Amon Tobin – Better Living Through Cujo
London’s acclaimed Ninja Tune label is no secret to anyone with a penchant for sounds a bit left of center. Like a soup kitchen providing nourishment to the needy, they’ve been feeding the ears of punters for years. Acting as a sonic amusement park, the Ninjas have been expanding at a credible rate- offering the thrill-seekers a constant barrage of fresh talent. A case in point would be Amon Tobin, a Rio-born sound junkie whose music is an indefinable cocktail of beats, jazz, and atmospheric weirdness. His new LP ‘Bricolage’, has been on our Hi-fi for weeks, constantly providing surprises and “memorable” sounds. Recently Jeff Baumann and Mark Moore had a chance to talk with the “bricoleuer” at his home in Brighton, UK.
(It should be noted that we woke Amon up- muttering something about, “…being scrunched into an apple.”)
Amon: My schedule has been kind of strange lately, I’ve been staying up late at night and sleeping during the day.
Jeff: What’s been keeping you out so late?
I haven’t been out I’ve just been working on music. I find it easier at night- there are fewer distractions like nice weather and stuff.
Mark: Do the neighbors find it a distraction?
Oh no, I use headphones. I use them up until the final sort of mix, you know when you’re arranging the track and everything. It can’t be very nice for other people to have to listen to you rearrange things over and over.
Mark: Are there any new surprises in your music that we should know about?
Oh, I don’t know. I’m just sort of trying out different stuff.
Mark: Your not going heavy metal on us though?
(Laughs) Oh not yet. Don’t hold your breath, sorry man. (laughs). No, actually there’s a certain EP that I’ve just finished, which has got a lot of Latin rhythms with some pretty fast drum and bass. It’s going to be a single and maybe a CD as well, I’m not sure. But I just got that done this morning.
Mark: Is that through Ninja Tune?
Um yeah, it should be out later this year. It’s called Piranha Breaks. But as well as that, I’ve been working on a lot of different stuff, using lots of soundtrack samples.
Mark: Do you mean actual snippets from musical scores, or dialogue?
No, No, I’m using bits from the music scores. Like the sort of atmospheric sounds.
Mark: So you are going for a sort of cinematic type of sound.
Yeah, yeah, there is just this great level of production on a lot of soundtracks. That makes them real nice to work with.
Jeff: That’s interesting because a friend of mine after listening to Bricolage a few times stated that the album has a lot of memorable sounds on it.
Jeff: And I think that on the same sense it’s kind of like a movie soundtrack. It tends to put images into your head. It does have a lot of memorable sounds.
Fantastic, that’s really good. Because I have a lot of images when I’m making the music and it’s interesting to see what other people might think of.
Jeff: Are you playing instruments on the album or is that a lot of sampled material?
I’m really not into the idea of using live musicians at all. I tend to use just samples. Because, for me, the whole point is to try to take some music that is complete and already has a direction and context and all of that. And take a small element from it and then change it into something else. I don’t want to be using things that haven’t been used in another context already. I could get live musicians, it wouldn’t be a difficult thing to do, just get session people in and ask them to play certain notes and things. But it’s not the way that I want to go really. I’m really interested in using samples.
Jeff: So is a sampler your favorite piece of gear?
Well yeah, it’s just about my only piece of gear really.
Jeff: What else do you use?
I’ve got a mixing desk, and a Mac, and a keyboard that I use for triggering samples.
Jeff: I didn’t realize that your music was that sample-based.
Completely, a hundred percent. But the samples are really manipulated. That’s the whole thing. I’m not going to use something in the same way it was used.
Mark: So would you consider the sampler just another instrument in the traditional sense of rock n’ roll?
Well, it is difficult to say, it’s quite a new thing to think about, isn’t it?
Mark: It’s a very new thing and it lends itself to all sorts of philosophical debates.
I suppose it is because it’s a tool that you use to manipulate sound. But I wouldn’t call myself a musician in the normal sense of the word, because I’m not playing traditional instruments.
Mark: Yeah but a guitar doesn’t do anything until you put your hands on it.
It’s true, it’s true, I look at it pretty much like that. Notes are out there and the way that you trigger them is the way that your trigger them. I’m more interested in the ideas behind the arrangements than the actual physical playing of an instrument.
Jeff: Are you trained in a traditional musical sense, in that you can read notes? Or are you just putting together what sounds good to you?
No, I’m not trained at all. I mean, I’ve dabbled with different instruments here and there, but I really found my element in the sampler. Because I’ve always been far too interested in many different types of sounds to focus on just one instrument, and learn it in depth. I guess its a fault of mine that I’m unable to focus on any one sound and just develop that. I’m more interested in mixing different things together, and seeing what happens.
Mark: With that in mind, are you also into developing a kind of multi-media experience? Such as mixing bits and pieces of film along with your music?
I’d love to be able to delve into making music with pictures as well. But part of what I enjoy is the idea of it all being quite ambiguous, where I’m not giving away everything. I want to just suggest things.
