Interview with Tosin Abasi from Animals As Leaders: Caged Beast

Instrumentalism has long been a haven for progressive and experimental musics. By casting off the confines of vocally-driven styles, guitar virtuosos like Jeff Beck, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Eric Johnson have long used the genre as a palette on which to test their physical limits, the constraints of their instruments and those of their imaginations. But prog is not what it is because it is dominated by the old school. There is a new, young talent on the scene, determined to break new ground and discover new possibilities, with an eight-string guitar in hand. That man is composer and technical envelope-pusher Tosin Abasi.

Having long been encouraged to do an instrumental album, it was not until after his band, Reflux, disbanded and he spent a year at the Atlanta Institute Of Music that Abasi felt comfortable, and inspired enough, to take on such a project.

The result was what Steve Vai described as, “The future of creative, heavy virtuoso guitar playing.” And Abasi’s music has as much in common with Vai as it does with Meshuggah, Victor Wooten or Allan Holdsworth. Technically dazzling as it is, the emphasis on his band’s eponymous album is on creativity, not just putting on a guitar clinic that will put all but the most advanced guitarists on the planet to shame—which it does.

Below, the one who is helping to make the six-string look old-fashioned talks about his brief but eclectic musical education, the making of Animals As Leaders, how his band ended up on an indie rock tour and how he will continue to push his playing to new heights.

(I tried my best to trick him into letting me in on his guitar secret/deal with the Devil, but all I got was some bullshit about practicing a lot. What the hell, right?)

What did you learn in music school that gave you ideas for the record?

I learned fundamental harmony, like how to construct chords. And that moved into jazz, playing jazz standards, reharmonizing standards as well as learning more classical guitar—just being forced to learn a variety of styles and having to kind of work outside of my comfort area, so it’s very expansive.

Did you play or program all the instruments on the Animals As Leaders record?

No, I worked with Misha Mansoor, who is in Periphery and he produces music under the name Bulb. He programmed all the drums and even helped to write some of the transitions and certain parts of the songs. So, I pretty much came to him with a whole bunch of riffs. And I had an idea of what riffs I wanted in what songs and he helped me to include it altogether. He pretty much was the drummer on the album, so it was a very collaborative effort.

The music is obviously very challenging, was it hard to get the touring lineup in place?

The tour lineup solidified when my friend Navene [Koperweis] got the album, and he really liked it and expressed interest in being the drummer for the band. I had a few other guys send me clips of them playing the music, but Navene, beyond being an amazing drummer, he’s someone who I’m close to as a friend and who has touring experience and shares a passion for music that’s almost religious. I really liked those qualities so he ended up being the drummer for the group.

Our friend Javier [Reyes] is the other guitar player in the band and he’s someone I’ve known for like a decade and I’ve actually written music with him before and we had a rapport. So, we knew we wanted to recreate the album as accurately as possible and I felt that it would be better to perform to tracks from the album, as opposed to getting a keyboardist and having him try to emulate the same synth patches and try to execute all the stuff. We knew we wanted to play to a click track as well, so we just play to sequence tracks.

Given the work that you’d done it jazz, did you not look forward to playing to a click as much? Did you want some room to improvise?

Actually, no. Even though I learned jazz, I’ve never been a fierce improvisational player—it’s kind of where I wanna go with my playing now—but the music I make for Animals As Leaders is very compositional. The focus is on every accent being where it’s supposed to be. So the click actually enhanced that element.

In the studio, did you ever wonder how you were going to be able to pull something off live?

Yeah… especially with software, you don’t have to execute everything all the way through in real time. Compositionally, you can set a bar for yourself that is a bit higher than where [you are] at the moment. A lot of the leads, I would build in pieces. I’d have one section of the lead, track it, then listen to it and then I’d decide what I wanted to do next and then track the next portion. But it doesn’t mean that I’d played it all through, so when it came time to actually perform it, I had to go back and learn my solos and then I had to be able to execute them. It’s actually made me a much better guitar player, to learn the stuff that I could think of, but not necessarily do at the time. Now I can do it all and set the bar even higher.

What’s your favorite song to play live?

Favorite song to play live might be “Wave Of Babies” right now, which was not on the album, we recorded it after.

Why that song?

It’s got gratuitous use of the open, low [eighth string]. I use an eight-string guitar for about half the album and a seven-string for the rest. But I didn’t take the obvious approach of utilizing the entirety of the low end. I used it to achieve certain chords in certain voicings, in certain positions that, if I didn’t have the eight-string, I wouldn’t be able to do. But, “Wave Of Babies,” I’m actually, kind of riffing, in the low register. But I really like to solo that I wrote for it as well as there’s also some slapping in there that is pretty cool. It covers a lot of ground, so it’s fun to play.

