Amon Tobin: a classical composer of the hip-hop age
February 20, 2011 5:31 PM   Subscribe

Happy belated 39th birthday, Amon Adonai Santos de Araújo Tobin, or as most folks call you, simply Amon Tobin. The Brazilian-born producer first released music as Cujo, and has since moved on to his own name, with five albums and a slew of EPs and singles released since 1997, plus two video game soundtracks, and a film soundtrack. He also has an EP of collaborations, side projects with Joe "Doubleclick" Chapman as 60hz and Two Fingers. And that's the overview ... (music samples a-plenty inside, or you could skip the chatter and listen to much of Amon Tobin's discography streaming on his website).

Amon Santos de Araújo was born in Brazil on February 7, 1972, though he moved away from South America with his family, ending up in England. At some point he took his Irish stepfather's last name, and is now known as Amon Tobin. It wasn't until he was in college that he started making music, signing to the now-defunct NINEBARecords as Cujo. Though there are rumored early "ambient singles" for a mysterious HOS label, Amon Tobin's first known release came out in 1995 (samples: Curfew, Lazy Daze, Trespassing, and Apollo), which had some of what would become his signature sound of dark, jazzy percussion, but also some definite influence from hip-hop. Within a year, his sound was more refined, and he really came into his own with the album Adventures in Foam (YT playlist - the actual first track is linked here as the playlist order is wonky). The album was re-released in the United States on the now-dead Shadow Records label with a slightly different tracklist, including Clockwork, an almost exclusive track that was mis-titled therein as The Sequel, which is all-together a different track. The US edition also featured drastically different cover art that wasn't approved by Amon Tobin, according to the notes from Ninja Tune with their re-re-release of the album.

The work of Cujo got noticed by folks signed to Ninja Tune (prev., twice), and he started his career as Amon Tobin with the Creatures EP in 1996, the title track to be featured on his 1997 album, Bricolage (streaming). This album has been likened to a living jungle of sound, with urban moments creeping out; Pitchfork reviewers gave the album a perfect 10, putting it "[u]p there with classic albums by Quincy Jones and Miles Davis." The abstract album art was taken by Strictly Kev (aka DJ Food) when he was on tour, capturing "Olympic Iliad" by Alexander Liberman. Those photos were the stock material that was later tweaked for a couple related singles and EPs.

The next year, a prolific Tobin releases his 3rd album, Permutation (streaming). The album features a number of nods to David Lynch within the album, and Tobin says he worked from more freeform rhythmical patterns and styles of jazz versus his prior bent towards the Brazilian sounds. In that interview, he also mentions making new breaks out of 16 or so percussion samples, giving his work a much more live feel than typical sample-based music of the period. Strictly Kev says the album art comes from "some kind of air conditioning unit" and "a badly lit neon sign somewhere inside a venue", layered and tweaked, with some 1960s architecture magazine imagery added for good measure.

Tobin's fourth album, the third to his name, came out in 2000. Supermodified (streaming) is largely considered Amon Tobin's most "accessible" work to date (for good or for ill), complete with a key track (4 Ton Mantis) being made into a music video and getting used in ads. Again, Strictly Kev found himself using an Alexander Liberman sculpture as the basis of the album art, brainstorming with Amon Tobin about the permutations of an image based on the Photoshop effects and layers applied.

In 2002, Ninja Tune re-re-released that first Cujo album, Adventures in Foam, six more tracks than the original NINEBARecords version (The Brazilianaire, 4 or 6 (sample)), Mars Brothers, Popsicle, The Light (fan-made vid), and The Sequel (MySpace)). Amon Tobin moved from UK to Canada, living in the business district of Old Montreal to avoid noise complaints. Along with changing locations, his music-making process was changing, too.
"When I first started, I used to throw out a lot, but maybe because I've now got more control of my sounds, now the music is closer to the original idea I had in the beginning. Before I'd find a sound and just put it with another sound to see what happens. Sometimes it would lead somewhere and sometimes it wouldn't, whereas now that random element is somewhat tapered, so the ratio has improved, but I might throw away maybe one in four tracks."
The 2002 album, Out from Out Where (streaming), was the product of this new process, resulting in "post-modern science fiction [that] stands heads above the rest." Accompanying the album were two music videos, one for Verbal (director: Alex Rutterford) and Proper Hoodidge (director: Corine Stübi). The artwork by Strictly Kev is sourced from unbuilt Gundam robots that are then re-assembled into new forms on his computer (Kev confessed to being a long-time Gundam fan.)

