In Conversation With…Amon Tobin
Outsider, innovator, creative mastermind. There are many ways to describe what Amon Tobin is or at least could be. With over two decades in the game and an insatiable hunger for learning new stuff he still keeps on pushing the boundaries of Bass Music and beyond. He is a man of many facets which he expresses in his various aliases like Only Child Tyrant as well as his own name and Two Fingers. It has been eight years since he released something under the latter so I called him up to speak about his influences for the album and his creative process behind as well as a lot of in-depth talk about the music industry, the definition of success and new possibilities.
Fight! Fight! Fight!, the first Two Fingers album in eight years, what took you so long?
I didn’t actually stop recording this whole time. I just stopped releasing to give me a little more time to develop the various projects and I didn’t just want to throw them out before I rightfully form them. Two Fingers, I already had established some time ago and that kept developing over that period too but it was really an incubation period for a number of reasons. But I’m glad I did because all too often we tend to just focus on throwing things out and I wanted to focus on developing
Right, so it wasn’t intentional to leave this huge gap between the albums?
Well, it wasn’t like a strategy or something. I mean it was probably not a good idea in many ways chuckles but for me it was necessary. I had to really learn a load of stuff that I didn’t know much about and I had to take the time to learn that stuff. So, I think in any form of progress or growth you have to take some steps backwards and stop and start crawling again and learn to walk and all these things take time. So yeah, it was just a necessary process.
What do you mean with ‚you needed to learn something‘? New strategies, new techniques?
Exactly, a lot of these different things we’re doing on Nomark, they’re all germs of ideas I had over different parts of my release career, I guess. So, for instance, you could look at something like Only Child Tyrant as being a development of ideas I had back on ‘Supermodified’, tracks like ‘Get Your Snack On’ or ‘Four Ton Mantis‘. For me, to have more than just a superficial exploration of that, I needed to really go in and learn about that kind of music, learn about how the song structure works. So, it’s like a sort of form, almost like a songwriting form with a chorus, verse, harmonies and, different sorts of instrumentations as well and of course, my approach to instrumentation is very personal so I had to learn about it through my own lens which added another layer of complication to it. I mean, it all sounds laborious but for the matter of fact what I like doing the most is learning about music, to discover new things. It was a great time for me, the thing I enjoy doing the most so extended it as far as I could.
That brings me to my next question. Your process and approach to writing music seem to have changed over the years, from more sample-based creations to the more technology-led (modular etc) sample creation and mangling nowadays. It’s quite obvious that you really enjoy the possibilities of new horizons, so, did your workflow change drastically over the past years?
I think there’s sometimes a misperception that artists are developing in a very linear way and that once you explore new territory you’re kinda done with what you did before, you’ve abandoned it. That’s not the case, at least for me. What I want to do is continue developing music alongside different interests and hopefully, they can inform and build from each other, too. So, rather than having all of my interests kind under one name which is frankly how I would do it, I think it to be fair to the listener that you’re going to present them with different strategies and different bodies of work. It’s just helpful to present them under different names otherwise somebody who likes my interest in Bass might be quite disheartened by something under my own name or vice versa. It’s more of a practical consideration in that case. But in terms of approaches to the actual work, you mentioned sampling, and how these processes have changed, I really think that creativity is born of limitations. That’s where our creativity comes from, it’s like the bastard child of limited resources.
Working around and stuff?
Yeah, solving problems. Having a really small range within to work is very helpful because that’s where you become creative. That’s really the only credit you can take, being creative. It’s not the number of samples or the number of tools you have available, you know, the amount of synthesizers you have. It’s really how you’ve managed to use those things beyond their capabilities, beyond what they initially delivered to you. What matters is more what kinda decisions you make, what we leave in, what we leave out, what form you shape those things into. That has always been my focus whether it’s with this tool or that tool.
Speaking of sampling! The ‘Fear In A Handful Of Dust’ sample pack will be released on Thursday, can we expect more stuff like this in the future, like matching sample packs to certain albums?
Actually, we delayed that for a bit because of everything thats going on right now. Just didn’t felt like a great time to be out there selling stuff, honestly. It’s kind of a mess. There are more important things to focus on.
The problem with wanting something from people right now, isn’t it?
Yeah, it’s that, but it’s also the climate here, at least in the US with whats going on. I think it’s important to give that stuff time to breathe and not be clouding it with trivia.
