Ivy Lab Vs Amon Tobin

Talking creative approaches, record labels, philosophies and more.

The collaborative efforts of Ivy Lab and Amon Tobin (under his Two Fingers alias) have already proved, unsurprisingly, incredibly fruitful. Their first track together, ‘Orange’, landed back in June via Ivy Lab’s 20/20 LDN imprint and its wonky half time beat and weighty bass left a strong impression.

But none of this was a shock. Ivy lab have been at the spearhead of the future beats movement pretty much from the word go when they formed as a trio in 2013. Their efforts have garnered them critical acclaim from both inside and out of the electronic music world and seen them play across the globe. Then you have Amon Tobin. Coming up in the ’80s breakdancing scene, by 1996 he had released a string of singles and a debut album via 9bar records, which led to him being signed by the legendary Ninja Tune. He has since remained at the forefront of his field, releasing several acclaimed albums, producing film and game scores and working on pioneering audio-visual projects. In short, these lot know their stuff.

With their second track together, ‘Hotline’ out now, the two sat down to have a conversation about their creative approaches, record labels, philosophies and more.

Ivy Lab: Tracing your career back to your earliest outings under ’Cujo’, it’s evident that your taste is particularly eclectic and your musical ability all-encompassing. On any given day in the studio, of the broad spectrum of styles you’re so apt at lending your hand to, how do you decide which to angle toward? Do you tend to aim for a specific alias or project prior to a session or do you prefer to free flow and assign the creation retroactively?

Amon Tobin: I can elect to be decisive about it if needed but left to my own devices I’ll typically make the track I want to make and think about where it fits after. Most things take a back seat to writing the music I want to write at the time. Often there’s a specific song I have in mind to make for whatever reason and that’s what I’ll try to make happen.

IL: Also, are there any genres you love as a listener but shy away from producing and if so why?

AT: The only things off limits are things tied too closely to a culture that is not my experience. For instance I’ve no end of enthusiasm for blues music but it would be ridiculous for me to write that music. That’s what I loved about sampling back in the day. It opened up the possibility of directly referencing music you loved without making claims to its nature or history. Like saying here’s what this music means to me. It exists outside of my experience but also here’s how it might exist in an entirely different context. One that is relevant to my perspective, time and place. 

IL: You have a majestic modular setup at your present studio which was utilised heavily in both our collaborations ’Orange’ and ‘Hotline’ – have you always been hardware oriented or have there been times you’ve created ‘out the box’ using only a digital workstation? Does the sheer expanse of possibility generated by all the toys at your current disposal ever feel stifling when it comes to making headway with projects, and if so do you ever undertake any restrictive practices to try and counterbalance this? 

AT: I’ve gone from extremes at different times from working purely in dsp realm and other times all analogue. Of course the best approach I’ve found in the end has been to balance both and play to the strengths of each where appropriate. But there is a lot to be said I think for restricting yourself to a limited palette or even a single instrument at times. Creativity is after all the bastard child of limited resources. 

IL: Talk us through the thinking behind the creation of your new record label Nomark – what brought about the decision? The industry landscape has shifted a great deal since you first started releasing music – what role do you perceive labels to play in the present day versus the role they played back in the 1990s?

AT: I had too many projects running in parallel to expect a label to service. I needed a way to release all in my own time on my own terms. So during a 12 month period I now have over half a dozen albums scheduled, each with their own distinct form and under different aliases. It’s an insane idea I know but I don’t know how else I’d do it. My hope is once I get the material I’ve been writing for the last 8 years or so out I can start looking to release other people’s music on the label too. 

IL: You’ve spent time living in so many different places around the globe – do you feel like the city you live in and its club culture impacts or inspires you creatively or do you feel more grounded through other non-geographical means? If the former, what are some examples of this at work?

AT: I’ve honestly never felt much influence from direct surroundings. It likely does have an impact but I can’t really detect it.

AT: One of the things I loved about your music since first hearing it is I felt it had soul and feel. It’s still heavy and effective in a club but not the typical abrasive sounds I’ve come to expect from a lot of bass driven music. Was there a specific aesthetic you set out to realise from the offset or did it develop over time? Was it in some way a reaction to what you were hearing elsewhere or just a honing of personal tastes and sensibilities?

IL: Our provenance prior to this current hiphop-inspired era means we’re fairly hardwired into engineering our music for the dancefloor, but I guess as a form of subconscious temperance we’ve ended up prioritising organic-leaning instrumentation and cadences. I guess our hope was to achieve a positioning in the electronic landscape that straddles two somewhat disparate aesthetics; leftfield electronica, and unpretentious energy-driven bass music. It’s a fair reflection of our own broader tastes in music. We genuinely love what can ostensibly feel like artless music, but at the same time have great appreciation for the boldly imaginative. 

AT: With the range of festivals there are now along with specific shows of your own both in the US and Europe do you feel able to present a unified sound across the board? Or put another way, do you adapt performances to suit different crowds and locations or do you do your thing and hope people are onboard?

IL: We have our redlines but we do our best to adapt. Not on a genre or mixing-philosphy level, but on a track by track basis we’ll make changes around the fringes furthest from of our core offering. The lighter or more experimental notes might not make the cut if we’re preparing for an adrenaline fuelled EDM event, or a club show in a slightly less cosmopolitan city. But that doesn’t mean we supplant those omissions with uncharacteristically brash music. We prefer to go down the route of resurrecting older mid-intensity tracks, especially if they’re forgotten or under valued bits of music. 

AT: Having had 20/20 running for some time now, certainly longer than Nomark at least.. what would you say are key aspects to maintaining a sustainable independent label? I mean when there are so few financial income streams to offset production costs for things like videos for example.

IL: I think the main consideration for us was having an easily communicable philosophy. For 20/20 that is simply Electronica meets HipHop, and whilst we don’t seek to be overly prescriptive, we are trying to be quite rigid in that doctrine – at least for now and the foreseeable future. The stability of that reputation has allowed us to be slightly less explanatory when rolling out music, and that nimbleness does help compensate for our modest infrastructure by dispensing with a layer of messaging, which to be done with any level of sophistication does require much greater resources. But there is also a much greater question about the purpose of a label. The Ivy Lab catalogue is by far the most profitable component of the label, but all those royalties stay inside the label. Ivy Lab is essentially on a 100% / 0% deal. Why ? Because we would prefer to use those funds to engage in audience and community building, artist development and artistic experimentation under the 20/20 banner. It’s in some part philanthropy, but it’s also a form of marketplace subsidisation knowing that as actors in this marketplace, any steps taken to improve its overall wellbeing and longevity will provide us with more fertile lands to propagate our art.

Hotline is out now on 20/20 Ldn Recordings. 

Buy it here.

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