In Conversation: Amon Tobin
It may have been eight years or so since we last heard from Amon Tobin, but to say that he’s been on hiatus for the last few years would be slightly misleading. While he hasn’t released a full LP since 2011’s 'ISAM', he has nevertheless been feverishly working away on countless projects in private, which he’s now preparing to share with the world.
Having started out producing home recordings from his bedroom in Brighton in the mid-90s, Tobin released his first full-length LP, 'Adventures In Foam', on Ninebar in 1996 under the one-time moniker of Cujo. A heady blend of trippy nu jazz and breakbeat tunes, it caught the attention of Ninja Tune, who promptly signed him.
Under his own name, Tobin went on to carve a reputation as one of electronic music’s most fascinating pioneers, renowned for his continually evolving sound - ranging from the eclectic jazz and jungle samples of 1997’s 'Bricolage' through to the more experimental stylings of 2007’s 'Foley Room' and 2011’s 'ISAM'. The latter marked a dramatic shift away from danceable jazz breaks to self-recorded sounds, manipulated to form a custom orchestra, of sorts.
His new record, 'Fear In A Handful Of Dust', develops these ideas further, blending his passion for lush soundscapes with analogue experimentation. This hasn’t stopped him from toying with the percussive sounds of his early work, of course. Tobin’s Two Fingers side project has enabled him to continue mining the world of drum and bass for inspiration, developing beat-oriented work in tandem with his more experimental output.
With the launch of his newly minted record label, Nomark, Tobin is preparing an ambitious line-up of releases – none of which look set to be easily pigeonholed. The label has plans afoot for no less than a dozen releases over course of the next year alone, both under Tobin’s own name and various monikers, as well as work with other collaborators spanning multiple sounds and genres.
Last month, Paul Weedon sat down with Tobin to discuss his plans for the new label and how, even after all this time, he’s still waiting for technology to catch up with him.
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First and foremost, congratulations on the new album, Amon.
You’ve spoken a lot before about the fact that what you do is a form of “exploring sound”.
'Fear in a Handful of Dust' feels like an even bigger progression from 'ISAM'. How long has the project been gestating for?
You know, I didn’t put anything out for a long time, but I kept writing the whole time. So I didn’t really stop making any music. I just didn’t put anything out for way too long. [Laughs]. So it’s not like it took me eight years to do it or anything. I actually finished it quite a while ago, but I worked on a bunch of other records as well, which I’m going to be putting out this year on Nomark, the new label…
But it’s always a constant with me of being in the studio, always writing… but with releases, there are other forces involved that aren’t always under my control, so I just keep doing what I can control, which extends about as a far as the studio, I’m afraid.
You were signed to Ninja Tune for many years. Are you still on good terms with those guys?
Oh, yeah. Ninja Tune supported me for years and I wouldn’t have a bad word to say about any of those guys. They’ve been fantastic… It’s like any relationship. There are times when you need to move on and, for various dreary reasons…
I didn’t want to give up my publishing – and that made it very difficult for them – so I understand all those kinds of thing, but on the other side as well, I mean, I have so much material that I want to put out and it’s not really fair to pile that on to a label. They’ve got other artists as well and other things that they need to do.
So, for me, it was really a sort of stretch towards autonomy – a blind leap to try and get as much freedom as I can, to do what I’d like to do on my own terms. And it might be a terrible idea. [Laughs]. I might regret all of this, but right now it feels very liberating and it feels very exciting, actually.
I feel like I’m way out of my depth, which is a strangely familiar place to be, so I’m just trying it, seeing how it goes. But yeah, I wish Ninja Tune all the best.
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And I’m guessing that with eight years between albums there’s a lot of stuff for people to look forward to.
Yeah, we’ve got a release schedule between now and December releasing every month and it’s all mapped out, actually right through to February 2020 at this point, so it’s a lot.
And yeah, I’m not talking about every single thing in advance – I try not to front-load things too much – but I’ve got the Only Child Tyrant project coming out in a few months, another Two Fingers album and more stuff under my own name, as well as a few other projects, so yeah. I’m sort of dying to get it out really. It’s a kind of constipated situation. [Laughs].
