Thursday, April 26, 2007

Amon Tobin

Amon Tobin's new album Foley Room is named after the recording studios that film companies use to record sound effects. Tobin has always been a sound sculptor of the finest order, but most of this album eschews his vinyl-based sampling approach and is instead composed from sounds Tobin gathered on field expeditions (lions, tigers, and wasps, oh my!) as well as asking his Montreal neighbours to attack their instruments with various metallic objects (swords, chains).

That's the hook to get people talking, anyway. But when I sat down and listened to Foley Room before reading the liner notes, I immediately fell in love with not only Tobin's world of sound, but his compositional sense and ability to create visual narratives out of sparse melodies and harsh textures. To these ears, it's head and shoulders above anything else he's ever done: I liked previous albums fine, but nothing hit me like a brick as this one does.

Plus, he uses my favourite Montreal drummer: Stef Schneider of Bell Orchestre, a wonderfully charming man who is dangerously talented and should be far more visible than he is. Hire this man now! (update: thanks to this great article by Sarah Liss at Now I found out that Schneider is playing with equally beautiful people Pietro Amato (Torngat) and Jessie Stein (SS Cardiacs) as The Luyas this Sunday at Wavelength.)

For my original review of this CD (written for a lay audience), go here. For my article in this week's Eye Weekly, drawn from today's transcript, go here.

Mostly I was fascinated by Tobin's shift in direction here because I've never fully understood why the DJ Shadows of the world spend what--to me--seems like hours scouring for records and then isolating the sounds they want, when they could just hire someone for a few hours, get them to play exactly what they want, and then dissect that all they like. The effort put into obscuring the original sound source (something I wish Shadow had done a bit more, after I finally heard the David Axelrod albums he plundered from) seems more labour intensive then just going out and getting the real thing.

Either way, I'm glad Tobin did, and I'm convinced it has something to do with why Foley Room towers over his other albums. Even though he disagrees.

Finally, comparisons to Matmos are obvious, but there is always something with Matmos that feels like work: like I have to know what narrative they're trying to create before I hear it; like I have to know what components went into it to appreciate it; like it's all an academic exercise. That's less true of last year's The Rose Has Teeth..., but I always feel like I should like them because: a) they're really smart and funny guys; b) they've been right-hand men to Bjork and c) did I mention they're really smart and funny guys?

With Tobin, even though we have mutual friends, I don't feel any obligation to like his music for any reason other than that Foley Room is totally enrapturing.

That said, having seen a DJ set of his before, I'm not convinced that tomorrow's show at the Opera House will be the bee's knees--7.1 surround sound notwithstanding (explained at the end of the interview)--but I'm still curious to see what happens.

Amon Tobin
April 10, 2007
Locale: phone interview, having just checked into his London hotel

As someone who previously only used elements sampled from vinyl records—why have you waited this long to bring in other elements?
I think there’s still a lot to be explored with vinyl samples. It wasn’t a compromise to use samples from vinyl. It wasn’t like I couldn’t get a hold of microphones.
It was really because when you sample something that was in a different musical context before, and you adapt that and change it into a new piece of music, there is an energy—I believe, anyway—that you keep from where the sound came from. When it’s put unnaturally into an arrangement with lots of other things pulling in different directions, there’s a dynamic that happens there.
It’s a lot to do with the fact that you’re taking someone’s finest hour, on say a set of drums, and you’re taking a few seconds of that momentum and then extending it. The way you program the rhythm to extend it, the energy of that tiny little second is stretched out as far as you like.

But how do you compare that with using the people you work with on this record, bringing people in for a day or a couple of days?
I go from one extreme to another. It’s the same with digital or analog. I always wondered which way I should go, and it turns out that a bit of both is the best for me and my experience.
I was quite militant about only using vinyl and only using samples. But it’s important not to get too trapped in your own ideas of what you should be doing. To be honest, it’s not so much about source material, because I’m pretty sure you could find anything I recorded on vinyl somewhere. People have recorded lions and tigers before, trains and robots and all that.
The bonus for me personally was that I was able to learn a lot more about the music making process and about recording from that startpoint. It was much more to do with a personal education, really, on making and recording music.

