We sat down with Abhi the Nomad for his very first interview on his first ever national tour. Our conversation explored his experiences with tour life, the art of live performance, the legacy of Pharrell and N.E.R.D., his production style & equipment, his biggest musical inspiration, and Super Smash Bro’s. Sit back and dive in.
(Cover photo courtesy of Levi Thompson)
Abhi the Nomad: A New Wave
Abhi the Nomad isn’t your run-of-the-mill hip hop artist. But before I go into that, allow me to issue a disclaimer: this is a great interview because Abhi himself is a great interviewee. He’s a genuine person that doesn’t try to be anyone but himself. Abhi makes it easy.
Abhi the Nomad’s music is equally authentic. With one foot planted in hip-hop and the other firmly rooted in indie rock, Abhi’s music blends elements together that seem strangely familiar yet remarkably hard to identify. Without a doubt, he has one of the most versatile catalogues of any artist with such a limited discography.
Despite his impressive versatility, there is one consistent theme that runs through his music: it’s catchy as hell.
Abhi the Nomad officially entered the scene in 2014 with his debut project, Beginning EP. His potential was immediately obvious after hearing early standout tracks like “About Girls” and “Some Assembly Required”. Four years (and one well-deserved talent visa) later, Abhi has built his discography to include an additional EP and two substantive studio albums. Somehow it took him until now, months after the release of his second album, Marbled, to finally go on tour.
I can promise you, this show was worth the wait. There may have only been a few hundred people in attendance, but I was amazed by the way every single crowd-member seemed to know each song like it had defined their 2018. In addition to his vocals, Abhi also DJ’d and played some keys throughout the show. Afterward, he came out meet with the fans, staying until each one had a picture and a smile to take home.
Abhi is accompanied on the 14 stop tour by Harrison Sands, his good friend, back-up vocalist, and former RA from college. Sands is also opening on the tour, showing off his debut project Everything’s Fine. I was thoroughly impressed by Harrison Sands’ stage presence and falsetto through his brief-but-groovy set, and am glad that he was able to join us for the interview.
Abhi the Nomad’s Marbled Interview: On Tour
Abhi, I’m thrilled to be interviewing you today. I’ve been following your work ever since stumbling across “Some Assembly Required” back in 2014, and I was really excited when you announced this tour.
What’s it like to be back on the road for the American Alien Tour after spending so much of your life travelling up until pretty recently?
Abhi: Every time something like this happens, like a project gets released or we go on tour, I feel like my entire life has been building up to it and it’s this big, explosive moment. But then life just keeps going past it. So I’m just trying to enjoy what’s going on in the moment and prep for what could be next. Honestly, if you asked me six months before this if I would be going on tour this year, I would’ve told you that I don’t think it’ll happen.
Abhi: I don’t know, you tell me! I think there was a significant rise in popularity of my music over this year specifically and I think it’s because I dropped my album and then got my visa. When I did that, it was like a sort of ‘fish hook’ for a lot of media outlets to play politics while doing an article about music at the same time. If I’m really breaking it down, that’s an easy in for me and a win for a media outlet.
Moving to Austin was a big deal too, because Austin just sucked me in and hailed me king for some reason. They let me play SXSW and perform a bunch of hometown shows, I connected with a lot of people there and the local radios started playing my shit all the time. So it was really helpful.
It seems like 2018 has been a pretty crazy year!
Abhi: Yeah it’s been pretty wild! [laughs]
We were hanging out at SXSW in like March, earlier this year, and you know I didn’t think we would be here. I knew that we would be doing something music-related later in the year but I thought it’d be some low key shit like me just making some beats in the bedroom. That still did happen but it also progressed quickly out of nowhere. We didn’t see this coming.
That’s awesome man. I know the American Alien Tour is your first headlining tour but I think you’ve been on a couple of tours before this right?
Abhi: Just one mini tour on the West Coast with Harrison, actually. I mean we played shows before and we have lots of practice live because we’ve played live a lot, but just haven’t hit the road quite like this.
I’m sure, especially being in the Live Music Capital of the World.
Abhi: I played live a lot this year, especially in Austin. At SXSW alone we did like 7 shows or something crazy. We were dead by the end of it.
When we used to live in California we played a lot of shows in San Diego and all over the West Coast, really. So we definitely have some practice.
