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When Tosin Abasi was 12 and wanted to play an instrument, the guitar wasn’t his first choice. That probably means nothing to you if you don’t know Abasi or his prog-metal band, Animals As Leaders. But for his online acolytes who watch him show off his imposing skills in YouTube clips and shower him with compliments, the idea he almost never touched the six-stringed instrument is mind-blowing. Abasi embodies the ideals of a bona-fide virtuoso: He has a strong grasp on technique, he takes his instrument seriously, and he has a knack for making even the fastest, wankiest solo look like a breeze.
Truth be told, the alternative wasn’t that terrible. Growing up around Washington, D.C., and Maryland, Abasi hung out with a kid who had a guitar. After his friend pulled off Metallica’s “One,” Abasi decided he wanted to play bass. (Presumably, this was so the two could start a band together.)
Luckily, Abasi didn’t take the normal route and go to a music store to buy equipment. Instead, he saw an ad in the classifieds for a traveling retailer that sold instruments out of hotel conference rooms. He and his dad visited the vendor, but “by the time we got there, we were late, and they were sold out of basses completely, so I was like, ‘Uh, I guess I’ll get a guitar,’” Abasi recalls with a chuckle. He took home a Stratocaster knock-off called the Saturday Night Special, which he’s been playing for the past 15 years. Now 27, Abasi is largely self-taught. He didn’t take formal lessons until a few years ago; the only instructors he ever had were technical video tutorials featuring such players as Paul Gilbert and Frank Gambale.
Around the mid-2000s, Abasi’s chops gained prominence in a metalcore band called Reflux, but he felt stifled by the limited nature of the band’s sound. Once Reflux broke up, the band’s former label, Prosthetic Records, offered Abasi a solo record. Even though the guitarist wanted the new project to be something much more ambitious, he didn’t want it to represent “just the idea of one person,” so Animals As Leaders gradually grew into a four-piece.
Abasi developed the band’s 2009 self-titled debut with Periphery’s Misha Mansoor. The record is constructed out of skillful, detailed playing, displaying open-handed techniques, alternate picking, sweeping riffs and slapping. Animals are an all-instrumental outfit, which turns every track into a showcase for Abasi’s skills. His guitar lines maintain an alluring but purposefully ragged flow—an unevenness that helps listeners visualize the finger acrobatics that make the record. There are other instruments on the album, too—but nothing is as bold as the guitar. Artificial-sounding whirs and bleeps generated by Mansoor populate the music’s background, giving Animals As Leaders’ curvy metal an electronic undercurrent.
Despite all the album’s lofty instrumentation, Abasi isn’t much of an elitist when it comes to music; not everyone, after all, thrives on mindblowing guitar technique. He speaks highly of Green Day, Radiohead and Joanna Newsom. (Hit on that last subject, and Abasi starts enthusiastically discussing Appalachian music.) Abasi’s first band were created just to perform Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for a sixth-grade talent show, and he still holds Kurt Cobain’s songwriting skills in high regard. “For me, it doesn’t take a bunch of notes to make something click,” he says. “It’s actually a very difficult thing to achieve a result by trimming off the fat so that the only thing that’s left is what’s needed. Honestly, a lot of simple music isn’t simple because it needs to be palatable to as many people as possible.”
There’s little disputing the notion that Animals As Leaders benefit from spreading the gospel about and reveling in Abasi’s extraordinary guitar abilities, but he still wants his music to retain a subtle poetry removed from the technical details. “We’ve cultivated music to some pretty complex degrees, and technology and education have spread certain approaches, but at the end of the day, what do I feel when I hear something? It could be three chords that are perfect together; it could be three notes that are perfect together. If that’s what it takes, then that’s fine, but if it’s more than that, that’s fine, too,” he says. “There’s a common thread between complex beauty and simple beauty: There’s still beauty.”
Animals As Leaders perform with Circa Survive, Dredg and Codeseven at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583; www.houseofblues.com. Thurs., Nov. 4, 7 p.m. $18.50 in advance; $21 at the door. All ages.
This article appeared in print as "Guitar Hero: There’s more to Tosin Abasi’s Animals As Leaders than mind-blowing guitar solos."