Despite its bombast, he claims the ISAM tour was much easier than his usual on-the-road efforts. "All the work is done beforehand, all the preparation; it's really about the pre-production and trying to build the content, conceptualizing the show. I have a great group of people who are really supportive, a good gang." Ten people are required to build and disassemble the stage each night and to handle the sound and visuals. "It's not been the most financially astute move I've ever made," he says with a chuckle. "It's a bit of an odd thing; it's not like I'm Lady Gaga or something. It's a massive scale production but it's still very odd music and it doesn't have mass appeal. The costs are very high and we're not getting inundated with sponsors. It's very much from the ground-up." Though when he started the tour he claimed he would take no fees until the project was paid in full, he admits by this point he's broken even.
Risky or not, the tour has been extraordinarily well-received—something that Tobin admits wasn't exactly certain from the beginning. "It isn't dance floor, it isn't live-performance based in a way that is engaging. How do you make something that's visually stimulating but isn't just eye candy? It was a real gamble on everyone's part." ISAM does begin to feel like you're watching a movie or sitting in the cinema rather than experiencing a musical event. It's an interesting about-face from a man that once published the words "fuck the visuals, we're sinking every last penny into the soundsystem" on his website.
"I contradict myself all the time," he says in a measured tone, "I've been doing this for 15 years and what I tried ten years ago is hopefully gonna be different than what I'm trying now. I changed my mind when I had an album that couldn't be danced to; up until that point I could still get away with DJing some of my music. I understand that you're looking at some kind of conflict there, but the fact is that things develop over time. I made a record that I didn't know I was ever going to make, so then I had to think about what to do with that record. It would have been interesting to put everyone in a dark room and make them just listen to the music, but why do that? It was a chance to experiment with something else."
Tobin is an artist whose work has always been highly accessible at its core, mincing acid jazz, IDM and drum & bass, all polished off with an impeccable ear for sound design and slinky melodies. But ISAM is all sound design. Glorious, overwhelming and constructed almost entirely out of non-musical sounds, it's the most obtuse and perhaps most aggressive thing Tobin has ever made. Some tracks have rhythms that are compatible with dubstep and hip-hop, but it's more of an accidental similarity; when you're dealing with the sounds of crumpling metal magnified tenfold, you're going to end up with something boomy. "I didn't think at all about how people would listen to it... I was just exploring the music, for my own personal satisfaction, my curiosity about sound," he explains. Admittedly reticent to discuss his studio setup in great detail, Tobin says that it's a mishmash of hardware and software, including sound tools he designs himself or commissions when he doesn't have the know-how to write the program. The music is as "ground-up" as the visual show.
Cognizant of the relatively undanceable course he has taken, Tobin has since started the Two Fingers project as an outlet for music tailored to the floor, "something that's clearly just me venting." The alias was birthed when Tobin grew concerned that his albums were disjointed. He's right—it would be hard to imagine the field recording spree of Foley Room or ISAM's macroscopic digital surgery folded in with Two Fingers-style pseudo-dubstep or drum & bass workouts without some major cognitive dissonance.
The first Two Fingers album was a full-length collaboration with vocalist Sway, but the new one, Stunt Rhythms, is Tobin himself. "There are beats on the new [Two Fingers] album that go as far back as 2007, 2008. Things that I made and shelved, and then got really into ISAM, only to go back and do another track. I just kept building," he explains. It's hard not to hear the influence of ISAM's world-altering sound manipulation on Stunt Rhythms. These beats shudder and creak with the exacting monstrosity of ISAM's most ferocious moments, feeling a little like dubstep built on an interplanetary scale. The project's focus is much less fastidious, however; "I'm just doing whatever works and banging it out in the process of a day and getting it out of my system." It's an instant-gratification thing.
The material on Stunt Rhythms bears an unavoidable resemblance to some of dubstep's more aggressive moments, all buzzing saw waves and cutting distortion. When I suggest an analogue with Skrillex, Tobin looks at me like I've just insulted his very existence, but he admits that the two may very well be coincidentally utilizing similar sounds. But he's not the dubstep head Stunt Rhythms might suggest. "I only listen to trap music now," he says with a chuckle. "I listen to a lot of stuff, but the things that really excite me are still very production-based," he begins to clarify, "people like Raffertie, ESKMO, Holy Other and Phace." The latter, a German drum & bass producer who runs the Neosignal label along with partner Misanthrop, is actually an even better point of comparison, rip-roaring dance music built to overwhelm. He also expresses admiration for Dutch trio Noisia, boisterous techstep superstars who've found bigger and bigger fame as their destructive sound is magnified to Hollywood proportions.
Though he admits that drum & bass these days is "unfashionable"—a self-conscious term he uses repeatedly throughout our conversations—Tobin admires its still-burning spirit for innovation and invention. "I've been a drum & bass fan since the early '90s. I've always loved the competitiveness of it. One thing about electronic music that excites me is that unlike other genres of music you really can produce a sound that's never been found before, shock your peers with something that's like a puzzle to other producers. 'How did you do that?!' And that constant sort of one-upping. It's the same competitive edge that I felt in early hip-hop as well... from the b-boy scene where people are trying to develop their moves. When someone does something that looks completely impossible and someone else just nails it. It's still very alive in drum & bass. Just because people aren't writing about it [anymore] doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I have faith in that spirit of making music that's looking forward, not trying to be retro or cynical or ironic. It's genuinely trying to do things that haven't been done before. 98% of it is shit, but that's the same with any kind of music."
