EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW (+ TRACK SNIPPET PREMIERE!): TOSIN ABASI OF T.R.A.M. AND ANIMALS AS LEADERS
(photo credit: Loren Scott Photography)
Given how much we love Animals as Leaders here at MetalSucks it’s kinda hard to believe that we’ve never formally interviewed band mastermind and founder Tosin Abasi, but there you have it — until now. Abasi, who was ranked #2 by MetalSucks on last year’s Top Modern Metal Guitarists list, is about to release the debut album by his jazz-fusion side-project T.R.A.M., so it seemed like a good time to catch up with him and talk all things related to his multi-faceted career.
Turns out that Abasi is currently in Australia and New Zealand on a guitar clinic tour, something he says he plans to do a lot more of in the future. He gave us lots of juicy info about how T.R.A.M. came together, how the music was written (music nerds, you’re gonna live this part), his thoughts on the explosion of the instrumental prog scene and “djent,” and what the future holds for Animals as Leaders, T.R.A.M., and Abasi himself.
And as an added treat, T.R.A.M.’s given us an exclusive premiere of a 2-minute snippet of the song “Consider Yourself Judged” from their forthcoming album Lingua Franca (February 28th, Sumerian). All that, after the break.
As I connect with Tosin on the phone he’s in the midst of running errands to prepare for his clinic tour of Australia and New Zealand, for which he’s leaving the U.S. the next day…
Tosin: I’m leaving for Australia tomorrow so I’m trying to run some errands. I’ll be doing guitar clinics. It’s kind of under the radar. It’s not as promoted as a tour would be; it’s more educational.
Vince: At universities or the usual clinic kind of stuff?
Music stores. It’s through Ibanez, their Australian distributors — some of the larger stores are advertising and putting together these demonstrations for the eight-string prerogative.
Is it under the radar intentionally? Do you want to keep it that way or is it something you’re just not actively promoting?
It’s not intentional, but for an [Animals] tour there’s usually whatever relevant sponsors as well as each promoter in every city. They just get blasted a little harder. Since this is Australia and New Zealand, I think these websites are not really on our radar and it’s kind of on the ground level too, local music stores. It’s just not as big of a deal as a tour would be.
Yeah, it’s like doing a mini-tour. The money is good and you’re taken care of. It’s actually going to be way more comfortable than going out in a van and trailer. Ibanez is a pretty large corporation, so I think it is a viable option, and it’s great because you get to connect with fans of your music who actually get to pick your brain as opposed to just coming to see your band and wondering what’s going on the whole time. It’s basically a Q&A situation as well as a performance. I really like them.
Do you have any plans to do any kind of clinic tour in the U.S. or Europe?
Yeah, there’s stuff set up in Europe for March and I would definitely like to do stuff in the states. I’ve done universities like Musicians Institute and the Berklee College of Music as well as the Fender Center, which is in Southern California. It’s been kind of sporadic so I’d like to do more for sure. Requests are coming in all the time, which is great.
Now you have that and two bands to juggle schedules with too. Let’s talk about T.R.A.M. — what was the inspiration behind getting that band together?
It was really out of the blue. Javier and I had just gotten off tour with The Dillinger Escape Plan, I guess it was 2010, March? Or maybe 2011. We had just gotten into Los Angeles and I had recently been contacted by this kid Raanen Bozzio, he had a friend of his who’s actually Adrian Terrazas [T.R.A.M. woodwind player]. Long story short, Raymond and I were supposed to do some sort of trio, some jazz improvisational stuff with Adrian. This was just going to be for fun. But when I finally linked up with Adrian we started instantly playing over material I already had, and the creative vibe was really strong so we continued to get together and play over that same material. We very quickly realized we had a lot of chemistry and that we had a body of work. We said, “We should record this stuff.”
