Amon Tobin on the perks of technology and why all electronic music is called dubstep these days
New Year's Eve is packed full of amazing shows and events, but few will compare to the party that is in store at City Hall with Amon Tobin. Before the spectacle begins, we caught up with the longtime experimental producer while he was on a holiday trip to Quebec, and he enlightened us with his wisdom on dubstep as it stands in North America, what it's like being an (uber) music nerd, and the joys of finding new sounds thanks to the advancements in technology.
Westword: I understand you're on the East Coast right now. Whereabouts are you?
Amon Tobin: Taking a little holiday break up in northern Quebec in a remote fishing village. It's really Christmasy here. I'm just taking a few days with some friends. I heard there is a storm on its way, so I hope that the flights don't get messed up. They say it might pass in the next day or two.
I saw you play on some previous stops through Denver for ISAM with the cubes, but you aren't bringing that, right?
The album I released is called ISAM, and the show with the cubes is the show for the ISAM record. On New Year's Eve, I'm DJ'ing. I had such a good time at the after-party in Denver last time, so when they invited me for NYE, I thought it would be a good time. I'll try to be a little less drunk. I think I might have fallen on the stage.
So you had a good time?
It's really a party, and it's NYE, so I'm trying to have a good time.
Are we getting a Two Fingers set? Can you tell me a little more about this project?
Pretty much, it's real drum-and-bass-orientated sounds. The whole record is something I've been building since 2005 or 2006, and it's just sort of bass-centric with heavy drum-and-bass influence music that I make in between my own stuff, which is much more personal and exploratory. Two Fingers is just naughty bass music. I'll be playing that kind of stuff, all kinds of bass-driven music -- everything except for dubstep. I don't have anything against dubstep, but if I hear another high-pitched screech I might stab myself in the leg.
You don't like dubstep?
It's weird, because a lot of those sounds are from productions like Noisia and Phace in the mid-2000s [which] then got mutated into the North American style of dubstep. I guess what people are now familiar with as "dubstep" is derived mainly from those drum-and-bass synths -- which is interesting, because it doesn't have much to do with U.K. dubstep, and it's this hybrid of drum-and-bass and dubstep.
So what exactly is Two Fingers?
Basically, it's kind of weird with Two Fingers. It has nothing to do with dubstep -- and everything to do with those sounds. The album came out, and it kind of got eclipsed by the dubstep moniker even though it's 173 half-step. I'm trying to make an effort to demonstrate what this kind of bass music is. It's a whole other creature, really.
Which do you like more: Two Fingers or the ISAM set?
It's nice to deejay a sweaty club environment instead of a glass cube for a change. It's a fun outlet.
What do you think of American dubstep?
It's kind of its own thing. It has grown into huge proportions over the years, and more power to these producers out here making the scene for it. I don't have any thoughts for or against it; I just see it as something that is different. I guess the only unfortunate thing is I feel like all electronic music with bass is just called dubstep to the majority of people. I have heard of drum-and-bass DJs coming to the States and being billed as fast dubstep. It's become this generic term for music, which is crazy to me. In the end, the way people define and talk about music is always different than what producers think about (when they're) making stuff. You don't have much control overt that; journalists coin phrases. I find there is too much focus on that. I listen to music and I make music, so I don't care what people call something. It's remarkable that all music is called dubstep nowadays. I released Two Fingers and people called it dubstep. I guess it's systematic of it becoming such a big thing, with stadium-style DJ shows. It's inevitable that things will get lost in translation.
I'm definitely guilty of coining phrases or using such terms since I am a journalist, but how else do people research??
I don't know how imporant it is to be accurate, but people get really hung up on [phrases] and have endless debates about sub-categories. Guys love to talk about technicality and genres and what qualifies this and that, and it's this kind of trainspotter mentality, especially in the electronic realm. Nerds like to get into recollecting and reflecting.
How do you view the whole thing?
I've been doing this for fifteen years, and I've seen so many mutations of genres come and go. Even when drum-and-bass was rearing its head for the first time, it was the same thing. People would say, "It's not drum-and-bass; it's jungle. It's not tech-step; it's dark step...step step step." You'd be surprised about the producers who don't care, and they don't even know what a journalist will call it. It doesn't matter. They just make music they feel. The only thing I do feel is that it's a little bit bland when everything gets called one thing. Even the idea that electronic music is dance music -- that's kind of a bit destructive to think of an entire school of music shoehorned into one thing.
The way I look at electronic music is that it really originated with (Marcellus) Schiffer, Pierre Henri, (Karlheinz) Stockhausen, and people who really experimented with sound and electricity into music. It was research-based at some point, and had nothing to do with raves and dancing and clubs.
How do you talk about music, then, to avoid coining phrases?
When I talk about electronic music, I think about this kind of spirit of exploration and experimentation, so dance music is a very small part of electronic music. It's a segment, you know? It kind of depends on how you approach the whole subject. Dance music is a subgenre of electronic music, and dubstep is a subgenre of electronic dance music, so I guess I am kind of an uber-nerd. I wouldn't expect everyone else to see it like that.
Where are you looking for inspiration in your experimentation?
The vital thing that's the stongest in electronic music is to try and discover something. It's always been this kind of music where you can do something new because it's technology-driven. Technology is always changing and making things possible that weren't years ago. It has this thing where you can make new sounds and make something that people haven't heard before. That is really exciting -- very much so.
My whole career has been driven by trying to discover what and how music works and how sound works and how I can push things further than where they were before. ISAM, as a record, was a real important moment for me because after years of dabbling and researching, I did find some elements that really hadn't been tried before, and there were a lot of production techniques that hadn't been explored before -- and ways of making sounds and music. That was exciting to me, so that's kind of what motivates me: the curiosity of the world, and sound and what's possible.
Any final thoughts about the NYE show?
I hope people come down and have a good time. There is nothing too acedemic going on: It's a New Year's Eve party.
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