We roll into the Airliner club at about 11 PM, and it's reasonably full for early on a Wednesday night. But the crowd is mostly college-age guys standing with their arms crossed, occasionally nodding their heads. This seems to unnerve Tobin, who already appears concerned about his music not jibing with the crowd despite his earlier protestations of nonchalance. When MC Nocando announces that he's the "secret guest," however, the crowd's excitement is palpable. Tobin stalks up to the decks and drops a ferocious Two Fingers track, loosening up the crowd who begin to show some semblance of life; by the time the punishing drum & bass hits, they look surprised, but delighted. They're still not dancing, but fists are in the air. Once he steps down from the brutal-but-brief DJ set, he's not exactly happy with the reception, but one gets the sense he's not shocked either. Sometimes crowds are just stiff, and he seems irreverently proud of playing "unfashionable" music, cracking self-deprecating jokes on the balcony between interactions with fans and friends.
be performed live; it's not live music.
At the end of the day, you're
always just triggering something."
Two days later we're sitting in the green room at LA's prestigious Greek Theatre, a gorgeous large-scale amphitheatre in Griffith Park in the northern end of the city, set against greenery and huge cliff faces. He's less concerned about ticket sales, but now he worries about the venue itself—namely, the fact that it's a seated affair. The question of "cinema" rears its ahead again, of active versus passive participation, as he frets about the effectiveness of his banging drum & bass encore in such a setting. The outdoor aspect also makes it harder to control the sound, those beloved low frequencies that Tobin and crew have spent so much time on.
Given that most of the work is "done" and prepared in advance of the shows, sitting with him before he goes on stage, I can't resist asking Amon about the truly "live" aspect of the tour. It's an issue that's becoming more and more relevant in dance music as mainstream ideals of "performance" collide with dance music's increasing commercial attention. His position is pretty hardlined. "I don't think electronic music can really be performed live; it's not live music. At the end of the day, you're always just triggering something. I don't have violins in my cube, I'm triggering violins. Is that live? I don't know. Live, to me, is someone playing an instrument on stage, interacting with other musicians. That's what live means to me. I'm not trying to do that. I remember when Deadmau5 came out with that thing about button-pushing... that whole line of questioning sort of reinforces the idea that what we're doing is creating a product that people can scrutinize—like you're buying a box of cereal and you want to see what ingredients are in it because you've paid for it and you have a say in it—but it's not a product, it's fucking art. You can take it or leave it, I've got no obligation to say what's in the box. Who cares?" People care, I interject. "But people are stupid and greedy," he says wryly.
Tobin disappears and the smooth, melodic strains of Holy Other can be heard wafting through the amphitheater; his small frame standing in front of the giant curtain covering the installation only gives a hint of the sheer scale to come. When the curtain is finally pulled back, there's audible excitement as ISAM's imposing, bizarre structure is unveiled. An uneven, seemingly perpetual series of stacked cubes, it's a marvel of modern projection mapping and visual engineering, simple at its core but mind-bogglingly complex in its execution.
ISAM is an overwhelming sensory experience composed of both concrete and impressionistic imagery. The unwieldy structure is meant to be a spaceship, and the show has a narrative, however loose it might be. "It's not War and Peace, man," Tobin had told me earlier, "it's basically a vehicle for presenting the music. Each track has an affiliated imagery and colour scheme... a ship takes off, and the next track we have an engine room. In between there's a meteorite hitting the ship, and the thing breaks off, and I'm in a little capsule that gets jettisoned off into space... it's a thin narrative, but it's enough to make it work."
Any more detailed and it would have distracted from the music, but as is, the ISAM show features a number of dazzling touches, from timed explosions in the "engine room" to playing with the scale of the stage setup as if it's somehow morphing right in front of your eyes. One of ISAM's best tricks is revealing Tobin at the centre—spacesuit and all—playing with transparency and opacity in the cockpit in a way that feels truly "how the hell are they doing that?" futuristic.
Though the theatre is, as Tobin earlier feared, not entirely full, the audience was unmistakably rapt by the show, oohing and cheering as swathes of green flame erupted across the stage or as a giant animatronic... thing... flailed its hands during "Kitty Cat." I didn't even catch many people leaving during the Two Fingers encore (instead, I was treated to a woman bouncing frantically in her chair and screaming incoherently), and a second encore revealed a new Amon Tobin track more floaty and atmospheric than the gritty destruction of ISAM.
I ask him, now that the tour's over, how he feels about the entire endeavour; two years of touring, mental energy and God knows how much money expended. "It could have been better... and it could have been a lot worse," he says pensively, "I probably wouldn't have tried to take it to places like North Carolina or places where it might have been overextending to try and bring what is a pretty niche sound where they've never heard that before. I don't know if anyone did too well out of that... but I also feel like if I hadn't done it, I wouldn't have known."
He reaffirms his excitement to return home and hole up in the studio, but rather than a temporary diversion or grand experiment, it appears as if ISAM was only the beginning of a new stage in Tobin's career. He has lofty aspirations. "I want to get more into processing sound, and changing the tone and timbre. With ISAM, I took all these things I learned about field recording [with Foley Room] and sound layering and editing, and brought them back into the synthesis realm, synthesizing the sounds and turning them into playable instruments. That's something that hasn't really been done, and it's very exciting to be investigating that, and seeing where that will go. It's a different way of making music and making instruments, and a new way to learn about music as well. I don't see myself landing in an actual spaceship for the next record. It could be a vocal banjo record for all I know. I'm definitely not an advocate of trying to top yourself, getting bigger and bigger and bigger, because where do you end up?"