Best CDs of 2002

  1. Out from Out Where Amon Tobin (Ninja Tune) The Brazilian-born, Montreal-based solo artist and longtime Ninja Tune Records roster member produces yet another solid, full-length album of thick, wide-ranging, experimental drum’n’bass, with an emphasis on exotic sound sources and touches of psychedelia.

  2. Three String Quartets Gavin Bryars (Black Box) Yes, string quartets, but ones written and performed with such an emphasis on stillness that they’re required listening for anyone interested in the ambient side of musical life. Performed by the Lyric Quartet.

  3. A Hundred Days Off Underworld (V2) The first album by the conceptual, multi-media-oriented UK techno-icians since reducing by one member (Darren Emerson) to become a duo. These are men fascinated by the dance floor, but who use it as a means to pursue a wide variety of music.

  4. Field Recordings 1995:2002 Fennesz (Touch) Fragile as they are visceral, Christian Fennesz’s compositions often sound like instrumental approximations of everyday noise filtered through a pop sensibility — what seems like distant traffic could just as easily be a guitar symphony, and what seems like a distant industrial hum is more likely a precisely constructed experiment in rhythm and sound.

  5. Whitney Biennial 2002 Various artists (Whitney Museum) The New York-based Whitney Museum’s vast 2002 Biennial exhibition included its most substantial variety of sound art yet, and this compilation CD (which is available as part of the exhibit’s book-length catalog, or separately) includes 13 exemplary works by Meredith Monk, Stephen Vitiello, Marina Rosenfeld, Richard Chartier, Christian Marclay and others.

  6. Playthroughs Keith Fullerton Whitman (Kranky) Also known as Hrvatski, Keith Fullerton Whitman has produced a full-length album of glistening electronic soundscapes built entirely from processed guitars, acoustic and electric. Much has been made of the music’s reminiscence of Terry Riley and Steve Reich, but another key precedent is the looping guitar work of Robert Fripp’s Frippertronics.

  7. Plays Ekkehard Ehlers (Staubgold) Five concept EPs (one each dedicated, nominally, to Cornelius Cardew, Hubert Fichte, John Cassavetes, Albert Ayler and Robert Johnson) collected on a single CD, each entry a blissed-out effluence of dubby, glitchy, atmospheric transcendence.

  8. Seed to Sun Boom Bip (Lex) Stylish to a fault, this is the sort of lightly funky background music we’ve come to expect from David Holmes and Tommy Guerrero. From strings to light scratching to found sounds to mechanized percussion, it’s downtempo at its best.

  9. Raw Digits Super Collider (Rise Robots Rise) Super Collider duo Cristian Vogel and Jamie Liddell bring understated r&b-style vocals to expertly produced minimalist electronica, with echoes of funk.

  10. Stoke Philip Jeck (Touch) Turntablism employed toward abstraction rather than percussion, texture rather than beats. Imagine Oval’s affection for the introspective quality of CD dysfunction, but applied to vinyl.

Footnotes: Clearly, the influence of electronics, and even a more general electronic aesthetic, is felt far more broadly than simply in music that could be described as ambient/electronic. Gavin Bryars’ string quartets are uniformly analog, but they aspire to a stillness that makes them required listening. Beyond this list of the 10 top recordings of 2002, one could easily include such other major 2002 releases as Bill Frisell‘s The Willies (Nonesuch), a trio record featuring his digitally manipulated guitar; Beth Orton‘s 21st-century folk album Daybreaker (Astralwerks); rapper Missy Elliott‘s Under Construction (Elektra), with masterful production by Timbaland; and even elements of Jon Brion‘s score to the film Punch-Drunk Love and Cliff Martinez‘s scores to the films Solaris and Narc.

