Amon Tobin The In Sound From Way Out Where
Published Oct 01, 2002"It's the next best thing to an art grant," Amon Tobin mumbles in his habitually drawn-out cadence, pontificating on the bohemian magnetism of his freshly-adopted hometown. He's tired, though it's a little past noon, because Montreal construction workers have spent the morning fucking with him. They wouldn't do this in Brighton. "6:30 in the morning. Jackhammer," he grunts. But he's not in Brighton anymore.
Due to an almost autistic ability to Ginsu vinyl from around the world to the point where only his own personality is palpable, Tobin's personal geography (from his Rio de Janeiro birth onwards) has been often used to pierce his haze of samples for a glimpse of motivation. So his recent relocation from seaside city to La Belle Province arriving this past June, he's been slowly shipping his studio equipment over ever since will undoubtedly stir up intrigue amongst trainspotters, eager to draw connections between Tobin and the laptop-techno scene Montreal is fast becoming known for.
But like many things with Tobin, the real reasons behind his migration are more quotidian than one might imagine: money and weather. "I'd been living in a little tiny flat in Brighton, a little shoebox thing, for about seven years and it had been raining every summer. Here you have proper weather, a nice-sized flat for a change, good food. Ninja Tune's [North American offices are] based here as well. So they were really helpful in getting me over. I could have stayed in England for the summer and got really miserable about the fact that it's not gonna really happen," he laughs, "or I could try it over somewhere else."
But what about winter? "This is the thing everyone's trying to scare me with. I'm feeling the fear slightly. But at least it's proper seasons instead of it being one long grey mush. I don't mind extreme weather. Don't mind staying in either. I quite like just staying in my room and doing music anyway. So if that's what has to happen as a result of really cold weather I'm alright with that."
Thanks to all that time spent in his bedroom composing sampler symphonies (Tobin's technical explanation: "I make music from music") his body of work from his Cujo incarnation's Adventures In Foam to his unprecedented streak for Ninja Tune Bricolage (1997), Permutation (1998), Supermodified (2000) and now Out From Out Where - has created a myth over the years, one that Tobin is all too happy to deconstruct.
It begins, of course, with his Brazilian birth, which his record company continues to pimp at the beginning of his latest bio: "maybe it's in the blood, or maybe they enforce a strict batucada regime in the nursery."
Truth is that while Tobin certainly comes from Brazil originally, he lived there very briefly, largely growing up in the English seaside town of Brighton. But his roots which came through in his early, Latin-influenced songs proved too romantic to ignore.
"It's a piece of information that is true and needs to be, maybe, written, but isn't necessarily a focus point or something that in any way affects what I do from day-to-day or the type of music I make," he says patiently. "It's just like saying he's tall. It's just a fact. I don't mind people writing facts about where I've been or where I come from. [But] you don't always have to put the influences of where you were born in every piece of music you make."
In fact, the teenage Tobin initially had a far greater affinity for the blues than Brazilian polyrhythms. He played in a number of blues bands, attempting in his own fledgling, pubescent way to recreate the aching and longing he heard from men like Brownie McGee and Lighting Hopkins.
"It's almost a primal howling. When you listen to blues it's like, Oh, Jesus Christ.' It doesn't seem to be important what's actually being said, as opposed to what's being felt though the way it's being said."
That emotion could be delivered through sound, not words, was an important lesson, the first step of his exploration of the black American musical idiom, from jazz to funk to hip-hop. But he needed a new approach.
"Looking at the sea of people playing instruments I realised that wasn't necessarily the way to do something new or exciting, even though it's usually enjoyable to play in a band with other musicians. When I started thinking of making music I wanted to do something that was, maybe, a bit special. I was more excited by the prospect of using new technologies to use sounds in a different way."
But also there was the not-small matter of authenticity, of how he wanted to be careful about appropriating another culture's music too readily, too greedily.
"I don't think I can really contribute to black American music being an expatriated South American living in England. I'm not going to be a rapper, I'm not going to be an old blues guy because I don't come from that time or social situation. I can't do something with any integrity on that level. But what I can do with samples is I can take, not influences but the actual things I love, the actual singers, the actual guitarists and I can do something that I feel has some kind of relevance to me and the time and place where I live. I can make music that is made from someone who lives in Brighton but who listens to all this stuff and that seemed to me to hold a lot more integrity."
