Amon Tobin is without a doubt one of the most transformative and progressive electronic music artists today, with the length and nature of his career highlighting his ability to change and develop along with his music. His music has gone through numerous transformations; starting off in the field of jazz and drum and bass with a heavy reliance on smooth samples and break beats, over time it has drifted to the heavily warped, morphed and deep soundscapes in his most recent releases.
In some sense it is appropriate to say that the music that Amon creates is indicative of the trends and periods of electronic music in which he was writing. Over time, his music leans more and more towards the synthetic, drifting away from using straight samples. Instead he turns sampled sounds into instruments that produce completely foreign tones and noises, a distinct mark of his creativity as a musician.
His music exudes dedication. Just listening to anything from his extensive back catalogue lets the listener know that he is more than just a producer; he is a musician, a designer and manipulator of sounds and atmospheres. His new live show ‘Beyond 3D – ISAM’ is set to hit Sydney in June as a part of Vivid Festival. Acting as an extension of everything he has been working towards in his music, a visualisation and physical incorporation of the intense sounds and textures presented in his latest album ISAM, it promises to be a visual and auditory experience like no other.
Cyclic Defrost: Looking back at your early albums, which are much more heavily focused on jazz, breaks and sampling from your own record collection, would you say that they are a result of the influence of your time living in Brighton?
Amon Tobin: You know, I know exactly what you mean, but really what all the records have been about is kind of taking things out of context. So it just happened that jazz and blues was something that I could move out of its context into something electronic. That’s what I was focusing on in those earlier records, was seeing what would happen if I could take a piece of walking bass and put it in a drum and bass track back in the early ’90s, or take a piece of jazz and turn it into something else. That’s always been kind of the line I’ve followed, and going on to some of the later albums where it just got more into transformation again and again. With this later stuff it’s really a continuation of that, it’s taking something from the world around me and trying to make sense of it, to transform it and turn it into something personal.
CD: So would you say that a lot of the music you have created is separate from a lot of outside influence; or what role, if any, does the influence of other locations and events play in the creative process and the way that you write your music?
AT: You know it’s hard to say, because I mean, like everyone, I’m really influenced by everything that I see and hear and everything I experience. It’s just that it’s not all in a very quantifiable way, I mean I find it hard to put my finger on what made me do this or that, it’s always been really something that’s kind of more driven by curiosity really, like personal curiosity; like ‘how far can I take this’ or ‘what would happen if I do this to that sound’. Really most of the music I make is out of a process of experimentation, and it’s just trying to learn about what I’m doing and during that process the music will come and end up being my album.
CD: Do you think that way in which your music has become more exploratory, in the way that you’ve explored different methods and ways of sampling, moving away from sampling jazz and breaks into what it has become now, is through the way you creativity has moved forward and that your curiosity has articulated itself in different ways as time has progressed?
AT: Well you know a lot of it is to do with technology as well, technology has developed and what is possible has become a lot more flexible. There was a time when I really just had a very small sampler and only about 8 different sounds that I could play at any different time, and I didn’t have any processing that I could really do to the sounds so it was quite crude. Then things developed and I was able to do more and more to the sound, and I guess around the time I was doing records like Supermodified and Out from Out Where I had more tools at my disposal, more possibilities of how to really get involved in changing and transforming sound. It just happened that now the possibilities are even greater, so I guess source material becomes more and more obscure because it’s a transformation and so it’s so much more radical now. Now I’m at a point where I’m kind of making up my own instruments and learning to play them and synthesizing them and things that just weren’t possible before really, it’s kind of driven by that as much as anything else.
CD: You’ve moved around a lot in your life before settling in Brighton and then moving to Montreal in 2002, does that curiosity that you have in your music extend to where you live, or is that very much separate, unrelated to the reason for moving around so often and settling in different places?
AT: I lean on the side of saying that it is probably quite a bit separate because I don’t really get out much to be honest, I spend a lot of time in my studio, I guess my own world.
CD: One of the things that is definitely apparent to most listeners of your music in the way the albums have developed, with them becoming a lot more synonymous with sound design and exploring different soundscapes and pushing your music a lot further. Was that something that you were consciously looking to achieve, through the way that you developed your music? Or is it just something that happened out of curiosity as opposed to a conscious act?
