Amon Tobin: when DJs go live

Time Out looks at how DJs are making spectacles of themselves with some impressive live shows

Amon Tobin's new 3D ISAM: LIVE show in action Amon Tobin's new 3D ISAM: LIVE show in action - © Frazer Waller

No longer restricted to a club booth, DJs like Amon Tobin are using new technology to get ahead by making a spectacle of themselves, finds Oliver Keens

Today’s DJs are suddenly having to consider a lot more than just their choice of tunes. As their daytime studio work climbs the charts, it has created a surge in demand for post-midnight mixing. But for many DJs, the static art of turning dials or nudging faders at a superclub or in a festival tent simply won’t cut it anymore.

The perennial problem, of course, is that a DJ alone on a stage is a visual void. But luckily, some of the world’s most forward-thinking beatsmiths have engaged with audiovisual artists and designers to make ambitious stage structures and AV concepts. They are leading the way for amazing live shows, exploring their boundaries and propelling them into the future.

The story starts with Daft Punk. Their Pyramid show from the 2007 tour was a pulsating marvel that lives on today and has influenced everyone from young US dubstep producer Skrillex to another French house pioneer, Etienne de Crécy. Ever since, the adoption of elaborate and hefty DJ staging has been exponential. Artists like Deadmau5 have emerged almost from the off with some distinctive glowing stage apparatus or other, while even the fogey-ish DJ Shadow has got wise to the game by way of his giant orb, the ‘Shadowsphere’. Anyone who saw the monstrous scale of Eric Prydz’s ‘Epic’ show at Alexandra Palace last year will know he wasn’t exaggerating with the title – the 30m projection wall alone takes three days to build – and even rave-hardy DJs like Squarepusher have new shows in 2012.

One of the most impressive is by Ninja Tune producer Amon Tobin. His ‘ISAM: Live’ show, all 2.5 tons of it, will be erected at the Brixton Academy on Saturday May 12, courtesy of Soundcrash, whose events have fast adapted to encompass the live DJ trend. The weight isn’t just for bravado but a necessity, according to its trailblazing designer Heather Shaw. She describes how Tobin’s beats defined the show’s structure – it being able to move the set with its sheer bass power. Thus the structure has to act like a paperweight, one comprised of a complicated tower of jutting blocks on which stunning 3D projections are fired. It’s complicated, yes, but it’s a profoundly gawp-inducing spectacle.

It’s also a perfect fit for Tobin’s pensive strand of cinematic electronica.‘I wanted it to be less like a fancy light show behind a DJ and more like a film performed live,’ says Tobin. ‘The visuals needed to be a direct and narrative interpretation of what the music was doing. My music isn’t for everybody but this show is. I hope people come away from it feeling like they’ve seen something new and been introduced to music they might otherwise not have heard.’

Meanwhile, D&B pioneer Andy C engages with audiovisual technology as a way of progressing beyond the club scene and into a whole new realm of headline raving. His ‘Alive’ show has been put together by Jon McMullen from event producers Made Up LTD and is geared toward showing off Andy’s skills as a three-deck DJ. ‘We’ve found that the majority of “DJ shows” are pre-recorded and just trigger visuals from a laptop,’ claims McMullen. ‘Everyone thinks it’s amazing, while the DJ just stands there.’

Andy C’s live set-up, however, revolves around a purpose-built DJ booth that takes around five hours to assemble and doubles as a backdrop for some thrilling AV eye candy. McMullen, who also works with Nero, Annie Mac and Flux Pavilion, tours with ‘Alive’ and swears that no two shows are the same. ‘It’s like “Flight of the Navigator” in his booth,’ he laughs. ‘Only Andy knows how to work everything. He’s in control of the visuals, so if he hits a siren, for example, there’s a visual clip that goes with it.’ In essence, the whole show is ‘Alive’.

Taken too far, all this emphasis on spectacle might start to become a problem. Purists might argue that this need for headline status could see a return of the empty superstar DJ culture of the ’90s, insisting that the whole point of partying is to not have a focal point. Instead, a club night’s soul comes from a room of people dancing and interacting, not just passively consuming. Nevertheless, it’s exciting to see DJ culture progressing in these bold ways and using new technology to help it, just as it has always done. And as Amon Tobin puts it: ‘It’s all in the spirit of trying new things, with results we can be proud of.’

The DJ live shows you must see

Etienne de Crécy – The Cube

A true beast of a show, with EDC dropping electro-house from the middle of a projection-laden cuboid.

Daedelus – Archimedes

The LA producer’s shifting wall of mirrors makes for a frantic light show to echo his bricolage bass beats.

Plastikman – 1.5

Always ahead of the game, techno warlord Richie Hawtin embellishes his minimal beats with visuals that even appear on your phone in real time.

Squarepusher – Ufabulum

Tom Jenkinson’s self-built wall of LEDs and matching helmet look suitably mental, perfectly matching his return to breakcore on his album of the same name.

Eric Prydz – Epic

A ridiculously large projection screen that comes right out into the crowd, plus the odd so-hot-right-now hologram.

Listen to tracks by the DJs in this feature