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Psych Out

On his 2002 album, Out from Out Where, Amon Tobin leaves his native Brazil behind for the silver screens of India.

By Marc Weidenbaum

On his 2002 album, Out from Out Where (Ninja Tune), electronic musician Amon Tobin gives his regards to Bollywood. Having previously created several masterful albums of drum’n’bass from samples of Brazilian percussion and trad jazz, not to mention his own surprisingly sonorous bodily sounds, Tobin has now turned his ear toward, among other things, the fanciful soundtracks of Indian films.

“They’re generally Eastern takes on Western themes,” he says, on the phone from Montreal, where he’s currently living. “So it’s a strange way that it’s translated, in the same way, I suppose, that Western music emulates Eastern sounds and makes a kind of kitsch version.”

For someone like Tobin, who delights in placing discrete musical elements in artful, non sequitur contexts, the scores to films from Bollywood — as India’s movie industry is known — are ready-made sonic melanges. These films switch genres from scene to scene, often within a scene, from swinging-’60s spy motifs to classic Hollywood strings — “a real hybrid of influences,” says Tobin.

He could just as easily be describing himself. Tobin gained renown in the late ’90s as one of British electronica’s young talents. A mainstay of the Ninja Tune label, also home to such digerati as Coldcut and Funki Porcini, he titled the first album he recorded under his own name, Bricolage, with an anthropological term for the recycling of pre-existing materials. His early work, like the Piranha Breaks EP, borrowed percussion from his native Brazil (he moved to England as a child), drawing associations between the Information Age and the pre-Colombian one.

Perhaps the most exotic sound on Out from Out Where, though, is also the most mundane: a human voice. Electronic music is largely an instrumental zone — or, more to the point, a vocal-free one. This is especially true for drum’n’bass, which is characterized by madly jagging, synthesized rhythms. But on Out Where‘s first single, “Verbal,” Tobin has the mysterious MC Decimal R. rapping throughout. Well, sort of. The vocal is spliced together from fragmented syllables, so the lyric is incomprehensible: language reduced to sound. “There isn’t any finished, completed word in the whole rap,” Tobin says, with a hint of pride. “I got really into using vocals as a percussion instrument, and programming it the same way I would do breaks.” He credits as inspiration the cut-ups of his peers Squarepusher, Aphex Twin and Prefuse 73.

The remainder of Out Where‘s 11 tracks is, for the most part, free of speech. “Triple Science” sounds like the soundtrack to a hyperkinetic space thriller. “Searchers,” equally cinematic but decidedly downtempo, features a lovely flute solo. And at least two tracks, “Rosies” and “Hey Blondie,” are downright psychedelic at times, the latter recalling “Sun King”-era Beatles.

Like many works of the psychedelic-rock era, Out Where is best thought of as an album-length experience. This, too, is something of an evolution for Tobin, who as recently as 1998, when he released Permutation, his follow-up to Bricolage, said he thought “tune to tune,” not in terms of albums. On Out Where, though, Tobin builds a coherent long-form listen by occasionally picking up a primary sound from one song and embedding it into the background of another. Furthermore, much of the album segues seamlessly from one track to the next, pretty much precluding use of your CD player’s random function.

“I’m a fascist, in the sense of, ‘Here’s the tunes and here’s how I’d like them heard,'” says Tobin, aware of the irony of a sampler safeguarding his own music. “I’d like to go around with a decent set of headphones,” he adds, “and give ’em away with each record if I could.”

Below appears the transcript of the interview, lightly edited, from which the above profile was drawn.

Marc Weidenbaum: Thanks for taking the time to talk.

Amon Tobin: Thank you.

Weidenbaum: There’s no reason for you to remember this, but I’ve interviewed you twice before — once after Bricolage, once after Permutations — and I’d like to ask you about some things that have changed in the interim. By the end of Permutations, for example, in June of 1998, you hadn’t ventured into the world of laptops yet.

Tobin: Oh, right. That’s wicked. Things have become so much more portable now.

Weidenbaum: One thing I immediately took to about the new record is that it seems like a number of the tracks are intended to segue from one to the other.

Tobin: Yeah.

Weidenbaum: I don’t recall that being something you’d done previously.

Tobin: On the original version of Adventures in Foam, the proper UK issue and also on the reissue that Ninja are doing now, that’s how the CD was: little sounds between the tracks, to try and tie the whole thing together. And when I was making this album I was paying attention to the beginning and end of the tracks being longer than necessary to give myself a little bit of room for maneuver, if I decided to do that. Because I wasn’t sure if I was going to do that when I started. I just sort of thought, in the end, when I played all the tracks together it would work quite well.

