- Mon, 2011-06-13 09:49
Amon Tobin has been pushing the boundaries and increasing the spectrum of electronic music ever since he first began experimenting with sound manipulation, armed with a twin cassette recorder aged 13. Expanding the ethos behind his last record Foley Room, which sought to explore the musical potential of any and all sound (tigers roaring, neighbours singing in the bath, ants eating grass...) Amon Tobin has produced an astounding composition of sound with his seventh studio album ISAM, released via Ninja Tune.
Moving away from the sample-led structures of his previous work, tracks have been created through the synthesis of field recordings into playable instruments. Re-ordering nature resides at the heart of ISAM's output, a concept that nurtured the collaboration with Saatchi Collection artist Tessa Farmer, whose sculptures featured not only across the ISAM artwork but as part of an art installation at The Crypt Gallery in London.
I Like Music caught up with Amon for a lengthy chat about the detailed process behind all his work, the breath taking live presentation of ISAM and why he feels he's only just started breaking musical rules...
"I Like Music because… it’s hard to put your finger on what it is about it that makes you love it. And there aren’t many things that you can say are really so pervasive, that are so important to so many people, that hold that element of mystery. I’m sorry. I know you wanted a quote, but it’s quite an interesting question. It’s really like magic isn’t it? You don’t really understand it, there’s no formula to it. Some people believe there is, but there really isn’t. So what is it that’s so mysterious? Why do you love something that I might hate? Why does it resonate differently with different people?” Amon Tobin
ILM: ISAM has been accompanied by the work of artist Tessa Farmer, recently presented as a joint exhibition at The Crypt Gallery in London; her pieces on display with ISAM playing throughout the space. Yesterday was the final day of the exhibition and you were there in the afternoon with Tessa for a sigining. How was that? What did you make of it?
Amon: It was the first time I'd seen it. I was really looking forward to meeting Tessa in person as well, we hadn’t met until yesterday, just spoken on email. I thought it was brilliant. It was put together so carefully and people responded to that. Nothing was in glass, just sort of hanging from the ceiling. It was quite dark and delicate, so all these people had to be quite delicate too, walking around trying not to get bugs in their hair. Everyone was very respectful of it all which gave it a nice atmosphere. It was very creepy, but great. It was cool.
ILM: Despite the difference in medium, there's a very clear parallel between Tessa's artwork and your music, in a nutshell; the re-ordering of nature. What did you learn through your collaboration with Tessa? Did you come to view your work any differently?
Amon: It's interesting, it is that similar approach in such a different medium. You can get so lost in what you’re doing that sometimes you can forget that really it’s just one way to express yourself. More than anything I felt a kinship with someone who takes a lot of time over what she does, and does something very particular to her. A lot of people focus on one aspect of what she’s doing instead of what she is actually trying to express, which is something I experience a lot too. People insist on talking about death with her all the time, they say “Tessa, why are you so morbidly fascinated with death?” and she’s not really. It’s about re-ordering, it’s about bringing things to life, quite the opposite really. I guess it made me feel connected to someone in a really good way.
ILM: The ISAM live show looks absolutely breathtaking, an incredible thing! The show made its debut at MUTEK festival in Montreal last week. How was that?
Amon: That was a real relief! Obviously it was a risky business, there was a lot of time, effort and money put into it. It's quite an impractical endeavor, so we were just collectively sighing after it went down! People seemed really blown away by it, more than we expected. I guess we lost perspective a bit, when you work closely on something for some time, you get accustomed to it, you can forget the initial wow of it, so it was great to experience that.
ILM: Were you nervous before hand?
Amon: It was terrifying! (laughs) A couple of hours before the show me, Jeff from Ninja and Kid Koala were walking down the street, went round the corner, saw a fire engine and the place right next door to the venue was on fire! I looked round at Jeff and his heart was in his throat, it was just…you always wait for something unexpected to destroy everything, you know? You start thinking “oh, nothing could possibly go wrong now, we’ve definitely covered all our angles” and then something burns down...
ILM: You're playing inside a huge structure, what's it like in there? It seems it's essentially an extension of you and your music...
Amon: Yeah, that was the idea. Being inside is like being inside a drum. It vibrates a lot! It’s not that it’s super loud in there, but I use a lot of bass, so the whole thing vibrates. I’m sort of out of focus for a few hours afterwards, but yeah, it’s cool.