Following Out from Out Where, there was an odd little in-betweener in 2003: Verbal Remixes & Collaborations (streaming). Verbal, included on OFOW, is a track featuring the chopped-up vocals of a mysterious MC, something Tobin said was inspired by similar work by Prefuse 73. It is then fitting that Scott Herren, Mr. pre-fusion 1973 himself, is included amongst the remixers of Verbal. On the other side was the second serious go at collaborations from Amon Tobin. The first was five collaboration tracks as Cujo, released on NINEBARecords in 1997. This time around, there are another five collaborations: two with Ninja Tune artists Kid Koala and Bonobo, Canadian turntablist P-love, Hip-Hop legend Steinski, and UK-based producer Doubleclick. 4 of the 5 collabs would be one-offs, but Amon Tobin would continue to work with Joe Chapman, aka Doubleclick (more on that later). As for the artwork, that was a collaboration, too, with work by Kev and Doug Bowden.

The next year, Ninja Tune released the fourth Solid Steel mix-CD (YT playlist with 9 of the tracks played), the first to be recorded from a live set (with minor after-the-fact edits for licensing reasons, though the original promo version is supposed to be true-to-form). Tobin toured using Final Scratch, leading to cross-promotion (though he talked positively about being able to play his own blends without needing dubplates pressed for tour, some of his comments about touring with "digital" decks aren't great pitches for the product).

Also in 2004, Amon Tobin was contacted by the video game company Ubisoft's Montreal branch to create a soundtrack for the third Splinter Cell game, Chaos Theory. Of the score (streaming), Amon Tobin said "I tried to write the music as if it was a score for a Dario Argento movie." Tobin confessed that he wanted to make a soundtrack for a long time, and was surprised that the first one would be for a video game. He brought together a cast of musicians from around the world to improvise in-studio. This score also marked the first surround-sound release from Tobin.

His next album was announced in May 2006 as a work-in-progress. That announcement included the first of two teaser trailers for what was initially planned to be sourced solely from field recordings of all sorts, from machinery to insects. But the plan changed, and the album in it's final form included work by Kronos Quartet, as mentioned in another update on the album in November '06. The album, Foley Room (streaming), leaked online three months early, which Amon Tobin thought spelled disaster for the album. Regardless of the early leak, the design was detailed as ever, maybe moreso, as the both the CD and vinyl versions were to include a DVD that featured a making-of documentary. (Bonus tidbit: Amon Tobin's "logo" started as a typeface made by graffiti artist She One.)

If nothing else, those early downloads decreased his interest in making a surround sound version of the album, though the support tour featured 7.1 surround-sound DJ sets. One of those shows was going to be his second Solid Steel mix, but the show was too hard to clear for licensing, and was instead released online as a freebie (also available streaming online).

In June 2008, Tobin started a new series of singles with Delpher, which would later be released collected as Monthly Joint Series (streaming).

2009 marked the release of an on-going collaboration with Doubleclick, and Tobin's first work with vocalists: Two Fingers (streaming). The duo came together over common interests in jungle and the kind of beats Timbaland, Missy Elliott, and the Neptunes were making. But it still sounds very much like something from Amon Tobin's mind.

That was also the year that the soundtrack to inFamous along with composers James Dooley, Mel Wesson, and electric violinist Martin Tillman (sample Tobin track).

