Warp Records and the Birth of Popular Electronic Music - Believer Magazine

Warp Records and the Birth of Popular Electronic Music

Warp Records and the Birth of Popular Electronic Music

Erik Morse
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In the last two decades, British independent music label Warp records has not only succeeded in introducing electronic music to an international music-buying public, but, in a more impressive feat, it has carved within our collective consciousness a sonic niche that we might call the “digital” sound-world. For some, it might be difficult to imagine a time when waking life was not constantly cued to the digital sound track of beeps and ring tones, despite its very recent instantiation in the century-long history of recorded music. And while Warp did not invent digital electronic sound, it provided the aural conveyor belt for its mass public consumption.

Founded in 1989 by Sheffield indie kids Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell in the back of a successful record store, Warp’s humble DIY roots belied its ultimate ambitions. Determined to take the successful electronic experiments burbling from the northern underground and wrap them in the accoutrements of commercial rock and roll, Warp was not only blazing new territory but rejecting the elitism and anonymity that had traditionally accompanied the cult of the “white label,” with its throwaway singles and nondescript DJs. 

Beckett and Mitchell looked to contemporary independents like Daniel Miller’s Mute Records and Manchester-based Factory Records, whose regimented roster of gothic post-punk bands and painterly album covers by Peter Saville inspired a new design and marketing aesthetic. They would eventually hire a local graphics firm, the Designers Republic, to craft a similar trademark style for all Warp releases—purple album sleeve, globular logo, futurist font. What might now appear like a time-capsule image was once an opening salvo for a future campaign of popular music. 

It was only a matter of months before Warp cracked the top-one-hundred charts with the techno anthem “Dextrous,” by George Evelyn’s Nightmares on Wax. Fellow Yorkshire band LFO, led by Mark Bell, released its self-titled single shortly after, rocketing into the top twenty (selling more than 120,000 copies) and ensuring Warp’s status as an oracle of the new decade’s electronic explosion. With more hits and exposure came a windfall of great talent—Autechre, Pulp, Black Dog, B12, Speedy J, and the most infamous of electronic artists, Richard D. James, a.k.a. Aphex Twin. National interest gave way to international celebrity as the Warp name became synonymous with an exciting and unprecedented musical genre—IDM, or intelligent dance music, which privileged instrumental atmospherics, harmonic nuance, and intricate production. 

Twenty years onward, Warp has continued exploring and conquering sonic territory, from the jazz-fusion breakbeats of Squarepusher to the dub-like sound tracks of Seefeel to the retro-analog experimentations of Boards of Canada and the guitar ballads of Maximo Park. In 2009, the label celebrated its first two decades with an international tour, christened “Warp20,” as well as a mammoth box-set collecting all of its most popular and innovative hits. The Believer recently contacted some of Warp’s central players and asked them to discuss the history of the label during its formative years, the cultural and artistic climate of Yorkshire, and the importance of electronics in the future of popular music.

—Erik Morse

I. “PEOPLE WANTED IT PHYSICAL.”

THE BELIEVER: What was the general social makeup of Sheffield during the 1970s and ’80s, and how much did the industrial climate of the city contribute to its self-image?

STEVE BECKETT: When we started up Warp, Sheffield was a completely different city than it is now.

RICHARD KIRK: When I was growing up in Sheffield, the city had suffered quite badly during the Second World War. It was a target for the German Air Force because of all the steel, and by the ’70s there were still parts of it that hadn’t been rebuilt. So it was industrial but also derelict, and quite a gray environment—not a great deal to do. That was one of the reasons why I got involved with music, really. It was a way to keep away boredom, try to entertain yourself.

STEVE BECKETT: The architecture and the environment always affect the psyche of musicians of any cultural movement. When you walked around Sheffield there would be loads of empty warehouses.You could hear the resonances of those frequencies echoing down the valley.

RICHARD KIRK: The industry was in the east end of Sheffield. And you could hear it. At night you could lay in bed and hear the steam hammers and drop forges, the booming noises that went into the night. That was my environment; that’s where I played as a kid.

BLVR: How did Sheffield relate to the other major cities in Yorkshire and those throughout the north? How was it able to compete socially, economically, or politically with Manchester, Leeds, and Liverpool, given its diminutive size?

RICHARD KIRK: Sheffield was kind of known as the socialist republic of SouthYorkshire because the people who sat on the town council were all very left-wing. And I think that’s one of the reasons that, in the ’80s, Margaret Thatcher came down hard on places like Sheffield. She wanted to break the spirit of a lot of these people who had socialist principles.

