Michael Abdow – Sending Organic SignalsTuesday, 19th May 2020
Guitarist Michael Abdow may be best known to readers here for his live work over the past two tours with veteran progressive metal band Fates Warning. He also has a rich history in the instrumental field – as he releases his fourth solo album for Heart Signal. His compositions and performances bring out different textures and nuances, from fusion to progressive, rock to metal – wherever his mind, soul, and ideas take him. It’s the type of record that you can gain new perspective through successive listens, as the music encompasses so many emotions from all ends of the spectrum.
We reached out to Michael to discuss his solo work, how he gained the opportunity to play with Fates Warning and what it means to him, his approach when it comes to various projects or recording sessions, and some discussion on how he handles his branding plus resetting himself when feeling stressed out or out of focus.
Dead Rhetoric: What are some of your earliest memories of music growing up? And when did you gravitate towards picking up an instrument and wanting to play metal?
Michael Abdow: Earliest memories playing music were probably playing piano with my mom. It was something that was just a part of our education growing up, she had my brother and I taking piano lessons. At the time I wasn’t too crazy about it, but it was great because musical education provides a different type of education. I had that to gain from it, and it also just stuck with me. When I got interested in rock music when I was a teenager, I had a background in music so I could then more easily pick up instruments and understand what I was learning, what I was hearing and studying from a teacher.
Heavy metal didn’t really come in until high school and I got into Metallica. And at that point I had already been playing guitar, but once you start listening to that your motivation and your playing takes on another face and it’s cool. It’s a whole other world.
Dead Rhetoric: You’ve been a part of numerous bands in the Northeast like Last Chance to Reason and Frozen – how do you think those experiences shaped you as a player and performer?
Abdow: Frozen I was in before Last Chance to Reason. Frozen was a band I was getting into before I joined them. I had been into progressive metal and progressive rock, and they were really one of the only bands in the area in that style – and they were doing it really well. When I joined up with them, I’m not really sure they considered themselves a progressive band. They were more metal and the chops were more intense than anything I had ever done in the past. It pushed me technically as a rhythm player for sure.
Last Chance to Reason, when I hooked up with them, it was even more so. They were considered a progressive band first and foremost. The material was somewhat foreign to me, but I really dug it. They approached me after I released my first solo album Native Alien. Chris Corey found me, and he was telling me about what they were doing. I didn’t really know about them ahead of time, and the music was killer – the chops got a little bit better, the way you think about the music, pushing the music, the depth of rhythm got much more intense when I was working with them.
Each band built upon the other, in different ways. It’s just about pushing you outside your comfort zone. It makes you grow, and that’s what I took away from both those experiences. And the guys, they are amazing and we had great times together.
Dead Rhetoric: You mentioned you were discovered through your instrumental record by Last Chance to Reason. What was the motivation to put out those first few instrumental records?
Abdow: The first instrumental records I did were motivated by me just being a fan of that type of music. Learning about guitar, learning about what you can do with the instrument. When I put those out, it was a lot of me finding myself musically. I know that was the case on Native Alien and then on Life Symbolic, I explored a little bit more of the fusion side of things, because that was the music I was listening to. When you get inspired by something as a musician, you kind of want to explore it. Those records I put out as an exploration, and I was into players doing that sort of thing.
Dead Rhetoric: How did you gain the opportunity to be a live touring guitarist for Fates Warning? And what do you think of the experiences you’ve had on tour, do you believe you’ve seen a great crossover and interest in your own original work?
Abdow: Yes, for sure. The way I hooked up with Fates- I had been a fan of the band for years. Fates Warning is just a band you (can’t) not hear of. (Fates reached out) in 2013 and Frank Aresti wasn’t able to do the tours they had for Darkness in a Different Light. Our mutual friend, photographer Jeremy Saffer recommended me to them. I got in contact with Jim, I auditioned for the spot. It was amazing, I was super nervous. They are all so cool, laid-back and chill. I feel so lucky to not only have the opportunity, but to have it with the people like this. It’s something I will look back on when I’m old, and it’s a very special thing.
Having worked with them since then. You play the music, I wasn’t learning Fates Warning songs before I started playing with the band so you listen to the music from that band, it’s hard not to rub off on you. In retrospect, my music is much more sincere and thoughtful, and grew in depth by being exposed to a band that’s playing on such a higher, deeper writing level.
Dead Rhetoric: And you also reached out to Ray Alder when he was working on his solo album, what do you think of the record?
