Amon Tobin helped to catapult the London/Montreal-based label Ninja Tune to international experimental prominence at the end of the ’90s, becoming one of the most respected electronic artists in the world and focusing a critical spotlight on the label’s numerous developing electronic, hip-hop, and jazz artists. The Brazilian-born, London-raised, Montreal-settled artist helped to bring sample-based electronic music into the mainstream with the release of Bricolage in 1997, evolving into a versatile and critically respected artist through the subsequent release of Permutation and Supermodified over the next several years.
Since then, Tobin’s music has slowly transformed, finding him producing film and video game scores, and sampling less from traditional jazz and R&B and more from found sounds and original field recordings. His latest, ISAM, is his 7th full-length, and the logical growth in his sound that began with 2007′s Foley Room, an atmospheric piece of manipulated field recordings that Tobin toured with a full 5.1 (and occasionally 7.1) sound system. The tour for ISAM sees him bringing his own massive P.A. (the L.A. dubstep party-approved Pure Filth Sound System) along with a truck full of sets, projectors, and visual aides.
AUX: Tell me about the Pure Filth Sound System. How did your relationship with those guys come about?
Amon Tobin: I’m glad you asked, because that’s really important to me. I feel really lucky to be able to do this on this run. Sam [Robson], who runs the system at Low End Theory in L.A., he came and did the XX show that we did in L.A. It was a Ninja [Tune] night. I was so impressed by his system, and I really liked him as well. He’s a guy who’s really dedicated to one thing, which is getting to most awesome bass, wicked system going. We did a preview of the ISAM show, like a small, private viewing of it, and he came. I asked if he could do the sound for it. I really wanted him on the tour, to bring his system with him. He’s the only one who can work that system. He was really enthusiastic about it after he saw the show were doing.
In the past, have you connected with different artists or organizations to bring your own system on the road, or was this the first time you thought it was important enough to get something like this?
What I’ve done before is have a very specific system that I’ve rented in different cities. I did a 5.1 and 7.1 tour for Foley Room, and I had to bring in my own system to each venue. But it wasn’t the same for the whole tour. And that was great, but it’s not the same as having something that you know really well because you’ve played with it every night, and the soundman is dedicated to this thing he’s put together. We’ve got such a huge truck for the stage set that we’re able to add some of the system to that, plus an extra trailer for the sound. It’s not totally logistically impossible, and it’s a little more expensive, but it’s such an important thing to do.
As your music moves more into being these “sound sculptures,” things that are a little more abstract, how does it chance your live show, and what you try to do for the audience?
First of all, I know I’ve been quoted as saying “sound sculpture,” but I’ve never said that. I really don’t even like that term . [Laughs]
Oh, my apologies then.
Oh, it’s fine, it just sounds so pretentious. I would never say that, honestly. I don’t view it as “sound sculpture.” It’s music. I’m getting more and more interested in the possibilities of sound, and how far I can manipulate them, and make new sounds that haven’t been tried before. When you’re mixing field recordings with synthesis and building your own instruments, and trying things I’ve never come across. There’s an element of exploration there which brings me to a different place in music. But when I’m making these albums, from the start, I can’t say that I’ve been that considerate of the listener. I hope, when I finish a record, that people like it. It’s not that I don’t care, because I do. But it doesn’t influence my creative process at all. And as I get more interested in the way that sound works, and finding out about it more, you could say my records are getting stranger, but that’s okay. I think it just makes it harder to market it. When this record came out, it was very surprising to me how some people reacted to it, like it was this strange, abstract, experimental record. It’s really not at all. You have to wonder about people’s experiences with music if you think this is such a strange record. You really haven’t heard much strange music. There’s a lot of experimenting, but the themes and melodies are quote simple.
But when it comes to making a show, you have to consider people. You’re interacting with people, and asking them to come and see you perform. At that point, it’s a completely different thing. It’s not purely about your pursuit of something artistic, because it wavers into the world of entertainment. It’s about having an interesting collective experience. The visual element, that’s when that comes in, especially when you’re an electronic producer who isn’t that interesting to watch on stage. There’s a whole other rant I can go into about this, but basically, I integrated myself into this stage set to try and take the focus away from me visually and make the whole thing a much more rounded visual experience.
That’s something I wanted to ask you about, when the visual element comes into play for you.
When people are coming to see you, they’re not just coming to hear you. As much, in the past, I’ve focused on just the sound, it was just because I didn’t have the opportunity to do something visually that I’d be really proud of. I didn’t have the means. I could have had some kind of half-assed visual component. Or I suppose I could have incorporated musicians into my show, but I always feels those things take away from the show more than they add to them. With this, it was the first time I felt like I could go full-on, and therefor it was worth doing. And it’s become an artistic endeavour, too, with all these talents involved in creating and building the set, and all these visual elements that we project.
How big is the crew you have to roll with? I imagine it’s a lot different than starting off as one man running an entire show.
There’s about 10 people on the road with us, and a driver as well. It’s a fairly hefty crew, but it’s a fairly hefty production. Everyone has a job that’s vital to the show we’re doing. Of course it’s a lto different than going out and doing a DJ set on my own, but that’s the nature of it.
How careful do you have to be when you’re putting together a team that’s going to have to pull this production off night after night? Is it stressful?
It’s not stressful at all, because they’re all really awesome people, and they’re all very professional. Getting it together, of course it was stressful. Me and the label took on a lot of risk with this, and we had no idea if it was going to work.