Amon Tobin

Amon Tobin ISAM interview

Amon Tobin’s new album ISAM is a striking enough piece of work on its own, but it has already grown beyond itself. The specially-commissioned Tessa Farmer art installation is heading for Paris having proved a huge hit in London, and ISAM’s groundbreaking 3D live show hits London’s iconic Roundhouse on June 17th. Knowledge caught up with Amon on the eve of the most “nerve-wracking” tour of his life.

You’ve adapted your software and techniques to make ISAM. Is making your own software something you’d like to carry on with?

A lot of software now is very open-ended and lets you combine so many different elements. There’s always going to be lazy software, but the possibilities are there for anyone who wants to make something new of their own. You don’t have to be in there with your soldering iron trying to build your gear! It’s just a question of adapting what’s out there to making what you need. I don’t have racks of gear and stacks of software, just what I need.

Is there more of a demand to step up the live side of things in electronic music these days?

I think it goes in different directions. A lot of electronic musicians saw the need to make a more engaging show and then made their show much less electronic. They bring in live musicians, live MCs, all these things which are very traditional. Unfortunately, my music doesn’t leave me the room to do that because it’s purely electronic.

So I can’t go on tour with a load of musicians and get them to even approximate what I do in the studio. And honestly, that’s not really where I’d want to go because I feel that makes my music in particular what it is, is that it isn’t live. So it’d be a real step backwards to then do a show with a live drummer for example. I’ve had that option for a long time, and I’ve had pressure to do that, to turn my show into something more ‘palatable’ for a live setting, and I’ve always felt quite stubborn about it. I don’t want to apologise for what this is. I might not be able to reach a bigger audience because of that, but if all I’m trying to do is expand my success I may as well make a completely different kind of music. Or get a job!

When I first delivered the record to Ninja Tune, they said ‘right, let’s book the tour’, and I just said no, I can’t DJ this record. It’s completely inappropriate. What was great is that they really got behind it, and they said ‘if you’ve got an idea…’ but all the ideas I had we couldn’t afford to do them! So we had to find ways, find people who could do it. So I said, if you’ll get behind it, I will too, and I’m not going to get any fees for the shows for however long it takes to pay for this thing.

How much input did you have into the design of the set for the live show? Did you have it all planned or did you say ‘here’s the record, you figure it out?’

Not at all. I’d been looking for people to do projection mapping, since my conversation with Ninja about how I wanted to do the show. I didn’t have all the design down, but I thought this would an interesting thing to do. What I wanted was to have myself as an integrated part of a larger show, because I need to accept that whatever I’m doing on stage isn’t going to be that interesting to watch. I wanted to have something that amplifies my movement and also the music – so people have something worth watching that’s still really linked to the music.

I thought projection mapping would be a good way to do that, but I’d only ever seen at done at really cheesy, outdoor corporate events, where the Guggenheim’s lit up and for no reason, a fish flies out. There’s always a fish! So I thought it’d be great to do good visual content as part of a show.

It lost momentum after a while – we couldn’t find anyone who was good and affordable. In the end, quite by accident, someone from V-Squared was doing basic lighting for someone else on the label, and he built sets, so it all went from there. The idea was formed from there. The set was designed, and I had the idea that it was a ship of some kind, and that I was in the cockpit. It’s pretty juvenile, I know, but I thought I’d finally get to fly to space… and the whole show built from there, towards a loose narrative.

From the trailer, it seems as if the people who were involved in the show’s creation are really passionate about your music…

I don’t think it’s as strong when you just commission someone if they’re not genuinely into what you’re doing. You get back the bare minimum and that’s fair enough. It pays to work with people who have an open line of communication to you and are receptive rather than just telling you how it’s going to be. Then it’s a real collaboration. To be honest, I worked them really hard and rejected a lot of things, but in the end we got to a point where they understood what I was trying to do, and I understood what they were capable of. They deserve so much credit.

Is it a relationship you understand in a way because it’s a reversal of roles from when you do soundtracks?

Yeah, actually. That tends to be the problem with soundtrack work – if someone can’t articulate what they want, you normally guess and get it wrong. I think one good thing about this is I was clear, and it saved a lot of time because I didn’t want to put them in a position that I’ve been in so many times.

So the Roundhouse is a special venue for a special show…

We didn’t want to do regular clubs, because we just couldn’t fit. We had a show in New York which we had to cancel because we couldn’t fit up the stairs. There are some logistical challenges. I’ve never played in such a prestigious venue as the Roundhouse, so I’m quite intimidated. I hope our stage set isn’t going to be dwarfed by their building. It’ll be like the scene in Spinal Tap where they’re playing Stonehenge…

For me, I’m nervous about doing something so ostentatious, but at a certain point you think, “fuck it, I’m really proud of this record and I’m going to shout about it now.” If people think I’m showing off then so be it. It shouldn’t be taken too seriously. It’s a show, not high art. A lot of it is adolescent fantasy, it’s fun.

Do you think it brings out a playful element in your music that’s not always recognised?
I think a lot of people take my stuff way too seriously. It’s a shame because I’m not a scientist. I’m having fun and I love what I’m doing. So hopefully people will come to this and enjoy it on a more basic level.