Amon Tobin: Media Massive

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One of the most-discussed live-music events of the past year was Amon Tobin’s ISAM tour. Since its mid-year premiere at Montreal’s MUTEK festival, electronic-music lovers have been clamoring to see this spectacular show. And after a global jaunt that saw Tobin hit 17 tour stops in 13 cities, he’s set to melt more faces this April at the legendary Coachella festival in Indio, Calif.

So, what’s all the fuss about? Imagine a stage filled with a 25-foot-tall cubic sculpture enveloped in cutting-edge 3D visuals. With the use of projection-mapping technology, the geometric façade comes to life, engulfed with visuals ranging from gritty industrial machinery, to futuristic space travel, to eerie organic amber glowing blocks.

In the heart of the sculpture lies a customized DJ booth littered with an array of controllers and custom-designed techno-gadgets with Tobin at the helm. The show is a sonic journey—featuring “sound-sculptures” from Tobin’s 2011 ISAM album—that feels like a mixture between Tron and a full-on psychedelic acid trip. No matter the tour stop—whether it was MUTEK or Moogfest—the mind-bending optical illusions struck patrons slackjawed and kept them asking, “How did they do that?” (Editor’s Note: Please see Sidebar on Vello Virkhaus’ V Squared Labs.)

Amon is no newcomer to the music scene—he’s been DJing and producing for over 15 years. The Brazilian-born musician cut his teeth on the outskirts of London in the late 1990s, and was eventually signed to the seminal Ninja Tune record label. There he made a name for himself, infusing jazz and blues samples into modern breakbeats and drum-n-bass.

Eventually, Tobin set up shop in Montreal, where he quickly became a fixture in that vibrant nightlife. There he produced highly acclaimed albums including 2000’s Supermodified and 2007’s Foley Room. He also scored the popular video game “Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory” and contributed to the soundtracks of such major motion pictures as The Italian Job and 21.

Now living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Tobin continues to hone his craft by exploring new sonic possibilities. DJ Times caught up with hims Tobin after his show at the Masonic Temple in Brooklyn to talk to him about his newest tour, his transition from the DJ booth, and his ongoing audio/video adventures.

DJ Times: Your ISAM tour has created a lot of buzz—how would you describe it?

Tobin: As an electronic-music producer, I wanted to perform this album as a live performance in the traditional sense of a musician. I took this piece of work that I’ve been developing for years and decided to present it in a way that’s engaging. I didn’t want to compromise the music and make it something that it’s not, just for the sake of creating a palatable live experience.

DJ Times: So technically, is it a dance event or a concert?

Tobin: Neither. It’s something completely new, like a mixture of a movie and a live performance. When we first started the tour, it was misconceived. People were drawing comparisons to acts like Daft Punk and other musicians who’ve used emerging visual technology to present their music. That doesn’t really fit with my tour because the music is not dance music. This is about getting people to dive in with me and explore new things in a way that visually exciting and new.

DJ Times: What makes it so different?

Tobin: The concept started out with the idea of myself being integrated into something much larger, where I am the virtual representation of the music. We approached it as a visual score of the album, the same way someone would score a movie. I spent over two days with Vello Virkhaus at V Squared Labs, hammering out a linear storyboard, with a narrative aspect to it. Everything is linked together by the music. In terms of technology, we are using projection mapping which is a something that’s been used at large corporate events for years. It creates a visual illusion, which can animate inanimate objects. It’s incredible eye-candy, representing the music in a way that is easy to follow.

DJ Times: Does the crowd dictate which music you play?

Tobin: No, this tour is more like watching a movie. I am not changing the direction of the movie based on the crowd. It’s a story, which is similar to the approach that I take with my DJ sets. I’ve never been the type of DJ who just showed up with records and could read the crowd; I take a much more dictatorial approach [laughs]. With ISAM, I’m not DJing at all, I am playing the music from the record with a lot of consideration of the pacing of the show, which drives peaks and valleys to create energy over the one-hour-20-minute event

DJ Times: So, what exactly are you doing up on stage?

Tobin: Tetris and email! [Laughs] I have all of my tracks laid out in various segments and layers, which are triggered via MIDI. Specific parts of audio are set up to trigger specific visuals. I’m using some proprietary emerging technology. For example, there’s a part of the show where I use an infrared field to trigger different aspects of the visuals. Technologically, there are a lot of things that we have developed ourselves by trial-and-error. Every aspect of this show has been driven by curiosity.

DJ Times: Was it difficult going from a traditional DJ approach to being a different kind of performer?

Tobin: It was a challenge. People have high expectations for an event like this. I want everyone to enjoy the event, while being fascinated and intrigued. I didn’t know how people would react and there was no way for me to test the show ahead of time. I had a hard time with that. It was also a big risk for my record label, Ninja Tune. They were very brave and supportive of my crackpot idea.

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