Mark: Kind of like creating your own movie in your head.
Yeah, You know it sounds a bit wanky (art-school).
Jeff: You don’t want to spoon feed the audience. Kind of leave it open to what they want to create.
Yeah, pretty much. It’s just got to be more interactive that way to leave it open. But I’d love to like, do a film score someday. It would be a good ambition, I think.
Jeff: I talked to the Coldcut guys last week. They said that they are really getting into a lot of interactive concepts of mixing visual and audio together. I’m sure that you have probably peaked in on some of the work that they are doing?
Yeah, I mean it’s pretty interesting. They’ve got the technology of course, and it’s nice to see that happening. But it’s not something that I’m looking into doing myself in the near future. I’m really concentrating on sounds. I think that Coldcut have pretty much tried out everything, and they are trying out new things as well.
Mark: It’s been a busy year for you hasn’t it?
Yeah, really busy. I’m getting out and DJing a lot and stuff like that.
Jeff: Actually, we got to hear your set in Chicago on the Stealth Tour.
Right, right, wicked. Did you enjoy it?
Jeff: Yeah I did. It was sort of a strange venue, but I had a good time that evening…
It’s difficult to remember which one it was.
Jeff: It was in the basement of a venue. Sort of this weird lounge called the Smart Bar.
Yeah! I remember that! I think I played quite a bit early.
Mark and Jeff: You did.
Yeah that’s the thing. We had to rotate quite a lot because obviously everyone wants play at different times. Throughout the tour it was pretty much luck of the draw on who played when. I guess Chicago was an early one for me.
Jeff: Did you enjoy that tour?
Oh sure. I’d never been to the states before, or Canada.
Mark: Did you get an opportunity to see anything of America besides dingy clubs?
No, it was pretty terrible really (laughs). We were only around for one day at the most pretty much for all of the places that we stopped at. I got to see record shops, clubs, and not much else. In New York I got to go up the Empire State Building, and you know, all of that.
Mark: That must have been cool.
Yeah! I took loads of pictures throughout the tour. I’m working on those as well. I’m interested in pictures as well as sound.
Mark: Yeah, I read in your bio that you were working on photography.
Yes, I haven’t gotten around to mixing the two together yet.
Jeff: I’ve got to ask you what it was like living in Rio?
Oh, I can hardly remember it. I was very much a part of my early years. I remember seeing like the Carnival, and the beach, and I remember ice-cream and stuff like that. But I really couldn’t tell you much more. I’d love to go back, but I’ve got a feeling that what I remember isn’t really there anymore. It’s moved on a lot.
Mark: You’ve done extensive traveling haven’t you?
Yeah, I’ve been brought up pretty much everywhere, I traveled around a lot as well. I’m enjoying the idea of staying in one place for a while.
Mark: Do you think that traveling had a big influence on your music?
I don’t know, I don’t think it’s has had a direct connection as much as people want it to be. I really can’t say because I’m to close to it. I sort of feel that I’d be making this music anyway if I lived all of my life in the UK.
Mark: It’s sort of a pretentious argument to state that lots of travel is the only way to reach your music.
That’s it. I don’t know how much of it reflects on your past and where you have been… I don’t really feel it’s such a big connection. But who knows?
Mark: When did you get hooked up with Ninja Tune exactly?
It was last year. I did a collaboration with Funky Porcini. And during that time they just asked me if I’d like to do some stuff with them. So I took it from there and now I’m with them.
Mark: And its been crazy for you ever sense.
Yeah (laughs). I’m certainly busy, God! It’s a hell of a whirl-wind of a label.
Jeff: I wanted to ask you two things about your name. Your actual name Amon Tobin I think is a great name, in fact we can’t stop saying it around here. Is there any meaning behind it?
(Laughs) No! It’s just my name really.
Mark: It doesn’t mean, “He who uses the sequencer to create new forms of music?”
(Laughs) Christ! I should have thought of that. The thing is that my mom remarried to an Irishman who’s last name is Tobin. I like Amon Tobin, it kind of weird. Amon is not a common name in Brazil either.
Jeff: I also wanted to ask you about Cujo. What made you choose that as a recording name?
I’m just crap at coming with names for things. My first release for Nine Bar was coming out and I had to think of a name. And just thought it was a cool name, I remember the movie. I really like Stephen King’s films, and I just thought that one was great.
Mark: So you like mean dogs then?
Yeah. (laughs) I don’t know if it’s something that I would delve too deep into, because it is just a name. But some people are really good at coming up with names for their tracks and albums. I pretty much just wing it.
Jeff: I thought ‘Bricolage’ was a great name for an album.
It just seemed to work really well, even at the risk of it being a little pretentious.
Jeff: I don’t think so.
Well no, I don’t think so. If you know its definition you can see the connections, that’s it really. But I guess if you don’t really know, it might sound a bit like, “oh well, fuck it”.
Jeff: You had a quote on the album from Levi Strauss.
I thought it was a good description of the process of how the music is made. It seemed to be quite a relevant quote, even though he was talking about other things completely.
