A Strat-wielding sonic shaman creates his own space and time continuum with his still-evolving trio and a uniquely modded vintage Ampeg amp on the new album High Bias.
If you’re into gear—and you probably are if you’re reading this—the first thing you’ll notice about Mike Polizze, the guitarist in Purling Hiss, is his amp: a modded Ampeg VT-22.
You don’t see many Ampeg guitar amps these days, but they were a big deal in the early ’70s—especially for the Rolling Stones. The Stones were the first band to use Ampeg’s muscular V series and they brought the prototypes on their 1969 American tour. It was on that tour that Bill Wyman introduced the world to the SVT (his was a-300-watt, 95-pound beast), and those are the amps you hear on Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, the Stones’ 1970 live album. Mick Taylor used a V series amp for his iconic solo on “Midnight Rambler” and they were still using those amps on Exile on Main Street in 1972. The Stones pushed their amps hard, and for that 1969 tour had a tech on loan from Ampeg to manage their backline if it melted down.
Polizze doesn’t push his amp that hard, but it is the bedrock of his tone—he is a pedal minimalist—and he keeps it loud. Onstage, he often faces his VT-22 to coax feedback from his Hughes & Kettner 4x12 cab. In the studio, he does the same thing. “We tried to baffle it as best as possible,” he says about the live tracking for Purling Hiss’ latest release, High Bias. “We had a big foam thing that we put over the amp. We used headphones, but it still felt live.”
That live, improvisatory feel is the next thing you’ll notice about Polizze. His band isn’t a jam band per se, but he leans toward the loose and spontaneous. It is a debt he probably owes to Hendrix. “The album that really got me into Hendrix was Gypsy Sun and Rainbows from Woodstock,” Polizze says. “That recording is just great. It’s sloppy and it is really unhinged and beautiful. That was a big one for me in the beginning.
Unhinged is a good way to describe Polizze’s early Purling Hiss records as well. The project started as noise experiments recorded to a 4-track cassette machine while Polizze was busy with his other band, Birds of Maya. He played all the instruments and sometimes even recorded the drum parts first. Those tracks were released as Purling Hiss in 2009 and followed by two more albums the next year.
And Purling Hiss may have remained a quirky, if interesting, side project had not fellow Philadelphian Kurt Vile invited Polizze to assemble a band and open for him on a North American tour. Since then, Purling Hiss has taken on a life of its own. Polizze has upgraded to recording in a bona fide studio, brought in others to produce—including Adam Granduciel (the War on Drugs), yet another fellow Philadelphian—and no longer plays bass and drums for the band in the studio.
Polizze is evolving, but he keeps it open-ended and is willing to let the cards fall where they may. “It’s about being on the spot,” he says. “That’s the type of creativity it is. It’s like occupying the space of a certain tempo or time and feeling your way through it as it happens.
We spoke with Polizze about his songwriting, improvisation, recording at home, and mastering on GarageBand. We also spoke about keeping his Strat in tune—despite overworking its stock whammy—and learned what’s different about his Ampeg VT-22.
When did you start playing?
I started playing guitar when I was 13. I am 35 now.
Did you take lessons?
I did. I started taking piano lessons when I was in second grade, when I was about 8. I took piano lessons up until about ninth grade and then I started taking guitar lessons. I think at one point I was taking both. It helped a lot, although I was always slow at reading music.
Gone are the 4-track tape recorder days. The new Purling Hiss album, High Bias, was cut live in the studio with Polizze’s Ampeg VT-22 set on “stun” and baffled with a foam cover.
Did you spend a lot of time in high school shedding and learning the instrument?
Yeah. I look back now and I’m happy—I was certainly having fun then—but it was just nerding out, just shredding. I went through a phase when I first started where I wanted to play and I wanted to be a good player. When I got into my early 20s, I think I was at a crossroads where I thought, “So what if I can play this stuff? It doesn’t mean it’s cool. It doesn’t mean I am creative.” I had a period where I wasn’t sure what to do with it. That was a period where I had to find my identity as an artist. I think I have a good vantage point now. I’m glad that I woodshedded back then and worked out and found my identity through it.
When did you start writing songs?