In 2010, a few more Amon Tobin collaborations came out of the woodworks. One was work with an new face, Eskmo (prev), for a track called Fine Objects (streaming single). Another was for a feature-length dance film called Pina, a film for Pina Bausch by Wim Wenders. Amon Tobin had earlier created original music for choreographer Kimberly Cooper's Wow and Flutter. Also in 2010: a Tobin-scored sci-fi short Carl Rinsch called 'The Gift' (YT HD) was posted online (more background on the video on Slashfilm).

What's next? Amon Tobin's next album has been mastered, and will be released on May 9th, a new Two Fingers album is in the works, as well as a an album of remixes of his Chaos Theory soundtrack work.

Bonus Bits:
* If you think you heard a Tobin track in a commercial, check his Scores and Music Placement list
* Interview video in 4 parts
* Amon Tobin on DJing, including a move he learned from Paul Oakenfold
* And if you want to dig about, you can find some odd gems of freebies from Tobin's old site, many of which are listed on Discogs on the "label" (Example: Slayer boot, which is a variation of the Angel of Theft one-sided record).
* Piero Scaruffi bio/discography, and the source of the title
posted by filthy light thief (29 comments total) 99 users marked this as a favorite
(creams pants in an arrhythmic - yet funky - way)

Awersome post
posted by lalochezia at 5:34 PM on February 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Happy birthday Amon!

Permutations is one of my alltime favourite albums. "Just cut them up like regular chickens."

and well done flt on the fantastic post!
posted by robotot at 5:36 PM on February 20, 2011

Nice one, flt!
posted by mykescipark at 5:45 PM on February 20, 2011

Nice post Mr. Thief.

My fave Tobin track is The Bridge.
posted by dobbs at 5:52 PM on February 20, 2011

This is fantastic. I bought Permutation on a whim and have always intended to get further into Tobin's catalog, but have never known where to start. I guess I do now!
posted by immlass at 6:10 PM on February 20, 2011

About 20 minutes before you posted this I decided, after a vaguely creepy walk in the cold dark rain, that Permutation would be the best possible soundtrack to an evening in the lab under such conditions. Weird huh?
This is an amazing post, and answers the question of when his next album will be out. Thank you. Although if it keeps me in the lab just to keep listening, I will not be best pleased.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 6:15 PM on February 20, 2011

Amazing post, hugely talented artist. Thanks for this.
posted by erebora at 6:40 PM on February 20, 2011

Favorited this post hard.

Amon Tobin's Bricolage holds a special place in my musical history. There was a time in the late 90's when I had become musically jaded, convinced that we had reached a dead end of sorts.

Then I heard Easy Muffin on a nice set of headphones, the world was reset and I had a new musical hero.
posted by jeremias at 6:51 PM on February 20, 2011

posted by box at 6:58 PM on February 20, 2011

Good lord... how long were you working on this post?

I have to admit my fascination with Amon Tobin dropped considerably after Out From Out Where, but up to that point I was a huge fan, collecting everything from Adventures in Foam onward. Your post has renewed my interest. Great job, Filthy!
posted by 40 Watt at 6:59 PM on February 20, 2011

i've been a fan of amon tobin ever since someone linked an mp3 of 'sortid' and 'nightlife' on IRC. great music, i listen whenever i want to pretend i'm walking around in gotham, on a dark rainy day. great post too!
posted by Mach5 at 7:28 PM on February 20, 2011

Holy Amon Tobin post.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:51 PM on February 20, 2011

I am not worthy of this post.
posted by palacewalls at 7:58 PM on February 20, 2011

think i'll just light up a fat ass joint and wade through some of these links. thanks, filthy light thief!
posted by lester at 8:02 PM on February 20, 2011

This was the product of years of being a fan, a few weeks of casual research, and a few hours to compose it over yesterday and today. I've been thinking about a bio post since my history of drum'n'bass post last year. I wanted to post this closer to his actual birthhday, but didn't have the time to compose it until yesterday.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:05 PM on February 20, 2011

I'm a big Amon Tobin fan, and this FPP does his music justice. Incredible post, as always!
posted by spiderskull at 9:26 PM on February 20, 2011

Great post! Bravo.
posted by filchyboy at 9:36 PM on February 20, 2011

Does anyone know if any of the remixes include an Alexyss Tylor samples? Tobin did a show in SF at the Independent a few years ago and it was one of the best tunes he played.