Abdow: I love the record. I wrote seven of the ten songs. That’s music I wouldn’t have written if I didn’t work on that with Ray. Everybody has their thing, but I don’t go into a project saying I’m going to do my thing. I go into a project saying what is this going to be, what do we want. Ray had a vision of what he wanted, he expressed that to me, and I pursued that. We weren’t writing really heavy songs, or really proggy songs, more rock songs with soul and a vibe. I don’t have any other project or outlet where I can do that sort of thing. It was very exciting. And for a vocalist like him, he was the first person I would have asked to sing on it. I love the way it sounds, I love what he did.
Dead Rhetoric: Heart Signal is the fourth instrumental album for you – what did you hope to get across with this set of tracks in comparison to your previous work? And how did you secure the services of Tony Franklin and Shawn Deneault on bass and drums?
Abdow: With Heart Signal I’m at the point where I’m not trying to do anything in particular musically. I’m really going for every time that I’m writing something I’m aiming for something that sounds interesting and mysterious to me, something that can make me feel an emotion. It’s almost like, putting your thought process into your feelings into the audio of the music. When I come across stuff that stimulates me in that way, the music that I record or the songs that I’m writing. I’ve settled into a style that I started on the previous release, E.S.O., it was just basically write songs and go for it – don’t care if they are short or long but make sure everything I do has meaning behind it. Short, long, fast/slow, quiet/loud, everything. Everything has to have purpose and an emotion behind it. With Heart Signal I’m getting to know myself better as a writer so things are happening a bit more naturally in that direction.
I went with Shawn, I met him when I was doing E.S.O., we had jammed together with a mutual friend. Shawn has great musical intuition, we clicked. You know that sometimes when you play with certain people, you sense what they are going to do and you feel more comfortable to lock in together. And he stayed on me to do something musically. Let’s try this, we exchanged ideas and he’s an easy person to work with. He has a home studio too, so we can work together effectively, which is huge in a time like this. Of course this wasn’t happening together when we were writing together before. Sure enough he’s got writing credits on a few of these songs because we were writing together, he wrote drum parts and I arranged them.
And then I was planning to play bass on the record as I had on E.S.O., and had also played bass on Ray Alder’s solo record. I love playing the bass, but I came across on Facebook that Tony Franklin was doing session work- and he’s been my favorite bass player forever. Let me just contact him and see if he was willing to do this. Sure enough, I secured him on the entire record, and I couldn’t be happier. Somebody I grew up listening to and loving so much is playing on these songs. It’s surreal and special – it made the record even more special in another way for me.
Dead Rhetoric: On these last two records, you’ve started each record off with an epic track. Can you discuss what you think about songwriting flow and track listing- is it a challenge for you to develop the epic songs versus the shorter pieces?
Abdow: It’s not necessarily a challenge to write a longer piece versus a shorter piece. I don’t set out to do one or the other- they just end up what they end up being. As far as where to put them, that can be a challenge sometimes if it’s not a chronological concept, which my records aren’t. They are rough concept records, but the songs don’t need to be listened to in order. There’s an underlying theme with all of them. When I was younger I listened to Dream Theater records like Change of Seasons and the later ones where they started off the record with the longer epic. I thought that was so cool, you put the record on and the strongest songs in the 90’s would be the first few singles, and the deep cuts later in the record. Something like a prog record where you put the long song in the beginning, you are just listening and going for eight, ten, twelve minutes. I’m blown away, and anything that comes next is just a treat.
Listening to music like that inspired me to put my more epic songs in the beginning, and hopefully people like that. As they listen through each subsequent song, it’s like a little treat building upon each other. If you put the epic song at the end, maybe you are tired by the time you get there, and then all of sudden you have this ten-fifteen minute song to listen to, and it may be too much. It’s a little bit against the trend, but I think like the records I cited it affected me positively.
Dead Rhetoric: What is your mindset and philosophy when it comes to songwriting and performances in this setting – as it seems that you have a wide array of influences and thoughtfulness to appeal to not just the schooled musicians of the world, but also the general music fan?
Abdow: I think when you are performing, as well as writing and recording, you are taking the same approach. It’s a matter of being honest with yourself, and to be honest with yourself you have to really get to know yourself. As a musician and as a player – if you are calculated with your technique and your ways of implementing what you know in music, the music is going to come out pretty artificial. But if you have all of those things in the background and you just write music, those things are going to come in and pop up and make things more exciting when they happen naturally.
I take the same approach when playing live. I make sure I’m well-rehearsed, practice and I warm up before the shows. In a Fates Warning set I’m pretty adamant about playing everything note for note because I think the songs require that. When I’m playing, it needs to be an organic thing and not an overly rehearsed thing, it’s really important to listen to the people around you and feel what you are doing being in the present moment at all times, connecting with the music. If I’m in a situation where I’m not intending to play things note for note, I’ll take more liberties and depending on how I feel or how the music is making me feel, I will do things differently with improvisation. I do that sometimes with some of the club gigs that I play.
