“The tightrope is validating the musical complexity with something that doesn’t just feel masturbatory”: Tosin Abasi on Animals As Leaders’ most human record yet

Prog-metal virtuoso Tosin Abasi on what was different this time around, and what the future holds for his own brand Abasi Concepts.

Few guitarists justify their choice of extended-range gear as well as Tosin Abasi. He makes every inch of his multi-scale eight-string electric count, often eschewing his pick to play pseudo-slap-bass riffs on the lower strings and sweeping across the highest reaches of the instrument’s range for solos.

It’s a style that, despite the genre’s penchant for the ridiculous, ensures a healthy amount of dynamic range in Animals As Leaders’ instrumental prog-metal. Parrhesia, the DC band’s fifth studio record, further refines their take on evocative, cinematic instrumental music. And, of course, it’s a dazzling display of technical, precise playing throughout – from Abasi as well as co-guitarist Javier Reyes and drummer Matt Garstka.

A new look

“We really wanted to have a fine-art aesthetic,” Abasi says of the album’s striking visuals, which started with the gorgeous dance-centred video for Monomyth. The overall look brings a more organic feel to a genre that can occasionally feel saturated with cold, inhuman 3D sci-fi artwork. “We wanted something that captured real things, real bodies,” Abasi says. “There’s been a lot of computer-generated imagery associated with progressive metal or at least djent.”

The Monomyth video was joined by another, for The Problem of Other Minds. Both were helmed by Abasi’s partner. “My partner, Televaya, she’s a visual artist and photographer,” he says. “She directed both videos, and conceived the entire concept for them. She found this dance troupe in Mexico, they had a really unique movement style. The juxtaposition of our music with that movement and those bodies – it really elevates everything. We’re really happy with it.”

Abasi added that the band have “always wanted to do something involving human movement – just because we think it’s a good visual complement to the rhythmic complexity”.

Thoughts and Prayers

As with its accompanying aesthetic, with instrumental music artists must pay particular attention to song names. When there are no lyrics, the few words that an album does feature mean more than ever. On Parrhesia, on which everyday phrases such as Thoughts and Prayers rub shoulders with loftier concepts, that makes for an interesting friction. Parrhesia is a term that refers to unfiltered free expression. Gestaltzerfall refers to an image, word or phrase slowly melting into its disparate parts, like when certain words start to sound strange after repeating them over and over again.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Parrhesia’s strange melding of the dramatic and the mundane was inspired by the pandemic, and “viewing human behaviour over the lens of the internet – experiencing this layered thing where very very real and consequential events were occurring through a two-dimensional screen”.

Abasi continues: “Sometimes in your actual immediate existence, it didn’t seem like the world was on fire but on your phone or computer it did. And how human behaviour changes in aggregate when there’s uniform fear, or the need for co-operation in the face of a threat.

“Human consciousness, human behaviour, human perceptions – all these things were inescapable while we were writing the album. Concepts like solipsism and parrhesia, all the song titles point towards the subjective experience of reality. And how throughout human history we’ve always been trying to make sense of our subjective experience of the world, and have it map onto other people’s experiences, so that we feel like we’ve experienced the same world.

“But we all know we have atomised, subjective experiences that are partially self-created and partially confirming the quote-unquote reality. That was the general theme that was popping up when I was writing the songs and naming the tunes. All the song titles are supposed to poke the listener in the direction of those sorts of concepts. They’re just seeds for a thought as you listen to this musical landscape that doesn’t have any words.”

Abasi is clear, however, that his lockdown-inspired philosophical shift was just the jumping-off-point – Parrhesia isn’t Animals As Leaders’ ‘quarantine record’. “I felt like it would be a failure to write an album directly about the pandemic,” he says. “But something about the pandemic experience made me think about the larger picture of human attempts to make sense of things through ritual, dance and myth – so it’s talking about more than just the pandemic experience. It’s a very human, very ancient experience.”

Animals As Leaders
Image: Press

Expert mode

The Animals As Leaders sound will always be defined by complexity. But for Abasi that’s nothing to be ashamed of. “Animals As Leaders has always had a very guitar-focused approach to making music. It’s indulgent on purpose. I wanted to make something for musicians, so they could feel a level of stimulation they weren’t getting from other styles of music,” he explains, before acknowledging that the dense, technical nature of the music does mean it’s perhaps not for everyone. “I’ve always recognised that, well… I don’t think anyone’s going to be walking up at their graduation to one of our songs.”

Despite the focus on technicality, Abasi makes it clear that the intention is still to write music and not something needlessly showy. “The tightrope for us is validating the musical complexity with something that doesn’t just feel masturbatory. We’re not out to just make the most complicated music, we’re out to make complicated music that’s gratifying. The complexity becomes a welcome element on top of the music itself.”

Helping to create an even more musical, more human feel this time around is a refreshed approach to guitar production. “We were working with loud amplifiers for the first time on any Animals As Leaders record. Normally we would go completely in-the-box but we found that using the amps up to volume just really added a degree of energy to the mix, especially the way the low end compressed with palm-muting.”

