Amon Tobin

One of electronic music’s prevailing visionaries; Amon Tobin began producing in the south coastal town of Brighton, England, debuting with the album Bricolage in 1997 – a seamless union of downtempo jazz/jungle fusions. It was the beginning of a career defined by a past-meets-future aesthetic, deliberating on the nature of composition itself. Pioneering albums such as Out from Out Where, Foley Room and ISAM were prime examples of Tobin decontextualising the listener’s preconceived ideas of how electronic music is made – building sound sculptures to both confound and inspire. Tobin’s latest album, released under the moniker Figueroa, is no exception. Following his recent rock-oriented Only Child Tyrant project, the Brazilian-born protagonist ghosts reality once more, building acoustic architectures entirely from electronic foundations. An astonishingly seamless emulation of psychedelic folk, The World as We Know It is another of Tobin’s mischievous deceptions, where the familiar and non-familiar are indivisible, leaving the listener perplexed yet engaged.

Production can be a very insular activity, so for some producers being quarantined is business as usual. How’s it been for you?

I’m definitely one of the lucky ones. I don’t get out much to begin with, so on a day-to-day basis I’m certainly not as affected as most people. I’m trying to be positive and keep my head down. In general, I’m feeling very motivated. When producers are making music we’re all affected by what’s going on around us, but it’s not always clear to see. I’ve spent the last ten years fully developing a series of different monikers, so what I’m releasing now has been worked on for practically a decade.

Some artists deliberately induce anxiety to feed their creativity. Is that something you’ve ever wrestled with?

I’m not into meditation, but, for me, making music is as close to a meditative state as I’ll get. What I find interesting is not being too precise, as well as letting things influence me that aren’t at the front of my brain. That can be useful. I’ll go to great lengths to have a very inconvenient process, where I’m trying not to get a full grasp on any piece of equipment I use. That enables me to be in a state of discovery, where I’m interacting with an instrument in a very fluid way. As soon as I feel I’ve got a full handle on something, it becomes more of a tool and less of an instrument.

Do you believe that’s easier for electronic artists as the tools they’re using typically invite experimentation in ways that being in a rock band wouldn’t?

I feel that a lot of electronic production deals in the “world of the contrived,” where you’re very exacting. What’s useful is to inject a sense of spontaneity into that by not being over-controlling. The most useful state for me is to have a framework that I build, but within that there will be lots of play and spontaneity. On the one hand I can squeeze the life out of what I’m doing, and on the other still be entirely free-form.

Do you create structure out of abstraction, or the reverse?

I love the idea of working inside narrow parameters and structure provides that, but structure needs to allow for spontaneity in order to be interesting. Creativity is born out of trying to escape the parameters you have. I always think of scratch DJs who, back in the day, would use very rudimentary equipment, but the creativity was in how they escaped the confines of that gear to make incredible music.

Your recent Only Child Tyrant project was steered more towards the rock music aesthetic. Were you looking to make something that had more of a direct impact?

A project like Only Child Tyrant is running in parallel to Two Fingers as well as my own releases, so it’s not like I got tired of a certain genre of music. But you’re right that the focus was on immediacy. The idea was to have very upfront elements, in terms of melody and the production. There isn’t any of the weird sound design elements that people associate with me, but it’s still electronic. Whether it’s Only Child Tyrant or the latest Figueroa record that I’m putting out – that sounds very acoustic – it’s all programmed, made with synthesisers and some degree of VST [Virtual Studio Technology]. The overlap between all of these projects is that they’re different expressions of the same tools.

So with Child Tyrant you deliberately refrained from taking a perfectionist approach?

Yes, and that was a conscious decision. Child Tyrant’s a great example because the production is quite rough, unpolished, and there are lots of mistakes left in, whereas with Two Fingers the process was more exacting and laboured over. I listen to music that moves me, and a lot of the time there’s looseness to it that’s so important. ISAM was the most throttled thing I’ve ever done – it was about making sounds that had never been heard before, using impossible sound design that would have other producers scratching their heads. There’s a lovely competitive aspect to that, but that isn’t all there is to music. Child Tyrant and Figueroa are the entire opposite of that.

Another aspect of the Child Tyrant album is that it’s an indie rock-sounding album with “guitars and drums,” but there are no guitars or drums on the record. Was that the experiment?

Not even that –  there are performances you can do with electronics that a real drummer or guitarist wouldn’t necessarily be able to do. The idea was not to quote unquote “emulate a real band.” Rather, it was to try and take what I appreciate from those styles of music and approach them with a different sound palette, which is when it becomes interesting. Unfortunately, a lot of electronic music is overly concerned with economy. “It’s too expensive or difficult to work with the real thing, so let’s make an approximation of it.” But Child Tyrant is the inverse of that. It’s a hell of a lot harder to program every note of an insane guitar arpeggio than it would be to hire a session musician to play it [laughs], but the point is that you can do what they can’t.

