Not having been a big fan of Amon Tobin’s previous work, I was shocked at how much his 2007 album Foley Room sunk its teeth into me—I mean, real teeth, as the sounds of snarling lions suggest at one point. Elsewhere, buzzing bees and industrial machinery interact with warm, earthy instrumentation as filtered through Tobin’s various electronic textures and jazzy beats.
I wrote about Foley Room extensively earlier this year, when I chatted with Tobin for an Eye article (no longer available online, inexplicably). But there’s one thing that I don’t think that Tobin—who has built his career sampling from vinyl, and branched out to record live musicians improvising this time out—answered sufficiently last time.
The question is this: there are beautiful melodies heard here as played by some of Montreal’s finest musicians, such as Patrick Watson, Watson’s guitarist Simon Angell, members of Bell Orchestre and others, and yet all songwriting credit goes to Tobin. Why? Who wrote the melodies? Does it matter?
I pitched the idea to SOCAN, the copyright collective for Canadian songwriters, who put out a newsletter and web magazine with articles relevant to anyone interested in the mechanics of songwriting and royalties. The article also touched down on the Secret Mommy album Plays, which we’ll discuss shortly. The piece can be found here.
I put the question as directly as possible to Tobin, after an opening softball question that allowed him to contextualize his compositional process.
November 1, 2007
locale: phone, from his Montreal home
Did working with live musicians change your compositional process?
To answer properly I have to put it in a bit of context. My whole approach has to do with transforming sounds and rearranging whatever people do rhythmically or melodically, and working with existing material to make new music. I’ve spent the last ten years or so working exclusively with little fragments of vinyl, and making music with that. I see my role as not creating sounds, but re-ordering stuff.
It’s a bit like building a house. I don’t make the bricks; I put them in an order to make the house I want.
With this last record, I wanted to try and see if it would in fact have a massive impact on the way the music sounds in the end, if I paid less attention to where the sources originated and just concentrated on manipulating the sound. I had no rules whether I was only going to use vinyl, or only use field recordings. I tried to treat all the things I recorded objectively. They all had the same importance as far as composition.
It’s no disrespect to the musicians—who, by the way, were all way overqualified to do what I was asking them to do. I was asking the Kronos Quartet to make drones and play their instruments with elastic bands and swords. From my point of view, I wanted to emphasize that it was about the choices you make with your raw material and how they’re processed and re-arranged, and less about where these things come from.
People obsess about where you come from, for instance, as a way to categorize music and musicians. ‘You come from here, so you must make this kind of music.’ It’s not that I’m setting out to challenge anything. I’m more interested in exploring this. For me, it is about using musicians in a way that is clinical and objective. I’d ask them to make a tone or a drone or something simple. Because they were people like Patrick Watson and Stef Schneider who were so talented, they couldn’t help but add colour to what I was asking them to do.
I wouldn’t characterize a lot of your music as specifically melodic—it’s not the point of it, really—but there are songs like “Bloodstone” where there is a very distinct piano melody there. Is that something Patrick played as is?
See, this is exactly what I’m talking about. There’s a tendency for people to focus on this kind of thing as if that’s where the importance of the music lies. I think it’s elsewhere. Patrick and Kronos Quartet have all the credit for that piece of music. Just as in everything I’ve ever done, I don’t take credit for any of the sounds I’ve used, only for what I’ve done with them. As far as the piano part, Patrick recorded a whole bunch of different stuff on piano which I then took and sliced and mixed with other bits of piano, too. Parts come from Patrick, a few notes from vinyl.
At what point does it shift from being a recording collaboration with him to a songwriting credit?
It’s a complicated area.
Because this album says “written and produced by Amon Tobin.”
For me, writing and production are about the choices that you make and what you do with the sounds you’re presented with. Going back to the brick analogy, it’s unfair to qualify what Patrick or the other musicians did as mere bricks. But when you’re breaking this stuff down to single notes, or even a whole passage—if you take something and recontextualize it to the point where it reaches a different musical significance. I don’t know what you’d call that credit.
If you took something by Beethoven and put a techno beat behind it—for some peculiar magical reason, the marriage of those two things did something that neither of those two things did, but which also couldn’t exist without those two elements. There is a credit to making that decision that those two things together make something else. But you always have to acknowledge that it wouldn’t have existed without the original sources.
The way I see it, honestly, in terms of a moral question, is that we’re all working with narrow parameters of music. No one is inventing any new chords or any new notes. We’re all working with this scale and re-arranging these notes and chords. The raw material is pretty much the same. All you ever do as a musician—whether you’re playing it yourself or sampling it—is reinterpreting or re-ordering these notes and chords and rhythms. That is what I see as the role of the artist, or the musician, or the composer or whatever you want to call it. I couldn’t say that I own C major or any other chord. I can’t take credit for those things, just for what I do with them.
Because your previous albums were comprised entirely of vinyl samples, did you ever deal with licenses? Or were all your samples unrecognizable to the point where nobody would bother with licenses?
You can draw a division between something like Puff Daddy’s famous rendition of “Every Breath You Take,” where the song is being carried by the sample and isn’t really being re-interpreted. It’s merely being released again with another layer on top.
