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For Thomas Abban, musical limitations invite new possibilities

Thomas Abban
Thomas AbbanOlivia Joy

by Joel Swenson

April 20, 2023

Thomas Abban doesn’t let limitations stand in his way. Instead, the Minneapolis-based musician fully embraces the pursuit of overcoming them. His latest EP, Deep Winter, hurdles the boundaries of genre, incorporating elements from all across the musical spectrum into a sound that’s all his own. During a recent conversation in the bustling lobby of the Saint Paul Hotel, his enigmatic presence gave way to creative insights. 

“Limitations are how we find our way through everything,” he says. “If we had no limitations, we’d probably end up doing nothing at all because the possibilities would be too limitless.”

Abban has built a reputation for pushing himself to the edge of his own creativity — and regularly leaping over it. Throughout our discussion, the true depth of that creativity revealed itself more and more.

When Abban wanted to add a percussive element to his live solo performances, he turned his acoustic guitar into a makeshift drum kit. Later, when the acoustic proved too limiting, he fixed a drum machine to the body of his electric guitar. The resulting effect is nothing short of jaw-dropping. Finally, when he first set out to release his music into the world as a teenager, he didn’t let a lack of studio access stand in his way. Instead, he learned audio engineering and mixing and handled every aspect of the recording process himself. 

“In the beginning, I had no connections or team of any kind, so I’d gotten used to doing things myself,” he recalls. “No one was going to let some teenager take the reins in the studio, so I figured I should learn how to do it myself. From that point on, the studio became another instrument for me. I would say it’s become my main instrument, much more than the guitar or even my voice.”

Abban spent his formative years in Wales before moving with his family to Minneapolis at age 12. While he already played guitar at the time, it was in his new Midwestern home that he began taking his skills to a new level. Before long, he was playing solo shows around the Twin Cities, showcasing his ability to seamlessly weave together folk, prog rock, R&B, and pop. All the while, Abban’s equally versatile falsetto cut through his intricate guitar work.

“The way that I learned was very alone and isolated,” he reflects on his earlier years of playing. “I didn't get any feedback from people, which I think was good because it stopped me from being delicate or malleable. I avoided any kind of criticism, even constructive criticism, which let me form in my own way. By the time I played my first show, I was committed to it, and it didn't matter to me what the reaction was.”

Abban’s music career quickly gained momentum, and he began drawing local attention from City Pages, First Avenue, Minnesota Monthly, and, of course, the Current. In 2018, that attention became national when Abban signed with RCA Records when he was just 21 years old. Rather than write and record something entirely new for his major label debut, he chose to re-release his 2017 full-length, A Shiek’s Legacy, with RCA. 

Originally released on the Minneapolis label Deck Night Records, A Shiek’s Legacy showed Abban at his most effusive, unrestrained self. While its 15 songs veer into almost every genre imaginable, it’s still cohesive, deliberate in its capriciousness. Abban’s ethereal guitar work melds with heavier, prog-oriented moments while his angelic voice rises above it all. As with all of his music, Abban wrote and recorded the entire album himself, save for some cello and flute parts.

Ultimately, A Shiek’s Legacy was the only album Abban released with RCA, as he left the label shortly after it came out.

“At the end of the day, I'm an artist,” he says. “I make my own things, and when it comes to my music, I know how it needs to sound. If a person or organization doesn't allow that, then it won't work, you know?”

“Life's too short to make records for other people,” he adds.

Abban’s wasted no time making records for himself since leaving RCA. In 2021, he self-released his second full-length album, The Spiritualizer, followed by the Ambienic EP in 2022. Both had all the same elements that made A Shiek’s Legacy so great, with even more panache. With this pair of releases, Abban moved on from his percussive acoustic guitar and fully embraced his drum machine-adorned electric guitar.

A man with flowers in his hair poses for a photo
Thomas Abban
Olivia Joy

“When I first started out, hitting the guitar was a good way of making a live solo performance feel more dynamic,” he says. “But once I got a band, it became an exercise in figuring out how that fits in with an actual drummer and bass player. I started to feel the limitations of the acoustic.”

“I found myself playing electric more and more anyway,” he continues. “But I was missing some elements that a drummer couldn't really provide in the same way. By sticking a drum machine on an electric guitar, I have the power of the guitar mixed with the even wider sonics and customization of a drum machine. So that’s my new pursuit — trying to reach my limits of that capability.”

Abban’s dedication to his creativity extends far beyond his music. In addition to writing, recording, producing, and mixing everything himself, Abban also creates all the visual components accompanying each record. For each single he releases, he also produces a video where the true depth of his talent and creativity is on full display. 

“I've never seen the boundaries between music genres or even any other art medium,” he says. “I've always seen the similarities between painters, musicians, film directors, and fashion designers. Creativity is all the same. It just comes out in different ways. The way discoveries happen is a universal human trait, and there's limitless inspiration and ideas to be found in every discipline.” 

Abban’s latest EP, Deep Winter, continues his trajectory of overcoming creative limitations. Fittingly released in the depths of winter in January, Deep Winter is the logical next step in Abban’s evolution as an artist. The EPs five tenderly earnest tracks show a softer side of his songwriting that previous releases have only hinted at. It veers into much more balladic waters, with “Getting Over Me” and “Truly Loved You” providing plenty of emotional fodder. On the latter,  Abban revisits his acoustic fingerpicking roots.

Abban further pushes the limits of his guitar on Deep Winter. On the EP’s opening track, “Winter,” his guitar takes on an entirely new personality, resembling an entire brass section more than anything with strings. This horn-like quality largely stems from where Abban turns to for his influences.

“I've always thought if you want to get better at something or change the way you play something, why would you study someone who plays exactly what you do and just to end up sounding like them?” says Abban. “People like John Coltrane have influenced me far more.” 

The on-the-nose music video for “Winter” depicts a floral-clad Abban wandering around a snow-covered field. As with all of his music videos, its black-and-white finish allows the track to speak for itself.

Abban’s drum-machine/electric guitar combo is again the star on the penultimate track, “Judas.” The two instruments harmoniously meld into one as Abban belts out compelling lines like “I've never been from the places I've lived” and “Human achievement is achieving the human.”

Deep Winter’s closing moments come from a song that almost wasn’t on the EP at all. Just a week before the release date, Abban swapped out another song for the haunting swells of  “Man” — a perfect coda for a collection of songs as emotionally transparent as Deep Winter. Abban notes that that last-minute switch wouldn’t have been possible were he not self-producing and releasing his music by owning the entire process himself.

“I think when you start to talk about the process, it begins to get in the realm of hubris,” he notes. “If I start to describe it, it begins to feel far less genuine.”

Clocking in at a scant 13 minutes, Deep Winter no doubt leaves listeners wanting more. Luckily for them, Abban has more on the way — and plenty at that. He figures he has enough material in various states of completion for five more records, with plans to release another new album by the end of this year. 

See Thomas Abban perform songs from his entire catalog at the Dakota Jazz Club on Monday, April 24, at 7 p.m.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.