Interview by Louis Rastelli
From Vol. 3 No. 1, 2004
Amon Tobin is a pioneer of sample-based music, whose album, Recorded Live, is his latest on the Ninja Tune label. He moved to Montreal in August, 2002, and we managed to catch him during a busy stretch in the studio in June, 2004 to talk about his art and his origins in music.
FP: So how have you enjoyed living in Montreal?
Amon Tobin: It’s been alright. I spent a lot of the first year or so not really here, but on tour. I’ve just recently gone back to a routine of being at home, and so the reality of it is that I haven’t much experienced Montreal in awhile. I’ve been either inside my studio or somewhere else.
FP: Do you go out record-buying around here sometimes?
AT: I’ve barely gone, since I normally do record shopping when I’m on tour. Montreal used to be one of my big stops for record shopping. I used to get a lot of easy-listening stuff, and there’s such an abundance of that around here. Now, I’ve moved away from those sorts of samples, so I tend to shop less in Montreal than I would have before.
FP: Where are some good places for you now?
AT: Actually, Baltimore was great the last time I was there– Seattle, San Francisco’s always good. Boston as well –there’s a great shop in Boston where I picked up some goodies. It really depends– I’m naming all these cities, but I just happened to have visited a good shop there. There may be wicked shops I didn’t see in other cities, so… I’m really just feeling my way around when I go on tour.
FP: Are there any specific things you’re on the lookout for these days?
AT: Well, it’s really personal, you know. It’s not like I’m after breaks or after basslines, I’m usually after a sound that I need for a track that I’ve got in mind, vaguely. You know, it’s that kind of thing where you sort of gravitate towards sound that reminds you of what you want, or close to what you’re vaguely after. That’s how I tend to shop for records, I’ll go and just listen– I bring a little portable when I shop, and sit in the corner, and just go through stuff, looking for something that makes sense with whatever I happen to be doing at the moment.
FP: Do you pick through mostly instrumental LPs?
AT: Yeah, well, I make life a bit hard for myself, because I only ever buy records that I’ve never heard of. I’m certainly not like a record scholar, you know, I’m not like DJ Food or some maniac record collector. It’s really sort of just functional for me, it always has been. I look for sounds that I can manipulate or whatever. Since I only buy records that I don’t know, I can’t buy them before I hear them, so online shopping is pretty much ruled out for me– I have to sit with a stack of records and just go through them.
FP: Do you ever sit with other DJs or similar artists and trade albums or listen through stuff?
AT: Well, we go shopping together a little bit, you know, like a bunch of girls, we all get together, pass the little portable around.
FP: Before getting into all this, had you been collecting records as a listener?
AT: Not at all. I was into cassettes. Everything I used to listen to was on cassette. I used to make my own cassettes. When I was a young teenager, I used to make my own radio show. This is embarrassing, because it was back before my voice broke. I’ve still got copies of these somewhere. I’d be sort of squeaking into the microphone about the various artists.
When I was about thirteen, I would stay up on Sundays and listen to the top forty countdown, listen through all the charts and pick out songs I liked, and tape them. Then I’d edit them on a twin paper sheet– write out all of the parts of the song that I didn’t like. If I didn’t like the chorus or something, I would just take it out, or if I didn’t like a verse or something, I would take that out. Then I would splice it all together into a radio show on cassette, which I would bring to school like an alternative top forty.
FP: Would you splice out the tapes with a razor, or just tape to tape?
AT: It was total twin tape-deck action. I got really, really proficient on it, so by the end of the summer I was moving between the decks with some fluidity, I have to say. I think if you do one motion enough times, you know what I mean?
FP: I don’t know if you have talked to Eric San about that, but he had a very similar story of how he used to make mix tapes for friends. When he started, he never meant to make records of them or anything like that. When he later put his cassettes in local record stores, he was astonished that people were actually buying them.
AT: Wow, well that sounds a bit of a step ahead from me there. Nobody ever encouraged me to sell my cassettes! They were pretty much distributed and forgotten about at school. But then, they were really just random tracks that I would take off the radio. I’m going to have to find those and listen to them again at some point.
FP: So at what point did you start thinking of making sample-based music, and take it to a more organized level?
AT: I don’t know, I think like Eric, I really didn’t have much of a plan. It’s not that I didn’t want to do music for a living, though if someone had told me that was a possibility I would have jumped at the chance. But it just seemed so remote, so implausible, that I never really considered it. So I went and did other things that had nothing to do with music, for a lot of years. I traveled, worked dodgy jobs here and there. I always played music, I was in various bands and did some jamming and stuff. But it always for personal interest– never with a view towards doing anything that was worth putting out.
When I came back to England in my early twenties, I found out about the sampler. Jungle was just sort of kicking in, and the thing about jungle is that all the breaks, like in hardcore, are super sped up. They weren’t drum machines, they were definitely breaks, but they would be sampled with much more speed. The way they were being programmed seemed impossible to play. So there was something about that unusual mixture, of having something quite organic, and having an acoustic sound, being edited in this real digital way that was really interesting for me.
So I found out how it was done, and I checked out various samplers, and it opened a whole world for me. I’ve always been into black music, I was really into blues music, and hip-hop, and I could never contribute. It always felt like, sure, I could play in a blues band for my own amusement, but I can’t, you know…
FP: Yeah, it’s not really the real…
AT: You know what I mean?? [laughter] You just have to face up to some things, and with sampling, it seemed like, here was a way that I can express myself that’s honest about where I am in the world. So if I sample something from, say, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and I put it in this context that makes sense to me, this sort of breakbeat, or wherever-I-am-living context, and I try and make something new out of those things…it’s the difference between trying to be something, and taking that thing and making it into something of your own. You know what I mean?
FP: Yeah, in music, and culture in general, there is always reinvention going on. You can take what was there, twist it a little, and make it your own.
AT: Exactly. The tendency is always to look at things that you love and try to emulate them in some way. And if you can’t, if culturally you can’t offer something, then it’s interesting to look at something like sampling that can bridge that gap. You’re using the influences that really move you, but you’re using them in a way that couldn’t have been done by them at that time. It’s being done by you, now. That was a bit of a revelation for me.
FP: To some degree, that might be a natural part of culture. Because so much culture gets accumulated, you can’t possibly keep all of the past alive, song by song. But if you edit and mix reinterpret and bring back what struck you as most interesting, and recombine it, and condense it… it serves a purpose.
AT: Well the main thing is to turn it into something else, and make it make sense to you… So yeah, it seemed to be the perfect tool for that.
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