Scavenged Audio

Amon Tobin turns sound scraps into specialized beats

In the movie-making world, Foley artists are the folks who record natural noises to create sound effects. Their job is to, say, shake aluminum sheets to simulate thunder, or to snap bamboo stalks to mimic breaking bones.

For his latest album, Foley Room, Amon Tobin — the Brazilian-born DJ known for his jazz-infused breakbeats and cinematic works — drew inspiration from those audio specialists. Forgoing his usual vinyl crate-digging, the 35-year-old producer spent nearly a year with microphone in hand, wandering city streets and traveling to specific foley rooms to amass a huge library of source material for his songs.

Automated factory machines, wind-up toys, cats devouring mice, giant revolving satellite dishes … those are but a fraction of the recordings Tobin made between Seattle, San Francisco, and his home city of Montreal. While in the Bay Area, Tobin sat smack in the middle of avant-garde string quartet Kronos Quartet, picking up every nuance of the group's studio performance for use on the album's eerie opener, “Bloodstone.”

“I also wanted to go record those bats flying under that bridge in Austin, Texas, but I ran out of time,” Tobin laughs over the phone. “Generally, [Foley Room] was so much more about what you end up doing with the sound that it didn't matter so much whether we got the sound of a rock falling in Montreal or in Colorado. A lot of it was just finding a good dead space where we could make really detailed recordings.”

In the wrong hands, such a compositional approach could result in an alienating exercise in musique concrète, but Tobin's masterful execution turns Foley Room into a soulful aural wonderland. Water trickles and plinks, deployed both fluidly and percussively to make “Kitchen Sink” mesmerizing. The creepy, downtempo “Big Furry Head” becomes even more menacing with a manipulated lion's growl; and in the propulsive “Esther's,” revving motorcycle engines are reconfigured into a muscular, distorted bass line beneath gorgeous harp and piano melodies.

Often, though, it's impossible to discern the original sources from which the music is derived, a smart move that prioritizes tunes over process, however interesting that process. “Even back when I didn't have any money or tools or resources to work with, I always just tried to make good arrangements that moved me, and then I'd find the best elements I could to fit into that,” Tobin notes. “I always start with something that's a bigger sketch, and then focus sharper and sharper into the details.”

Of course, in an era where such intricate recording projects don't seem as valued (or valuable) as live performance — blame the economic impact of illegal downloading, the “authenticity” debate, or the like — Foley Room exists almost as an anachronism.

“The fact is, if you want to reach a bigger audience, or you want to survive as a musician these days, you better have your live shit together or you're fucked,” says Tobin. “I realize that reality, but at the same time I just don't agree with it. Imagine if we were in this situation in the '70s and the '80s — things like electro and techno would probably never have been invented because peoples' ability to survive as a studio producer wouldn't have been there. I don't think that the live performance should be the only criteria to define music.”

But that's not to say Tobin hates doing shows, or isn't interested in creating a compelling live experience. “It's something I really enjoy, for sure. Some people turn up and they're like, 'Oh, it's only a DJ set … damn … ' and I'm like, 'Guys, it's actually gonna be all right!' I won't be singing on the mike or 'getting my band together' anytime soon,” he adds, “but I try to make it a really cool and unique sonic environment, with surround systems and things like that. It's fucking wicked.”

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