Amon Tobin's Curiosity Leads Him From Beats To Movies To Live Stages
The annoying thing about being a visionary is that it takes awhile for the vision to get recognized. Amon Tobin, a Brit of Brazilian descent who now resides in San Francisco, had been blipping on the outskirts of the UK dance scene for fifteen years, never quite gaining acceptance in one world in particular, because his sui generis sound just left people wondering.
It’s a good thing that he didn’t bother trying to explain his intensely personal electronic compositions, only taking an even deeper dive into the strange. He left behind the dancefloor, and then even jazz sampling for 2007′s Foley Room, for which he made his own field recordings. The title’s reference to where where film sounds gets edited hinted at his cinematic scope — a scope that he pushed even further four years later, in his densest, most immersive work to date, ISAM (which stands for “invented sounds applied to music,” but I suppose it actually doesn’t matter).
And it’s fitting that ISAM resembles a film or video game soundtrack (the most experimental sort), because for his latest tour, he enlisted a team of visual artists and engineers to construct a stage-engulfing visual installation. You could call it a stack of sugar cubes, or a bunch of white Legos. And while animated projections, each one designed by an artist for a specific track, pulsate across the mass, Amon peeks out from an embedded DJ booth like an interstellar captain.
This time his vision is finally getting some recognition. A Youtube clip of the performance has almost three million views on YouTube. And no less than a writer for MTV gushed that ISAM was the best show at this year’s Coachella, and possibly his entire life. From Amon’s inquisitive mind comes music that’s spread from the underground to moving the masses. A boxset of previously uncollected material — amassed in six CDs, six records, and two DVDs — is dropping on May 29 on Ninja Tune to commemorate what’s been and what’s still to come.
Where are you now?
Just back in the studio. I’m in San Francisco.
How is it over there today?
I’m actually not in the city, I’m sort of out in the woods, in the north. I can make whatever noise I want, I can sort of concentrate. I used to have trouble in cities a bit. When you live in the middle of everything, pople tend to drop by all the time. It’s nice! But I really like to kind get lost in what I’m doing.
What are your plans for the day?
I was just opening up some emails, just went to get some milk for a coffee.
I guess my main thing I need to do today is finish the Two Fingers album — something I’ve been trying to finish for some time, a beat-driven record. I’m just working on the last track. Hopefully I can wrap that up today.
Have you slept days straight since Coachella?
No. I did crash out pretty hard when I came back at the beginning of the week, but I’m alright.
How does it feel up there inside a giant visual installation?
It’s a really strange feeling. I’m inside this thing that’s constantly moving and changing and resonating. It’s quite disorientating — I quite like that. It’s like stepping into an actual space ship. I’m surrounded by all these screens and controllers and I’ve got people talking to me and writing to me from front of house and all these communications with the sound people…(laugh)…It feels like I’m going to the moon.
But it’s nice. I haven’t lost my mind completely (laugh).
Can you see it from the inside?
I have screens that show me what the whole set is doing, and I can also see out to some degree as well. Otherwise I’d be flying blind.
Seeing the audience must help you to react to the crowd with your set.
I wouldn’t normally modulate my reactions to the crowd. My whole take on DJing is less about reading the crowd and more about trying to do something really personal.
It just lasts an hour, so I’ll practice and practice and practice and try to get it really tight. And I’ll play it as I’ve practiced it. If they’re not reacting, I’m not going to be able to do much about it (laugh), so I hope they are. I know the idea of DJ is something different but I’ve never been that kind of DJ.
It’s a mixture of a movie and live performance.
Do you split equally between performing and recording?
Not so much, it tends to happen more in blocks. For the last three years, up until spring 2011, I wasn’t taking any gigs because I wanted to get involved in the ISAM record. I stayed hermited up in the studio for about three years. Even my agent thought I’d sort of retired.
Since then I’ve just been touring like crazy, and this year seems like that too, hopefully I’ll get back in the studio in November.
Do you have a plan for your next album?
I do have a plan. I try not to get too excited about it until I can my hands on [equipment] because I’m otherwise frustrated for months. I’ll be halfway finished through with the record and I’ll have all kinds of ideas but I won’t be able to…I have to finish what I’m doing because otherwise it becomes fractured. I have to shelve a lot of enthusiasm for when I can do things.
And enjoy myself as much as I can along the way.
Where were you born?
I was born in Brazil.
When did you move?
I left when I was very young for the first time and my mom and I were on travels. She basically took me and we lived in farms and squats and all kinds of, I don’t know, bizarre and interesting places. I was two-and-a-half.
And I went back to Brazil and stayed there til I was about ten.
I remember later on, like being three to five, and kind of a few places we lived, one of them was this amazing squat in crystal palace in London, a huge old house which we lived in with three or four other families and they all had kids, it was very sort of hippie.
Why did you go?
I’d rather not get into this, because it’s not about me, it’s about my mom. But it was a personal thing, she just had to go. And she was a really strong woman, and she took me on her back really. It wasn’t like we had any money or any plans. It was an awesome adventure for a kid.
She met my stepdad in Ireland, and we went back to Brazil, and he was teaching english out there, and I don’t know exactly, what the reason was…We were able to live in Europe then because she married my dad.
Do you perform in Brazil?
I haven’t for along time. I’m hoping I’ll be able to go next year.
Do you have a lot of Brazilian fans?
Probably not. I don’t know, I’d be lying if I said I had my finger on the pulse of South American underground music. But I can only hope!
How is your Portuguese now, relative to English?