Philip Glass’s Score to ‘The Hours’

How better to score a movie that takes place in three tangentially related time periods than with music that strives for timelessness? The hallmarks of Philip Glass’s minimalism serve The Hours well. The film, based on Michael Cunningham’s novel, tells the stories of three women — Virginia Woolf in the early 1920s, a housewife just after World War II, and a book editor in the present — whose days relate in different ways to Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway. Yet rather than construct a sonic montage of these three time periods (perhaps some Ravel for Woolf, some Max Steiner for the housewife, some Enya for the editor), Hours producer Scott Rudin turned to Glass, a contemporary-classical composer who has had a substantial side career in film, most notably with Koyaanisqatsi.

The familiar Glass sounds — the endlessly layered violins, the static melodies, the glacial rhythms — all lend a consistent aural foundation to a story that moves fluidly back and forth in time. The music is scored for orchestra, string quartet, and piano. Those plentiful strings lend a thick cushion, a triumph of tonal suspension, for the piano part, which Michael Riesman plays coolly, emphasizing what are often single notes separated by thoughtful silences, as well as short sets of scales cascading in slow motion. Not only will these compositional themes be familiar to fans of Glass’s work, so too will several of the melodies. Some sections of the score are derived from his albums Glassworks and Solo Piano and from his opera Satyagraha — which, incidentally, involved the stories of three legendary men active in different eras.

Psych Out

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

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.

What Is Is

Future Sound of London talks about revisiting Britpop's past for the psychedelic follow-up to Dead Cities.

Long a standard bearer for experimental electronic pop music, Future Sound of London returned in the summer of 2002 with its first album in seven years, The Isness (Hypnotic). The record is as steeped in rock’s rich analog psychedelic past as the band’s previous recordings have scouted out the hazy digital future. It’s as heady and philosophical as Dead Cities, the album’s distant predecessor, was harsh and fatalistic.

On the phone from London, the more verbal half of the FSOL duo, Garry Cobain, talked about the journey from millennial claustrophobia to open-ended cosmic consciousness. His take on contemporary electronic music is, at times, brutally frank; at one point he dismisses it as “quite cold, quite dark, quite miserable.” It’s informative to get his perspective — that of a digital provocateur who rediscovered analog, classic-rock sounds and techniques. Cobain and his FSOL partner, Brian Dougans, created an electronica milestone 10 long years ago with the single “Papua New Guinea,” and followed through on its promise with a handful of albums, notably ISDN and Dead Cities, that got darker and more richly layered with each passing technological upgrade.

The only way to fully appreciate the gap between Dead Cities and The Isness, other than hearing them back to back, is to imagine Philip Glass having followed up his minimalist opera Einstein on the Beach with a Romantic flute concerto, or Radiohead having followed its fragmented Kid A album not with the complementary sounds of Amnesiac but with a full-length record of anthemic U2 covers.

“I guess the starting point of the record was this realization that we weren’t turned on by cold, programmed electronica,” says Cobain.

Such is the shock that awaits FSOL fans who enter the world of The Isness unprepared for its caked layers of orchestration, its lengthy patches of folkie back-porch mysticism, its full-body nods to Indian raga. Put simply, the present sound of the Future Sound of London is, in fact, London’s past; the album is ripe with references to the Beatles, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones, not to mention the early electric-jazz work of Miles Davis, which prominently featured British guitarist John McLaughlin.

Guests on the new album include Mike Rowe, a latter day Britpop figure thanks to his work with Oasis; Captain Beefheart alumni Gary Lucas; and Max Richter, who has recorded contemporary classical work, but who was most widely heard on his orchestrations for In the Mode, the 2000 album from drum’n’bass act Roni Size and Reprazent.

Visit FSOL’s Internet home page and you’ll find several chapters of “ramblings” that document Cobain’s spiritual dissolution following the cyberpunk rigor of Dead Cities. As it turned out, the exhaustion was not simply spiritual. Cobain spent several years dealing with failing health, only to eventually track the problem back to his teeth. His fillings had been leaking mercury and decimating his immune system. (It’s helpful to hear the new album’s title as an antonym for “illness.”)

And so, in a roundabout manner best left for him to explain, below, Cobain found himself reveling in the studio ingenuity of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s at a moment when alt-country bands such as Wilco are experimenting with tape loops and sound effects.

