Published Apr 16, 2019In the video for Amon Tobin's "Fooling Alright," released earlier this month as a teaser for his new album Fear in a Handful of Dust, six women are challenged to hold a sincere smile for over an hour in an exhausting display of false happiness.
"There's this theme that's been bouncing around in my head for a while about this need to be the best possible form of yourself, online," the Brazilian-born, UK-raised producer tells Exclaim! in an interview. "This kind of clamouring desperation to be accepted and liked; that you have to elevate yourself to some curated version of having an awesome time, all the time. I feel like it's such an isolating thing for people, which is what the song touches on. That and confidence."
As Tobin admits, even the use of the word 'song' feels strange, as most of Fear wouldn't be classified as songs, necessarily, but "Fooling Alright" certainly can be looked at that way; listeners will notice some vocals on the track, but if Tobin's done his job right, you won't recognize them as his.
"I thought it would be interesting to synthesize my voice and make it ambiguous in every way: gender, subject matter, even the lyrics are ambiguous," he explains. "There are two sets of lyrics that are running in parallel on the song. You can't really hear what's being said, and it's not really important anyway. It's more about the feeling that the vocals convey."
Fans might recognize this technique from Tobin's 2011 album ISAM, where he altered his own voice to sound like an old American folksinger for "Kitty Kat," and a young English girl on "Wooden Toy," with remarkable success. The complicated sound design techniques that Tobin employed for that previous record, however, left him smothered. On his first album in eight long years, he needed to get loose.
"For this new album, I was mainly preoccupied with the idea of beauty and prettiness," Tobin says. "That doesn't necessarily mean harmony, either. I think there's a lot of beauty in imperfection, difficulty and struggle. I reached a point with ISAM where I was very preoccupied with achieving a very specific technical goal — and as satisfying as that was to do, there's a price you pay. You inevitably limit the amount of spontaneity that can happen in a piece of music by controlling it to such a degree.
"So, I made a conscious effort while making this record to allow imperfection in it, and enable a collaboration between myself and my instruments, which were all analog this time around. I'm trying to strike a balance between having a directed structure, but hopefully not suffocating it too much with my own tyrannical will."
When you look at the change in techniques that Tobin has undertaken throughout the years, along with the evolution of his sound — from jazzy sample-based work to more recent wispy field recordings and on to the bombastic drum and bass output of his Two Fingers alias — it's easy to think that he's a man with too many ideas. He'd agree with you.
"One of the realizations I had, a number of years ago, was that my interests were quite varied. I was trying to pool them all into one project, and it was too broad. I wanted to split a lot of these things into different lanes, so I freed myself completely to make music that doesn't even have a rhythm, necessarily, while at the same time releasing music under a different alias that's completely lacking in nuance.
"All these different production techniques — foley recording versus synthesis versus sampling — I pursue it all, but I'm doing it in separate avenues. I love making heavy Two Fingers beats as much as the more complicated percussive stuff, and I also love getting right up my own arse and indulging in sound design and experiments with synthesizers."
Fear in a Handful of Dust likely falls into the "up my own arse" category, though it's a good deal more pensive than pretentious. Undoubtedly the more melancholic side of Tobin takes the helm here, but even if that element of his sound has never been your favourite, the launch of his new label, Nomark, is set to drop a plethora of aural goodies this year. If you click on the Releases section of the site, you'll see a bunch of hard-to-decipher artwork on display. This is because the album covers are significantly zoomed in, and will slowly reveal the full picture as the music comes out. A look at the Artists page, on the other hand, shows six titles, including ones by Tobin and the aforementioned Two Fingers project, the names of which are clickable. Four other names — Only Child Tyrant, Figueroa, Stone Giants and Paperboy — are all greyed-out, however.
In addition to another Two Fingers release in May, Tobin also says that he is behind the Only Child Tyrant moniker (which will also see its debut in May), and has hinted that fans of his '98 album Permutation will find similarities in that release too. Whether or not Tobin is involved in the other mysterious projects remains unclear, but we do know that he's been recording every day throughout his eight-year absence; he has maybe half a dozen albums worth of material to release.
Until then, Fear in a Handful of Dust is out April 26 courtesy of Nomark.