Thomas Abban grew up in Wales and moved to Minneapolis when he was 12. Around that time, he began getting serious about guitar, which he’d already been playing for three or four years. He immersed himself in the blues — Blind Willie Johnson, who preached gospel on Texas street corners and slid a knife along his guitar strings until they vibrated with the sound of dead souls, was a favorite — though Abban was less interested in mastering technique than feeling. By the time he was 17, he was playing Minneapolis coffee houses, marathon three-hour sets that were somewhere between practice and performance. He was looking for a way of getting the music in his head — an uncharted mix of folk, prog, metal and mysticism — into the world.
His recently released debut LP, A Sheik’s Legacy, charts his progress. The music is both lucid and hazy, its search for a new language that remains sometimes out of reach recalling late ’60s prog-rock in spirit if not sound. Songs veer wildly from moment to moment, bits of R&B falsetto rubbing up against power chords, delicate finger picking giving way to psychedelic excursions, pizzicato plucked strings clearing space for drum crashes. Abban played guitar, bass, drums and piano — everything except cello and flute — and produced himself in a studio in Deephaven, a Minnesota suburb on the shores of Lake Minnetonka.
That was a year ago, when he was 21, and how he did this he’s not quite ready to explain. “I’ve almost purposely blocked a lot of that out,” he says of his one-man recording spree. “Once I was done, I wanted to be done with it.” Some of the songs were fully blueprinted in his head. Some began as sketches. Tracks were built up around live performances of his guitar and voice, except for the times that the drums came first. “I don’t even want to find what my process is, because I’m interested in the results that I’ve been getting,” he says. “It’s about keeping my mind in the dark about what I’m trying to do.”
He says something similar about the symbols (including division signs and question marks) that decorate his arms and chest in a striking set of black-and-white videos that accompanied the release of A Sheik’s Legacy. In them, Abban performs solo beneath a rendering of the design he wears under his right eye, which resembles an Egyptian Eye of Horus, or all-seeing eye. “That’s another one of those things where I can’t really remember when I started to put that on,” he says.
Many musicians want their music to speak for itself, but most are more willing than Abban to speak for themselves. Asked what brought his family from Wales to Minnesota, he says, “I’m not fully sure. It was just a unit that moved.” Unit? “My mother, my father, that kind of thing.” He toured earlier this year with a band for the first time; when he performs solo, he can wring a full-band sound from his acoustic, knocking the guitar body for rhythms, tapping and hammering the strings with impossible dexterity. He’s hesitant, though, to talk about how his style developed. “I don’t really think of myself as a guitarist, even. I just think of myself as artistic.”
To be fair, he also says a lot his playing comes from trying to fit disparate ideas, including some drawn from jazz and classical, “within one instrument.” He doesn’t believe in rigid separations of genres, or artistic mediums, for that matter; he’s more eager to talk about taking inspiration from paintings than albums. “Picasso, Cezanne — just learning about what they did with color or structure, breaking it apart or reconstructing it. There’s correlation with color and structure in visual art to melody and rhythm.” He also cites the poetry and painting of William Blake. But he talks about this to give a sense of the broad, open field on which he wants the freedom to play. “I don’t think in terms of influences,” Abban says. “I’ve arrived at myself.”
As simple as that sounds, it’s not always easy to be seen that way. Because he’s black and performs dressed in rock & roll gypsy finery, he sometimes gets asked about Jimi Hendrix. Because he comes from Minnesota and played all the instruments on his debut, he’s been compared to Prince. “It’s been based on how I look, based on genetics,” he says. “I don’t appreciate that. It’s heavy-handed.” What he’s seeking is the same feeling that first drew him to the guitar: a chance to express himself without adhering to rules or boundaries. “I didn’t have anybody commenting on it,” he remembers. “Just trying whatever I wanted without any feedback, good or bad. By feel. Just me, myself and I.”