Leo Abrahams: The Conversation

When an artist and session player like Leo Abrahams is continually involved in so many varied and interesting musical endeavors, it is essential to catch up. For the first time we actually spoke rather than emailed and an interview turned into a conversation, starting with a discussion of another wide-ranging guitarist we both love, Chris Spedding (Elton John, Bryan Ferry, John Cale, Robert Gordon et al), before getting into gear and aleatory music concepts.

What was it like working with Spedding in Bryan Ferry’s band? I’ve been a fan for ages.

I am so happy you asked that question. He is one of my favorite guitarists and such a gentle, elegant, and lovely man. It was very nice being on tour with him because, though he doesn’t really talk about all the amazing things he has done, on rare occasions, like breakfast at 5 a.m. in the hotel in Sweden, he’d suddenly tell a story about how, in the very early days, he used to play on boats and go to different parts of the world. He’s a very modest person and you hear that in his playing, which is incredibly exciting, but also really tasteful. Though I’m not a big fan of guitar solos in general, some of my favorite moments playing with Bryan Ferry were when Chris would take a solo. I could listen to him every night. I can’t say enough good things about Chris.

I got to see him years ago with Robert Gordon and it was mind-boggling. He was playing a Gibson SG Junior, through an original Electro-Harmonix Memory Man—the ones that used to boost the signal when you turned them on, into a Fender Deluxe Reverb and that was it. You can confirm this or deny this, but my experience is that British guitar players, for the most part, tend to work out solos more than American guitarists. Did he play the same solos every night, or was he improvising?

Oh, no, he was definitely improvising. I mean, there were some things that Brian wanted to hear. We would come offstage and we would commiserate with each other and he would say, “I just couldn’t seem to get anything going tonight.” But there were many more nights where we would come offstage and just be really happy that we had done a good show. I’ve seen him on a not very exciting gig, but it still sounds like Chris Spedding. It sounds amazing.

I produced a record a few years ago, and there was one track that was causing a lot of trouble. I thought it needed to be played by people who have played on the records that originally influenced this music, so we got Pino Palladino and Chris. He was just playing these fantastic licks. They were so understated, but I realized I could never play those notes and get them to feel as authoritative and true because he helped to define the genre. It is a very moving thing to play with people who have had such an effect on the lexicon.

What genre would you say he helped define? Didn’t he play with everybody from the John Cale to Elton John?

Well, I’m on dangerous ground if I try to get into genres because I’m not really an expert, but I think the there’s a British blues-rock flavor within which he’s a very strong character. It’s the understated gritty quality of the sound and the notes, which is unmistakable. I think he defined what it is to be a session musician, in the best sense of the words. Sometimes that term is used as a derogatory expression to imply a lack of passion or something. But he’s the complete opposite of that, and he brings passion and sincerity into everything he plays.

I totally agree. I have loved him ever since Elton John’s Madman Across the Water.

One of the best things I did with Bryan Ferry was his Dylanesque album, where, for the most part, it was Chris was being Chris and me being me. One tune came up, which clearly needed some type of atmospheric guitar and I thought, “Okay, I’ve got it,” but Chris just came up with the most gorgeous like reverb soft attack. It was so much better than anything I was trying to do. I thought, “He can play really dirty, but he can also make sounds better than me—shit. [Laughs].

 It’s so great when people you have looked up turn out to be everything you expected and good people too. Well, let’s get into your music. Since we last spoke you have done a lot of stuff. Every record you do seems very different. I was just checking out Daylight again. The music seems to range from glitchy pop to pretty experimental. What was the concept was for that one?

I made the bulk of it three years ago. I discovered a lot of things producing other people’s records that I wanted to put into practice in my own music. I made a record with Karl Hyde from Underworld, which we wrote together. It got me going creatively again, and I wanted to frame some of the ideas I had in my own music. I don’t consider myself primarily an artist. I don’t want to have my name on the front of those things particularly. But with that record, I had something I wanted to get out of my system.

Daylight was, to a great degree, inspired by a certain school of modern Chinese ink painting. I found that a lot of the techniques employed in that school of painting mirrored the way that I thought about improvising and chance events.

That’s interesting. There are a lot of glitch effects, where things are chopped up and sliced. I’m not familiar with the style Chinese painting you are talking about, so how would you say that relates?

