Amon Tobin on Sampling, DJing and Learning How to Perform His Own Record

Joe Muggs

By Joe Muggs

on 06.01.11 in Spotlights

Amon Tobin is not a man to sit still. Brazilian born, he’s been highly mobile since childhood, living everywhere from Canada to North Africa – and his musical development has been just as fluid and constant. Releasing records briefly as Cujo, and then under his own name, he began in 1996 by exploring warped drum’n’bass, making personal and idiosyncratic music that belonged neither to D’n’B nor the more obtuse abstractions of Aphex Twin and Squarepusher.

Over the years, Tobin has found various ways to explore electronic music beyond the club – perhaps most famously in his soundtrack for the third instalment of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory video game, which proved that out-there artisan music could fill a role in the megabucks world of gaming. It also, as Tobin puts it, “bankrolled” his future activities, giving him an extra degree of creative freedom in his explorations of synthesis, sampling, song and rhythm.

Not that he needed it, in many ways: He has more than 15 years of support by that most open-minded of record labels, Ninja Tune. With their backing, his eighth album (ninth if you include a download compilation last year), ISAM, has spawned a gallery exhibition with 3D collagist Tessa Farmer, a book, and Amon’s first-ever purpose-designed solo audiovisual show.

eMusic’s Joe Muggs caught up with Tobin to discuss how not to end up hunched over your laptop in a live show; how to love music that has nothing to do with you; and the diminishing power of sampling.

So, Amon, you’re preparing to play a fully live set of all your own music, as opposed to the DJ-based sets you’ve favored over the years. Can you explain how this is going to be different?

When I DJ, there is obviously a sense that I have to play to that audience, which is standing, dancing, participating and wanting a loud music experience. So I’ll incorporate a lot of my tracks in one way or another, but build them around lots of kinds of bass-heavy music that works in that environment, stuff I would actually want to hear in that environment myself. And that’s made that part stand really quite separate from the rest of what I do.

Which is funny, because this time around I’m doing a show which, for the first time, is actually a presentation of the album. Because of that, it’s going to be a whole different kind of thing; I’m not really trying to make people sweat. It’s a much more personal presentation of the music I’m creating right now. It’s a challenge for anyone doing electronic music – you go away for a couple of years, you’re immersed in making that record, and you don’t think about how other people are going to hear it or how you’re going to present it to them, especially not in a live way. Then you finish the record and suddenly it’s a very real proposition – how am I going to play this? And of course, there isn’t a band involved; it’s not DJ music, so you have to think of a new way to do it. And yes, you’re not alone in that challenge, you see so many electronic musicians struggling to work it out and ending up hunched over laptops on stage.

Well, every electronic musician, if they’re good, is inventive in the studio – they’re actually developing new ways of sound-making, so there’s no standard format for reproducing that; they have to reinvent the wheel to create a live set.

Well, yes, but people end up getting squeezed into standard formats if they’re not careful. You’re still on a stage, and if you are standing on a stage already there are certain parameters defined. If you’re in a studio making an album you can easily say, “Fuck everyone, I’m making this music for me,” and experiment or indulge all you like – but if you are going to start standing up and inviting people to come and see you, you kind of owe it to them to have an element of entertainment in some way. You can’t be that selfish in that situation. You have to at least something that’s worth being there for, and that’s where the challenge lies – to transform something very private into something very public. It’s no small thing!

Do you see continuity from the start of your production career to now? Is it all part of the same ongoing set of experiments?

Yeah, I would say so, pretty much.

And with those first experiments, if, as you say, you had no background in clubs or raves, how did you fall on that style as a medium to explore your ideas?

Well at that time for me it was all about context. All the music I really loved essentially had nothing to do with me: blues, and the whole history of black American music really, but also drum’n’bass – which I loved but had no experience with. I could never pretend to be culturally, or even geographically, linked to any of that stuff. So what was interesting was to take the things that I loved and put them in a context that made sense to me through sampling, and thus hopefully made sense as something that comes from me. So not saying, “These are my influences and hey, I’m a bluesman”; more like, “No, I’m not that thing, but I love this music and I want it to be a part of something that I now make and to feed into this new thing that I’m creating.”

