The A/V Art of ISAM 2.0
Amon Tobin can make music using the buzzing of bees and motorcycle engines. Tonight, he brings his massive audio-visual experience, ISAM 2.0, to the House of Blues to blur the line between art and music.
Your latest full length is a piece of art in itself, musically. Why did you think it was necessary to add the visual element to your performance?
I’m not really an entertainer at the end of the day. I’m just trying to explore and find out about music and sound and trying to figure out what it’s all about. So I do that, and in the process I make tracks that are kind of hard to perform, because they’re not geared for performance. I’m using computers and electronics and all of that, so I had to think of a way to present the music to people when I finished this record.
If you had to explain to people what you’re doing inside the cube—you’re triggering the projections, right?
Yeah, I’m pushing buttons and twiddling knobs and doing what I would be doing in my studio. Like, I’m working with infrareds, for example, and basically using a lot of midi to trigger the visuals and music.
Do you think that’s an important thing, as an artist, to disappear within your art?
For this record, it made sense, because I’m not using any instruments. Visually, there’s nothing interesting about playing a laptop on stage and a bunch of synthesizers, twiddling knobs and pushing buttons … I didn’t think I needed to be, visually, the focus of the show, because I’m not that visually interesting to look at on the stage. [Laughs]
What I’m doing is more interesting.
But you can see your head in there sometimes, you know that right?
Oh! [Laughs] I know! I do make appearances sometimes. [Laughs.] I wasn’t going to at first. I wanted to be completely hidden away, but it did make sense to have some sort of connection to make sure that people knew I was there behind it all …
What audio/visual elements have been added to the 2.0 show?
Lots of things about the show had never been tried before. The idea of being not really visible for most of the show, even though you’re the person people have come to see. That, conceptually, is a new thing.
Also trying to make, kind of, a film that you’re inside of performing–as opposed to doing a regular DJ set in front of a wall of LEDs–to make something that isn’t a dance party, [and] to have electronic music very, very linked with what you’re seeing rather than having some colorful eye candy backdrop to what you’re doing.
Now we’ve figured out what works, what doesn’t work, and of course, as soon as we get comfortable we have to mess it all up and try to do it again. [Laughs]
Could you explain how you record ordinary sounds from our everyday lives and existing samples and piece them together, or re-organize them—“defamiliarizing” them—when making your music?
“Defamiliarization” is not a thousand miles away from I’m talking about. With the samples, it wasn’t so much about using jazz or blues or all of those things, it was about what would happen if you put those sort of established musical givens into new musical contexts—taking things that are familiar and putting them out of their comfort zone and into a new musical environment to see what would happen.
It’s also about trying to understand things a bit more by synthesizing them. You know, if you did a painting of a chair, or a car, or a cup or something, you’d have to think about how perspective and light work–how all of these things happen in the natural world–when you’re trying to re-create that.
It’s very similar with synthesis. If I’m trying to make, for instance, a snare drum, or a synthesized version of a snare drum, I have to think about how those actual instruments are made … the chamber, strings, you know how these things work together to make this sound. And that’s what I learn when I’m synthesizing things.
Can you give some examples of things you’ve recorded and done that with?
I recorded a lot of things, mainly based on texture. Because you can break down any instrument into various different components. So what I do, is I’ll go out and try to find sounds in nature that would do similar jobs.
A crackle or something quite mundane can do the job of the high frequencies in acoustic sound … for instance I tried to make a surf guitar once [Laughs] using bees and a motorcycle engine.
Did you work with the visual artists at V Squared Labs to design ISAM?
Well, first I had to conceptualize the show, and figure out what I wanted it to be. I wanted to be inside of an environment that’s changing depending on what the music is doing. So I looked at various different technologies that could do that—I looked at various reactive surfaces and holographic stuff, a lot of visual mapping, that might be something that I could use. Then I had to find someone who could actually do that, and then someone else who could build the physical set to be inside.
Once all of those people had been gathered, I paced it like a musical score, as if it was for a film, then storyboarded it with Vello [Verkhaus] from V Squared Labs. We spent some days thinking about each track and all of these narratives, putting together various visual stories.
I actually saw your ISAM live performance at Camp Bisco this summer. I was saying how the headliners of that festival were Bassnectar and Skrillex, so I felt like a lot of their fans just didn’t get it. But then I walked over to the side of the field and the whole side was covered with hundreds of kids sitting Indian-style on the grass and loving it—watching it like it was a movie. Then all the Bassnectar people were like, “WTF?”
[Laughs] Yeah, you know I got a perverse kick out of being there. I obviously didn’t belong. But that’s what’s so good about doing this. Because it is different, and it will confuse some people I guess. Because when you say “electronic music” to people, at first they think “dance music.”
A lot of people don’t understand the notion of electronic music not necessarily being about waiting for the drop.
With all these festivals like Camp Bisco, electronic music has kind of become this mainstream thing in the US. Do you think that European audiences were kind of more forward-thinking or accepting of ISAM live than those kids at Bisco for instance?
If anything, it’s been kind of bigger in Europe. It’s been incredible there. To be honest, I’m so far removed from the mainstream. And I don’t think of that as a diss; I really think there’s enough room for everyone in this. It’s just that my interests are quite specific, and they’re not going to appeal to everybody. I’m just doing what I do. I was doing it before this and I’ll be doing it way after it’s not popular anymore.
What do you think of when you think about electronic music?
I think of it as Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry and Kraftwerk. That is electronic music to me. Dance music is only a fraction of electronic music.
You’ve lived in Brazil, Morocco, London, Portugal, Amsterdam, Brighton, now just north of San Francisco. Which place has your favorite type of food?
My favorite food! Well, I dunno, I guess I’m a sucker still for Brazilian barbecue. I like English dessert [Laughs]. San Francisco, health food I guess. I try. [Laughs]
Which place parties the hardest?
I’ve been so lucky; I’ve had amazing parties in so many different places. I couldn’t pick one, honestly. I do love London for that. I remember some great drum and bass parties out there.
What is “art” to you?
It’s just a way to communicate something that’s very hard to articulate. To me, it’s about that. You have various different mediums to communicate things that are inside you. You can use words and poetry and paint. You can use a visual medium … or you can use music. And all those things have their own strengths.
To some extent it’s about trying to make people think a little bit about what they’re presented with. Whatever you do, the effect of what you do is what it’s all about.
AMON TOBIN ISAM 2.0
WITH HOLY OTHER
HOUSE OF BLUES
15 LANDSDOWNE ST.