With this being your first major tour, headliner or not, what’s it been like to see the numbers from SoundCloud and Spotify translate into real faces and names so far?
Abhi: Crazy. I think it’s most vivid and real in real life because the numbers just start to blur and you start getting spoiled. Like I’ll be like “Fuck, only 15,000 plays in one day? WACK.”
Have there been any notable fan interactions so far? You hadn’t really been able to get out and meet all the fans outside of Texas and the West Coast until now.
Abhi: After Dallas this one guy came up to me and he’s like “Yo man I’m a huge fan. I have a gift I want to give to you. Since the Grammys have lost their value, we made our own Grammys.”
Then he gave me this statue with a gold plaque at the bottom that said ‘Abhi the Nomad’ and said like “swagga bond” or something like that. The statue was a golden old grandma for the ‘grammies’. [laughs]
Have you been keeping it with you on tour?
Abhi: I keep it back at home actually. Tour life is dangerous for something like that. I keep it on top of one of my speakers. Yeah, that was interesting… Definitely never had a gift given before.
I’m sure it won’t be the last time.
Abhi: Yeah, hopefully not! I like gifts and free stuff. Bring me some gifts!
Once upon a time, you performed a cover of “Remember the Name” by Fort Minor at your middle school talent show. Since then you’ve undergone two tours and countless shows throughout Texas and California. What lessons have you learned from the hours on stage that you’re incorporating into this tour?
Abhi: That Fort Minor show… They’ve gone too deep! [laughs]
Probably to pace yourself.
I think we overestimated our abilities once or twice at SXSW. I got pretty sick, physically, because I overdid myself and we would play songs back-to-back-to-back-to-back without taking any breaks in between without even having a water pack nearby. Just dumb stuff like that.
I mean it’s not like we passed out on-stage, but I think it’s just about learning to give ourselves the space and the mental capacity to prep ourselves for the stage.
And you realize the audience needs that too. Especially if you’re having a great energetic show, the crowd needs some down points to relax themselves. They can’t just jump for an hour straight.
Harrison Sands: You can’t experience the highs if there are no lows.
In the past you have said that you struggle to relate to your old favorite
artists nowadays because they’ve strayed so far from their roots and make such materialistic music. What are your roots and what are their importance in your music?
Abhi: I think my roots come from the drive of just being in a room by yourself and wanting to create. Remembering the fun behind it but also the need to build something and create something important and give it substance. Just don’t forget that it’s supposed to be fun.
A lot of people lose it. It becomes a business to a lot of people. obviously there are parts to it that are business, you know. Like we can’t drive off tonight and forget the check like we did in Houston.
How’d that go?
Harrison Sands: That was a frantic call in the middle of the night.
Abhi: [laughs] “PLEASE MAIL IT TO US!”
I know you first began making music on GarageBand when you were just 12 years old. What software do you prefer to use for production now and why?
Abhi: Yeah, it’s GarageBand’s step-father, Logic ProX. Actually it’s probably GarageBand’s real daddy. It’s basically just GarageBand but with all the bells and whistles.
Is that what you used for your Beginning EP all the way through Marbled?
Abhi: Yeah, I use it for everything. I’ve been using it for like 8 years.
Harrison Sands: Abhi is the biggest advocate for Logic that I’ve ever met in my entire life. No joke.
You’re a member of a new generation of hip-hop artists that didn’t exist all that long ago: you produce your music, you write your lyrics, and you perform your vocals. Not that long ago that was incredibly rare. On-stage you even play the keys and a little guitar. What or who do you think has brought about this new phenomenon of self-producing, DIY artists like yourself?
Abhi: Well I think Chance the Rapper always had the DIY thing going on because he always did everything himself. He was like the team manager and creative director of his own stuff. But I think musically like I take a lot of that from people like Beck. He does all of his own stuff, like he does everything. A real one-man band.
One of our sound engineers told us that Beck learned to play the banjo just so he could play on his new album, which is really dope. That’s the kind of crazy shit that I wanna do.
I had to make music by myself before anyone else wanted to get involved with it and then I just got used to it. So I want to branch out, but in awhile, not right now.
What instrument would you like to branch out to next? You already incorporate so many instruments into your music, oftentimes as a listener it’s hard to even know like, “did he bring someone in to play trumpet, or did he produce that trumpet with his keys?”