Essentially, it’s about letting a degree of chance dictate form. In a way it ties into Amoral Avatar because, with that record, I have taken this journey a bit further. It has matured in a way that I wasn’t quite ready for with Daylight, because a lot of the glitch things in Daylight were not performances. They were essentially software events that I then assembled. I tried to consciously not write anything and just let the music emerge out of conditions that I set up. Now, I have unified that with performance and, using some things in Ableton Live, I am able to actually do in real time what I did in post in the computer to make Daylight.

I definitely want to get into Avatar, but there’s much in between the two records that I would love to ask you about first. Have you heard of the Japanese guitarist, Cornelius?

Absolutely, yeah, he is incredible. His second album Point is one of my favorite records.

The glitchy effects and the way and the rhythm was chopped up on Daylight reminded me a little of that, especially “Steal Time.”

It’s really nice that you spotted that. I was a bit worried that parts of the record were a bit too derivative in that sense, but you can’t really help it sometimes.

It didn’t seem at all derivative. It was just nice to hear someone else exploring that approach. I just learned about the One Day Band Sessions. How did that come about?

That is Adam Coney, whom I think you interviewed. He’s an English guitarist who made a really good record last year. He set up a label, Trestle, with his friends, most of whom are also musicians, to release their music. I knew Adam a little bit, because sometimes we pushed sessions each other’s way, and I got into that really nice community of musicians in London.

It says on the site that the One Day Band Session players are musicians you never met or worked with before. But you worked Seb Roachford and Leafcutter John in FTS Rhythm of Strings a couple years ago.

They might’ve bent the rules for me, because on both of the One Day Band Sessions I did they let me pick whom I wanted to play with. Seb and David Corso had put out record as a duo with that label. And then, when they asked me back to do a section of my own, and I had always wanted to record with my friend Leafcutter John, and Tim Harris, a bass player who made a big impact on my playing when we were in Brian Eno’s band years ago. It was a good chance to do both of those things at the same time.

The guy who records and mixes those sessions, Nick, is absolutely brilliant. I never really met anyone who I trusted to compile, edit, and present improvisations like that. I would rather have done it myself, but he does such a good job. The whole archive is really worth exploring.

I checked out both of the ones that you’re on and they like composed music more than improvised sessions—which is a high compliment. What was it like working with Seb again? I saw him at the Vortex club in London years ago, in a duo with the piano player Kit Downes from Troyka, and was blown away. He instantly became one of my favorite drummers and apparently you guys have hit it off.

I have been playing with Seb on and off for many years now. He plays with Eivind Aarset as well, doesn’t he?

Yes, in Andy Shepherd’s band.

Yeah, that’s right. Seb was telling me about Eivind and that was really nice. Seb is just so distinctive. He is one of those musicians that plays one note and you know it’s him. It’s like Chris [Spedding] in a way. But what is really inspiring about Seb is that he’s always progressing and always adding new layers of understanding to his approach. If I don’t play with him for six months, when we sit down there will be this whole new angle of his playing, and the improvisation is like exploring this new part of your friend. His personality is always in his playing, but suddenly you are hearing a completely new way of thinking about rhythms based on trigonometry, or Indian rhythms. He really gets to the heart of these different types of music and incorporates them. It’s inspiring because he never stops progressing in that way.

He makes me wish I lived in London so I could get to see him to play more, and it would be great to see you two play together. What gear would you bring to those free improvisation sessions?

I like to have a mixture of sounds that I’ve made on the laptop that I’m excited about and that inspire me, and also some pedals that I have forgotten to use for a long time, so I don’t really know how they work. Part of it is not being in full control of the situation. I like having to cope; the whole situation of improvisation is listening and coping and responding, and I like that to extend into my gear to a degree. It’s a fine balance, because if you are out of control you can’t responsibly respond to the people that you are playing with. But I find a bit of a surprise element very inspiring.

In a free improv situation everybody is open; if something comes out different than you expected, that’s part of the deal.

