EXCLUSIVE: A Conversation With Tosin Abasi of T.R.A.M.

Tosin Abasi plays guitar, and plays it really, really well. What has he played guitar in, you ask? Well, his first moderately successful project was a little old band called Reflux. Most people probably know him best for his Animals As Leaders work. Now he’s got another project for us music connoisseurs (and fanboys) to sink our teeth into called T.R.A.M. featuring himself, Javier Reyes (also of Animals As Leaders), Adrian Terrazas (of The Mars Volta), and Eric Moore (of Suicidal Tendencies). This new project, aptly named as an acronym of the members’ last names, is a bit of a departure for Javier, Tosin and Eric being that it’s a fusion jazz album. The album, titled Lingua Franca is being released on February 28th by Sumerian Records, and you should buy it because it’s a fantastic record. At any rate, we had some questions for Tosin and he was nice enough to field all of them for us. Check out the full transcript below.

Jordan: How’s life Tosin?

Tosin: Life’s good. I just got back from a quick tour in New Zealand and Australia, now I’m unwinding.

Jordan: Glad to hear it. So, I guess the first and most obvious question would be how long after meeting Adrian did you decide you wanted to make music together?

Tosin: Pretty quickly. Honestly, our first jam session we actually were playing things that are on the T.R.A.M. album, so I instantly starting throwing these more jazz-oriented ideas I had at him and he was all over them. It was very cool. We just kinda got together to rehearse, and by the second week it was clear that we had a really good musical chemistry and we started to amass enough material for a real release. So yeah, probably about a week after we started rehearsing.

Jordan: So, the T.R.A.M. album comes out [today]. How long has this album been in the works?

Tosin: Well, I’d call it an EP since it’s really only five songs and a little interlude at the end, but the album length kinda puts it into full album territory but we weren’t really intending to do a full-blown release. We kinda wanted to get the few tunes that we were working on recording because we were really into the energy we had going on. So yeah, it’s really more of an EP.

Jordan: Once you decided you wanted to collaborate musically, how much longer did it take until you decided to form T.R.A.M. as a group dynamic?

Tosin: It was all propelled by the momentum of the actual music coming out of these jam sessions. Shortly we started feeling like this was its own thing and it was a body of work worth recording. The T.R.A.M. thing didn’t really start to solidify until we talked to Sumerian about our idea and they were on board with it, but we still needed a drummer, but we had a few more ideas. Once Eric (he’s the “M” in T.R.A.M.) was part of the fold, that’s when the project really became fully realized.

Jordan: You sort of alluded to this with Eric being the “M” in T.R.A.M., but it’s a pretty convenient name for the band–were there any other ideas floating around before you decided on T.R.A.M.?

Tosin: Yeah, some really bad ones, like “Minority Report” because we’re all minorities. [laughs] Or, like, we were playing off the idea of a super group, you know that term that gets thrown around, so we were gonna call it the Justice League because it’s like a bunch of super heroes working together. [laughs] They were all pretty terrible band names, so we didn’t stick with any of them.

Jordan: Well, T.R.A.M. works out pretty well. So, I’ve listened to the EP a whole bunch at this point, and the signature style of you and Javier is pretty clear on the album. How much thought went into how much crossover there would be from Animals As Leaders to this project?

Tosin: This project was more of a departure from the way we do Animals As Leaders because some of the ideas we do in T.R.A.M. could be at home in an Animals As Leaders song but the things that are different are instrumentation, the actual dynamics (it’s not very heavy or metal), the actual style of drumming is a bit more improvisation. It was more about changing the essential musical ideas but seeing how we could produce them differently, with different instrumentation. So I think my style is still distinctly me, but in a different context. It’s like wearing a different hat. So that’s more of what T.R.A.M. is, and the songs are more catered to the jazz approach where there’s a core idea of the song and you kinda solo over the form then you return to that core form and then the song ends. So, it was a bit less ambitious as the actual composition is concerned, so I wanted it to be a but more open to interpretation as far as Eric and Adrian were concerned.

Jordan: So, you mentioned that Sumerian is putting out the album, how do you think your fans (which are likely mostly metal fans) will react to the album?

Tosin: I think it’s going to be a challenging listen for people who don’t like jazz. There are a lot of tracks on it you know, Adrian is a pretty adventurous player, the drumming is really busy, It’s not exactly metal, obviously, but there is a bit of a metal leaning because of my contributions and Javier’s as well but I just think it’s more organic, definitely more based in world music and jazz. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I think some of them will like it and do think some of them share a love of other genres of music, but I do think there will be people who won’t like it because it’s not metal. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Jordan: So, how would you compare writing/playing the T.R.A.M. material compared to your material with Animals As Leaders and even your early material with Reflux?

Tosin: The T.R.A.M. stuff is, like I said, a bit more open. Some of the parts are just based on chord progressions, tight syncopated riffs, etc. Animals As Leaders is more of a situation in which the songs are highly composed, the drums are all synched in to complement these complex rhythmic phrases on the guitar so on an experience level it’s more aggressive. It’s not improvised, you’re playing written parts as accurately as possible. With T.R.A.M., you know, you have this framework and you’re allowed to express yourself in different ways. I still wanted to have odd meter and have these specific phrases but it’s a lot more free.

Jordan: How long have you been itching to put out a jazz record?

Tosin: It’s been something that has been brewing for a while. There’s some Animals As Leaders stuff that is very close to jazz, but it’s just a matter of process. There are riffs that I could take from these albums that I could choose to play them in a different way they could feel more like a jazz idea than a metal idea. Or if you throw a bunch of double kick, china, and distortion over a jazz idea you could pretty much make it sound metal. Animals As Leaders has always been this mashup of jazz harmony with metal dynamics and sensibilities. T.R.A.M. was basically taking those jazz ideas and doing them in a more straightforward jazz way rather than add metal to it.