Abhi: For stuff like brass, I feel like you should get professionals to do it. I write the parts but then I get people to do it mainly because that’s an instrument that takes years. I don’t want to disrespect brass or violin players.
I would like to do an instrument like the banjo. I think the banjo would be sick.
I think you can find some cool space for banjo in your music.
Abhi: Yeah I really feel like I could too. I’m trying to incorporate a lot of southwestern instruments like lap-steel and slide guitar and harmonica. Put some hip hop beats behind it and it sounds fuckin swanky.
What was the instrument that you either sampled or used on “Calcutta”? Because that’s one of the most iconic riffs in music from the last three years to me. Whenever I introduce people to your music I always play that song first because it sounds so singular.
Abhi: [imitates riff] Yeah, you know what that is? It’s just all guitar. But I just fuck with it so much that it sounds strange. That riff is slide-guitar. I usually use like Tabasco or like some hot sauce as a slide. It’s pretty much just a bunch of slide guitar samples that I recorded that are then pitched-up and pitched-down and then I sample it with my keyboard and then I play it out so it sounds like a different thing.
Why the bottle?
Abhi: Just because it has a smoother sound than my actual metal slide that you can buy for it, and I think it’s a funky thing to do I guess. I play live with it on-stage, people usually like it.
Why do you choose to produce your own music? Is it for creative control, or is it just that you’re passionate about making music and it’s not just about the vocals, or is it more that it’s affordable when you’re starting out? I don’t think you’ve had a single co-producer on any tracks from any of your albums so far, right?
Abhi: Yeah I actually had a co-producer on one track from one of the EP’s but I didn’t really like how that one turned out, so I just won’t talk about it. [laughs]
Generally, I just really like to be in control, like you said. My whole process is based around production. So like I’ll write a song as I produce it, I never make the beat and then write to it. Usually when I try to do that it’s not very successful. So for something like “Calcutta”, you know, I made the hook:
“Say what you must
Cause you’ve got it right anyway
We keep picking sides anyway
Say what you must say
Whatever it is”
I made all that first and then I was like “oh, let’s put a crazy drop here” so I make the drop. And then I write the rest of the song. All those instrumental parts like the bridge and Foster’s verse, those were all last-minute things.
So would you say most of them start with something like a single riff or hook, and then you go from there?
Abhi: Exactly. So it’s like a few words with a melody line, or one riff, something like
that. Then the entire thing is made around it, as opposed to making all the music first and then laying vocals on it which is more of a conventional rap process.
Right, Jay-Z is iconic for that. He hears the beat and knows exactly what wants to rap over it right then and there, even if he had no part of the development of the track up until then.
Abhi: Right! And Jay-Z is great at that and there’s a lane for that. I just don’t think it’s mine.
I saw a video on YouTube from a few years ago of a freestyle that you entered into a competition. That freestyle was hot! Are you gonna be doing any free-styling on the tour?
Abhi: Oh yeah! The one for the Futuristic competition. Harrison actually recorded that for me.
Harrison Sands: Yeah, in the garage!
I thought that was a garage, but I didn’t want to say anything… [laughs]
Harrison Sands: That was definitely in a garage.
Abhi: Those were dark days. [laughs] Off the dome, I’m not very good to be honest. Because I really like off-the-dome rappers and I study them and know I’m nowhere near close. For me it’s the same with the brass thing. There are people who practice to be great off the dome and I don’t. So you probably won’t see that on tour.
Continuing with this “whole artistry” idea, you’ve said in the past that you design all your own artwork for albums and singles. Take us inside your creative process for visual art. Do you have a background in graphic design?
Abhi: No, not really. I went to school for it for like six months in Austin which strengthened that skill for me. But I’ve been designing it just because Logic translates everything over to all the Adobe software pretty seamlessly. There are tools and functions and workflows in Photoshop that are really similar to Illustrator and Logic and even Final Cut Pro. So it’s not that difficult to latch onto one once you have a grasp on the other. I’m a huge nerd about computer stuff and I always was really into computers as a kid so I got into it pretty easily.
I would like to branch out from that, but it’s just so time-consuming and I can’t find people who edit how I want them to. Usually it costs a lot of money. I need someone who works on the visuals the exact same way that I work on the music. It’s not easy.
I noticed your new singles that have been coming out over the last month or so. Are those leading up to another album?
Abhi: No they’re just some loosies, actually.
