Interview :: Amon Tobin

May 7th 2012


When Amon Tobin was 13 he saved up his money to buy a dual cassette player. In his spare time he would record the Sunday night Top 40 and edit these songs to create an original and innovative take on the sound. He would then go to school of a Monday morning and sell these tapes to his friends.

Unaware of it at the time, Tobin’s early passions for sampling and musical experimentation would come to drive his bizarre and unique sound. At the start of his career he was making heavy jazz music created with modern technology that incited unheard of 10.0 ratings on Pitchfork and deemed comparisons to composers such as Quincy Jones. These techniques were so exceptionally rare that people labelled his 1997 album, Bricolage, as one of the most inventive records of the decade. In the 2000s Tobin was still using samples, but this time by means of authentic sounds that he had created himself.

Last year, Amon Tobin delivered to his listeners ISAM, his seventh full-length album that evolved into a sci-fi psychedelia of “sound sculpture”. This time, the originality stems from his use of varying mediums to unleash his album. With a sculptural exhibition created by Tessa Farmer that includes a piece to accompany every song on the album, Tobin has reached out to audiences that would perhaps not usually approach his music. On the other side of the spectrum, there lies his ISAM live show that will come to Australia as a part of the Vivid LIVE festival in June. It is described as an “audio visual tour de force” that breaks ground in its use of synchronized computer graphics onto a 3D set. The piece allows the viewer to experience something unique while at the same time going on an evocative, adolescent fantasy of being in a space ship.

Amon Tobin spoke to me, with a delicate British accent and humility unexpected from a man of his calibre. We discussed the early days, reversing the gender of his voice on ISAM and his upcoming tour in Australia.

AD: So let’s start with ISAM, tell me about the album, where did the ideas come from?

AT: I guess I’ve been moving on from where I left off with Foley Room and trying to figure out what I could do with sound and synthesis. I got really interested in the idea of merging sound and getting field recordings and trying to explore what’s possible. You know, I’m interested with that on a personal level, so it’s an exploration of all these things so really that’s what it’s all about.

You’ve never used your own voice in your music before this album. I’m really interested in how you used it on tracks such as ‘Kitty Cat’.

Oh right yeah. A lot of the stuff I did on the record I was trying to find out if I could just do it. I had this idea for a song where I wanted to sing, but I can’t sing for shit. So I was thinking, “I should try and make a character that can sing,” and I came up with two different characters for different songs. I messed around with different kinds of software that could help me do that and I ended up seeing how far I could get with using a made up female character. And I did, I felt really good about it. I was actually quite shy about it because I wasn’t sure how people would take it. I did it and I didn’t really tell anyone about it and I was going to keep it a secret and keep it as a guest vocalist so no one would know what it was. But in the end I figured it would be more interesting that it was me doing it. So I ended up just biting the bullet and confessing that I did it. Ironically, not many people ask me about it because they just assume that it was a guest vocalist.

So you’ve described your live shows as a “drug induced outer space experience”…

Oh No!

Well that’s what I’ve read on the internet!

Yeah. I don’t know man I’m not like a big advocate of doing anything that isn’t helpful to what you’re doing. If you take drugs it’s cool, if you don’t take drugs it’s cool. The whole experience of the record is a little bit psychedelic but it’s not drug fuelled at all. It’s not really about drugs or taking drugs. It’s more about taking a non linear, I guess, process, and experience of music. So yeah, I guess I was probably just having fun when I said that and now it always comes back to haunt me [Laughs]!

I bet you always get that now!

Yeah yeah, it’s funny cause you just say things for fun in the moment and then it’s not great afterwards.

So tell me about Coachella, how’d that go?

It was fine; I had a few technical issues, which isn’t unusual for festivals especially when you’re relying on this much technology. But it pulled through and it was cool. I’m doing the second weekend this coming Friday so hopefully it’ll all work properly that time. I was surprised because we had Swedish House Mafia playing on the other stage [Laughs] and it was pouring down with rain and everyone was cold and pissed off so I was just really happy people stayed. No one left and everyone was kinda mesmerized so I was really happy with how it went.

