Interview: Eternal Light – Rolo Tomassi

Rolo Tomassi

“I want people to realise that persistence and dedication to your art will yield results”

Upon its theatrical release in 1940, Walt Disney’s ‘Fantasia’ captivated the hearts and minds of a global viewing audience. It’s exquisite display of rich animation, flourishing colour and dreamlike spectacle tied together by a richer orchestral soundtrack broke new ground in animated film, proving that taking creative risks and defying any convention always pays off. In 2018, when this spirit sometimes feels absent in our culture, an album like Rolo Tomassi’s ‘Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It’ is a reminder that the ‘Fantasia’ mindset is still the catalyst to exceptional works of art.

A day before the release of ‘Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It’, Already Heard spoke to Rolo Tomassi’s synthesiser player and chief songwriter James Spence to learn more about the magic that went into the album’s creation. A body of work that swings on the pendulum between delighting listeners with angelic melodies and drowning listeners like an army of wooden brooms armed with buckets of dense hardcore cacophony can’t just be created overnight, after all. “I think this record draws in influence from every record we’ve ever done, I think it’s the most comprehensive Rolo record. It’s the one that’s most representative of what I’ve always wanted our band to sound like,” James explains, offering his thoughts of the record’s overall sound.

“I think that just comes down to getting better at writing music with the people that I write with, and just having the luxury of time to do it. We were in no great rush to turn this one around. We’re not like a budget band that has to put out another record immediately, so we just really took our time with it, and refined it and made sure we had something that we were really really proud of and ready to put out there.”

The last time Rolo Tomassi beguiled us, it was with the feral and funereal ‘Grievances’, which brought with the announcement of the band’s development into a more mature defined unit, who no longer relied on the shock value of sporadic genre switches mid-song and 8-bit synthesiser assault, but could write songs that made a connection with listeners, even if that connection was via a headlock. The band knew they had to keep that up on ‘Time Will Die…’ but also wanted to leave listeners with more than just rage and melancholy.

“It’s easy to switch between writing darker music and writing poppier sounding music,” James admits. “I know that lyrically, it was a bit more challenging for Eva [Spence, vocals]. She handled 90 per cent of the lyrics this time round, whereas in the past, it’s been a bit more of a split between me and her, but I wanted to focus on writing the music this time around. It was a slightly different frame of mind that we had to get into, but as time went on and we got more invested in it, everything came really naturally, nothing was forced and I think the result is quite honest sounding music and lyrics.”

Taken from a poem by postmodern writer Richard Brautigan, James heard the phrase ‘Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It’ and knew it had to be the title of the next Rolo Tomassi album. “It was something that I had picked out and really liked, and I had to convince everyone that this was the right thing to call the album, and with that in mind, we took the keywords from the title as the overarching themes,” he explains. “Things like time, love, death and grief. We’re not the kind of band that have traditionally written love songs before, and there is definitely that sort of element to it.

“Specifically, I talk about the song ‘A Flood of Light’ which is the only track that I wrote lyrics for,” James elaborates. “I wanted to write something that was a tribute to friendship and the people who are close to me in my life. It was just a big ‘thank you’ song to all these people who I have around me, who are there when I need them to be, and it wasn’t difficult, it was just different to write something like that.”

‘A Flood of Light’ is a track that James takes particular pride in, not just for his lyrical input but also for its sprawling and expansive musicianship that brings the song to life. “I think there’s a stark contrast between the first half of it, really quite heavy and dark emotional track, then there’s this grand melodic flourish at the end. I would almost say it’s quite uplifting at the end and that for me is the perfect embodiment of the whole record, finding the balance between the dark and the light,” he explains. “I think we were successfully able to do that. I think that that would be a song that I would show to anybody that didn’t know our band, and show them what we’re capable of.”

Though ‘Time Will Die…’ constantly gleams with colorful and spectral backdrops that sound otherworldly, James insists that these grand works all spawn from humble origins. “A lot of the keyboard parts I wrote mostly on a piano, and I believe you can make that work with just a really simple piano sound, and then you choose the right synthesiser patch, which elevates it,” James says. “A lot of thought went into what I was doing in terms of how the keys would affect each individual song, and it’s just a case of making sure it can work in the simplest of terms and then just taking it from there and developing it, developing it, developing it until you’re finally happy with it.”

With more time to work on the record’s creation, each member – James, Eva, Chris Cayford (guitar), Nathan Fairweather (bass) and Tom Pitts (drums) would consistently and comprehensively work on demos, tightening every loose screw and sending them back and forth. “We’d be recording stuff at home [in Brighton] then sending it to Chris in Nottingham and he’d be doing the same back to us. Doing that in the writing process means you’re constantly refining what you’re doing, going over everything with a fancy comb and just making sure that we’re all super happy with it.”

