Tosin Abasi is regarded as one of the key progressive guitarists of his generation for very good reasons. Many can be found on the new Animals As Leaders album, The Joy Of Motion. His instrumental trio with fellow guitarist Javier Reyes and drummer Matt Garstka create a sound that's equal parts technical, tuneful and inventive. Fulfilling the potential of the eight-string guitar.
Talking to Tosin about the album and what drives him in this extensive interview reveals an inspiring musician eager to share and credit his own influences, while explaining exactly what he’s doing on some of these jaw-dropping compositions.
Starting work on this album, did you reflect on the previous album Weightless and what you wanted to achieve?
“Weightless was a curveball for a lot of our original fans. I think primarily because the original collaboration with Misha Mansoor produced the first album [2009's self-titled release] and people got used to that. Then, with Weightless and my guitar playing I started getting into a lot of modern jazz guitarists like Adam Rogers and Kurt Rosenwinkel. Some of my harmony, and inclinations started drifting further into that territory. So I think there’s harmonic content on Weightless that some people would consider less melodic in a way but it was because my ear was going to other places.
"With Weightless it’s definitely kind of divisive, some fans will openly say they didn’t like it as much, some fans will play it all the time. For the third album, for myself I definitely enjoyed that first album collaboration so I touched base with Misha and he wanted to demo some songs together. I think it was January 2012 that I flew out to him and we knocked out seven songs that I had loose sketches for on the guitar alone. Then we kind of built them up into pre-production tracks together.
"Then, as far as the direction, we definitely wanted to incorporate live drums for the first time. On Weightless we brought in an electronic kit but we were still triggering sampled sounds. Our new drummer is a phenomenal player so we were committed to capturing his performance. I think that really adds to the energy of the actual recording and then with guitar tones we worked with Nolly [Adam Getgood], he’s the bassist from Periphery but he’s also a phenomenal guitar player. So he basically engineered; all the drum sessions, he did the mix and the guitar recording. He was integral. We worked on guitar tones together and I think we’ve captured some of our most organic guitar tones that we’ve had on recordings."
What did you want to achieve as a player on this album?
“With my playing, one thing I wanted to do was... acknowledge the position that comes with being a quote/unquote ‘shred guitarist’. Where you almost have to outshred other people, or outshred yourself at least, that seems like a pretty worthless motivation as far as producing quality music is concerned. So I definitely had to battle internally: ‘Oh, man, do I have to play faster than I did on the last album. Do I need to incorporate more than I did before?’ And what I did is actually a total 180. This album has the least amount of shred [compared to the others], and I started listening to guitar players that were playing R&B, gospel and neo soul... this really lyrical, stylised mix of blues, country and jazz. A lot of doublestops, a lot of chromatics, not in the jazz sense per se – it’s definitely more rooted in kind of a blues. So I spent a year obsessing over guys like Jairus Mozee, Isaiah Sharkey and Jimmy Herring.
"I feel like my playing actually transformed between the year I demoed the tracks, and subsequently started doing the final recording process nine to 10 months later. A lot of the lead work is different from anything you’ve heard from me. I focused on bends and vibrato, things that most players use – but for me, it wasn’t a focus [before]. So I’m pretty proud of the development.
"Where you almost have to outshred other people, or outshred yourself at least, that seems like a pretty worthless motivation as far as producing quality music is concerned."
What was the biggest challenge for you personally with this album?
“Honestly, the biggest challenge was that mental dialogue. I felt like I could do the same thing that we’ve been doing in a negative way. I was battling creatively; am I moving forward? Since we put out the first album there’s been a multitude of amazing bands and amazing guitarists, a lot of adventurous music. So the climate of when I first conceived Animals As Leaders is totally different.
It was hard to make creative decisions if I started thinking about everything else that was going on. And then I eventually thought, man I just want to make something that’s essentially Animals As Leaders. That fundamentally sounds like us. Not that we’re trying to reinvent ourselves but we’re refining what we do. It’s a distinct and deliberate sound, and that’s kind of what it ended up being.”