Evolution & Permutation

For his second full-length album under his own name, in 1998, Amon Tobin put the breaks on his unique Brazilian brand of drum'n'bass, if only for a moment.

“Switch” doesn’t. “Switch” is the title of a track off Permutation, the second album of original drum’n’bass material for Ninja Tune Records by Amon Tobin; his first was titled Bricolage. Like all of Tobin’s music, “Switch” is built entirely from samples, and this song maintains essentially the same root sample for its entire four-minute length — a tidy piano loop of the sort of hot jazz that might back a Betty Boop cartoon or the credits to a Woody Allen movie.

Certainly, Tobin moves through variations on his purloined theme: dropping the bass out, pumping it up, potting down the piano, all along contorting the accompanying woodwind through various states of shimmer and submersion. That economy of means evidences true restraint from the man who jokes about how his work frequently launches into “mad tangents.”

“It was called ‘Switch’ before I decided not to switch,” says Tobin, in New York briefly to promote the record’s release. “The initial track, which was about nine minutes long, developed into a whole other tune, and I decided to just keep it how it was.”

Not that Tobin is suddenly afraid of change. Quite the contrary. Permutation marks a major switch in his modus operandi. Born in Brazil but long a resident of England, Tobin made a name for himself by adopting regional Brazilian sounds for drum’n’bass. (Two names, actually. He also recorded a previous full-length album under the Cujo moniker.) That work reached its climax with his Piranha Breaks EP, released last year on the Ninja Tune label; the EP took the spitfire percussion of Latin drum ensembles through the rigorous paces of experimental drum’n’bass. The results were uncanny, as Tobin drew unforeseen analogies between traditional music and the stuff of of-the-moment British night clubs.

“I just didn’t want to become a parody of myself, just making ‘Brazilian drum’n’bass’ as a matter of course,” he says of the change. This time out, on Permutation, he’s mining jazz for sample fodder, and the results are stimulating throughout. “Bridge,” for example, opens with a smattering of a drum solo; the addition of a tight bass line allows the track to expand and accommodate a wide variety of electric guitar samples. Echoes of Miles Davis’ late-’60s work with John McLaughlin, not to mention Bill Laswell’s remix album of electric-era Davis material, are inevitable. Elsewhere on Permutation, Tobin tackles soulful funk (“Sordid”), string orchestrations (“People Like Frank”), and the avant-garde (“Escape”).

The presence of masterfully reshaped horn and flute samples notwithstanding, Tobin remains fascinated primarily with the raw stuff of drum’n’bass: percussion. The album is thick with zooted-up snare patterns, lush cymbal play, and eerily plodding bass-drum loops.

“I’m really interested in how rhythms work in jazz — a more freeform rhythmical pattern, rather than a straight one that just overlaps and keeps going,” he says.

Asked if the freeform nature of jazz playing proves difficult to aspire to on a computer, Tobin replies: “Only if you’re talking about improvisation. It’s a contrived sort of music when you’re working on a computer, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a fluid creative process. You can really go off in different tangents while you’re working and end up with something very free.”

Hence the aborted edit of “Switch,” and hence the thrill he got from constructing Permutation from scratch. His love of the process of constructing drum’n’bass on his home computer is most evident when he describes the means of production.

“I might have 16 different percussion parts: kick, high hat, shuffles, all sorts of different things,” he says. “And you make a brand new break out of that.” (A break is a signature percussion sample, the electronica equivalent of a riff.)

“You get a kick from one [source], a snare from another, and you make a whole percussion arrangement out of that — but the way you program it is what counts, when the snare hits, when the kick hits. That’s what gives it the feel.”

Newcomers to Tobin’s music shouldn’t be concerned about getting an uncharacteristic perception of his work from Permutation. Minor Brazilian touches appear on a number of tracks on the album, and the closing track, appropriately titled “Nova,” is pure Brazilian drum’n’bass, awash with a watery marimba line, romantic saxophone, and a lightly strummed bossa nova beat, all atop a peculiar rhythm pattern. Tobin agrees that the inclusion of “Nova” serves as something akin to dessert, following 11 tracks of often complex jazz compositions. “I think that’s spot on,” he says.

As the interview comes to a close, Tobin says that business has kept him from making much of his brief stay in New York.

“If I can get out,” he says, “I’m hoping to buy some records.”

What follows is the transcript of a phone conversation, in June of 1998, from which the preceding profile was drawn:

Marc Weidenbaum: You use the word “permutation” for the title of your album. It’s an interesting word to use.

