If you don't think the sampler can be a musical instrument, you haven't been listening to the music of Amon Tobin!
While the sampler has become a staple ingredient of most studios, few people can claim to have exploited it to quite such extreme levels as Amon Tobin. His current album, Out From Out Where, is his fourth on Ninja Tune, all of which were made entirely with just a sampler, a few effects, an ever-growing record collection and not a single real instrument in sight. He has developed a unique, idiosyncratic voice that embraces such diverse styles as drum & bass, hip-hop, jazz, Latin, film soundtracks, electronica and downright mad sonic experimentation. The result is a dizzying kaleidoscope of sounds, all tied together by a sexual undercurrent that has made his music a favourite on the American strip-club circuit!
Having spent most of his early life in Brazil, Amon moved with his family to Britain when he was 10, eventually settling in Brighton, where he began his hip-hop experiments in the early '90s. He released his first album Adventures In Foam on Ninebar Records back in 1996 under the Cujo moniker, but Ninebar's dubious business sense meant Amon wasn't making any money. Fortunately, two artists on Ninja Tune, Funki Porcini and DJ Food, picked up on a couple of Amon's EPs, and so began his fruitful career with Ninja, the label set up by electronic/hip-hop pioneers, Coldcut.
Someone else to pick up on Amon's sound was maverick satirist Chris Morris. Morris had frequently plundered the Ninja back catalogue, including Amon's work, to provide a suitably warped backdrop to the twisted sketches on his Blue Jam Radio 1 shows. This led to a collaboration, where Amon cut up the voices from a Morris sketch and turned them into melodies on the track 'Bad Sex'. This certainly raised his profile in the UK, but he enjoys even greater succes in both Europe and the States, where his last album Supermodified outsold the likes of Massive Attack and Björk.
Released in October 2002, Out From Out Where was some 18 months in the making, the work being particularly intensive in the last six months. Amon is something of a night owl when it comes to writing his material, working through the small hours to put a track together in one block. "I'll start in mid-afternoon and work through to the next day. Usually by then, I'll have got the arrangement. Then I'll pull it apart, work on the production and mix it over the course of the next two or three weeks. I might change the arrangement, but usually most of it's done in one go in a couple of days. Even though it's laborious, it's also quick if you know what you're doing. I've also got more confident, so I won't be spending 1000 hours looking for the exact right snare. If something actually works, I'll use it, but if I'm slightly uncertain about it, I'll throw it away until I find something I'm completely certain about.
"When I first started, I used to throw out a lot, but maybe because I've now got more control of my sounds, now the music is closer to the original idea I had in the beginning. Before I'd find a sound and just put it with another sound to see what happens. Sometimes it would lead somewhere and sometimes it wouldn't, whereas now that random element is somewhat tapered, so the ratio has improved, but I might throw away maybe one in four tracks."
Does the writing process begin with a basic loop or sound, or does he try to realise a strong preconceived idea in his head? "It's a bit of both. When I first started, it was much more finding a sound that inspired me to find more sounds to go with it. Now I find it a lot more satisfying if I have a framework to work inside or a goal to achieve with the music, and then try to find the sounds to fit in there, manipulating them until they do. It doesn't always work like that, so I still stumble across sounds that make me think 'Oh, I know exactly what would work with that,' and off I go." But does he have definite sounds in his head that he tries to recreate? "Oh definitely, mainly different types of beats, but also bass sounds or more abstract ideas of the types of noises I want. Sometimes I'll have an idea for a melody and that gets really tricky; for example, I'll find three or four saxes that have the right notes, so I'll try and piece them all together."
Amon has a pragmatic and highly effective way of dealing with the discrepancies between the tone and production of the samples. "It's amazing what you can do with filters; I look at it as being a bit like watercolours, when you've got various different blotches and then you use a wash to bring it all together. I also use a lot of effects in my stuff for that reason — it's not particularly because I love delays and reverbs or whatever. Processing is the answer. I'll take a lot of samples to make a melody, then process it with one type of filter or modulation effect, re-record it, cut it up, and by then it will sound like one sample — but sometimes if it doesn't, it can be really interesting anyway."
Filters and EQ also play a big part in isolating specific sounds or instruments within a sample. "You can take out an entire frequency that holds an instrument, so that you can no longer hear it, or you can hear it in such a background way that it becomes an interesting subliminal part. Unfortunately that means it can sometimes sound really harsh, because the EQ has to be so extreme. Some people have even said it's a characteristic of my sound. I love that — here's something I f**ked up, and someone relishes that!
"Something that I'm aiming for, but I don't always pull off, is to have a mix where the different melodies, drums and bass are all sitting in their own frequency realms, so things can stand out. You can also do a lot with stereo, where if I want something to stand out, I'll make it mono and then put it somewhere in the stereo field where there's not much going on. All these things cause their own problems, like phasing problems, but I'm sure eventually experience will win with this one and it can be mastered, but it's obviously going to take a long time because I'm using so many different sources. I've had up to about 80 different samples in a tune, so it's a lot of sounds and some of them will only happen once."
Perhaps more than half of those samples make up his incredibly complicated beats, which frequently incorporate sounds that quite evidently are not conventional or electronic percussion. "I got really into taking a sound that has nothing to do with a beat, and incorporating it into a loop to give that snare a completely different characteristic, just by virtue of it being melded with something else."
