The artistry is all in what you do with the subject.
story by Patrick Sisson
Growing up in the mid-’80s in England, trip-hop producer Amon Tobin used to battle and breakdance on a shiny dance floor near his home, taking on crews from other “pissant little towns” to a soundtrack of electro tapes pouring out of an old ghetto-blaster. Now to clarify, that’s a Brazilian-born breakdancer (called Amon Santos de Araujo at birth) listening to Bronx hip-hop outside of London – the definition of culture clash.
Those different perspectives, in a nutshell, are why Tobin’s grown from a B-rate B-boy into the producer of so many sampling masterpieces. His latest albums, Supermodified and Out From Out Where, were composed with a certain kind of cut-n-paste calligraphy – a gorgeous, flowing style. He used to call his breakdancing home an “out of this world disco arcade,” but that term is better suited for his music, which artfully combines everything from jazz to jungle. As he sets out on the Ninja Tune “ZENtertainment Tour” with Kid Koala, Bonobo, Blockhead and Sixtoo, stopping at Metro this month, he’ll be sure to demonstrate his skills.
However, Tobin doesn’t seem like one to subscribe to notions of braggadocio. When he describes his parents’ move from Brazil to Britain, he just simply explains that he “didn’t have much of a say at the time.” He comes off as perpetually laid-back, like he’s just trying to take everything in and process it completely.
Music seriously entered his life when he was in college studying photography. Though music wasn’t something he was academically pursuing, he was still developing his style and his unique viewpoint.
“I sort of had similar ideas when it comes to photos and music,” Tobin tells Chicago Innerview. “With photography, I would take little snippets here and there, parts of mundane photos, and take things out of context and put them together. It’s like taking a raging drum solo and removing a few hits. The artistry is all in what you do with the subject.”
However, as college went on, he made fewer and fewer trips to the darkroom. As he began to take weekend journeys into London and play more and more frequently, he realized that his studies were starting to suffer. At the same time, another musician called Ninebar offered him a chance to put out a record. Tobin soon released an EP, which got “good but not crazy good” reviews. It was then time to make a decision.
“I tried to ask the photography professor if I could take a year off, to pursue music,” Tobin says, “but he said I was either in or out. It wasn’t an easy decision at the time, but I did what I wanted.”
Soon after leaving school, Tobin began falling in with the Ninja Tune crowd, releasing a steady stream of EPs and albums like the early Bricolage, filled with chopped-up breaks and dark bass beats. This style, evident on tracks like “Get Your Snack On,” a meandering, dark nightmare of precisely-placed jazz cuts, is a logical extension of Tobin’s sampling habits.
“A lot of the stuff I sample isn’t from artists I love,” says Tobin. “It’s just little individual noises. I mean, I have the most horrific record collection, but I just take a few little sounds from each album and play with them.”
His taste, however, is much more refined. Most of these sounds and songs come from Tobin’s deep love of jazz, especially drummers like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. When Tobin first started recording, his incorporation of hyper-caffinated jazz samples seemed like second-nature. Being groundbreaking was just a bonus.
“When I started out, I sampled so much jazz,” says Tobin. “There was such a novelty in taking a walking bassline and flipping it around or something. But that was 10 years ago.”
In an effort to keep himself interested and continue developing, Tobin has begun to move away from jazz. His last proper album, 2002’s Out From Out Where, was as far removed from jazz as he’s ever gotten, bulging with more dense orchestration and varied sounds. “Verbal,” the album’s most well known track, is a perfect example: revving flamenco guitar and mile-a-minute vocal snippets make way for grinding bass and ethereal female vocals. And now, as soon as this tour ends, Tobin will gear up to produce a worthy follow-up.
“I’m going in lots of different directions, trying to create a different style altogether,” says Tobin. “I feel so much more excited about this album than I have in awhile. Software is getting so much better these days, it’s a good time to do what I’m doing.”
Of course, Tobin won’t be going just anywhere to record. Currently spending most of his time in Montreal, he’ll return to that city when he starts combing his collection or samples. It’s been a “real trip” for him experiencing a new culture.
After his search and sample mentality gets through with Montreal, who knows what he’ll record next?
Amon Tobin will headline the “ZENtertainment Tour” with Kid Koala, Bonobo, Blockhead and Sixtoo at Metro March 21.