ILM: What’s the set up inside, what’s in there with you?
Amon: Basically what I use to trigger and manipulate the visual and the audio, a bunch of screens and computers, everything is running from my gear inside. We’ve got the technicians at front of house too, if the show goes well there’s a section right at the end where I’ll do a 20 minute DJ set, sort of like a live DJ thing, and they'll do a live VJ set to that. So everything is sort of connected.
ILM: Will you be changing things up with each show? Is there room for improvistation?
Amon: There is, but honestly, I’m not really into improvising the shows. I feel like the last thing I’d want to see when I go to a show is a band jamming, you know? Something unstructured. It’s great fun to improvise, but it’s not as much fun to watch someone noodling around. Even when I DJ I really try and get my set down and structured with a beginning, middle and end so there's a sort of form to it. I try and really nail it so that every transition is right. It’s about delivering something you’ve really thought about with a reason for everything. So…there is room for messing about but I don’t think I take that opportunity really.
ILM: I read a review of MUTEK which said you played a number of your older tunes in the encore DJ set?
Amon: Yeah. I kind of put it there incase...I mean, the set is a presentation of the album. It’s not really dance floor material. I do know from shows I’ve done that the people who come out want to get their sweat on a bit, so I thought “if the set goes well and people want more, I’ll make a mini sort of set with some older stuff as well.” That’s all that is really.
ILM: How do you view your old tunes and past work? We've spoken to a bunch of artists recently who have told us they cringe when they think back to certain things...!
Amon: Yeah, I guess that’s pretty common! There’s some stuff that's really quite embarrassing! When you’ve been around for a while you kind of grow publically, all your little experiments and learning curves are on display. I don’t feel too bad about it all, it’s like having a tattoo or something, you know it was right at the time, it might be a bad tattoo but it represents a time in your life.
ILM: Everything you've done has lead to the next step...
Amon: Exactly. As long as you're not too comfortable with what you've done... I think it would be more dangerous if you were stuck in some rut. It’s probably better to have some hope.
ILM: I've been reading about the process behind ISAM; giving the album your sole focus for two years, spending six months learning new software and hardware, another six adapting them to your needs... What was your vision for the record at the start of that process? Did you know what you wanted to achieve, or was it a case of experimenting with new ideas and waiting to see where they led you?
Amon: I guess I tend to approach stuff with a pretty clear idea of what I want to do. Then I have to learn how to do it! It’s the same with gear. I don’t have stacks of gear in my studio, I’m not like a collector, I only get something if I need it to do a specific thing, and a lot of the time I need to try and adapt it or combine it with something else so that it will approximate what I need it to do. It’s more satisfying if you can realise something that is imagined rather than it just happening. It’s nice if it happens too! It always comes from something I’m hoping to achieve, that I’m hoping to get to. And I never quite get there either, honestly. I fail a lot. I try things out and they don’t work or I try something and it’s almost there...that does kind of motivate you.
ILM: How did the process of working and collating found sounds on your last record, Foley Room, lead you into ISAM?
Amon: When I finished Foley Room I started to get very interested in synthesised sound. Up to that point I was really only interested in manipulating audio. I was so interested in synthetic sounds at that time, I wanted to find out how I could combine the two things. Not to go purely into synthesised music but find a way to synthesise the audio recordings, then combine multisampling, acoustic modeling and synthesised sounds to make a hybrid. In Foley Room it was about treating all the sounds I found as potentially musical, musically relevant. So you know, a chair or whatever could be treated objectively as musically useful in some way. That’s kind of where I left off. ISAM was about asking “can I take these things and turn them into playable instruments? Instead of just having them as building blocks. Could I go a bit further into controlling them and apply a more personal expression to them? I did some research and I found some controllers that were pretty strange, that to an extent would let you do that. Also software that allows you to take a recording and split it into maths basically, turn it into something more malleable. Audio control can be quite rigid, you know? You can only go so far, you’re always layering and chopping. As soon as you turn it into zeroes and ones you can sort of go into the sound more, I don’t know how to describe it, do you know what I mean? There’s a sort of elasticity to it.
