Considering what he’s already accomplished during his 16 years in the electronic-music game, it’s not like Amon Tobin had anything left to prove. That didn’t stop him from reinventing himself both as a recording artist and, more importantly, as a performer with his thrillingly ambitious latest release, ISAM.
Reached on the outskirts of San Francisco, where he has a home—and a home studio—in the woods, the Brazilian-born Tobin acknowledges that there’s been no shortage of buzz about the way he’s chosen to tour for the record. Working with a cutting-edge team of visual designers, the electronica veteran came up with a senses-overloading spectacle that he has described as “some weird adolescent fantasy of being in a spaceship”. Think giant white blocks and crosses serving as a backdrop for towering plumes of smoke, hyperspeed starscapes, and rapidly-shifting blueprints for future cities. Or, failing that, imagine being plunked into the computer from Tron while hopped to the eyeballs on the finest psychedelics money can buy. In the middle of it all is Tobin, orchestrating the visual bombardment from a neon-lit cube.
What’s most admirable about all this is that there was no real need for him to have done anything different. Tobin’s done quite well with straight DJ sets ever since late-’90s classics like Bricolage and Permutation established him as an electronic-music visionary. Somewhere along the line, though, he decided he was up for something more.
“The challenge has always been there, for myself and other people making electronic music, to present the music in a live setting that’s worth presenting,” Tobin says. “Electronic music is essentially studio-based, unless you are making dance music, which I’m not. And that’s why it was a particular challenge for me. With DJ sets, people don’t have to focus on you because they are dancing. With ISAM, you can’t really DJ the music.
“But the label was really excited about the album, and really backed it to where they wanted it to be really major in terms of a release. And I did too, because I really felt like it was a special moment and a special record. So I wanted it to be presented in a way that it deserved.”
The goal, then, was to give fans a full-on spectacle, something that Tobin appreciates the importance of. He might operate under the umbrella of electronica, but he’s clearly well-versed in other genres.
“I love watching good bands,” he says simply. “I saw Sleepytime Gorilla Museum—a band from San Francisco—recently, and it was such a great, awesome show. And the last time I saw Godspeed You! Black Emperor, I was just so blown away by it—it was incredible. I like seeing a band that makes you think ‘Yeah, I understand why I’m here tonight, instead of at home listening to the record.’ ”
Lost in all the hype of Tobin’s live extravaganza is the fact that ISAM is a pretty brilliant addition to his already stellar catalogue. The album, the 39-year-old’s seventh full-length, finds him continuing to move forward as a composer. Where Tobin’s initial releases were famously sample-based, ISAM has the producer constructing songs out of his own manipulated field recordings.
That’s not entirely new to him—2007’s Foley Room found him travelling the world for source material, recording everything from safari-park animals to swarming wasps to mechanical engines.
ISAM was a considerably more solitary affair, one where Tobin ensconced himself in his rural home and then began making recordings of everyday objects around the house, from light bulbs clinking together to vintage parlour-chair springs squeaking. Using a Haken Continuum—the official definition of this being “a series of sensors covered by a single basis of neoprene that responds to finger pressure in three dimensions”, he then turned these sounds into fully formed compositions.
Admittedly, all this sounds like the end result could be more unlistenable than a mashup built out of PiL’s Flowers of Romance, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, and everything ever recorded by the Shaggs. Instead, you get one of the year’s great albums, the fantastically detailed tracks working as often nightmarish but still undeniably gorgeous soundscapes. What might be most surprising of all is how fluid the dark-side-of-midnight tracks sound, this being a tribute to the painstaking way that they were assembled.
“I had to learn a lot—to really hit the books and dig deep for ways to move ahead with this record,” Tobin admits. “That took time—it took over two years to do the record because I was doing so much experimenting with things that I hadn’t tried before. The idea of synthesis is an old one, and the same with sound design and field recordings. Trying to combine all of those things into one album, effectively, was a challenge.
“I don’t just mean just having sound effects and some synth sounds—I’m talking building playable instruments that are synthesized from field recordings, and trying to make all of that into a genuine hybrid of sound design and music and performance. It took time to get my head around all of that.”
But what a beautiful job that Tobin has done; if the word on the web is any indication, his ISAM extravaganza is a frontrunner for live experience of the year. Consider the reinvention complete.
Amon Tobin plays the Vogue Theatre next Wednesday (September 28).