Weidenbaum: It’s elegant. There are moments where little sounds continue from one track to the next, little tinklings in the background.

Tobin: Yeah, I was hoping to make this album full of peripheral noises, with little noises that came in several times throughout the album on different tracks, so you should be able to pick up flutes from track one that appear later on in the album, not as the main feature of a melody, but as some kind of incidental noise.

Weidenbaum: I noticed guitar from the first track shows up on the third track.

Tobin: Yeah, I’ve got all those things happening on this album [laughs].

Weidenbaum: I love the flute on “Searchers.”

Tobin: Thank you.

Weidenbaum: There’s something about the melody, the first two notes remind me of the lesser-sampled part of the Mission: Impossible theme.

Tobin: Oh, really?

Weidenbaum: But then it heads in a prettier direction than I expect.

Tobin: I took a lot of those sounds from Bollywood soundtracks, which interest me because they’re generally Eastern takes on Western themes, so it’s a strange way that it’s translated, in the same way I suppose that Western music kind of emulates Eastern sounds and makes a kind of kitsch version of that sound, you know what I mean? “This is what Oriental sounds like,” or “this is what Indian sounds like.” And I’m sure people from those countries would just think they’re hilarious, in the same way that I’ll listen to a Bollywood disco track and just think it’s the funniest thing ever.

Weidenbaum: Bollywood is one of the ultimate Osterizers of sound.

Tobin: Definitely, a real hybrid of influences. I find it fascinating, really, the whole Bollywood thing. I’d like to see more of the movies, ’cause I’ve just got lots of soundtracks for the moment.

Weidenbaum: It’s interesting you’ve been sampling soundtracks, because a lot of the tracks on the album sound more like soundtracks to films than like stand-alone songs.

Tobin: Sure.

Weidenbaum: “Triple Science” in particular — an Alien movie could be built around it.

Tobin: [Laughs] Well, I wonder if songs like that are maybe too busy to feature as part of a bigger thing.

Weidenbaum: It’s have to be a pretty active scene.

Tobin: It’s a strange thing, a lot of music sounds like it could be used in a film because it makes you think of a certain type of movie, but if you actually went to score for that type of film, you’d have to do something much more sparse in order to fit with the images and not completely be an overbearing part of the scene.

Weidenbaum: I think David Holmes has done a pretty good job of making that move.

Tobin: Oh, definitely. I really like the stuff he’s done. I like the movie he researched as well for — oh, what was that?

Weidenbaum: Ocean’s Eleven?

Tobin: Ocean’s Eleven. It was very cool.

Weidenbaum: I just watched the DVD and on the commentary tracks, the actors frequently mention how much they love his score.

Tobin: Wicked. Yeah, he’s done well with that, definitely.

Weidenbaum: When we spoke a few years ago I asked if you thought of records in terms of full-lengths — because drum’n’bass, at the time, remained very singles-oriented. Now you’ve made an album that tends to segue from one track to the next.

Tobin: Yeah, I think that’s all it was. It wasn’t driven as much by a feeling that I need the whole thing to be represented as an “album” as opposed to individual songs. It was more that I kind of like the control aspect [laughs] of going, Well, here’s an order of tracks, in the same way I do an order of records in a DJ set. Here’s the order I’d really like people to hear these in. And I know I have no control over that in reality, people will chop it up and use it in the way that they like, as they should, but it’s a hard thing to resist — to go, well, you know, this is kind of the way I’d like it to be heard. So, I don’t know. I guess it’s just slightly leaning toward that.

Weidenbaum: There is a temptation in the age of the CD and MP3, when you can just hit “random.”

Tobin: Exactly. I’m much more of a fascist in the sense of, like, Right, here’s the tunes and here’s how I’d like them heard. I’d like to go around with a decent set of headphones and give ’em away with each record if I could, make sure everyone was having the optimum sound quality. But, yeah, it’s obviously way beyond my control. It’s a meager attempt at controlling an uncontrollable element.

Weidenbaum: It was the Who who, early on, put things like “Play this record very loud” on their albums.

Tobin: Oh, right, right. Well, you can live in hope.

Weidenbaum: The last time I interviewed you, you were still using your Akai sampler, but you were looking forward, especially when you traveled, to getting a laptop. When did you make that change?

