Published Nov 21, 2011Tucked amongst the plethora of young-ish metal dudes whose wild stage antics are just as popular ― if not more so ― as their music prowess is Tobin Abasi, whom, until the debut of his solo debut, Animals as Leaders, was primarily revered amongst nerdy guitar enthusiasts, who admired his mastery of the eight-string guitar. With Weightless, Abasi collaborates with drummer Navene Koperweis and guitarist Javier Reyes, and the results are stellar: crunching guitar ("An Infinite Regression") and strong hints of classical and jazz-fusion intermingled with heavy riffage resonate throughout the album, melding beautifully with some smooth funk on "Do Not Go Gently." One of the major complaints about Abasi's debut was that while he's clearly a master guitar player, the other parts , most notably the drum programming, were incredibly flat. With Koperweis on board, the record is more impactful, most notably on "Sonnarium," which gives their sound the fullness and richness it requires. However, there is no beginning and no end to Weightless, and depending on your tolerance for electronica, you might be pleased with the thoughtful, technical touches that are gently applied, or turned off. Weightless can be meandering, at times, but the sheer beauty, like the incredibly delicate but electric solo on "Earth Departure," makes Weightless a thoroughly enjoyable listen.
The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey came to mind when listening to this. What was the thought process when writing?
Abasi: It's funny you mentioned A Space Odyssey, because I'm a really big science fiction fan. I was reading an Arthur C. Clarke book and a lot of the imagery, such as leaving Earth and the sort of experiments that would occur ― the fear, the danger, as well as the totally expansive experience of nothing looks like the planet anymore ― all of those things were going through my head. For loose imagery, it complemented the music really well, so that's kind of where the conceptual idea came from. Musically, it represents where I am now. On the first album, the sound wasn't even fully defined, so we used that as a starting point, but we wanted to see what we could add and even take away, and Weightless is that result.
Weightless sounds more vibrant than your first album, more organic and loose. What did working with Navene and Javier bring to the album?
We all live together in a house. We actually got the house for the purpose of setting up a home studio and working on the album, and Navene actually recorded all the material, so he was the engineer, running the recording sessions, and then he was also a producer. Most of the composition was done by the three of us sitting around together and looking at the skeletal ideas and developing them together. It was a full band collaboration.
When your debut, Animals as Leaders, came out it was considered a solo project.
Yeah, Animals as Leaders was basically a solo project. It was just me and the producer working together, but the whole idea was that if it was just me doing the recording, I didn't want to attack it like "the Tosin Abasi Experience." I wanted a band name and band members, and I felt that it would be more accessible, and it seems as though more people latch onto bands.
You incorporate so many different musical themes. Are you finding that the live audience is picking up on the jazz and classical influences, and are prompted to discover the music?
It's been a recurring theme at shows to have a conversation about that. They might not listen to jazz, but because of the elements we have in our music, people have found a gateway into it. On Weightless, I moved towards a jazz-sense of harmony, and so it's even more prevalent, and there has been a lot of feedback from people about the jazz element on this album.
Because of the nature of the music, and being on a well-established metal label, do you find that it's confining, limiting who would seek out your music?
It's hard for us. At a glance, especially for the non-metal listener, we might come across as a metal band: our label [Prosthetic] is a metal label and our beginnings have come through metal and it was the scene that was the first to support us. But it can be confining, in terms of the outlets or forums for us to play. Like, maybe we don't want to always play the metal showcases and maybe [we'd rather] play an instrumental showcase, something like that. But, at the end of the day, it is our core audience, even though we like to really expand on the definition of what it is to be "metal," we are not concerned with the rigid definitions of a genre. But we've done Summer Slaughter and since we've been touring we've experienced this weird twilight zone of, "where do we belong?" kind of thing.
Your music and image challenge the "metal" stereotype. There are many people who think that metal bands are a bunch of guys with drug problems that don't bathe.
Well, I'd love to be part of something that expands people's ideas of what is "metal." I am not doing what I do consciously. I'm just being who I am. But it's an excellent by-product if people are seeing something in the music that opens up the lines of how metal is portrayed.
You are representing a younger generation of musicians who are really making a unique dent in the metal scene. But as a young black man who is proficient at his craft, I'm assuming you are a role model for young black kids, because there are few black guitarists in metal and very few fans. Have you got any feedback from kids who see you at a show about what you represent to them, in terms of your musicianship and being black in the metal scene?
There is always this unspoken camaraderie, but I haven't had a lot of explicit conversations where race is brought up in the metal context, but there is always this unspoken connection. Occasionally there has been a black kid at the show, the only one there, and he will come up and talk to me, and he doesn't have to come out and say it, but I feel that there is this little extra something. I think it is really cool and it goes in line with expanding people's ideas about who can do what and why. Because of my heritage and that I'm playing this kind of music, it expands the notion of who is into metal and who can play metal. And if that gives some other kid the push he or she needs to motivate them to play guitar or whatever, it's really awesome.
How did you learn to play guitar? Were you self-taught?
I started off just playing the simplest things. I was listening to Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana and Green Day. I was doing a bunch of basic stuff, but as I progressed I got more exposed to more complex material, which drove me to try a bit harder. I started learning a lot of techniques, not theory but more chops and stuff, and that's how the core of my sound developed. The jazz and classical stuff came in about ten years after I started playing. I took a one-year music program and basically that was a crash course on music and jazz improvisation. Animals as Leaders are the accumulation of ten years of my metal/shed self-taught stuff, mixed with this newer take on harmony and jazz and classical mixed together.
How did you progress between the six-string guitar to a seven- and eight-?
I played a six-string for about five or six years, and then I joined a metal band [Reflux], in which Javier was originally the singer. They had a lot of songs pre-written and they really required really low tunings. Eventually we just stopped down-tuning our six-strings and started using seven-strings. That band dissolved, but I stayed with the seven-string and was really inspired by it and started writing my music. Meshuggah put out an album that had eight-string guitars, which was the first recorded eight-string I had ever heard, and Meshuggah are my favourite metal band of all time. I had a guitar maker build me an eight-string while I was still in music school. That's where a lot of the Animals as Leaders material came from, just getting that eight-string and the ideas that came out of discovering that guitar. (Prosthetic)