the works, and the quite ridiculously addictive hooks of that tune could well propel him into daytime radio territory. HudMo himself remains coy: “I have no expectations, I think that’s the best way to be.” His ambition of working with high-profile artists as a superproducer is coming ever closer, now that he is signed to a well-respected label, and is working with a well-connected manager who also handles Bloc Party.

Nightmares on Wax meanwhile is experiencing a renaissance after two decades as a producer: “I’m going on to this next album, which will be my seventh album for Warp, with a sense of total and utter freedom.” He speculates on the future of the music industry: “We might be in a position in ten years where we’re in the studio, and as soon as you take your finger off the record button on the final mix, you can get it, it’s available!” He laughs heartily at the thought. “It’s exciting for me. I just see it as pure opportunity now.”

Tyondai Braxton sums up Warp’s value perfectly: “Warp has not only introduced groundbreaking artists through the years, but it has also proved that there is a model on how to be a successful indie label that deals in challenging music.”

Subsequent champions of the eclectic, such as Planet Mu, Aphex Twin’s Rephlex, and even guitar-oriented labels such as Domino all owe a little bit of thanks to Steve Beckett and Warp for refusing to be anything but iconoclastic; for championing new sounds and new approaches to business; and most of all, for never staying still. A true British classic, Warp’s contributions to the fields of music, film and design will continue as long as there are artists who need freedom to innovate.

When it comes down to it, aren’t those the only artists worth paying attention to in the first place?

Warp20 releases:

(Recreated) – Twenty-one covers of Warp songs by Warp artists, from Maximo Park covering Vincent Gallo, to Jamie Lidell covering Grizzly Bear, to Leila covering Aphex Twin.

(Chosen) – Twenty-four of Warp's finest releases, with one disc chosen by co-founder Steve Beckett and a second the result of over forty-thousand Warp fan votes on Warp20.net. 

(Unheard) – An eleven-track collection of secret treasures rediscovered from the Warp vaults, dating from right across the label’s twenty year history and featuring cuts by Boards of Canada, Plaid, Broadcast and more is released on 9 Nov.

Hudson Mohawke’s Butter and Tyondai Braxton’s Central Market are both out now.