Or is it rock?
“It’s tough to say what kind of music we are,” says the band’s leader and
chief musical visionary, 28-year-old Washington D.C.-bred guitarist/composer
Tosin Abasi. “Obviously, with all the odd-meter stuff we do, and the matched
licks between the guitars and drums, it’s a bit prog. But there’s also quite a
bit of metal, electronica, and even jazz in there, too—jazz in the sense that
we use a lot of extended chord voicings and harmonies.”
Whatever Animals As Leaders is, the only thing old school about it is its members’
intense devotion to mastering their instruments and evolving their craft. In
all other aspects, this band is future-forward. For example, Abasi and co-guitarist
Javier Reyes play 8-string guitars exclusively—Abasi typically an Ibanez RG2228,
Reyes an Ibanez RGA8. Any tube amps in their
sphere seem only to gather dust, as on stage
and in the studio the guitarists remain devotees
of Fractal Audio’s Axe-FX Ultra digital preamp
and effects processor. Traditional guitar cabinets
are abandoned in favor of shoulder-high
Mackie powered P.A. mains. On stage, drummer
Navene Koperweis outputs the band’s
hypnotic backing tracks to the P.A. from an
iPhone. (On one recent tour, the band also
projected kaleidoscopic video treatments, perfectly
synced to each song, onto 8'x8' screens.)
When it comes to time signatures, the band
is so adventurous that straight 4/4 grooves
often seem as rare as a lunar eclipse. There
is no bass player. There is no singer. Yet, the
band wins over legions of new fans with each
tour and festival appearance.
What’s their secret?
How did Animals As Leaders come to be?
Abasi: In the early 2000s, I was in a metalcore
band called Reflux. It had vocals and
everything, but when Prosthetic Records president
E.J. Johantgen saw us, what he liked was
the strong response people had to the guitar
playing, so he came to me about doing a melodic
shred project. I thought it was a cool idea, but
I wasn’t yet confident enough to really deliver
a whole album of instrumental music. Reflux
ended up disbanding, and I did a one-year program
at the Atlanta Institute of Music. After
I came out, I was a bit more well-rounded on
the guitar, and the idea of doing a guitar CD
sounded cool. I contacted E.J. again, and he was
still into the idea, so that’s where the concept
came from. Javier is someone I had been in a
band with previously. He had begun studying
classical guitar again, and from the caliber of the
stuff he was learning from his teacher, I knew
that whatever I threw at him would not be a
problem, so when it came to filling the other
guitar position, he was the obvious inclusion.
Do you have a vision behind these songs?
Abasi: Usually, I grab ideas from whatever
book I happen to be reading at the time, or
whichever things I might be thinking about
philosophically. For instance, take our song
“Tempting Time” [off Animals As Leaders’
self-titled Prosthetic debut]. I forget what
book I was reading when I saw those two
words together, but the song has this riff
that’s in 15/16 or something, and it just made
me think of tempting time—the two words
together sounded cool, yet implied the rhythmic
difficulty that took place in the song. The
title has other implications, too, such as that
we all have a finite amount of time on earth.
What’s your advice for 6-string players who
wish to expand their skill to 8-string?
Abasi: The first step might be to try a
7-string. The extra string really does add a
new, inspiring element to the instrument.
Jump to 8-string, and now you have bass
range. We keep the top six strings in standard
guitar tuning, the seventh tuned down
to B, and the eighth tuned to the same low E
as on a bass guitar. I really like that amount
of low end. It’s really gratifying.
Also, the advantage of that tuning is
that if you are barring, say, the 5th fret, you
have root-5-root—or A-E-A—on the lowest
strings, and you can still fret standard fifthposition
A voicings on the higher strings, as
you would on a regular guitar. And, whether
it’s being able to play wide-ranging lines
without having to shift positions, or voicing
a chord that’s extremely rich and dispersed
because you can hold eight strings at once,
or being able to do three-octave arpeggios in
one position, the tuning is quite convenient.
