“I like to be almost naive in terms of how I write heavy guitar music”: Rolo Tomassi guitarist Chris Cayford on keeping his sound unique

Chris Cayford discusses new album Where Myth Becomes Memory, shaping his sound through creative constraints, and why Rolo Tomassi aren’t as technical as you might think.

Chris Cayford originally joined Rolo over ten years ago ahead of their third album, Astraea, and has been a driving force in the evolution of the band, which culminated in the critically-acclaimed Time Will Die And Love Will Bury It back in 2018. Yet in all that time, he has remained something of an enigma; rarely appearing in interviews beyond a short quote. Quite frankly, we’d had enough of not knowing.

Though the release of sixth album Where Myth Becomes Memory is the hot topic of our conversation, we ask Chris to take us back to the beginning, specifically the moment he realised he’d be crucial in ushering in a new era of one of the most genre-defying bands on the scene.

“It’s quite weird because there really isn’t a guide on how to do that. Do I try and take the characteristics of Joe [Nicholson]’s playing (Rolo’s original guitarist until 2011)  and try to build from there? I think if you approach it like that, there’s only so far you can take your ideas and ultimately, you just sound like you’re trying to emulate someone else’s sound.

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“Plus Joe is an amazing guitarist, even back then, so trying to sound like him was never going to play into my hands, and that was the real watershed moment for when we were writing Astraea. I started to think about the elements that I liked on those first two records and how I could build off them in a way that felt authentic to me.”

Fans of Rolo will have a myriad of descriptors and superlatives for their style and we’d wager that ‘technical’ is pretty high on the list. Their technical proficiency is undeniable, but Chris is adamant that the truth is a little different.

“People always laugh when I say this, but Rolo is not that technical, it’s just disorienting. That was a big moment when I realised you can make the arrangements interesting or complex, but the guitar doesn’t necessarily have to be. I don’t want to be one of these people who spend a lot of time looking at what they’re playing – though there’s lots of great players who do. A band is the sum of its parts, it’s not just an individual. As soon as I understood that, I was like, ‘Okay I can do this’, and it flourished from there.”

Rolo Tomassi - Where Myth Becomes Memory

Shaking things up

Nine years on and that watershed moment has resulted in three records that have grown Rolo’s profile exponentially, but it was the most recent record, Time Will Die… that really shook things up.

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Densely packed with some of their most aggressive and expansive compositions, it was a product of everything that had come before it. Perhaps the most striking part of the album was Aftermath, a track that would not only catapult the band’s listenership but also lay the foundations for a new sound.

“Aftermath really changed what could be a Rolo Tomassi song and what we could write as a band,” he recalls. “I remember when we first started writing it and thinking, this is just a three-minute pop song and it’s going to go straight into Rituals, which is one of the most aggressive songs we’d ever written; is that going to work?”

It did work, and to date is their most streamed song on Spotify – though we wager there’s plenty of contenders for that title lying in wait on their new record. While some heavy bands tone down their sound to grow their fanbase, Aftermath was just part of their evolution.

“We’ve never sat down and actively said, ‘we need another clean song’, it just naturally happens. The whole band is a living, breathing thing. We can’t really control what it sounds like or what happens, everyone just plays a part in it. It really has a life of its own, and we just go where it takes us. We always want each album to have a broad soundscape and take listeners on a real journey – plus you can’t really have one clean song and nine super heavy ones!”

Rolo Tomassi
Image: Andy Ford

Taking their time

In their 15-plus-year history, Rolo Tomassi’s output has masterfully straddled the line between familiar and innovative. Each album carries their quintessential sonic DNA while still moving forward into new territory and Where Myth Becomes Memory is no different. Yet we can’t help but think that Time Will Die’s success was an ever-looming presence during the writing process. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“As soon as we finish a record I tend not to play guitar or listen to that record for a bit – I just need a little break from it. I’ll pick up the guitar intermittently, but it takes time just to break out of the muscle memory of the last record. Some might call it a rut, but I think it’s more about your playing being so refined. When it came to writing Where Myth Becomes Memory, rather than feeling any pressure to top Time Will Die…, we made sure not to intentionally rush anything.