Okay, I can explain this better… The distinction can be drawn by your objectives as a songwriter. If your objective when you’re writing a song is to end up with something that sounds like something you’ve heard before—whether you’re sampling or playing the guitar—if you’re trying to emulate something that exists already, then you’re plagiarizing and I don’t think there’s much merit in that.
I see sampling—when it’s done properly—as being the opposite of that. You’re starting with things that you gravitate towards, and you’re trying to transform those things into something completely different. You’re going in the other direction. I might start with something very recognizable, like, say, a Count Basie bass line. If I want to take that and turn it into something entirely new and different, that’s the opposite of me playing a melody on my piano and trying to steal a little bit of that magic: what I really want to be doing is playing that Count Basie line, but I can’t, so I’ll change a note or two. My objective is completely different there.
When researching this, I also came across the famous case of the Beastie Boys vs. James Newton. Do you know about that?
I don’t think so.
James Newton is a jazz flautist who was sampled on “Pass the Mic.” It was a large case, but ultimately the Beasties won because a) they legally obtained the mechanical license from Newton’s record company, and b) they took three notes from a non-scored jazz piece, and used a six-second loop of it throughout “Pass the Mic.” The court ruled that it’s unrecognizable from the original composition, and it’s not enough of a sample to warrant compositional credit—as opposed to whatever that De La Soul case was based on 10 or 15 years before that.
We’re on shaky ground there, because then it becomes a subjective argument: is it six notes? Seven notes? This is the problem with arguments about sampling, is that people talk about it in these terms. It kind of has to be that way, but it’s not making it any easier for anyone. How many bars is okay before you’re ripping someone off? How close is too close? It’s very subjective.
I asked you earlier and you didn’t answer directly: have you ever had to license things directly because you’ve used too much of one thing?
This is an area I won’t even go into. Not going there. But basically, from a musician’s point of view, I’m not concerned with the legal aspects of making music. That’s for lawyers and publishers. I’m concerned strictly with music. For me, all that really matters is whether or not I feel I’m doing something that I feel is worthwhile and has integrity.
That’s why I come back to what the musicians’ objective is. Is your objective to cheekily steal someone else’s music? Or is your objective to take that music and make it something of your own? Even then, the language I’m using isn’t accurate enough. The notes and the chords you’re playing belong to everyone. We have this keyboard with these notes and we all work with them. No one can claim ownership of this or that. The only thing you can claim ownership of is the physical recording, and that’s when you get into publishing and mechanicals and all that.
Another parallel I thought of was the session players at Motown or in Nashville. Someone comes in and has written a song with a melody and chords, and a guitar player there might have a lick that opens the song that ends up being the most recognizable part of the song. Is he a co-writer then?
It’s the decision that was made that should be credited. Whoever decided to put that lick at the beginning of the bar or wherever that makes it recognizable—the producer, I guess. He can’t take credit for that lick, because he paid the musician for it. The musician was free to make that decision himself, had he wanted to. He could have made his own track with that lick, but he chose to do something else with it.
These cases tend to pop up years later. Last year the organ player from Procul Harum decided that he had written “Whiter Shade of Pale.”
There’s a lot of money to be made from these kind of arguments. That’s why it’s almost a separate issue. What you can prove legally depends on the definitions in the law, and they’re too crude to be applied to the intricacies of music. A few basic rules have to be applied to a wide spectrum of different shades of gray. It’s the way it is because it can’t be any other way. But you shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it’s not quite accurate enough. One rule shouldn’t apply to something else that isn’t similar enough. The law in general has to be broad. When you’re dealing with something as complex as this, it’s hard to take a moral standpoint based on definitions in the law.
What did you tell your musicians coming in to the session? I’m assuming there was a very clear understanding from the beginning as to what was going on.
Oh, yeah. We all had contracts. I know these musicians personally, and they’re all very familiar with what I do. I don’t feel like I need to rip anyone off, personally. I’m not in that position. My input is in arranging, transforming and decision-making in terms of what goes where. All I’m doing is collecting source material and trying to build these musical structures out of it. I don’t really take any more credit than that for what I do.
From a legal perspective, things could be argued many different ways, especially when I sample from records. In my past, I’ve taken longer bars than just the occasional note here and there. There are times when I’ve made them completely unrecognizable. But, if I didn’t have that one piece of source material, the song may never have materialized. I don’t know. I’m repeating myself now.
When your album was done, how much of themselves did the original musicians hear on the record?
A lot of them couldn’t hear them at all. I felt a bit bad about that in some ways. They’re so overqualified. I had a whole brass section come in and do stuff, and I doubt any of them can identify where they are on the record. Others did stuff that is clearly identifiable, like Kronos, Patrick or Stefan. I was nervous playing things for some of these musicians. I didn’t want to undermine their talent or the importance of what they do. But from my point of view, it was a very clinical process. Stef is an incredible drummer who did these intricate and great drum patterns, which many times were re-ordered to such an extent that I’m not sure he would approve of what I did with his drums. You’d have to ask them.
Ask them I did. Tomorrow, a brief interview with Patrick Watson's guitarist Simon Angell, who also played on Foley Room.