The big review: ArcTanGent 2023
Heilung, Converge, Devin Townsend and many more hit Fernhill Farm for four days of artistic celebration and musical madness at ArcTanGent Festival…
In the eye of a New Year winter, each morning Eva Korman set to work recording vocals for Rolo Tomassi. As snow blanketed the ground, for three full weeks she turned herself inside out in search of the perfect rasp, or the gentlest melody, for the collection of brand new songs that comprise Where Myth Becomes Memory, the group’s sixth studio album. On some days the weather was so inclement that not even the train, let alone the family Prius, could beat a safe path to the studio’s vocal booth.
As if this weren’t quite enough, her bandmates were three thousand miles away. Two-and-quarter years after moving to Bergen County, in northern New Jersey, by the opening month of 2021, global circumstances demanded that Eva record her vocals at Brady Street Recordings – a compact facility in the small town of Waldwick. As she clocked in at noon, five time zones to her east the other members of Rolo Tomassi – keyboardist (and brother) James Spence, drummer Al Pott, bassist Nathan Fairweather and guitarist Chris Cayford – were wrapping up their day’s recording at The Ranch, in Southampton. Singing into a void, by the time Eva finished her shift, eight hours later, her colleagues in England were safely tucked up in bed.
“Initially, the plan was for me to fly back to England,” she says. “We had been waiting and waiting and waiting to see what was going to happen. The guys had studio time booked in early January of this year, so that was the plan; they’d had the studio booked in for months and we were hoping that I would get back. But they hadn’t lifted any of the [travel] restrictions. They’d just started rolling out the vaccine at the time but things were still so up in the air. We knew we were ready to start recording. We knew we had to begin moving forward.”
At the start of the year, it had been almost 18 months since Eva last saw her bandmates, or her family in England. The last time Rolo Tomassi had played music together in the same physical space was during an appearance at the Radar Festival, in Guildford, in the summer of 2019. “It’s the longest time we’ve gone without playing a show since we were about 13,” James says. “Playing gigs and being part of that environment has been part of our lives for coming up 20 years.”
It is, then, surely no wonder that a sense of dislocation haunts the corridors of Where Myth Becomes Memory. It can be intuited on album opener Almost Always – ‘there’s more than miles between us’ – and on closing track The End Of Eternity (‘What if my days were all misspent? What if I don’t see you again?’). On a perfect planet the LP’s themes of rebirth and renewal would be resplendent in and of themselves; they wouldn’t need caveat or qualification. But given the world in which we’re actually living, the question of ‘reborn from where, and into what?’ is unavoidable. Asked to describe Drip, the record’s second single, just released, Eva says that “in the last couple of years we were all forced to sit down alone with ourselves. We were all stuck on our own dealing with what happened in the world… trying to navigate through having to sit with yourself, to be in that space and having to address things that perhaps you’re normally distracted from.”
Fittingly, the interview for Rolo Tomassi’s first ever Kerrang! cover feature is a very modern affair. Linked by – what else? – laptop computers, James speaks from his home on the Sussex coast while Eva beams in from New Jersey.
Of our two interviewees, it is James who is at first the most immediately voluble. As one might expect from a woman who has just been asked to talk about having been a very young performer in the days before #MeToo – “I was a teenager,” she says, “so, yeah, it was very, very challenging, and that’s the reality of it… every woman I know in the music industry has a story to tell” – his sister picks her words with greater care. In eight hours’ time, she will board a red-eye bound from Newark International Airport to Heathrow. Four days later, in a rehearsal space in Brighton, the five music makers will convene to perform the songs from Where Myth Becomes Memory together for the very first time.
“There were times when it felt like we were doing all this work to put out a record [when] we didn’t know when it was going to come out, or if we could tour it,” James says. “There was no light at the end of the tunnel in the conventional sense of writing, recording, releasing and touring. It was very much like, ‘Well we’ll work on it, and we’ll just keep working on it…’ I suppose that was empowering in a way because in the past there’s maybe external and internal pressure that you put on yourself because you’ve got to reach a deadline that is fitted by a campaign that it has to be a part of. But with this we just kept going until we were happy with it. There was no guarantee that we were going to be able to do anything with it, initially, so we could just stick [at it] until we were ready to go.”
Their story began in the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire. In the years before the group sold out and moved to Sussex, for the first decade of the 21st Century Rolo Tomassi could be found kicking about the dives and hives of South Riding looking to make a name for themselves. They were contemporaries of Bring The Horizon, whose singer, Oli Sykes, grew up in Stocksbridge, the same small dwelling that James and Eva call their hometown. At James’ invitation, on February 18, 2005, Sykes’ band agreed to headline a concert at the Classic Rock Bar in Sheffield that doubled up as Rolo Tomassi’s first-ever appearance before a paying audience. The bar has since been knocked down, but, sixteen years on, both groups continue to motor. In an experience he describes as “one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen”, as the UK sputtered back into life, at the end of September James took a seat in the O2 Arena to watch in wonder as Bring Me The Horizon wowed 20,000 Londoners on the final date of their recent British campaign.
“It made me feel emotional how much I enjoyed it,” he says. “I’d not seen them play for a very long time… I think that’s the biggest show I’ve been to since live music came back. I think it was a combination of seeing them in such a big venue and [remembering] seeing them upstairs at the Cricketers, across the road from Brammall Lane [in Sheffield], which was their third ever show, or whatever it was at that time. It was really, really overwhelming and I felt very emotional. I was sat with my girlfriend and I was trying to explain it to her. This feeling of immense pride that I had for them. It was awesome.”
Are you not even a little bit jealous of their success?
