Music » Music Stories & Interviews

Man in the machine

Amon Tobin teams his enigmatic electronica with an equally enigmatic live show


  • Photo by Joseph Llanes

Picture a geometric structure whose disjointed shape resembles the body of a Space Invaders alien. A press release notes the creation's dimensions as 25 by 14 by 8 feet, but it looks bigger than that. Dazzling colors and patterns coat the structure's face as it constantly mutates in sync with the audio. Inside the structure's "cockpit" is Amon Tobin, who is overseeing sound. The "cube," as we'll call it, and Tobin's music are both entities better served by actually experiencing them. In tandem, they make for a godsend of a head rush – an aural imagining of cyberpunk-flavored abstract and surrealist painting. Whatever the meaning of all this, Tobin isn't spilling.

ISAM, his seventh and latest record, and the accompanying ISAM Live 2.0 tour exemplify how far the Brazil-born, England-bred, San Francisco-residing electronic musician has come from his origins. Kicking off his career in 1996, Tobin attained name value as a DJ known for wrapping jazzy horn fragments, kinetic bass portions and body-moving hooks into satisfying trip-hop packages. His slick 1998 track "Sordid" was a hit in strip joints, but if a stripper wanted to use his more recent material, he or she would have to enroll in an interpretive dance class or three. 2007's Foley Room swam into the deep end of the experimental music pool as Tobin made music by using the same practical techniques that foley artists use to create sound effects for films, and ISAM – an acronym for "Invented Sounds Applied to Music" – continues the trend. Since Tobin relishes hearing what people imagine goes into his work, and thus refuses to divulge specifics of his tools, here's a brief inventory of sounds that could occur on ISAM: vocals from a female android, dubstep drops, violin strings rubbing against one other, lullabies beamed down from Mars or twinkling melodies from a wind chime containing as many moving parts as a $500 wristwatch.

Notably, ISAM is Tobin's first sample-free album. "What I've always done, essentially, is transform sounds and try and take things that I hear around me and develop them into a form I could work with," the genial, soft-spoken artist says. "My starting point was taking pieces of recorded music and rearranging it, reorganizing it into different forms. That led on to processing the sound as well. Then, it got to a point where the final result was so far removed from its origins that the sample issue wasn't really relevant, and that was a long time ago already."

A similar approach guides the genesis of the cube, which was designed by Tobin and several tech companies over the span of around four months. The pricey finished product is inspired by science fiction and uses video-mapping technology to create an immersive, malleable frenzy of images. But as cryptic as both these projects are, Tobin talks about making things in practical, transparent terms.

"There isn't an established live format you can work in [for this kind of music]. It was really about trying to rise to a challenge. 'How can I not compromise the record and end up [needing] a live band or DJ'ing it?' It was like trying to find a solution to a problem. That's how I approach my music as well," he says. "I'll start with an idea of a song but try and figure out, 'How can I make this sound like that?'"

Amon Tobin: ISAM

Sept. 21

7 p.m.
House of Blues
1490 E. Buena Vista Drive

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