I think that for a lot of people whom I enjoying playing with, whether it’s Chris Vatalaro (from Amoral Avatar) or Leafcutter John, the relationship between control and surrender to chaos is a very interesting one. I think it is perfectly possible for more than one person to explore that on the same stage and still be true to the collaborative experience. One of the reasons I’ve been trying to bring that more into focus for myself is that I realized there isn’t anything interesting anymore about making unexpected sounds with the guitar, because it’s gotten extremely easy to do. What is interesting, at least to me, is seeing people with a degree of competence struggle. [Laughs] I like being in that situation myself and I think the audience really likes to see that. I’m not sure that the audience is so interested in seeing someone present something that they have very carefully prepared. I mean that is sometimes the case, but in Café Oto…do you know that club?

Yeah, it’s a great Avant-garde music club in London.

Right, at Oto there is often this feeling that the music would be happening anyway whether or not the place was open. It’s as if the musicians who play there are on a journey of trying to discover things, they’re at work, and the audience gets come and watch. I really like that atmosphere.

It is as much about exploration as it is about a finished product that is presented. The audience and performers go in with that in mind and so you to learn to expect that some nights are going to be better than others and that’s just the nature of the beast. It goes back to jazz. One thing I love about Robben Ford is that some nights are not as good as others, because you get the sense that he is searching. Nights when it happens it is going to be transcendent and when it doesn’t happen he’s good enough that it still going to be pretty great.

Yeah, exactly.


I want to get more into the tools you are using to do this. But first there’s the whole Enigma series, what is that about?

I had some Cycling ’74 plug-ins that I used a lot. They were on a very old laptop, which was slowly dying. I couldn’t update my operating system because these plug-ins wouldn’t work with the new system. Whenever I went to do film sessions, I would bring this knackered laptop and fire it up to create starting points that people would often find useful in their sessions. I knew I couldn’t really carry on much longer because the computer was going to die. One of the film composers that I was working with owns Spitfire https://www.spitfireaudio.com/, and asked me, “Would you like to make a song library?” I thought that was a good idea and a good way to say goodbye to these sounds. I sampled them all at home and that’s pretty much what the library is. They resampled some of them and filled out the sounds quite a bit, and others were exactly as sampled them. It still surprises me when I use the samples, press a note on the keyboard and this sound I made comes out.

I read an interview you did about the Enigma series where you mentioned EvoGrid and I wasn’t quite sure from the interview what that was?

EvoGrid is an innovation of Spitfire. They multi-sample lots of different textures, and offer an XY controller, but with prebuilt sounds. Maybe one sound will be strings played really close to the bridge and another access point will be strings played with the wood of the bow or something like that. You can set different ranges of the keyboard to different textures. For Spitfire they made one with my guitar sounds. I don’t know how many points on the access there are, but I think it’s something like 20 x 20.

Had you already done Amoral Avatar when you started doing the One Day Band sessions?

Yes, I had. Drummer Chris Vatalaro and I recorded it just over a year ago. We did a two and a half week improvising tour of Russia and Siberia, came home and decided we should record. The whole thing was recorded in a day, in my house, but then sat there for a long time. A year later I suddenly felt like doing something with it. I got the record together in about two days, mixed and edited and everything. It was really cathartic after the pains you normally go through making records.

That led you into the One Day Band sessions?

Yes, because when the album came to fruition Adam said he wanted to put it out on Trestle and I did the One Day Band sessions after that.

From listening to the record and from watching some of the live shows, it seems you and Chris really connected.

I haven’t had the courage to look at anything on YouTube. If was from the Russian tour we have come an extremely long ways since then. I think we are both interested in things that don’t quite work properly and gear that is on the edge of breaking down. There is some comedy in it, but there is also a beauty and it ties into what we are talking about earlier, about the thrill of seeing people struggle a bit; we both get that and think it’s funny.

How did you guys meet originally?

If you’re a busy musician in London everybody knows everybody. I guess we really became friends when we started playing together through an artist called Sam Amidon. I just produced his forthcoming record. He has played with Chris for years. We all started playing together and that’s how we got to be close.

What guitar are you playing in the Live in Kemerovo in 2014 video on YouTube?

That’s probably my favorite guitar. It’s a Meazzi Sceptre, an Italian guitar from the ’60s. It’s made out of the wood you make those tiny toy planes out of; it weighs virtually nothing.

Balsa?