Jeff: The quote had to do with the fact that the bricoleuer may never know when his work is completed. Do you know when your songs are completed?
No, not really. I tend to just go with the flow in hopes that it sounds alright. I think halfway through the track I’m starting to come up with other ideas for new tracks. That’s the problem I have. Halfway through one thing I’m having ideas about the next thing I want to do. So, even though the track finishes, the process never seems to finish.
Mark: Where do you see you and your music in ten years?
Oh god! That’s a tough question.
Mark: Well it is, because it sort of implies a pretentious implication of what the state of electronic music will be like down the line.
Well yeah, I mean what can you do? You can just make the tunes that your making and just try and progress and try new things out. I mean, I’ve got no control over what happens in the future. But neither have the journalists.
Mark: They have less control!
Well yeah, all that you can do is just do what your doing. Do what ever feels right at the moment. Even if it’s out of favor in six months or whatever. I’m not trying to be fashionable. I’m just doing what I love. I hope that I will have developed quite a lot in ten years time. I really feel like I’m scratching the surface right now, and that I’ve got a lot to learn. I hope that it will be even more interesting.
Jeff: So what’s in your CD player these days?
Quite a lot of hard drum and bass. Stuff like the Penny Black label. Do you like that label?
Jeff: Yes, they just came out with a compilation, called Breakage.
Did they? I haven’t seen that. I’ve been out of town, I’ll have to check that out. Also Dropping Science as well, is a wicked label. Danny Breaks uses some really good stuff. But you know I like a lot of Funky Porcini, and a lot of jazz as well. I picked up loads of records while I was in the states.
Jeff: Used stuff mostly?
Yeah, old, really old. I got some blues stuff. There is some great shopping to be had over there. Chicago actually was one of the best places. It was for me anyway. It seemed to have an endless amount of shops, just incredible jazz and blues selections. I had a great time.
Jeff: When you’re on tour, is there someone who goes and seeks out the good record shops?
Well yeah, the promoter would usually tell us where to go. Sometimes they were really helpful and they would take us around.
Mark: They never would take you into the ghetto if they didn’t like you?
(Laughs) I don’t know. But yeah, I had a good time.
Mark: I’ve got a couple more questions, that I like to ask people from Britain. Do you have cars in England?
(Laughs) No we’re still riding horses.
Mark: Okay. Is there a lifeguard at Liverpool?
(Laughs) It there a what? Jesus! Only on Tuesdays.
Mark: Okay great! Are British people lime flavored?
Oh god! I don’t know- I’ve never tasted one.
Mark: Did you vote Tory of Labour?
I was away during the election. I was touring Europe. I was too busy for politics.
Mark: That’s very sane, and respectable.
I was glad to see that Labour got in. It’s got to be better than it was.
Mark: Here is a pretentious, stupid question. Do you think that Nostradamus will be right in his prediction that the world will go up in flames at the millennium?
Oh god! Um… Shit. I really don’t care.
Mark: Me neither.
I don’t know. He made a lot of predictions and some have come true and some haven’t. If it happens what am I going to do about it?
Mark: Do you think that your music can prevent that?
Yes! (loud laughter for a bit) I think that it is in effect as we speak. It’s expanding the universe and life.
Mark: That’s part of the plan, right?
Well, yeah (feigning seriousness) you got me started. I don’t share this with many people, but I’m out to save the planet.
Jeff: Maybe you want to share with the readers of Massive the fact that the more people who buy the album the better the future for humanity?
Mark: Better living through Cujo.
Absolutely right! All good reasons for buying my records.
Mark: Here is the third part of the Armageddon question- now that we have established that your music can save the world. Does that imply that bands such as Hootie and the Blowfish are actually harbingers of the apocalypse? And that you are doing battle with them?
(Laughs) Well yeah. I want to wrestle these people naked, and nick their weapons. Damn it! No violence please.
Mark: We’ve got to stop the violence, right?
Yes, and save the planet!
Jeff: This interview has suddenly gone into no-mans land.
Mark and Amon: Right.
Mark: Speaking of no-mans land, here’s another one for you. If you were stuck on an abandoned island, what book would you bring?
Who is this guy? Jesus, probably Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Mark: Yes that is a great read. It’s kind of like were dating right now isn’t it?
Mark: I think that’s about it. Is there anything that you want to tell us about? Any issues or problems that you want to get off your chest?
(Laughs) Um… no, no, I think that just about covers it.
Jeff: Do you floss regularly?
Mark: You know your mother told us to ask you that.
We don’t floss in England.
Mark: I can’t think of anything else to ask. We have drifted too far out, and I don’t think we could bring it back.
Jeff: You can go back and take your nap and pretend that this was just a bad dream.
No, no, I’ve got a few more interviews to do yet.
Mark: Well, I hope that the other interviewers are a bit kinder to you. Because this was a rough wake-up call.
That’s fine, that’s fine. It’s been fun.
ARTIST HARASSMENT ENDED.