Did you do the artwork for those too? I liked the common theme with them and how they’re differentiated by color, it binds them together.
Abhi: Yeah, it ties them together even though they’re not part of a “project”. That was for the second half of this year, the Single Package. I like to brand things and package them. Those are all just rap, rap, rap, rap, rap. That’s all it’s gonna be for this year because next year I’m going to try to do some more experimental stuff and I feel like I need to give everyone a break from my mental fuckery. [laughs]
I’ve gotta say, when “RUN” dropped, I probably played that like eight times in a row that morning. It was an unexpected twist on the sound. That song bumps.
Abhi: Hell yeah. I feel like a lot of people didn’t expect that but I had to come out with something that bangs like that.
So these singles close up your run with your current label, Tommy Boy Records, right?
Abhi: Yes, nice! Did your homework.
Are there any plans for afterwards?
Abhi: Yeah, I think I’m going to go independent. But I want to end the contract on great terms, and not have any bad blood with the label. Don’t want to end up in a Lil Wayne/Birdman situation.
Yeah, you hear so many nightmare stories, it almost seems like the word “label” is a bad word nowadays. But I guess not all label relationships have to be so negative.
Abhi: Yeah they don’t have to be villainous or anything. I’d like to work with companies, I’d like to work with people, but I don’t want them like taking a large portion of stuff. Because a lot of the time all they can provide is connections and that’s great, but I literally work 24/7. It’s a tiresome thing, to get a lesser portion of what that work earns than what I feel is right.
How would you say your production style has evolved since the days of “About Girls”, “Adderall” and “Some Assembly Required”?
Abhi: I’ve tried to make my drum patterns more interesting, specifically. I was very “same-samey” back in the day with a lot of those drum patterns and I think I’ve branched out into trying to mix hip-hop elements into more weird-sounding complimentary elements.
What’s a good example of that from Marbled?
Abhi: “Dogs” would be a good example because it starts off with this Chance the Rapper, Amine sort of vibe, an alternative hip hop vibe. But by the end it’s a funk jam. I want to do more stuff like that, bringing different worlds together.
I feel like I was definitely doing that in the Beginning EP but it wasn’t as refined or tasteful. They’re good songs but they’re not as fine-tuned as they could be, which is okay because that’s just where I was back then. I think listening to more music and absorbing more influences has really helped.
Personally, there are a lot of elements on Marbled that kind of remind me of the Neptunes or Pharrell, just because of the unconventional things you use to create rhythm on the album.
Abhi: That’s really cool. I only mention Chance or Amine to give people a current, relatable example, but going further back it all starts with Pharrell. I love NERD. I actually loved all three of the NERD albums, Pharrell is awesome. Chad Hugo actually just released a new sample pack that I’m definitely going to get. But yeah that’s sick to hear from you. Thanks.
Going off that, if you could pull anyone in as Executive Producer for your next album, who would it be?
Abhi: I really think it would still be Beck, to be honest. I just love everything he does, everything he’s ever done like I’m just obsessed with. Have you ever heard him rap?
I have not. I know he plays like 30 different instruments though, right?
Abhi: Yeah he’s a Multi-instrumentalist and he RAPS. He’s like the white Donald Glover. Boom. He’s totally like that, except he doesn’t act or write television or any of the other cool stuff. [laughs]
He does play like 30 different instruments though, and his music is really eccentric. I really like his “fuck it DIY” approach.
It almost seems like Beck has always operated in a vacuum or something. Like everything else that is happening in music doesn’t really impact what Beck is doing. He’s charting his own course.
Abhi: Yeah! The way I see it, he could just walk into open traffic and all the cars would just stop around him without even looking, like Dr. Strange. He’s a fuckin weirdo and I would love to have him executive produce my music. Rick Rubin would also be cool though.
One of the most rewarding things as a fan is to see one of your favorite artists perform a throwback song from early in their discography YEARS later. What’s one song from your early discography that you’ll always come back to for live shows and why?
Abhi: Probably “About Girls”, off my first EP. It’s just got a groove – people always get into it. I think that’s gotta be the one.
You’re extremely well traveled for someone so young, albeit not necessarily by choice. You’ve lived in Beijing, India, Hong Kong, and the Fiji Islands. How would you say the music and culture of those places have influenced the music you make today?
Abhi: I would say the act of moving influenced it more than anything, along with the culture of those places. When people say “music culture”, they don’t realize how spoiled they are in the U.S. The music culture here is booming. We got everything about 3 years later.