Yeah, balsa wood. It’s so light and sounds amazing. It’s also really good to play on gigs because you forget you’re wearing a guitar. I saw it on eBay for 150 Euros and thought it was worth finding out if it was any good. As soon as I got it out of the box, I just couldn’t believe how good it was. That’s my current gig guitar.

Is that that a Hollywood?

Yeah, it’s the Sceptre Hollywood. I also have a Hollywood Jupiter, which is an active circuit guitar made in 1963. It’s way ahead of its time.

I think you mentioned that in your last interview.

Whenever I see a guitar of theirs come out that I haven’t got, I usually buy it because they have something very good going.

While we are on gear, what was your process in the live situation with Chris? How did that work with the laptop and pedals and how did you run the signal chain?

The signal chain is the same one I’ve been doing for a while, which is the guitar to the tuner, into an AB box: A goes to the pedal and amp and B goes to the laptop, so I can choose just the amp, just the laptop, or both. It’s fun to have the contrast between an ambient world and a raw world and go between very effected things and then just playing with no effects at all for long stretches of time. I really enjoy the contrast; it is like having two different instruments.

Where does the laptop output go?

It goes straight to the PA mixer so there’s no other amplifier; it just comes out of the monitors and PA.

What pedals are you using? I see you are using the Red Panda effects in some videos.

I love the Red Panda stuff: you can put almost anything through the Particle pedal and it will come up with something surprising and useful. But I have moved towards a less effected sound out of the amp these days. The tone-shaping pedal I can’t do without is the Box of Rock from Z. Vex. I have it on low drive setting and sometimes use the clean boost. That Meazzi guitar has very low output pickups and the clean circuit in the Z.Vex is really complementary. For the fuzz stuff, I often use Mid-fi Electronics fuzzes. There’s one called Glitch Computer, which is an almost wave-shaped fuzz, but it still sounds like a guitar rather than digital. I’ve been using a really weird Russian multieffect called a Lider. I think it must be from the early ’80s. It’s a big, blue metal thing that has really filthy chorus and exciters in it. It is just horrific sounding.

 In a good way.

In a good way. I use the Box of Rock and the Mid-fi fuzz, and sometimes the Death by Audio Apocalypse. I don’t tend to use reverbs through the amp anymore, except for the Dr. Scientist Reverberator, because the room setting is amazing on that. It’s like a Marc Ribot-ish sound. It’s makes the guitar feel like it’s playing far away in a nice big studio. I’ve also been using a bit of the Hexe reVolver. I really like it because it plays back at random speeds and pitch. I try and keep the amp part of the equation pretty raw, but then sometimes disrupt it with a bit of glitching, so the foundation of the sound is never really clear.

I’ve also recently been using Jam Origin MIDI Guitar. It’s absolutely incredible. I have been recently building drum racks in Ableton where I will sample hitting the guitar or turning pedals on and off or just electronic sounds, and then play drums on the guitar with MIDI guitar. To people who don’t know about MIDI Guitar it is quite confusing because it’s coming from a guitar, but it’s not a guitar sound or relating to what my hands are doing. It’s also unpredictable. Even though MIDI Guitar is amazing, it’s nevertheless hard to get it completely stable and reliable. Still, I really enjoy it when it doesn’t quite track right. I really like that when I’m playing hard it starts sketching out a little bit.

Are you running Ableton as a platform?

Yeah, but I’m not doing anything clever with it. That’s something I would like to explore more later in the year: like having a bit more control over the plug-in parameter with foot pedals. For the moment, though, I’ve just got all these audio clips and racks that I’ve made. I have channel strips all set up. If I feel like going to some sample banks, I can do that really quickly, or I can go to long chains of effects in the granular patches I have made. I try to minimize the amount of time looking at or thinking about the computer. I have it off to one side. I like seeing people build stuff on stage; but I don’t think it is for me. I want to concentrate on playing, rather than programming live.

So you’re not looping with it, but rather triggering prerecorded samples, triggering the drum racks, or playing through audio effects racks that you put together.

It’s just like having a virtual pedalboard. Maybe if I develop a solo show, I’ll get into the sequencing and the looping aspect. But I’ve made a conscious decision to not do any looping.

Are you using the built-in Ableton plug-ins for the granular effects, or are you using third-party plugins?