Did you get to see any other bands on the bill play?

I did yeah! I got to see one of my favorites, The Hives.

I wouldn’t expect you to like them!

Oh no, I love The Hives. I love their whole attitude, their music, them as rock stars. I really enjoyed that.

Do any of these people… the Hives perhaps; influence your music or you as a person?

I don’t know it’s hard to say. Everyone’s influenced by everything they hear and they like so it’s quite possible, but I wouldn’t say it’s a direct thing that I take on board. However it probably makes it’s way into what I do but it’s just hard to put your finger on it sometimes. Like some of the stuff I do seems to be born out of curiosity. I’m curious about things, about how they work, and while I’m trying to figure out those things I make music and it ends up on the record I guess.

That definitely makes sense. So tell me about the early days, did you always know you were going to make music?

Nah, I had no idea I’d do anything like this. Well what it was, when I was about 13 I washed cars for a summer because I really wanted this thing: it was a like twin cassette player deck thing and I saved up and bought it. I spent the next year making radio edits right, I’d record the radio from Sunday night, the top 40 you know?

Yes, yes I do.

Well, I’d take the songs I liked, and I’d make my own radio show and make my own top 40 and take it to school the next day. Then it kinda developed from there because it was a dual cassette player so I could make my own edits. I started taking the bits from the songs that I didn’t like out of the songs and then editing them. Also my dad was an English teacher and he had all these staff English tapes. They had all these phrases that he’d play to his students like, “HOW NOW BROWN COW” [Laughs] and I’d go into them and take out the words and make them say silly things. It’s funny, I didn’t realize it then but it’s kinda what I ended up doing… You know, back a few years when I was working with samples and editing. So that’s probably where I started out.

Well you spoke of your dad just then, how are your parents with it all? Well you’ve been making music for years now, but do they come to your shows and that kind of thing?

Oh you know they have done and it’s kinda cool! When I first started people were just like, ‘oh man what’s he doing?’ It only really clicks with your parents when they read a review or something in a paper that they read you know what I mean? So I guess when I first started appearing and popping up and stuff they’d read and saw things and they thought, “oh man this must be serious”. So they’ve been really supportive and excited about it. They’re really sweet, they’re really lovely people. They’re so great about what I’m doing and that’s kinda cool.

So you sent in your demos back in the day, what made you decide to do that?

A friend of mine, we used to sit in his room and smoke a whole lot of weed [laughs], and every now and again I’d play him some of my stuff, just me fiddling about, and he told me to send it into a label or something. I thought he was nuts but I did it anyway. I sent it to a few small labels around London and then I ended up getting picked up by a small, independent label called 9bar and I went up there [from Brighton] and slept on their floor and recorded Adventures in Foam and it went well. It was pretty much created in the back of a van and we only printed like 500 copies. And then later on, Ninja Tune called me up and yeah it just went on from there.

That sounds amazing. One last question, you’re coming to Australia as a part of Vivid Live, why did you choose to do that?

Well, I was invited you know, and it seemed feasible. They wanted me to come last year but we just couldn’t afford it cause it is quite an expensive thing to travel with.

We’re so far out of the way, it’s pretty annoying.

Well yeah, and it’s a long way to ship all that stuff. So we worked at it for a little while and eventually found a way. I’m pretty thrilled about it all, I haven’t gone out there for a while and it’s great to go out there with a record I’m really proud of and a production I’m really proud of. I just hope it goes well and yeah I’m really pleased to go, it’s going to be awesome.


WHAT: Amon Tobin Live Beyond 3D ‘ISAM’ – for VIVID Live
WHERE: Sydney Opera House
WHEN: 2 June


Read more from Nick La Rosa