It also works the other way, so Amon creates melodies or bass lines by manipulating unpitched sources. "'Proper Hoodage' has a bass sound that is from the percussion, which I treated with formant filters, which can create chords out of sounds. I mixed that with various plug-ins to try and create a note as opposed to a percussion hit. When I sampled it back in, it synchronised so well, because the bass sound was made out of the percussion so it fitted with it perfectly."
Evidently, Amon's sampling methods are a far cry from simply lifting melodies and breaks wholesale from old jazz masters. "In the past, I've taken massive chunks of things, but as time has gone by, for my own integrity and for obvious legal reasons, I have moved away from that. It's a slightly dubious area for anyone using samplers, but fortunately it's never caught up with me. Either the samples have been obscure and uninteresting enough for people not to worry about, or the manipulation has been so extreme that people don't recognise them anyway."
Amon undoubtedly has an attention to detail that ensures his programming is utterly transparent. His tunes have a live, organic quality that belies their programmed origin, helped by choosing highly idiosyncratic and energetic sample sources. "It's what I'm attracted to really, sounds that have those qualities. It's always changing, I used to go strictly into jazz record sections, then I deviated into easy listening and soundtracks. I can't really go into the composers I like, 'cos they're the ones that I sample!" he jokes.
"Recently I've come across a whole load of Bollywood soundtracks, which have been amazing because they've got this notion of what Western music sounds like that is just as skewed as Hollywood's notion of Eastern music. I'm quite fascinated by the misunderstanding that creates something new. If you listen to Martin Denny and all that easy-listening stuff from the '50s and '60s, their idea of Hawaiian or Eastern music was so far off from reality, but by virtue of that, it created a new sound. It goes the other way with Bollywood, where they'll have this idea of what disco, funk or soul is, and it's just totally mad! Bollywood movies are hard, because every song starts the same with an incredible, massive introduction, and then this really piercing, squeaky voice will come in. You have to sit through all that, before you get these really amazing, lush sounds, which are really beautifully produced. I'm also getting more into electronic sounds, but from the '70s. Their notion of future electronic sounds is just great. I started to appreciate emulations of real strings done really well by experimental processes. They've got a unique quality to them which isn't real strings but isn't those horrible 1990s pads."
Despite Amon's obvious enthusiasm for his sounds, their source is ultimately not that important to him. "It's so random really, but it's more about where they're going rather than where they're from. I think you can take a sound from almost anywhere and make it relevant to your track."
Amon usually works in total isolation, from the initial idea right through to overseeing the mastering, but does he feel limited by not having anyone to bounce ideas off or to tell him when to stop? "I think you win and you lose. I don't have the reassurance of someone saying 'Yes, that's really good,' or saying it's no good, or whatever, but then I have total control. I've never really thought of myself as a control freak, but I guess I must be because the idea of anyone having any say in what I do is totally unacceptable! I do accept other people's ideas and when I've collaborated, I've learnt so much, especially technical stuff. But I know that if it came to the bottom line and I said something doesn't work and they say it does, I'd just say 'It's not going in and that's that,' so working with other people is probably not my way of doing things."
However, a desire to work alone isn't the reason why he always uses samples and never live musicians or real instruments. "I like using sounds that have existed in a different musical context before. It's not musique concrète or found sounds and I won't use session musicians or sample CDs. I find sample CDs of, say, a session drummer really flat, because they don't have any real musical context. The energy that I'm after is may be in the middle of some one-off recording that happened in a special time at some festival, where the drummer was just going off and there is that bit of energy that you just take. You can extend it or rearrange it, but the energy's still there. That's always what's fascinated me about samples and what I can't get out of session musicians or sample CDs. It's not that I'm against it; it's a perfectly valid way to work, but just not one that appeals to me. I don't think I can get anything that isn't already on vinyl, so why use a session guy when I can use the sax player or the drummer? Why settle for second-best?"
The fruits of one of his rare collaborations can be heard on 'Verbal', which is the first single from the album. The mad cut-up vocals are those of MC Decimal, a mystery MC whose true identity Amon refuses to reveal. "He's far too mysterious and it would ruin the mystery! Prefuse 73 did something similar with cutting up vocals and it was inspired by that, really. It was a way to try to make a percussion sound out of the vocals. The idea was to not just have snippets of vocals dotted about the track, but to have it as the main focus. It's a whole rhyme where there aren't any words, because they never finish. I chopped up all the different parts of the words and put them in different sequences to try and make my own flow, so that it sounded like a rhyme but it wasn't."
Since he completed the album, Amon's been working on a string of further collaborations, with Bonobo, P Love, Steinski and a possible forthcoming one with Kid Koala. He hasn't been idle with his solo material either, though inevitably for someone who moulds such an eclectic mix of sounds into such idiosyncratic music, he struggles to categorise the results. "I've been making some R&B-influenced stuff; it's more like A&B, anger and blues, like really dirty beats but chopped up in a different way to straightforward hip-hop. Downbeat but almost upbeat at the same time! But I have only done two tunes since the album, so I need to do a few more before I announce a new direction."
Whatever the results, there's no doubt that they'll be worth checking out.