Amon Tobin: Journeys into Live Music
Vincent Pollard - May 18, 2011
On May 24th, Brazilian-born Amon Tobin will release ‘ISAM’, his seventh album proper out on Ninja Tune. Famous for his jazz-sampling downtempo breaks work for the UK label, Tobin has amassed a distinctive and bold body of work and of late is pushing the envelope even further to follow his unique sonic vision.
ISAMbuilds upon the field recordings that Tobin first began employing on Foley Room. The result is some of Tobin’s most compelling work. The internationally globetrotting producer recorded all the sounds and performed the album completely on his own, including all the various voices on the record.
To present this new material Tobin is stepping away from his usual DJ performance to work with visual artist Vello, founder of V Squared Lab and technical wizard Alex Lazarus to create a giant 3-D art installation immersing both performer and audience. The show will premiere on the opening night of this year’sMUTEKFestival before going to London’s Roundhouse and select additional cities around the globe. We spoke to Amon to ask him about his forthcoming live spectacle, his collaboration with artist Tessa Farmer and the recording of “ISAM’.
Photo by Nathan Seabrook.
I want to ask you about your forthcoming show at MUTEK in June. What do you have in store visually for the show?
It’s tricky. I don’t want to ruin the surprise for a lot of it. We’ve been working hard to try to make this really special so I don’t want to blow the whole thing, but I can say it’s going to involve space travel, psychedelic alien fairies from outer space, space drugs. We’re going to take off and travel through vast psychedelic space!
That sounds pretty enticing!
Hopefully. It’s a live show and the first time I’ve done a live show. I want to make that really clear. I’ve DJed a lot, and I really like DJing but this is really different. It’s a performance of the album. It’s a real one-off, I’ll say that much. It’s not something we’ll be able to do again. We don’t have the money to do it ever again. It’s a real “no holds barred” sort of thing.
So, you’re not planning to take this on tour in some kind of way?
Well, yeah. We can do it in a few places around the world. London, Paris, New York. Try to take it on the road to various venues. There’s a lot of equipment to be transported.
And the MUTEK show is the premiere?
Yeah, this is the time where everything will probably go wrong. If you like watching car crashes, this is for you! [laughs]
Is the new live show in any way related to your forthcoming exhibition in London with Tessa Farmer?
No, it’s not. The thing we’re doing in London with this artist Tessa Farmer, who’s been building installations out of insects. Actually, she makes these weird fairies, really beautiful creatures that she invents out of all kinds of materials around her and she’s been making creatures directly inspired by the tracks. We’re going to put on that exhibition, with the music to go with the installation she makes. So it’s an art exhibition not a show. But the show we’re doing [forMUTEK] is more of a presentation of the music really, not really an art exhibition or anything like that.
When you made the album was the collaboration with Tessa Farmer and this performance piece planned? Is it all part of the concept of the album?
No. Not at all. There’s nothing that influences it all, really, visually or anything but the sound. I’m suppose I’m really very involved in the sound. Very concentrated on that, very interested in that.
So it’s very much a case of exploring the sounds and making the album and the other stuff followed?
Well, yeah, you know, you make a record without that. Because it’s not a marketing exercise, right? It’s not about trying to make something clear or even imitate anything necessarily or present to people. That other stuff isn’t even something you can even think about in any way. Or at least not with me. You do the record and then afterwards you’re sort of like ‘Oh, okay, how are we going to present this?’ The thing with Tessa Farmer [the artist who worked with Tobin on the visual manifestation of the album] that was so great is she’s essentially doing a very similar thing with her work. She’s reordering the things around her. She’s taking these things around her that are familiar and reorganising them.
I can see the similarity in her process and see why you’d like it. The press release for your album says you’re both “augmenting natural elements”.
You know, if you’re gonna be making stuff up and trying to be creative, then it’s important I think to base some of that in something that is familiar. Otherwise it’s just abstract. I’m not against abstraction, but I’m just not that interested in it, I suppose. For me, it has to be something that you recognise, that you’re familiar with as a sort of anchor point to whatever you then manipulate. If I just take a bunch of sounds that didn’t have any grounding in the real world, they might be interesting, but they might not be so engaging. For instance, if Tessa Farmer made all her stuff out of plastic, it might not be quite as interesting an experience.
The Making of "Esther's" Music Video
They are quite sinister images but also quite playful at the same time. I can relate to that in your work as there are a lot of sounds that are sinister. That sinister feeling weaves in and out, but it never overtakes the playfulness that’s there too.
I guess you could really jump into very dark things and be attracted to the extremes. It’s got an emotional range that’s all very black and white. But things are subtler than that. They’re more interesting than just the horrific or death or whatever. It’s more interesting to put a dark thing and then a light thing and see what happens in the contrast seeing them so close together, having that sort of dynamic. An emotional dynamic of two very different things close together and that creates a sort of energy. [Laughs] Oh god, I’m talking about energy. I’ve been in California too long!
What was it again, ‘energy’ and ‘space drugs’
I have to ask: what do you mean by ‘space drugs’?
Space drugs. I guess that’s just a cop-out really. You might look at some nebula or whatever but that’s already trippy enough, but we’re going to then take that nebula and do something to it to make it even more bizarre. So I guess what I mean is that it’s all synthesized. The whole idea is that you take what you see and create something else. We’re doing that, but we’re going to go out to space to do it, where there’s a lot of room [laughs].
