Amon Tobin is obsessed with sounds; it takes only a listen to one of his albums to understand that. But after talking to the forty-year-old musician, another fact is also clear: recording and producing sound is his life. Over the years Tobin has explored the world of music and never stood still. Starting with club tunes to art to ISAM, his eighth studio album/ multimedia experiment, you could say, Amon Tobin is one of the most important electronic musicians around today. We caught him just before his first show in Austria at the Electronic Beats Opening Night at Spring Festival in Graz.
Electronic Beats: You probably heard about the retrospective shows that Kraftwerk recently played at the MOMA. I have the feeling your collaboration with Tessa Farmer might be going into a similar direction. At least it’s much more than music.
Amon Tobin: Well, to a point you are right, because with ISAM it’s obviously not a club record and it’s much more to do with the actual process – the creative process of making the record. And there’s of course a strong aesthetic to the thing. I guess it’s okay to say this record is more in the art world. Still my heart is split to some degree, and in the end, all these categories don’t matter any longer. I’m not trying to make it fit in any category, whether it is art or club music. In the end I’m just doing what I’m interested in right now.
Maybe having the possibility of doing whatever you like is one of the benefits of growing older.
Yeah, that’s definitely part of the reason.
Have you ever thought about making it obligatory to have the exhibition of Farmer’s art along with the live shows?
That would actually be a nice thing if we could always do it. But as everything this is restrained by logistics and budgets. So far we managed to pull it off in London and Paris and we’re gonna do it in New York this September. It is possible in some places, just not everywhere.
As artists, you both seem to be interested in the same things, creating a world out of already existing ideas and objects. The only difference is with you it’s samples or things you record in nature, and with her it’s dead objects.
Well, that was the link that we’d made too. We both take things from the world around us and we interpret them in our own way. It’s about taking things and transforming them into whatever way makes sense to you. So it’s true what you said: we have a kind of similar approach in different mediums.
How did you meet her?
It was through Maddy Savage, who is somebody who is very in tune with the art world in England. She works with Ninja Tune and had a lot to do with the way the album looked in the end.
Let’s talk about the sound of ISAM. You ‘hunted’ a lot of these sounds outdoors?
It was a process where I’d have a song or a track in my mind, and I’d have the instruments and the textures of the sounds that I wanted, and I’d try to find different elements of those in different places. Then I put these layers of sound together, but instead of doing it like I did in the Foley Room album, with just audio, I analyzed all the sounds into those more spectral properties. This way I was able to morph them in a synthetic way. This opened up a whole other way of working for me.
Like those 3D models of molecules?
Yeah, it’s more than looking at just the amplitude; it’s adding another dimension, which was really awesome. There are so many sides to electronic music. If you go way back, you got people who are interested in Musique concrète, which was essentially taking things in the natural world and finding rhythms in those things, and working with sampled sound, and then you have the whole other side which is purely turning electricity into music, and the whole synthesizer sound, and what I found interesting about this process is that it was a real meeting of the two.
A combination of both worlds.
Yeah, but a genuine marriage rather than just taking a synth and a recording. It’s like a different way of working.
I also read that you were using voice samples for this record? I listened to it over and over, but I couldn’t recognize any.
A lot of it was me singing, which is a horrible thing. But then again, analyzed and synthesized, I was able to transform the gender, the tone, the timber and the character of the voice. Sometimes it’s just applying vowels to a sine wave. Do you know what I mean?
So a combination of those techniques made it possible to get new vocalists I guess. I hadn’t ever really tried that before, and I hadn’t really heard it being done that way either, so it was a real experiment. I wasn’t sure how convincing it would be neither had planned to actually even gonna tell anybody that I did, haha.
Is there a voice in every track?
In a lot of them. But often its more choral. They’re not words or whatever, but words turning into strings, strings turning into voices.
I guess I have to listen to ISAM a couple times more. What about the visual references? When it comes to futuristic designs, which ISAM certainly is, H.R. Giger influences everything. Was he an inspiration for the visual part of the show?
There was a certain element of that, true. But on the other hand it’s very hard to do anything when you’re into sci-fi and space exploration without Alien. It’s such a strong reference point, so yeah, to some extent, but not really, I mean it’s not like you see any real Giger in there. But we definitely referenced it when it comes to the more monochromatic color schemes that we have running through. Metropolis also played an important role.
Really? I didn’t catch a Fritz Lang reference. But I have to ask you about Star Trek, since that seems to be a strong reference.
You’re talking about the big Borg ship?
Yes, exactly. You can see it in many episodes of The Next Generation, but also in film with Jean-Luc Picard being abducted by the Borg.
I think Vello from V-Squared and me were looking at the texture of the Borg ship and thinking maybe that could be something we could apply to the show. So yeah, that played into it. As embarrassing as that might be.
Not at all. Have you seen the new Star Trek by J.J. Abrams? It’s great!
No, I must have missed it.
Are you more the Star Wars guy?
Like every kid, I was definitely a fan of The Empire Strikes Back. I liked the movie, but what I was really into was the sounds in Star Wars. The sound design by Ben Burtt is so awesome. He’s just the master. Even those terrible prequels. I still remember going to see the first one and bringing a little Mini-Disc player with me to record the pod-races. The sound was just insane!