Amon Tobin Details the Sounds and Meaning of Stone Giants’ ‘West Coast Love Songs’
Amon Tobin has been at the forefront of electronic music for over two decades, shifting shapes with an unparalleled abandon, and always exhibiting a consummate commitment to craft. In 1997, when the world spun to breakbeats, Tobin came with a running start, offering a warped, jazzy take on drum and bass. His debut album, “Bricolage,” was appropriately titled, as his art was largely a sampling sport, although one of immense abstraction. Tobin took sampling to its limit in successive albums, and eventually decided to start from scratch, He explored field recordings and focused on synthesizing his own sounds on 2007’s “Foley Room,” presenting a more enunciated delivery of a voice that had been present all along. He went on to explore the full range of this voice, with a slew of acts so disparate that few would be able to pull them off convincingly — which he has. Two FIngers, Tobin’s hip-hop-inspired project, which evolved into a broader, immersive, dancefloor excursion, made an impact from which reverberations continue. Tobin has gone on to explore various styles of music, taking on different aliases to suit the mood and concept of each particular project. The latest of these entities is Stone Giants, emerging with a debut album, “West Coast Love Songs.”
On his last few albums, Tobin has drawn from styles of music outside the general electronic sphere, and pursued them through entirely electronic means, approaching sounds close to the original inspirations, but also way beyond what they could ever naturally attain. With such attention to detail in sound design, it can be easy to get lost in wires and obscure references, yet Tobin always asserts his presence with instincts culled from decades of music and funneled through his highly stylized instincts. For the latest album, Tobin takes on the ever enigmatic nature of love. For such a topic, he embraces the lyrical component often neglected in electronic music, and takes inspiration from singer-songwriters, His new songs are at once immediate and elaborately fleshed out, with texture, dynamism, and an unprecedented sincerity. Tobin spoke with Entertainment Voice about his approach to music, the ideas behind his songs, and his presentation at large.
Your last album, 2020’s “The World as We Know it,” featured some of your most organic-sounding music, but was actually all created electronically through the artful use of VSTs and physical modelling. Your latest release, “West Coast Love Stories,” is also less overtly electronic in its stylings than most of your work. How did you create the sounds this time?
None of these things are meant to be “Oh, it’s me doing a folk record” or “It’s me doing a rock record,” do you know what I mean? It’s me taking folk music and making an electronic album through that lens, or me taking a rock aesthetic and making an electronic album through that lens. The way I feel about it is it’s all electronic music, because it’s all made with electronics, apart from me singing. I see them as a series of electronic albums made with aliases that have originated with different influences, but ultimately, they have all been made with synthesizers, and all the various different techniques I might otherwise employ to make my own stuff, just seeing how far I can go in these different directions.
I’ve never really understood the idea of VSTs as far as trying to mimic the real instrument. I’ve always thought that was a bit silly. I guess there are practical reasons for that — like maybe I don’t have access to a grand piano, and I’m going to do it with a VST, but I don’t think it’s as good at being a grand piano, and a model of a guitar isn’t going to be as good as a guitar. The benefit of these tools, I think, is to have a sound that’s rooted in something familiar, like a guitar or a piano, then being able to do things with them that a traditional guitar or piano wouldn’t necessarily do, or even necessarily be able to do. That’s kind of the whole point. None of this is about mimicry. It’s really about trying to use things in a different way, looking at them from a different angle, and that’s kind of the crux of it. A lot of the guitar chords, for example, that you might hear on the Figueroa album were things that you shouldn’t really do with fingers. I don’t think you have quite enough fingers to do them, or it wouldn’t make sense on a guitar — lots of peculiarities like that. That’s what I thought was interesting about it. It was kind of like a limitation that ends up being your curious peculiarity.
What type of inspiration did you use as a lens for your electronic excursions on the latest album?
It was really singer-songwriter stuff. I really wanted to make a sincere record, not like a pastiche, but a real experience I put into song, and the people I felt were doing that — everyone from Mazzy Star to Elliott Smith. I’m sure you can hear echoes of “Oh Superman” in tracks like “Metropole.” There are lots of singer-songwriters that I just felt stripped away a lot of the paraphernalia around production and delivered a very poignant, sincere, simple song. So much of what I do is about the process itself and sound manipulation and design, all of these things. I really wanted to write an album that was about songwriting and was really barebones in that respect, where people wouldn’t necessarily have had the distractions of crazy sound design. Obviously I applied that stuff to what I do, because that’s what I know, but it wasn’t the focus of it. I did want to write songs that were meaningful themes to me. It was like a retrospective view of my romantic life as an overarching theme.
