For many listeners, the words instrumental guitar shred probably conjure up images of solo artists peeling off note after narcissistic note while strategically placed fans puff out their flowing, L’Oréal-worthy locks, bassists and drummers left to rot in endless grooves. Luckily, while it’s immediately clear that Animals as Leaders possess some serious chops, one listen to their latest record, ‘Weightless,’ reveals a group of musicians whose true strengths arise from teamwork. Highlight “Earth Departure” blasts off with a rattling assault of intermeshed double bass blasts and eight string guitar slapping before a gorgeous, jazz-inflected chord progression fortifies a cascading closing solo. Elsewhere, the band generously shares space with programmed electronic elements, as when the opening arpeggios of “An Infinite Regression” gives way to a frenetic beat. Above all, the band always invests their prodigious talents in solid songwriting. Who would’ve known that drop E guitar riffs could be so hummable?
After the band’s Paris concert on their latest European tour, guitarists Tosin Abasi and Javier Reyes and new drummer Matt Garstka were nice enough to hang out with Rock Edition for a little while. Check out our conversation about guitar techniques, metal legends Meshuggah, and various animals’ capacities for leadership below.
Tosin Abasi: You sound American.
I am American. I’m studying abroad right now.
Tosin: Do you speak French?
I’m working on it. It’s a hard language, especially the “Rs.”
Tosin: The “Rs.” [makes a rolling “R” sound]
You did a good job at that tonight.
Tosin: Oh yeah?
Tosin: It’s weird playing to French crowds because you can’t talk too much because they might not get everything you’re saying.
Yeah. I think most people understand pretty well.
Tosin: They just kind of look at you. You’re like, “Okay, well…”
That one guy [spoke English] well enough to say you killed his neck.
So you’re getting somewhere. Your first show on a boat.
Tosin: [laughs] Yeah.
What’s your feeling about that?
Tosin: It was cool. The venue sounds good. It’s a nice room; perfect size, you know?
Definitely. Nice and intimate.
[Javier Reyes joins us]
[to Javier] I’m Scott, by the way.
Javier: Nice to meet you.
Nice to meet you. So you just kicked the tour off a few days ago, right? How’s it been going so far?
Tosin: Every show’s been sold out.
Tosin: Yeah. Hope we keep it up.
Last time you were in Europe, you were opening for Between the Buried and Me, right?
Obviously, you were opening that time, but is it a much different reception, or is it kind of the same thing?
Tosin: Kind of the same. Those shows were a bit wilder or something.
Javier: Yeah. Also, Between the Buried and Me and us share fans, so it’s almost the same type of vibe. It was a little crazier, actually. People were expecting to get wasted and party a little harder.
I think the BTBAM fans are a little — I’ve been to a few shows of theirs, and they’re always moshing all the time.
Tosin: Yeah, yeah. The Paris show we played in the fall…
Javier: That was a crazy show.
Tosin: Was like a soccer match. It was like — we were covered in sweat.
What venue was that at?
Javier: La Maroquinerie.
Oh, okay. I haven’t been there yet.
Tosin: Dude. It was memorable. It was crazy.
Yeah? That’s great.
Javier: It was intense.
Nice. So Matt, actually, since you’re here, how’s the experience been in general?
Matt Garstka: Great. I’m getting to play with some of my favorite musicians and playing amazing music. I love the challenge, and I get some creative room too. Although the parts are pretty worked out, and there’s a lot of composed parts, they let me have some freedom. I’m as happy as I could possibly be.
That’s pretty awesome because I feel like most bands don’t do that. Especially metal bands. I’m just thinking about Dream Theater’s new drummer [Mike Mangini] — they programmed all the drum parts for him on their demo [for their latest album, ‘A Dramatic Turn of Events’].
Tosin: Did they?
Yeah, I’m pretty sure they did.
Matt: Yeah, Mike Mangini. He was my professor at Berklee [Berklee College of Music in Boston]. He’s a very part-playing guy, though; he’s not really one to improvise in a musical context. He can do his thing, like a drum solo on his own, but he’s the type to…
Javier: Work some stuff out.
Well, he’s a beast — I didn’t mean to downplay his skills.