I’m going to be navigating a great big abstract spaceship, I guess. I’m not trying to be mysterious about it. I just worry that if I run my mouth off the label are going to be like, ‘What are you thinking?’ All I can say is it’s my first-ever live show. Who knows if we’ll ever be able to do it again, so if you’re interested in what happens when we put all these elements together, then check it out. I don’t think it’s a very smart business move.
And as always when you’re trying to experiment there’s a good chance it might not work so that’s part of the excitement really. I’ve felt like I’ve always tried to do that in some respect. Even my DJ shows I try to do that, embrace the unfamiliar. You have to remember that when I started out, I was playing a lot of stuff that no one really wanted to hear, at least not in the context I was playing it. I was putting a lot of different things together. And we’re talking about 15 years ago. So, it didn’t seem to go over really well. It took a long time. So, here we are again with another experiment.
I feel like you’re constantly experimenting. You’re not sitting still.
And I’m not doing it to try to trick anyone or be like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna push the boundaries of music’. It’s nothing like that. I’m just really interested in the possibilities of sound.
Foley Room was a bit of a departure for you, in that you were using field recordings, as opposed to sampling records. Was ISAM done in a similar way?
You can also look at it as kind of a slow, gradual process. I guess I was really into seeing what would happen at the time when you put a piece of music that had all kinds of very established connotations, like jazz or whatever, in an electronic context. Believe it or not, there was a time when that was strange! That was a long time ago. That kind of thing basically evolved into me making smaller and smaller chunks and more processed versions of those chunks until I got to Out From Out Where or Supermodified, where I processed the samples so much that they were no longer recognisable. With Foley Room, I was thinking about where the sound was going as opposed to looking back to the records, to where the sound comes from.
Everything I come across, wasps, engines, even musicians, I try to treat them all the same way. They’re all important and all as important as each other. So withISAMwhat’s happened is I’ve tried now to make playing the focus as well as other things. It’s not just that. I synthesize a lot of stuff, I multi-filter a lot of stuff.
The Making of ISAM Sounds
The promotional materials for ISAM mention ‘sensory deprivation’ and ‘mechanisation of natural things’.
Yeah, I’m all about the sensory deprivation. It might be referring to the fact that I don’t get out much. [laughs] As for the mechanisation of natural things, that’s pretty much what I’m talking about. I’ll be recording my chair or an engine and things like that. One thing that’s different from the Foley Room is that I was very extravagant on that album with my sound sources, from Safari parks and other places, gathering field recordings.
What I found this time is that the room for manipulation of the sound is so much more powerful and interesting that really I didn’t have to go far at all a lot of the time. Even an elastic band or whatever can be music, or my own voice, changing that. Really much more about what you can do with the sound rather than where it comes from.
So, for the Foley Room you travelled around a lot to get samples from different countries for example?
Yeah, we did. We came to San Francisco, we travelled about a bit. There was a bat cave that we never got to. That would’ve been amazing.
Foley Room was quite a collaborative project with a lot of different people involved and with ISAM it seems like it was more solitary project. Was that the case?
Yeah, it was completely solitary. I recorded it all in my studio outside San Francisco, where I have a house out in the woods.
You’ve moved around a lot in your life. You lived in Morocco, right?
I was really young but, yeah, we did live out there and in Holland. Not so much for work. My mum took me around with a backpack. Brave woman for her time, I think. Travelling all over the world, hanging out. I didn’t really have much to do with it. I remember that, but I don’t have clear memories of it. I remember living in London and Brighton and Hastings. Hastings is quite a depressing place. Up until I was about sixteen I lived in Hastings. The heroin capital of Europe, I think. They have some great stats they can be proud of [laughs].
Does it keep things fresh for you to keep moving around?
I never really had any plans to move around a lot. It just kind of happens. For one reason or another, you go somewhere. I can’t say it was a planned thing, but I’m glad that I did. Especially when I was younger, I might have liked to stay in one place for longer. But now I’m happy to have had the chance to do it. My parents are still in England, and I miss British TV. I never really appreciated it until I came to North America. You turn on the TV here and it’s so terrible! I started missing the comedies. Thank god for YouTube!
Do you think you’ll stay in San Francisco?
I think I’m going to be here for a while. I was in Montreal for about 6 years. I haven’t got any plans to go live anywhere else, but then I’ve said that before. I actually don’t really like change. I like having all my stuff in one place. I find that really attractive. I’m really going to try and fight the urge to move again but, as I say, I’m really happy here. Living in the city is good in a way but also very distracting. Out here I can really concentrate. I’ve got this place out in the redwoods. It’s really cool, like a haunted house, an old wooden house.
What drew you to San Francisco in the first place? How did you end up there?
I dunno really. I came here a couple of times and liked it. My wife grew tired of Montreal. Montreal’s harsh in winter. I met her there. If I hadn’t met her, I might still be there. She’s a painter, so she has space in the house to paint and I have my studio. We’re out in the woods, so I had to learn to drive. I couldn’t drive when I first came down here.
Amon Tobin performs the world premiere of ISAM LIVE during MUTEK's Nocturne 1 on Wednesday June 1, 2011 in Montreal.