Do you feel like you have more control when it’s you pointing the microphone at the animals or the musicians? As opposed to trying to find a piece of vinyl that suits the thing you have in mind, you can just go out and do it. Does this approach have more immediacy?
To some extent. You win and you lose. There are things that you find by chance on vinyl that you never imagined, and vice versa when you go out with mics. A lot of emphasis is put on the origins of sound in sample-based music, and I really think it’s important, but it’s even more important what you do with these sounds: how they’re put together, manipulated and arranged. If you think about it, lots of people have said that I have a particular sound, which is odd when you consider that all my material comes from other places.

Not recognizably, though.
No, because I think my job, my creative output, is how it’s all put together. I think the sounds could come from vinyl, from musicians, from field recordings, but the reason I did it this way was for selfish reasons. I just wanted to learn about it. It’s not because I think it’s a better or more effective technique. I still go back to records for inspiration and sample material.

Does vinyl play any role on this album?
Definitely. There are vinyl samples in there too.

Considering everything you just said, for me as a listener—as someone for whom this process is very alien—there’s something very tactile to this album compared to your other works. There is something that sounds more hands-on. I purposely didn’t read the liner notes or watch the DVD before I heard the record; I just wanted to absorb it. And for whatever intangible reason, it really struck me right away.
That’s great. There are a few things that have played into that, as well as the sound sources. I think I’ve learned a lot more about production in the last couple of years. I know a lot more about engineering. I still have a lot more to learn, but I have had a certain amount of progress. I was able as well to plan ahead a bit more, as far as getting different elements and textures from different places with a view of putting them together. Rather than wrestling with extracting the things you don’t want from a vinyl sample, which is what I’d normally be doing.
Also, you can’t take away the fact that the musicians who were involved were very proficient and couldn’t help but add their musicality and their talent to the process. The record benefits a lot from that, and you have to give credit to people like Patrick Watson and Kronos Quartet and Sarah Page and Norsola from Godspeed and all these people. Even though I was trying very hard to get them to work objectively and do very simple things, they were all so overqualified for the role I was giving them, that they couldn’t help but put something extra in there. That probably comes across in the record.

From checking the liner notes, however, you take all the compositional credit. Did all the melodic ideas come from you, were you directing them the entire time?
Mainly what I was trying to get them to do was unusual things with their instruments, in ways they weren’t used to using them. So we got the Kronos Quartet to all play the same violin at once, all four of them. We got them to do improvisation, which they never do. They’re all classically trained, and improvisation isn’t something they’re into. Norsola was playing her cello with a sword at one point.
The idea was to get source material that was pretty basic. I got drones mostly from the Kronos Quartet. Patrick Watson gave me little piano melodies that I then cut up and re-arranged, and even mixed them with some vinyl piano to make different melodies from. It was all treating everything in the same way: a rock falling, a musician, a vinyl sample. All these were treated as an objective source, and then applying the arrangements and the creation of the music afterwards.
It’s also the reason I worked so much in a foley room with Vid Cousins, who was really a technical hand in the recording of this project. Because I don’t know anything about microphones! Vid was really the man who pointed me in the direction of these particular mics, for example. The idea was to give myself as much flexibility as possible after the recordings were made.
Everything was recorded in a very dead space, and I could then either place that sound in a cathedral or a small chamber if I wanted to. It left a lot of room. The same with the musicians. I tried to get them to do things that I could then manipulate and form melodies and make songs from.
Having said that, I did at times ask them to play specific melodies. Sarah Page, who played the harp, I asked her to play a melody that appeared on a record. That happened every now and again, but I felt that was a compromise on my part. I really wanted to think about the tunes after I had all the sounds.