Tobin: About a year ago. I’m still not completely laptop-based. I’m using a lot more software samplers now, and that was really the time when I could really use things on the road because the problem I had was that although laptops were available, to actually make an arrangement in audio meant that you didn’t really have the control that I liked in the MIDI environment. So, what the software samplers allowed me to do was to manipulate waveforms in a MIDI environment without ever having to use an external hard disk or an external sampler, so yeah, things like HALion, for VST, made it really flexible. I can load all my sounds into my sampler now in the computer and not really have to worry about external devices.

Weidenbaum: I understand you’ve relocated to Montreal?

Tobin: Yeah, I’m here for a year on trial. And I don’t know. I’m gonna see how it is. Experiment a bit.

Weidenbaum: What brought you there?

Tobin: I’ve been saying I was gonna move here for a long time, and I really like the city, but I don’t know. I never really had the momentum. Eventually my good wife kicked my ass into gear and said, I’m really sick of Brighton, let’s go.

Weidenbaum: Is she from Canada?

Tobin: No, she’s from the Isle of Wight.

Weidenbaum: You mentioned Adventures in Foam earlier, in regard to the segues between tracks, and I realize now that I only have the —

Tobin: The Shadow —

Weidenbaum: Yeah, the Shadow Records version, which you had bad-mouthed in the previous interview we did.

Tobin: Yeah.

Weidenbaum: You’d said at the time that you’d didn’t like how they’d edited it. Is that because the transitions between tracks weren’t retained.

Tobin: Yeah.

Weidenbaum: Are you pleased to have it back in its original form, now that Ninja Tune has reissued it?

Tobin: After all this time it’s great. It’s a shame we still can’t release it in the U.S. Hopefully people will, if they’re going to buy that record, maybe, will track down and get it from the UK. It’d be a bit more expensive, but at least it’s the record as it was meant to be. It’s a shame to — well, you know, you work for a year and a half on a record, and it’s a bit of a shame when it gets all cut up and rearranged at the last minute. It’s not fucking the biggest deal. It’s like I’m glad people were able to hear the tracks, primarily, but I just found it a bit of a shame. I’m really pleased to have it out on Ninja now, in the original order.

Weidenbaum: It’s still listed as Cujo. Did you consider putting your own name on it?

Tobin: No, all this music was made like six, seven years ago. I wanted to make sure it was titled appropriately, and wasn’t confused with what I’m trying to do now.

Weidenbaum: There’s some vocal work on the new record, which I was excited to hear because it’s not something I think of a lot with you. I thought the second track, “Verbal,” is a great example. It’s like, Yeah, I’m gonna play with vocals but you’re not going to understand more than two syllables in a row.

Tobin: Yeah —

Weidenbaum: Can you talk about how you put that together?

Tobin: Well, I was very influenced by Prefuse 73 and some of the things going on on Warp Records as well. Squarepusher and Aphex Twin have been cutting up vocals for a while now.

Weidenbaum: That “Red Hot Car” single by Squarepusher definitely came to mind

Tobin: Yeah, exactly, and more, there’s a 12″ that’s come out since then, which is — I can’t even remember the name of the track, but it’s a great cutup vocal. The whole thing really inspired me. I basically just gave it a shot, to see what would happen. I got really into using vocals as a percussion instrument, and programming it the same way I would do breaks. What I was trying to do, basically, is that: take each syllable, and substitute kicks and snares for different syllables and see if I could make new patterns, and sort of rhyme. There isn’t any word, though, there isn’t any finished, completed word in the whole rap.

Weidenbaum: It’s not poetry.

Tobin: Which is why it’s cool [laughs] when you’ve got the a cappella on the single.

Weidenbaum: In a way, with a lot of the high-speed, staccato rappers, I can’t understand what’s being said, anyhow.

Tobin: Well, there you go. I’ve always heard that hip-hop is all about style and not, necessarily, content, anyway, so I’m hoping I will get away with that.

Weidenbaum: Can you say something about the vocalist on the track, MC Decimal R?

Tobin: Decimal R is a secret MC who is, uh, under wraps.

Weidenbaum: I see.

Tobin: I won’t be saying more about him, but no doubt you’ll hear more.

Weidenbaum: One of the tracks that stood out is “Rosies” — it is so psychedelic. It veers in a different direction, but that first section is so psychedelic and lush.

Tobin: I was listening to a lot of psychedelic stuff when I was making this record and one of my first notions in making the album was, I want to make an electronic psychedelic album. I just didn’t have the discipline [laughs] to keep it going in one direction for long enough. But, yeah, I’m really pleased that you spot at least an element of it, because it was very present when I was making the music.