That’s the thing—I don’t think I realized that I did. I used to draw a lot when I was a kid. I was creative and I came up with ideas. I wasn’t the best illustrator, but I feel like I got reactions from people. I made funny cartoons and the idea would be there. Recently, I realized that was the creative part. To me, drawing well is the same as playing guitar really fast. It doesn’t mean there is an idea there. I had a band in high school, too, so technically I was writing songs on guitar as soon as I started playing. But I feel like it all came to fruition when it became Purling Hiss, because that is a name I stuck with. I look back at some old recordings and it is funny how many different styles I went through. I was searching for what was for me and what wasn’t for me.
Did Purling Hiss start as demos on a 4-track cassette machine?
Yeah. I still have the same 4-track. It’s a Yamaha MTX4 4-track cassette recorder. I bought it when I was 18, the year I graduated high school. I’ve always been recording on it. The songs I ended up using for the first Purling Hiss recordings are from around 2007 or 2008. I was doing a noise experiment, a guitar experiment, and I came up with a name—purling means the rippling effect on a stream—and I thought that sounded cool. I kept the name and it was just another 4-track recording I was doing. I didn’t even have a band yet. I didn’t get a band together until I started putting out records on small labels and then people started asking me to play live shows.
The current version of Purling Hiss includes drummer Ben Leaphart (left) and bassist Daniel Provenzano (right), and is the most flexible, improvisation-inclined version of Polizze’s band to date. Photo by Constance Mensh
Did you dump those tracks into Pro Tools to create the album?
It’s kind of funny, but no, I’ve always been really simple with recording. I’ve always used my Shure SM57—the flat one, the instrument mic—I’ve always used one of those for everything. Then, from my 4-track, I would dump it into GarageBand. I digitize it, bounce it to iTunes, and that would be it. It was rudimentary and really crude—on purpose in a way. I was like, “This is it.” I recorded analog first, so it would be to tape, but I had to digitize it somehow.
Did you mic everything or did you record some instruments direct?
I wanted to be as uniform as possible. I wanted it to sound cool. I miked the bass, too. I plugged my bass into my Ampeg VT-22, it’s like a V-4 [tube bass head], and recorded it that way.
Has any of that spirit carried over into the current project, with a full band and recording in a regular studio?
It’s more straightforward now. We record live as a band and I do some overdubs, but I’m basically using my same gear.
When you started playing the older material live, did you expect the other musicians to play what you recorded or did you give them latitude to reinterpret the music and play what they wanted?
It really depended on the people, but I was always the primary writer and I said, “Here’s how the song goes.” If they did something on their own and it fit, I was fine with it. With the newer stuff, I still do the same thing. At practice I say, “Here’s a song I wrote.” They can make up their own parts if they want to, as long as it fits. I impart a certain vibe to it, a feel to it. It’s always been that way. It’s my project, but we work it out together.
Do you jam a lot as well?
With the old band, I just told them how to play it because we didn’t have much time and we had to get on the road. But in the last year, with the band members I play with now, we’ve started jamming more, which has been good. It’s been more open recently and I think that came through on the new album, too.
A lot of your songs are conducive to jamming.
Totally. A lot of the stuff we do and the creative process is sort of off-the-cuff. It is not preconceived. Sometimes it is, or I’ll write it that way on purpose and try to make it like a controlled thing, but I’ll leave a lot of open-ended-ness. We do repetition and a lot of improvisation. I like that a lot. I like the aesthetic and feel of that.
Do you listen to any open-ended or free music, and are you trying to incorporate some of that into your playing?
I listen to a lot of improv—anything from noise stuff to jazz stuff—anything that provokes or encourages off-the-cuff, in-the-moment playing. It could be anything: completely free jazz like Ornette Coleman or, more specifically, like on my song, “Ostinato Musik,” which is my little homage to Manuel Göttsching, the German guy who played in Ash Ra Tempel. He has an album called Inventions for Electric Guitar. It’s great stuff. He uses a lot of delay and a lot of repetition. Those are just a couple of examples. It’s not about being in a jam band or anything like that. It’s about being on the spot—that’s the type of creativity it is. It’s like occupying the space of a certain tempo or time and feeling your way through it as it happens.
You use a lot of repetitive figures in your solos as well.