GEORGE EVELYN: Leeds, my hometown, is probably like thirty minutes away from Sheffield. And it’s actually bigger than Sheffield. So I would put Sheffield in with Leeds, although in terms of musical history they are definitely different. Leeds was real known, in the ’80s anyway, for its gothic scene, which they now call “moshers”—whereas Sheffield had the whole new wave and electronica thing in the late ’70s and early ’80s— like Cabaret Voltaire and the Human League. So all the music that came out of those two towns was left of center even if there wasn’t a direct link between them. And Manchester, at least with the soul connection and indie connection, it has a very ground-roots history.

SEAN BOOTH: I grew up in Rochdale, which is near Manchester and is blessed with Manchester’s local radio. The main shows when we were growing up were hosted by Mike Shaft, Greg Wilson, and Lee Browne, who all used to play early electro as well as the dancier, pre-house stuff and loads and loads of soul. The music was really bent and twisted, heavy, aggressive, disturbing, exhilarating. Nothing like Sheffield’s super-Euro minimalist utopian purity.

MARK CLIFFORD: Being from Birmingham, I was very much enclosed in that urban environment, so Sheffield meant very little to me until I was slightly older. Manchester in particular did seem slightly “exotic,” largely due to Factory Records. I wasn’t really aware of Sheffield until Warp appeared on the scene, despite having owned records by Human League and Cabaret Voltaire. For someone like me, Warp put the city on the map.

BLVR: Tell me about the importance of the record stores, club nights, and warehouse parties in creating a Sheffield “scene.”

STEVE BECKETT: We set up the shop in 1987. It was originally called FON Records, which stood for “Fuck Off Nazis.” I’d known Rob Mitchell for five or six years before that. And the closest thing we had to dance in the shop at that time was like Fats Comet and Tackhead and all those bands. But mainly it was an indie shop with standard alternative records like Big Black, Danzig, and, later, the Sugarcubes, the Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays, and all those sorts of bands. And about a year after, we started stocking a small import section, with Chicago house records from Nu Groove and Bigshot. Then after that the techno stuff started showing up, like Trax Records. The dance section grew and grew and it took over a third to half of the shop.

GEORGE EVELYN: All the warehouse and illegal parties that were happening prior to any of the labels were in Leeds. And then we were going up to parties in Sheffield called Occasions, Cuba, and Jive Turkey.

STEVE BECKETT: Jive Turkey was in an amazing venue. It was under the city hall, this room with these huge Greek pillars, granite floors, all that sort of thing. Everybody dressed up for that. Then there were regular club nights as well. These clubs were packed every week. So people were going out twice, maybe three times a week, getting totally hammered.

RICHARD KIRK: And then after the clubs, people would move on to these parties that were held in these old abandoned warehouses. That was the essence of the scene.

STEVE BECKETT: People would put huge systems into these abandoned buildings—no lighting, no safety, just people with loads of beer and spirits. And there would be two, three thousand people partying in these warehouses in total blackness, listening to these amazing records. And that’s where [Rob and I] first had a conversation about starting the label. It was in an old abandoned swimming pool. And I remember it was just madness, with people climbing on the rafters and hanging off.

RICHARD KIRK: The black community in Sheffield would have these blues clubs where they’d play really heavy dub records. And I think that was the other ingredient, especially in Sheffield, where the bass was very important to the music. Like the people wanted to feel it. If you went to these blues parties they’d have bass speakers that were made out of old wardrobe cabinets, handmade. People wanted it physical.

BLVR: So what was the “Sheffield sound”?

RICHARD KIRK: The way we used to describe the “Sheffield sound” is some really fucking heavy bass with a lot of clicky noises over the top. That’s a real “Sheffield” track.

II. “BACK TO HEAD MUSIC”

BLVR: In the last ten years, there has been so many bloated paeans written to 1988’s so-called “Summer of Love” as this futurist utopia, this youth revolution, that much of its “local” effects have been glossed over for the poetic “Madchester” narrative. What were the most important changes that “dance culture” affected on an individual or regional level?

STEVE BECKETT: When people over here first heard that Detroit techno stuff, it sounded like very future-orientated music. There was a sense that this music and the technology were going to pull you out of the situation that they were in. And this was coming out right after a very dark period in economics and politics. And it also coincided with the influx of ecstasy. So suddenly you’ve got this synchronicity where these futuristic sounds and futurist philosophy associated with the music crossed with this new very positive but artificial environment where people were having ecstatic experiences when they were going out.

SEAN BOOTH: Futurism was never the point.

RICHARD KIRK: I think everyone associated with the Warp stuff was aware of Sheffield’s specific past—Cabaret Voltaire or the Human League and various other people. But I think by the mid-’80s the game had changed, and all of the music that was coming from Detroit and Chicago, techno and house music, was embraced by people in Sheffield, really. And that’s the roots of where Warp came from.

