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Tom Abbs: Combining Music and Film

By Published: June 23, 2008
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Kidney Donation and MP Landis

AAJ: I saw a press release about your solo tour, Petting Zoo, which starts in mid-March and it also mentioned your collaboration with the artist MP Landis. This collaboration has even extended to you donating a kidney to him and you have described it as like another collaboration. Would you like to say a little about that situation?

Tom AbbsTA: Well, obviously we are very close at this point. You know, Michael was on the board of directors of Jump Arts back in '97/98 and through its life. He's still on the board of directors. So that's how I met him. I got really interested in his art. He actually took the photos for Ori Kaplan's first record on CIMP. There's a photo in the liner notes that MP took and that's how I met him at the photo shoot. He did a whole bunch of covers for records I was on, mostly independent stuff. Then he started painting live at our shows for Jump Arts. So I just had this long evolving collaboration with him.

He's the manager of a brownstone in Brooklyn and he invited me and my wife to move into the second floor of the brownstone. So we were really excited and we moved in with him and his girlfriend Sarah, and became even closer. About four months after that he had kidney failure. He had Type A diabetes in childhood and it has taken it's toll. I think he was about 42 at the time. A long life with the disease and then his kidneys finally gave up.

So I was living in the same house with him and we shared a garden and we were very close at that time. It was heartbreaking. When somebody you care about gets sick it's really hard for anybody. You feel helpless. He went on dialysis which is a really horrible way to live. Anyone who knows anyone on dialysis, you go about three times a week for four hours. The next day you're exhausted, so you have one day every three days that you feel alright. And he stopped being able to paint. He couldn't get into his studio, he was always too tired.

Actually somebody else had come forward who was a match for him for the kidney transplant, so he was all set to have the transplant with this other donor, and at the last minute the other donor had to pull out for family reasons. At that point I had my heart set on him getting this transplant, so I went and got tested, and the doctors were amazed at how close a match we were, meaning that it was really likely not to reject, which is of course the fear—that the organ will reject after the transplant.

Honestly, my feeling about the whole thing is that we're all helpless when our loved ones get sick, and we all end up watching our parents pass away eventually, and friends. And I felt so lucky. It's like I was presented with this opportunity. I was the only one who had a chance to help, and I felt so lucky to do that. Also my whole life I've been really healthy. I haven't really been sick at all in my adult life. I hardly ever get the flu or anything. I must have an immune system that's really strong. So I haven't really known any health problems in my life. So to me it was no big deal. I was literally jogging a week after the surgery.

AAJ: Wow

TA: Yeah, it's pretty uninvasive now. They do it all laposcopically now for the donor. So really I didn't have any ill effects. I feel fine with my one kidney now. And Michael has always been a constant inspiration to me as an artist. Now being able to see him healthy. He still has bad days, he's on immune-suppressants, different drugs to keep the kidney from rejecting, which have different effects on his energy levels and how he feels, so he's not always feeling 100 percent. But most of the time he's active. I actually hired him as art director at ESP, so we're collaborating on that now. So we're progressing on from making art to working together at the label. We're like brothers. We're really close, we live in the same house, and it's just strengthened our friendship.

AAJ: That's great. It's a very uplifting story.

TA: As you probably read in the press release, we worked on a documentary with our friend Ryan Tebo, out of Boston. We filmed everything about the transplant. So we're really excited about that, and also that we are premiering Michael and I's latest collaboration which is a video and music piece.

He was going to come on the tour with me, but he developed a slight kidney infection and has to stay in New York. Luckily he's feeling fine. He's just on some antibiotics, but they have to watch his different intake and outtake levels, and blood levels. So he can't leave town unfortunately. He had planned to come with me and perform with me, and travel with the film. I'm a little sad about that, but even so being able to go out and tell the story and show the work that we've been working on, which is our first post surgery collaboration artistically, it is kind of the trophy at the end of the road. The first year of the transplant is when you really have to worry, and after a year it's OK. So we've got past the first year, so we're celebrating with this tour.

AAJ: What else is coming up for you?

TA: We're recording with CIMP with the Andrew Lamb trio with Warren Smith. So that should be out probably in the fall sometime. That's meant to be a two-record set. We're doing two different sets of compositions when we go to CIMP.

Selected Discography

Yuganaut, This Musicship (ESP, 2008)
Warren Smith, Natural/ Cultural Forces (Engine, 2007)
Tom Abbs & Frequency Response, The Animated Adventures of Knox (482 Music, 2005)
Triptych Myth, The Beautiful (Aum Fidelity, 2005)
Tom Abbs & Frequency Response, Conscription (CIMP, 2003)
Cooper-Moore, Tom Abbs, Chad Taylor, Triptych Myth (Hopscotch, 2003)
Active Ingredients, Titration (Delmark, 2003)
Andrew Lamb, The Pilgrimage (CIMP, 2003)
Steve Swell's NY BrassWood Trio, Still in Movement (CIMP, 2003)
Transcendentalists, Real Time Messengers (CIMP, 2002)
Assif Tsahar & the Zoanthropic Orchestra, Embracing the Void (Hopscotch, 2002)
Ori Kaplan Trio Plus Steve Swell, Delirium (CIMP, 2001)

Photo Credits

Top Photo: Frank Rubolino
All Other Photos: Courtesy of Tom Abbs

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