One of the band’s signature approaches is the bass-technique-like “thumping” employed by both guitarists. Here, Abasi puts his thumb to work on his Ibanez prototype. Photo by Joe Russo
Animals as Leaders has had a massive impact on modern electric guitar. The 8-string instruments the band use for their mind-bending fretboard acrobatics are now commonly found in stores around the world, their use of Fractal Audio’s Axe-Fx units helped propel the company’s products to international recognition, and their heavy electronic-music influence made it okay for bands to add considerable non-guitar elements to their guitar-based live performances. For proof of the band’s influence, start an Animals as Leaders Pandora channel and listen to a steady stream of like-minded artists that would have never achieved recognition without this trio from Washington D.C. come pouring from your speakers.
Animals as Leaders had their genesis in what was supposed to be lead guitarist Tosin Abasi’s solo album. Initially the outing was intended to have more electronic-based production, but with the help of Abasi’s friend, producer, and Periphery guitarist Misha Mansoor, the album Animals as Leaders took on the heavier and more guitar-based character we know today. When it came time to put his band together, Abasi reached out to Javier Reyes, his former bandmate from the D.C. area, and the 8-string guitar-playing core of Animals as Leaders was set.
Since then the band has achieved critical and commercial success, touring the world with a wide variety of artists and releasing three more acclaimed albums, including their latest offering, The Madness of Many. Each album showcased a new side of the band and drew on the influences of outside producers and musicians, such as Mansoor and Adam "Nolly" Getgood from Periphery, drummer Navene Koperweis, and Volumes’ Diego Farias.
The Madness of Many represents a rebirth of sorts for the band. For the first time in their career, Animals as Leaders kept all performance, songwriting, and production duties in-house. What you hear on The Madness of Many is the sound of three mind-blowing artists with free rein to create the music they want.
Their newfound approach allowed Reyes and drummer Matt Garstka to interject their song ideas and compositions on an even playing field. This brought influences as diverse as Squarepusher, classical guitarist Yamandu Costa, and even Björk.
The trio also stuck to a less-is-more ethos in all aspects of this project. Pulling way back on post-editing their performances allowed Garstka to push and pull the songs’ grooves and lent a human element to the band’s super-human sound. “I think I’ve gotten out a lot of the super-aggressive technique-based lead playing on the previous releases,” says Abasi, explaining the bands’ current song-first approach.
Animals as Leaders and their new album continue to defy categorization. When they released their self-titled debut, the world was treated to an aggressive blending of genres and guitar-playing techniques that had seldom been heard before. Many rushed to call them djent. But one listen to The Madness of Many disproves that notion, and any comparisons to other genres or bands are simply due to a lack of obvious descriptions.
As a massive fan of the band, it was this journalist’s honor to get the opportunity to chat with Abasi and Reyes about the new album, their gear, and their ever-expanding playing styles and knowledge. And maybe most importantly, why they feel like the challenging, intellectual, and often mystifying sound of Animals as Leaders continues to thrive across the world.
The Madness of Many introduces a new way of working for Animals as Leaders. What was it like self-producing the album and why did you choose to go that route?
Tosin Abasi: We initially intended to just do pre-production on our own. Then the songs started to really come together in a way that, ultimately we were like, “I don’t really know what a producer would do.” And it started to dawn on us that we could release this thing as the work of just three of us.
Javier Reyes: The original idea was to work again with Misha Mansoor of Periphery. Even with the mixing, we actually sent it out to three different people. But the mixes that I had on it were closer to what we wanted. So we decided again, “Well, let’s just handle it ourselves.”
You seem to have benefitted musically from the process. Going forward, is this the way you see yourselves working?
Abasi: It’s a good question. We’re really feeling empowered by self-producing this album, so I think there’s going to be more of the same. And you’re just going to hear more exploration from us.
Are there any drawbacks to keeping everything in-house?
Abasi: Some of the drawbacks would be, depending on who you work with, you’re going to get different levels of editing, quantization, and stuff like that. We wanted as little editing or quantizing as possible, but there are some producers whose sound is reliant on replacing drums and samples and editing things to fit perfectly on the grid.
Reyes: The drums are way less edited than they were on The Joy of Motion or any of the previous albums. We just wanted to have a more organic feel. The band wants to grow in that direction.
Listening to the mix, I noticed the guitars in particular are very clear on this album. You can really hear the strings moving on the instruments. How did you achieve that?
Abasi: By using as little gain as possible. And by choosing [Axe-Fx modeled] amps that are mid-forward and articulate. The cool thing about extended-range guitars is that the lower the pitch, the more amplitude the actual string seems to have. It’s almost like driving the preamp harder just because the string is that much thicker. We really like the sound of the lower strings, so we go for as little gain as possible.
Reyes: Also by referencing a lot of recordings that I felt were really good. And listening to Matt and Tosin’s feedback. It was a matter of a lot of negotiating with each other and a lot of referencing other really good material.
You guys are well known for using Fractal Audio Axe-Fx guitar processors and playing 8-string guitars. Is that what you used for this album?
Abasi: It’s funny you say that, because for the album, yes. But right now I’m running a completely analog rig. No Axe-Fx. I just fell back in love with the immediacy of that response. I’m using a Morgan SW50R. It’s a single-channel, handwired tube head. It’s just very basic. Pure, clean, lots of headroom, and nothing fancy. I use it as a pedal platform. I actually realized rehearsing The Madness of Many songs that I didn’t need a bunch of different amp models and a bunch of different effects. I’m actually using the equivalent of a 3-channel head and some core effects.
Reyes: I’m still running the Axe-Fx. I like the simplicity of it. And with travel, I don’t want to have to remake tones wherever I go. It sounds great, I know it, and it’s extremely economical. I love my Axe-Fx. If I could sleep in bed with it, I would! [Laughs.] I’m using the XL+ right now. I’m also using a Sub Machine fuzz octaver pedal from MXR on “The Brain Dance.” That’s the only third-party pedal I’m using outside of my Axe-Fx.