Amon Tobin (Treasure Island Music Festival, 2008)

by Rusty Hodge

Rusty talks to Amon Tobin about how he got started manipulating sounds and where he's going with his music. (Audio, 18 minutes).

Amon Tobin: Hi, I'm Amon Tobin.

Rusty: And how do you describe what you do? You're not really a DJ but you are a DJ.

Amon Tobin: I do DJ. I mainly just produce stuff. I guess I'm more of a sort of studio person but I get out once in a while and play some shows.

Rusty: When you're performing live, when you perform your own stuff live, do you feel like DJing? Isn't that a different vibe than being in the studio?

Amon Tobin: Yeah it is, but it's a mixture, it's not like a DJ set where I'm playing some jams to get people dancing and stuff, although it's nice when people get down, of course. It's more just a kind of extension of making a record. I see it like as just trying to make new things out of the music I've got and trying to be creative and experiment, really.

Rusty: So when you play live, do you go up with a bunch of synthesizers? Because when I've seen you play I just see a bunch of gear and you can't exactly tell what's going on.

Amon Tobin: Well, you know, it's electronic music, right, so there's no live band and there's no emphasis on that really. And I like that about it. I think there's plenty of fantastic bands out there and it's not something I'm trying to be a part of.

Rusty: Yeah. I guess what I'm asking is do you come out with a whole bunch of sampled pieces and manipulate the samples in real time?

Amon Tobin: Kind of. Yeah, I use decks, 'cause I look at decks as kind of the origin of modern-day sampling, really.

Rusty: Yeah. It's a long-form sample player, basically.

Amon Tobin: That's it, pretty much. So what I'm trying to do is I'm trying to layer things and make new arrangements out of the tools I've got to work with. And the great thing about having such a limited amount of stuff like equipment is that you have to be really creative and you have to be resourceful and, you know, come up with new ways to do interesting things.

Rusty: So give me a little bit of history. SomaFM has been playing you guys since we first went on the air, your stuff you did as Cujo. Did I pronounce it right?

Amon Tobin: Yeah.

Rusty: And was that your debut, or were you doing stuff before that?

Amon Tobin: No, that was my first record. I was really at that time just trying to see what would happen if I mixed genres that weren't really meant to go together and see, because back then it was kind of a new thing. Obviously it's very different now and my focus is on other things. But that time it was very much to do with 'Alright, let's see if we can take this thing and put it in a new context and see what happens.'

Rusty: And so how long have you been making music?

Amon Tobin: I guess about fifteen years now.

Rusty: Okay.

Amon Tobin: That's the only time I've been doing it without having a proper job, anyway. [chuckles] Yeah.

Rusty: When did you first start playing music just to play it? How old were you?

Amon Tobin: Oh, I've been doing that since forever, but I mean, really, I guess I started out with a cassette deck, one of those twin cassette decks, and I'd make a radio show for the kids at school and I'd sit on Sunday night and record the top forty or whatever and then kind of edit the tracks and get the parts I didn't like out of the tracks and try and make new things out of those.

Rusty: So you've been cutting up and sampling, effectively, since forever.

Amon Tobin: Yeah, since I was a teenager, really, that's what I was interested in.

Rusty: It seems like now, your more recent music has been more synthetic, more digital and less samples? Is that correct? Or are you just tweaking the samples so much?

Amon Tobin: It's really just about manipulation now. Like I said, back in the early nineties, it was interesting just to take samples as they were and see what you could do with them. And now, the technology has advanced so much more and there's a lot more room for maneuvers between synthesizers and synthetic processes applied to recorded material and sampled material. So there's much more of a hybrid going on now as far as I'm concerned and so my music is maybe now a little bit less easy to define in terms of is it sampled best or is it synthesized or is it just, you know, I guess, electronic, really.

Rusty: Tool wise, these days, do you find yourself using hardware samplers or using stuff on laptops?

Amon Tobin: Well, I tried using laptops and it just doesn't work for me, because I need to be in a studio where I've got a bit of control over the environment. I use software samplers. I use Contact a lot. I really like that. It's really a mixture of hardware and software.

Rusty: What would you say is your favorite instrument or your favorite tool?

Amon Tobin: I guess, I've been using this compressor. This is super nerdy. This, uh... [laughter]

Rusty: I'm kind of into this myself, that's why I asked.

Amon Tobin: It's a compressor called the TG 1 and it's a Chandler compressor and I love it so. I caress it and tell it stories and stuff.

Rusty: When you sit down to record a new album, do you sit down to make an album or... . Let me back up. You've done a lot of field recording. Is that correct?

Amon Tobin: Yeah.

Rusty: And do you use a lot of those field recordings as a basis now for the samples you're chopping up?