On the last track of the album, “Everybody in the USA,” we wanted to do something like that. Half the song has structured parts and then we open it up at the end. There are two searing solos at the end and it was completely first take on both. That’s an example of where we do it on the album—where there is a lot of improv. Traditionally, you get a lot of rock bands that do a rhythm track and then have a lead track, whereas these are both. I recently saw that Iggy and the Stooges documentary, Gimme Danger, and they were talking about recording Fun House. Ron Asheton, or someone, was talking about Ron Asheton’s guitar playing. They were saying, basically, “It is rhythm guitar! No, it’s lead guitar!” I heard that and I thought, “That’s exactly how I feel.” I feel we were doing that at the end of our last track: this swelling, searing, slow bass and drums, and swelling and occupying the space with the guitar and sounds.
There are a few quirky time feels on the album, too. Do you experiment with odd meters?
It’s funny, because I thought recently I haven’t done that in a long time, though I used to be really into stuff like that. I had an epiphany some years ago. I was coming of age playing—post high school, but in my 20s—and I was trying to find where I belong. I thought, “I want this music to sound good and smart, but I don’t want it to sound like I’m trying too hard.” I was into math rock for a while. I went through a phase and I got to a point where I can appreciate it the way I can appreciate jazz, but sometimes it is just too nerdy for me. That is why my stuff has been simple and straightforward. But I also wanted to combine, like, “What’s a good beat? What’s a good rhythm? What’s a good tempo? What’s a good time signature? And then how do I incorporate melody with that? Or a riff? How do I make it work all together and make it interesting?” My goal has been to try to make something clever. That was the word I stuck with: clever. Music can be really simple, like a Beatles song, but some of those songs are really clever. I was listening to stuff, to the craziest music and crazy time signatures, and at the same time I was also listening to the simplest stuff and finding my way in the middle.
But to answer your question: no, not really. I’ve written music like that for myself in the past. It would be neat to incorporate it more. At the end of that last song, too, it does switch from 4/4 to 3/4. The opening riff is in 3/4 and then the beat kicks in and the whole song, the singing part, is all 4/4. After the second chorus before the jam, it switches to 3/4. But that’s the only one I can think of off the top of my head where it really switches a time signature.
Tell us about your amp.
It is a VT-22. From what I understand about them, they were originally a combo amp that is very similar to a V-4, but the V-4 is a head. I bought mine used at DiPinto’s, a guitar shop in Philly, and it had been converted into a head. It wasn’t a combo amp any more, it was just a head by itself. Any gearhead I’ve ever talked to says it’s basically the same thing as a V-4. It’s probably over 100 watts. Again, every time I talk to gearheads they’re like, “It says it is 60 watts, but really it is pushing over 100. Or it is 100 and it is really pushing 130.” I play it through a Hughes & Kettner half-stack.
And you play a Strat.
I play the same Strat I’ve been playing since the ’90s. It’s just like my baby—sentimental to me. It is a reissue model with a rosewood fretboard. It is pretty light. I think the body is alder.
You use the whammy a lot. Do you have problems with tuning or breaking strings?
You know what, man? My remedy was to switch to a set of .008-gauge strings. My guitar stayed in tune much better when I switched to slinky strings. Also, I’ve been playing that guitar for so long I think maybe the springs have stretched out. They work, but they don’t knock it out of tune. I use light gauge strings and I think I just worked the springs in the back of it over the years. That’s what I’m guessing.
The official video for “Follow You Around,” from the new album High Bias, captures the kinder, gentler side of Purling Hiss—more attuned to melodies and traditional songcraft than the snarling feedback machine they typically become live. While Mike Polizze prized ’90s Stratocaster gets plenty of visibility, you’ll need to watch closely for views of his singular modded Ampeg VT-22, chopped from a combo to a head.
You solo more live than you do on the recordings. Do you have a philosophy about soloing?
It is a balance and it just depends on what you are going for. I think there is a point of, “When are you wanking around and when is it appropriate?” I really do love improvised guitar and I love soloing, but not so much in a flashy way. I like it if it’s part of the experience—everybody is watching you occupy a space in that moment, displaying what your references are and where you’re steering it. That’s more open-ended and it’s a different perspective on the music, as opposed to a corny, flashy guitar solo. Sometimes I feel like I don’t do it enough on the albums, because we’re trying to work out songs. But I feel like we did a good job with it on this last one. There is a lot more improvisation when we play live. I think that just happens naturally.