“I wouldn’t bring ideas forward to the rest of the band unless I was really happy with them and I probably wrote more material that I didn’t use for this record than any other record that I’ve done.”

Chris Cayford of Rolo Tomassi
Image: Andy Ford

Narrowing the field

If you’re a fan of the band, it’s likely that you’re a fan of heavy music in general; a genre that’s been enjoying something of a renaissance in the last few years. The rise of sub-genres like djent and the prevalence of extended range guitars has transformed modern metal, with both positive and negative effects. While Where Myth Becomes Memory is overflowing with heavy tracks, Chris hasn’t succumbed to the world of Drop F♯ just yet.

“Before this album, we’d only ever tuned down to Drop D or just played in E standard,” he reveals. “Drip and some of the heavier tracks have the low E string tuned down to B, which really opened up the creative floodgates for me. We did get some comments when we dropped the new tracks saying, ‘are you a djent band now?’ I was like, ‘I’ve only gone down two tones, give me a break!’

“Personally, I’ve always enjoyed playing in standard; that’s just what a guitar is to me. I know lots of players experiment with alternate tunings and can create these really nice voicings, but personally I like to set myself a narrower field, otherwise it’s option paralysis.”

And what about the world of 7-strings and baritones we ask?

“I think no,” laughs Chris. “Not that they don’t sound fucking cool, but I’m stressed enough playing with six strings. Never say never though.”

There’s a lot to be said for creative constraints, and we can’t argue with Chris’ methods when he consistently delivers such unique playing, but it’s not just expansive tunings and extra strings that are off the table.

“I don’t really listen to heavy music anymore,” he admits. “I still enjoy it and I love going to see shows, but I’m not a massive devourer of new heavy bands. I often find if I do start listening to those bands too much it influences my guitar playing in a negative way. I like to be almost naive in terms of how I write heavy guitar music, so that it’s not following a particular trend and it’s simply its own thing.”

Creation in isolation

Unsurprisingly, Where Myth Becomes Memory was forged amidst the pandemic. Not only that, but lead vocalist Eva Korman had relocated to New Jersey. Smaller changes could be the undoing of a band, but for Rolo, it wasn’t all that dissimilar to their regular writing process.

Astraea was definitely an album of trying out ideas in a rehearsal room and seeing where they went, but as we’ve moved on and we’ve become more considered with our ideas, a lot of the initial writing process is done in isolation,” he explains. “We would all go away and work on something to a certain level before bringing it to the table.

“For me, I would write my parts, then programme drums and bass and get a few sections together before sharing it with the band and only at that point do we start to add other things. Prior to the pandemic we might have jumped into rehearsals a little sooner than we did and we could quite easily add the finishing touches there, but this time round we had to finish the songs outside of the rehearsal room.

“Really though, it hasn’t changed an awful lot, there’s just been slightly more emphasis on writing in our own time and bringing it to the rest of the band further down the line.

Rolo Tomassi
Image: Andy Ford

“With Eva’s vocals, our producer Lewis Johns had a plugin for Logic Pro X that would allow him to listen to Eva tracking vocals in the US and then he could suggest different approaches for new takes. We’d be asleep when all this was happening and in the morning we’d have all these fresh tracks to listen to. It was a weird way of doing things, but it actually turned out really well.”

Isolation, distance and a back catalogue of diverse material all weighed in on the creation of Where Myth Becomes Memory. With the release date fast approaching, it’s a time for one final moment of reflection before it stops belonging to the band and passes into the hands of the world. So, what does it mean for Chris?

“If you go back and listen to the records that I’ve been a part of, they’re all moving in their own different directions. We experimented a lot with Grievances, Time Will Die… and Astraea to a certain extent, but with this record, there’s more confidence to it and we’re not hiding behind experimentation.

“This is what Rolo Tomassi sounds like and these are the best songs that we’ve ever written.”

Where Myth Becomes Memory is out 4 February on eOne Heavy.

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