Not so good. I speak some Portuguese and I went and lived in Portugal for a while when I was 18, and knew a lot of Brazilians there, and my Portuguese got better again.
You released music in the beginning as “Cujo” which means “Which” in Portuguese. Why?
I had a record and my label at the time wanted to release it, and I didn’t have a name. Honestly there wasn’t much thought in it at all. The film Cujo – I’d seen it the night before, and I just called it that (laughs).
Your release on Ninebar in 1996, Adventures in Foam, was only 5,000 copies. What was that release like for you?
It was a really cool time for me because I was just working so hard and hadn’t really seen much happen. I was basically going up to London and sleeping on the studio floor finishing this record with the people there at Ninebar.
People at the time were into either upbeat Drum and bass or Downbeat stuff like Ninja Tune was doing, and I was releasing all these singles with Drum and bass on one side and Downbeat on the other, and confusing everyone.
At the beginning, you released on average an album every year, then it slowed down to about every two years, and most recently four years passed between ISAM and Foley Room. Do you think that maturing as an artist makes you put things out more slowly?
There’s lot of things that make that happen, really. One of them is touring. When I was first putting out records, I didn’t tour Adventures of Foam at all for instance, so I was always in the studio. And yeah, doing things like press (laugh) it takes a lot of time, and other things come along, like score work and you spend eight months doing that. And it slows down your output. Honestly though I make music all the time, except when I’m touring and doing interviews.
We have to stagger releases as well, otherwise it would just be a bit…if you just keep on putting things out every week, it’s less cohesive than growing into a project, having an idea for a project, and putting it out solidly.
When you do something that you have an idea first, and you try and realize that idea, it takes longer to get there than if you’re just sort of noodling about in the studio.
It was a really structured thing with ISAM. I worked on just learning about sound for a long time, I had to go to school really. I read a lot about synthesis and acoustic modeling. I wanted to try things that haven’t been tried before. I sort of have to invest a lot of time learning that stuff. It just takes longer. I’m always working, it’s not like I release an album and going to the Caribbean (laugh).
My area before was to do with displacement of existing sound and I spent a lot of time going to records shops and digging for sounds and seeing if I could put them out of context, like blues or jazz in an electronic musical environment. So I never really messed around with synthesizers before. Like LFOs, and basic things.
You’ve used jazz sample, breakbeats, field recordings, you’ve done soundtracks, sound design, your album title Foley Room references film, your latest tour was an audio-visual experience. What enables you, as a musician, to have such an open mind about where your music should come from and where it should go?
It’s all just stems from curiosity really. I’m just curious about things and I’m interested in things I don’t know much about. All the music I make is a byproduct of my own learning, really.
Do you consider yourself an underground artist?
Well, I haven’t sold that many records (laugh). Yeah. Isn’t that the definition?
Well, I guess the idea would be that you’re choosing to make the kind of music you want, and so you stay underground to be true to your voice.
I think anyone that says that is lying. Of course I want as many people to hear what I do as I can! Of course, I’m not going to set up to do that to begin with. ‘Oh, what are people gonna like, how can I make the crowd move, or how can I make units move and gear my sound towards that.’
The way I look at it is, I’ve gotten to do what I want, as opposed to have a real job where you’re trying to satisfy other people’s needs and wants. So it would really be a waste to make music on other people’s terms because then you’ve another job again.
Your boxset will be your work that has “gone under the radar.” And this material totals seven CDs, two DVDs, and six records. Do you find it at all funny that your “extras compilation” is as long as your entire discography up until this point?
Yeah, it’s surprising how much stuff is there actually. It’s kind of cool to be able to put stuff out that didn’t really fit in any particular project before. A lot of things I’ll sort of try out, and they’ll work for me, but they don’t necessarily fit into a given project, like an album or release. Those things just kind of sit there, and we thought it would be kind of cool to have that out there. And why not, I’m proud of all of it.
Also, there’s other stuff, like soundtrack stuff and that recording of the Royal Albert Hall performances, and a lot of stuff that unless you were there you wouldn’t have heard, or unless you went on my website. It was just a way to make some things that would only have been heard by a few people and making it available for everyone.
Where did you get the idea?
I thought of doing a live DVD for a while because a lot of people had asked for it at shows and it kind of grew from that. And then it was ‘let’s put some more stuff on there,’ and ‘I’ve got this and I’ve got that,’ and it just grew and grew, and then so ‘let’s throw in some, not remixes, but reinterpretations by other artists.’
I went off the idea of remixes in recent years because in recent years they seemed kind of cynical really. But I liked the idea of people from different musical backgrounds and taking my music in different directions. Things that somebody, like say, Fourtet, has done, or a psychedelic rock interpretation.
For people who would like to get to know Amon Tobin better, what on boxset in particular do you think would be a good introduction? And for seasoned fans of your work, what do you think they might be surprised by?
I don’t know! One thing I’ve included in this release which I wasn’t sure was a great idea or not was things I worked on when I was fourteen. I was doing like in the 80s, late 80s, and I was in my bedroom with like an Amstrad 20100, which was this real piece-of-crap tape recorder thing. I remember it had LEDs that were drawn on (laugh).
It’s so personal. It’s like my first kind of experiment in music that I recorded, and at least it gives an idea of how shit my starting point was as well (laugh). ‘Cause everyone starts and says, ‘Aw this sounds terrible,’ and I’m always saying ‘Of course it does, you haven’t practiced.’ I’m the same in every way. It’s just that I’ve kept on doing it and tried to get better.