The only issue was that we didn’t have anyone to play drums, so we reached out to Eric Moore [Suicidal Tendencies] just because he was a phenomenal player and we wanted someone in that fusion, gospel chops sort of vein. You need to see him play, my words don’t really capture it. So we already had the material before we reached out to Eric and he expressed that he really wanted to do it. So we flew him down and the recording session was literally the first time we met him; “Hey, nice to meet you,” and we hit “record.” So then he got to experiment over the prearranged ideas and the final product is what we put together from Eric’s various takes. T.R.A.M. kind of came out of the blue from a chance meeting for different projects and I felt the material was worth recording and actually making a whole project out of.
(T.R.A.M. track “Endeavor,” released in July of 2011)
Had Eric heard any of the music before he came down to jam with you guys?
Not really. We sent him some demos without any drums, and the arrangements were different. So he might have listened through the ideas maybe once but I’m fairly certain that when he got down there he was hearing the stuff for the first time so it was all new to him.
So you recorded what he was doing and then, once you had it all, you took a look back, saw what you had and rearranged it?
We would vamp each part of the song; we’d record Eric doing different interpretations of the part. Sometimes a heavier feel, sometimes a half-time feel or sometimes soloing over a part. That way we were kind of able to get an idea of what we wanted the drums to do and where. We only had him in the studio for a day and a half, so he had to go on tour and we had to choose the best takes that we liked and comp the songs together that way.
You mentioned you had written a bunch of stuff that later turned in
to the T.R.A.M. songs. Was that stuff you had intended on using for Animals as Leaders that you adapted, or was it random stuff you had no purpose for yet?
Good question. I’m kind of always composing little bits of music and usually it’s for Animals as Leaders, but the material I was developing that ended up being T.R.A.M., it was stuff that could have been Animals as Leaders but we decided… what I’m getting at is that the material on T.R.A.M. could have been Animals as Leaders but a lot of it is a bit more open and less metal. The rhythmic ideas and the melodic concepts still sound like my writing, it still sounds like Animals as Leaders. I wanted to do something different — we call it metalizing it. You could take a core musical idea and then you make a choice — like do you throw distortion on the guitar with a bunch of double kick? — then you’re metalizing it at that point. What I decided to do with T.R.A.M. was to take this material and not metalize it into Animals as Leaders stuff. I wanted it to stay a bit more open and to try some different instrumentation, like horns and tenor sax, and have the drums be a bit more improvisational and free over the material as opposed to rigid and synched like we normally do with Animals as Leaders. So it’s an aesthetic difference. Some of the material is obviously way more jazz-orientated while some of it is not that far off from a potential Animals as Leaders riff or song.
Do you feel that you’re kind of sick of metal, or over it?
[chuckles] Huh… I wouldn’t make a sweeping statement because I think there are metal bands that are innovative and really inspiring. I think with any genre of music there can be a large percentage of it that’s isn’t very inspired or original.
I meant from your perspective as a writer.
Am I sick of metal as a writer? Like when I go to write? Uh… [pauses]… I don’t think so. I kind of like to stretch the idea of what metal is. I don’t think I really ever felt that limited even within that window, because I like to try different ideas within the genre of metal. I like musical aggression; I like other things that are metal. It’s a really gratifying genre of music to play. The T.R.A.M. stuff I just wanted to avoid my default approach as far as what my main band sounds like. Like, what if I wasn’t necessarily intending this to be heard by a metal audience, what would my musical choices be? Also, being a fan of jazz, it was more about using improvisational music than rigid composition.
We talk to a lot of bands, obviously, and read a lot of stuff. The longer guys have been doing it, the more they say, “Well, you know, I feel I have to write into the style people expect my band to be, or else fans won’t accept it.” Do you feel that way with Animals and having to do the jazzier stuff under a different name?
In a way, yes. Out of respect of what Animals as Leaders means to people it was almost like retaining that identity and what established it, and allowing this other creative direction to be something else. Once your band is at a certain point of awareness, there comes this weird sort of obligation to write music that will continue to keep those same fans interested for the same reason, but it can get kind of weird as far as your creative direction is concerned. You feel like like you don’t have total freedom and you have an obligation to your listener. With T.R.A.M. it was cool because no one had heard the stuff and I feel like it’s a different part of my musical mind, you know? I felt like I had a little more freedom, there isn’t any flute in Animals as Leaders but there’s bass clarinet and flue in T.R.A.M. I think that’s pretty cool.
