Amon Tobin is regarded as one of the most innovative and interesting artists working in the areas of jungle, drum‘n’ bass and electronic music. His sophisticated use and modification of jazz samples on early CDs such as Bricolage and Permutation made Tobin a success both on dance floors and in record stores. He is also proving to be one of those uncommon artists who refuse to get locked into any one style. “I go to great lengths not to use familiar formulas and arrangements,” he told Music Connection magazine.
His latest recording, Supermodified, serves as a confirmation of that statement. The album abandons many of the jazz elements of his earlier work in favor of a more ominous sound, born of experimentation with the unusual sources he uses to build his music; the roar of a motorbike’s engine, for example. Tobin insists that he is still drawn to the sounds of jazz, but the future direction of his music is uncertain.
Tobin was born on February 7, 1972, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He and his mother left the country when Tobin was only two years old; except for a short period a couple years later, that was the only time he lived in his native land. Over the course of his childhood and adolescence, he lived in Morocco, London, Amsterdam, and Portugal, before finally settling down in the English seaside town of Brighton in his twenties.
Tobin had no formal music education growing up. His first real immersion in music was as a teenage blues fanatic, listening to the acoustic blues of performers such as Sonny Terry and Lightnin’ Hopkins—music that seems unbelievably far removed from Tobin’s own recordings. As a young blues fan, he taught himself guitar and harmonica, and eventually began playing those instruments. He played alone as a street musician in Portugal and with friends in various blues bands. Eventually he realized, however, that as much as he loved the blues, his music was highly derivative. His life experiences were completely different from those of the old blues musicians whose playing impressed him so deeply.
His breakthrough into his own music came when he discovered a new instrument, the one he considered his real instrument which he would use to create all of his albums: the sampler. His sampler is the centerpiece in the home studio where Amon Tobin puts together his compelling soundscapes. It is a fairly simple set up: the sampler, a mixing board, a few effects and the turntable that provides the source music he builds into his compositions.
Tobin does not use any musical instruments in compiling his sound collages, only his sampler. “Certain kinds of music are inseparable from how you’re making it,” he told Paper magazine. “That feeling is one of the things that turned me on to sampling, because I was able to use the music that I loved and actually create
Born on February 7, 1972, in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.
Played guitar in various blues bands as a teenager; released first full-length album, Adventures in Foam, on Ninebar Records, 1996; signed with Ninja Tune label and released Bricolage, 1997; began touring as DJ, 1997-98; released Supermodified, 2000.
Addresses: Record company —Ninja Tune, P.O. Box 4296, London, England, SE11 4WW.
my own at the same time. So I was able to sample things like blues and not feel like a charlatan.” Once he enters his studio, Tobin is a fast worker. Typically, he says, he is able to complete an arrangement in just a couple of days.
Tobin’s first record was an EP entitled Curfew .It was followed by a series of other EPs and 12 inches all of which Tobin released under the pseudonym Cujo. His first full album, Adventures in Foam, also a Cujo release, came out in 1996 on Ninebar Records. His early work, helped along by collaborations with Funky Porcine and DJ Food, brought Tobin to the attention of the Ninja Tune label. He released Bricolage, his first CD for Ninja Tune, in 1997. Writing of the jazzy flavor of the record’s electronics, the Rough Guide to Drums & Bass compared the music to “stuffing Lionel Hampton, Art Blakey, and Mingus into a compression chamber.”
Tobin’s second Ninja Tune release, 1998’s Permutation, continued his rise to success. Permutation still had the strong jazz foundation of the earlier work, but accompanied by a dark feeling not present in previous records. Tobin’s popularity was growing. He played sold out shows at the Montreal Jazz Festival, the Coachella Festival, and the Knitting Factory in New York City. Permutation turned out to be the best-selling record of 1998 at Other Music, a leading store for alternative music in New York City, outselling artists like Bjork, Massive Attack, and Air. Critics loved him just as much as the record-buying public. “Tobin has the knack of taking wildly disparate samples and putting them together as though they were recorded together in the first place,” Motion wrote on its website. “Tobin’s rhythm programming … is easily among the most exciting happening in d&b right now…. ‘Sophisticated’ doesn’t begin to do it justice.”
After the release of Permutation, Tobin did some remixes for Tom Z and Chick Corea, and continued to tour. He released a controversial collaboration with English media satirist Chris Morris, the b-side of a 10 inch, which detailed, in the words of Mean magazine, “a mid-afternoon session of incomprehensible deviance.” The single “Bad Sex” grew out of a piece Morris and Tobin had agreed to do for a Warp Records compilation, which was eventually shelved. “Bad Sex” survived. It was a collaboration in which the two partners never once met; everything was done by mail. Tobin described what the two artists tried to do in Mean, stating, “The thing that we tried to do was make a track where it wasn’t just a tune with vocal snippets dropped in, but a tune made out of the vocals themselves, using different types of filters, just getting melodies out of phrases.”