AT: I’m not consciously trying to even make a certain kind of record, in terms of exploration I’m really just investigating what I can do, what’s possible, what I find interesting, new ways of approaching sound. I guess really the music is a bi-product of my own learning experience, I’m just trying to learn about the world around me and how it works and all of these things, and the music kind of ends up being what the end result of that … it sounds kind of representational for where I’m at so far really.
CD: Something else that can tie into that is when you did the Splinter Cell soundtrack. Do you think that’s another way where you can explore what your music can be applied to through pushing it to other mediums, where it can move away from purely being music in itself and attach itself and develop further experiences?
AT: Yeah definitely, the soundtrack stuff was a really different thing to me, because suddenly I couldn’t just do anything that I though of, it was much more like making a piece of music that was a part of a much bigger thing, it was just a small cog in the wheel. I was trying to emphasise whatever it was that particular scene or mood in the game or film or whatever I was doing was trying to achieve, so it was a real work of discipline for me, it was trying to work within some confines, which I found really useful.
CD: So it was definitely taking you out of your comfort zone in the way that you compose your music. The way I understand it was that you created different sections that could go along with how intense the game play was at any point, is that the way it was written?
AT: For one of the games it was very much that, about trying to create different levels of intensity, and each layer had to work independently but also work together with any other layer at a given moment. So it was a really complicated and technical challenge, but like I was saying, you can take away a lot from that, from trying to work within a sort of discipline, and hopefully I learnt some things from that that I can apply to my own music after.
CD: This leads me perfectly into talking about ISAM, which, for me, is definitely the your most distinct album in terms of its sound, techniques, and the way that you morph the sounds and samples. Do you perceive it in the same way, that it has typified this new utilisation of technology and effects, and different ways of sampling everyday sounds to create these completely different soundscapes?
AT: Well in Foley Room I started going out and doing field recordings and trying to look at all sound in a very objective way, that anything could be musical whether it be instruments or things that weren’t instruments, I tried to find the music in them. So when I got to ISAM I was doing field recordings, but using them as a starting point and then trying to synthesize those sounds, bringing them back into a more electronic realm. Then because I could synthesize them I could turn them into playable instruments, which I then had to try and learn how to play and perform. So, for me, it was the next step, a kind of marriage of recorded sound and synthesized sounds and a real hybrid of the two. Its something which I hadn’t really heard before, something which I was really excited about, not just putting synthesizers and samplers together, but more building actual instruments and making acoustic models and trying to make convincing instruments out of these things that had no specific origin. I just got really fascinated by that, like I use my own voice a lot on the record, sometimes I’d turn it into strings, sometimes I’d turn it into pads … I’d change the gender and I’d make it a girl or an older woman, I did a whole bunch of vocal experiments on the record, but always, basically, with an air that the whole idea was transformation and trying to take something familiar and make it personal, maybe a bit alien, but special.
CD: Would you say that the new live show is an extension of all of that into something that is much more of an experience, that its pushing the boundaries even more and bringing your music into a visual aspect and incorporating yourself into it physically; is that what you’re trying to achieve with the live show?
AT: Well yeah that’s exactly it. This record was tricky because, like I said, there weren’t any musicians I couldn’ perform it with as a band, and because it wasn’t a DJ record I couldn’t play it on the dance floor, so I had to think of a different way to perform it. In terms of visuals it is very much that, this whole idea of mapping onto a structure is something that follows along in the sense that you’re looking at something that’s real but its doing things that aren’t real, its kind of behaving in an ultra natural way you know, its doing things that aren’t really possible even though it looks very solid and real. I think it’s a really genuine link with how the record is, a lot of the sounds on the record you can’t really place because they have something familiar about them, they seem solid but they’re doing stuff that a real instrument couldn’t do, or maybe you can’t really identify where its from. I think that was a really strong link that worked out initially in the show, as well as like you were saying; I’ve kind of been integrated into something much bigger than myself. I feel like that on my own record, I’m part of what’s there but by no means all of it, it’s all an extension of what I am imagining.
Amon Tobin will be performing two back-to-back shows of ‘Beyond 3D – ISAM’ at the Sydney Opera House on the June 2nd in conjunction with Vivid LIVE.