Amon Tobin: Yeah, I've been getting into that. I've been thinking about that in terms of soundtracks as well and quite interested in how a lot of films recently are kind of, very lean on the music and more on the sound design. I've been interested in building sounds from scratch, from all different sources. That goes across the board, like I was saying, from synthesized sound to field recordings. But the whole thing is about the manipulation. The source material isn't as important anymore. It's more about what's done with it. So yeah, I've been out in the field with microphones and all that and having fun with all that, but using those elements as a basis for a later production.

Rusty: So when you sit down to make a new record, do you actually sit down to make a new record or do you sit down to make a track? What's your thought process? How do you get into that?

Amon Tobin: It kind of depends. Sometimes I'll think of it as an album, but mainly I make music all the time. It's not like I really stop. So after I have a certain amount of work, I tend to see what works together, because you know, your interests vary over time so it will be relatively cohesive just by virtue of the fact that it's been done between this date and this date. So I tend to work more like that, more in that sort of way.

Rusty: We were at the Yuri's night, the World Space Festival, and you did a great set there and you totally had floored the audience...

Amon Tobin: That was fun!

Rusty: ...and that was a perfect audience for you too, by the way, they were the spacey set and they were lovin' it. But it sounded to me as if you were experimenting with a bunch of new sounds and when you do an album, is it like you're always making this music, like you said, and the album becomes like, snapshots from the music you've been creating?

Amon Tobin: It can be, like the last album I made definitely was much more a focused thing where I set out with an idea. I just didn't want to get trapped in some concept, some high-brow thing like that. I wanted it to be a kind of consistent thing. So yeah, for sure, the last couple of albums I've made have been 'Alright, let's try and make a body of work that is consistent within a certain type of sound.'

Rusty: You mentioned soundtracks. Have you worked with any music supervisors to do sound for film?

Amon Tobin: Well, there's a film called "Taxidermia" which I worked on last year, which is a very odd sort of Hungarian movie. That was wicked. It was such a cool film. It was interesting working with the director, because we had some similar ideas and it gave me a lot of faith in that world, because you know I've spent some time down in Hollywood meeting supervisors and stuff and there's a lot of people to talk to, a lot of lunches, and I quite like to just make music, really, when I can, so I don't know if there's a future in that or not, but I am interested. I mean, I've always been in love with soundtracks.

Rusty: Like one of your tracks, I think it was a Cujo track called "Sorted."

Amon Tobin: Right.

Rusty: I was looking through some stuff I have in my iTunes playlist and I have this one that's "Movie Soundtrack Candidates." I was like: "I'm suprised that one didn't make it into a movie yet. [laughter] It really seems like the sort of thing someone would really come looking for, because it's perfect for a soundtrack."

Amon Tobin: Well... . Who knows what fits and what doesn't fit and what reasons. It's not necessarily something I'm trying to get in to. I just, I like the idea of working with sound in a non-linear way and soundtracks provide that. So I'm a big fan of existing soundtracks.

Rusty: Didn't you do a little bit of music for some video games in the past?

Amon Tobin: I did, yeah. That was interesting because that was it was music that had to adapt to a live sequence, as opposed to a soundtrack where like you do a scene or music for one scene and it always stays the same. This is more like, well, y'know the character can go this way, that way, the music has to change and adapt. So that was very interesting to do.

Rusty: Would you do more of that?

Amon Tobin: Yeah. Absolutely. I'm working on a game right now, which of course I can't talk about. It's very very hush-hush. But yeah, I'm interested in that. It's kind of a cool medium because it's still relatively young and people are still open to new ideas. Like we were talking before, like you were just saying about why this sound or that track wouldn't get onto a soundtrack, you have to think about the politics involved. There's an enormous amount of people that need to green-light things. And in movie, sorry, game soundtracks, even though it's a much bigger market in some ways. There's still a lot of young people, young minds, I guess, fresh approaches. So there's quite a lot of room to maneuver, I think, in that.

Rusty: Tell me about some of your musical influences.

Amon Tobin: Oh, It's across the board. I try and keep an open ear and I listen to a lot of new stuff, but a lot of old stuff, too. I guess one of my first loves is hip-hop, still, and jungle, drum and bass, that was a big influence on me.

Rusty: You don't hear too much of the classic drum and bass coming out anymore.

Amon Tobin: Well, you know, it's like there's a spot light. When things are hot right now, as they say, those things get spot lighted and you hear them a lot more, but truth be told, there's some exceptional drum and bass being made. But it's just that you're not going to hear it unless you look for it.

Rusty: It's much harder to track down.

Amon Tobin: Yeah.

Rusty: I know. I was going back through some of my older CD's from that period, which I hadn't listened to in a while, and I was like "That was really good." I mean, it's super stylistic, so you tend to burn out if you hear a little too much of it.

Amon Tobin: Well, the interesting thing about drum and bass is that it was, to me it felt like it was a genuinely forward-thinking type of music. People were really trying to do new things. They weren't trying to be nostalgic or relive some golden era of music in the seventies. It was all about 'Let's try and make something truly futuristic and do things with production that had never been possible before.' And that spirit still remains, as small as the genre is. It's influenced a lot of other types of music which are much more in the forefront now. So, you know, I think it's normal. These things go in cycles. Things become, you know, they become very much in the spotlight.

