Amon Tobin's 3-D stage show touches down in L.A.
It’s not often that a performance by a world-renowned DJ leaves fans speechless instead of sweaty. But that seemed to be the goal of experimental producer-DJ AmonTobin the moment he decided to take the live show for his latest album, "ISAM" (released April 19 on Ninja Tune) into the visual realm.
“The show really isn’t about rocking the dance floor and getting people in the froth,” Tobin said. “It seems like some people come expecting a DJ set, and what I end up seeing in the audience is this kind of mesmerized stare. In this case, you couldn’t ask for a better response really.”
Employing a 25-foot cube-carved stage structure as a canvas, the live presentation of Tobin’s ambient electronic opus takes audiences on a 3-D journey through sci-fi psychedelic landscapes while bending the boundaries of time and space. The result is a world where fire, ice and plumes of smoke commingle with heavenly constallations and the mayhem of futuristic thrillers like "Blade Runner" and "The Fifth Element." Premiering at Montreal’s Mutek festival in June, Tobin's traveling behemoth commands more than four tons of gear, a sizable crew and some of the most advanced visual technology to date.
We got a chance to view a preview of the show inside a huge warehouse at Felix Lighting in La Mirada in May before it hit the road, and since then, it has created a major stir across the U.S. and Europe. On Sunday, the show rolls into L.A. for a sold-out gig at the Music Box after touching down in Pomona at the Fox Theater.
The idea for Tobin’s unorthodox, live presentation of "ISAM" began with his desire to create an engaging set revolving strictly around the record. One that didn’t just involve him hunched over a laptop or mixing electronic instruments on stage. Instead, Amon plays the role of conductor behind the scenes, embedded behind a white center cube in the giant structure. Behind the veil of opaque, electronic glass, Tobin controls the music as well as a swath of visual mapping technology.
While a digital effect crew runs the projections, Tobin is also operating a camera mounted behind the cube that tracks his movements and projects them onto the face of the 3-D cube structure like some strange avatar from the world of “Tron.”
“The whole idea from the start was just to sort of amplify my movements to the point where really I’m just a small part of what you’re seeing,” Tobin said over the phone. “I might be the source of whatever is going on, but I’m not the visual focus. Because visually, I’m not that interesting to look at.”
The 39-year-old Brazilian producer remains remarkably Zen-like during a phone conversation about the stage show, which he developed alongside North Hollywood-based visual effects company V Squared Labs and Chicago-based digital design firm Leviathan, production designer Alex Lazarus and set designer Heather Shaw. The project itself took about five months to put together with the help of a crew of about 10 digital animators and another crew tasked with building the structure itself.
For the most part, building the show required pulling together digital design and projection elements that had never been used in concert to create a totally innovative project. Vello Virkhaus, owner of V Squared Labs, said that a big part of the process was spending time listening to ISAM together with Tobin and searching for visual concepts and moods to represent each track. Even for a company like V Squared, which has done projects with 50 Cent, Marquee Hotel in Las Vegas and Electric Daisy Carnival, Tobin’s vision was not an easy one to pull off.
“We’d done some other 3-D visual mapping before, but this was the first time I think at this level of 3-D structure that we really pushed it far,” Virkhaus said. “Having that complex of a sculpture piece and seeing what the video was gonna do off of it was really challenging for us.”
Much like the construction of the album itself, the live show centers around a composite of elements from nature and the imaginary realm of sci-fi. Most of the sounds from the new album were created using computers and various algorithms to simulate the essence of real instruments in order to bend and alter their sound in a host of unnatural ways.
“I’m using things that I find around me and I’m trying to build versions of them that I can then manipulate myself in a way that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to,” said Tobin, whose career spans nine albums almost two decades of envelope-pushing electro and DJ techniques.
Tobin takes that philosophy several steps further with the live "ISAM" show. Playing his album back to front with a visual production sequence for each song allows the record to become a living entity with a deluge of spinning cubes, Matrix-style effects and the beauty of raw nature. But behind all the technical wizardry of the new show is the excitement of giving fans a taste of something they've never seen before.
“It’s a strange mixture of the cinema experience and a performance aspect to it to the point where it feels like new ground is being broken,” Tobin said. “That’s the thing we all come away with, this feeling of genuine contribution.”
-- Nate Jackson
Amon Tobin performs with Eskimo and Emika at the Music Box. 6216 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 464-0808, www.themusicbox.la. 9 p.m. All ages. Sold out.
Image: Still shot from the "ISAM" promo video. Credit: Ninja Tune