Amon Tobin: An Electronic Pioneer’s “Field Work”

Amon Tobin: ISAMAmon Tobin: ISAM (Ninja Tune, 5/24/11)

Amon Tobin: “Lost and Found”

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At the beginning of a track-by-track commentary that accompanies a preview stream for his new album ISAM, DJ and electronic artist Amon Tobin states, “Anyone looking for jazzy breaks should look elsewhere at this point. It’s 2011, folks. Welcome to the future.”

That may be so, but given his dramatic shift in direction with his 2007 album, Foley Room, Tobin’s followers shouldn’t be surprised by the challenges that lie in wait for them on ISAM, a dense, elaborately constructed work that doesn’t necessarily reveal itself to casual listening. Like Foley Room, ISAM (pronounced “eye sam,” an acronym for “invented sounds applied to music”) consists mainly of sounds that Tobin recorded and later manipulated, in many cases beyond recognition. But if Foley Room represented an inquisitive step into unfamiliar creative terrain, ISAM may come to be regarded as a firm declaration from an artist who has not only mastered that terrain but is now unequivocal about the sense of purpose that he picked up along the way.

Longtime BBC Radio 1 DJ and electronica advocate Mary Anne Hobbes once said of Tobin that “there’s virtually no one on the face of this planet who achieves sonically what he’s doing.” That was at a time when Tobin, for most of his career, had relied exclusively on vinyl samples and flirted with the dance floor via the aforementioned jazz breakbeats (albeit in a more impressionistic way). Critically acclaimed, widely recognized albums like Bricolage and Supermodified made Tobin something of a household name, at least on a modest scale. Now, though, there’s nary a dance-friendly moment to be found on ISAM‘s rugged, perhaps even inhospitable, thicket of sounds. And this time around, the music’s nooks, crannies, and shaded corners are inhabited by menacing, skeletal fairies courtesy of Saatchi Collection artist Tessa Farmer, who created a series of pieces based specifically on ISAM‘s individual tracks.

Whereas Tobin’s back catalog allowed listeners to supply their own visuals, the packaging for the limited-edition physical release of ISAM — an elegant, oversized hardbound book with vivid color prints of Farmer’s works commissioned for the album — provides ample material to fuel the imagination. Yes, those tiny skeleton creatures on the cover art are in the process of causing grievous harm to the butterfly over which they’re swarming. In fact, Farmer’s fairies are, by her own description, a murderous bunch. Like Tobin, Farmer appropriates details from nature and shapes them into intricate new structures: rib cages out of tiny twigs, wings out of decayed leaves, etc. And, befitting of Tobin’s methods, Farmer also blurs the distinction between the natural and the synthetic.

“It just happened,” Tobin says, “that her work really fitted well with the whole idea of using natural things and constructing unnatural creations out of them, which is very much where the album is going — trying to imagine things and make them out of familiar pieces.”

Tobin describes ISAM as the product of a “personal quest for control over nature.” In fact, Control Over Nature is the subtitle of the Farmer-Tobin joint installation that opens at London’s Crypt Gallery on May 26 and tours the USA later this year.

“Neither of us is trying to be god or have some sort of say in what happens naturally,” Tobin laughs. “It’s more to do with adapting natural things into a form that you can work with and taking something you imagine and trying to realize it. The word ‘control’ is maybe a bit over-emphasized. It’s maybe more to do with organizing and adapting natural things to do what you want them to do.”

“The process is all about different kinds of synthesis, algorithms, and computer stuff — nerdy stuff, which I love — but at the end of the day, I respond to music in an emotional, physical way.”

Tobin’s decision to go from vinyl sampling to original, field-recording-styled sound sources (that he captured by working the microphone and directing himself) is well documented in the short making-of film that comes with the Foley Room release. For ISAM, Tobin has ventured further into a live approach that reflects his newfound working methods. In the past, Tobin’s live show consisted of a more (or less) traditional DJ set. With ISAM, it’s only fitting that he would feel compelled to go further out on a limb before live audiences.

