Thomas Abban (all photos by Nate Ryan | MPR)
Thomas Abban is in full make-up when he arrives for our interview. It’s 9:30 in the morning at an Uptown coffee shop, and none of the other customers look ready to step on a stage — but there he is, wearing black and white, thin lines and question marks painted on his hands. Under his right eye, three lines extend like chicken toes, a small dot on each vector.
Abban is turning heads not just in coffee shops but all over town. The 21-year-old just released his feast of a debut album, A Sheik’s Legacy, and its strong guitar work has earned him comparisons to rock greats. But Abban doesn’t seek to emulate people like Jimi Hendrix or Robert Plant: just the opposite, in fact. When I ask whether the feather in his afro was meant as an homage to either artist, he says sheepishly, “No, I just needed a new hairstyle. I might have to change it now.”
“No” is the answer to many of the questions I ask him. Abban isn’t argumentative — just honest, and more than a little puzzling. He’s 21, but he left school a long time ago; music is his only pursuit. He doesn’t really like going to other artists’ shows; “I just want to be up [on stage],” he says, explaining that he gets bored otherwise. No one in his family is a musician, and he hasn’t shared his work with his relatives.
What he does get excited about is music. “It’s all I want to do,” he says, and he starts gushing relative to our other conversation topics. Beethoven inspires him more than almost anyone. “Mozart’s kind of perfect, and then Beethoven had to struggle. It comes out in the music; he does a lot of hits and jabs and thuds, which I like.”
Abban is a multi-instrumentalist, playing everything heard on A Sheik’s Legacy, save for cello and flute. That means guitar, piano (which sounds lovely on “Horizons”), voice, drums, bass, and more. He says, “I couldn’t afford to have a bunch of people playing everything, so I just figured out what I needed for each song.”
Aside from label input — he released his album on Jon Herchert’s Deck Night and recorded in their studios — Abban had full control over A Sheik’s Legacy, from composition to song sequencing. “I wanted something that, whether it was good or bad, it was from me,” he says. “I just wanted to know what I could make.”
The result is a meticulously thought-out album with a few clever twists. If you listen to the CD, you’ll find that the last song’s outro feeds right back into the first song’s intro. “I knew I wanted it to start with ‘Death’ and end on ‘Born,’” Abban says, talking about “Death Song” and “Born of Fire.” “Then everything fell into place with having them loop.”
He plays with words, writing out both versions of homonyms in his lyrics. “Horizons” has the word “t(wo)oo,” which suggests both “two” and “too,” since “it could be two different things and still work. If I was to write it one way or another,” he says, “it would ruin the effect that it’s supposed to have upon listening to it.”
Abban has lived in the U.S. since he was about 12, when his dad moved them from Wales. The surviving accent, most present on his vowels and R’s, helps distinguish him from most of the Twin Cities’ population, which seems fitting for an artist so set on being different. He owns his status as a “recluse,” wishes more artists would push themselves to change, and signs notes, “Without Sameness.” My puzzlement has grown into fascination.
I wonder if he’s into fantasy books or video games, since the mystery that rolls off his music can also be found in those media. Video games are a no. But he used to read fantasy as a kid. If he was going to pick up a book now, it’d focus on philosophy, a genre he thinks of as “fantasy for adults.” “To me, that’s more creative writing than anything serious. Doesn’t necessarily have to be true — it just gives me a stepping stone to think and be creative or change.”
Abban says he sees the world in black and white, but from my point of view, he lives out mixtures and contradictions. A Welsh-Ghanaian-Minnesotan man, he’s too impatient to read anymore, and he prefers planes to road trips because they’re faster. But he takes the time to plan his every move mentally; “On this album, pretty much everything was already done in my head,” he tells me. “So I was just making what I already knew I had to make.”
I’m projecting, but I imagine this is how it felt to interview a fledgling Prince. Abban doesn’t count Prince as a role model, and he certainly has enough originality to discourage too many parallels. But the mystery wrapped into cool, the shyness with the perspicacity — it points me back to another Minnesotan wunderkind. “All songs arranged, written, composed, and performed by Thomas Abban,” read his CD’s liner notes.