Diplo And Behold: A Rolo Tomassi Interview
, April 21st, 2010 12:38
Hardcore band ROLO TOMASSI are saving the keytars and trucker caps for the next album. John Doran spoke to the band for The Stool Pigeon recently. Live photographs by Maria Jefferis and Stu Green for Shot2Bits.net
Rolo Tomassi are such a nice bunch of people, it almost feels bad trying to pry scurrilous stories out of them. They’re like a walking advertisement for how good it could/should be being in a young, technically proficient, inspired, extreme and playful music-making unit. So while some bands twice their age, and with half their talent, are acquainting themselves with toilet floors in east London or trying neurotically to scrub the stench of mephedrone out of their hair and clothes after three days awake in the right clubs, Sheffield’s Rolo Tomassi — ostensibly a prog/ mathcore/ hardcore/ metal hybrid — seem to exist in a hermetically sealed universe of nonchalance and good vibes.
Their inherent ‘wisdom beyond their years’ and the fact that they’ve been releasing never-less-than astonishing material for over half a decade now, makes the question of their actual ages a red herring. What people should be discussing is how easy Rolo Tomassi make this whole caper appear. Only a great deal of hard graft can create an illusion of effortlessness and their combination of Cardiacs, Locust, King Crimson, Runhild Gammelsæter, Mars Volta and Brian Eno feels so natural it’s almost as if the band are doing themselves a disservice by not acting like spoilt, pretentious avant-rock beasts. They never scream: “Look what we’ve done!”
We’re joined by keyboard player and vocalist James Spence, his sister and frontwoman Eva Spence and guitarist Joe Nicholson (bassist Joseph Thorpe and drummer Edward Dutton are next-door in this airy studio getting stuck into a big box of three-stripe trainers and tops, ready for a photo shoot). It’s genuinely refreshing to meet a band so utterly content with their place in the universe and their amazing new album Cosmology refers specifically to this theme. It is, however, a slight relief when James, after 40 minutes of being really nice about people, conspiratorially reveals that they were once given some bad advice that could have seriously changed the entire nature of what Rolo Tomassi is.
“When we were still at school there was this girl called Carly who was an excellent singer,” he confides. “Her dad was a Rod Stewart impersonator; her mum was a Tina Turner impersonator. She had an amazing voice and she’d been raised by performers to be a performer. [starts whispering] I have to keep my voice down now… Our bass player’s dad suggested that she should join the band. This was before Eva had started singing with us. He said, ‘You should definitely get her involved; there would definitely be something in it for you.’ We were like, ‘Er, no.’”
Emboldened by James, Joe chips in: “The idea was hilarious. She was basically a cabaret singer — stick thin, all rouged up — but it was suggested to us.”
James continues: “We played her birthday party once on the way back from a gig in Leeds and our set was followed by her dad doing a set of Rod Stewart songs. It was brilliant. There was no Tina Turner that night, though. But the odd thing was, they always looked like them; they were always ‘on’ and in costume. It was mental. We got chased out of their house by someone threatening to put our car window through with a brick. It was ridiculous.”
His eyes glaze slightly as he imagines their original meeting: “I’m not sure what the family history is. Maybe they met and were like, ‘Hold on a second! You look like...’”
Since the release of their debut Hysterics in September 2008, the band have played a multitude of live shows, from UK tours with Pulled Apart By Horses and Grammatics to US warm-up slots for Jane’s Addiction. Such level of work and exposure certainly seem to have had a positive impact on them. “At the time we wrote Hysterics we were very happy with it and thought we’d made the best record we could at the time,” says James. “But in hindsight... obviously when we play it live now, we play it a lot faster. This album was an opportunity to set right the short-comings of that album, and make a set of songs that worked better.”
One of the many expansions on the album is that of Eva’s increased and ever-more-vibrant vocal range. “Instead of being in a practice room with the boys while they were writing, this time round they recorded rough demos for me and then I took them away,” she explains. “Then I would sit in my room for hours every day listening to each song. Being in my own space and doing it in my own way gave me a bit more leeway. There is a lot more contrast. Maybe I’ve been a lot more experimental this time.”
Perhaps the biggest risk the band took was recording the album with Diplo — someone more associated with M.I.A. and Bonde do Rolê than hardcore. If it was a risk, it has totally paid off.
James relates the story: “He mentioned our name in an interview on Pitchfork and from there arose the possibly of him doing a remix for us. I was aware he was pretty in demand as a remixer and producer, but he said he’d much rather be involved on a bigger level. He asked, ‘What are you doing for your next album?’ and at that point we hadn’t even written a single note of music. But we were made up that he wanted to work with us, so we were like, ‘Let’s just make sure it happens.’ He also said to us that it had been a different experience for him as well, working with a rock band. With dance people, he’s used to being involved with the writing process as well. People have been expecting us to come back with something other than a hardcore album, but when they ask what it sounds like I just say, ‘A Rolo Tomassi album’. That said, it’s much, much better than any other recording we’ve done.”
And when I express my relief at not seeing the band posing on MySpace wearing bright-coloured plastic sunglasses, keytars and Pabst Blue Ribbon trucker caps, like you’d imagine most people who work with Diplo would, James simply responds: “That can still happen.”
“That’s the look for the next album,” chips in Eva.
But you know instinctively that even if next week everyone in the known universe starts dressing like Darwin Deez or Rusko, Rolo Tomassi would blithely keep on ploughing their own unique and sublime furrow, regardless.
Cosmology is out on May 24 on Hassle
This piece was originally printed in The Stool Pigeon
Grace Under Pressure is an anthology of articles from the first five years of Stool Pigeon. It contains articles on Marilyn Manson, DOOM, Lou Reed, The Fall, The Cramps, Killing Joke, Sonic Youth, Snoop Dogg and more. To order a a very reasonably priced copy click here.