Overplaying bassists aren’t typically held in high regard, but there are ways to let your creativity shine through while still maintaining a solid foundation.
In most modern styles of music, our main job as bassists is to provide a basic harmonic foundation. There are several reasons for this, but it’s mostly just because it sounds good. Usually there are other instruments whose job it is to play the colorful chord tones, which can include upper structures of a chord that extend well beyond simple triads. Most non-bassists will agree: One of the worst things you can encounter in an ensemble is a bassist who isn’t holding down the bottom end due to overplaying. Too many inversions or too many notes won’t win you friends.
A happy medium is to aim for rock-solid playing while adding just enough personal touches to make a lasting impact on both the audience and your fellow musicians. So this month, I want to share the fairly basic concept of approach notes through a fun, musical set of exercises. Approach notes will add personality to your chord tones, and if you apply the knowledge tastefully, it can really take your playing to the next level. Let’s use an A7 chord to illustrate the process. The formula for a dominant 7 chord is 1–3–5–b7, relative to a major scale starting from the chord root. For A7, this yields A–C#–E–G.
We’ll start by approaching every chord tone from below.Set your metronome to a comfortable, quarter-note tempo and play these first three exercises as eighth-notes. The first order of business is to approach the root—A. As shown in Photo 1, begin by playing G# on the 4th string with your second finger, and follow that by playing A on the next fret with your third finger. Next up, approach the 3 (C#) from below by playing C (3rd string, 3rd fret) with your first finger, then C# (4th fret) with your second finger.
Root and 3—so far, so good. Now repeat the same concept to approach the 5 (E). Use your third finger for D# (3rd string, 6th fret), and your fourth finger to play the E (7th fret). Finally, approach the b7 (G) by playing F# (2nd string, 4th fret) with your first finger, and G (5th fret) with your second finger. We’ve now approached all four chord tones from a half-step below. Once you’ve played this exercise ascending, reverse directions and descend through the same set of moves.
To approach A7’s root from above, play B using the fourth finger.
The next exercise approaches the target notes from above. As shown in Photo 2, start with your fourth finger on B (4th string, 7th fret), and then play the A—our root—located two frets below with your second finger. To approach the 3 from above, place your second finger on D (3rd string, 5th fret). This requires you to use the same finger you just fretted the 4th string with on thesamefret, so make sure you play the note with the softer, meaty part of your finger. (By flattening out the last knuckle of your second finger, you don’t have to move your fingertip off the A you played before fretting D, and this will keep the whole exercise sounding very legato and relaxed.) Now move down to the 3 by playing C# with your first finger.
To approach the 5, play F# (2nd string, 4th fret) with your first finger, using that knuckle-rolling technique I just described, and then E with your fourth finger (3rd string, 7th fret). Last, approach the b7 by first playing the A (2nd string, 7th fret) and then tagging G two frets below. Use your fourth and second fingers, respectively.
As with the previous exercise, once you’ve reached the last note, flip the pattern around and descend to the low root.
A real ear-bender, the exercise illustrated in the next two photos is my favorite. In it, you’ll approach every chord tone from both above and below. This means the notes will be in groups of three, so set your metronome to a slower quarter-note tempo and play this exercise as eighth-note triplets.
Start with your fourth finger on B (4th string, 7th fret), followed by G# (4th fret) with your first finger, and then A (5th fret) with your second finger. See how that works?
Nailing E—A7’s 5—from D#, a half-step below.
Approach the 3 by playing D, C, and C#—all on the 3rd string—with your third finger, first, and second fingers.
Next move to the 5 by playing F# (first finger, 2nd string, 4th fret), then D# (third finger, 3rd string, 6th fret), and finally E (fourth finger, one fret higher). The last half-step shift is shown in Photo 3.
Approaching G (A7’s b7, played by the second finger) by way of A (fourth finger) and F# (first finger).
Finally, Photo 4 shows the b7 approach that occurs entirely on the second string: A (fourth finger, 7th fret), F# (first finger, 4th fret), and G (second finger, 5th fret).
These exercises can add pizzazz to your bass lines and serve as a great launching pad for soloing, so I hope you’ll find them useful. If you’ve been stuck playing triads, you have now officially been set free.