Rusty: Sadly sometimes the things that stay in the spotlight for longer periods of time really probably didn't deserve the stage...

Amon Tobin: Oh man, yeah, but who are we to judge? You know what I mean... .

Rusty: You're right. If people like it, then it's serving it's purpose.

Amon Tobin: I don't know, I'm more elitist. I tend to think more in terms of the thing that's depressing is that there's such a huge market for bad things. But that's always been the way, hasn't it? Since day one. So what can you do? You do is you do what you love and you hope that that catches someone's ear or that the other people appreciate that too. But you know, I'd never lose any sleep over the fact that the majority of people are into something that I have no interest in.

Rusty: So, I understand you've moved to the San Francisco area?

Amon Tobin: I have, yeah.

Rusty: How long ago?

Amon Tobin: About a week.

Rusty: Oh, wow!

Amon Tobin: Yeah. I'm kind of moving now.

Rusty: Well, welcome.

Amon Tobin: Thank you very much. I'm very pleased to be here. I love it here.

Rusty: What prompted the move?

Amon Tobin: I've always loved this city.

Rusty: You've come here plenty of times before.

Amon Tobin: Yeah.

Rusty: Does this mean we're going to hear you playing more often in clubs and stuff around town or are you going to be in the studio more?

Amon Tobin: I'll be in the studio more, I think. Probably.

Rusty: Do you record mostly at home?

Amon Tobin: Yeah, well, I'm building a studio right now. I'm really excited. It's a pretty decadent space and I'm really excited to spend a lot of time there.

Rusty: Lots of vintage compressors and EQ's.

Amon Tobin: Well, you know, I'm building. I'm still collecting stuff. I'm not really a collector of gear, you know, I like to just use what I have, but I've got my eye out on some things.

Rusty: Over the years, your music seems to, well, you don't seem to be doing as much down tempo stuff as you used to do in the past. Is that a correct observation or am I looking in the wrong place?

Amon Tobin: Actually, I've just finished a record, which is all down tempo. It's all much more based in hip-hop. It's kind of a collaboration with a guy called Double Click, a project called "Two Fingers," which will come out next year. I've just tried to do something that I've never really explored before, you know, working in a completely... it's not even under my name, it's a separate, separate thing, but it was so much fun to do, to get that stuff out of my system. It's all pretty slow tempo stuff.

Rusty: I just wondered... .The first couple albums seemed to have a mix of faster and slower stuff. It seems like lately, I mean, your up tempo fast stuff is awesome, I don't mean to down play it or anything, but I just really loved some of the slower stuff you've down. I get the feeling that maybe it's just when you perform live it's more fun to play the really up tempo stuff live because the crowd gets energized.

Amon Tobin: Man, for sure. I still play drum and bass when I play out because I love it. I love the energy it creates and it's the most fun stuff to play, for sure. But I try and keep the peaks and valleys fairly, you know, I guess balanced as much as I can, but in my own stuff, I'm paying less attention to what speed it is, even, and I'm concentrating more on the quality of the sound, what the sound actually does. I used to make... I have a whole album that's entirely, I think it's 167 BPM and that was interesting to do, but lately I've been varying the tempos a lot more.

Rusty: You mentioned this project was under a different name. Are there other projects you're doing under different names? That you want people to know about?

Amon Tobin: Not... No... [laughter] What I'm doing right now, is I'm doing a little experiment where in between making albums and whatever else I'm up to, I'm just putting out tracks which don't fit anywhere onto my site and I'm selling them direct to the public and hoping that they'll support it so that I can go back to the studio and make proper full length records. So I'm just like taking these things which are kind of homeless tracks and giving them this little home on my site and I've done one every month since June. I'm going to see how it goes. I'm not sure if I'm going to keep doing it or not but it seems to be doing well. It's just great to have any outlet. Right now, I'm doing this soundtrack for this game. I'm starting on a movie soundtrack early next year. And then I'll be working on my next album, next year, probably spring next year. But in between, like I said, I'm making stuff all the time, so I have to get it out there so that's how I'm doing it.

Rusty:Thanks for answering all my questions!

Support SomaFM and get our 2014 Groove Salad compilation!

Groove Salad Vol 2 compilation

New for 2014! Groove Salad Volume 2: a compilation mix of some the most popular and classic tracks played on Groove Salad. The mostly instrumental tracks are a cross-section of the music you'll hear on Groove Salad: Downtempo, ambient groove, trip-hop, chillout and worldbeat.
Get it now!

The SomaFM Water Bottle

SomaFM: Water Bottle

We tracked down the best water bottle we could find, and we had it customized with our colors and logo.

Support SomaFM

Your support keeps SomaFM on the air!

Monthly Options:

You can also get Tshirts and Mugs when you donate!