Tobin’s early recordings revealed the wide range of his musical interests and influences. He used jazz harmonies, classical music references, and hip-hop rhythms to form a remarkably seamless web. In his early years with Ninja Tune, Tobin used his samples from the records he found in junk stores and second-hand shops directly, with scant modification. On Permutation, for example, the tune “Nightlife” utilized immediately recognizable passages from a recording of Ravel’s Bolero.Since then, on his latest recordings in particular, his source samples are far less obvious, making it onto his records only after he has modified them heavily and incorporated them into his complex collages of sound.
His latest Ninja Tune recording, Supermodified, released in 2000, saw changes in Tobin’s compositional style and process. First, he introduced new sound sources. Second, he modified them more heavily and blended sounds in combinations that were incongruous but which nonetheless worked well together. “It’s more centered around sound manipulation, the mor-phing of sounds,” Tobin told Anicee Gaddis of City-Search. “It’s really about twisting up the sounds and getting them to adopt maybe less traditional roles— having trumpets become guitars, and stuff like that.” To this end, he sampled various sounds, some musical, some not. Examples are tubas and motorbike engines. He then modified their sounds on the computer— perhaps one ought to say he supermodified them— until their origins were no longer recognizable. For instance, he would remove specific sound frequencies from a sample to obscured its origins, before he incorporated them into the mixes on his album.
Tobin changes more traditional musical samples the same way. “There’s a song that’s all Brazilian percussion but I cut it up like a hip-hop breakbeat,” he told Music Connection, “so you see, it’s no longer Brazilian —but that’s still what it is!” In this way, the form and content of the original samples can work on listeners on a subliminal level, a technique that increases their power. Interestingly the record, as Tobin first planned it, was meant to be a mellow listen. “It’s really quite dark,” Gaddis told Tobin. “Yeah, what can you do?” he replied.
With Supermodified, Tobin also began to move away from his earlier jazz influences. He realized he had to make the change when he started hearing the influence his music was having on other music and musicians. In October of 1999, as he was starting work on Supermodified, he did a show in France with a pair of performers. Before they went on, they described the major influence he his music had had on theirs. Tobin was flattered. Then they started to play. He was shocked to hear music that merely imitated and oversimplified what he was doing. It was “all very clear-cut,” Tobin told CJM New Music Monthly.“That worried me. I don’t want to become that predictable.”
After being signed by Ninja Tunes, the label began organizing tours for Tobin with the goal, naturally, of promoting the music on his records through personal appearances. Tobin freely admits, however, that he has no interest in creating a live sound on his CDs. Furthermore, no band playing conventional instruments could hope to reproduce the complex textures and mix of his samples. As Tobin explained to CJM New Music Monthly, “Ultimately what I want to do is make it more than live so the instruments are doing things that they wouldn’t be able to do in a band set-up.”
Ninja Tune sent Tobin out as a DJ, spinning his own records in various dance clubs. Tobin, though, had never DJed in his life. Suddenly he was in clubs filled with hundreds of dance-mad, highly-critical patrons. The experience was his baptism by fire. Dancers swarmed off the floor as he stood clueless in front of his DJ gear. “When I first went out, I was, like the floor clearer,” he told the Daily Nexus.“‘DJ No One Left.’” The nightmare slowly subsided as Tobin improved his skills, helped by the other more experienced DJs with whom he was touring. Despite the popularity of his music among dance floor patrons, Tobin sees the purpose of what he does as being ultimately much broader in scope. “I’m not so into doing stuff that’s geared towards a specific place like the dance floor,” he told Mean.“I think you limit yourself a lot [if you do that] cuz you think, ’Oh I can’t do that cuz that won’t work on the dance floor.’ There’s so much interesting stuff you can do with music!”
In his quest for new sounds in music, Tobin is even willing to sacrifice total control of the record. That, in fact, is one of the characteristics of samples that he finds particularly attractive. The sound is never completely under control, one sample bleeds into the next leaving perceptible traces. “Essentially what I want to produce are happy accidents,” he explained to Mean.“I want to produce good results from proper experimentation, from really trying things out that might not work. To make sounds work perfectly together, to really take people on an emotional journey with technical means.”
(As Cujo) Curfew, Ninebar Records, 1996.
Creatures, Ninja Tune, 1996.
Chomp Samba, Ninja Tune, 1997.
Mission/Tubukula Beach Resort, Ninja Tune, 1997.
Piranha Breaks, Ninja Tune, 1997.
Like Regular Chicakens (remixes), Ninja Tune, 1998.
Slowly/Bad Sex, Ninja Tune, 2000.
4 Ton Mantis, Ninja Tune, 2000.
(As Cujo) Adventures in Foam, Ninebar Records, 1996.
Bricolage, Ninja Tune, 1997.
Permutation, Ninja Tune, 1998.
Supermodified, Ninja Tune, 2000.
Mean, July/August 2000.
Music Connection (Hollywood, CA), July 31, 2000.
CJM New Music Monthly, (Great Neck, NY), June 2000.
Daily Nexus, (University of California at Santa Barbara), April 6,2000.
Paper, June 2000.
“Amon Tobin,” CitySearch, http://newyork.sidewalk.citysearch.com/E/G/NYCNY/0010/01/cs1.html (January 2001).
“Amon Tobin, Supermodified,” Motion, http://motion.state51.co.uk/reviews/619.html (March 9, 2001).
—Gerald E. Brennan
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