Audeze chats with bassist, composer and guimbri player Joshua Abrams

May 12, 2021

Joshua Abrams is a composer, improviser, & multi-instrumentalist. His primary instrument is acoustic bass, but he also plays electric bass and guimbri (a three-stringed bass lute originating in North Africa), among others. Joshua has played on tons of records with a wide variety of artists, but most recently has been writing and recording with his band Natural Information Society and also composing music for film. Some other favorites around Audeze HQ are the two solo records Joshua played on with Sam Prekop of The Sea and Cake.

Here's our conversation with Joshua:

Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of?

Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society - Mandatory Reality (eremite)
Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society - Simultonality (eremite)
Joshua Abrams - Magnetoception (eremite)
Fred Anderson & Hamid Drake - From the River to the Ocean (Thrilljockey)
Bonnie “Prince” Billy - Beware (Drag City)

Scores for Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, directed by Steve James
Score for Life Itself, directed by Steve James
Score for The Trials of Muhammad Ali, directed by Bill Siegel

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on?

My role varies depending on the project. At times i am a composer, instrumentalist, bandleader, producer, recordist, editor, organizer & co-conspirator.

How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?

In fourth grade i was assigned double bass in the school orchestra. Hearing the music of Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane at age 14 turned me on to jazz and inspired me to really study the instrument & music in general. At the time pursuing music seemed remote, but it felt like the path that could be the most expansive so i felt compelled to try. I was very fortunate to study with three great bassists in Philadelphia, Gerald Veasley, Tyrone Brown & Neil Courtney, and they helped set me on my way.

As far as listening goes, I’ve been drawn to music since i was young. My dad would often listen to Neil Young, the Persuasions, and Cat Stevens. When I was around 8 i would wait for a song i liked to come on the radio & hold a handheld cassette recorder up to the speakers to capture the sounds. As a young teen i was into classic rock like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Kinks. Then as i mentioned, i got into jazz. I’ve been into digging for records since that time. All approaches. Soul & Spirit musics. Composed & Improvised musics. I was a radio dj in college & i worked once or twice a month as a dj at Danny’s Tavern in Chicago from the late 90’s through much of the aughts. These days i have a strong interest in recordings of regional folk music traditions and sounds with an orientation towards the booming, the esoteric and the hypnotic.

Can you name any factors you feel majorly influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

I been blessed to have had the chance to work with many extraordinary musicians.
Playing with Ahmir Thompson & Tariq Trotter busking on the streets of Philadelphia in the original version of The Roots when i was 18 blew my mind & calcified my resolve to pursue music. A few years later, in the mid 90s i was living in Chicago which was a pretty exciting place to be musically. Gigs with master musicians such as Lin Haliday, Bobby Broom & Jodie Christian were an invaluable form of jazz apprenticeship. At the same time there were venues to experiment and cross pollinate with other musical styles. I could hear amazing music with a wide range of aesthetics & approaches most nights throughout the city. I met Jeff Parker pretty early in my time in Chicago and he remains an influence & dear friend. The same could be said of Chad Taylor. I organized a trio with Ron Dewar & Robert Barry that played original music & some of Ornette Coleman’s compositions every week for a couple years at the Logan Beach Cafe. I played for several years in the house band for the jam session at the Velvet Lounge, a club run by the legendary tenor player Fred Anderson. Fred’s music & outlook continues to be a powerful influence on myself (and many many musicians ). I met so many amazing musicians through the Velvet. Hamid Drake remains a dear friend and mentor. Sticks & Stones (with Matana Roberts & Chad Taylor) began as the aforementioned house band at the Velvet for a summer. The Velvet also led me to working with composer & flautist Nicole Mitchell & composer & saxophonist David Boykin. I was also in a collective called Town & Country that focused on creating what we called “back porch minimalism”. I could go on & on, the scene was so vibrant and far flung at the time, it left a deep impression.

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

Playing the acoustic bass often presents the dilemma of struggling to hear oneself in a louder ensemble while maintaining the integrity of the instrument’s sound.
I've always loved the acoustic sound of the bass and have tried to present something reminiscent of that sound when I amplify the instrument. It can be tough if the other musicians aren’t sensitive to the instrument and take up all of the frequencies. Lately I’ve been pretty happy mixing a microphone sound with a small amount of a pickup and running that through an amp or a sound system or both.

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?

It depends on the project. I have had the same bass (a Juzek doublebass) now for thirty years, so that tops the list. Depending on the music i might turn to the guimbri, MPC, Rhythm Ace, piano, Electrovoice Re20, computer, clarinet, Korg MS-20 or Roland Space Echo.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

Seek opportunities that will help you grow and learn. Protect the impulse that inspires you to make music. Be honest with yourself about the music you are trying to make and if and when you record it listen to yourself.

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

I’ve used headphones since i had a walkman in middle school. I often use them when composing for film, recording, mixing, editing, dj'ing and for listening enjoyment.
The LCD-X's reveal detail & imaging of recordings beyond what i have heard with other headphones. They are a bonafide pleasure for evaluating & reveling in sounds of all sorts.

Do you have any additional comments or stories you want to share?

The first two Natural Information Society records have just been reissued on Aguirre Records. There is a new NIS album on eremite records (and Aguirre records in Europe) called decension (Out of Our Constrictions), with Evan Parker. I made a quartet LP for RogueArt with Ari Brown, Gerald Cleaver and Jeff Parker called Cloud Script that was just released as well. Chad Taylor and i have a new duo called Mind Maintenance. That record will come out on Drag City on June 11 2021.