Every time you pick up an instrument and go to play music, it has to be honest and organic. It can’t be a lick you just practiced or a mode you just learned. It doesn’t end up being music that way.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you handle the challenges of intricacy, prowess, and technical ability versus the feel aspect when it comes to the guitar and your output? Are there times where you believe one shouldn’t be sacrificed for the other?
Abdow: That goes back to the previous question. As far as when to play with feel as opposed to being technical, that’s almost something you don’t even have to consider. All you really have to do is be in the moment with the music. Play what you hear. You know immediately… if you are playing a solo and improvising, you know you want to play some fast stuff here. It’s time to pull out these licks… but that never works well. I’m listening to the band and the song, and trying to intuitively connect to what I want to hear next. It should all feel, it could be slow, it could be fast, it could be low gain, it could be high gain. Whatever musical impulses come out, that’s what I want to embrace. You practice for the technical facility to be able to play whatever comes from your mind in the moment. It’s not like balancing technique versus feel – all you have to do is follow your ear. You can’t play anything wrong, maybe you aren’t warmed up enough, or maybe you aren’t connecting with the music and a little distracted.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you consider some of the current challenges you face to building your brand as a musician and artist?
Abdow: The challenges I’m facing, probably just having to go through the paces of building a brand. Finding your audience. The audience I have is great, they are amazing people and I have a lot of personal interaction with them. With my solo work at least I’m handling all the business side of things, CD sales, distribution, that sort of thing. Of course you want it to be sustainable and the thing that you do, as many musicians I do lessons, play in a cover band, play in a touring national band, my solo work. Ideally you would like it to sustain you on its own – not that you don’t enjoy the other things, I love them equally. Building enough of an audience to sustain it and push things forward is a challenge – that’s really the goal.
It’s tough these days if you won’t have something viral on YouTube or a record label behind you with a built in audience. Everything is built organically. I’m running into handling the distribution on my own, when I was handling the pre-sales for Heart Signal up to now, people are amazing. They are ordering physical copies, but every time they do it’s on me to make sure I have shipping materials, and the time to get it together. I don’t just throw a CD in a bag to get it out, I personalize all my orders. In a way, I’d hate for it to be any other way, but it’s definitely time consuming. If I had enough CD orders to sustain me for income, it would be a full-time job. I wonder how I would approach this as it keeps growing, and hopefully it does.
Dead Rhetoric: How are you handling this downtime with live music venues at a standstill worldwide – and how do you foresee the resurrection rolling out, will it have long-term impact on the international scene?
Abdow: Me personally, I’m pretty busy. I have picked up a few lessons from people who’ve known me. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do this under my normal schedule. It’s helped to sustain income, I have some session work. Playing for the new Fates record, so we’ve been working on that. Some video stuff, a lot of logistics for my album release.
As far as things getting back to normal. This is speculation, I don’t really know. If society is responsible for it, densely packed gatherings like live concerts are going to be the last thing that is going to be called safe to do. Who knows? Concerts, church services, school settings, these are the places where people are closest together. I can’t imagine things coming back sooner than later. Life will be back to normal, and then they will say, okay- it’s safe to go to concerts now.
Dead Rhetoric: When you feel overwhelmed or stressed out, what are some techniques or things that you think about to regain your focus?
Abdow: It’s important for me, and everyone else to realize, that those are just thoughts. It’s not necessarily real, or what’s happening – it’s an involuntary thought that you are making. In that moment, understanding that those things are happening subconsciously, you have the power to make a choice. That’s easier said than done, it takes a lot of practice when you are in the moment to take a step back and say what I’m thinking and feeling are completely different than what the situation is. I’m going to choose to think and feel differently about this, and approach this from another angle. That’s the best way to handle that, otherwise you mask what is happening. You are having a reaction to a situation, and the condition is not making you feel like that – it’s a reaction and you need to acknowledge that and separate it from the situation. You can act productively and proactively, so that’s what I try to do with a situation like that.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the agenda for you and any work you may be doing for music, with Fates Warning, guest spots over the next twelve to eighteen months?
Abdow: Fates Warning is finishing up tracking of the new record. I still have a little work to do on that with some guitar solos. I’m working on a session for a friend, one song that is really cool. After that, I’m taking it one thing at a time. I’d like to be back performing, but who knows when that happens. I’ve started working on some new music in my home studio, I always have something working on the backburner.