I don’t use a lot of the Ableton effects. I’m using some third-party stuff and some Max MSP stuff. You get a Max bundle that comes up as plug-ins within Ableton. I use a lot of Plugin Alliance stuff. There is one plugin called Sandman that is an amazing delay/slicer/ buffer.

There is so much stuff, it is really hard to keep track these days. I’ve been getting heavily into IOS the apps. I don’t know if you’ve experimented with iDensity or Borderlands?

I was looking at that because I saw an article about a really fantastic musician name I can’t remember now, on your site; he was doing a lot of stuff with those.

Knox Chandler uses iDensity a lot, and Rob Jackson was doing really beautiful stuff with Borderlands, using MIDI Guitar to play through the Moog IOS app, recording that into Borderlands, and then pushing around the circles with his fingers to create string-like atmospheres. The range of stuff you can do is pretty amazing.

It is amazing, isn’t it. So much stuff out there is dissolving the boundaries between what’s playing and what isn’t playing.

I’m concerned with keeping the expressiveness of the guitar involved in the process, because, as you know, it can easily disappear.

That’s one reason I keep structure of my setup quite simple, because it helps me keep things direct.

Which, which amp do you run the pedals through?

When it’s convenient enough to bring it, I have a Klemt, which is a German amp from the ’60s; they also made tape echoes. The amp sounds better than most anything I’ve heard; it is wide open. There is so much in the frequency spectrum. It is a head, but if I don’t want to take a head and a cabinet I will take a Swart combo. I’m not really that fussy about amps. I sometimes just borrow whoever’s amp is there.

What tubes of does the Klemt have?

I don’t know.

You are lucky you haven’t had to replace them yet.

No, I haven’t. But I have somebody who can fix some of my stuff when something goes wrong. I have got two Klemts, a 40-watt and an 80-watt. The 80-watt one caught fire in the control room at Abbey Road [laughs] at a session. Large flames shot out of the top of it and I was pretty pissed off. I insisted that it be sent down to their technician and repaired by the time I left the session, which they did. Amazingly, the fire had caused no damage to the unit. That’s ’60 German engineering: even when it catches fire, it will still come back from the dead.

That’s why BMWs and Porches are what they are. When you perform live with Chris, is he processing any of your stuff or vice versa?

No, we both have our worlds and we stick to it. He’s got a computer set up as well. We both like to stick to what we are supposed to be good at, which is playing, and the less time we spend on our computers the better we seem to do. We had gigs where we both looked at our screens a lot and it’s interesting, but it never seems to get to the audience’s heart, so we try to find that balance.

That’s always been an issue of electronic music: the disconnect factor. It can look like your reading your email, which is something less than exciting for most audiences.

It’s strange thing isn’t it? It must be just the association that people, still have with computers. I think if you could see what’s going on the screen it would be a lot more interesting. That is why Leafcutter John is such an incredible artist. He has invented interfaces with his Max patches that an audience can clearly understand. He’s got one large box he plays with bicycle lights; it is a photosensitive performance. Essentially, he’s controlling Max, but in a way that people love. It really brings a lot of a life to the performance. I think that’s also why it’s interesting to control the computer with the guitar.

The Amoral Avatar record has a modern cinematic thing going on. But I read somewhere that you’re not doing as much soundtrack stuff as you were?

It certainly wasn’t a conscious choice. I think it’s because I got more into record production. I still play guitar on soundtracks. It’s nice do those sessions. But I don’t seem to write soundtracks as much anymore. I like to think I’m going to get back into it, but it’s hard; everyone’s trying to do it. I don’t know if I’ll be able to make any inroads but I would like to try.

Are you actively promoting your solo records and yourself as an artist, or do you find they are more calling cards for yourself as a guitar player, producer, and sound track composer?

It’s a good question. I find it very hard to put myself forward in any way. It just doesn’t seem to be in my nature. When I did Daylight and there was a possibility of doing solo shows, I felt I didn’t want to do it because it was really a production record. The lovely thing about playing with Chris is that I’m enjoying both the live playing and the recording process. Chris and I feel it’s something we want to promote and perform live. It’s hard because we both have careers as musicians and personal commitments. Hopefully, we are going to start doing more festivals and try to build it over the next few years. Maybe I won’t make any more solo records for a while. But I really want to try and take Avatar forward. There’s a fantastic band, Radian that you featured on your site recently. I thought there was an affinity between them and us.

