State Of Tension: Tomaga Interviewed

Following the release of their second album, the London-based duo talk to Fred Bowler about how live performance, the luxury of forethought and the scrap metal of Tuscany all had a role to play on The Shape Of The Dance

Photograph courtesy of Antonio Curcetti

Searching for the right words to describe Tomaga’s music isn’t particularly easy. That is, to be fair, partly their intention. "I’m satisfied that many people respond to our music by saying they love it, and they don’t know what it is or how to categorise it," says Tom Relleen, the bass player, who, alongside drummer and percussionist Valentina Magaletti makes up the London-based duo.

Forming three years ago after initially starting as the rhythm section in a rock band, they laid out a sound that was jazzy and repetitive on their first album, 2014’s Futura Grotesk. Locked grooves were laid over a drum beat, playing time signatures that felt a little unfamiliar overlaid with a synthesiser that often sounded broken. Sounds were layered on top of each other, creating a thick atmosphere and at certain moments conjuring razor-sharp images.

Two years later, their new record, The Shape Of The Dance, is a turn towards a more minimalist and deliberately crafted approach. The percussive focus remains but this is joined to a new embrace of emptiness. This partly comes out of the duo being able to work on tracks through live performance, including on tour dates supporting Wire, something they weren’t able to do on their previous releases – Futura Grotesk was followed last year by Familiar Obstacles, a collection of offcuts from the debut – where tracks stemmed from "spontaneous experiments", as Relleen explains. What results is a record that meditates on performance, place and small details. Relleen’s bass sounds variously like the Institut für Feinmotorik’s rubber-band turntablism or complete chance operations, while Magaletti’s instrument arsenal is partly comprised from objects found while they recorded in Tuscany (a tin of dried lentils, sacks of gravel and even wasps make the cut). The album also features collaborations: on ‘Four Ducks Dead’ and ‘Scacco Matto’ they are joined by Blutwurst (German for black pudding), an Italian group operating on the fringes of drone and modern composition, while Voice Of The Seven Thunders’ Rick Tomlinson plays cornet on ‘Stone Comb’. A development for the band it may be, but the original ethos remains. "Personally I am still puzzling over the roles we could have with every new composition that arises," says Relleen, "in terms of what instruments we can find, what oddness of sound can we get out of them and how we will interact together once we’ve made those choices."

You have said that, after playing in a number of rock bands’ rhythm sections, you originally formed Tomaga as a kind of anti-band. Do you still think of it that way? How do you see this working out in practice?

VM: I guess that "anti-band" approach it is still relevant to describe how we start working as Tomaga but since then, it acquired a shape of its own. The ongoing joke was that Tomaga was a guitar-free project. Too many years of psych rock and punk music were shallowly summed up by the constant presence of the electric guitar. Ditching it made us feel instantly more inspired; we felt like we finally had more space, that same space that was there before but that doesn’t need to be filled all the time.

Tom Relleen: The anti-band thing was our attitude at the beginning, during which we made studio experiments that made our instruments sound ‘other’ as well as adopting a non-conventional approach to the roles we could have as musicians, namely taking all the lead instruments away and seeing what happened.

Did you approach recording this album differently to any of your previous releases? Whereabouts were the tracks recorded?

VM: We certainly did. When we recorded The Shape Of The Dance we knew that we wanted to record a new album. We had a few different recording sessions, in London and in Italy. Then we came back to East London after some intense touring activity and edited and compiled the tracks that we thought could represent our new sound. This wasn’t what we had in mind when we recorded Futura Grotesk, and even less with Familiar Obstacles, which is sometimes mistakenly addressed as our second album. Familiar Obstacles was a collection of the tracks and bits that didn’t make Futura‘s cut, originally released on a limited-run cassette by Blank Editions and then pressed onto vinyl.

