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Forever and Ever Amon

Tobin's Permutation Is a Brave New World of Sound

By Lee Gardner | Posted 9/23/1998

Amon Tobin

Permutation

A lot of times the brave new world sounds just like a newly minted version of the old one. Even in the middle of a set of bleeding-edge club tunes, you hear the same sonic clichés, the same flourishes and tricks, the exact same breaks, even--forever and ever "Amen." Even with an entire worldwide underground going crazy with samplers, you still end up listening to a lot of stuff that sounds more or less like everything else.

Amon Tobin doesn't quite understand it either. From his debut 12-inches, which appeared in 1995 under the nom de gear Cujo up through his excellent 1998 Ninja Tune album Permutation, the Brazil-born, Brighton-based musician has put a premium on bringing fresh ideas, new sounds, and unusual beats into his own swank and verve-y brand of contemporary electronic music. For instance, he says, the use of un-drum 'n' bass-like drums, such as the booming samba-style cannonade that bursts out of tracks such as Permutation's "Sordid," are part of his mission to "incorporate different kinds of percussion into contemporary music, instead of your regular funk breaks or whatever.

"I think there's a huge range of sounds out there that generally aren't used because they might be slightly harder to work with or they're not the things that people are used to hearing. That doesn't mean that they're not really strong and really good," Tobin says via phone from his hotel in Vancouver on the morning of the first date of Ninja Tune's U Can Dance If U Want Too North American tour. "That's the reason I use them. It doesn't even have anything to do with my background, coming from Brazil. It's really because I think that a lot of the percussion, particularly in South America, is really, really awesome and it should be used."

"Awesome" is a word that describes Permutation to a T. After the somewhat subtropical, Latinate vibe of his debut Ninja Tune album, Bricolage, and the subsequent Piranha Breaks EP, Tobin's latest full-length focuses more on showing off his sample-hunting and arranging skills than his interest in exotic musics. In fact, he rededicates himself to a lot of staples of contemporary sampling-based music--bites of old film dialogue, massed soundtrack strings, sax and trumpet lines, etc. But Permutation still sounds like nothing else out there, at least not exactly.

Since Permutation doesn't rely on as many pan-ethnic musical colors as did Bricolage, Tobin's gift for melody (borrowed or otherwise) and his uncanny knack for arranging shine through. No matter how contrary the beats, Tobin infuses the tracks with the kitschy wit of easy-listening mad-scientist Esquivel (as on the Mantovani-goes-breakbeat exercise "Nightlife" or the cartoon bossa nova/hip-hop of "Toys"), but also with the sophisticated, layered swing of jazz arranger Gil Evans (witness the furious and fleet "Bridge"). Most impressive of all, at a time when "drum 'n' bass" is practically synonymous with "epic two-disc set," Tobin's slammin' mini-symphonies remain unpretentious. All they demand of you is that you listen or dance, or both.

"I really don't think about it," Tobin says when asked whether he gears a developing track towards the dance floor or the armchair. "I do the track and hope that it will work in one environment or another environment, but I'm certainly not going to start adjusting my sounds to fit in certain places." Laughing, he adds, "If you start doing that then you're on the road to making house music."

If you are never able to watch Jurassic Park again without thinking that Tobin's 1997 single "Chomp Samba" would have served as much better feeding-frenzy music than John Williams' corny score, you have stumbled across one of Tobin's most important influences, especially evident on Permutation: the cinema. "Films are quite important to me," he says. "I'm quite interested in the ways that film works dramatically. The dynamics of a really good film often come through the contrasts in things that happen during the film. Maybe someone will be very, very sweet and when they turn nasty it's amplified because of how sweet they've been before. Films will be much darker when five minutes ago they were much, much lighter. I try and incorporate that into arrangements as well--the contrast between very, very dark things and very light, sugary things--hoping that the contrast will amplify each emotion."

Considering the sumptuous atmospherics and jump-cut-ready beats of his tracks, has he ever thought about doing film scoring? "I've had a few approaches since Permutation came out," he says. "I'd love to do a score for a whole film as opposed to just a track. It'd have to be something wicked, something really, really good."

Right now, Tobin is well into the middle of a series of tours, and he looks forward to getting back to his home studio to start mining the records he's picked on his recent travels for samples. "I'm fortunate enough to be doing all this touring, and going 'round the world--I pick up stuff everywhere I go," he notes. "It's really good--it's like running around picking up sounds." Still, Tobin is wary of writers' or fans' efforts to pigeonhole him as some sort of musical version of Lonely Planet for clubgoers, as they have in past.

"Because Bricolage did use a lot of sounds from different parts of the world, I was at one time in danger of being lumped in with a whole world-y, dolphin-hugging, cultural-experience-type music," he says. "I'm not making cultural references or statements when I use a sitar or a berimbau--I'm interested in sound. That's really what it's about for me."

Amon Tobin performs at Fletcher's on Sept. 24 along with Mixmaster Morris and Spacetime Continuum as part of the Ninja Tune U Can Dance If U Want Too tour.

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