You’ve spoken of how Two FIngers, your hip-hop-based project, allows you to rapidly realize tracks and expend energy, while the music released under your name is more of a sustained, idiosyncratic art project. What is the nature of the conception behind Stone Giants, the alias credited with the new album?
About eight years ago, I embarked on a sort of selfish, learning process for me — something like, or even this album, let me find some different things about music that I didn’t feel I knew enough about. I’m learning all the time, and I still feel like I really don’t know a lot about what’s possible with music, in spite of having explored it quite a lot. There are things about harmony, for example, that I felt like I really wanted to dig into and explore and learn about on the Figueroa album. There are things I wanted to learn about songwriting, about traditional song structure, even lyricism, that I still feel I’m really not very good at. I wanted to learn more about it, explore it, and the only way to do that is to really dedicate a long period of time to developing an understanding of these things and hopefully your own voice eventually. And so that’s what I did. None of these aliases just kind of popped up. They took years and years to develop, this one maybe seven, eight years — not to write the whole album, but for me to start writing in this way and start to formulate ideas about how I might eventually write these songs, and then start to mix in a different way, to record in a different way. I guess there’s a gestation period for all of these things — lots of steps back and trying to build from there.
The new album, “West Coast Love Songs,” has been presented as “Humans and electronics pooling resources to explore themes of love and being none the wiser for it.” Your single “Metropole” seems to encapsulate this idea, with a human voice and heavily processed vocals in a stimulating, but unintelligible interplay. Expand on the vision and dynamics of this especially original track.
(Laughs) Definitely. The thing is a little about language, exploring the theme of a couple arguing and not being able to understand each other in spite of apparently speaking the same language. I think that’s something I’m sure we can all relate to on some level — you know, “How the fuck is your weekend?” Share the same vocabulary, but have completely different perceptions for what we’re trying to say to each other. It seems so clear what I’m trying to say to you, but you don’t understand or you’ve misinterpreted it, or the other way around — I’ve misinterpreted what that person is trying to say to me in spite of their being really clear.
And it tied into something about language that I always found quite interesting. There’s a theory that it’s not really a reliable form of communication, actually. There are much more direct and reliable ways to communicate, like your body language, your eye contact, your inflection, a million different things that will translate more directly what you actually mean. If anything, language kind of gets in the way because its actual function might be not really so much to communicate, but instead to crystallize your own thoughts. You know when you say something out, let’s say you have quite a nebulous concept in your mind, but then, when you have to explain it, just like a small child, you start struggling. You realize you don’t really know what it is you think about that thing. So, having words to describe your thoughts are more a function of trying to better understand your own mind and your own thoughts, and that’s the primary function of language — not to really communicate. There are better ways of doing that. All that to say that maybe this song explores that theme. The words are garbled. They’re rooted in real words and they sound like real worlds, but they’re kind of unintelligible. But what I would hope is that the emotion of the track and the texture and the pace and the tone and the melody, they all convey what I’m trying to say much more vividly than what the words might say.
On the other hand, the way you have electronically created physically impossible instrumentations is indeed an effective example of pooling resources with electronics. Wouldn’t you say you’re wiser for it in terms of the expressive musical potential you achieved?
I would hope so, but in the grand scheme of things, not really. I’m no closer to understanding (laughs) the wreck of relationships of my life, or how I get better at it. You know, it’s such an eternal problem, for all of us. I guess I’m just grasping at the tools. I have access to electronics to try and get a better understanding of it all, but I don’t think I’m much closer to an answer than your average guitarist or singer-songwriter.
Do you think electronics will beat us to figuring out what love is and how it works, if they develop consciousness?