Weidenbaum: Have you heard the new Future Sound of London record, The Isness?

Tobin: No.

Weidenbaum: It’s way psychedelic — it’s got the Beatles, Pink Floyd-type stuff. It’s got horn sections and string sections.

Tobin: Well, I think there’s a lot of interesting possibilities there.

Weidenbaum: It’s valuable for electronic people to explore psychedelic music because that was the moment, in the ’60s, when pop music truly announced the use of the recording studio as a compositional tool.

Tobin: Sure. Different people have different ideas, as well, about what “psychedelic” means. Me, personally, having never done any psychedelics — well, marginal psychedelic drugs, really. I certainly haven’t explored it in depth. It has a different meaning to me. I have a kind of an image in my mind which is, I suppose, going back to that Indian thing; it is a once-removed kind of image of what it’s all about.

Weidenbaum: A simulacrum.

Tobin: Well, that’s a good word. I’ll try and remember that for my next interview. But, yeah, I have an image in my mind which is probably a real cliche about what psychedelic means, but that has a value — it’s my take on it, and it works in my context, in my musical context.

Weidenbaum: It’s interesting that you’re emphasizing the sense of distance you have from the music you’re sampling.

Tobin: I think that’s the thing about sampling. It’s criticized for being a superficial dip into things they don’t understand, stealing a bit of sitar, which is an extremely complex instrument, and using it in a completely superficial way, but I think there’s an argument as strong as that the other way: saying that it doesn’t make it without substance just because it’s your interpretation of something. It has meaning to where you are, where you live, and it’s still very much in the vein of the bricolage idea, that things make sense within your environment, and that it doesn’t mean any less just because the thing you’ve taken isn’t applied with the same use as for what it was intended for.

Weidenbaum: Certainly. I also think there’s an understanding on the part of a lot of people that if you play a traditional instrument, then you are somehow doing something original, but there’s so much copying involved when participating in a tradition.

Tobin: It’s all copying. Whole genres of music are only genres because there are recognizable elements.

Weidenbaum: Britpop for example.

Tobin: Yeah, exactly. Those recognizable elements make it something that’s copied and expanded on, and put a slant on here and there.

Weidenbaum: People may take to it because there are these familiar touchstones. Whereas with your music, so little of it is familiar. I might find it intoxicating, but others might find it off-putting.

Tobin: I can see that completely, but what can you do? You can’t make people have a wider view of things than they do. I think only time does that. As each new piece of technology comes, and becomes oversaturated in the media, etc., then people become used to it. Everyone’s listening to electric guitars with not too much trouble, and they were having lots of trouble with it when it first came out, so I suspect the same thing will happen with electronic music.

Weidenbaum: The new record ends with a soothing song, much like Permutations did.

Tobin: Right.

Weidenbaum: Is that a gift to the listener — a “thank you” for making it through?

Tobin: [Laughs].

Weidenbaum: — not to over-state the violence of the album.

Tobin: That’s a nice way of looking at it. I definitely think, for me, I like finishing on that note. It’s not something I’ve done all that consciously, to be honest. It’s just ended up that way, and like I say, each track comes as it comes, and I piece them together in a way it’s gonna work.

Weidenbaum: There’s elements to the way you structure things rhythmically I find fascinating. One track I came back to is that next to last one, “Proper Hoodidge.” It gets this rhythm going, and every once in a while you drop in the barest of little drum patterns, to sort of reestablish what you’re doing rhythmically.

Tobin: Sure, yeah.

Weidenbaum: I suppose I’m just comparing that track to, say, “Triple Science,” which is so dense and rich.

Tobin: Yeah. I suppose one thing I’ve been messing around with quite a bit now is mimicking the other sounds in the tracks with the drums, so that the bass line, for instance, in that track, in “Proper Hoodidge,” is made from components of the kick drum, so I’ve put it through harmonizers and made a little harmonized sound, which I’ve then made the bass line out of, so it fits with the pattern of the break. Then, when you play the break and the bass line that you’ve made out of the break, they snuggle in together.

Weidenbaum: That’s interesting. So, when I hear the drum on its own, I’ve actually heard it previously, but I just didn’t know I was hearing it.

Tobin: Yeah, exactly. And lots of the breaks, as well, I rerecorded but after being put through different processes, so essentially they’re the same breaks but they’ve been reprogrammed, so they’ll still have the same swing, but they’ll sound different — so if you can intersect the regular break with these little treated parts, often it will sound like lots of different breaks.