He remains careful of missteps, refusing to pull a Moby and simply recontextualise chunks of old music with a millennial backdrop. In Tobin's eyes such a move is both disrespectful and too easy.
"Moby's a twat. This is one of those political things I'm just not down with. I don't like his music and I don't like what it's meant to mean and represent. But I like DJ Shadow a lot."
Like Shadow, Tobin always viewed his sampler as an instrument unto itself. After returning from a couple years in Portugal in the early 90s, Tobin found himself smack dab in the middle of jungle's fiery emergence and it informed the innovative beatscapes he first constructed under the name Cujo.
"It was this thing I had never really heard before, like you're going to a club and there are these 160 bpm breaks and it's just so phenomenally fast that there's no way it could have been done with real drums or real instruments. It was completely alien and new."
Simon Green, better known as downtempo producer Bonobo, met Tobin during this time through a mutual friend. Sharing similar musical outlooks, and both living in Brighton, they hit it off right away. Green has been alongside Tobin throughout his rise to fame, as both friend and collaborator.
"He was actually the same as he is now, a very peaceful man," Green says from his home in Brighton, before joining Tobin on this month's cross-Canada tour. "Signing up to Ninja and doing Bricolage and all the way through he hasn't changed a bit really. He's very modest about everything he does. But they're not of a genre and they're not of a time. That stuff will sound just as fresh in ten years. I think that comes down to the choice of sounds because they're all live sounds and anything with a live undercurrent to it is still going to sound fresh rather than using that year's snare drum."
Interestingly, Tobin's lack of au courant sounds might also be attributable to his lack of interest in the club scene, which prevents him from being overly influenced by the latest platters being played out.
"He's never really been into that kind of stuff," Green continues. "He used to go out when he was younger but he's always been pretty settled and not too crazy about going out. He's more into home things. He doesn't really like pubs or bars. It's quite surprising his characteristic compared to the music he makes, he's a settled peaceful guy and makes real noisy music."
Tobin's early drum & bass pontifications, constructed hip-hop style by sampling South and Central American percussion and old jazz records, would soon led him to Ninja Tune. But initially his clattering concoctions didn't sit well with Ninja's funky-breaks fans 1997's Bricolage would only really begin selling after Permutation brought Tobin to the cusp of the mainstream the following year.
That success completed the jungle-jazz fusion Tobin had been striving for all along, but Tobin found himself placed into a box, albeit one he admittedly climbed into on his own. Tobin was asked to perform at jazz festivals around the world and though he graciously accepted, he was soon regretting the decision especially since he DJed, refusing to recreate his samples with live instruments.
"I always thought [it] was maybe slightly inappropriate. I know they have a much broader view of what's acceptable in a jazz fest but there's so much confusion about my music being made from jazz or being made to be jazz that I find it's easier to avoid the thing all together. I don't want to be misconstrued as trying to be jazz. That's not really what I'm doing and playing various jazz festivals adds to a myth. It gets misinterpreted."
Of course, just as imitators copped his Brazilian breaks, they also glommed on to his jazzy drum & bass and he once again had to change up his style to stay ahead of the pack. But Tobin doesn't seem to mind the lesser producers riding his one-man bandwagon.
"How could I ever be bitter about that? It's been the basis for what I do for so long. I think it's great. I'm so lucky to have been in a situation where I can make the impact where people will rip off my stuff. I think it's a real compliment. Of course, there are slightly disappointing things where people don't really put themselves into it and end up doing a bad version of what you've done. But on many occasions people have done things which have completely surpassed what my idea was at the time."
Tobin's tech-noir new album, Out From Out Where, takes him even further from his traditional sound there is little jazz, less samba and almost no drum & bass. Instead, his acoustic sounds have been reformulated to increase the futuristic ambience while being less beholden to specific drum patterns. There is a liquidity to many of the processed sounds, ranging from the downtempo "Hey Blondie" and the upbeat, laser-blasted dance floor filler "Cosmo Retro Intro Outro" to the bass heavy, Middle Eastern-flavoured "Proper Hoodidge."
