photo by Darin Kamnetz
Some of you are arriving at this page wondering, “What’s the story with this Thomas Abban guy? And why is he on the cover of Minnesota Monthly?” Keep reading. For this 22-year-old budding Minneapolis talent, seeing is believing.
On a recent chilly weeknight at St. Paul’s Turf Club, Abban took the stage in an embroidered white suit, feather jutting from his hair, and black, crisp lines etched with eyeliner down his right cheek. Charismatically he led his band—all wearing handkerchiefs over their faces displaying those same sharp lines under their eyes—while a diverse crowd of onlookers, young and old, gradually leaned in closer, transfixed. As he sang and played, the chatter quieted, clinking glasses subsided, and the room stilled.
“The eyes communicate a lot of subconscious and subliminal messages,” he says, during an interview a few days after the show. His outfit has changed, but his eye is still accentuated. “We’re all visual creatures. The eye is the way we pretend to think about the heart or the soul or the spirit. The eye is the center of a person.”
Though Abban speaks softly with traces of an accent evincing his upbringing in Wales, England, his words give off an unmistakable intensity. He chooses them carefully, pointedly.
“In the beginning, I knew it was practice,” he says, referring to his earliest performances around the Twin Cities about five years ago. “I’d play three hours straight at coffee shops. It wasn’t really about a show at that point. It was figuring out how to do things live. I wouldn’t necessarily compare them in a good or bad way to what I’m doing now. I just know it helped me get to where I am.”
Initially playing under the name Tom Aydan, he began showcasing his unique percussive acoustic guitar style and radiant voice in smaller venues. Recording for his full-length debut, A Sheik’s Legacy, began in 2016 at Deck Night Studios near Wayzata. Following a buzzed-about, electrifying album-release show this past August at Minneapolis’ artist-centric Icehouse, word spread quickly. In November, he was named the winner of City Pages’ annual Picked to Click poll highlighting the best new Twin Cities musicians.
A Sheik’s Legacy
On A Sheik’s Legacy, Abban’s gifts as a vocalist, lyricist, guitarist, and producer (he is the sole credit listed) flow together seamlessly. Pieces of rock, blues, and folk’s rich history surface, but he’s much more than a “retro” act.
When asked about his earliest musical memories, he recalls singing along to Elvis Presley and James Brown as a child. He admits he hasn’t attended many big concerts, so his artistic education has included a lot of online research.
“I’m not so into movements or genres; it’s more the people,” he says. “It’s hard to say I’m a fan of a genre when it includes people I do and don’t react to. Outside of music, I love Picasso and the later years of Matisse. Musically? James Brown, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley. People who created their own movements. Fela Kuti, Sly and the Family Stone. It’s the nucleus of movements. The people in the center of it.”
But Abban’s recordings only hint at his artistic potential. On YouTube, he’s an auteur playing with a mystical persona, trying on different masks and schemes. His face is literally masked in the video for rock anthem “Black Water,” and the psychedelic “Horizons” clip finds him convulsing in a hallway in one scene, and later amid a halo of hands. Trust me, just watch them. (Note: Since this story’s publication, these videos have been taken down.)
“When it comes to a live performance, it’d be weird for me to think about the music and the aesthetic of the show separately,” he says. “To me, they’re all linked. One influences the other, and one can decide or determine how the other is perceived. When I see people, I want to know that they’ve put thought and effort into it. That’s what I’ve done. I take it seriously, so I put thought and effort into all of it.”
With an electric guitar in his hands, he’s a commanding figure, but with an acoustic guitar, he turns the traditionally melodic instrument into a rhythmic one by hitting the sides with his hands. (To get the gist, look up performances of “Echo” on YouTube.)
“It traces back to flamenco, and certain African instruments are percussive as well as melodic simultaneously,” he says. “I first saw it on YouTube when I was a kid. Maybe four or five years after that, it went viral on the internet. Now it’s a whole style.”
Finally, there’s his one-of-a-kind aesthetic, which incorporates sharply contrasting black-and-white apparel, and symbols drawn on his body. It’s refreshing, disorienting, and unforgettable all at once.
“I know what I like,” he says. “I don’t like what I don’t like. I get stuff from everywhere. Nowhere expensive, though. I don’t like wearing brands or anything with a logo. I find pieces here and there—thrift stores, Walmart.”
Publicist Krista Vilinskis of local music public relations firm Tinderbox Music says she only had a week to promote Abban’s last album-release show. “The minute I heard it, I knew I had to help,” she says. “So I put the plow down. The media responded fairly quickly, like I hoped they would. With each show, more and more media came out to his shows and covered him.”
Abban confirms his next album is already written. But nothing is recorded yet, and it might not bear any resemblance to what we’ve heard from him so far.
“It’s about getting back in the studio now,” he says. “I’m doing everything to make it different. I don’t want to make the same record again, really in any way of it. I’m switching up the studio, the process of how I record, how I mix it, the masters. Just trying to throw all the variables in different directions and trying a new way of doing it.”
Upcoming shows: Thomas Abban will perform at Bauhaus Brew Lab’s The Liquid Zoo during Art-A-Whirl weekend on May 19, and headline at the 7th St Entry on June 9. More at thomasabban.com
Digital Extra: Extended Q&A
How did you decide to record A Sheik’s Legacy at Deck Night studio?
I was brought in by another artist who was working with [owner Jon Herchert] to do a guitar part. Then he invited me back to work on some material. When it came time to record, I thought I might as well do it there. He gave me the freedom to do what I wanted to do, so it was an obvious choice. I liked the whole vibe. It doesn’t feel like a studio. It feels more like a creation space. I’ve only been in one other studio, and it was a professional one. That wasn’t very nice. It was very sort of clinical and “by the watch” type of deal. This was a more-relaxed, less-uptight vibe. It was pretty much every day for a good few months. Most of my material was done, in terms of writing, and the basic structure of the songs. All the production work I did while in the studio. I didn’t have anywhere to do much else, so I was experimenting straight to tape, so to speak.
What are your earliest musical memories?
I was introduced to Elvis and James Brown at about the same time in very early childhood. Just listening to the songs and singing along, and liking it. I don’t have illusions when it comes to Elvis. I’m not liking him because he was the first to do something. My liking of his material extends very early into his career—not any of the ‘60s stuff he did or anything later. James Brown, considering all the setbacks and the culture of the time, he reached a level that is incredible—especially for a black musician. If he accomplished today what he had accomplished then, it would still be impressive, but back then, even more so.
How did you develop your percussive guitar skills?
That goes back to the coffee shop days. It elevates the music. The way I use it, I try to make sure it’s not a gimmick. That’s definitely a pitfall that the genre can fall into. It begins to look quite unnecessary. Your hands can only move so fast, so at a certain point you start to sacrifice the rhythm of what you’re doing or the melodic element. It’s about finding that balance where it sounds smooth, without too many gaps in it. It helps build the song, and the guitar line wouldn’t be the same without it. It wouldn’t have the same impact, sonically or visually.
What are your goals for the future?
Keep doing what I’m doing, and try and do a better job.