Releasing a new album after eight years of silence, Amon Tobin is going analog, looking for spontaneity and accepting imperfections while remaining pernickety about nuances and sound quality.
There are nearly as many reasons Amon Tobin’s work ducks expectation as there are songs in his catalog. Since his early breakout in the mid ’90s – first as Cujo with releases like 1996’s gem Adventures in Foam, then under his own name for a lengthy creative flourishing on the Ninja Tune label – Tobin’s been fusing genre signifiers and scraping the gloss off dance-music trends until all that’s left is pure feeling. Sure, you can pick out pieces of jazz fusion, drum ‘n’ bass, glitch, hip-hop, dubstep, industrial, and even modern classical from his records. But it’s kind of hard to focus on where he got his style from when albums like 1998’s Permutations or 2000’s Supermodified master something even deeper: a profound sense of mood, whether it’s jubilant absurdity, mournful brooding, or just pure anxiety-throttling havoc.
When the musique concrete/field-recording-inspired The Foley Room came out a dozen years ago, it marked a turning point that 2011’s ISAM subsequently laid out in crystal clarity: it wasn’t just music but sound itself where Tobin found exciting new routes. Those two albums found strengths in new technique, manipulating found sounds on The Foley Room, and mixing high-fidelity audio resonance with his own gender-tweaked vocals on ISAM. But his first album in 8 years and inaugural release for his own label Nomark, Fear in a Handful of Dust, streamlines these ideas into a nearly percussion-free album that’s as long on emotional resonance as it is short on actual beats. I talked to Tobin about his working methods, his enthusiasm for old-school analog synths, and how he distributes his musical ideas under a series of different guises.
The new album is very immersive without necessarily sounding like “ambient.” You once said you don’t like that term very much because it sounds like something incidental, and there’s more attention in your music than that.
I just feel like it can be a bit of a lazy term, you know, speaking about music is always such a lumpy subject. That’s why I make music probably because it’s not always something that’s easy to articulate and of course, when you talk about anything you need to be able to qualify what you say, you need to be able to identify and categorize. All of those things are really important. Except of course, it’s mainly irrelevant with music. So I stumble across stuff like this all the time and I have my personal biases with certain words … I’ve just always hated the word ambient. For me, it has a strong relationship with things that are lacking in direction or intention. And I don’t always appreciate the confluences. Music that doesn’t have lyrics with music that doesn’t have intention, you know what I mean?
What sort of musical developments and ideas have really interested in you over the past few years during the making of the new album?
Well, you know, I have been through so many different stages over the years of things that have become really interesting to me, sort of focal points for me, and they shift right over time. I can go through various stages, but for instance, the last record that I made, ISAM, I guess I was maybe a little overly concerned with trying to realize an idea that was quite rigid in my mind … i’d set out with a task or with something to discover or learn, and think: how can I do this? I tried to get as close as I could to that. It’s normal to miss the mark a little bit, to overshoot or undershoot, but I get as close as I can and I don’t really allow in any sort of digressions or tangents … it’s kind of a tangent-free exercise. And although that was very satisfying, I felt there was a price, you pay a little bit for that, which I guess is spontaneity. You know, when you’re like, all right, I have the song mapped out in my mind; I have the sounds I want to inhabit … I’m going to keep doing that until I get there.
It can be very satisfying when you get there. But the end result can also be a kind of a personal exercise. Like when you’re playing an instrument or something or you’re allowing yourself to be a little more free with ideas that might just spontaneously pop up and inform what you’re doing. There’s a freedom there in a sort of looseness and spontaneity that I think has value as well. I completely cut that out of my system for a long period with ISAM, and I missed it. So, you know, I look back at very early things that I did where I had no interest in production – no skill either, by the way, like my own productions [sounded] pretty terrible technically, at least. But I think the ideas were good, and the musical intention was, I think, honest. So, with this record, what I tried to do was to allow that back in to be less controlling over my process, and to effect work with instruments and tools that were, by nature, hard to control – analog stuff, primarily. There, you don’t really have full command over what’s going on as much as you might like. You’re almost a collaborator with your instruments at that point. I hope the end result is something maybe less technically polished, less precise, but something where more life and expression might be allowed to live.
That was clear on the album. It had a very deep attention to sound. You need to listen to it through a stereo system, not just some cheap earbuds, because it sounds very nuanced and very, very rich.
Thank you. Thanks for not listening to it on your laptop speakers. I mean, I am interested in sounds and I get a lot of enjoyment and personal satisfaction from really just exploring sound and its nuances. But like I say, you know, it wasn’t the primary target for me, this time. But I’m glad that it’s still there. And that is still appreciated. The detail in that stuff, of course.
And what were some of the technologies you were working with? You mentioned you went completely analog?
Yeah, pretty much. I’m still employing some female DSP processing here and there, but it was mainly synthesizers. I did for instance, a lot of the percussion stuff. Obviously there’s no drums on the record, but there’s a lot of percussion. It’s actually a clone of a system 200, a beautiful thing, and I’ve made a lot of the percussion sounds using that, for the reason that I feel it really sounds acoustic in a weird way that the low pass gates work. Without getting too nerdy, there’s a certain sort of wooden quality to the percussion where something sounds acoustic to me, or at least in between the synthesizer and acoustic drum being struck.
There is a real sense of development in that this new album seems to really solidify a decade or so’s worth of progress towards kind of a musique concrete style. There are no real drums on it, it feels more like texture than rhythm. What was the process of feeling out those ideas?
