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Do you use notation or charts to communicate
the band’s music?
Abasi: I read at a very basic level, but it’s kind of de-motivating so I avoid it. We don’t use charts or notation—everyone basically plays by ear. A lot of the stuff is very technique oriented, so I’ll have to physically show Javier what I’m doing. We record the music first, so the song basically exists before we learn it as a band. Then we go and learn our individual parts. After the riff is tracked, Javier will listen to it and either learn it by ear, or if he had any questions, I’d clarify.
Reyes: For my own personal practice, a lot of times I’ll play along to the song. I’ll take sections and analyze them, count them out if I need to, and make my own little cheat sheet with the counting—but not necessarily in staff form. I’d just write [something like], “There’s three beats here, then a two-beat rest, then Navene’s going to do a two-beat roll.” I rely on a lot of muscle memory and intuition.
Abasi: We’re really heavy on phrase memorization. I don’t want to make any riffs that are so counter-intuitive that you have to count seven 16th-notes. We use the meters as a guideline, like, “Dude, you’re playing an extra beat because this is in 9/8.” We’ll do stuff like that, but at the end of the day it’s about internalizing the phrase of the musical line. I think that’s the best way to approach this stuff.
You guys play a lot more counterpoint
than many of your peers.
Abasi: Yeah, I’m an intermediate classical guitarist—if I can even call myself that— so it’s kind of a by-product of knowing a bit of classical and then trying to utilize its strengths. On an 8-string guitar, if you drop the pick and use your open right hand, you can play multiple lines at one time, basically like playing classical guitar.
Reyes: I’ve been doing the classical and counterpoint stuff for a while, so learning Tosin’s stuff didn’t seem like a big deal. It’s allowed me to learn all this stuff.
In some ways, you guys are like an electric
version of the Assad Brothers classicalguitar
Reyes: Yeah, Tosin and I actually saw them a while ago. I got introduced to the Assad Brothers through my teachers back in D.C.
Abasi: Their harmonic approach is a bit more varied and adventurous than most traditional classical music. They’re technically proficient, too, which is obviously really nice. So, yeah, there are some parallels. Seeing them live was, like, “I didn’t know you could play at that speed with that amount of dynamics and detail!” It was phenomenal.AAL is guitarists Javier Reyes (left), Tosin Abasi (right), and drummer Navene Koperweis. Photo by Jonathan Weiner
Do you guys still woodshed for hours
Reyes: Tosin is definitely more of a speed shredder, doing all this crazy technique stuff. I’m kind of just playing the parts that need to be played.
Abasi: On tour, there’s a lot of song maintenance, and then I do general things that keep me limber. I’ve got a hybrid-picking book [that I study], which is basically chicken-pickin’, but it’s not about country music. The book has lots of permutations of left-hand fingerings. It’s all chromatic, four-frets-in-a-row stuff, but they’re dispersed in these sort of mathematical permutations.
Is the book you’re referring to Hybrid
Picking for Guitar by Gustavo
Abasi: Yeah, it’s a good book. I got his first hybrid-picking book when I was in music school, and two Animals as Leaders songs are inspired from those exercises. That stuff is useful, even if you’re just writing lines. The first half of it is just these atonal permutations, which is nice because you can turn them into whatever scales or modes you want to use.
In songs like “Somnarium,” among others,
it sounds like you’re drawing from
the modes of the melodic minor scale.
Abasi: Yeah, that’s exactly right.
In metal, you sometimes hear harmonic minor
and diatonic modes, but not
too many people in the genre explore
melodic-minor modes—which are more
common in jazz-fusion—to the extent
you guys do.
Abasi: When I was in music school, we covered all the modes—major and minor scales—but then we went into harmonic minor and melodic minor. That’s where my ear started to peak, because you get the intersection of a major seventh and a minor third in the same arpeggio, which is pretty cool. We have all these colors available. Most tonalities are pretty directly uplifting or diminishing, but with some of the modes of these obscure scales it’s definitely like a sweet-and-sour situation. I’m kind of obsessed with these tonalities that kind of blur the lines.