“I had the freedom to interpret the guitar” – Tosin Abasi Interview

The name Tosin Abasi should be familiar to anybody with their ear remotely tuned to the world of progressive metal in the past four years. Voted Metalsucks.net’s second greatest modern metal guitarist in 2011, the driving force behind prog metal outfit Animals as Leaders is already something of a legend in the genre.

Recently, Abasi visited South Africa and gave two Q&A guitar clinics, one in Johannesburg and one in Cape Town, courtesy of Midi Music and Ibanez guitars. M4A was fortunate enough to attend the Cape Town clinic at Zula Bar and have a quick chat with the 8-string slinger.


Metal4Africa: Thank you for presenting these clinics in South Africa. What encouraged you to come to SA and are you enjoying your time here?

Tosin Abasi: I got an invitation. That’s all it took. My parents are from Nigeria, so coming to the continent at all has been something I’ve wanted to eventually do. And to actually be invited to perform is even cooler!

M4A: And you’re enjoying it so far?

TA: Yeah, it’s unfortunately too short. There’s a lot more I could see on a longer visit.

M4A: Have you heard much coming out of the South African metal scene?

TA: No! In Jo’burg I got a lot of CDs from fans, so that’ll be some interesting listening.

M4A: So you haven’t had a chance to listen to them yet?

TA: Not yet. But I’ve heard good things!

M4A: Going through your gear list, you play with a lot of different instruments. Which would you say is the most special or sentimental to you?

TA: I don’t know. Right now, my focus is my signature guitar, the TAM-100, the Tosin Abasi model, that’s what I’ve been playing basically 100% of the time; the prototype. Obviously designed specifically for me, I worked with them on designing an 8 string that I felt was versatile enough to do all the things I needed it to do. And aesthetically it looks great too!

M4A: You’re primarily a self-taught guitarist and then you went to study. Do you think being self-taught rather than schooled from the beginning has helped or hindered your playing?

TA: It’s hard to say. I think there’s certain things I would have benefited from earlier on, like, I didn’t use my pinkie for almost six years so that’s a disadvantage in my opinion. If I’d had a teacher he probably would have encouraged me to use all four fingers on the fret board. So there’s things like that that are beneficial to having instruction. I think that question is really driven towards your creative personality; would it have been affected by traditional or conventional teachings? I like to think that maybe it was better that I had the freedom to interpret the guitar on my own and discover my own connections. Eventually that felt like not enough and school became productive.

M4A: What encouraged you to take up the guitar for the first time?

TA: I had a friend, Steve Gordon, who lived in the next neighbourhood over and my brothers and I and him were all friends and we would just play all the time… I was around 12 years old and he had a guitar and was taking lessons. So I was in his living room one day and I just started messing around with it, I think I asked him to show me something, and then I decided that I liked it and I asked my dad to get me one.

M4A: And the rest is history? As you were learning and as you were studying, what influenced your creative process and the music of Animals as Leaders?

TA: I’ve had a lot of different influences throughout the years. One of my earliest progressive metal influences was Dream Theater… but before that I was into Incubus and Deftones and before that I was into Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. Eventually I started focusing on guitar players specifically, guys like Yngwie Malmsteen, Frank Gambale, Greg Howe… so that started to push my playing further. As a listener I started getting into electronic music like Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and Bjork and Radiohead… so I guess all of that started to become part of my vision for music as well.
Eventually I joined a metal band and started hearing heavier things like Candiria and Dillinger Escape Plan and Between the Buried and Me and Meshuggah… I think Animals As Leaders is rhythmically influenced by Meshuggah. They introduced a vocabulary of rhythms into metal that I hadn’t heard anywhere else.

M4A: Can you give us any details on the upcoming Animals As Leaders album?

TA: I worked with Misha Mansoor (Periphery) on composing a large chunk of the album. I think, seven songs? Those are demos that will be reinterpreted by the band and basically re-recorded so we’re at the point where we have the bulk of the material already conceived and drafted. When I get some down time, maybe between Summer Slaughter and whatever else we’ll do we’re actually going to record. So we’re hoping to be done with it by the end of the year.

M4A: Which is your favourite Animals as Leaders song to play?

TA: I like “Tempting Time”. It’s the first song we recorded, Misha and I, and it just has some pretty distinct parts in it. So I feel it’s a good introduction to Animals as Leaders.

M4A: Animals as Leaders has played with a wide variety of bands, across the musical spectrum. Do you find that crowd response varies based on who you’re playing with?

TA: Absolutely! I mean, we’ve been fortunate enough to tour with a diverse range of bands and we’ve had a lot of tours where the headlining band is very vocal driven and we’re an instrumental band and so obviously might lose a lot of people. We’re a kind of band that you don’t necessarily move your body to all the time and so the reactions of the crowd can be hard to gauge, usually by applause or lack thereof. We’ve been pretty fortunate to be well received and some of these unconventional tours we’ve done really helped us to get out to new demographics of listeners who won’t have picked up a progressive metal album in the first place.

M4A: Can you offer any advice to guitarists in South Africa moving forward in their passion and craft?

TA: I’d say, try not to get discouraged. There were points in my attempt at being a professional musician that were pretty discouraging and maybe someone less driven would have chosen to go in another direction, but I knew that given that I have one life I wanted to lead it a particular way so I was just committed to sticking on the path. So I would say, if you’re clear on being a musician, eventually I think it does work out so try not to get discouraged.

Also, cultivate individuality on your instrument because there are a lot of guitar players in the world and a lot of really amazing musicians in general and it’s not a competition it’s an expression, so the more distinctly and honestly you can represent yourself I think the more you’ll have a place in music. Seeing someone incredible can also be an example of what you can do, what’s possible.

When I first saw a shred guitar player, I thought playing a power chord was how you played guitar. That and maybe a blues lick here or there. Then I’d see someone sweep picking and doing things I didn’t even know were possible and it really motivated me.

M4A: Where are you off to after this?

TA: I’m going to Europe. Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, France, England, Germany… I have like, ten days of downtime and then we’re going to India, then two days of downtime and then I go to Toronto and then I have one day of downtime and then we start a US tour.
It’s what I love doing!

What followed next was an awe-inspiring, insightful and most of all, humble clinic from the man himself. Despite guitars existing in human culture for nearly a thousand years, watching Tosin Abasi play shows that there is still plenty of room for innovation and expression from the instrument. Hopefully the support shown at the Cape Town and Johannesburg clinics will encourage more artists to visit our shores as well as (hopefully) see an Animals as Leaders tour further down the line!

Keep an eye out for our photo essay of the Cape Town clinic, coming soon!