Matt: No. His technical abilities are pretty amazing.
How is the new material from ‘Weightless’ holding up live, now that it’s been out for a few months?
Tosin: It’s hard. It’s too hard.
Javier: It’s nearly impossible to play.
Tosin: It’s too hard.
That first track…
Tosin: “An Infinite Regression”?
Yeah. That one just blew my mind — the tapping part. You just make it look so easy. It just looks like you’re petting the guitar or something.
Matt: I noticed that too. When I’m sitting over there on the drums, every time you go [mimics the slap guitar riff] everyone’s just like [mimes audience members’ jaws dropping].
Tosin: I should look up or something.
Matt: You should look down. Look down right at your feet. Everyone’s like, “No way!”
Matt: It’s almost like they’re like, “Dude! It’s actually a human playing it! It’s not programmed!”
Tosin: I did not know that.
It almost even looks fake, to be honest.
[Road crew member sticks his head through the doorway]
Road crew member: Yeah, when his hand’s moving? When it sounds like there’s 50 notes playing but his hands just going like this? [mimes guitar slapping]
It looks so relaxed.
Tosin: I should call it “The Art of the Hidden Hand” or some shit. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Fingers.”
Road crew member: “The Hand With Ten Fingers.”
I’m going to go home and try to do that with my guitar and it’s just going to be like [makes atonal metallic sound]
Tosin: Try it out, man. It’s actually quite easy.
Are you just doing a lot of pulling-off and hammering-on? What’s the secret to that technique?
Tosin: If you’re holding a single note, you’re producing a down and an upstroke with your thumb. [Mimes thumb movement while singing a rhythm] So it’s one-two-three [in a triplet rhythm] … And you combine it with [the other fingers], so it’s one-two-three-four-five-six.
That’s pretty crazy. It’s an awesome technique.
Tosin: It sounds pretty alien.
Definitely. The first few times I listened to it, I was on the fence between whether it was a guitar or a keyboard.
Tosin: Yeah, I’ve heard people think it’s a synth.
Javier: With “Espera,” people think it’s a keyboard. People don’t know it’s a — he didn’t know it’s a guitar! [points at Matt]
[laughs] You’re just shocked.
Javier: He was shocked. “That’s a guitar?!”
Speaking of keyboard stuff, do you trigger the keyboard textures when you play live?
Tosin: No. We play to a sequence that has the audio, and Matt controls it. But the visuals and all the sequence are all on a single file. Everything you’re seeing is a single file, in fact.
Yeah. When you were playing “Weightless,” the last song, I hadn’t really noticed that the visuals were that synched to the rest of the set, but then I was like — because it looked like you started up the video a little last minute — but I was like, “How is that happening right now?
Tosin: It’s cool. We’ve started to get less obvious about the synchronization and more abstract, but then there are moments where it’s clear that it’s…
Yeah. I think it was really sick.
Tosin: Oh, I love the visuals. You’ll notice that half of our set looks different than the other half. The abstract stuff is more recent —
That more grey, clear stuff?
Tosin: Yeah. I fucking love it. I wish I could watch, actually.
Javier and Matt: Yeah!
Javier: Every time I look back, I’m like, “Goddamn, that looks cool.” [laughs]
Yeah, that must be the ultimate distraction.
Javier: It is!
Matt: I think last night was the first time I really saw it, from the film footage. I was like, “Holy shit!”
Tosin: It looks crazy, right?
Matt: Yeah. It looks sick.
Tosin: Tonight looked cool too. I didn’t get any footage, but…
Tosin: I was going to do it for the encore. I shouldn’t have taken off my in-ear [monitors] and…
Javier: Yeah, I just took my guitar and walked back. We’ve never done that.
What do you usually do?
Tosin: We’ve never done an encore, ever.
Javier: Yeah, it was the first time.
Tosin: And the reason there was a false start was because the set is all part of a file, so we were just doing business as usual and accidentally started the correct song, but today it’s technically the incorrect song.
First time on a boat, first time for an encore. It’s a new situation.
Halfway through this tour, you guys are going to join up with Meshuggah, right?
Are you guys stoked for that?
Tosin: Well, now I’m scared.
Really? Have you played with them before?