Amon Tobin: It’s really about the idea that music in general kind of evolves, you know? It doesn’t just appear. Drum’n’bass didn’t just appear. If you look at it, it’s made up from jazz, made from funk, made from all these different kinds of music that existed in the past. And because my music is completely made from samples I try and explore the idea that it’s all part of something else. It’s all made from things that have existed before; this is a different permutation of something that existed in another way before.

Weidenbaum: It’s also an aspect of something bigger —

Tobin: It’s part of a general sound, your interpretation of whatever you’re doing.

Weidenbaum: If you were getting younger friends into drum’n’bass, what would you surprise them by suggesting it’s part of.

Tobin: The source material — if you’re using the same kind of breaks and the same sounds everyone’s using, you’re going to come up with similar sounds yourself. There’s a lot to be said for experimenting with different kinds of percussion to start with. It’s not just funk breaks that are out there. Some of the best percussion is from places like Latin America, and from jazz. I’m really interested in how rhythms work in jazz, a more freeform rhythmical pattern, rather than a straight groove that just overlaps and keeps going.

Weidenbaum: Is that “freeform” thing difficult to aspire to on a computer?

Tobin: Only if you’re talking about improvisation. It’s a contrived sort of music when you’re working on a computer, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a fluid, creative process; you can really go off in different tangents while you’re working and end up with something very free. You just have to be flexible and not too controlling about yourself.

Weidenbaum: There’s an absence, on Permutation, of the Brazilian sounds on with which you’ve become strongly associated.

Tobin: Sure.

Weidenbaum: All except for the last cut. Was it tough to drop that aspect of your music?

Tobin: It hasn’t really been dropped. I just didn’t want to become a parody of myself, just making “Brazilian drum’n’bass” as a matter of course. Thing is, just before the album I did the Piranha Breaks thing, which is entirely Latin percussion, so I wanted to make a point of not doing that on this album.

Weidenbaum: There’s a graphic coherence between your albums and 12″s.

Tobin: It’s something I hope happens; it’s something you aim for, but it isn’t always going to work.

Weidenbaum: I wasn’t sure how programmatic or intentional it was.

Tobin: You can be sure it’s pretty much intentional, but not everyone sees it that way.

Weidenbaum: Track seven, “Switch,” stands out.

Tobin: That was one of the ones that just mushrooms. It started off as a sound and ended up as a tune. Just like that. I really enjoyed making that particular one.

Weidenbaum: Which sound was the root?

Tobin: I had a whole electric piano solo and I took a few notes, incidental notes, out of the whole solo, which was quite an ongoing thing and made this little groove. I was thinking about different ways of using that. If you listen to it, there’s a bass behind the electric piano, and I filter out the electric piano and just have the bass, then I filter out the bass and just have the electric piano, there’s lots of different things that have been done with that sound. The initial track, which was about nine minutes long, developed into a whole other tune, and I decided to just keep it how it was.

Weidenbaum: You truncated it at some point?

Tobin: Exactly. It was just a mad one, it went off on a mad tangent, which usually I’m happy with, but I didn’t want every track on the album to go that way

Weidenbaum: There was something about the name “Switch,” since the song actually carries on the same way throughout, so I kept wondering when it was going to change.

Tobin: It was called “Switch” before I decided to not switch.

Weidenbaum: Refreshing presence of more traditional drum’n’bass rhythms — were you hesitant about employing more familiar sounds and patterns?

Tobin: The programming might well be drum’n’bass programming, but the actual breaks that are being used have never been used before. “Reanimator” is completely made of jazz percussion — there’s no breaks you’re going to find on other drum’n’bass records. I might have 16 different percussion parts — kick, hat, shuffles, all sorts of different things, and you make a brand new break out of that. Four different records, and you get a kick from one, a snare from another, and you make a whole percussion arrangement out of that — but the way you program it is what counts, when the snare hits, when the kick hits, that’s what gives it the feel.

Weidenbaum: You’re on the road now?

Tobin: Just a week of press here in America and in Canada. Just finished a European tour. I’m a bit knackered.

Weidenbaum: Does being on the road cut into your ability to make music?

Tobin: I’m seriously considering buying a little laptop the next tour I do, and maybe one of those portable record players too, maybe just doing some stuff on the road, that’d be wicked. I haven’t had the chance to do that yet, haven’t been able to afford a big enough laptop, a powerful enough machine to be able to run Cubase, whatever. In the future I’m going to do that, make tunes on tour.

Weidenbaum: What do you do when you get a musical urge and you don’t have your equipment around?

Tobin: I’m fucked, really, you know. No, really. It’s really like that. I get really frustrated on tour, especially ’cause you’re buying records, and you get little snippets of things, you have whole ideas of tunes and you have to wait until you get back into the studio.