MARK CLIFFORD: I never really went to the clubs until the early ’90s. The closest I got before then was going to see bands like Primal Scream and My Bloody Valentine. But even then I never really got into the “club scene,” like the acid-house scene. I mean, you couldn’t really analyze the music when it was blasting in your face from a massive speaker. I was much more into listening to the records at home.

GEORGE EVELYN: What was crystal clear at the time in all those places, like in, say, ’88, ’89, was, well, we went through that whole decade with so much football violence and hooliganism and skinhead stuff. Most of all, that stuff was very right-wing. National Front kind of stuff. In all of those towns. But the drug culture came into the clubs and I started noticing all these guys called “dressers,” which were part of a firm—the football hooligans. And it’s well documented that football violence went down with the whole E culture. So you definitely saw that shift happen in the clubs. The demographics of everything changed.

BLVR: At what point did starting up the Warp label seem to be a natural next step of the record store? How was Warp able to harness the symbiotic, local energy of this burgeoning underground to develop its own dance-music identity?

GEORGE EVELYN: We had pressed up two thousand copies of our single,“Dextrous.”We got a hire-car and set off on this mission to each town’s record shop to get rid of our tunes. And one of the shops I went into was FON Records. Steve was working behind the counter and he said, “Oh, man, I’ve heard about this one.” He was raving about “Dextrous” and telling me that he was thinking about setting up a label. So we re-produced the track “Dextrous,” signed a one-single deal, released the track in November. The track went to, like, number seventy-five in the national charts or something. And things started to blow up for all of us. Then Warp did LFO next, and that went into the top twenty. From then on it was like,“Oh shit, what’s going on here?”

RICHARD KIRK: We did this track “Testone,” and we wanted to make a track that would work at Jive Turkey and various other events that were happening. We spent quite a lot of time doing mixes, and the main thing was that we wanted to make sure we got the bass right. And then we finally got there. Supposedly the first time it was played at Jive Turkey there was a spontaneous round of applause. That’s what people say. I think we hit a spot with that.

SEAN BOOTH: “Testone” is a fucking tune—as futuristic seeming as Kraftwerk was when I was six years old.

RICHARD KIRK: There were so many people copying “Testone” at the time. If you went to London and put on the radio, every other track was like a bleep track. It was kind of like when punk came along and copied the Sex Pistols; it was a similar situation.

BLVR: It’s difficult to understand the incredible success of Warp without discussing the electronic technology that made most of the music possible. How fundamental was the widespread use of the sampler and other digital equipment in ensuring the popularity of a new electronic-music genre?

MARK CLIFFORD: There was a real shift happening around then in indie music. It was becoming much more process-oriented, and I think that was mainly as a result of the sampler. The sampler really freed up a lot of the rigidity of the music.

RICHARD KIRK: I could say straightaway that the availability of samplers at an affordable price was part of the explosion. Prior to computers, it made music accessible to people who weren’t really musicians. If you had an idea, then you could maybe steal a little bit of percussion from a record and then loop that up, and the whole notion of the loop was very important because the repetition was important for the groove. That was something I’d been working on since the ’70s with Cabaret Voltaire—using tape loops and drum machines, which were not programmable at the time and very repetitious.

STEVE BECKETT: The technology started to change, and obviously artists who were really into that scene, like Black Dog, Aphex Twin, and Autechre, were moving from sequencers and drum machines into samplers and software like Logic. Things became very digital, particularly in the way people were sequencing. Everything became very tight. People wanted more and more control over the sounds that they were creating.

BLVR: Warp’s most ingenious coup came with the release of the Artificial Intelligence album series, beginning in 1992, from artists like Aphex Twin, Autechre, Black Dog, and B12. What were the roots of AI and how did you react to the “intelligent dance music” (IDM) appellation that would follow?

STEVE BECKETT: The Artificial Intelligence series came as a gradual realization. We were going back to someone’s house after leaving the clubs at five or six in the morning, and the last thing people wanted to do was listen to these banging house records anymore. The DJs would play all these left-field or chilled-out tracks, and that’s when we heard all these B-sides that wouldn’t necessarily work in the club.

RICHARD KIRK: These groups sounded like they were trying to make dance music but the beat wasn’t heavy and it kind of came out as something else. It became more like home-listening stuff. Obviously it was still very much influenced by techno and Kraftwerk and Cabaret Voltaire. I think it kind of went back to head music rather than body music.