But, in any case, as far as the idea goes with sample packs, it’s odd to me to be doing that because of course, I have such a long relationship with samples and recording and sound development chuckles. It’s almost like a full circle situation. In the end, it was suggested to me to do a sample pack as it might be useful for producers and all of that. I kind of thought it might be interesting to do something which is attached to a record because every time I release something there’s always a lot of questions. They come to me with: “how did you make this sound?” or “how do I make that sound?”, “How could I record something that sounds like this or that?”. I thought rather than just releasing a pack like: “here’s a thousand kick drums and here’s a thousand snare drums” it might be more helpful to go like “here is a record that I made, here’s the kind of DNA of that record”. Pieces to make a particular sound so you can reconstruct them in your own way. So, yeah they’ll all be attached. I think I’m trying to do a different pack for each release we’re doing on Nomark and even go back to things from ‘Foley Room’ because I still have a lot of DAT tape, all of those recordings, which I think could be useful for people too. But ultimately, I just want to contribute to people making stuff. If I can in some way then that’s what I’m going with.
Besides the fact that I’m totally up for a ‘Foley Room’ sample pack, I get the feeling that you feel like you’re giving the fans a piece of you because you let all your inspiration flow in the records.
The things is, making music is such a selfish process for me. It honestly always has been. That brings me back to a little earlier in our conversation where we’ve been talking about longs gaps of not releasing stuff. In all honesty, I’m not that interested in releasing music. I’m interested in the process and it’s a personal joy to learn about those things and the music ends up almost like a by-product of my own research and learning into sounds. Research sounds so academic, it’s very much a learning process. That’s really what I’m interested in. So now, the idea of people benefitting from something that you’ve done is maybe a less selfish thing to do, so I’m happy to try it chuckles.
So we could describe the certain aliases like Two Fingers, Only Child Tyrant or Amon Tobin and Cujo as like various offsprings of your own character?
Yeah, I think like anybody, we’re not two-dimensional, we have different aspects of ourselves so yeah very much! Two Fingers goes right back to childhood experiences of mine, Hip Hop being a first love very much. I was this scrappy little b-boy listening to Grandmaster Flash and tracks like ‘Set It Off’. I mean you can always hear it in the records. You can hear ‘Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don’t Stop)’ by Man Parrish in ‘Boss Rhythm’, it’s always been the cornerstone for Two Fingers for me. Unfortunately, it kind of got misinterpreted because of timing with the breakthrough of EDM and Bass Music in general. But in fact, it has much more to do with the idea of Drum & Bass production being applied to my view of Hip Hop. That’s what it always was. I’m very interested in developing that still and the influence is very clear to see. I would think you can hear Neptunes, Timbaland, you can hear those old-school sounds I grew up with. Sounds very personal for sure. The same would go for Only Child Tyrant. It’s born from a love for a certain kind of songwriting and interestingly, I don’t know when this article is gonna come out, but we’re about to release Figeroua which is a whole other thing. I’ll probably annoy my fan base with this. But yeah, overall they’re sincere efforts in these different directions. It’s not like: “Oh hey, there’s a new hip surf music scene going on and I wanna take part!”. chuckles
I couldn’t speak less about the Hip Hop influences of Two Fingers, respectively the album! It was kind of logical to me that you and Ivy Lab would collab. I mean they just fit with their Hip Hop meets robotic-style Drum & Bass, right?
Yeah, it’s a very organic development in that sense from mutual appreciation to mutual interests. Actually, it was very cool to collaborate with this new generation of bass producers because I’ve always felt very lucky to have a kind of modest influence on early bass production and now I’m just this fan of this new generation and I’m playing all their music in my sets. I’m playing Ivy Lab and I’m playing G Jones and Little Snake. Lots of that stuff actually, Eprom and Shades for instance. For me, it connects very well. I love that these guys even knew who the fuck I am even if they’re so young. So it was great then to go and say: “Well, I’m playing your music in my sets so I think it’d be great to have you on this record as well and represent a new wave of this kind of music.”
How was working with them? Did you work online or did you have them in the studio?
Well, with Ivy Lab I’ve become friends and they’ve visited me in the studio several times. We recorded a bunch of the stuff here but we kinda went back and forth as well. I mean it has to work that way. Same with Little Snake. We did as much as we could in the studio. G Jones actually, we did it all remotely even though he was in the US. We did as much as we could face to face because it’s more fun to hang out. It’s the same with the Noisia guys, stuff with Thijs.
Yeah, you went in the studio with Thijs. How was working with him?