Nevertheless, it would be nice to know some of the techniques you used to get those characteristics.

The real meat of it lies in how parts are articulated and played – and that applies to programming drums as well. The swing, timing, timbral, and toning variations are much more central to how something sounds compared to any effect you might eventually put on a sound. In the end, it’s just music. While some people like to nerd out about how sounds are made, it’s much more important to have an emotional connection. I’m interested in both aspects and have opened those doors for myself, but if the listener has no idea or doesn’t care about how it’s made, that’s fine by me.

It does seem that people who like electronic music are often more inquisitive about the process behind its creation…

I have the same problem, but I feel that curiosity adds another layer. The first thing that hits me is always an emotional response, then sometimes I’ll try to pick it apart and get a better understanding of it. With the Figueroa project, the thing I was trying to learn was harmony. I was listening to a lot of Mexican folk music, and trying to understand how the harmonies worked. There was an analytical side to that, but it’s a lovely puzzle because it’s so open-ended and limitless. I remember years ago everyone was trying to figure out what was so special about the Amen Break [widely sampled drum break]. It’s a relatively simple pattern; you could play it or program it, but it wouldn’t have the same energy. Why is it that you can replicate the exact placement and timing of drums and have it not sound the same? Well there’s so much more to it, such as how it was mic’d and the emotion that was captured in that moment. There’s a lot of nebulous ambiguity behind how sounds are made, which is why I’m a little bit wary about diving into processes and details of how I make music. In the end, you can only describe a small portion of that process. What you can replicate isn’t necessarily pivotal, or the kernel of what makes it what it is.

Having said that, the drums on the Child Tyrant track “Solid Grey Zebra” are so realistic you could be accused of putting drummers out of work! Are they finger drummed?

I don’t have the dexterity or skill to do that, so I draw everything and it’s programmed note by note. It’s basically very elaborate MIDI programming. I learned all of that 20 years ago when I was making drum and bass productions, because I can get a sense of timing when I use different approaches to programming electronic and acoustic drums. What I love about the Child Tyrant drums is that even though sonically they sound like acoustic drums, at the same time they don’t sound real because the fills are impossible. It goes back to what I was saying before about trying to do things you wouldn’t necessarily expect a human being to do. I’m sure there are drummers who could easily do a lot of what I’m doing, but not all of it. [laughs]

With any project you undertake, I’m assuming you first need to invent some idea-led concepts?

There’s no message or overarching theme to the projects I do, but there are groups of sonic interests. I’ll get obsessed with a certain approach to making music and explore that as far as I can. The Two Fingers album released this year [Fight! Fight! Fight!] has to do with my relationship with ‘80s hip-hop and how modern bass production could be applied to artists like Man Parrish, who I grew up on. I had that in mind throughout the making of the record, and I was very conscious about turning it into something that was futuristic-sounding.

Musicians that become highly successful usually seem to be working towards some creative vision. Do you think that’s necessary?

If you look at bands like the Grateful Dead, it sounds like an endless noodle to me. I can’t stand the Grateful Dead [laughs], but if you compare them to The Beatles or The Kinks who made these amazing tight structures, they’re all incredibly successful, so I don’t know if having a vision is a defining factor for success. For me, one of the pleasures I get from listening to music is hearing somebody’s intention fully realized. Even if it’s not music I particularly like, I can appreciate that they were committed to realizing a vision of their own and I do try to do that with my own music.

This takes us to your Figueroa project. Again, it feels like you’re furthering the idea we discussed earlier of making traditional music using non-traditional methods.

Very much so – it was a learning exercise for me and I had no intention of releasing it. I was trying to learn about harmony and song structure in a very different way. That began right after the ISAM [Invented Sounds Applied to Music] record, where I felt I’d been working so hard to push things, in terms of electronics and invented sound, that I needed to make something simple and authentic to how I was feeling at the time. It was a very odd time for me. It was at the end of a massive record and tour, and I wanted to get drunk in the woods for a while, which is what I did and I wrote all these songs. Years later, I sent them to Sylvia Massy [Tape Op #63] because she works with a lot of big artists. I thought maybe she could get someone in to sing, but she got so excited about the record that she flew back to L.A. from Mexico and scooped me off to Capitol Studios [#114] where we recorded the vocals. Again, it’s all electronic, aside from my voice, which is something I’d never explored. I’m not a singer, or trying to be a singer. But we felt it would be better to have an imperfect voice that was my own rather than trying to get some polished, seasoned pro to do it all. It’s a real record in the end.