ILM: Yes. The amount of components that make up one song, one sound even, are far greater than you think. We've been talking about it recently in our office, 'what makes up a sound'...
Amon: It’s so fascinating. It really goes back to nature in a lot of ways. When you get into splitting harmonics, which is essentially what you do when you analyse a sound and it’s spectral components, you’re not just dealing with amplification, you’re dealing with how harmonics interact. So it’s a bit like you’ve got a 2D image which would be your waveform and then you have the harmonics which you can imagine as a three dimensional space almost. So how all these layers of amplitude work harmonically together. I started to realise things that were new to me, that there were rules in nature for how harmonics work and those rules are defined by natural things and it’s incredible. It’s really interesting. You start to realise that all the synthesis is really just a window into how natural things actually work. That every note is actually made up of components and harmonics, every chord is just an accentuation of the harmonics in a note. Once you start opening those doors, there’s more and more stuff that you just don’t know and it becomes very motivating to explore.
ILM: What were the biggest hurdles throughout the process?
Amon: No one likes going back to school really, just sitting there with books! But I do like it to some extent. When you really want to make music, it can be hard to put that off until you've learned some stuff, sometimes you just want to make a tune! I’ve found the way around that is to do just that. To just make really simple bits of music as a kind of vent while I do all this other stuff. Just make a really simple beat, get some things out of my system.
ILM: A cathartic release...!
Amon: Yeah. You get this build up of energy and you need to express it! I think I would have gone mad if I’d just sat there for months. But yeah, other than that it wasn’t frustrating, it was just exciting really.
ILM: What were some of the biggest highlights? Where things really began to fall into place?
Amon: Definitely when I started making instruments out of very simple things. I found that they were so responsive. It’s always sort of organic, to use a horrible word, but just realising the potential in that was really exciting. Also, some things I was really unsure about and then tried that worked better than I thought they would! I did this whole thing with my voice where I kind of gender modified it. To be honest, I was kind of shy of the idea at the start.
ILM: Right. Kitty Cat is a great track, I love knowing that's your voice...!
Amon: Yeah. You know it’s funny, when I did that I wasn’t sure whether I was going to tell anybody that it was me! In the end I realised that it was actually part of the whole record. I thought “if I'm going to take every sound and try to turn it into something else, then I don’t necessarily have to work with unconventional things, I can take my own voice and turn it into something I’ve imagined”. But then I started to think, “oh, this is definitely going to alienate some of my crowd for sure” I stated imagining all of these “fucking fag” comments, you know what I mean? Then I just thought “oh, fuck it” and I put it out. I was really bracing myself for this sort of backlash and in the end nobody picked up on it! They just thought I’d got a girl to do the vocals. Then I got furious! (laughs)
ILM: Right...That took me ages! (laughs)
Amon: Yeah! So then I started making a real point of mentioning it. It’s funny...! (laughs)
ILM: In many ways, I think the manipulation of your own voice completes the circle...
Amon: Yeah definitely. I think it’s really important in the record. It’s not just those few songs, all the vocal stuff, all the harmonies throughout are all my voice, usually turned into female choruses because that’s what I want in the track. I didn’t really want baritone vocals, I love that sort of Disney sound, you know? That kind of ‘50s chorus thing. I’ve used that a lot in the music I’ve sampled before and I thought this was the time to try and do it myself.
ILM: How do you approach the ordering of the tracks? You've said that with your live show and DJ sets you always focus on form, a beginning, middle and end. At what stage in the process of putting together an album do you consider that?
Amon: It’s great when you play it live because you’ve got control over that, they can’t put you on shuffle! You can decide the pacing of the show, decide how people are going to hear it. But you know, I let go of that on an album a long time ago. I always take a lot of time over it, I still believe in the LP and the idea of it all working as a whole, so for sure, I spent some time sequencing it. But I don’t expect that it’s going to be listened to like that all the time, I mean the majority of people probably throw out the tracks in their own order...
ILM: Ninja are releasing Surge as a single. They admitted in the press release that taking one track out of the album order was a tricky thing to do!
Amon: Yeah. It's fine. I mean in the end you can’t be that controlling of what you do, you have to let go.
ILM: You're known for sourcing sound from many different things. Do you find you're constantly aware of the sounds around you?