Well, we’ve known each other forever. We’ve played shows together, we’ve done collaborations with Noisia, they did stuff for me, we’ve done remixes for each other, so we know each other for a very long time. We always have a lot of fun, we drink too much Mezcal, smoke weed and yeah, it’s great! I love Thijs!
That is cool! How does it look “inside the box” of Amon Tobin? What gear are you using, soft and hardware-wise?
I went through a long period of DSP-based production with Keymap, in particular, being some sort of sound design language I did my best to get my head around the ‘ISAM’ period. What happened was I got very concerned with reaching a particular goal in my mind and not letting anything else in. I missed the playfulness and the mistakes that happen when you deal with hardware that is imperfect and unpredictable and fun. I made a conscious effort to use things that were more annoying to use actually. Also, things that for me always had a presence in my mind like a Melotron. Which is, you could say, one of the first samplers. Sounds like that occupy a place in my heart. I think that resonates with a lot of people on a subconscious level. There’s also the modular stuff, some Buchla stuff, your regular hardware tools for mixing as well. A lot of tubes and things that have soul and kinda feel collaborative when you’re working with them. It’s like they’re giving you something back as well. I’m less in software in the moment.
More analogue then? Fiddling around?
Yeah! You know, I think it’s very dangerous, especially in the world of modular synths. I feel like it can easily stray in the sort of moodeling world of nonsense. I’m just not interested in that! I feel like it’s very important to have a very rigid framework but to allow life and spontaneity within that framework. I gravitate towards structure even though arguably a lot of my music friends would say they can’t identify it but it’s pretty much there.
Nomark then seems like the ultimate hub to connect all these dots that make your aliases in one place right?
I really want to do stuff at my own pace and to release things on my own schedule. There’s so much material that it wouldn’t even be fair to release it on a different label because they have other artists and schedules. So, it’s very much like an umbrella, a vehicle for these different lanes. I keep describing them as lanes because that’s how I see them. Parallel lanes of musical lectures. It’s been really interesting to do it that way. Obviously it’s not just me! I have a really good team of people that understand stuff like social media and marketing. I have no interest in any of that. I couldn’t pretend to be able to do that by myself. I’ve been lucky to find good people who help me through that.
That’s a pretty good state to have! You’re like an outsider in this digital generation where music is consumed very very differently, with the attitude of releasing stuff on your own pace!
Being an outsider is actually a pretty familiar landscape for me. It’s not what I wanted. I wanted to fit in very much, especially as a young man. I really wanted to be a part of something but for whatever reason, I never quite managed it. I ended up embracing the differences instead than rather beating myself up about not being able to fit into something. I think that’s the most overt expression of that. That’s me saying: “Well it is what it is, take it or leave it but hopefully take it.” It’s something I feel is my own and has good intentions and let’s see where it goes. Let’s see if it’s sustainable. I mean it is a hideous business decision but creatively it’s the best.
Yeah, I mean pressing vinyl isn’t that affordable anymore as well as is releasing music on your own schedule. Everybody streams, the market is flooded with new tunes, artists and labels so I can imagine it’s pretty hard to do it your way and stand out?
I take the approach that if you really want to go into business or be a success of any kind you probably should leave the music alone and do something else. There are way better ways to be a successful human but this happens to be my interest so I need to do it in whatever way I can. It’s not an easy landscape. People can complain about the lack of support for music. In the end, I also have a lot of faith in people just wanting to sort of get behind more of what they want. It’s a self-serving thing. If I want a better environment I better start recycling, if I want cleaner air I better start thinking about what I put into the air. If I want better food then I maybe need to pay a little more and actually get food that isn’t made in a lab. If I want better art and if I want better music, not just whatever giant company is trying to force down my throat, then I getter get behind it and try to hear more of it. I feel like there was a nihilistic approach to all of this at beginning of the streaming cycle where everyone was like: “Yeah, fuck the major labels, let’s democratize music, it’s just so happens I don’t have to pay for it” but I think people are starting to come around to the fact that if they don’t patronize the arts then the arts won’t survive and then they’ll have no arts and life would be this barren landscape of joyless consumerism. I think the idea of having some personal responsibility towards perpetuating the things you want more of in the world is slowly dawning on people. Or at least that would be my hope!
I’m actually on your side on that topic! I feel that shift too, people start to think about what they consume and how they consume it, they try new stuff out! Bandcamp is the perfect example for that, right?