How long was the time divided: how long recording versus treating everything later?
We spent about four months on the road recording everything we could. About a month or so just archiving the sounds. We did it all on tape, so that gave another element. There’s creativity with tape: you can manipulate it as it’s going into the computer, so there’s a bit of that going on as well. Then I put everything into different sections and could work with it. Then it was processing, and then it was the arrangements. I think I started that in January and it went to October.

Now, was that more intense than previous records?
Yeah, because it was all done in different stages. It wasn’t harder, but it was more time consuming. And it was really good fun, to be honest. I don’t think I’ve had that much fun making an album before.

It sounds like an inherently more social process than anything you’ve done before.
It really was. I made new friends. I got out of the house (laughs) and had some road trips.

Other than Kronos in San Francisco, how much of it was made outside of Montreal?
Not much. I used some drums from a session in Seattle with Michael Shrieve [sp?] and Kevin Sawka. We were trying to get to Texas to record the bats under the bridge in Austin. Also Terry Bozzio lives down there as well, and I was hoping to record some of his drums, because he’s obviously pretty wicked. But we did what was practical in the time frame we had. A lot of it was done in Montreal, in my flat.

Did you turn it into a dead space?
No, that was Ubisoft, actually [the Montreal gaming company that commissioned him to do the soundtrack for Splinter Cell]. They let me go in there after hours into their foley room to do the really clinical recording. The harp and some of the guitars and Patrick [Watson]’s stuff were recorded in my flat. There were a few things at McGill University as well.

The wasps?
That’s right, much to the dismay of John, who was having to cope with us coming in with various insects into his clean laboratory.

What did you learn from working with [drummer] Stef Schneider [of Bell Orchestre]?
He was perfect for this, because he’s like a foley drummer. He was playing drums with all kinds of different paraphernalia, and contributed an incredible amount to the record. He turned up with vats of water and various percussion we could dip into the water. He was throwing lentils and chick peas over skins of drums and playing with egg whisks, and having a blast, really.

Did most of that come from him?
Definitely. A whole ton of toys. He just rocked out. There were a whole bunch of things that we just tried, and then made some choices with the material that was there.

What was the most ridiculous thing you wanted to try?
The wasps were pretty silly. There was no need for that, really! We did some things that sounded like they would be great, but turned out to be pretty bad. We didn’t get much from that radar. It seemed cool, but I didn’t get the sounds I thought I would. That happens all the time, which is part of the process: trial and error. I have meters and meters of tape that weren’t used. Which I’m sure I could still go through and find new things.

How did you coax some of the animal sounds, or were you waiting around a lot?
There was an awful lot of waiting around. Animals aren’t always the most co-operative things. They have their own agenda. You turn up and hope they do something. There was a certain amount of coaxing, but we either got lucky or we didn’t.

Who’s playing the Hammond?
Actually, I played some of that. Oh shit, I wasn’t actually going to admit that. You caught me—I’m tired! But there are bits of Hammond from records as well. I wanted to make sure that when I did the liner notes I left things as ambiguous as possible. I didn’t want people to get all trainspotty about it. A lot of the musicians are actually confused about which parts they played, because the idea was to look at all these things as objective sources.

Does anyone come to you and say, “Where the hell am I? I thought I played on your record!”
(laughs) I was a bit worried about that, actually. I didn’t use everything I recorded, obviously, and I’m sure there are people credited that wouldn’t recognize their sounds at all. Partially because a lot of it was manipulated beyond recognition anyway, or mixed with other sounds. A lot of the sounds recorded were done with a view to mixing them with another sound to make something new. Particularly for brass stuff and some of the engines and robots and stuff. The recordings were made with a view to changing them in the first place.

I do love the wasp/guitar/motorbike combination. Did you learn more about instruments themselves, or trying your own hand at keyboards, percussion or strings?
Not really. I had such a wealth of talent around, I didn’t feel the need to jump in at any stage. I have my limits. I also appreciate the fact that people have a different outlook to give, and it’s best to give people room to breathe. I tried not to direct people too much. Maybe I’d have one or two ideas I really wanted to get across, but I spent a lot of time saying, ‘Here are some chains. Mess around with them on your instrument and see what happens.’

