Abhi the Nomad is six feet tall. “This chair makes me look real small,” was the first thing he wanted to establish before the interview began, and he is not wrong. My eye is drawn to the recording equipment evenly spaced around the room rather than the man munching on a burger among the electronics. Deeper into the conversation, a vinyl collection and a figure of Link from the The Legend of Zelda video game series join the keyhole-like view delivered virtually by camera — a window to a man surrounded by the art, tools and food he needs to survive.
Fulfilment in a single space feels like a new concept to Abhi the Nomad, who has previously existed exactly as his stage name suggests, having never lived in one place for more than four years. He took the scenic route on his journey from India to Texas. Abhi is also notably nomadic in terms of his musical style, recently outlining how his affairs with rock, art rap, boom bap and pop will culminated in the release of 'Abhi vs. the Universe', a 13-track album which dropped on September 1.
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The cohesion of sporadic styles is a sign of a new beginning in Abhi’s musical career, but also coincides with him growing increasingly comfortable with his identity. Moving further away from the rat-race of social media promotion, Abhi is finding joy in engaging with his fans on more authentic grounds. He recently launched a podcast with long-time friend Harrison Sands where he gets to geek out over new gadgets and music. He has immersed himself further in the world of video games, having played 30 new titles over lockdown and playing online with fans through his Discord server. Abhi is locked into a groove where fun and his happiness take priority. Both musically and personally, the nomad has found a home.
I sat down with Abhi to discuss the pressure of making 'Abhi vs. the Universe', developing a definitive sound and avoiding the vicious cycle of social media. Our conversation is presented below, edited for clarity.
Let's kick things off talking about 'Abhi vs. the Universe', the new album. You've talked about how this album really means a lot to you in the context of your other work. Why is that?
I think the most important thing is finally establishing a sound for what people know is Abhi the Nomad. I feel like I've bounced between different sounds my whole career, and I will continue to keep doing that, but I feel like this project holds an essential combination of all the sounds I have explored and is consistent in tickling all those fancies, but staying grounded at the same time. Which is not something I feel I've been able to do up until this point.
Dipping into different genres and blending them together for this one album, is that something driven by you internally? Or is it something that you've done to unite fans of different kinds of work?
A little bit of both. Because when you talk about pop music, for example, a lot of it is pulling from other genres and blending genres. Pop music has always been that in the modern music age. For me, it's just natural to have a rap track with a distorted guitar in it, which is out of place. I just think those sorts of things scratch my itch and I feel like a lot of my influences do the same thing. So in that sense, I wear them quite visibly on my sleeve. I think Kanye does that. At the end of the day, it's for me, but I think staying grounded in the consistency of how I dip into those genres and having it be subtle, having it be relatively minor, as opposed to drastic from song to song, is what I did for my fans so that they would have something to point at and be like, 'this is what Abhi the Nomad sounds like'.
You can see that in the singles that have been released leading up to the album, there's a cohesion to them. How hard was it to choose those particular singles?
Usually it's pretty difficult to single out the songs that you think will hit the most. But I think the concept of dropping two songs at once, which is what we did this time, and having one of them have a feature and one of them be a solo track, and then picking two songs that contrast each other is really what drove us picking these singles. I think it was easier this time because I created everything to kind of feel like it could be a single, not having any album cuts where it's like me rapping over an acoustic piano for four minutes, you know?
Was there pressure with a title like 'Abhi vs. the Universe' to put so much of your identity inside this album and to make it definitive?
Yeah, there was a strong pressure. I think it's difficult to get to a point where you're like, 'Oh, this is the album that defines me.' Obviously, as an artist you always think whatever you're working on currently is the greatest. So I really had to step outside of myself and look at it like 'Okay, this has to be incredible, like this has to be miles above what I've dropped before.' There was a vigorous cutting process of like 30 or so songs that didn't make the cut. And even more half-songs where I had the verse finished, the hook finished. There's no way around it other than like the test of time, right? You can't really tell if something's going to slap in three months without waiting three months. So that's how we dealt with the pressure, just giving it time.
I like the idea of stepping outside yourself, that's present in the album title, referring to yourself in the third person. At what point of the process did that title come up?
It was from the start. I was in a car ride with my manager, we were in LA going to different pub meetings to sign up publishing admin deals, which we did later that year. This had to be like February of 2020 when we came up with the title. We had a whole tracklist of a bunch of songs ready — including three singles that we dropped last year called 'Risky Business', 'Long Nights' and 'Stay'; — then we just axed the entire tracklist and started from scratch.
What made you scrap that project? Was it the idea of wanting it to be definitive?
A little bit, and then it was also coronavirus. In March 2020, I went to a wedding with my wife and when we came back it was coronavirus. I was like, 'fuck it, I'll shoot all the videos in my room.' I shot a video for 'Long Nights' in my room. I remember booking out a space and wearing masks and going to a warehouse to shoot the music video for 'Risky Business' and towards the end of the year I was like, 'I don't like these songs anymore' [laughs].