As a unit, Rolo Tomassi’s greatest strength is to both bring out the most creative flair in each member, but simultaneously not allow that flair to spiral into self-indulgence. “With the vast amount of styles that we put together, it can be really easy to overdo things and for things to be too disparate, so we take a lot of care and attention in making sure things just work,” James says. “And it’s easy to tell when things aren’t working, even when we’re in the studio, we’ll be trying things, you can spend a couple of hours on something and then come back to it and think ‘yeah, that sounds shit,’ and delete it.”

Indulgent it is not, but ‘Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It’ utilises its intricate musicianship and arranges it into one cohesive body of work. Each track continues and builds from the emotional bombshell left by the one before it, and for James, this was the precise effect Rolo Tomassi were looking for. “Something I’ve obsessed with over the past couple of years between writing ‘Grievances’ and this, is the idea of soundtracks, and that’s something I’d absolutely love to do is; to write a soundtrack for something,” he declares. “For me, I’d like to consider the way we approach the structure of the record is like soundtracking a film or a book or something.”

Paired with intro track ‘Towards Dawn’, ‘Aftermath’ exemplifies this journey approach perfectly. Upon first listen, it’s a rush of pure euphoria, punctuated by uplifting keyboard passages and eruptive guitar hooks creating anthemic choruses. A little further down the line, an understanding of the darkness and chaos that follows it gives the song a sense of departure, a final look at flowers and blue skies before embarking on a descent that takes you face-to-face with the Chernabog itself. “It’s more than just writing an album, and I think the way that the ‘Towards Dawn’ goes into ‘Aftermath’ to me has this cinematic feel to it, and the way it comes back round to the light at the end of the record, finishing with ‘Risen’ almost has kind of a cyclical feel,” James says. “It was completely intentional for it to feel that way, with the tracklisting and structure of the album that the listener would have that in mind.”

On penultimate track ‘Contretemps’, the song’s buildup into a fragile piano melody during its outro can be interpreted as James’ aforementioned moment of coming back round to the light at the record’s end. Paired with Eva’s whispered lull, it resembles a return to sanity, making it out in one piece once the destruction has passed. “We actually tried the ending of that song in so many different ways”, he explains. “To begin with it was really heavy, and it just didn’t work at all. It ended up sounding really cheesy, almost like Muse at their most pompous, and it just didn’t do the rest of the song any justice whatsoever.

“So again, as I was saying earlier, just putting it into its simplest terms and playing the melody on a piano, we realised this is how it was written and this is how it’s most impactful, and in the context of the song, this is just how it sounds best.”

On previous Rolo Tomassi records, a section like the outro of ‘Contretemps’ may have served as an interlude between two other songs, but the band made a conscious effort to fit these moments into full songs, altering entire tracks to make space for one idea if they had to. “For us, it was really important to build those moments into songs, and I think that’s probably why we ended up with some of the longest, most progressive material that we have within this record,” James says. “But I think the results speak for themselves.”

“We’ve made a record that we’re incredibly proud of and I want as many people to hear it as possible”

In particular, the results of ‘Time Will Die…’ reflect Rolo Tomassi’s decade of progression and improvement as songwriters since the 2008 release of their debut album ‘Hysterics’. “It feels like a different life we’re in now,” James says, reflecting on their advancement from Apprentices to Sorcerers of modern metallic hardcore. ”‘Grievances’ almost feels like a debut album, and this just is the follow-up to that, but that record kind of reset everything for us in a really good way.

“Not that I really needed my enthusiasm renewed for it, but seeing how the new material has been doing, and seeing how people who were maybe on the fence about us before were starting to get on board, it proved to me that what we’re doing is the right decision.”

Without any trend-hopping or adapting their sound to fit the tight sub-genre regulations so many of their peers have stuck to, Rolo Tomassi have simply summoned bigger and bigger audiences towards their cauldron of metal, hardcore, electronica, post-rock and sporadic jazz influences without even trying to, and James is happy that a larger audience are willing to try their most magical potion to date. “We’ve made a record that we’re incredibly proud of and I want as many people to hear it as possible and we can play to as many people as we can, so if that’s what happens and that’s the result of all of this and ten years worth of work, then I’ve got my arms wide open.”

Just as Walt Disney believed ‘Fantasia’ to be timeless and capable of showing in theatres long after his passing in 1966, ‘Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It’ is an album that exists as a cultural force to itself. It has no affiliations to a specific scene or genre and doesn’t rely on any trends to appeal to a bigger crowd. It’s a creation that will live on long after Rolo Tomassi are gone and in time, will be appreciated as the Fantasia of modern metal. “With everything I’ve we’ve ever made, I want people to feel about our music the way I feel about my favourite music. I want it to resonate with people emotionally, I want it to make people want to be creative,” James Spence concludes. “I want people to realise that persistence and dedication to your art will yield results.

“It’s taken ten years for us to write what I believe is the perfect Rolo Tomassi album, and that persistence to what you do and remaining honest should always be the key to anyone that considers themselves an artist.”

‘Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It’ by Rolo Tomassi is out now on Holy Roar Records.

Rolo Tomassi links: Website|Facebook|Twitter|Bandcamp

Words by Andy Davidson (@AndyrfDavidson)

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