(Laughs) I think we’ll have bigger problems. But I think there’s a lot of value in synthesizing the environment because it forces you to look at it kind of objectively. So if you’re going to make a visual rendering of a tree, you need to look at the physical thing and try and get the best understanding you can of how light reacts to it, how physics work, how all of those things really work, so that you can make an accurate model of it. And the beautiful thing, of course, is once you really do have an accurate model of the physical thing, you can then manipulate it beyond what the physical thing might have originally looked like — which is again the same principle with all this musical instrumentation. It’s to have something rooted in reality, but then do things that are counterintuitive to the reality that they’re synthesizing. So all of these things, I think, help you get a better understanding of the world around you — just looking at them and observing them critically. Now, whether or not machines would be better at that than us — I feel like they probably would be, but it’s hard to say whether that’s the most important thing though. Maybe understanding things isn’t really the most important thing in the end either. It could be that having the majority of the universe beyond understanding is really alright. And it doesn’t make it any less interesting — which, in the end, is really what this is about. It’s not like I’m trying to solve problems. I’m just interested in what they are.
On another new single, “A Year to the Day,” you tackle the rather incomprehensible marketing choice of smartphones to bombard users with possibly unwelcome photos from a year ago. The way you sing in an extended sigh as the song trudges along conveys a disturbing type of sedate defeatism. Were you trying to call attention to a larger trend?
(Laughs) It wasn’t like a social commentary or anything. It was more of a personal exasperation, partly because I’m a bit of a luddite when it comes to consumer electronics in general. Honestly, I didn’t realize I could probably turn that feature off. But it just was remarkable to me that that would be a good idea for anyone, because you don’t know what’s happened in someone’s life. Maybe a year, last year to this day, someone lost a relative, or maybe there was a heartbreak, or something you’ve pushed diligently to the corners of your mind so you don’t have to face it, and all of a sudden, they’re cheerfully presented to you in a little montage, with music you didn’t choose, while you’re waking up bleary-eyed and trying to check your emails. And that just seemed like a horrific prospect to me. It certainly happened to me on more than one occasion. (Laughs) I wasn’t prepared. I guess it was just an experience I had that I put into a song.
You also have an upcoming album, “How Do You Live,” to be released under your own name in September. The one released song, “Rise to Ashes,” is epic, heavy, and worlds apart from both your latest and earliest work. Tell us a little about what we can expect from that album.
They’re all very kind of grand, epic themes. It’s not a heavy album by any means. I know that track has very explosive drum sections and stuff. It’s not really like that, but they’re all on the sort of grand scale, quite long tracks, very evolving. If this album could be viewed as a magnifying glass, that one would be more of a telescope, I guess.
You’re known for your live shows that stood out for your choice to perform with turntables, and your use of new video mapping techniques. What can fans expect from your upcoming live shows, and do you have any plans to bring Stone Giants’ music to a live setting?
It’s been something we’ve been wrestling with for years, really. My relationship with live performance has been quite odd because as an electronic musician, there isn’t much value in performance. I guess it’s not really performable music, for the most part, which is why the ISAM show, with the mapping and stuff, was needed. It was a way to address that, to say, “Well, I’m not the visual focus of the show.” The visual focus would be the visual interpretation of the music, and that ended up being this monster that none of us really saw coming. It was this huge, global thing — hundreds of thousands of people. But for something like Stone Giants, I really feel like the value of that is in intimacy. I think that some of my favorite shows that I’ve seen recently have been in people’s living rooms, where people have toured living rooms and sat with small groups of people and had that kind of direct experience. I feel like it would be more fitting to something like that, if it happened. But then, I would still have the same obstacle of — well, all the musical instrumentation is electronic, so how do you really do that? I don’t really know. I feel like there are huge financial hurdles to doing live production. It’s very easy for Two Fingers because everyone understands what that is. It’s just a party. It’s just a DJ set. There’s nothing that’s trying to be more than that. It’s a lot of fun to do. It’s been that for over ten years, and it’s been great. I’m just playing music on turntables, and it’s awesome.
You’re an artist who has always been at the forefront of electronic music, having taken sampling to its effective limits during the ‘90s, then shifted focus to sound design, and continued to make exciting advances. What current directions and possibilities in electronic music do you find most interesting?
Well. I’ve definitely had a lot of interest in that sort of crossing point between what we know is real and what we know is synthesized, and I really like all of these aliases for pushing those things. That’s an area that I think is kind of fascinating, because I feel like when you don’t quite know what a thing is, then you’re engaging with it more actively. You’re curious about it, and you’re engaging with it, because you don’t fully understand what it is.
“West Coast Love Songs” releases July 2 on Apple Music.