Martin Siewart; he also has a band called Trapist. I can certainly see an affinity. You booked a tour of Russia and it seems the audience for this kind of thing is growing. I am curious what type of crowds you got and what crowds you get at Café Oto?

I think people’s tastes are getting wider and you see that reflected even in mainstream pop music. I think there are communities in every town that are interested in improvised music. In Russia, part of the legacy of Communism is a real interest in culture even in really isolated towns. We would drive for hours through virtual shantytowns and arrive at quite a rundown looking place. Then you turn the corner and there would be a beautiful town square with an amazing theater and concert hall where every single night there’s something happening. Everywhere we went we were told that shows were sold out every night. These are 2500 seater places. We played as part of a six-hour concert of improvised music—and they listened. There’s an appetite for it in Russia, which is so life affirming. It went down very well, except for one show, where the sound guy didn’t like us very much. He came up afterwards and told us with a smile that the people in front of him said, “This is bullshit. I could do this at home.” [Laughs] I thought yeah, you probably could.

And moreover you should. On the encouraging note, I am living in Nashville now and just did a laptop gig at a place called Betty’s. There were two guys at the bar that were exactly what you would imagine in a Nashville dive bar: one guy with a lot of teeth missing and a big heavyset guy. When I got off, the guy with the missing teeth said, “That was the strangest thing I ever heard.” But not in a dismissive way. He was he was just remarking. And the other guy said, “Well, I don’t know if I quite got it, but I was checking it out.” I found their openness so heartwarming. These guys were ready to listen.

I think the only thing that gets in the way is the perception that there is a club you have be in to have an understanding of the rules, to get it. It’s just sound, and people are allowed to like it or not like it. I think what really connects with everybody is sincerity. If they feel the performance is sincere, it doesn’t matter that they never heard music like that before because it it’s obvious to everyone when someone really trying. Can I tell you a little story, which is related to that?

Sure.

Before I met my ex-girlfriend she hadn’t experienced any improvised music. I took her to Café Oto to see a Marc Ribot solo show—just him on acoustic guitar. It was like watching him in his apartment, as if he was playing for himself, taking so many chances. He went through his encyclopedic knowledge of different kinds of music, and it was incredibly brave and completely compelling. It was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. I went to the bar, looked over and my girlfriend was talking to Ribot. I thought, “What on earth are they talking about?” On the way home, I said “Can I ask you what you were talking about?” She said, “I asked him if it was difficult to make it so true.” I thought that was exactly the question I would have wanted to ask him. It was obvious, even to someone who had no experience with that kind of music that here was someone trying to be truthful in their playing. I think that proves the point we were making, which is that it’s not about what you might have experienced before; it’s about connecting with the performer. Because improvisation is such a vulnerable state, it’s really exciting to audiences.

That could get us going on another whole topic about developing your own voice and how it’s related to vulnerability. It’s allowing your “self” to be expressed through what you are doing—many people don’t. They try to sound like something already pre-approved. It’s understandable but unfortunate.

I think it is part of the dangerous appeal of all this tech as well. It can be reassuring as another way to not expose you. Trying to harness the technology in order to still expose yourself is a large part of the challenge, isn’t it?

That is very interesting. It is easy to hide behind. It also goes back to what I was saying before about letting the guitar come through as well. One of the great things about the guitar is, more than any other instrument, it allows your personality to come through. It would be a shame to lose that, hidden in all the technology. I’ll be eager to watch how you approach the problem and what answers you come up with. What is next?

I’m producing a record for an artist called Ghost Poet. I’m very happy to be working with him because I am going to use a lot of the guitar discoveries that were on Amoral Avatar. He really liked them and we want to capture some of that abandon and spontaneity. I approached the guitar sessions for that a little bit like on Avatar. It has granular elements and strange fragmented textures but I didn’t chop it up as much so it feels live and aggressive.

Is he a singer-songwriter or instrumentalist?

It is hard to define what he does. He’s a poet not a rapper, but it is spoken. He always makes interesting records. I’ve been turning a lot of stuff down, because I had a really busy two years and would like to have some time off to work on the guitar a bit more. I am trying to explore some of the things we talked about.

 

 

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