Also, Taxidermia (the soundtrack album) is one of the most stomach churning movies I've seen in a long time. Not a good supper film.

Great post, as usual.
posted by benzenedream at 10:49 PM on February 20, 2011

I think the jazzier Bricolage is my fave. But I love everything up to and including Out From Out Where a ton. (Later stuff I just love a normal amount.)

Really though I just adore everything Ninja Tune.
posted by aubilenon at 12:05 AM on February 21, 2011

Excellent post!
posted by narcotizingdysfunction at 2:53 AM on February 21, 2011

Ongoing vast swathes of awesome, Sir. I was just wondering what to listen to at work today, problem solved! Hey, and I finished through Splinter Cell - Conviction this weekend, his bits for that game's soundtrack are great too.
posted by yoHighness at 3:36 AM on February 21, 2011

Awesome post. Thank you.
posted by safetyfork at 6:34 AM on February 21, 2011

Very informative post. Love it!
posted by unintelligentlydesigned at 7:23 AM on February 21, 2011

I've been a an Amon Tobin fan for ages it seems... his works and collaborations are so very unique, and evocative.

A belated Happy Birthday, Mr. Tobin...

And thank for all the tunes.
posted by PROD_TPSL at 9:14 AM on February 21, 2011

yoHighness - thanks for the added info + link.

benzenedream - I imagine that Tobin included a sample from that video as a live show exclusive addition.

I have Taxidermia on my Netflix insta-queue, but have yet to watch it. The image of a man happily shooting fire from his penis (and the description of the film as shock cinema with "gore is so utterly over the top and the depravity so beyond base that it’s practically a psychedelic experience" .. I hesitate).
posted by filthy light thief at 9:45 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Taxidermia isn't a horror movie in the slightest, altho there are somewhat horrifying moments in it. I also would hesitate to call it a 'gory' film, altho there are extremely graphic moments in it. The entire film has a very artistic physicality to it, almost Cronenbergian. The composition is also extremely interesting, in the balancing of stories and characters and lives against each other, and how the eras reflect in and on the personas of the participants. It is very much an 'art' film, that just happens to have some spectacularly bizarre and organic moments in it.
posted by FatherDagon at 11:45 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Fantastic post, I'm going to enjoy devouring those links.

I've listened more to Amon Tobin than any other artist (or so says my last fm). I thought I had everything, but I'm delighted to see that there is still so much more. I cannot rest until I have everything this guy has ever produced.

As a non-musician, it's hard to pinpoint why I find his music so appealing. I think, to me, it creates such a rich, evocative, sonic atmosphere that it's impossible not to get sucked in. It's varied, cinematic, and incredible to listen to. I can't get enough of it.
posted by Acey at 3:46 PM on February 21, 2011

Acey: As a non-musician, it's hard to pinpoint why I find his music so appealing. I think, to me, it creates such a rich, evocative, sonic atmosphere that it's impossible not to get sucked in. It's varied, cinematic, and incredible to listen to.

I think that's it - the variety that isn't present in most electronic music, especially the dance-floor oriented stuff. It can be menacing, without getting to tough-guy posturing of some DnB, it can get cinematic, without needing to be an actual soundtrack. The samples don't feel repetitive and endless.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:14 AM on February 22, 2011

Chaos Theory Remixed: out now. I had no idea the mysterious remix album would be out so soon. Tracklist also on Discogs. I'm surprised there isn't more variety in remixers, but there are some weird gems (Daedelus! Lorn! A rather minimal remix by Kid Koala?)
posted by filthy light thief at 7:51 PM on February 22, 2011

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