Well, again, you know, I still have the same approach as far as I have a melody and a song and arrangement pretty much worked out and then I’ll try really hard to make that happen. But like I say, there was a lot more room for the digression if it was valid, if something came along that could actually make the song better, I wouldn’t exclude it from the process and sort of welcome it in. And often I’d be surprised by it, so, yeah, there was a lot. I mean, technically, things were recorded more directly. So not like lots and lots of stems and different layers that were edited to oblivion, it was much more direct. This kind of patch will only exist now and then after I unplug everything, it will be gone. And so things got recorded as they were, with all their lumps and bumps and imperfections in there. There’s distortion at times, things go slightly out of tune sometimes. But all in all, I quite like the commitment of having to say, well, this is what it is and let’s focus on the musical idea rather than how polished I can make it.
Some other producers, like Madlib, just like to hammer out a beat in five minutes and don’t like to have anybody mess around with it after that. There’s a direct line from the inspiration to the creation as quick as possible. Kind of like how a pencil sketch sometimes looks a bit more lifelike than a finished drawing.
I mean, I wouldn’t apply that so much to this record, at least not in terms of beats. What I did was I sort of created two lanes from for the work I do. And one of the lanes is very much beats-oriented. I call that Two Fingers. And it’s a whole other project, which is really about having fun with beats and being very, very quick as well – you don’t want to labor too much on it. Something it shouldn’t take more than a couple of days to get a good idea down. But for stuff like [Fear in a Handful of Dust] where it’s more personal and exploratory, then yeah, I’m happy to be as self indulgent as I want to be and take all the time in the world to noodle and play and really enjoy the process.
And did you have any specific artistic inspirations in mind? At certain points in the album we hear parallels to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Suzanne Ciani, Matmos …
Yeah, you know a lot of these things come into play, but then they’re not at the forefront of my mind. I’m a big BBC Workshop fan, and Delia Derbyshire’s a big hero of mine as are several of the concrete people too. But I’m not making any pretentions to have any kind of lineage from that; I just draw inspiration from their exploratory spirit. You know, I feel like these people were really explorers in their time and they were facing equipment that hadn’t really been used before or had never existed before.
Yeah, they didn’t have rule books, per se.
Absolutely. And they were discovering things and that sort of spirit of discovery is something that I hold really dear. You know, in my mind it’s one of the reasons I started doing music instead of photography, because I used to do a lot of photography and kind of hit a wall creatively where it just occurred to me one day that I didn’t have anything to contribute. All the pictures have been taken, surely, by now. And whereas music, I felt like there was a lot of room still for discovery. And some people might not agree but for me I really felt like there was more I could contribute and more I could discover. I very much aligned myself with the sort of enthusiasm that those people must have had in their time.
It’s funny you should mention photography because there’s also there’s been a real strong visual component to your work pretty much from the get go, more recently partnering with artists like Tessa Farmer for ISAM. Can you give us some insight into the visuals for the new album?
Ironically, I don’t think visually about my music at all. It’s always a sort of fun challenge at the end of making a record to imagine how you could present it to people. And often when you do that, there needs to be a visual component. Because if you’re putting yourself on stage, then it’s fair that people would want to actually see something. So you kind of have a bit of an issue there. Because when you’re not a band performing and there isn’t an inherent value in what you’re actually doing on stage, you have to be quite creative in that respect. I’m doing that here, and now I’ve got the record done and i’m plotting with collaborators, for … more likely 2020. The technology that I’m looking at isn’t quite there yet. It’s almost there. I don’t want to jinx it, but I feel like we’re on a good path towards realizing that this could take a lot of work.
This new album is the lead off release for your new label Nomark. So what else can we expect from the label? I think you have a couple of projects under some of your other identities going, like the aforementioned Two Fingers?
Yeah, I split myself into a couple of names. And it’s been eight years since I released a record. So in that period, I actually developed quite a few other lanes, too. And I recorded every day, even though I wasn’t releasing music, I was recording, recording, recording, recording. So now I’ve got this giant body of work which doesn’t fall into one category. And they all exist in parallel, they’re not little vanity projects or like dipping the toe in the water of this or that. They’re fully realized ideas, things that I’ve spent years developing. And now I feel like I’m able to release them on my own terms, which is a massive, huge deal to me. So I’ve carved out this little corner of the internet and I’m calling it Nomark. I’m putting out several albums this year, under different names, different genres. There’s other people involved, too, down the line and I’ll be able to talk a little bit more about that when it’s more appropriate, I guess. I think we’ve got releases scheduled through to February next year, and we’re releasing every month. So there’s going to be a lot of material. The next single is a Two Fingers single in May. And then there’ll be a single by Only Child Tyrant, which is in May as well. That’s from the album, Time to Run. And those are very different projects, too. So Two Fingers – it’s spiking a little bit about some sort of heavy bass-influenced stuff, more club-oriented. And then Only Child Tyrant is really … I don’t know how to describe it. Sort of pokey drum ‘n’ bass tracks, lots of drum programming and risks really. Really satisfying short tracks.
What sort of moods were you expecting to conjure up and implant in the listener’s mind with this new album?
I don’t know, man … to be completely honest I am not a very considerate producer. I don’t really think about how anything’s going to get heard. And it’s partly selfish, but partly because I also feel a bit arrogant. For me to imagine what people might want to hear or what what they might actually end up hearing … I just don’t know. So I tend to sort of exclude that from my thought process when I’m making music. I just make it really to satisfy my own interests and my own curiosities. And then I hope it resonates with other people. So I wouldn’t say that there was anything that I was trying to communicate particularly, it’s just a very, very personal record. Although I can also say that I was very interested in the beauty of things and even in the word “beautiful,” so I kept trying to find different ways to imagine that musically. And for me, it means a lot of different things, not necessarily prettiness. It can be imperfection, some ugliness too can be quite quite a lovely thing.