Artist Spotlight: Amon Tobin – Orphan Black, Splinter Cell, and Brazilian Jazz

I’m starting this Spotlight with the best tracks first. If you listen to nothing else today, listen to these two songs.…

Those are the first and second tracks off of Supermodified, Amon Tobin’s fourth major studio LP, which came out in 2000. At the time, he was an up-and-comer in the world of IDM (intelligent dance music, if you can believe that) and DJ culture. I have very little specialized knowledge on this kind of music; I just know what I like. So if I get something wrong in this feature, it’s up to you to correct me in the comments.

Amon Tobin was born in Brazil and grew up all over Europe. His family eventually settled in Brighton, which is where he began recording music. Under the name Cujo, he got signed to a small label, then picked up by the larger Ninja Tune, home to respected artists like Herbaliser, DJ Vadim, and its founders, Coldcut. Ninja Tune has since grown into an empire of sorts, and its roster has included heavyweights like Bonobo, Kid Koala, Daedelus, and Diplo.

In 1996, the label re-released Tobin’s Cujo work under his real name on a collection called Adventures in Foam. Most of this music is in keeping with where IDM was at the time, which was just starting to break free from the club scene, but not yet so far away that strictly ambient compositions would seem normal. (Remember: I don’t know what I’m talking about. Correct me if you know better.)

Cujo/Tobin’s reliance on samples from Brazilian jazz and bossa nova give this album a loungey feel, and honestly, I like it better than some of his more avant garde later work.

He followed that up almost immediately with Bricolage, which balances his spacey vibe with contemporary drum-n-bass trends. Its mesh of jazz samples and jungle rhythms wowed critics, including Pitchfork, where it got a rare 10/10. The standout track is “Easy Muffin,” part of which you may have heard in one of the many TV shows, commercials, Toonami bumpers, or other uses it’s been a part of.

Next came 1998’s Permutation, which, as is the case with many Amon Tobin records, is incredible when coming out of your CD player at night. It combines extremely fast breakbeats with otherworldly samples that sound like Star Trek lasers if they were played slowly or backwards. You can start to hear some new ideas being developed that are interesting on an intellectual level, but not super catchy. He still has club-appropriate songs, like “Reanimator”:

… but also jazzy pieces, like “Nova,” later the basis for a Bebel Gilberto song.

Supermodified came out in 2000, and this is where Tobin turned the ideas he’d been working on for the last two records into something that a clueless listener like me could really dig. It’s still drum-n-bass, but not too heavy; catchy, but not cloying. The first two tracks on this Spotlight are from this record, as is “Deo” below, which fits nicely into that trip-hop-meets-IDM space where Tobin thrives. The song includes at least one sample from the works of, and is probably named for, Tobin’s fellow Brazilian Eumir Deodato, who was mentioned in the’70s Classical Pop Covers Spotlight .

Tobin moved to Montreal in 2002, which is also when he released Out From Out Where. Beyond the physical distance from his UK-based label, this is where his music starts to really stray from the rest of that imprint’s work as well. I think he never really fit in at Ninja Tune in the first place; in the retrospective book Ninja Tune: Twenty Years of Beats and Pieces, he’s quoted as feeling out of place among the rest of the drum-n-bass artists on the label, whom he would run into when getting his dubplates cut — they had their dope beats, and he had weird samples, Disney movie cues or odd sound effects “that would make everyone turn round and look at me like I was a freak.”

Still, Tobin has remained loyal, never leaving his label. Perhaps that’s because, awkward glances aside, Ninja Tune remains an island of misfit toys, and he wouldn’t belong anywhere else.

From DJ Magazine:
“There was a time when, if you used a sample, it was important that people recognised where things came from, so that they could see what was happening to it,” [Tobin] says. “But after a certain point, when you change a sound so much and the grains get so small, it’s sort of irrelevant, so I realised at that point I didn’t need to be using samples, I could take sounds from anywhere.”

2007’s Foley Room is an experimental record that doesn’t really sound like one. To make it, Tobin used no pre-released audio samples, and built all of the songs from real-world sounds that he and other Ninja Tune staff recorded in the field. Infamous examples include a tiger growling at the zoo and a beehive that Tobin carried into the studio in a glass bowl. He did hedge a bit by having classical heavyweights like Kronos Quartet and harpist Sarah Pagé record some “samples” that he could use in the mix (six years before Daft Punk did the same thing on their chart-topping Grammy-grabber Random Access Memories). Either way, the result is the natural outgrowth of where his previous two records were going: a denser soundscape built from a collage of audio clips that may or may not have been “music” when they were first recorded, but are undeniably transformed into it once Tobin got his hands on them.

If you studied music history, you know that using recorded, non-musical sounds is called musique concrète and was invented in the 1940s by experimental French composers. Of course, those guys didn’t have the sophisticated equipment available to people like Tobin, and (forgive the broad generalization) they were more interested in going way out into the fields of the avant garde, so none of their works are anything you would play in a club. Later examples of musique concrète include songs like “Revolution 9” and “Dogs Barking Jingle Bells,” so I think you can see why this subgenre never got its own bin at Tower Records.

So … what about Two Fingers? Good question. Two Fingers is Tobin’s “musical alter ego” — that is, it’s another name he records under. But unlike Chris Gaines, the Gorillaz, or x-sample, Two Fingers’ music is in the same genre as Tobin’s, and in fact, he sounds a lot like his originator. (It was under this name that Tobin contributed the theme music to Orphan Black.) I think the difference is that under his own name, Tobin progresses farther along the Brian Eno-like path of soundscape experimentation, while Two Fingers hangs back to drop big beats or collaborate with rap artists and other DJs.

About that experimentation. Tobin’s next (and so far last) full-length was 2011’s ISAM, which stands for Invented Sounds Applied to Music. It goes far beyond Foley Room in its use of field recordings, both in terms of the unlikelihood of the samples and in the amount of processing Tobin applied to turn them into something resembling music.

In a world where electronic dance music is played at festivals to more than 100,000 molly-rollers at a time, massive and freaky stagecraft is the norm. So it’s in keeping with his place in the genre that Tobin’s version was a little more contemplative than your typical Disneyland-Dubai-cocaine-rainbow party. His set for the ISAM show consists of a large pile of Tetris-like blocks stacked across the stage, with a series of images and lights projected across them. Tobin performs from inside a cube in the middle.


Tobin hates hearing that his music sounds like scores to nonexistent movies, even though part of what people mean when they say that is that film music composers are relying more and more on the kind of soundscape-generating techniques that Tobin and other cerebral DJs pioneered. He has scored a few obscure films, like the Hungarian horror flick Taxidermia and the 2009 documentary Pax Americana and the Weaponization of Space, as well as the smash hit video game Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory.

He’s also put out as many as 21 EPs, and damn if you think I’ve heard them all, or that I’m going to summarize them somehow. I will mention Dark Jovian, which came out in 2015. Tobin composed the music after binge-watching outer space movies. Aha! A score without a film. “Even so, what I was really trying to do was to interpret a sense of scale, like moving towards impossibly giant objects until they occupy your whole field of vision, planets turning, or even how it can feel just looking up at night,” he said in Ninja Tune’s promotional copy.

That’s probably why the tracks are named after Jupiter or one of its moons. He also name-checks orchestral composers like John Williams, Jerry Goldsmithand György Ligeti as his influences. There’s barely a beat to be heard here, only ambient tones gliding around each other. It’s pretty much what I imagine it would sound like if you took Tobin’s earlier work and let it float in zero gravity.

Amon Tobin’s next LP is expected in 2017.