There’s always been an experimental edge to your work, going right back to Cujo and the early days of sampling records under your own name. This feels like an even more experimental progression from what you were doing with 'ISAM'. Talk me through the instrumentation process behind this record.
The thing that I’ve noticed looking back on work is that I seem to get obsessed with certain working modes and they sometimes cloud my judgement a little bit. And I think that’s a normal thing to happen - when you’re very involved in something, you don’t have perspective on it until afterwards.
And one thing I noticed, particularly leading up to 'ISAM', was that I was getting very pre-occupied with the technical aspects of the sound and there was something very satisfying about having an objective in mind, trying to reach that objective, or at least trying to get a close as I could to it.
So I’d spend a lot of time with quite an abstract idea, trying to get very close to it and not getting distracted by other ideas or other suggestions that come from my equipment, for example – and being quite militant about getting to that end point. And what that does, to an extent, is it can choke your spontaneity.
I remember looking right back to when I started making music, I wasn’t concerned at all with production or technical aspects of sound design and music production.
I was primarily focused on the musical ideas – and you can tell because you listen back to the first records I made and they sound horrible, as far as production goes. They’re not well-made things, but the musical ideas are, I think, strong and they have ideas and life and there’s a spontaneity there that I miss… The idea of a happy accident went way out the window for me a long time ago.
I thought it was just such a lazy thing to let in to your process and I feel like there is a balance – there is an element of that, because I think you should let that in to your process – so long as it doesn’t govern your process and become a noodly part that’s just pissing your time away having fun and jamming, you know? I really do believe in structure, even though I’m sure people listening to my stuff don’t always hear it, but it’s there. [Laughs].
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How did that affect your process?
So I went back to a very analogue process with this record – because analogue being, by definition, hard to control, hard to temper – what it did was it kind of forced me back in to a collaborative experience with my equipment where I wasn’t just dictating using strictly digital processes to do my bidding.
It was more of a collaborative thing where I would have a structured idea, but instead of trying desperately to achieve that, I’d let that light in and allow myself to be surprised by what the instruments were doing… And I’m hoping that the end result is a less choked set of musical ideas.
I can tell that the production isn’t anywhere near as shiny and sleek as something like 'ISAM', but I’ve kind of allowed that stuff back in to the process.
Do you look back at those earlier records and think, to some extent, that it was a different person who made those records?
It’s funny you know, but because it’s been so long, a lot of the time when I hear stuff – I mean, I rarely listen to stuff from the past, but when I hear stuff that I’ve done in the past, it doesn’t sound like I made it. It sounds like someone else made it.
I think that’s quite common. I can’t quite place myself back where I was when I made that track and try and figure out what I was really thinking and just kind of speculate, because it doesn’t really feel like something I could do half the time. It’s really odd.
Do you still find that there’s a certain expectation from listeners based on your earlier output as to what things are going to sound like?
I think a lot of people are going to be waiting for drums and all of that and it was kind of a conscious decision… I wanted there to be percussion and I wanted the percussion to be an extension of the synthesis that I was using to make the melodic elements in the music, so all of the percussion sounds that you hear are as synthesised as the musical elements.
And there’s a lot of Buchla synths in there because the percussion that they provide… everything sounds very wooden and acoustic and so, for that sound, I wanted there to be a sort of melodic percussive interchange, but not necessarily beats and rhythms, because I actually split those things quite a while ago. I split my bass and beats and DJ oriented stuff to Two Fingers.
I was going to ask you about that.
So it’s really freed me up. It’s kind of been really liberating. I don’t feel like I have to cover all the ground in one record anymore. I don’t feel like I have to make something that’s deeply personal and goes on different tangents, but at the same time has a catchy beat or will work on a dancefloor.
But at the same time, I love making beats, so I can make tracks that are functional in that way that are really just about a really efficient dancefloor rhythms in Two Fingers, so that’s been kind of great. But it’s hard to communicate – I’ve been talking about that for about eight years and I still get a lot of, “Where’s the beats?!”
I know you’ve joked before that your music is kind of like an art project.
[Laughs] Right. Yeah, that’s true.
And then there’s the beat oriented stuff. I get the impression that you almost need that, in a way.
