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Tosin Abasi and Javier Reyes

September 15, 2011
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 Animals as Leaders on stage (left to right)— Javier Reyes, Navene Koperweis, and Tosin Abasi.

WITH A TIDY, GREEN LAWN EXTENDING TO THE SIDEWALK AND
pleasant looking floral drapes hanging inside the living room window, the single-family North Hollywood home looks ordinary enough. Step onto the house’s front porch, though, and it sure doesn’t sound ordinary. Emanating from the other side of the wall is an intriguing musical rumble. Walk through the front door, and you have entered the lair of the iconoclastic young trio on the rise called Animals As Leaders. Tracking their sophomore album in their living room, the band continues to forge ahead with one of the most compelling and unconventional sounds in rock.

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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