And does this carry right on through to the new album? Although it’s far more abstracted than that early beat-driven work, you can hear all manner of cultural reference points dissolved into it…

Well, it’s gone through a number of stages. It’s been a constant learning process, or as you say, an ongoing experiment. That thing of taking recognizable sounds out of context was a quite interesting thing to do back in the 1990s, but I don’t think you can still do that with anything like such interesting results – partly it’s just the law of diminishing returns as all the old stuff gets sampled, and partly that it’s just not a new thing to do any more. So for me there’s been this slow process of taking sounds and processing them much more so there’s less of a link to where the sound came from, so it becomes more about the manipulation and less about the source – and as this is going on, the possibilities of manipulation were getting greater and greater too as technology advanced, so you’re not simply “putting effects on” given sounds but you’re genuinely able to manipulate them in time and space in quite complex ways and transform them into something very far removed indeed from their original cultural context. Which is specifically what the title of [2000's] Supermodified was about.

And so as I was able to do more with each sound, I began to widen the scope of where I was taking sounds from, until by the time of [2007's] Foley Room I was really looking at every sound as having potential, not just musical sounds. Which then, in turn, gives you a whole new challenge of how to remain objective about the project: Everything and anything can be musical, yet you can’t just take any old thing or it becomes directionless, so quite often you have to think harder and be more conscious about each decision.

And with ISAM, I’ve moved on from recording sounds and processing them to actually synthesising them. The processing had become so complex and removed from the source anyway that it was in effect synthesising new sounds! At this point, I’m actually marrying all these different things into something that feels actually new, and quite exciting…to me, anyway.

It certainly feels, if you think of artists like Autechre, that the space between “real” and “synthetic” sound has closed; that there’s this uncanny area where you no longer know if what you’re hearing is originating from a digital or physical process.

Well yeah, you’ve got this incredible flexibility with synthesis because you literally have a virtual instrument, and you can apply physics to it. You have in your computer, say, an imaginary string, and you can make it tauter or looser, and hit it or pluck it, and depending on the algorithms you’re applying to it, it will act according to the actual physics of those actions and sound accordingly. It will reverberate according to the chamber you put around it, you can make that wood or stone or whatever, and it will react according to those physical parameters too. And because there are all these variables now, like when you put your finger on a guitar string, every single note is slightly different, you no longer have this uniformity that sounds “synthetic.” Now you might not actually find with this physical modelling that it’s ever actually going to sound exactly like a guitar string, or like a flute, but this variability does mean that it, and the way you interact with it, will sound very musical. And it works in reverse too – I’ve used my voice a lot on these tracks, but processed it, gender modified it, pitched it up or down, and it never sounds quite real as such, it sounds a bit “off” and I find that quite an interesting artefact in itself.

The voices may not sound real or natural, but neither do they sound artificial or “robotic” in the traditional way that vocoders or processed voices do – again, because of the detail in the processing…

Yeah that’s right, and I think what’s always most interesting is stuff that doesn’t quite make sense – things that rub against each other the wrong way and cause a more complex dynamic. It’s that thing that’s always been there, in electronic dance music especially, of interacting with sounds in a very natural way, but the sounds themselves are very unnatural, and that creates a kind of tension that I find quite cool.

But now you’ve taken that kind of process away from the club, do you ever think about who your audiences are, or how they are reacting to your recorded music?

No, I can’t really do that. I’ve got no control over the music after it comes out of the studio, really. I can’t enforce how people hear it, so I just avoid speculating. It could be quite dangerous to start speculating how and why people are going to the listen, because then you start wondering what they’d like to hear, and from that you start making all kinds of presumptions and complicating your life unnecessarily – whereas I prefer to keep it simple and focus on finding the things that I find most challenging and interesting in the actual musical process, and hope that people connect with it in one way or another when I’m done.