It is! It’s a very forward-thinking platform and they’re, at least for now, on the side of the artist. I love what they’re doing. That’s why I’ve decided to have them as a hub for what we’re doing. Obviously the majority of the world share goes to platforms like Spotify. Sadly you just get like a fraction of a cent on every stream, it’s a really infinitesimal fraction.
It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so sad!
Yeah, it’s kind of absurd. Thank god there are other options!
The other sad thing is that the vast majority of people are tending to use the more obvious choices like in this case Spotify due to accessibilty and convenience!
You could apply that all across the board. I mean convenience is king but there’s a price for that and I think people need to understand that. You pay in other ways for convenience. There’s a value to going a few extra steps to what you want. Convenience is McDonald’s, right. If that’s all we ate then we’d be fucked. It’s worth seeking out for nutritional value chuckles.
Your stuff hasn’t always been for the masses, obviously, but I think that you have a solid fan base and I think that projects like the aforementioned Figeroua would be well received. Still, you’ve said that you might annoy some people with it, why’s that?
Actually, that’s not true. I’ve had the same proportion of support as I’m being spit on from the other side for every release I’ve done. There’s always been a camp that was fully behind it and a camp that said: “that isn’t like the last record” which is normal. Which is what every artist has to some extend. I’m baffled by the base I have, the reach I have. It hasn’t been overtly commercial. By the way, I’m not like some anti-commercial person either. I want the most people to hear my stuff. I just won’t go as far as to change what I do to make that happen. I’m sensitive to the fact that when I explore something different there’s gonna be a certain amount of resistance to it. For instance ‘ISAM’. I had a huge backlash against ‘ISAM’ because it didn’t sound like something like ‘Supermodified’. I had a huge backlash against ‘Foley Room’ because it didn’t sound like ‘Permutation’. That’s completely normal. The same thing will happen now, even more so because the links that I make between ‘Supermodified’ and ‘Foley Room’ and the link I made between ‘Foley Room’ and ‘ISAM’ and the link I make between ‘ISAM’ and ‘A Fear In A Handful Of Dust’ are very personal and nobody else makes that link. I got very strong links between what I’m doing now and Figeroua and Only Child Tyrant and Two Fingers but I’m not presuming that people will be along for that ride or that they’ll also make those same links.
I mean they can watch, right? They can take what they get or they can leave it out and search for other sources!
Exactly! It isn’t a supply on-demand relationship. I’m not running a Macy’s or Walmart chuckles. There’s no customer service department here, go along your way, it’s fine.
Reliving those album titles brings me to another question. You did ‘Splinter Cell’ in the past, are you doing any musical design work besides your obvious ongoing projects?
Sure, there’s some film stuff that I might get involved in. I’ve been enjoying to not work to somebody else’s brief so I’m trying to do that as much as I can. But those things are kinda interesting too because when you have somebody else’s project you have to think in a different way often meaning that you end up learning something useful most of the time. But for the most part, this thing with this label is so all-encompassing and it’s a 7days a week-situation over here because it’s the first year of the label. It’s really taking all of my energy for now but I have some things on the horizon and if there’s room for it I’ll do it!
Last but not least: besides Figeroua, any release plans you can talk about? Can we expect something or is there just a big room of nothing and we’re left there to wait it out?
If you look on the Nomark site, you can see the different artists (+releases) on the label which are of course just different aliases of mine. The ones that are greyed out are the ones we haven’t released yet and the ones that are clickable are Two Fingers, Only Child Tyrant or my own name. We still have Stone Giants, Figeroua and Paperboy to share with the world and in addition to that, there’s one of the main reasons why I’m still running this label. The Nomark Club, which is the subscription thing where I’m trying to make sure that I’m putting new music there on a regular basis and it’s not just: “oh, here’s some moodle or offcut or b-side to some shit”. It’s like a proper EP or a fully formed piece of music or something I would release. I’m doing that very regularly and there will be a new one of those in the coming weeks that’s going to be called ‘Red Shift’, then the others and then next year we’ll be doing the club again. Then there’ll be other albums. I need to do follow up material, you know! I keep developing Only Child Tyrant, keep developing Two Fingers, all of them. That will happen next year too!
I need to sign up for that, haven’t done it until now! You fuelled my hunger even more!
Oh no, it wasn’t a pitch but I’m trying to make sure it’s not some kind of scam where people are getting off-cuts. I think it’s important that if people can identify that something is authentic, I think they’ll get behind it.
I think so too! Thank you so much for your time!
Thank you too, take care!
*This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity and readability
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