As Cobain explains, The Isness documents his own search for a balance between “soul” and “technology” (a sign of his rebirth, he steps out from behind the mixing board and sings). And fond as he is of Isness‘ sloppy, “flawed” effluence, he’s excited about returning to his samplers. “I’m quite getting back into my machines,” he reports.


Marc Weidenbaum: I was just reading the journal you have on line at the Future Sound of London homepage.

Garry Cobain: The ramblings?

Weidenbaum: Yes, and I was having trouble getting to your last chapter, the fourth one.

Cobain: I haven’t written it yet. I’m very happy because everybody always comes back to me and tells me there’s a technical jam, but it’s just my lazy ass.

Weidenbaum: You can blame the computer for a few more months. I was wondering what it feels like to be in the midst of doing press for the new album following such a long absence from public life.

Cobain: It feels joyous. It’s nice speaking to people, it’s nice trying to explain the inexplicable. [Laughs]

Weidenbaum: It’s clear from the lyrics on the album that you’re enjoying reveling in a kind of meaninglessness.

Cobain: Yes. What I’m reveling in more is a meaningless significance. Everything means something to me, but I enjoy the idea, the child-like idea, of things that somehow have a deeper kind of resonance, but you don’t know quite why. It’s that kind of cutup technique where you jostle words ’round, and if they land in the right way, they convey something that’s almost like hinting at something. I think that’s why I’ve always been quite good at this, really. It’s the idea of how can we put sound and image together, to try and hint at the meaning of the universe, without knowing at all what the meaning of the universe is.

Weidenbaum: Words are like samples in that way. When you use them in the way you do, they have not just their defined meaning, but also this pure sound value, and possibly the associations for where you heard those sounds before.

Cobain: Yes, of course. That’s the great thing about sampling, isn’t it. There’s a whole history involved in the sound, and where it’s come from.

Weidenbaum: Your online journal makes it clear that you felt exhausted by Dead Cities and needed to move on.

Cobain: The reason why I couldn’t get further is those three chapters cover about the first week after Dead Cities. I realized it was gonna be one hell of a book [Laughs]

Weidenbaum: That was a week? So much happened: your trip to L.A., your failing health.

Cobain: It doesn’t cover very long. There’s been a lot happening in five years. It is a vast book, actually. It just depends how much time one spends writing about the past.

Weidenbaum: With having someone like Gary Lucas around, were you tempted to speak with him about his work with Captain Beefheart?

Cobain: I think the thing about Brian and myself is that we don’t place that much value on histories. If that person is alive now and has still a great charisma, then the fact they kind of did something in the past is an additional cool. We had Donovan and many great people coming into the studio over the last five years, and the reason why we hooked into these people is they’re very much alive now. Yeah, we like the association with Captain Beefheart, but I’ve never really owned any of his records, I don’t really dig that many of them. I think I have one, is it Trout Mask Replica? And I think I tried listening to it once and I couldn’t get beyond this. I’m not that proud of that association, though I do realize it’s quite a cool one. He’s just very alive [Gary Lucas], very present, and kind of a like soul.

Weidenbaum: I was wondering how he and Max Richter worked together, since they have a broad range of experience in classical and rock and other areas.