"Maybe it's just been mutated a bit more, the sample sources are still similar they're all coming from movie soundtracks and jazz records and obscure electronic records and easy listening. But I'm definitely making an effort to move things further from their point of source so I'm not so tied down. I don't want to be stuck producing one type of music."
He says the record came about the same as his previous efforts, feeling around in the dark until it all fell into place a self-deprecating description that belies his considerable production skills and that his previous influences are still very much present, but the jazz has been chopped even finer and the "slow-motion drum & bass" morphined to the point of misidentification. He also added a new ingredient.
"I came into a real piece of luck. My Dad came across a whole load of Bollywood records in an old radio station building in England. They just left boxes and boxes of stuff ranging from the 1940s to the early 80s. It was an exercise to make things not sound Indian. There were so many interesting takes on Western music in those records. In the same way that America might listen to some Chinese music or Indian music and make a sort of pastiche, an interpretation. But they've done it the other way around, where they've take disco music, even break dancing, and made Bollywood versions."
His next release will be an EP of collaborations, a bit of a stretch for someone who, so far, has only a couple under his belt (with Montreal beat-boxer Lateef Martin on Permutations and alien rapper MC Decimal R on the new disc's standout track "Verbal"). His interest in the project stems from his desire to see how others operate, how they get around the studio problems he encounters. But he remains a control freak.
"Because I'm such an asshole, I tend to go right, this is how it's going to be.' But, I think everyone's coming through just by virtue of the instruments and things we're using."
Due out next February, his guests will included Steinski, P Love, Double Click and, of course, Bonobo. "We're into the same influences and we thought we have to get together to do a track," Green says. "I'll bring a load of samples and he will as well and see what happens. We did it over at his place and in, like, two sessions. He's really enthusiastic about everything, he'll have an idea and we'll just run off that. There was no conflict."
If it sounds easy, it's not but in line with his distaste for the term "intelligent dance music," which has often been stamped on his work, Tobin doesn't want fans overanalysing his music.
"I come into contact with people comparing my stuff to art, dadaism or postmodern collage, because obviously the process I'm using is similar I'm taking things from very disparate sources and putting them together in a way that is similar to that, but my motivation is different. I've never had a point I wanted to make to people about the way they live. I'm interested in the sounds and the way it makes you feel. It's a very wide area and there's a lot to be explored still. People dismiss an emotional response to something as having no real substance. I think that's wrong. I think it does. I don't think you always need a big essay behind what you've created to give it validity.
"God, isn't it enough that it's about rhythms and melodies and communicating an emotion? It's music and that's it. And I think that's enough."
Amon On Sampling
"I think it's what everyone has always done anyway, it's a really natural way for music to progress. I don't see it any different from how blues turned into rock or funk turned into disco. Whatever the mutations were, they were all made from people ripping off other styles and adding something of their own. I think the problem people have is that it's made from samples as opposed to someone ripping off a guitar riff and changing it a bit, like, say, Nirvana.
"The problem people have is it's an actual physical recording of something and that seems to hold more weight than actually somebody taking something that's blatantly from somewhere else but just because they play it, it seems like it's okay.
"I see it as the inverse, if you sample something you're giving a lot more respect to the original artists than if you adapt their melody and call it your own. At least I'm saying it's all samples, it's all from other sources, the raw material. I'm not taking any credit for it. I'm only taking credit for what I do with it, for the arrangement of the samples, the way they're put together and manipulated. When you're a musician and you do that, you're taking credit for the source and that seems to have less integrity."
Built From Bits: A Sample of the Best
Ever since the Nazis invented magnetic tape recording, sampling has existed in various guises from the mid-century shenanigans of musique concrete pioneer Pierre Schaeffer and the late 60s experimentalism of Karlheinz Stockhausen to the Beatles' mellotron and the funky cut-ups of Grandmaster Flash. But as soon as the sampler became affordable in the mid-80s, the entire history of music came up for grabs, eventually enabling progressive producers like Tobin to slice and dice as they saw fit. Here's a, um, sample of the groundbreaking technology's finest offspring.
Eric B. & Rakim
"Paid In Full (Seven Minutes of Madness The Coldcut Remix)" (4th and Broadway, 1987)
Tobin's bosses at Ninja Tune, Jonathon More and Matt Black, took us on "journey into sound, a journey which along the way will bring to you new colour, new dimension, new value" while Yemeni singer Ofra Haza and James Brown swapped spit amidst Rakim's dreams of dead presidents.
