Vocalist and synth player, James Spence, of mathcore experimental band, Rolo Tomassi Tom Pennance about the essence of the live gig, their recent £5 ticket tour and the band’s own record label, Destination Moon.
What were Rolo Tomassi doing eight years before you made what you are today?
We stared messing around with it when we were 15 and I’ve played in bands when I was 13 playing guitar mainly. Eva [Spence, James’ sister] and I were in a band with our old guitarist Joe and it just kind of came to it’s natural conclusion that some of us were more into it than others and it stopped being fun. We started getting into heavier music and we wanted to make something that was reflecting the music we were listening to at the time. So myself, Eva and Joe joined up with Ed and Joe started a band because we started listening to heavier and weirder music.
What were those influences?
At the time, it was bands like The Locust, The Sixth, Converge; bands like that were the ones that stuck out to me at the time.
Are they still bands that you listen to now?
Maybe not as much. I still listen to Converge a lot and they are evolving making great records. I listen to those bands from time to time but it’s not in heavy rotation with what I am listening to.
You’ve said a few times that the new album, Astraea is more direct and accessible. Was that the aim going into making the album or just an outcome?
I think it was just an outcome of what we were doing. We had a bit of a break when both Joes left. Even in the last six months of being a band we weren’t really doing that much. So I think everyone was like working and because we weren’t touring, the way that it came out was more direct and heavy I think. I think it was frustration of not being around the music. Whereas, Cosmology [the band’s second album] was a bit more weird and experimental. I think that’s because we toured so hard and we were constantly surrounded by heavy music, we wanted to make something different. Whereas with this, I don’t want to say back to basics, but it was a lot of pent up energy because we’d been away from it for so long.
Possibly the frustration of touring has gone into Cosmology instead?
So, you’ve got a quite a technical nature of the music, is there ever a temptation to keep adding to songs to make them bigger than keeping them as separate tracks?
When something’s finished, it feels right. But, we are not afraid to mess around in practice and really push our gears and the limits of what we are doing because it’s fun and that’s the best part of writing music. Sometimes you know if it’s too much or not enough.
When you were recording the new album, were you thinking about the live reception of tracks or was it more to make a great sounding album?
I think in the past we’d kind of inhibited ourselves to think that there were certain elements that we couldn’t recreate live. And now I see the studio output and live as two very different things. And if we have to do things slightly different when playing live then I’m kind of more for that because if you just go to see a band when you may as well have listened to the CD, then what’s the point in that? There has got to be variations to make things interesting. So, with the new album, we really went all out to make it the best sounding we could. There is one song that we can’t really play live because the pedal changes are just too much. It’s called Gloam. We’ve tried it live before and it just doesn’t quite work. It’s kind of cool to have challenges to play live though. It keeps it interested.
The band recorded Cosmology in California. For the new record, you recorded it in Nottingham and a lot of it at your house. How was that working and living there?
By the end, it was a bit much. It got pretty stressful because you can’t escape it. It was a really cool experience doing it the way we did but I wouldn’t want to do it again. There was one point where we had to record the guitar in the dining room and we’d isolated the guitar cab down in the basement. There was one incident where it was really fucking bad rain and our basement flooded. Fortunately, it was elevated and nothing got damaged. However, there was really stagnant water down there so we had to move the guitar cab to my bedroom. So, I’d get in from working, and not be able to have any of my own space and you couldn’t get away from it. When it got to that stage, it was like “this was such a shit idea”. But saying that, I don’t think we could have made this record any other way. The end has justified the means.
Was it hard to switch off if you were constantly surrounded by it?
Yes, like I would wake up and people would be recording. I think that sometimes you need to go away and come back with fresh ears to make sure you’re hearing stuff right. Sometimes I just had to leave the house. We did guitar, bass and some of the keyboards in Nottingham. Then we went back up to Sheffield, because Eva was still living at home then, and did vocals and the rest of the music at my parent’s house. It was kind of nice because we were moving locations and we were having breaks in between.
The headline tours you’re doing at the moment are all £5 shows. How did that decision come about?
It’s something we’ve thought about for a while. It was more “why aren’t we doing this?”. It worked for everyone involved. We wanted more people to come to our shows, so if the cost is less, hopefully more people will be interested. I think that the inflation on the costs of going to shows has just been mental and without people actually getting anymore for their money. I was looking at tickets I bought when I was younger and a ticket for a 1000 people venue was £7. Now you’re looking at £15 with a booking fee. But the gig is still the same, there’s nothing different about it. For us, it’s mainly getting more people to come to our shows and making it more affordable for them to do so. Nowadays, if you want to go to a gig, depending on whether you drink or want to buy merch, you’re looking at upwards of £50. If you want to go to more than one gig a month, I know I don’t have the disposable income to do that so why should everyone else? There’s so much competition because everyone tours at the same periods of time in the year and it’s our way of getting people to come to the shows.
I guess that represents how a lot of record shops are closing down so there’s more emphasis on the live gigs.
Exactly, there’s still no substitute for going to see a band, you can’t just download the whole atmosphere of the show.
You’re playing and curating Tramlines festival in Sheffield again this year and they’ve started charging now at around £6. What do you think of that?
I don’t think there’s any festival in the world that can offer you what Tramlines can for £6 so it’s shame they’ve got to start charging but it’s unavoidable. The cost is there but it’ll still be a wicked festival. We are really happy they keep asking us back to curate the stage and we’re happy to do it whilst we think we can put together cool and interesting line ups. We are still really involved with that and the day that we play the stage, we book the bands. It’s just cool to have one date a year where we know we are playing and where our families live.
You are really pro-active in the music industry and you have recently started your own record label, Destination Moon. How is that going?
It’s going well. It’s nice being able to do everything under our own steam and make sure everything comes off exactly as we intend it to. If anything fuck’s up, we only have ourselves to blame. The main issue at the moment is money as we don’t really have any and I’d love to be putting stuff out by other bands and working with them.
Have you got anyone signed to the label?
It’s not so much a signed thing. We put records out for bands; we did a 7-inch for a band called Holland and another for a Nottingham band called Kappa Gamma who we are really big fans of. We’ll definitely look at working with other bands in the future and it’s about finding the right bands. I don’t want to start putting stuff out for the sake of it. With Kappa, they were a band that I really like and wanted to do something with and thought we could help out just because we’ve been doing this for so long now and we are in a position where we can champion certain bands; to give them a platform to speak from. It’s a cool position to be in and support bands we actually like.
Whilst you’re on tour, what are the bands treats? What do you do to have fun?
We like going out and enjoy having a drink. We play a lot of football when we can and have a ball with us in the van. We are all big footy fans and several of us play for teams at home. We are really lucky that we enjoy each other’s company so much that we can just sit around and hang out. It’s one of the nicest things about being in this band; spending time with your friends.
Interview conducted by Tom Pennance.