“Of course, if you listen to the record,” Tobin says,” it’s not going to work as a DJ set, or as a live set with a band. We needed to figure out a way of presenting this music to people in a way that would be engaging. The approach was to try and make a loose visual narrative. It’s a very different kind of a show from what I normally do. People know what they’re going to hear when they come to a DJ set, at least to some degree. I know they’re going to dance at some point anyway. With this show, it’s much less focused on making people sweat. Although there are definitely points in the show that might do that, it’s a much more personal performance. It’s more of a ‘This is what I’ve been doing, and I want to share it with you’ kind of thing.”

The show, which debuts in Montréal on June 1, features a 25 x 14 x 8-foot 3-D installation that changes shape in sync to the music via various high-tech mechanisms.  Visuals were co-developed by Vello, founder of V Squared Labs (a firm that has supplied live 3-D imagery for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Black Eyed Peas, Jay-Z, and others), and a set was built by Alex Lazarus (Coachella, Massive Attack, Lady Gaga, Snoop Dogg).  For Tobin and everyone else involved, the show is a labor-intensive labor of love, and — for now, at least — finances dictate its short-term run.

“Absolutely nobody involved with this show — including myself — is making any money from it,” Tobin says. “In fact, everyone’s losing a great deal of money. We can do that for a certain amount of time, but then after that, we have to think about where to go from there. It’s not a practical approach by any means, but it’s something that keeps us all excited about working.”

“I have to say,” he adds, “that I can’t complain, because this approach has worked for me so far. I do commercial work to subsidize what I do, because I know that the music I make isn’t, strictly speaking, commercial. It’s not built to appeal to the widest possible audience. But I’ve been very lucky, because when I get approached to do a soundtrack or something along those lines, it tends to be on the basis that people already want what I do.”

With the music for the Sony video game Infamous, for example, Tobin worked with Chuck Doud and Jonathan Mayer, the music team for Sony Computer Entertainment America. Doud and Mayer sought to mold music out of non-musical found sounds and vice versa, extracting non-musical sounds from traditional instruments. For obvious reasons, this resonated with Tobin, who already had worked that way on Foley Room. It also says a lot, for example, about how much Tobin is in his element with video-game scoring that his label, Ninja Tune, released his work for Splinter Cell 3 as an actual album, titled Chaos Theory, in 2005.

Just as it’s difficult to draw a hard line between Tobin’s “commercial” and “artistic” output, there are commonalities between his breakbeat-heavy back catalog and his more recent work. His last two albums are more pointedly challenging offerings, but it’s telling that certain rhythmic and harmonic preferences recur throughout his entire catalog, regardless of the source material. Likewise, the character of how his music builds remains strikingly consistent across the board. Tobin also, thus far, has taken his time, exploring possibilities within one working method over several releases before moving onto a new angle. Still, his strong drive to keep evolving dictates that change is an unavoidable aspect of his future too.

“There will always be people who are going to be like, ‘Oh fuck, I wanted to get my rave on!'” he says. “But it was the same when I started deejaying. I got shit thrown at me for the first year. I mean, people hated what I was doing. It took a long, long time before anybody accepted my tastes on the dance floor. And, even though that was uncomfortable, I felt like it was very important because it helped establish something for me that was quite particular. I guess it’s the same with making albums as well. It’s very easy to fall into a comfort zone that is perpetuated by your fan base, which expects certain things. And when you deliver those things, there’s a comfort to that. But I think that’s a very unfortunate thing to do, given how much there is to explore in the world, and in music in particular. It would be very sad just to say, ‘Well, I know how to do this, and I know they’re going to like this, so I’m just going to keep doing this again and again.’ The downside to not doing that is that you always meet a degree of resistance.”

When all is said and done, though, Tobin would prefer that people not focus on the nuts and bolts of his process so much as the results.

“I want the focus to be emotionally driven, and not so much about the technical aspects of it,” he says. “I feel like there’s been a lot of focus on that, particularly with this record, because it is such a technical thing. The process is all about different kinds of synthesis, algorithms, and computer stuff — nerdy stuff, which I love — but at the end of the day, I respond to music in an emotional, physical way. And I hope that people will be given a chance to respond to my music in that way, and not be too sidetracked by what goes on behind the scenes.”

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