“No,” says James. “That’s their world. They were always going to be that big. The star quality that band has, they were destined for those kinds of things. And I think our band has trodden a different path.”
And it is a different path, too. While Bring Me The Horizon have risen to become one of a vanishingly small number of domestic 21st Century rock acts capable of filling vast arenas, Rolo Tomassi remain a more select proposition. At least part of this, surely, is by design; the group’s music is often challenging, and pleasingly difficult to categorise. One minute it’s kicking about in the same sandbox as Converge, the next the band sound like they ought to be keeping company with King Crimson, or Porcupine Tree.
With a measure of pride, James reveals that Rolo have only ever toured in a van, never a bus. Without wishing to be indelicate, Kerrang! wonders aloud whether or not the music earns its authors a living? Turns out that it doesn’t. To pay the bills, Eva manages the boutique and online store Hunt & Orchard, in Westwood, New Jersey, a job she says she loves. Down on the English Channel, James works as a freelance concert promoter rep and booking agent. The final part of an ersatz trilogy in which Grievances (2015) and Time Will Die And Love Will Bury It (2018) are the first two instalments, with a dash of likeable self-deprecation the keyboardist describes Where Myth Becomes Memory as “our latest swing at world domination”.
“We all work full-time around what we do with this [band],” says Eva. “I feel that balance is a lot healthier and more comfortable, for me personally. I love still doing [music] and I feel like… writing this record was just something that we all needed at the end of last year. We needed that creative outlet. I feel that we’re all very much committed to what we’re doing with [the group] but for me on a personal level, it’s not something that I want to be all-encompassing. I want it to be something I enjoy. And making space for it is better than it being this all-consuming thing that you rely on. I think that could suck what I enjoy out of it.”
James Spence has a rather nifty soundbite for his group’s modus operandi. “While we’re not full-time musicians, this is a full-time commitment,” he says. “That’s kind of how we see it. We’re lifers at this point. It’s been a literal lifetime. And I do feel it’s a big part of me and who I am. But I think we’ve always had other things that we do alongside it. It contributes in so many ways to what we do. We need the balance between the two things for them both to work. That’s how I feel about it personally, and I know that I need the rest of my life the way that it is, and for there to be that [sense of] order, to have the drive and passion to do this.
“It keeps us honest,” he says, “and it stops us from being cynical.”
Without very much prompting, James proceeds to give Kerrang! a good 10 minutes of material on the merits of being a part-time musician. Catching himself in mid-flow, he laughs lightly and says “maybe I’m trying to find positives in the fact that it isn’t a full-time thing, but I like the fact that we have other things in our lives. I like that it isn’t just this.”
The keyboardist’s self-consciousness is as endearing as it is unnecessary. With recorded music being all but worthless for everyone bar a highly select number of top-tier artists, not to mention a ruinous planetary pandemic, any band in possession of a record deal, or enough momentum to head out on a national tour (as Rolo Tomassi will do in the new year) can justifiably describe themselves as rock stars. Given that it’s difficult to imagine either James or Eva uttering these words, certainly they should feel at liberty to call themselves professional musicians.
“I always found there was something super exciting and romantic about being in a band,” James says. “In travelling and performing. I don’t know, I just always loved playing music… and when I started getting into heavier stuff, into punk and hardcore, I would start to go to other cities and make friends and feel that I’d found my people. I looked at bands that were touring and thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I was identifying with something even though I didn’t necessarily know what that thing was. I just wanted to feel part of something that I was enjoying. I think that when we were at home and we were 15 and 16 and 17, I was just so enthralled by everything that was coming through. All the gigs that I was going to see. I just felt that something was happening that I wanted to be a part of. It started there.”
Back then, James and Eva would go to see American bands visiting the north of England. They’d cross the Pennines to see Thrice and Thursday at the University of Manchester; they’d head into Sheffield to see Alkaline Trio perform at the Leadmill. Eva would buy albums and sit studying the words to the songs printed on the inner sleeve. These days, Rolo Tomassi’s principal lyricist flinches reflexively when asked to provide literal translations of some of her most recent songs. It’s the only part of our interview that doesn’t go anywhere.
“I really don’t like going too deep into [the lyrics],” she says, as if the very idea were like allowing sunlight to intrude on magic. “I like leaving it open to interpretation. I think a wonderful thing about lyrics is that if you don’t know the exact meaning of a song you can apply it to whatever you might need from it.”
There is, though, another measure of magic, and specialness, about Rolo Tomassi’s operation. As quietly sensitive as James may be about the group being a flexi-time concern, its members have been able to use this latitude as a means of embracing adulthood without losing touch with the wonder of making music. They haven’t worked themselves into a state of jadedness out on the road; unlike hundreds of others, they haven’t grown tired and sick of their own creation. The first principles of making music are still there, within easy reach. According to Eva, Where Myth Becomes Memory is “the most complete record we’ve ever done. There’s no missed opportunities… we got the absolute most that we could out of the recording process”.
With no small measure of heft, James says that being a member of Rolo Tomassi “is something that means the world to me. I don’t think I’d have done it for so long if it wasn’t so crucial,” he says. “It’s a part of us. I’m not sure whether I’m an extension of the band or whether the band is an extension of me. But it is a huge, huge part of my life, and it continues to occupy a really important space… So it’s now about getting out and bringing the new record to life; letting it become its own thing when we are playing it live and seeing how it grows. Seeing how we grow as a band and as people, I suppose. I’m just really, really excited. More than ever, I’m just so excited for this opportunity we have.
“I’m ready for this next step.”
Where Myth Becomes Memory is out February 4 via eOne. Pre-order your copy now.
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