July/August 2010

Warp Records and the Birth of Popular Electronic Music

The participants:
Steve Beckett, founder of Warp Records
George Evelyn, Nightmares on Wax
Sean Booth, Autechre
Richard Kirk, Cabaret Voltaire and Sweet Exorcist
Mark Clifford, Seefeel

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

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.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Erik Morse is the author of Dreamweapon: Spacemen 3 and the Birth of Spiritualized (2005) and the upcoming Memphis Underground: A Dual Narrative of the Bluff City with Tav Falco. Morse is a contributing writer to Frieze, Modern Painters, the Wire, Interview, Cinema-Scope, and Bookforum, among others, as well as a contributing editor to Semiotext(e).

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