Reyes: It’s cool, because you have eight
strings, but really don’t have to rethink your
guitar. When it comes to theory and chords
you can still basically think 6-string. The two
extra low strings are bonuses you get when you
barre all the way down the fret. From a metal
perspective, I don’t think there are any other
bands that are using the 8-string the way Tosin
does. We’re not just playing straight chugs on
the lower strings. We’re using all eight strings
as a whole instrument, as if it were a piano
where we can play the lowest note while still
playing higher register notes on the upper keys.
Abasi: It lends itself well to styles that
don’t involve a pick, such as plucking and
slapping. And once you get used to the wider
fretboard and longer, 27" scale, regular guitars
feel like ukuleles!
What string gauges do you favor?
Reyes: DR strings, .011-.080, with the
.080 typically being an actual bass string.
Electronic tuners have a hard time with that
string, because it tends to go sharp the harder
you hit it, so we tune it by ear.
Abasi: An even longer scale length can alleviate
the sharpness problem, which is why I’m
getting a guitar with a fanned fretboard from
Strandberg Guitarworks. Fanned fretboards can
give you that extended range in the low end and
a conventional scale length in the upper register.
Why use P.A. cabs instead of guitar cabs?
Abasi: Because they’re full-range speaker
systems that match the full-range patches
we’re using on our Axe-FX Ultras. Basically,
by going full range, our rigs represent exactly
what front of house is getting, and we don’t
have to worry about mic placement or type—
or power amps, for that matter, because the
Mackie HD1531s we use are powered. We
actually just added some HD-series subwoofers,
too, which really enhance the lows. And
with the Axe-FX, if need be, we can travel to
gigs without taking any backline at all. We just
run it into the P.A.
Reyes: Also, any patches we make while
recording are the same patches we will use
live, without any adjustment.
Is the Axe-FX at all overwhelming to program?
Abasi: If you want to approach it on the
basic level of, say, “I like how Marshall-style
amps sound through open-back cabs,” you
can get that in a matter of minutes. But it
is as powerful as most personal computers,
so you can also go deep—you can go as far as
virtually tweaking the bias of the tubes, or
changing the ratings of the capacitors. If you
have an Axe-FX, and you’re having trouble
dialing in a rhythm patch, try these models
together—the Das Metal amp model with the
gain rolled back and the TS808 in front of it,
overdriving it. Choose the V30 cab model
miked by the Royer Ribbon mic model, and
you’ve got a great sound we use all the time.
How come no bass player?
Abasi: It was a circumstantial thing based
on how we recorded the album. I recorded the
first album with [Periphery guitarist] Misha
Mansoor, a.k.a. Bulb, engineering, and he had
a recording technique of taking simple guitar
lines and pitching them down an octave. That’s
our bass track. When we perform live, since
we’re playing to a click track anyway, we just
throw the bass track in there and we perform
the guitars and drums live. Electronic elements
are a part of every song.
Does having backing tracks on each song
ever make you feel confined to the pre-recorded
arrangements and tempos?
Reyes: Actually, I like things to be super
tight, performance-wise. I like the breaks to
be really strong and clear, and playing to a
click track allows for that.
Abasi: It’s unbeatable. There are so many
human reasons your performance might vary.
Like, maybe you had coffee before the set.
Maybe you didn’t. Maybe there’s someone in
the crowd who you’re really nervous to perform
for. So the click is good, because without
it, your tempo is going to be somewhat dictated
by your physiology.
You guys are doing some pretty radical
things, musically, and people are digging it. Do
you have any advice for guitarists seeking success
on a similarly adventurous musical path?
Abasi: No matter what you’re into, always
strive for musical honesty. The other day, we
were talking hypothetically about what it
would be like to be a sideman for another band
and getting like $5k a show or something like
that. The money would help, but after my first
check, I’d be trying to go back to a band that
I liked. But that’s me. If you like being a session
player or playing for other people, then my
advice would be to embrace your well-roundedness
as a player, your ability to adapt to any
music situation. If you’re more an individualistic
sort of player, go for that. Whatever you do,
embrace it unapologetically and pursue it.
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