Bomb The Bass
"Beat Dis" (4th and Broadway, 1987)
Brit producer Tim Simenon followed M/A/R/R/S' Rakim-anchored "Pump Up The Volume" onto the pop charts by combining Public Enemy, Shaft, Prince, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Soul Sonic Force, Ennio Morricone, Dragnet, radio static, Morse code, Funky Four Plus One and those space-age puppets The Thunderbirds. Marcel Duchamp would have loved it.
Paul's Boutique (Capitol, 1989)
The Beasties' sophomore slump (at the time, anyway) introduced the world to the mad genius of the Dust Brothers, who forecasted the disco revival by incorporating '70s samples into a soundscape so thick a detailed web site (A HREF="http://www.moire.com/beastieboys/samples">www.moire.com/beastieboys/samples) has sprung up to identify the disparate sources.
Fear of a Black Planet (Def Jam, 1990)
Backed up by sonic terrorists the Bomb Squad, Chuck D's baritone became downright biblical on Fear, which coasted on a collage of sounds that was claustrophobically dense, eminently funky and utterly unprecedented.
"Alone Again" (Cold Chillin', 1991)
The Biz was just doing what hip-hop producers had done since the sampler first surfaced, "borrowing" music without asking permission. But after re-imagining Gilbert O'Sullivan's pop song "Alone Again Naturally" he got slapped with a massive lawsuit that ushered in draconian sample laws. Producers were thrown for a loop and when the scene recovered a few years later, those who didn't want to pay had to start using microscopic sonic snippets.
Throbbing Pouch (Rising High/Moonshine, 1994)
Besides coming up with a fine title, Luke Vibert's alter ego helped bridge the gap between electronica and hip-hop with this goofy, funk-driven, sample-filled album that got mistakenly slotted into trip-hop.
Endtroducing (Mo' Wax, 1996)
Deservedly ranked among some of the finest musical accomplishments ever, white Californian hip-hop DJ Josh Davis went into his bedroom with a stack of rare grooves, educational LPs, soundtracks and funky breakdowns and came out with an epic, downtempo masterpiece that sounds as fresh today as when it dropped six years ago. Building steam with a grain of salt, indeed.
Fantastic Plastic Machine
Fantastic Plastic Machine (Emperor Norton,1998)
Lounge lover Tomoyuki Tanaka went retro-futuristic, stir frying Japanese lyrics, eclectic samples, French pop, bossa nova beats and analogue synths to produce sonic wallpaper for your space-age bachelor pad.
Around the House (Phonography/K7!, 1998)
Matthew Herbert delivers a straight-ahead house record complete with vocalist. Except every sound found on the record was actually recorded around his house dishwasher, toaster, electric toothbrush and other sonic detritus. Somehow, his Dadaist technique never overshadows the music.
One Day I'll Marry a Human (Tar Media, 1999)
New Brunswick's Adrian Brathwaite drops an album of obscure samples, Prince sound-bites, walkie-talkies, toys and accordions to create an abstract hip-hop wonder. People slept on this, they shouldn't have.
Since I Left You (Modular/Warner, 2000)
Eschewing the move towards unrecognisable sampling, these Australian lads up the cartoon dementia with a cut-up masterwork that even scored a hit with the hilarious single "Frontier Psychiatrist," which revealed what we all suspected anyway that they were "crazy in the coconut!"
My Way (Force Inc., 2002)
Montrealer Marc LeClair takes technique to another level on his soon-to-be classic debut, pioneering what he calls micro-sampling. Recording the radio every morning, he randomly selects bits to be chopped into minuscule segments. You never know if you're listening to a radio evangelist, a right-wing talk-show host, Celine Dion or the Neptunes. And it doesn't matter.
Dead Ringer (Def Jux, 2002)
DJ Shadow's most obvious eventual successor (except for the fact that Shadow's latest long-player The Private Press, shows it might be some time before he's succeeded) emerged last month with a highly-heralded instrumental hip-hop record. A few rappers spice it up but RJ's cinematic sampler symphonies are what make this record matter.