TR: We had the luxury (or perhaps curse) of forethought when making this new record, whereas the previous releases were by-products of spontaneous experiments. Tracks like ‘A Perspective With No End’ and ‘The Shape Of The Dance’ evolved during live performances, which was a new process for us when it came to capturing them for posterity on a recording. We also collaborated with other performers on this record which was great.

There seems to be a lot of pretty inventive instrumentation on the record – namely metalwork found in the Italian countryside and a tin of lentils. Firstly, how was your trip combing for metals in Italy and secondly, how do you decide what makes the grade as an instrument?

VM: We’re both really fond of musique concrète and field recordings. Last year we went to Italy to perform and we decided to stay a little longer in Tuscany to explore the countryside and the beautiful wine. We brought our portable studio with us and engaged in endless walks in the wild. The result was very satisfying as we managed to record whatever we found outside. The metalwork was somehow really impressive – a 10m-long electric pole lying on the ground provided an excellent natural reverberation.

TR: Tuscany was full of inspiration. We recorded a huge amount of things in the landscape: metalwork, wasps, a tin of dried lentils, a wheelbarrow, springs, sacks of gravel, storms, trumpets that do not sound (courtesy of our friend Marco Baldini from Blutwurst). We took a snare into a derelict church and I recorded Valentina playing it from different parts of the building. Every musician should go out into the world with a highly sensitive recording device and see what they can get out of a place! In this way we extended the approach we already use on our instruments – of preparing them and making them sound ‘other’ so that we have to explore an unfamiliar palette when we play – to a place. We captured many different things and then selected those that had interesting character and tried to combine them, not always successfully. Many did not make the record but will no doubt appear in some future manifestation.  

How did the collaborations on the record come about? How did people such as Rick Tomlinson and Blutwurst, each with their own individual approaches, shape the way you made music?

VM: I met Rick through Tom and instantly worshipped his musical taste. He is an accomplished musician and extremely talented guy. We spent a few days in Yorkshire listening to his record collection and to some of his wonderful recordings [so] it came quite naturally to us to ask him to collaborate on one of the tracks. He plays cornet on a track called ‘Stone Comb’ on the album. It is a very strong, hypnotic number. I am very happy about how it turned out. Blutwurst for us were a total new universe. We met them during our trip in Tuscany. They are all qualified classical musicians with an endless knowledge of contemporary music – Luisa [Santacesaria], the harmonium player, works for Luciano Berio’s foundation. For us it was quite intimidating and challenging playing together and we were incredibly pleased with the result.

TR: I used to play bass in Rick’s band, Voice Of The Seven Thunders, and we regularly stay with Rick and his partner Alex in Todmorden when we go to northwest England. We spent several days there when we were playing shows in the northwest with Wire last year, coming back each night after the show and listening to records. We captured some of his cornet playing for that track after a conversation about the Italian producer Egisto Macchi, I think. Rick is working on a record that he played us bits of and it seemed like certain aspects of our taste were overlapping so that happened naturally. Rick has a couple of new records on the way soon, the first in many years, and we wait in great expectation to hear them.

I read that you think about the process of making your music in terms of collage. How much are you inspired by other art forms?


VM: I have a soft spot for some collagists and Dada artists. I never stop getting inspiration from the aesthetic approach of Hannah Höch, Kurt Schwitters, Duchamp. I found artistic completion in their love for paradox mixed with humour and surrealism. I would love to be able at some point to compare the music we do with the work of any of these artists!

TR: Cooking, if it can be considered an art form, which it should be, is also comparable. Just like cooking, in music you have to respect each ingredient for what it needs. Ingredients with bold, powerful flavours must be given space, otherwise the whole will be overpowering and unpalatable. Knowing your ingredients well and thinking hard about what to combine them with and developing your own taste are the primary things in both. Brutalist and modernist architecture is also an influence for both of us. We have an artist picture that is probably our favourite, taken in the Corbusier-designed friary in Sainte Marie de La Tourette near Lyon, which included some massive sculptures by Anish Kapoor in its interior. We frequently make detours to places like this when on tour, they really inspire us. 