Weidenbaum: So much of what you’re involved in is more rhythmic than melodic. Part of what makes a melody work is that it establishes a root tone that it then returns to.

Tobin: Yeah.

Weidenbaum: And what’s great about those rhythmic breaks is you’re sort of doing that at a rhythmic level, taking the song back to the point where it started off, and then you extrapolate all over again.

Tobin: It’s definitely what I’m aiming for, anyway.

Weidenbaum: There’s a lot of music that was studio-oriented work that preceded proper popular electronic music — Glenn Gould, the Beatles, Prince. Do you see any of them as role models?

Tobin: I think probably, but different bands, like the Kinks, the Byrds, I suppose the Beach Boys — great pop songs and amazing short bursts of strong melody and some great arrangements as well.

Weidenbaum: Yet you have this idea of an optimal listening situation, like giving out headphones, as you said earlier.

Tobin: Yeah.

Weidenbaum: Do you have a sense of how you want your music listened to? The appropriate setting?

Tobin: I don’t think I could ever be that presumptuous. I think one of the nice things about it is it’s got uses in different contexts, so people can maybe listen to it doing whatever they do and it’ll make sense, you know, for that. I do joke about having a nice set of hearing apparatus, but I wouldn’t ever sort of resent someone listening to it mountain biking or something. It’s cool, I think, as long as they hear it and they like it.

Weidenbaum: One track I needed to ask about.

Tobin: Sure.

Weidenbaum: The first one, “Back from Space,” whether I’m wrong or not, it reminded me favorably of a song I used to love a long time ago, “Dance On” by Prince, off the Lovesexy album?

Tobin: Really?

Weidenbaum: Do you know that song?

Tobin: I do, I know it very well. It’s got that amazing break in it.

Weidenbaum: Yeah Sheila E playing the drums.

Tobin: [He sings the drum part.] It’s got an amazing beat. I’ve been trying to track that down on vinyl for quite a while.

Weidenbaum: On the CD version of Lovesexy, at least the printing I own, you have to fast forward because — and here’s true fascism — there’s only one track. Was there any of “Dance On” on “Back from Space”?

Tobin: God, no, not at all, but wow, I wouldn’t say if there was anyway, but it’s interesting you picked that out, because I’ve always fancied the drums on that track.

Weidenbaum: I think when you look for premonitions of ambient music, you can go back to Satie and Mahler, but when it comes to drum’n’bass, the influences, rhythmically, are largely more modern, and that song stands out.

Tobin: Oh, yeah, and you can go further back, to stuff Dave Brubeck did.

Weidenbaum: I’d asked you before, if Ninja Tune gave you health insurance. Has the company gotten to that level of corporate-ness?

Tobin: No, Ninja Tune doesn’t provide any sort of health insurance, though they are giving out earplugs at my shows, which is a gesture.

Weidenbaum: You’re one of the old timers at Ninja Tune at this point.

Tobin: Nah, I think the old timers are, like, Matt and Jonathan [the label’s founders]. I just came in a few year ago, but there are lots of people coming on the label since. I like the way it’s shaping up. I definitely like things like Cinematic [Orchestra]. They’re fantastic — representing the “live” side of the label, Antibalas as well.

Weidenbaum: It’s interesting that Ninja Tune is doing more “live” stuff, with traditional instrumentation. I was listening to Chris Bowden.

Tobin: Oh, yeah, I haven’t heard it, but I’ve heard it’s wicked. It’s really good that Ninja’s worked into some grown-up jazz, as well as all the tinkering that me and Funki [Porcini] do. It’s important, I think, for there to be a good range of stuff on the label, but I don’t know, I think they’re essentially very eclectic and very open-minded. They’re certainly never pushing me to be a certain way.

Weidenbaum: I always wonder, after that Photek record came out, with the [I’m about to refer to Photek’s 2000 album, Solaris, with a vocal by Robert Owens, but since Tobin interrupts me, I think he knows exactly the record I mean].

Tobin: Yeah, you’ve got to wonder, but he was signed to Virgin wasn’t he?

Weidenbaum: Yeah, or at least to Science.

Tobin: That’s the thing. Ninja’s still an independent label, in the true sense of the word, so they don’t have those kinds of pressures, from up on high, to have a particular sound.

Weidenbaum: They handle everything so well — the music, the packaging, the website.

Tobin: Well, yeah, it’s nerds, basically, in control, so you know it’s going to be a smooth ship.

The non-Q&A portion of this appeared, in slightly different form, in the November 2002 issue of Pulse! magazine.

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