How Amon Tobin transformed the live show

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It's rewarding to be a fan of Amon Tobin. Over the course of his eight albums (the first under the name Cujo and another doubling as a soundtrack for the third Splinter Cell game), the Rio de Janeiro-born producer has emerged as electronic music’s dark horse virtuoso. He’s as audacious as he is prolific, from the definitive late-‘90s LPs Bricolage and Permutation right through to his latest outing ISAM. Later this month, diehards can part with $200 for a career-spanning box-set, a bolt-fastened metallic case containing six vinyl records, seven CDs, two DVDs and assorted rarities. What would be overkill for most artists seems perfectly fitting for Amon Tobin.

Back in 1997, Tobin’s evocative, exotic Bricolage set a new benchmark for sample-based music. In the years since, his sound and methods have splintered in various new directions, with 2007’s Foley’s Room drawn from Tobin’s own field recordings rather than found samples. ISAM continues in that vein, but the masterstroke this time is the live show that accompanies it.

On 1 June 2011, Amon Tobin presented ISAM Live at Canada’s Mutek festival: an out-of-leftfield stage production on a spectacular scale. The matrix of shifting 3D cubes, with Tobin perched in the centre, was developed alongside production teams V Squared Labs and Leviathan. What made ISAM Live particularly astounding was how unexpected it was: an ostensibly ‘experimental’ artist pulling off a big-budget spectacle. We should count ourselves lucky they took the leap. Next month, the whole audio-visual experience is coming to Australia for Vivid Sydney and a standalone show in Melbourne.

In conversation, Amon Tobin is as thoughtful and unpretentious as his music suggests. When inthemix gets on the phone to him, he’s just brought ISAM Live to the Mojave Tent at Coachella. Here’s how he sees his latest game-changer.

How did the first weekend of Coachella feel for you?
It was fine. We had a few technical glitches, which I guess is just part of playing a festival, really. You have a lot of different things to contend with if it’s not your own environment. But people were really patient and seemed really interested and engaged with the show. Despite the problems we had.

On festivals, do you have to downsize the show to make it work?
This year for some of the festival shows we have to actually build it out quite a bit. The festival stages tend to be a lot larger than the set, so you have to in order for it not to look like a Spinal Tap version of ISAM, with a little Stonehenge in the middle of the stage. We’ve built it out so it will at least occupy its own room, which brings its own challenges, you know? So far, so good.

No holograms to grapple with, though. Did you witness the Dre and Snoop thing?
I didn’t see it! [Laughs] I heard about it, but I didn’t see it. I heard Tupac rocked it though. I guess a lot of doors have opened right now for doing things we’ve seen in movies, and why not? It’s entertainment when you get to that level of watching Snoop and Dre onstage. You’d almost be disappointed if someone dead wasn’t onstage. Really, I guess you can look at it, and be like, whatever, but…as far as I’m concerned, it’s so far removed from the world I’m in, it doesn’t really bug me. It’s fine.

When building ISAM Live, did any other electronic live shows play on your mind, or was it very much an autonomous concept?
Well, I guess the thing is about this show, it wasn’t like I sat down and thought, “How can I make the biggest splash in the world?" It was more like, “Shit, how am I going to present this record to anyone?” It’s not a live album, it doesn’t have any musicians, it’s not a DJ record. It really was a form-follows-function situation, where I had to think about a different way to perform.

Of course, there are loads of electronic acts using massive productions. You can look at Daft Punk and Deadmau5, all those guys. The distinguishing factor is that those are dance shows. It’s about getting your rave on. The visuals are incredible but it’s not inherent to what’s going on.

It might be hard to see what this show is all about if you’re watching it on YouTube, but really, it’s a mixture of a cinematic experience and a live experience. You’re not just watching visuals as a backdrop to a DJ. It’s really a very, very well-thought-out, storyboarded, linear thing that’s inherently linked to each sound in the music. I feel like there’s some substance to it, because there’s a reason for doing it.

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