Amon: Yeah in a way. Although, it’s not as though I’m Spiderman! I guess when you focus on anything you tend to become more sensitive to it. I used to be really into photography and you know, after you take enough pictures you wander around with your camera and see a lot of potential in things all the time. It’s more like that, I’m not traumatized by it or anything, it's fine! (laughs)
ILM: You don't keep an omnidirectional microphone in your back pocket!
Amon: No! (laughs) I mean I definitely get moments where it’s impossible to record something. A car will drive over a bridge or something and it will make this great sound, when that happens I try to make a mental note of it and then I'll do it again with a mic, so yeah....
ILM: Do you have a library of material, of sounds?
Amon: No, not really. I tend to have an idea and then search for the components for that idea. I don’t really go out and collect stuff first and then make things from it, so I don’t really have that much of anything really. Even vinyl, you know, I have the stuff that I need to make the records, that's it really.
ILM: Going back to the very start, when did you first realise music could have such an effect on you? That it was what you wanted to do?
Amon: I could probably look back quite far! I guess it was when I was allowed the opportunity to do it. When it became something I knew I would be able to do for the majority of the day then I really jumped on the opportunity. Up until then...I remember when I was about 13 I'd spend a lot of time in my bedroom with a twin cassette player. My Dad’s an English teacher and he would have these English language cassettes that he’d use for his students. They were exercises on pronunciation and all of that stuff. I’d spend a lot of time re-ordering the words so they’d say different things. I thought it was funny, I'd just make them say stupid things! And I made a radio show which I would bring into school on cassette and force people to listen to! It would be my Top 40. You know on Sunday you would have the Top 40 countdown? I would record it all and then take bits of tracks I didn't like out and take bits of tracks I did and make my own, I'd just edit the tracks.
ILM: Haha! Did your friends like it?
Amon: They didn’t actually! (laughs) I was really annoying! I’d always add in narration and stuff in this pre-pubescent, squeaky voice. I think I just got on people’s nerves. (laughs)
ILM: Who are some of your biggest musical inspirations?
Amon: There are a lot of people really. I spend so much time listening to people’s music and it’s really, really motivating. New people as well, people just coming up really motivate me. Eskmo was a really big influence on this record for me. We got together and made some music and I loved his whole approach to sound. We had a lot of common ground in taste as far as sound. People from different genres as well. I love the sort of nerdy producers, Noisia, Phace, those drum’n bass guys. Some of the dubstep stuff that is about too. I guess the nerdier stuff. You know, the people that obviously just love that genre because it gives them enough room to explore and play around with sound. Then people like Excision and older stuff too, prog rock, psychedelic music, soundtracks. Weirder electronic stuff from way back, Edgar Froese and Tod Dockstader and also songwriters, really good songwriters. I mean The Beatles, they wrote amazing, amazing pop as well – I really appreciate well constructed pop music, it’s really hard to do. I have a lot of respect for them.
ILM: Have you ever tried to write pop music?
Amon: I don’t know, I mean, I’ve tried to make structures. Structures that were strong and concise. A lot of the music I make isn’t about being concise, it’s about going off on tangents. On my last album I made a track called Always, which has a sort of pop structure. So things like that. I guess I was more into trying to see if I could do that a while back. I did quite a few songs like Get Your Snack On or Verbal, songs that were more like “here’s a chorus, here’s a verse, here’s the bridge”, trying to see if I could learn to do that. I think it pays to try and learn the rules before you break the rules. I appreciate it when that’s done well too.
ILM: When you look back on your career so far, what are the biggest highlights for you?
Amon: It probably sounds cheesy, but I really feel like right now is the pinnacle for me. I feel like I have so much control over what I’m doing, so much flexibility in the technology that I’m using. I guess there’s less fear in going to places I’ve wanted to go before but didn't because I felt I wasn’t really qualified. Not to say that I feel I’m qualified now, I just feel I can take the risk a bit more.
ILM: Like you said, you've spent time learning the rules, now you can break them?
Amon: Yeah, try and at least reach for that. I also feel like the label is really behind this record too. That’s something I haven’t had to this extent before. They just really took to the record and genuinely were behind it. That’s why we’ve got this great tour. Even with doing the show...I’ve never been able to do a show where I’m presenting the album. I’ve always had band envy! The band can go on tour and play their album and be like “here’s what we’ve been doing.” I’ve never been able to do that, so now this is great. I can literally play and present what I’m doing.