Cobain: Max didn’t every really work directly with Gary. Max’s work on pretty much most of the tracks were generated acoustically, apart from one, which is “[Her Tongue Is] Like a Jellyfish,” which has got a Max orchestration. We were just farming stuff over to him at his studio, but on a couple of tracks I went over there and laid down, like, rough versions on vocals and guitar parts and he would orchestrate them. And then we would layer that process up, but as the vision began to get more grandiose, we had this vision of the ultimate cosmic psychedelic one-man band — just because we could do it. We suddenly realized we didn’t really have any prison walls, and that we could just celebrate sound and we wanted — I think, because quite a lot of music has become quite scientific and quite mind-oriented, and even our music was quite mental, was quite intellectual, very weirdly structured and quite computerized, and I loved that. It was a very important part of this journey, but we suddenly wanted this freeform jamming orchestrated … just for the hell of it. People would say, You can’t use a 64-piece orchestra because it’s so expensive, and we’d say, Fuck it: I want to sing with an orchestra. The record company at the time would say to us, You can only use an orchestra if it’s gonna be a definite hit single. And we’d say, Number one, I’m not interested in a hit single, because it seems to me that everybody’s trying to get a hit single. I’m interested in trying to make one of those records that I go round to my friends’ houses and they’re all really proud of, you know? And those records wouldn’t be played on radio right now. Nobody would play [the Rolling Stones’] “2000 Light Years from Home” on the radio right now. but that’s such a great song. [The Beatles’] “Tomorrow Never Knows” would not be a single, but it’s so amazing, and generation after generation of people have found that track. And then you go deeper, Hariprasad Chaurasia — a flute raga [player] from India — that’s a single, because it revolutionizes my soul, and that’s what a single is to me. So, don’t tell me how and when I can use an orchestra, because I’m just trying to make great music, and I’ve got no appreciation of people putting these rules on me, and I’m just trying to make music that celebrates the potential of the human consciousness, if you like. That’s what I’ve always tried to do.

Weidenbaum: One big thing the album seems to celebrate is British-ness.

Cobain: That’s very good point in a way, because I guess the starting point of the record was this realization that we weren’t turned on by cold, programmed electronica — that’s not to say I won’t come back to that, because now that I’ve done this and I’m involved with this, I’m quite getting back into my machines, but that’s the way the ellipse of life works. At that point I was getting very bored with the very clever scientific program music, that in a way we were being lumped in with, and if you listen to any of my records, they’re always very organic. They’re not that computerized. Yes, they use technology, but they’re incredibly organic as well. And we got really disenfranchised with that thing. We kind of want to put a bit more of an organic, sprawling psychedelia in there, that had more female spirit, and a bit more soul, and a bit more joy. In a way, you know, it’s a very flawed album, but we wanted to celebrate the possibility, the fact there are no prison walls in this life. The illness I had at that point really made me open up to how much of a prison I was living in.

Weidenbaum: You’ve said that you found out after a long period of health struggles that you were suffering from poisoning from mercury fillings.

Cobain: It’s a bit of a con. They call them silver fillings, right? That’s just another way of making you ignorant about the fact that you have the second most toxic substance known to man sitting right in your mouth. The only reason they thought it was safe was because it was affordable, and they assumed that by taking urine samples that it didn’t come out of the body. Saying “silver” is a very good way of avoiding the truth. And I don’t have anything to gain by telling you this. I try and tell people about this. I think this album has become a metaphor for really ancient truths and ancient wisdoms and ancient processes, from tantra to balance to meditation to healthy eating. All of this stuff, I’ve tried to bring it through the album, as I’ve attempted to do that with myself, and to heal myself, I’ve seen all those issues that I’ve begun to address. It’s typical FSOL, really, because every time I undergo anything, I’m not separate from the world that’s spawning me, and every time I plumb into something, I see it happen on a mass-consciousness level in society. And when I travel around the world, I see it everywhere.

Weidenbaum: That holistic view is very much a part of what occurred in the ’60s with artists waking to Eastern traditions, folks like Brian Jones of the Stones, and George Harrison of the Beatles — which is very much the music you’re looking back to on The Isness.

Cobain: Very good point, yes.

Weidenbaum: The promotional material for your album included a list of 15 songs or albums that inspired The Isness, from Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” to the Kinks’ “See My Friends.” The Miles Davis album you mention in this list wasn’t one of his classic albums, but instead the remix record, Panthalassa, that Bill Laswell did.

Cobain: That is a genius record, because he has — what he has done on that is he’s given [back] the old spirit — and it’s a spirit I think we’re missing. That’s why at the moment designers, interior decorators, all these people are plumbing into a ’70s cosmic consciousness. Fashion is learning a lot from the ’70s right now, because we’re suddenly realizing that we don’t use color, we don’t use fabric, we don’t use ostentation in any form, because we’ve become quite fearful and we’ve become quite closed down, and we’ve begun to celebrate fear and misery in our lives.

