Earth All Along

Originally published in the Stool Pigeon

It seems fitting that something unsettling happens roughly one minute into my trans-Atlantic phone interview with Amon Tobin, shape-shifting high priest of the dark electronic arts. After all, this is a man whose music can lurch from pastel blue skies to bellowing black clouds in a heartbeat; who produces everything from ambient brain massages to blood-curdling odysseys into the blind eyes of black holes and back.

So it is that I’m only momentarily surprised when Tobin breaks off midway through describing the lead up to his latest album, Foley Room, his voice suddenly tight with horror. “Shit,” he says. “There’s someone at my back door. I think … fuck, it sounds like they’re trying to get inside!”

He drops the phone, which picks up the sound of footsteps on stairs and muffled voices beyond before going dead. I call back three times, but get only Amon’s suitably eccentric answerphone (an insane burst of rave drums followed by a beep). I briefly consider calling Montreal’s presumably mounted police before deciding that this is probably the sort of thing that happens on a daily basis to Amon Tobin – a man who most likely inhabits a Lynchian universe populated by giants that film you while you sleep and then mail you the tapes.

Only a mind like Tobin’s could have conceived an album like Foley Room – a record that saw the captain and his cracked team of sonic commandos hot footing it around the world armed with high definition microphones and recording the sounds of everything that came into their path: from roaring lions to the patter of falling lentils; from passing trains to the whir and rattle of wind-up toy cars. Tobin subsequently locked himself away with the accumulated hours of recordings and somehow turned them into Foley Room – an album that takes its name from the sterilised box studios in which soundmen painstakingly record effects tracks for motion pictures (clacking together coconuts for horses’ hooves and dropping colanders every time someone bumps into a suit of armour).

“It was a huge education for me,” says Tobin when I finally get him back on the line (he assures me that the back door disturbance was just local kids acting up, although I imagine that by ‘kids’ he means ‘backwards dancing dwarves’). “In ten years of making music I’d never even touched a microphone – my records had all been sample-based, so more conventional recording processes were completely new to me. It wasn’t that I’d grown bored of sampling so much as curious as to what lay beyond its borders.”

Cut to images on the album’s accompanying DVD, Foley Room: Found Footage, which show the man himself tottering wide-eyed with excitement over a foil bag filled with ants and one of the most sensitive microphones known to man. Beside him stands John, a ‘sound scientist’ from Montreal’s McGill University sporting a ponytail and a beard, sandals and a torn T-shirt. Tobin confesses to having no idea exactly what it is John is studying, but he’s clearly thrilled that his new friend is able to record not only the patter of tiny ant feet, but also the bizarre sub-sonic squeaks that constitute their surreal insect language.

The dark master of the sampler turns his ear to live recording

“That was one of several surprises we had along the way. Not all the animals were so cooperative – we spent a day wandering around a safari park pushing microphones in the faces of llamas and giraffes, some of which made no noise at all. But that’s fair enough, really. You win some, you lose some.”

Nor was it just the animal kingdom that came under Tobin’s scrutiny: the team also dropped in on various factories to pick up the crash and clatter of countless industrial machines – the rhythmic qualities of which lend themselves well to the album’s occasionally brutal beats – and even spent an afternoon recording avant-garde San Francisco orchestra Kronos Quartet. All told, there was no real formula to the field recordings, and Tobin is keen to stress that Foley Room isn’t a concept album or beard-stroking extension of the ‘Musique Concrète’ movement pioneered by Pierre Schaeffer in the 1940s.

“I’d most like this record to be appreciated on a basic musical level,” says Amon. “I don’t want to scare people off by implying that there’s some kind of complex structure at work, because there isn’t. The recording process itself may have been slightly leftfield compared to more conventional sampling techniques, but my only real aim was to make good tunes, same as always.”

Trainspotters beware: more obsessive listeners will no doubt enjoy picking out real world sounds amid the other-worldly chaos of tracks like Esther’s (motorbikes revving) and Big Furry Head (big cats growling), but the majority of recordings have been atomised and reassembled from scratch, and the resulting album is less of a departure from previous Amon Tobin offerings than you might imagine.

There are both the expected moments of almost unbearable lightness – the haunting organ refrain of The Killer’s Vanilla, for example, or the zero gravity jazz of Straight Psyche – and the predictably mind-altering void music (Kitchen Sink has the capacity to open even the most casual afternoon spliff on to another dimension of creeping unease). On top of that, Foley Room is characterised by Tobin’s usual refusal to be characterised – morphing seamlessly from jittery ambient soundscapes and twisted orchestral hip hop into nosebleed-inducing breakbeat in less time than it takes most people to change a record.

“I’ve been linked with various musical styles in the past, but never really felt tied down to any one scene,” says Tobin, who is also putting the finishing touches to both a dnb collaboration with Dutch dark stars Noisia and an MC-based fusion project with British producer Double Click (under the name Two Fingers). “I think people are often surprised when they come to my shows and hear me dropping records by different artists across a range of genres, but then I can’t think of anything worse than playing only my own tunes to a group of people all scratching their chins in concentration. It’s good to keep things varied.”

‘Varied’ is certainly one way of describing the Amon Tobin live experience – his 2004 Solid Steel mix, recorded on tour in Australia, sees him mashing up his own tracks alongside tunes by artists as far removed as AFX, Dizzee Rascal, Jurassic 5 and The Velvet Underground. But while his mixes cover an entire universe of musical influences, Tobin’s own albums have always been beamed directly from Planet Amon – a world peppered with the fossilised remains of bizarre alien architecture and running with rivers of molten bass.

Until now, that world has seemed a billion light years away; with Foley Room, one of the world’s most enigmatic explorers of the musical outer limits has proved – to paraphrase that poor sap from Planet Of The Apes – that it was earth all along.