A couple of the track titles, ‘Questionable Art In Public Spaces’ and ‘Four Ducks Dead’, seem to suggest interesting back stories – what are they referring to?

VM: Well indeed. Me and Tom have a strictly personal collection of pictures we took while touring of paintings, canvases, posters and sculptures that made us somehow think about the reason why they are there, hence ‘Questionable Art…’. It sounds a bit patronising I know, but it is more of a joke between us that started one day and is now a substantial archive of pictures. I can’t remember in which hotel we were but we spotted a huge – believe me when I say huge – framed canvas with an oil-painted group of Lego men (the spacemen kind) smiling happily while floating around some odd fantasy planet.

‘Four Ducks Dead’ is the tragic epilogue of a day of recording in Tuscany where we had to stop one of the sessions to search for four little ducks belonging to our hosts that went missing earlier in the day and were never found.

TR: I suspect those ducks ended up in the belly of a fox, perhaps whilst we were playing that music. It was an intensely humid day and we walked around for hours looking for them. We might unveil the "Questionable Art…’ archive on a future blog sometime!  

Perhaps I’m wrong but the title of The Shape Of The Dance seems to suggest a pair of supposed opposites: shape as in a coherent, pre-structured form and dance as something spontaneous, an always-in-the-making performance. Is that a fair assessment? And did this play into the recording itself – was there an element of you trying to find a balance between perfectionism and spontaneity?

VM: You know what, I never thought about this meaning but I find it incredibly accurate. When we named the album we just liked it as a title but I love all the lateral meanings that people attribute to it. You can definitely find both elements. I would even dare state that in Tomaga, Tom is the perfectionist and I am the spontaneous element. 

TR: I’m not sure if the two forces are exactly perfectionism and spontaneity! (I see myself more as quality control.) But this is an interesting topic, since for me when making a recording, creatively, there are the states of what you have made vs what you could have made, and since most of our recorded music is improvised and then manipulated to varying degrees towards some end, that duality is a manifest reality. This manipulation could go on infinitely in search of something like perfection, but perfection is impossible, so ultimately you’ve got this creation, and you’re trying to shape it, to feel the shape of something, never quite knowing what it is, until suddenly it has a form and a shape and it exists but part of me doesn’t want it to stop being malleable, but at the same time you have to let go. Whatever you want to call those forces, for me it’s about the state in which neither force ever quite overcomes the other, and that state of tension is the place to be. It’s like an altered state. So the title fits this process at the very least.

For a band where live performance is key, how do you find the recording process? Do you try to opt for single takes over overdubs? And how do you know when the record’s complete?

VM: Usually there is a strong idea to start with and we take it from there. It can be a sound, a beat, a drone… anything really. Then if we are not happy with the way it has been recorded at first we will recreate it. Overdubbing is something I like doing, especially adding polyrhythmic solutions. The stage of the recording process I enjoy less is the technical side of it that requires sitting down in front of a computer. My mind is quite often somewhere else then. We don’t know exactly when a track is complete – I guess it is something that you feel rather than know?

TR: As described above, the studio experience has become an almost mystical experience for me sometimes, in which the alchemy of elements in a track, and indeed of tracks making an album, is an emotionally-charged balancing act without a clear goal or limit, and actually ends up being much like the improvisational brain state, in which you have to trust your instincts and keep working until the whole becomes apparent. Of the tracks on this record, some were made as single takes and appeared fully formed, whereas some were made via absurdly convoluted experiences that involved work, anguish and moments of paralysing doubt. I struggled a bit to reach a moment where I knew this record was complete and let go but I’m happy it happened since now we’re on to the next things.

The Shape Of The Dance is out now on Hands In The Dark. Tomaga support Cavern Of Anti-Matter at Dingwalls in London tomorrow, before playing Meakusma Festival in Eupen, Belgium on September 23; Liverpool Festival Of Psychedelia, 24, and Cafe OTO in London, w/ Blutwurst, on December 16; for full details and tickets, head here

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