The guitars are more acoustic than rock-oriented – an even bigger challenge, I’d assume, to make them sound natural?

I grew up with a lot of Brazilian music around me, and I listened to a lot that was acoustic guitar-based and more traditional than electronic. I have a lot of references for that, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I have a clue about how a guitar should be played. All the time was spent trying to analyze how an instrument like that behaves, and how it can be done with MIDI and programming. As a gag, someone at the label suggested we do a tablature or score of one of the songs to try and get someone to play it. I can’t read music, so I got the MIDI and exported it as score, but when I sent it to the guitarists they said, “We don’t have enough fingers, and, “The placement of your fingers doesn’t work, so it can’t be done.” In a way I was gutted, but I was also pleased because that was kind of the point.

The perfect emulation of hardware instruments has clearly not arrived. Ask any film score composer and they’ll tell you that, despite the huge advancements in software, they’re still nowhere near emulating live orchestras.

That’s it; they really can’t. It’s the same with hardware synthesisers, VSTs, or even compressors and EQs. They’re getting close now – a lot of VSTs are super useful, so I’d never shit on plug-ins. People always obsess about how authentic a plug-in is compared to hardware, but what’s much more important is an artist or musician’s interaction with it. That’s invaluable and does translate to the music you make. You can tell when someone’s enjoying themselves making a piece of music, and a lot of that is conveyed through their physical interaction with an instrument. Whether a Moog Ladder Filter really sounds like a VST is less important than your inspiration when you were touching it. There’s also the collaborative experience we have with [that type of] hardware that doesn’t necessarily always behave, nor does it always do what you tell it to. When something has a mind of its own, you feel you’re collaborating with it and can ultimately choose whether you’re going to beat it down or let it influence what you’re doing.

With Figueroa, the instrumentation is taking the backseat to a vocal arrangement. How did that change your approach to production?

That’s interesting too. It goes back to the first Two Fingers records, which had vocalists. Sway was rapping on a lot of the tracks. I was working with my friend [producer] Doubleclick on that record, and he had a very traditional approach to lyrical vocals. My focus was to treat the vocal as another texture or sonic aspect that’s as important, or non-important, as everything else going on. Whether or not a listener feels that way, I don’t know; but I hope my limitations end up being my strength. There are people who play in bands all their lives and have a very good handle on areas of music that I’ve got no idea about, so what I’d hope is that by having a very unusual approach it won’t sound like just another band.

As you’re the vocalist, would you find it appealing to perform the project on stage?

It’s weird how I always feel really alive when I’m out of my depth, yet also uncomfortable. I invite that in because it’s healthy and productive, but it’s not a comfortable place to be. In terms of the live thing, it would be similar; extremely uncomfortable, but exciting. I don’t know if I’d consider it, so I guess the pandemic is working in my favour, in that respect. [laughs] It’s something I’ve thought about a lot with Child Tyrant, and continue to think about, because it would be a lot of fun playing live in that band. Maybe one day I’ll do some weird, self-absorbed mega-tour and play all these bands together.

What’s your relationship with modular synthesis these days? I read that you were deliberately using it sparingly. Has it found its place as a production tool?

I avoided that plague for the longest time because I felt it would end up distracting me. I tentatively allowed it in, but, again, I was wary about how to structure it. The only real credit we can take as artists and musicians is in the decisions we make – what we leave in, take out, or decide is going to be part of this thing. That would apply to modular, as much as anything else. Have you ever seen the Pink Floyd documentary Live at Pompeii? They interview some of the band members, who were talking about using some interesting synths, and David Gilmour [Tape Op #138] said, “It’d be interesting to see what four people could do, just given the equipment. I think we’d come off better.” It’s true; it all comes down to what they decided to do with it.

There was a fear of technology back then. The UK musician’s union wanted to ban drum machines from live and studio performances, saying it was putting drummers out of work…

But that’s always the case. When electric guitars first came out, the acoustic guitar community was up in arms, saying, “This isn’t real music. Anyone can make a distorted electronic guitar sound.” I remember going from [Technics] 1210 turntables to showing up with an early iteration of [Native Instruments] Traktor. I deejayed with this and had lines of people standing in front of me with their thumbs down, super angry at the idea that I wasn’t really DJing anymore. Now everybody shows up with a USB stick and a laptop, so it’s interesting how every generation sees a different iteration of that resistance.

You’re regarded as an innovator, but do you feel a responsibility to live up to that label?

It is very flattering; I’m glad people see my music as innovative, but I’m just trying to serve my best interests. My whole thing is much more selfish – I’m curious about how things work and trying to learn as much as I can. I get a lot of joy and satisfaction out of that process, and what comes out of it ends up being what it is.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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