Weidenbaum: The track on your record that has a particular feel from the Davis-Laswell record is “Yes My Brother.”

Cobain: What you’ve revealed in that is you don’t have the new edition of the album. That’s the old version. We changed it. [The record company] released that by mistake. There’s 2500 of those, so you have a rare copy.

Weidenbaum: So the song “Yes My Brother, with Philip Pinn and Herb Moons, is not on the final version of The Isness?

Cobain: That’s not on there. You have to get hold of the new one.

Weidenbaum: Please tell me that “Go Tell It to the Trees Egghead” is still on there, with its great backwoods spiritualism.

Cobain: Yes. Now, going back to your question about the British-ness [of the album], when we were annoyed about the electronic thing that was going on — quite cold, quite dark, quite miserable — all about science, all about technology, we began to — because we live in an area that has so many markets — we began to buy loads of cheap records with exotic covers, that sprung from, like, 1967 onwards. And it enabled us, for the first time, because of the cheapness of most of these records, at bric-a-brac stores, to research the past a little bit more. And after having done that for a while and plugging into all these people that had, as you said a few minutes ago, plugged into this cosmic consciousness of the ’60s and ’70s, we found Alice Coltrane and we found Donovan and we found elements of the Beatles and Kinks, and then we started going further afield into like Indian flute music and then Ry Cooder with V.M. Bhatt down by the river. There was an openness. There’s so many great — the element I really like about that Laswell Panthalassa thing was, he has the wide big spaces of modern production but he has the heart and the soul of that kind of openness, and that’s what we were tying to do, really. Suddenly the idea sprung in us, that what we’d like to do rather than be an electronic band making another weird record, which is always the way we’re perceived, why don’t we pretend we’re the Beatles doing Sgt. Pepper’s, or the Rolling Stones doing Their Satanic Majesties Request, and do a version of that with the way the studio is now, and the potential of what we’ve learned about healing and all that stuff now.

Weidenbaum: The records you were mention, the Satanic Majesties album and, of course, Sgt. Pepper’s, were among the first mainstream releases that used the recording studio as an instrument. Which is what you —-

Cobain: Yes, that’s your tie-in really.

Weidenbaum: That work is what the contemporary electronic-music world came out of. How did you record the new record?

Cobain: It’s been a bit of a mess, really: in a way, very technologically, but in a way very lo-fi. What I mean by that is, Brian had to completely re-jig the studio, and while I was traipsing around India he was getting into new software, getting into Mac-based design, and stuff like that, and revamping the whole studio really, but in that process we ended up, like the Beatles did probably, as some of these tracks unfolded, because they’re such big — I mean, “Galaxial Pharmaceutical” took about a year, and we ended up multi-tracking, recording down into two tracks, overdubbing, overdubbing, overdubbing, losing the originals. … Some of the versions could have been better, but we lost a lot of the constituent parts over the years. We moved studio. We lost discs.

Weidenbaum: Oy.

Cobain: It was a real mess. On the one hand, we were really pushing the technology, but on the other we were saying, To hell with it, it’s one big two-track —

Weidenbaum: With a huge hard drive attached. So, is this the new album the document of a learning process?

Cobain: Absolutely. That’s a very important point, too. It’s a very flawed record, but I think the vision of it is one that my heart will always support, and that’s why I can talk about it with such alacrity. It is flawed, but I learned to appreciate that maybe a bit more. I think the reason I can move on as an artist is because it is flawed. There’s so much that’s wrong with the record. I don’t think we have got the balance of soul to technology correct, which is actually what my rebalancing process was about. My attitude is, if you know who you are, and you know yourself, then technology is a very safe instrument. But in the wrong hands, technology is yet another part of the mass sedation. And I wanted my own sedation to end, and I began the journey to get that balance back. I never actually anticipated I’d be the singer on this record, but it was also part of the healing process. And I feel I have that balance more than I’ve ever had it, and now I’m actually getting back into technology again, and right now we are in a great position to make the record this could have been.