In my research, I found one quote of yours where you said that using session musicians would be settling for second best, compared to what you could plunder from existing vinyl. Has that impression changed?
Well, not really. I really think that if I’d gone in with a song, and said to people, ‘Let’s play this song. You do that beat, you do that bass line, and off we go.’ I don’t know if that would be as effective as trying to find these things on little slivers of vinyl. For me personally—please understand that I’m only talking about my own way of working, this doesn’t apply to everyone at all—I work most effectively like that.
The approach here with musicians was just to get basic source material. It was very different from getting a session player in to play a bass line. It was more like, ‘Go crazy on the drums, play whatever rhythm you want, because all I want is the sound and the tone of the drums and the different textures that I can then cut up and re-arrange later.’ Stef Schneider is an amazing drummer, but god knows what he thought when he heard the album, because the patterns are completely different. It’s all been cut into little pieces and re-ordered.

Compositionally, I find it different from a lot of your other stuff. Did Splinter Cell change the way you thought about composition, or did these sources effect the way you write? Or do you even notice a difference?
On some songs there were some familiar structures for me, where things start in one direction and then take a left turn and then resolve in the end. I like the big dramatic crescendos though, because I love a bit of drama! ‘Always’ has a verse/chorus thing and a bit of a pop sensibility to it. I always admire people who can pull that off. Every now and again I have a stab at it.

It’s interesting to me how that track is near the end of the album. It’s like going through this journey and then having this sweet at the end.
It was a bit of a fuck-you putting pressure on me for a single. This record wasn’t about that. As much as I enjoy three-and-a-half minute songs, I didn’t want that to be the second song on the album and then off we go into an epic number. I like doing it, but like you say, it’s a treat in the middle of some more obscure arrangements.

One of the other things I like about this album is its lack of concept, treating sound as an end in itself, leaving the narratives open for the listener. As much as I enjoy Matmos, for example, at times that does get trainspotty for me, or harder to appreciate without knowing what narrative they’re putting on it.
I was aware of all this when I was making the record, and comparisons would be drawn with other people using field recordings. It wasn’t too much of a hang-up. Basically, I want the music to come first, the satisfaction I get from making music. Whatever idea I have to begin with, I don’t want it to restrict where the song could go or how good it could be. I don’t want to be saying, ‘Well, I’d like to do that, but it doesn’t fit into my concept.’ It’s not going to happen. I want the music to be king, and everything else just facilitates that.

What do you think this project opens up for you? What comes next?
Who knows? I’m excited to try something new for myself. I have learned an awful lot. I hope I can apply these things I’ve learned to the next project I make and keep trying to improve and keep myself interested. I feel like my whole output over the years has been a learning curve. I focused on one area for a long time because there was a lot to explore. Maybe in time I’ll look at different areas.

What does a 7.1 surround sound DJ set entail?
It’s just a regular DJ set with better sound than normal. A problem I’ve often encountered is that you have this big stack at the front blowing everyone away, and at the back it’s all muffled and no one can hear it properly. Only in the middle do a few people get a decent sound. Considering that when I play there’s not much of a stage show, not much to look at, we’ve concentrated on making the event about the sound, trying to make it a different musical environment for people to listen.

But you haven’t mixed any of your own material in 7.1?
No, not at all. We’re using a system being developed by Dolby which is pretty effective. It takes things that are in stereo, or the higher frequencies and spreads them around the room. You can put any stereo signal through it. We’re using that in conjunction with a few other things that my soundman Vid has developed himself. It’s a pretty interesting effect. It’s a lot of bass, which is important, and a lot of detail that surrounds the room. It envelopes you a bit more in a three dimensional experience.

Had you seen other people do this, or did you just want to try it?
I tried it on the Splinter Cell tour in 5.1, and we had a few phasing issues while trying it out. A lot of those tracks were mixed in 5.1. We tried it, and it turns out that it’s better in 7.1, because the speakers aren’t pointing directly at each other. You have far fewer phase cancellation issues and it works a lot better.

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