But the band’s core production style is going nowhere. “We still wanted to make everything clean and precise – we think the music sounds heavier that way,” says Abasi. “And why not – an album is an opportunity to do a perfect representation of your musical idea, because you have complete control.”

The human aspect

Abasi still hopes that Parrhesia can “capture a live feel – even though it’s still pretty airtight”. The tension between the tightness of its compositions and the humanity of the three musicians performing them is a key appeal of Animals As Leaders’ live shows. Given that the band has maintained the same line-up for the better part of a decade, it’s no surprise they felt comfortable introducing a more unpredictable feel to Parrhesia.

“People want to come see us for that human aspect,” says Abasi. “Our drummer, Matt Garstka, improvises a lot, I improvise, it’s just a little more wild. If you come see us live, you’ll just hear a bunch of different fills and phrases, displacements of beats and so on. Matt is always mutating and evolving things on stage.”

We’re surprised to hear that Garstka has the most room to improvise – conventional logic might dictate that in music such as this, the member most responsible for timekeeping should stick to the script. But as Abasi explains, “He’s just that good! He likes the challenge of improvising even over very complex phrases that aren’t that easy to count. That’s just where he lives.”

Not every Animals As Leaders song has the scope for jazzy improv, and Parrhesia has returned to a less expansive compositional approach compared to their previous record, 2016’s The Madness of Many. “The Madness Of Many had the most space for improvisation, especially the guitar solos,” says Abasi. “I improvise the solos completely when we play that stuff live. Parrhesia is a little closer to our earlier work, where we don’t have these long repeating sections to develop solos. It’s a little bit more narrow. The solos are composed to work as part of the songs.”

How does Abasi visualise his music when playing? “Well, I don’t have to think about the bar lines going by,” he says. “We try to make complex music that you can internalise. So there’s a lot of simplicity, in a way – a lot of them are still in 4/4, if you count them a certain way. There’s a lot of repetition and loops, a carryover from my love of electronic music. And compositionally, structure isn’t super-complex – sometimes there might just be four parts in a song, which isn’t extravagant.

“What we try to do is make something complex enough to be stimulating but musical enough to internalise,” Abasi adds. “When it comes to playing on a stage, we’ve all memorised the phrases. A bridge to that point is doing it to a slower tempo and counting out but once it’s memorised you can just execute. You no longer have to think about the minutiae of the part.”

All the gear and some idea

After leaving Ibanez some years ago, Abasi took his unique Larada shape and formed his own guitar brand, Abasi Concepts. The company’s guitars are certainly not mass-appeal products – the Larada shape is outwardly ergonomic and has little to do with the standard T-, S- and LP-style shapes across the industry. Most of the brand’s offerings are tailored to the extended-range preferences of Abasi himself: eight strings, multi-scale necks, compound fretboards, 24 frets, and so on.

Would Abasi like to see larger brands catering to a similar niche with similar specs? “I’m not gonna say that I wouldn’t love to see a Gibson ergonomic guitar,” he says. “But I actually prefer the fact that it’s a smaller group of manufacturers wanting to make guitars like this.”

For Abasi, the fact that guitars in the extended-range niche come mostly from smaller brands keeps things, for want of a better word, authentic. “Right now it seems that it’s the people who feel a true need to design guitars that answer these questions. As opposed to brands that want to capture a percentage of market share. There are players who say, ‘If it doesn’t look like a Les Paul I literally have no interest in it’. That’s fine. But then there are the people who really need a multi-scale, a compound radius – insert whatever modern, ergonomic guitar thing. And I am that person. My experience as a guitarist was wishing that there were companies that made those styles of guitar.

“I’ve ridden that ride of having to be like, ‘Damn, it’s hard to find strings or good pickups for my eight-string’. Previously it could be hard to find a guitar that didn’t feel like the builder just strapped a bunch of extra strings on a pre-existing shape and didn’t do anything to answer the unique questions that come with adding that much more low end or that much scale length. Abasi Concepts is the company I wish existed over the years when it comes to extended-range guitars.”

Old-school cool

But Abasi Concepts isn’t just about throwing the ‘legacy’ guitar approach onto the pyre. Aside from the Larada, the brand also offers the Space T – an ostensibly Telecaster-inspired instrument that bears a similarly ergonomic shape to the Larada.

“Ironically, I’ve come full circle,” Abasi says. “I’ve come to appreciate the design of more traditional guitars. Leo Fender was a genius, for instance. You know, you grab a good Tele or a Les Paul – there’s an unquestionable quality to them. That’s why we decided to make a Tele-inspired variant. But it’s our updated version of a classic guitar. The neck plays a bit faster, the radius is a bit flatter, the pickups are noiseless, it’s lighter, we use roasted materials and so on. We occupy that niche of ergonomic and extended-range guitars but we also apply some of that design ethos to a more traditional T-style guitar.”

Given the focused guitar offerings of Abasi Concepts right now – split between Larada variants and the Space T – does Abasi have plans to apply the same modernisation treatment to other classic guitars? His answer isn’t specific but it is intriguing. “There are no plans in the electric guitar space,” he says. “I don’t want to give too much away. But on the horizon are some curveballs that I think will answer your question.”

Parrhesia is out now on Sumerian Records.