Amon Tobin Foley Room
Future Music|February 2021
Ninja Tune, 2007

Whoopy-frickin-do! You downloaded a sample pack. Hardly sweated over getting that synth line though, mate…

Spare a thought for Amon Tobin, in the back of a cab, on the way to the studio, to record a taped-up bowl of agitated wasps [“It was hot to the touch. They were furious!”]

This is Foley Room – an album with pissed off insects providing the sounds. As well as the growls of an intimately miked lion, the clunk-clicks of a CD pressing plant, and the whirring turns of a monstrous outdoor satellite dish, to name but a few more.

“I just wanted to treat all sounds as being musical, whether or not they came from an instrument,” says Tobin.

Armed with a “satchel-sized” Nagra tape machine, and the vastly more experienced engineer Vid Cousins and his Earthworks mics, they rampaged around, capturing an exotic library of sounds to help build this staggering album.

“The idea was to record it all onto 1/4” magnetic tape, and then manipulate it later in a really creative way,” says Tobin. “You can really get into tape.”

Indeed. He’d manually slow the machine down to pitch and distort noises until they became unrecognisable tones, full of rich character and new potential.

“You can play a lot with that stuff,” he says. “You can drag it along at the tape head with your finger and make something completely different, or slow it down to an impossible degree without any sonic artifacts. Unlike digital, there was no aliasing.”

Back in the studio he assembled virtuoso musicians, directing them to improvise largely away from melody, weaving his found sounds into the mix.

“They were way over-qualified, by the way, to be doing what I was asking them to do,” says Tobin. “I’d be saying, ‘Oh can you, like, not musically… I don’t know, do this with a toothbrush? Or do it while hanging upside down… Or underwater.’ I wanted all the freedom to take the recordings in any direction I wanted, afterwards.”

Bonkers. If that’s not commitment to sound design, then we don’t know what is. Kinda makes your recent purchase of ‘Epic Big Room Lead Lines Vol.4’ seem a tad lame now, right?

Track by track with Amon Tobin

Bloodstone

“I worked with [contemporary classical string outfit] Kronos Quartet on this album. They actually reached out to me. I was star-struck. Nowadays you call anyone a legend, but they actually are. I was pretty intimidated. These were... proper musicians [laughs].

“By then I’d actually done a fair bit of the record. And I’d been working with all kinds of musicians, telling them exactly what I wanted. I was intimidated doing that with Kronos, but that’s what I did. We were like completely different species of animals, studying each other.

“After a little back and forth we ended up really getting the sound I was after. I was so pleased. And they were such beautiful recordings. I ended up using those sessions across this record, as well.”

Esther’s

“I’d been listening to a lot of surf music. I wanted to achieve that sound without guitars. I slowed down the revving of a motorcycle for the mid and low range of the baritone guitar. And then, for the higher resister, I wanted to use bees. I thought they’d produce that fast sound you’d get from distortion pedals.

“I captured a live wasps’ nest from the side of my building in a metal mixing bowl and taped a record sleeve over the top. I took that in a cab to my friend, John Usher, who was doing a doctorate in sound engineering, and had access to really interesting microphones that recorded in great detail.

“I hadn’t told John I was turning up with a bowl of wasps. He wasn’t happy at all.”

Keep Your Distance

“I’d hooked up with a drummer called Stefan Schneider [from To Rococo Rot]. He’s a really interesting guy – I was just gravitating to musicians that were really experiential.

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