Will a future release be more of a collaborative thing?

Absolutely, we’re going to start writing in a few weeks. Navene does production on his own, he’s got a solo album called Fleshrot, where he played all the guitars and all the drums and did the production. He’s a confident producer and he’s got a lot of compositional ideas. Javier as well is a recording engineer and he writes his own music so we want the next album to represent all three members, so it will be collaborative.

Can you describe how you practice?

It’s changed. I used to do a lot of metronome-based alternate picking and sweep-picking and economy-picking exercises. But after going to school for music, the classical thing entered the equation as well as just working on reading [standard notation]. But now I’m not in school anymore and I had to do things then that I don’t really feel like I have to do now, so now my practice regimen is refining things that I have to do live.

A lot of that stuff is at the peak of my technical ability, so I have to keep up my chops and it could always be cleaner. I work on a lot of the parts that might give me trouble live or that I don’t feel are as clean. Then I try to keep new concepts coming in, so right now I’m working on a lot of pentatonics because they’re really useful as far as improvisation is concerned; you can used pentatonic over a lot of different chords. I’m learning pentatonics in all different positions and I’m writing eight-string pentatonics, like three notes per string kind of things.

And then, I’m working on a lot of thumping cause that’s kind of a newer technique for me—like all the Victor Wooten-type slapping kind of stuff. And then, I also write. I’m constantly writing little riffs and parts of songs, so that’s kind of what I’m doing now.

Do you think you ever caused someone to give up the guitar?

[Laughs] I don’t know if I could ever cause someone to give up playing. People joke around and say that all the time, but I hope they’re kidding. I hope that they would be motivated to play more. I doubt anyone stopped, that’d be surprising.

What did the endorsement from Steve Vai mean to you?

It couldn’t have come from a better person. Steve Vai has legitimized guitar-oriented rock. He and Joe Satriani are amongst the first to actually bring virtuoso guitar playing into the mainstream as a legitimate form of rock without a singer, you know? Passion And Warfare was the first instrumental album that I ever bought and I got it on cassette tape. I didn’t think I’d ever meet the guy—at that point I didn’t ever think I would record anything on an album. It’s so awesome. He’s so gracious to actually comment on my playing and the fact that he actually likes it is beyond that. So, it means the world, I was thrilled.

How did you wind up on tour with Circa Survive and Dredg?

I think that we’re on just cause there is some common ground between us and some of the rest of the bands. The main focus of Circa Survive is to be very vocally driven, fans know all the lyrics, while we don’t even have any lyrics. I think that it’s great exposure in a direction that we weren’t being exposed. At the same time, I think it’s going over certain people’s heads. We don’t really go for the obvious, digestible stuff. We’re really happy to be on the tour and it’s going really well, but it’s the first time we have not been playing to people who are not fans of metal or whatever our influences are. It’s really interesting.

So, it’s not all people whispering, ‘What the hell is that?’

[Laughs] Apparently there are a lot of people doing that, which is amusing. But, yeah it’s just very different because we’ve only ever played extreme metal shows so it’s actually hard for us to gauge the response a lot of the times, until it’s actually over.

You have a very distinct fashion sense, do you get grief from the metal crowd for how you dress?

At this point, I think that people in the metal world are aware that I dress like this. A lot of the guys on the tour would kind of make fun of me, but in a positive light.

I like being divergent from what people think a metalhead should look like. I don’t dress like [I do] because of that; I simply like the clothing I wear. It has nothing to do with metal, but the fact that I’m a musician playing in this genre—it’s become some sort of issue or something worth talking about, but I kind of like provoking thought. So, I’m glad my clothing can do that.

Yeah, I guess if you were in Dredg, I wouldn’t have asked you that.

Yeah, exactly, we wouldn’t be talking about it.

Are you a very visual person? Are you into art a lot?

Yeah, before I got into music I was really into illustration. So I’m pretty decent at sketching and stuff like that. But, I haven’t done it in forever. I’m kind of like, if I can’t be really good at it, then I just don’t do it at all. So, because I excelled at guitar, it’s hard for me to—like, I don’t play basketball because I suck at it. It’s not enough for me to do it just for fun, I have to be really good at it, otherwise I won’t do it.

Animals As Leaders will be at Irving Plaza in NYC Nov. 27-28 as support for Circa Survive, Dredg and Codeseven. More info at