How did your relationship with that title change over the course of this time?
I feel like the title tested me when I had the first tracklist. I was ready to roll it out and my relationship with it changed right when I realised that A: I don't really like these songs that much. B: the world is in a really shitty place right now. This was right around the time when the Black Lives Matter movement started really getting traction and coronavirus was knee deep. I still haven't seen my parents in like four years, the only thing I had was this album and I think it's sort of mid. That's when I stepped outside of myself, I actually faced the tribulations of the universe then I realised, 'This has to be more than what it is currently. I really have to represent the struggle I'm going through right now.'
It was not an easy time during coronavirus, I am aware of my privilege as somewhat of an established artist that I have it better than most, but it was a depressing time for artists in general, no matter the industry. So taking that into account and putting that back into the songs and coming up with something that's crafted out of the bottom of the barrel is really where I feel greatness comes from. It was necessary for me to make all the songs which didn't make the cut because those are the obstacles that built this current album.
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I love the idea that this album, just in the past year, had such a process to go through. But in a way, your whole career has been the process for this album. Where do you think your love for all the styles you show on this album comes from?
I just don't think I fit in anywhere at any point in my life. There was a moment where I sort of found my groove in college, and then I graduated, and then I was like, 'Oh, I lost it again.' I don't really have an archetype. Every time I say it, I feel like I sound so pedantic. But it's just an objective fact that I was raised really weirdly. I moved every four years my whole life. But for that fact, I'm trilingual and I don't really associate with my homeland culture because I wasn't raised there fully. I don't really associate with American culture, because I wasn't raised here. I hadn't even seen Good Will Hunting 'till I was in senior year. I don't know American classic culture. People are like, 'You haven't heard the Earth Wind and Fire album?' I was like, 'Dude, I was in Beijing. I didn't even know what the fuck that was.' So anything that sounds cool, just sounds cool to me. For that reason, a lot of my influences are super varied. My vinyl collection is bizarre. It ranges from Freddie Gibbs to Beck and I'll pull from both of those things.
How long have you been in Austin?
Almost at that four year mark. Any plans to switch it up?
I don't know, I really like it here. I found a groove. I got a couple cool friends here. And by a couple I mean literally, like maybe three. There's a lot of talented people here, a bunch of talented live musicians. Lots of cool music. The food is incredible. Everything is dope minus the governor, but the mayor of Austin follows me on Instagram now so there's no moving out. Once you get the mayor to follow you, it's time to stick around.
Were you ever comprehensive before tackling a new style, or did you always trust your audience to embrace that change?
I honestly don't know what they're gonna think of it, every time. I feel like I have some inkling of an idea... Like, if I dropped like a full EDM album tomorrow they'd probably be like, 'what the fuck?' I feel like it just kind of varies because I thought 'Modern Trash' would hit way more than it did, and now I understand why it didn't. So it's just something that I have to just do, it's a reactionary understanding of what has happened. I don't think I can predict or know what they expect or want.
You have to bear the scars of that change. Do you feel like modern musicians in general are willing to make that sacrifice?
I think more and more it's becoming commonplace to switch up your style, but I feel like a lot of musicians try to find other ways to do it that doesn't dilute their core fan base. For example, Chance the Rapper. He has his core fan base and his core style. Even though no one was a huge fan of 'The Big Day', it's still kind of similar to what he was doing on his first mixtape, but he wanted to do more experimental shit. So he made 'The Social Experiment' with his friends and that's kind of a different outlet for him to vibe on some different sounding shit. So if I ever was to do some crazy 180 [degrees] shit, it would probably be through a different name or a different band name or something like that.
I really appreciate your music because a lot of the time it's really danceable and super fun to listen to, but you never sacrifice the lyrical and emotional aspect of music. Is that a balance you're conscious of?
Yes. It's just so difficult for me to skimp on the lyricality. I think, even in my corniest of musical journeys, I feel like the lyrics are still there. They make sense and they're very topical. One of my favourite things to do is write songs. Writing songs, I feel, is an art that not a lot of people are vibing with right now because a lot of music is based on feel and groove and rhythm, which is dope. But personally, I feel when you can nail both at the same time, that's where the magic happens. That's the type of music I like. I'm also a hip hop head. I'll die on a hill on Twitter, arguing with some random anime profile picture over who the greatest rapper is.
You've said before that Royce Da 5'9 is like your favourite lyricist ever.
He and Lupe are the closest, who are alive and working.
What is it about the way they put words together that you try to incorporate into your writing?
I feel like they don't compromise on anything. Like, they both use their voices as instruments. They never sound like they're on top of the beat or below it. They're always riding the beat and in the pocket, and everything they're saying is like 10 times what most people could write. I don't even care if it's just about like guns and shit. Who cares? It's poetry. The poetic devices and the use of their lyrics is just fucking beyond me. I feel like everyone could learn, everyone can pull from people who are just masters of their craft and I think that's something that's being lost. A lot of people who are masters at their craft aren't really the greatest just toning that down and making great songs. But I love delving into all these hard ass rappers that people don't listen to. I have an underground list of rappers who I'm out-streaming by miles, but are so much better than me at rapping and like I take influence from them every day.