Unfortunately, a lot of American oldies and stuff like that, I never got into as a kid so I have to be educated by people here. Stuff like the Beach Boys. We never had it at home.
Would you say that has lent itself to your versatility? Because it’s so rare to hear someone who is their own creative director, handling the production and the vocals in their entirety, that doesn’t have one nailed-down sound. That’s the really wild thing – there are a bunch of artists out there who do their own production but it’s a very distinctive, consistent sound. They find something that works for them and stick with that.
Harrison Sands: I don’t want to speak for Abhi, but I feel like we both are similar in that we get bored with stuff very easily. If he does the same thing over and over, he gets to the point where he’s like “this sucks now” and moves onto something different. We’re also both very competitive in a sense, like I remember a few months ago Abhi was like “yeah the new trap that’s coming out? it’s really cool but I feel like I could do it better.” And then he came out with “RUN”.
Abhi: Yeah. It’s kind of fun, yo. For me producing is about taking what we can do and just push it as far as it can go. Make it something crazy or wild, just weird shit that someone hasn’t done before.
What are you most looking forward to throughout the rest of the tour?
Abhi: The food. Definitely the food.
We had J.R. Crickets today. Harrison got ribs and those ribs were GOOD. I was surprised. Wings too. I’ve never been to a lot of these places ever in my life. Before going on tour this year, I’d only been to two states, California and Texas.
On the flip side of that, what are you most scared or anxious about regarding the rest the tour?
Abhi: Consistency. Ensuring that each show is solid from our end. We can’t control how many people will show up, or what sort of press coverage we’ll get. Probably just focusing on that consistency, on what’s in our control.
Do you have a set list that you’re sticking with pretty much every night, or are you switching it up?
Abhi: Yeah, we have a set list and are adding one or two special songs in certain locations just to throw in a little spice. We have a backup track for encores and rowdy crowds. We’re prepped, we’re ready for whatever waters may come.
You’ve released so much music already and this is your first real major tour. I’m sure a lot of people want to hear stuff from Where Are My Friends? or your other previous projects. But at the end of the day it is the Marbled tour, even though you haven’t been able to tour on any of your older music before. That’s a lot of expectation from the crowds.
Abhi: Exactly. EXACTLY. They would camp out there just stay here all day if I played through the whole discography. We’re just trying to hit all the important notes and give everyone a good show. It can be tough to balance though.
Who would you most like to go on tour with, and why?
Abhi: Anderson .Paak would be tight. That would be a good fit. Or Rex Orange County. Or both. Yeah, actually both.
What Anderson .Paak does, he does so well. His voice and tone are so distinctive, that he just takes his voice and slams the music behind it to the craziest boundaries. Even that new song “Tints” you could say it’s like a vintage throwback, but it sounds crazy if you actually listen to it. It’s really good production, it has a lot of depth and layers to it. It’s not super repetitive.
Any fan that follows your career or reads your interviews knows that you love Super Smash Brothers. Which Smash is your favorite?
Abhi: Damn. I might get 500 unfollows today. [laughs] Probably Super Smash Bro’s 4.
Which character are you best with?
Abhi: If Atwood talks shit about this online, I swear… [laughs]
I just got beat! He forced me to use GameCube controllers because that’s all he had. He had the console that comes with the Wii U, so he didn’t have… I play on the 2DS. [Sighs] It’s complicated. My character is definitely MegaMan.
Harrison Sands: That’s the most heated I’ve seen you in awhile, man.
Abhi: It gets crazy. This is real passion. Definitely MegaMan. Melee is my second favorite though, and on there it’s probably Falco.
Is there anything else you want to mention or that you want readers to know about before we wrap up?
Harrison Sands: This was great, man.
Abhi: Definitely. Let me think… New single coming out next month. More singles this year, just more music. I’ve got three more singles on the way.
Are they going continue with the rap-heavy theme of the rest of the loosies? Trying to get all your bars out before you go experimental and independent?
Abhi: Yeah, mostly so people can’t bitch at me. “I miss the rapper Abhi” – this will keep them happy for awhile.
A big thank you to Abhi the Nomad for this interview. Dates for the rest of his tour are available on his website. Marbled is available RIGHT NOW on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, and Google Play. Check it out – and tell Abhi we sent you.