Weidenbaum: You don’t carry a tape recorder.

Tobin: No, I don’t, you know. There isn’t really much time on tour, either you doing the gig, or you’re doing press. It’s kind of unrealistic.

Weidenbaum: David Holmes did a whole album, Lets Get Killed, of field recordings he made when living in New York. Do you recognize the city as a result of the music he did?

Tobin: I wasn’t aware that it was made from samples form New York

Weidenbaum: Yeah, all the samples are street people from Manhattan.

Tobin: I’ll have to listen to the record more carefully and not think about that.

Weidenbaum: I was thinking about the last track — it’s sort of like dessert …

Tobin: [laughs]

Weidenbaum: Was that a conscious thing?

Tobin: Yeah, absolutely. I didn’t want to have this big progression on the album and end up with a huge explosion at the end, just a normal crescendo thing going on. It was kind of a story to have a dessert aspect as the end, as you put it. I think that’s spot on.

Weidenbaum: What do you think of drum’n’bass becoming a full-length album thing. There was a point when hip-hop became album-length, around time of Run-D.M.C.

Tobin: It can. I mean, more often than not it’s supposed to be and it really isn’t, there’s very little content on a lot of drum’n’bass albums, especially nowadays it’s become very one-dimensional, the same rhythm pattern, this whole two-step thing that’s going on, but certainly a lot of it can work on many different levels, because it’s a flexible kind of music, if you allow it to be that way. There are many different areas you can dip into and there are many different directions it can go into, which makes it worth having an album worth of that music. But there’s lots of shit round as well.

Weidenbaum: Do you listen to albums?

Tobin: No, I just listen to tunes. Sometimes it’s definitely an album, it couldn’t work in a different way, like a lot of the sort of — i can’t think of his name …

Weidenbaum: Photek’s an interesting example. His last album was more a collection of singles —

Tobin: I can’t say. I really like Photek. My personal view is, you can take it that way if you want to make it an album with a whole concept, and you want to try and make a thing that works as a unit; you have to start with that idea to begin with. Personally, I work from tune to tune, and it’s more of an afterthought, the order of the tracks; it’s not really what it’s about for me. I think it really can work like that. It would be something really nice to do, if you have nine tracks of an album, or fewer, a thing that works all together.

Weidenbaum: The compilations that Ninja Tune puts out are some of the label’s best material. Do you compose specifically for those?

Tobin: They just picked a couple of tunes I had that hadn’t been released. I didn’t make the tunes especially for the album. It was actually stuff that was coming out on my album.

Weidenbaum: The Nine Bar record features you collaborating with Funki Porcini. Are you doing more collaborations?

Tobin: Haven’t had the chance. Since I finished the album, I’ve been touring, DJing. I haven’t been in the studio except to do remixes. It’s something I’d like to do very much, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day. So, I’m focusing on producing some tunes and getting out. It’s not something I’m looking at at the moment, since I’ve done so many in the past, especially with the Nine Bar album.

Weidenbaum: What’s your set up for DJing?

Tobin: I’m sort of plugging the record right now, and mixing it up with things that other people have done, just generally having a good time.

Weidenbaum: So, a mixer and two turntables?

Tobin: Yeah, just DJing, playing it straight. On the last tour we went off with Hex [aka Hexstatic, the VJs Stuart Warren Hill and Robin Brunson] and there was a big visual aspect, but when I play out for a one-off gig, I just take a load of records and play.

Weidenbaum: If you find a record you like, do you buy several copies — one personal, one professional?

Tobin: I should do that but I haven’t really been very disciplined. I’m not really a collector, you know. I usually either buy records with a view to sampling or to playing out, not really both.

Weidenbaum: Are you taking advantage of being in New York?

Tobin: No, if I can get out I get out. I’m hoping to buy some records

Weidenbaum: When Americans interview you they may feel they’re still in the colonies, musicially speaking. Have you heard any good American drum’n’bass lately?

Tobin: There was some wicked stuff the end of last year. I haven’t hard anything lately, but that could just be because I haven’t heard it, not that it isn’t being produced. I heard some stuff on white label, damned if I knew what it was.

Weidenbaum: And how about any drum’n’bass originating in your native Brazil?

Tobin: I’d be an oddity if I moved back, and not just because of the music. Though according to a friend, there’s been a massive explosion of drum’n’bass.

Weidenbaum: The director of this recent film Modulations is from Sao Paolo.

Tobin: I haven’t been there in a long time. I am not in touch with what’s going on in brazil. Goldie and Grooverider went over there last year — I know that’s quite a mainstream introduction, but it left a good impression.

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