I think 'Mural' distorts people's perception of Lupe, because people see him as overindulgent, but he can make a song, he can write a hook.
I don't think a lot of people want to listen to rappers that are a little bit older. They feel like they want new faces and new brands and things like that. I also feel like Lupe doesn't really care who listens to him. He's established and got it down. Although I always preach his gospel. Every time I talk to someone, I'm like, 'no Lupe is the best.' I did my high school thesis on how Lupe is comparable with Shakespeare and I got a C- [laughs]. They were so mad.
Another big influence on your music is video games. You use a lot of references and aesthetics from them. In what ways have games fed into your creativity?
I always like to escape reality in whatever ways I can. In college there were various other methods I used that I won't list. But nowadays as a grown adult with rent and bills to pay and shit, it's the quickest portal to another world. I just love one of the frontiers of technology being like these little games that you can play. I think that's so cool. I'll send my parents screenshots of Red Dead Redemption 2 and they're like, 'Is that a movie?' I'm like, 'No, it's a game! That's what they've made!' It's fucking crazy. Being able to explore these worlds that we can't even imagine is such a cool idea. I love games that build worlds for you like an album that paints a picture or describes a feeling. Games capture that same feeling and put you right in it. It's one of the few immersive arts in the world. You're you when you play a game, that completes the art. I hope one day there's sort of an evolution in music where the audience gets to be the other piece. I really want people to be inside of music the way they are inside of games.
You did a Metroid Prime freestyle recently, what made you want to rap over that particular soundtrack?
Nintendo never don't hit with the music. You know, every song in every Nintendo game is just top of the line. Even the Wii menu music is fucking crazy. It's insane. You can sample any OST from any Nintendo first party title and it would slap.
The Super Smash Bros. series has been a favourite of yours for a while, what is it about that series that has always spoken to you?
Honestly, just getting blasted with the homies in the dorm room and playing it for eight hours. Over time, I just became godly at it. Then I was like, 'I just have to play this game now.' It's the only fighting game where you can die by falling off the map and that's fucking fire. That's amazing. What a cool concept.
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Your love for games is really clear from all your social media interactions, how much importance do you place on social media as a promotional tool?
Less and less as the years pass. I'm starting to move towards it being a poster board or a billboard instead of like a place to promote my brand. I'd rather it just be like an art gallery. If I wasn't a musician, I probably wouldn't have much social media. I'm not a huge fan of Tik Tok, not a huge fan of Instagram, either. The only app that I really fuck with is Twitter. I think Twitter's the greatest sort of self-promotion tool where you can be yourself.
Despite you hating it, you've had some success on Tik Tok.
A bit, yeah, but you have to do it every day to stay in the algorithm. Which, first of all, is fucking obnoxious. No one should be posting to anything every day, regardless of the purpose. I feel like that's unhealthy. Also, look at the conversion rate. You could have a million followers on Tik Tok and still not sell out a show in LA. I have a million monthly listeners on Spotify and only 34,000 followers, which I feel like is slightly unbalanced. But I'm grateful for everyone that follows me and I think the reason why more people don't follow me is because I'm not a social media content machine.
How do you feel like you achieve fan engagement?
Discord. The reason I set that up at the beginning was because I wanted to try it. Now it's the place for me to gauge who cares. All these people who are active in the server really give a shit. Last night, I did a private listening party of the album with all my Twitch subs. I played them the album in this subs-only voice chat. That's where fan engagement feels right to me, I want it to feel like a family and I want it to feel like I'm giving you what you're giving me. It's become such a close knit community, I've had people design EP covers for me. The last EP I did was designed by someone from Discord. All of this, this album wouldn't be possible without them. I talk to them every single day, and we hang out and play games every single day. That's where my fan engagement lives currently.
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You recently launched a podcast and you're doing vlog-style videos on YouTube. How do those allow you to express yourself differently?
The podcast is so fun to do. I love chopping it up. Me and Harrison [Sands] have known each other for over a decade now. He performs at every show, he does backup vocals on almost every song. So we're like day one homies. I'm not trying to diversify my income, I'm just trying to make cool shit. The podcast is just the funnest thing. It's a music and tech podcast. Harrison really loves music and I'm obsessed with tech and gadgets. We just get on there and like talk about all the cool shit that's happening, act like fucking idiots and play this game called 20 questions where you have 20 questions to guess the musician the other person is thinking of. It's a blast, man. The vlogs are fun to make cuz I stream every week. I just chop up gameplay and I give my review of games, that's just what I do anyways. I'm just trying to legitimise my everyday activities, I'm not even trying to monetize them.
Final question, this is something I knew I had to ask. Who is that final Smash character going to be?
Dude, it's got to be the Doom Slayer, but it might just be some other fucking Fire Emblem character with big titties.
'Abhi vs. The Universe' is out now, get it here