Jordan: Obviously it’s too early to have any plans too far into the future for T.R.A.M., but what’s on the immediate horizon?

Tosin: We’re just looking forward to the release. We recorded that stuff over a year ago so we’re just excited to have it come out. We’ve been talking about doing one-off gigs, maybe with bands like The Memorials or something, just like playing out here and there. It’s definitely a side project that came out of nowhere, and Animals As Leaders is still very busy, as well as Suicidal Tendencies and Adrian has multiple projects–so T.R.A.M. is basically going to have to be active in between all of our main projects and will have to coincide with everyone having down time. I’d like it to be leisurely, as opposed to an element of stress, so we’ll just have to wait and see, you know?

Jordan: So, you said that the EP was recorded over a year ago, is there any other stuff in the works?

Tosin: I’m constantly writing, and the weird thing is that some of my ideas would be equally at home in T.R.A.M. as they would in Animals As Leaders and it takes us back to this idea of process and how you choose to actually convey the idea. As far as new material is concerned, I’m just writing. I think there’s going to be a new Animals release before there’s a new T.R.A.M. release just because I’m feeling like focusing my energy into progressing the Animals As Leaders sound right now, but I think there will be more jazz oriented stuff for T.R.A.M. in the future as well.

Jordan: You mentioned in terms of immediate plans that you’d like to play some one-off shows, who else would you have in the mix? Would you go with a metal band or would you go with something completely different?

Tosin: I think it would be cool to do something totally different. T.R.A.M. I really want to be an outlet for things I can’t really do with Animals, so maybe playing jazz festivals or playing with other fusion bands to just diversify the forums that I’ve been able to play guitar in. The metal world has been home for a while now, I’m very into it and I think it’s an excellent musical arena, but I want to experience the more improvisational side of life and kind of experience what other bands in the fusion world are up to. Just diversify where I got out and play and with T.R.A.M. I feel like it would be cool to enter that world a bit.

Jordan: Not long ago, Animals As Leaders were announced as the Thrice openers for their farewell tour. How do you anticipate that going, considering AAL and Thrice are two fairly different styles of music?

Tosin: Thrice are definitely a little different than us musically, but they’re fans of ours musically and they asked us to do the dates and so we definitely hopped on that. We’re definitely into the challenge of playing to non-metal crowds and seeing what elements of our music they respond to and to see how much universal appeal we actually do have. I think it only helps to further where we go with our sound. We’ve done a lot of tours that seem a bit confusing like Underoath, Circa Survive and Thursday, or Dredg–these are opportunities that come to us from these bands which is great, so apparently they’re seeing something in what we’re doing that mixes with them and maybe their fanbase. It’s been very expansive for us to play for crowds that might not necessarily know how many strings are on our guitars or don’t care about how fast you can play. So, there’s other lessons to be learned from that, so we look forward to it.

Jordan: How often do people in interviews ask you about Reflux at this point?

Tosin: It’s kind of rare. It comes up every once in a while, and it’s always surprising since that was a while ago and it’s kind of cool when people remember it and have questions about it, but it’s one of the less frequent questions for sure.

Jordan: Interesting, because I was just thinking the other day about how awesome that Reflux album was.

Tosin: It’s funny because it has Ash Avildsen [founder of Sumerian records] who is responsible for signing acts like Born of Osiris, Periphery and The Faceless and Evan Brewer was also in Reflux, and he’s now in the Faceless and has his solo career going through Sumerian–so it’s weird that the three of us were in a band together at one point.

Jordan: The Illusion of Democracy was pretty ahead of its time back in 2004.

Tosin: Yeah, I’m glad you can see that. There are definitely Animals As Leaders tunes–like “CAFO” was a song that Reflux was actually performing on the last tour we actually did. Some of the materials for Animals As Leaders was no more advanced than that Reflux material, there were just different sensibilities. Then I was trying to be more localized within metalcore and keeping some of those elements, and with Animals As Leaders I just sort of let myself go. But the guitar stuff was pretty much paralleled to what I’m doing with Animals As Leaders. I’ve been trying for this sound for a long time, is what I’m getting at and the Reflux is probably more relevant today than when we put it out.

Jordan: Sounds a lot like Atheist back in the day.

Tosin: It’s like one of those weird shifts in communal consciousness or something hat no one seems to understand, but I’m really happy about the current state of metal. I think there’s a lot of diversity and I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm about progressive metal. I think musicianship is being valued again, and it’s really heathy right now which is really cool. I’ve been playing for a while, and you go through a lot of phases and I think this phase right now is really cool.

Jordan: So, have you ever thought about re-releasing the Reflux album now so people can buy it if they want?

Tosin: You know, I listen to that record and there’s things that really bother me. We actually recorded the whole album, we performed it as a band, not recorded to a click, me and the drummer sort of tracked everything together so it was tight, but it wasn’t to a click track. What happened is that we couldn’t use the audio from that so we ended up at a later date taking the drums to another engineer who sound replaced them and I had to go back and re-record all the guitars and bass in two days, and because it wasn’t clicked, it’s not in sync as it was when we performed it together. So when I listen to the album I’m hearing a lot of just–metal recording has just evolved to a state of perfection these days and the production standards of Reflux just don’t hold up. It makes it hard for me to listen to. There’s a lot of cool creative ideas in there but there’s always stuff in there that will always bother me, so I don’t have a big inclination to revisit that stuff. I think it’s cool when anyone has heard it or if they can get a copy and go back and listen to it without being too critical of it. I’m kind of putting my efforts into writing more and more music, you know?

Interview conducted and transcribed by Jordan Munson. Follow him on Twitter.

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