I think so… Yeah, I do. Yeah. I think I’d be really frustrated if it wasn’t there, because I really do love the two things – I don’t see one as being superior to the other. I think they’re both things that I feel passionate about and I’d like to be able to do both, but they don’t have to exist in the exact same place.
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You blended those two different aspects of your work with the 'ISAM' tour. Are there plans to tour the new album?
Yeah, there are plans to tour it. The technology that I’ve been researching for a few years, specifically with this in mind, keeps being almost ready and then isn’t quite ready.
Yeah, so we’ve got this twofold issue. I mean there’s a typical funding situation, which is ubiquitous... It’s hard to raise that kind of capital, especially when we’re talking about the scale of production that things have kind of amassed to at this point.
And the second part is that I think it would be a shame just to do a tour – a visual AV tour – for the sake of doing it. I feel like I’d like to do it because there was something in particular about it that was compelling, because that’s definitely how I felt about 'ISAM'. I felt like this projection mapping at the time was a very untapped resource and a very untapped technology, at least for what I wanted to do.
And those things don’t come along every day. So, the things that have come along that are comparable to that, or at least analogous to that, aren’t quite ready yet. [Laughs]. So I’m still scratching at that door and trying to make that work. And so far, it looks like something might be good for maybe 2020, but I’m not holding my breath. We’ll see.
Before you go, I wanted to talk about Nomark a little more broadly. What have you got planned for the year ahead?
I mean, there are seven albums to come out this year, more or less - six or seven albums and each of them is an entirely different set of interests. And they’re not necessarily all me either. I guess I’m going to come to that with each release as well. It’ll be easier to talk about that as they come out, but for now, Only Child Tyrant I can talk about.
There’s a track out in May called 'Monkey Box', which is out with the Two Fingers track coming out as well… That’s from this ‘entity’ called Only Child Tyrant that is really all about acoustic drum programming and almost sort of surf rock in its aesthetic – really catchy, sort of pokey little tunes that just have crazy drums.
And it’s been such a lovely thing to do and not be concerned that it isn’t really fitting in to this or that. I’ve been doing so many tracks like that I looked at it one day and had easily over and album’s worth of stuff of just that so, I was like, well, fuck, that’s great – I can have an outlet for that as well!
So all of these things are running in parallel. That’s really important for me to get across. It’s not like a vanity project… There are two albums on Ninja Tune as Two Fingers already and they run in parallel to my own work and they’ll keep on going, the same as this Only Child Tyrant thing. I want to keep developing it in its own lane that I’m creating these different lanes on the label, if that makes sense? It’s mega exciting.
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Yeah man! The thing that strikes me most is how it feels like you’re having so much fun with it.
I must admit, I am. I mean, it’s terrifying. It’s like ripping up $100 dollar bills in the shower some days, but outside of that it really is… I dunno, man. You kind of get to a point as well where you just have to manage, not your expectations, but other people’s.
It occurred to me the other day, that if you search on YouTube for rain falling to go to sleep to, that’s got like 30 million views – the sound of rain falling. And you go to my single and that’s got, like, maybe 10,000 people, I think I saw today.
So that means that 29,990,000 people would prefer to listen to the sound of rain than my single… so at a certain point you have to just say, “I’ve got to make this for myself, really.” I can’t compete with rain. [Laughs].
That’s true, but equally you can’t beat yourself up about it.
Mmm. You really can’t. There’s a certain liberation in understanding that, but you really do have to satisfy your own creative needs and just hope that there’s enough people out there who, as well as enjoying rain, might like what you do as well, you know?
But you can’t get hung up on, “Oh, shit. Is that going to hit that demographic,” or, “Are there people who like my other records going to like this record?” It’s just and endless maze of confusion.
Does that mean you can just sort of go with the flow and do whatever you want to do creatively, to some extent?
No, that’s definitely not true. You have to be really, really harsh as a critic of your own work to make sure that you’re not just pissing around and having fun, because it’s really not that. I’m very, very ambitious about what I do.
I’m enjoying this newfound autonomy, there’s no doubt about that, but the work that goes in to the music is all way too serious. I take myself and my music way too seriously – and I think that’s fine too. [Laughs].
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'Fear In A Handful Of Dust' is available now via Nomark.
Words: Paul Weedon / @Twotafkap
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