STEVE BECKETT: We put the word out that we wanted to pull a lot of these tracks together. And the whole ambient thing was happening at the time with the Orb and KLF. They were starting to put out more listening, ambient albums. We had already heard Aphex Twin, who had submitted some tracks to us at the time. Then Autechre actually sent us something as well, which was how we found out about them. We were toying around with what the name of this album could be. And the criticism at the time was that this music wasn’t real music, it was music that was made by computers—there was no skill to it. So we took that and decided to call it “artificially intelligent” music.

SEAN BOOTH: When we first met Steve and Rob, they were in a tiny office with four desks, and they sat facing each other. Steve wasn’t about much at first, so we worked with Rob on the first album, we compiled it with him and had a lot of input from him. Rob was really hands-on, he would get really involved to the point where he would have artists redo tracks and so on. We were really resistant to that idea. Steve and Rob were old punks to us, so we had to introduce them to a few things as far as electronic music goes.

SEAN BOOTH: The journos needed some colorful adjectives for all this new music. I’m sure if they thought they could get away with it they would have described Britpop as futuristic.

III. “LONDON CAME TO US.”

BLVR: Did you ever imagine the Artificial Intelligence series would have such a major cultural impact on popular music? How did its popularity and the “branding” of the IDM genre affect Warp’s identity as a relatively small label?

SEAN BOOTH: We didn’t think it would get that much attention; we imagined a small audience of kids like us tripping in their bedrooms.

STEVE BECKETT: That was definitely a changing period for us. Especially in the States, because along with that series of records, there was a tour with Aphex, Moby, and Orbital. It was the first proper techno tour we did over there, and it was a massive success. It was during that time when we first started switching kids who were into indie rock and had always dismissed electronic music as mindless music for idiots. And they started to realize it had a lot more depth to it than that.

GEORGE EVELYN: There were a few years where I’d go into interviews and people would always ask, “Oh, what’s it like to be on a techno label?” What I did think when those Artificial Intelligence albums were dropping was, Wow, this is really out there. This is wicked.

MARK CLIFFORD: Warp in the early ’90s became kind of like 4AD in the ’80s. The label became synonymous with the sound. It was a symbiotic relationship because both the artist and the label do well out of it.

RICHARD KIRK: That’s where that term electronica came from. It came from the Artificial Intelligence releases. I remember reading interviews with people like Thom Yorke, who was talking about listening to bands like Sweet Exorcist and all this other Warp stuff. I think there have been a lot of people interested in that scene, which grew out of people in bedrooms making music on very basic equipment. And then that all changed in the mid-’90s when someone decided that we were all going back to guitars. The record stores stopped stocking a lot of the electronic music. Suddenly it was all, like, Oasis and Blur and all the Britpop stuff.

BLVR: When did Warp finally attempt to extricate itself from the IDM era and begin going in a new direction? Did you perceive a kind of danger in remaining too close to a genre you essentially created?

MARK CLIFFORD: There was a danger of Warp becoming too much of a brand, and I know it was something Steve was very aware of, because there was a point where on certain records he specifically wanted the Warp “identity” to be more marginalized so that Warp’s logo didn’t eclipse the band’s own identity.

STEVE BECKETT: As the technology became more digital, a lot of the artists went down that route thinking there were going to be lots of pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. To some extent it dehumanized the music in a way.

BLVR: What was the reaction when Warp first began signing “guitar bands” in the mid-’90s?

MARK CLIFFORD: We [Seefeel] were the first act on the roster who specifically used guitars and who were essentially a “band,” and it did cause a lot of reaction. At the time it wasn’t a big deal for us, because we had provoked extreme reactions wherever we played. Being the first was obviously an important step for us and for Warp, but if Seefeel had never happened, I’m sure that Warp would have made the jump with another act, ultimately. It was really just a matter of time.

GEORGE EVELYN: I love nostalgia and going through all that stuff, digging around for it, but you’ve got to keep evolving. Nothing stays still.

BLVR: Simply put, what would you consider to be Warp’s most lasting influence in modern music?

SEAN BOOTH: Warp’s most important contribution to the public’s perception of electronic music was getting it out there.

GEORGE EVELYN: We didn’t even sit around thinking about it, we just did it. There has always been that sense of freedom there. Not only that, but there’s always been that hunger there, to always progress.

RICHARD KIRK: It was a northern thing. It wasn’t London-dependent. London came to us, like London came to Manchester. We had the music people wanted.

GEORGE EVELYN: Each musical genre they’ve gone through, they’ve created a world out of it.

RICHARD KIRK: I would say if you just kind of listen around you now, everything is electronic music. Cell phones, alarms, computers, you’re just surrounded by these bleeping noises. And whether Warp is responsible for that, who can say. But it is the sound track to modern life. ✯

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