Lumpy Gravy

In nearly 30 years of spending my time on the most useless endeavour known to mankind - writing about music - I've been lucky enough to meet and interview many of my heroes. My general interview archives are elsewhere. 'Lumpy Gravy' is reserved for the lumpiest, and most exquisite, artists.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Amon Tobin

Guaranteed Diva Free

AMON TOBIN by Gary Steel

You know the scene. You’re totally out to lunch. All systems are down. You’re sound asleep. You’re dreaming you’re talking on the phone. You’re waking. You ARE talking on the phone. Ohmygod!
You find yourself mumbling away to this guy half a world away from your cosy Belgium hotel suite. Oh right, it’s that guy from New Zealand. Shit!
Your name is Amon Tobin, and you’re at the end of a whirlwind European stopover to stir up some press action for your fifth album, but it’s kinda tiring getting the message across when your record fails to include even one stray diva, any semblance of a House beat, nor a whiff of crossover potential. What’s more, ‘Out From Out Where’ – like all of his previous outings – can’t claim a specific category to provide handy reference for the lazy bastards who are constantly looking for the pigeons to put holes in.
Amon Tobin is Brazilian via the UK, and for the past five years he’s been making unique and sometimes challenging music for the unique and sometimes challenging Ninja Tune label. Completely sampled and morphed into new and astounding shapes, Tobin’s music takes in a galaxy of lurid film music, historic jazz, and bends these to fit his often dark outer-fringes drum&bass scapes. Well, that’s my totally inadequate attempt to explain what Tobin’s art sounds like!
Tobin’s the sort of genial geezer who doesn’t pride himself on articulating in words where he’s at with the music; his articulation oozes through in the textures and shapes of his always recognisable sound world.
The conversation only gets animated when discussing New Zealand, strangely enough. Some years ago, Tobin made it down here as part of a Ninja Tune package tour, and he chortles contentedly at the memory of punters scurrying out the exits during his frightmare set, which centred on the kind of dark drum&bass breaks a fan of retro soul’n’funk of The Herbaliser might find, uh, a bit much!
A novice at the decks at the time, Tobin’s now adept on the turntables, though he’s excited about the prospect of going on tour with software he’s just acquired with which "you basically map wave forms on a laptop directly to your decks using vinyl and a mixer, and it does everything a record can do and means I can separate elements of my tunes, customise the music I play."
His sets comprise these days "a mixture of classic jungle, with breakbeat stuff, electronic stuff, film stuff, and my stuff!
"You know I did some of my best record shopping in New Zealand," says Tobin. "And there’s stuff that I’m still using and sampling now, so I’d love to get my arse back down there.
"I remember going to New Zealand and seeing what a great scene there was there, compared to Australia, for drum&bass. I was hoping that somewhere along the line, either in Brazil or New Zealand or somewhere, someone would come to the rescue because it’s true, in London they got kind of occupied by the DJs, and the music took a back seat. And when the DJs got very boring, the music got very boring. Everyone was trying to fit into what their set would be. I don’t know man, it just seemed very negative and it got very trendy, and I suppose people felt under pressure to deliver what was expected of them, and didn’t really experiment. Now it’s in a much healthier state in my opinion. It’s less under the spotlight so the people making it, there are fewer of them but they’re actually really into it. The minority of records were wicked, and they were always a minority. There have been a few really good tunes every year, and the rest float on the back of those really."
Now based on Montreal for an unspecified tenure, Tobin can reveal exclusively to Real Groove that the latest Ninja Tune bio – which says that Tobin has been experimenting with field recordings and found sound – is almost completely fictional, and something probably worked up after one toke too many to set up gullible journalists!
‘The record is an experiment in sound,’ goes the PR baloney, ‘bass sounds made from motorbikes and tubas, breaks made from spitting and farting.’
"It’s not true, it’s a misleading biog," says Tobin. "I’m not sure why they did that, but all my records are 100 percent samples, it’s all from vinyl, there’s no field recordings of motorbikes or musique concrete."
If there’s any spitting or farting or bass sounds from tubas, it’s taken from old vinyl first!
In all other ways, ‘Out From Out Where’ is a continuation rather than a marked departure for Tobin: "I don’t really think of them as separate projects at all. I keep recording the whole time. I just do it until I’ve got an album’s worth. I think the production’s a bit better. I don’t know."
When I mention that the new platter – while still a moody and atmospheric piece – seems to pull back from the sometimes terrifying darkness of the previous album, ‘Supermodified’, this mild fellow takes pains to point out that "I don’t want to sound negative or aggressive or anything like that. If it sounds dark, it’s a contrast of the light thing. There’s no malicious, angry, misdirected bitterness!"
This year has also seen the re-release of Tobin’s first album, the long-deleted Cujo project, which brought back memories of his initial immersion in the world of sampled beats and pieces:
"I got very excited about the idea of using samples because I didn’t feel I really wanted to make music where I was playing a guitar or something. The music I was into was music from certain times, and I wanted to take direct samples from those times instead of emulating something. It sounds weird, but there’s almost more integrity in taking a sample, than trying to emulate something. I feel like it’s more direct. I suppose it kind of went further so, I remember thinking ‘I want this sound, and I want to turn it into something else, try and make it work with these other elements that are coming in, so I need to twist it and bend it so that they all fit together.’ It just go so exciting. I just got so into it. I remember when I first came into Ninebar (his first record company) with some tunes to record, I wasn’t really aware that there was a market for what I was doing. Because I realised that it didn’t have any vocals, it wasn’t exactly like techno or House or something. And the guys said trip hop is quite cool at the moment, and I was quite surprised, I didn’t know what that was. I was pretty green."
These days, Amon Tobin has carved a small but respectable niche for himself through the Western world, and he’s as happy can be:
"I suppose for an independent it does well, definitely. But there’s only so far you’re going to go without a lead singer! (Laughs) I haven’t had a proper job for six years, so it’s alright, I certainly can’t complain. We’re not rich by any means or big stars or anything, but we’ve definitely got a strong following. It’s quite cool when you’re making music that isn’t considered mainstream, to have a passionate following by people who listen to it. They realise that it’s not targeted or marketed. People feel like it’s honest. Maybe there’s a bit of longevity in it and the one hit wonders will come up and make a lot of money but disappear.I’m looking to develop over time."
With an "I’m sorry you caught me when I was semi-conscious. I hope that I’ve been almost coherent", Tobin is off and back to la-la-land.

* This piece appeared in Real Groove.


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