Javier: Yeah, man!
Tosin: He’s being sarcastic.
Javier: It’s like a dream tour.
[laughs] I was thinking, “What’s wrong with you, man?”
Tosin: Yeah, they’re like…
Javier: That’s a dream tour.
Tosin: If I had to listen to one metal band for the rest of my life, it would be Meshuggah.
Tosin: They’re gods.
Yeah, they are gods.
Javier: You just pray to them, that’s it. They don’t say anything back to you.
Tosin: And it’s okay.
Javier: It’s okay! [laughs]
Did they approach you about it?
Tosin: It could’ve been their agent and our agent were having Guinness together. But either way, we’re on the tour. [laughs]
That’s awesome. Have you heard their new record?
What do you think of it?
Tosin: I like it. I think they’re — I want to hear Fredrik Thordendal’s [Meshuggah guitarist] solo stuff. I think he’s supposed to be working on that now.
Oh, really? I had no idea.
Tosin: He’s one of my favorite creative musical minds.
Yeah, definitely. Was he one of the first to use eight string guitar in metal?
Javier: He is.
Tosin: [to Javier] What did you say?
Javier: I mean, as far as popularizing it. There’s been eight string guitarists, classical guitarists. But I think that he’s definitely the Steve Vai of eight string, if you will.
Tosin: The best part about it is that I don’t think he ever wanted anyone else to play an eight string, or even cared if anyone else played an eight string. He wanted to play one.
Did he originally get one custom made for him?
Tosin: Yeah. There was a Swedish luthier, and then I think Ibanez was like, “Well, what the fuck. We’ll make you one.”
That’s pretty sweet.
Tosin: Yeah. I think the one [Ibanez] made tops the ones that they were getting custom made. They were having tuning issues and stuff like that.
Yeah. It must be a pretty difficult guitar…
Tosin: Now, it seems to be a pretty established science. Yeah, they’ve got titanium reinforcements in the neck.
Dual truss rods?
Javier: Dual truss rods.
I didn’t know that. That’s pretty sick… This is a little bit of a silly question. I know you guys don’t do the whole bass guitar thing, but if you had to have any bass player join your band — any bass player at all — who would it be? You can pick anyone.
Tosin: Evan Brewer. [laughs]
Tosin: He’s more than a bass player.
Javier: Yeah. He’s a homie.
Didn’t he tour with you guys a little while ago?
Tosin: Yeah. We took him on tour.
Javier: Tosin used to be in a band with him.
Tosin: Yeah, Reflux. It was like 2004.
I should check that out. I didn’t know he was in that too.
Javier: And then he joined Animosity, which Navene [Koperweis; former Animals as Leaders drummer] used to be in.
Tosin: Now he’s in The Faceless, which the singer of Reflux [Ash Avildsen] owns the label that The Faceless is on.
Tosin: And Navene used to play in The Faceless and played for us and played with Evan in Animosity.
Javier: [laughs] Those guys are just like family.
Yeah. I have one more question for you guys before I have to bounce. What animal is the best for leadership, given your band name? Aside from humans. You can’t pick humans.
Javier: What animal is the best for leadership.
Tosin: For leadership.
If there was an animal that would be good at leading.
Tosin: They have great memories…
Tosin: They honor their dead.
Javier: A dolphin.
Tosin: They have tough skin! Okay. [laughs]
That’s a good choice.
Javier: They have abstract thinking. Many animals don’t.
Matt, do you have a choice?
No? Okay, well…
Javier: He doesn’t know yet.
I think that’s pretty solid. Dolphin, elephant. [laughs]
Tosin: A puppy.
[laughs] Think about it.
Okay. I’ll put that down.
Matt: Don’t put that down.
No, no. It’s going in. Too late.
Matt: I’ll kill you.
Tosin: [in a sarcastic tone] A rabbit, cause they fuck a lot!
Matt: Well, it’s not because they fuck a lot. It’s how fast they fuck. That’s pretty crazy.
Tosin: You’re into the speed, huh?
Matt: Speed fucking. Of course. It’s like a fucking Olympic sport.
Pick up Animals as Leaders’ latest album, Weightless.
For the band’s upcoming tour dates, check out their official Facebook page.