Watch the lesson:
Tosin Abasi and Javier Reyes reveal how, for the first time, they bypassed outside producers and collaborators to write, track, and mix their new album as a band.
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 TheMadness 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.
Besides his signature electric 8-string model and its accomplices, the rest of Javier Reyes tonal recipe lies in his blend of Fractal Audio’s Axe-Fx and Port City’s Pearl head and cabinets with Celestion speakers. Photo by Joe Russo
Is the band still using Port City cabinets?
Abasi: Javier is. But I’m using Morgan and a 4x12 that Paul Reed Smith gave me. It has alnico 65-watt speakers in it. I mike up my Morgan 2x12. It’s got Celestion G12H speakers.
Reyes: The Port City cabs are great. They haven’t done me wrong. I’m actually sending two signals out of the Axe-Fx. One has a cab sim that goes to front of house and my in-ear monitors. The other doesn’t have a cab sim, and it goes into the front of the [Port City] Pearl, which is a very clean single-channel amp with a non-colored tone. I have two 2x12 Port City cabs. One of them has Celestion Creambacks and the other one has G12s. I use that for my stage sound.
What guitars did you play on the album?
Abasi: For about 90 percent of the album, minus the acoustic songs, I played my signature prototype Ibanez—though “Private Visions of the World” is on a 9-string.
Reyes: I think I used an 8-string PRS on a couple of songs. We used an Aristides guitar with Bare Knuckle pickups in it. And on “Private Visions of the World,” I used a Vintage Plus from ESP. I love that guitar. We used my signature Ortega 8-string classical on “The Brain Dance,” as well.
Tosin, your prototype guitar has been seen all over the web and on tour. I’m assuming it is something that will be coming out soon?
Abasi: Yeah, we’re just trying to nail the design, but I’ve been playing it for over a year. And, I should add, I’m using Fishman Fluence pickups now.
Why the change from your signature set?
Abasi: It was kind of an accident. I A/B’d them against my Duncan prototypes and they smoked my Duncans. I just couldn’t believe it. So in that moment I literally couldn’t move forward with what I was playing. Those A/B comparisons are definitely the best way to really expose differences between pieces of gear.
You’ve also been famously seen with Rick Toone and Strandberg guitars. Did those guitars make it to the album?
Abasi: Yes. The Rick Toone is on “Backpfeifengesicht.” Those instruments have a unique sound. And they both have extended fretboards beyond the nut, on the seventh and eighth strings. So there are certain songs, like “Physical Education,” that were written specifically on the Rick Toone or the Strandberg.
Javier, are you still playing your signature ESP 8-strings on tour?
Reyes: Yeah, I have two of them out right now. In Europe I even took my lower-tier model. It’s a really great guitar. For the price, it’s one of the better 8-string guitars. I use my signature Eclipse 8 DiMarzio pickups. I voiced them to have a single-coil sound but still have that humbucker thing to them. I love them. They’re very clear.
Animals as Leaders is known for incorporating Latin influences and electronic elements, and using such guitar techniques as slapping and heavy low-tuned riffing. Are those trademarks something you’re conscious about keeping in your sound?
Abasi: Animals as Leaders is a space to bring all that together without many rules, and so you hear it all come out.
Reyes: The technical stuff comes pretty naturally. But I always want to come up with something that’s listenable and isn’t complicated for the sake of being complicated. But I think we’re aware that the “thumping” is definitely a unique quality that the band has. For the time being, it’s definitely our signature sound.
Tosin, in the last interview you did with Premier Guitar for The Joy of Motion, you mentioned wanting to increase the lyrical qualities of your playing. Do you think you achieved that on this album?
Abasi: Yeah,I think so. This album is the least shreddy, as far as my lead work is concerned, and I feel like it’s a result of a few things. One is not trying to express the same things repeatedly. And my taste in guitar music has really evolved a bit. I’m really responsive to vocal-centered minds, like Derek Trucks. And by doing the Generation Axe tour and being around guys like Zakk Wylde, Nuno Bettencourt, Yngwie, and Vai—all quintessential electric guitar players—it starts to really sink into my playing.
Javier, how has your playing expanded on the new album, and who has influenced you?