ILM: For the first time the record isn't the conclusion to what you've done, you can take it to the next level.
Amon: Yeah, it’s not just a DJ mix anymore. I’m not apologising for making music that doesn’t fit on the dance floor. It’s just “here it is, I hope you like it, but here it is”.
ILM: Having reached this stage with your music, what would be your advice to the musicians just starting out?
Amon: I don’t know. I feel a bit self-conscious giving advice about that. I guess honestly, if I think about it, the things that have helped me have been not listening to people that bring you down. Really, I’d say that the biggest piece of advice I can give to anyone is just don’t be limited by other people’s limitations. They’re the ones that are always trying to tell you that you can’t do something and it’s not going to work, then if it works, they’re like “well it’s not going to last” and then if it lasts they’re like “well you don’t really deserve it.” It's a constant battle.
ILM: Especially when you’re trying to do something that’s yours, that’s new.
Amon: Yeah, exactly. I’m not saying it’s going to work, I mean you might fail. But at least try. It’s a lot easier to sit back and be cynical and say “well, that’s probably not going to work and it’s not worth trying, so I’m not going to be a fool, I’m just going to sit back and laugh at the people that fail.” I’ve got more respect for the people that fail than for the people that laugh at all the tryers out there.
ILM: Like we were saying at the beginning, it's also about being open to other people's interpretations. Once it's out there, it's out there...
Amon: Yeah. I’ve definitely got used to that! It does always make me laugh! Of course everyone is going to have their opinion on what you do, whether they like it or not, but it’s funny when people try and tell you about it. People do that! They write to me personally and say “go back to doing beats because you shouldn’t be doing this, it’s not working, you should stick to what you know” and it’s just bizarre! I can’t imagine doing that to anybody else (laughs), but, like you say, it goes with the territory. You just need to try and ignore a lot of rubbish.
ILM: Following ISAM, what's next? How do you push yourself to evolve?
Amon: I’m not trying to push boundaries or anything like that. Honestly, I’m just curious. I’m curious about the possibilities of sound and I’m curious about what I’ve yet to discover in music. That’s what motivates me, that I'm really interested in it. I want to learn about it and everything I make is a product of that, it’s what comes out of the studio when I’m discovering things. And I’m not discovering things that have never been discovered, it’s just the first time that I’ve come across them and that’s what motivates me. As long as I’m curious, I guess I’ll keep on going....
ILM: Finally, our site is called I Like Music. Could you finish this sentence for us, I Like Music because...
Amon: I like music because it’s hard to put your finger on what it is about it that makes you love it. And there aren’t many things that you can say are really so pervasive, that are so important to so many people, that hold that sort of element of mystery. I’m sorry. I know you wanted a quote, but it’s quite an interesting question. It’s really like magic isn’t it? You don’t really understand it, there’s no formula to it. Some people believe there is, but there really isn’t. So what is it that’s so mysterious? Why do you love something that I might hate? Why does it resonate differently with different people?
ILM: Hmm. That’s interesting, particularly following on from natural harmonics, the natural harmonics of people...
Amon: Yeah. I don’t know about this, but I’m sure it’s to do with association, like why some people are attracted to other people and other people aren’t. There might be a particular characteristic in someone that you find really attractive and you don’t really know what it is. Your friend might not find that person attractive, they might not be that pretty, but there’s something about them that you just really connect with. I’m sure that’s just an association with something that happened way back when you were forming your tastes, forming your personality and so you find that familiarity in someone, which becomes attractive. And maybe it’s the same with music, I don’t know really...
ILM: And on the other hand, there's pop music. Which is completely direct, made for the masses, it sort of bypasses that...
Amon: Yes. I don’t think that’s a real love for music. That's just generic sound. I think the reason that works is because you’re not necessarily in love with that song, it’s just easy, you can do other stuff while you listen to it. It’s like McDonalds, you know? It’s easy to buy, it’s easy to eat it, it tastes alright, but the people that really love food, they’re not going to go to McDonalds…I’m talking about something that you recognise, something very specific that’s hard to put your finger on that makes something attractive to you. I’m sure there’s something in that with music....