Stepping into Amon Tobin’s home studio in the hilly Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles on the hundred-somethingth sunny Southern California day in a row, it takes a few minutes for your eyes to adjust. With the windows covered in thick blankets and two low-wattage Edison bulbs that cast long shadows over the lengthy room, it gives off the vibes of an old-timey speakeasy — or maybe a womb.
“I start working during the day, but it f—ed me up sitting there in bright light,” explains the 47-year-old producer whose vast catalog of angular electronic music contains little of what might be described as sunny music. “I found if I kept things so it felt like nighttime, I could at least operate. It felt familiar.”
In this darkened space, Tobin has gestated not one, not two, not even three, but seven new albums he plans to release within 12 months on his new Nomark record label. As of this writing, he’s almost halfway there, with Fear in a Handful of Dust and Time to Run (the latter under his plucky art-rock pseudonym Only Child Tyrant) dropping in April and July respectively. The latest is another Amon Tobin joint, Long Stories, out Friday, a moody ambient companion piece to Fear composed mainly on a malfunctioning Suzuki Omnichord, an archaic synthesizer played like a harpsichord that briefly found favor with Brian Eno and The Human League in the ’80s.
“I was so fascinated by that instrument,” Tobin says. “I just kept making more and more tracks based around it — and got to a point of thinking it might be a coherent little body of work.”
That openness to happenstance informs Tobin’s current deluge of releases, which will also include music from newly minted aliases Figueroa, Paperboy and Stone Giants, as well as his club-oriented bass music project Two Fingers. It’s the latter that has recently kept Tobin in the public eye, with a smattering of releases and DJ gigs during an otherwise-extended hiatus from the stage and streaming services.
Prior to this current flurry of music, Tobin’s last album was released way back in 2011, long before streaming’s primacy was enshrined. That record, ISAM, included a breathtaking live show that took Tobin’s “unperformable” musical abstractions to new heights via onstage audio-visual integration. The show was a surprise hit and made Tobin the most obtuse act to ride the wave of early ’00s electronic music spectacles to festival stages worldwide. It also landed him in austere venues like the Sydney Opera House and the Olympia in Paris, as well as in mainstream outlets like Wired magazine and NPR, new territory for the producer whose six previous full-lengths, all on independent London imprint Ninja Tune, rarely made waves outside of that label’s sizable-yet-niche audience.
“We thought it’d be a f—ing disaster,” Tobin laughs. “We thought the thing would burn down on the first night because it was so cobbled together … I toured that thing for two years, just paying it off. Eventually, I made some money on the last five shows or something — but it was totally worth it. It got my music out there and it was great.”
ISAM did put Tobin in the “luxurious position of just making music all the time and not having to worry about sharing it, touring it, presenting it, talking about it.” That’s changed with the Nomark label. For the first time, Tobin is fully immersed not only in making his art, but also selling it.
“I’m the worst person to be running a label, in all honesty,” he admits, “but I need to f—ing sharpen up on all that in order to maintain my ability to make music for a living rather than getting a job.”
As part of his new business savvy, Tobin has partnered heavily with Bandcamp, using the platform’s Vinyl Campaign service to fund pressing records via preorder sales. He’s also offering a digital subscription service, The Nomark Club, that will give members access to all of the current and upcoming Nomark releases, plus subscriber-only material, for an annual fee of $60.
When I ask him, Tobin isn’t sure how many folks have signed up for TNC, but given the fact that the vinyl for Long Stories is currently funded to 248% (with three weeks left to order), it seems he’s stumbled upon a sustainable way to avoid the dreaded day gig.
“I’ve no idea if any of it will work as a business model,” he says, “but I have faith in the music.”
That music-first example carries across Tobin’s “brand,” which largely eschews personalized social media messaging and such.
“All that endless groveling,” he calls it. “It’s just so disingenuous. I do think there’s somewhere in between where you can be smart about what you’re doing and be around people who understand that and not become a cartoon version of yourself.” He was surely pleased, then, that the questions during his recent Reddit AMA were almost exclusively nerdy gear and tech inquiries.
Bringing things to a manageable level seems to be what Tobin’s current campaign is really all about. He’s not promising any live shows in the immediate future, sans some more Two Fingers DJ sets. He has little appetite to return to the big stages of ISAM, and suspects his audience feels the same.
“There’s a glass ceiling for that sort of behemoth,” he suggests. “People will eventually feel there’s a lack of intimacy and connection with the artist.”
What’s left then is, as he’s said all along, the music, of which there is plenty; and new ways to share it with those who care to listen. Hopefully, that will be enough for the time being
“Building your own communities like that seems really healthy,” Tobin concludes. “Having things that matter to maybe fewer people, but they do at least matter.”
Listen to “Full Panther” from Tobin’s Long Stories below, and look out for the album’s full release Friday.