You should try and throw some flute into the next Animals as Leaders album just to fuck with people.
Yeah, we’ll see.
But I totally understand. With Animals as Leaders I think that project did a lot better than anyone expected it to. It really kind of took on a life of it’s own, which for an instrumental metal record in 2008 was really a big deal.
You’re right; it really did exceed expectations, even mine. It’s pretty rad.
What do you think of the explosion of instrumental metal in the last three years?
I think it’s rad. In a way the explosion of instrumental bands or prog metal being way more popular — or even “djent” or whatever you want to call it — represents a renaissance in music across the board. I think the Internet has allowed listeners to connect with artists in a way that… maybe people have been wanting to hear instrumental prog for a while and they only had the obvious choices of these really large bands. Maybe there were these underground artists who haven’t been able to connect with their listener all along. I think social media and file sharing, blogs and other things have become so integrated in how people find music that it has created a fertile sort of environment for any type of band to reach any type of listener. So I think it’s created this phenomenon where we say these genres of music are bigger now than they used to be, but I think some of these factors like this Internet 2.0 thing are really contributing to this wildfire phenomenon of music being really healthy in so many ways. I think it’s great and I want it to continue.
Do you ever worry there will be an over-saturation and it’ll end up being a fad?
Well, there’s always that potential with anything that becomes really popular. You have people getting into it for the wrong reasons and you also have a backlash because people are tired of being inundated with the same thing. I don’t know, that could happen, but it won’t really effect what I do or why I do it. I hope to be a part of the people that are pushing things forward as opposed to bandwagoning off of it.
Where do you see the future direction of both Animals as Leaders and your own personal career — whether that’s T.R.A.M. or something else — musically or professionally for the next 5 to 10 years?
Good question. I think I’m going to be doing more of the instructional stuff through various clinics and seminars. I also might release some instructional material whether it’s in DVD form or various books on technique or guitar playing in general, 8-string guitar stuff. As far as Animals is concerned, we’re already writing for another release. We’ll try to put out another album and top ourselves and try to create something that’s closest to the music we hear in our heads. There’s always the potential of collaborating with other artists too. Just more music in all shapes and forms.
I think you’ll have those options available to you, which is cool as a certain status of player. I was talking to Doug Pinnick from King’s X last week. That dude is 61 years old and he’s still fucking doing it. He said, “I’m at a point in my career, even though record sales are kind of in the shitter, I can make a living because I’ve gotten to a certain point where people just want to do side projects with me and I could probably do that until I die.” I thought that was a cool outlook on things.
Nice. That’s good for him, man.
Any plans to bring T.R.A.M. out on the road?
We’ll have to wait and see because it was an unpredicted side project and all of us are pretty active in our other current situations. With T.R.A.M. it’s a matter of when everyone has an opening in their schedule and is wanting to do more work as opposed to wanting to take time off. I’m not going to say no, but I’ll say it’s definitely something that needs to happen on it’s own.
What are your plans for Animals as Leaders for the next 6-9 months?
A lot of touring. We have these Meshuggah dates in Europe right before we do our own headlining shows there. Then, we have some stuff booked for the U.S. but it’s not announced yet. More touring.
Sick of touring yet?
It has its ups and downs. I would say the quality of life on tour is a main factor in how healthy and sane you are. Hopefully the quality of life for us is going up and will allow me to continue to tour as heavily as we need to. But you know what, even with the down time I’m always ready to go back on tour. It’s always this love/hate relationship with an emphasis on love.
Anything you want to say about “Consider Yourself Judged,” the track snippet we’re premiering?
That track is actually written by Adrian, our sax player. It’s probably the most adventurous track on the album.
[this streaming promotion has ended]
Alright, well have fun in Australia! Thanks for taking the time.
Alright man, take care.