Reyes: I’m thumping a lot more. A lot of these songs I can get through without using a pick. The line between guitar and bass technique is getting more blurred. Sometimes I look down and think, “I’m literally playing what looks like bass stuff.” But it’s still guitar. I like that it’s a totally unique style.
There’s a Brazilian classical player named Yamandu Costa who is just phenomenal. He has an album with a Brazilian mandolin player named Hamilton de Holanda that will blow away any guitar player with an appreciation for beautiful music.
Drummer Matt Garstka and guitarists Tobin Abasi and Javier Reyes, from left to right, summed all their diverse influences for The Madness of Many, crafting a sound that extends from classical music to Björk.
Are there moments on the album that display each of your styles and influences?
Abasi: I think all of Javier’s parts on “The Brain Dance” and “Apeirophobia.” And even “Private Visions of the World” … he’s doing the lead line there based on my chord melody. I think you can really hear him offer a wider range of expression than just rhythm, like on the first album.
Reyes: On “Private Visions of the World,” Tosin has really dense chord melodies happening. So I wanted to write something that was very complementary, but still very melodic. Sometimes it’s hard because we’ve been playing together a long time. We definitely go back and forth with influencing each other.
You have electronic elements and harmony guitar lines running throughout your albums. How do you pull those off live?
Abasi: If it’s not something Javier and I can play, then it has to be a layer, the same way the synth stuff is on the background track.
So you have to be right on your click track! That’s impressive. You have to be tighter than humans, basically.
Abasi: We are just really tight humans. [Laughs.] We play to a click for everything, so we know that if we get off, it’s a potential disaster. There’s no margin for error.
How would you describe the evolution of Animals as Leaders from the self-titled debut to where you are now?
Abasi: With the self-titled, it was not really a band. It was a bunch of guitar ideas I had and some demos I made. Basically the self-titled was the end result of my collaboration with Misha Mansoor.
And then with Weightless, we worked with Navene Koperweis, who was our drummer at the time. And that kind of led things in a slightly different creative direction.
On The Joy of Motion, we went back to Misha, as well as working with Diego Farias of Volumes. And the focus was on making tracks that were shorter, a bit more focused, and song oriented.
Then with TheMadness of Many, we just wanted to reference everything we had done previously. But we also worked where we didn’t have outside influence at all. I think The Madness of Many is the album we all wanted to make collectively. So the biggest difference in the process is that it was purely an internal collaboration.
Reyes: It has definitely been an evolution, as far as third-party contributors and ourselves. We always try to write as who we are in that current time, using the influences we have at the time. But this time we really wrote everything together. It was way more collaborative within the band than it ever has been.
What do you think it is about your sound that makes it so accessible worldwide?
Reyes: I think we were at that cusp of the internet that allowed us to blow up, as well as timing it with Misha. We were super-impressed with what he was doing. I remember hearing demos of Animals as Leaders before Misha, and they do not sound like anything from the first album. I don’t know if the band would have had the same amount of success without him. And we’re lucky that there are bands today that are making it a scene for us now.
Abasi: I think it’s because the sound is of musical value at the end of the day. We’re concerned with compelling rhythm, melody, and harmony, and I think that is what people are responsive to. We are trying to bring metal, progressive metal, electronic music, jazz, and classical all into one space. So I guess we’re merging the things we love. And by doing that, providing music for people who love the same things.
Today such artists as Intervals, Plini, Sarah Longfield, and Chimp Spanner are doing their own take on a similar sound. But it was Animals as Leaders that helped bring that sound to prominence. How do you feel about so many players now chasing the Animals as Leaders sound?
Reyes: It’s a dream come true. To get to the point where you’ve seen a piano, flute, sitar, or harp cover of your songs, or people writing to tell you they’re using your song for their Berklee [College of Music] audition ... I don’t know if there’s really words that can describe it.
Abasi: I think it’s awesome—the word “renaissance” comes to mind. There’s an elevation of artistry on the instrument and an attraction to learning about harmony and technique. It’s inspiring to see someone do something on this level, and I think these young players have their eyes on a very awesome prize. We’re in store for a lot of great guitar playing.
This live version of The Madness of Many’s opening track is a stellar example of how the band uses a wide array of guitar techniques. Check out the atmospheric breakdown at 1:10.