Rolo Tomassi Have Been Subverting the Conventions of Heavy Music for a Decade, Largely Unnoticed
Eva Spence may be out the front, emptying her lungs to thousands of people, but she's maintained a low profile since joining the band at just 14 years old.
There’s a young woman who lives by the sea. She spends her days sewing together cushion covers and bunting in her room. When her boyfriend comes home from tour, they listen to Hans Zimmer in the kitchen and cook, following vegan recipes together. And when she's not doing that, she releases guttural rage into a microphone, thrashing around, spinning off across the stage and throwing each limb outwards with enough force to rip tissue fibres. It’s a way to let all the anxieties built up during the week slip away back into the sea; the calms and storms constantly counterbalancing one another.
Eva Spence is an essential but understated figure in the British heavy scene. She was only 14 when she joined Rolo Tomassi, her brother, James’ experimental mathcore band. She started on keyboards but stepped up to do vocals after the band had trouble finding the right singer. Today, she’s 25 and both she and her brother remain in the band—serious longevity in a scene with a constantly revolving door of new names. But the male dominated musical landscape they stepped into ten years ago has been unchanging, and Rolo Tomassi remain one of the only heavy bands in the UK fronted by a woman, alongside Vales and, in a more commercial sense, Marmozets.
Despite the importance of Eva and her band, she remains a mystery. She might be out the front, emptying her lungs to thousands of people, but she keeps press and the life invasion that goes along with being in a decent-sized band at bay. You won’t see many quotes attributed to her. “I’ll be totally honest with you—nothing aimed at you—I just really don’t enjoy it,” she admits. “I find interviews nerve-wracking. I’m actually not a hugely confident speaker. I know that it is part and parcel of being in a band, though...”
By being in such a niche band, she’s been able to lay low for all these years. I wonder if some of that reserve comes from being a private person. She agrees. “Definitely. I think I always have been. Some people want to be in a band to be the front person. I just wanted to make music with my friends. I’ve always loved writing with friends and getting to go away with them and perform that.” But you can be sure that what she withholds publicly, she exercises through Rolo Tomassi.
If their last album Astraea was positive and light, then the new album, Grievances, is its dark sister . The album art shows an illustrated sea in turmoil, rain falling; fairly representative of what’s offered. The staple songs are more melodic than previous material, furious with grief, mathy, frenetic and as desperate as first single Stage Knives. These are broken up by beautiful, chilling refrains on piano and violin more akin to the kind of stuff you’d expect from an ambient artist like Grouper rather than a band formerly described as "Nintendocore." It’s an unsettling listen. The album ends with the words “I am not nowhere” and “We can’t be loved as we are” repeated alongside unearthly synths, sending the listener into a blank, comfortless space. It’s certainly the soundtrack they wanted to make.
Eva wouldn’t share what those lines are about. Or any of them, in fact. They’re personal. Or rather: “They’re confessional in the darkest sense of it.” Spilling her experiences into lyrics has been like a diary since they started the band. “Look at any of our lyrics and you’ll find my life. Maybe.” Giving no hint at content doesn’t take from the work because the beauty of Tomassi lyrics is their expansive quality. The themes are evident but as clear as each phrase is, their Greek epic quality leave them hanging in the air. If you want to do more than just let them punch you into darkness, you’re forced to decide what they mean.
Although Eva writes a lot of the lyrics herself, sometimes her and James work as a duo. “He’d come down to Brighton on this record to go through songs. If there was a line or section of a song we weren’t happy with we’d go through it together.” But even working so intimately together, the secrets remain. “Some lyrics on the record, me and James haven’t shared what they’re about. It’s a don’t ask, don’t tell thing,” she says, quietly. “We have a good understanding. We wouldn’t pry.”
If you’ve seen Rolo perform you might have been surprised to see Eva walk on wearing a skirt or blouse. Her movements onstage, while thrashing and aggressive, are balletic and graceful in their anger. She cuts a similar figure to Meredith Graves of Perfect Pussy in embodying a soft image in a hard environment. There’s something inspiring in the fact she’s not compromised her femininity to do something still considered masculine. In essence, she’s remained very much her own person, operating outside of a scene and its typical conventions.
She’s friendly, shy but approachable, and entirely relatable. She may not want to talk about herself, but she is happy to talk about is the new direction Rolo is taking. “Things are different now. In the past, our writing has been geared towards musical showmanship and trying to be technical and see how far we can push that,” she says. “But this time around, we focused on writing something that is more emotionally engaging. We wanted it to sound very much like a soundtrack.”
When Rolo arrived back from a tour at the end of 2013, Eva moved to Brighton and drummer Ed decided he didn’t want to do it anymore. (“He’s a very old friend of mine and it just wasn’t for him anymore. We’re still very good friends.”) With Eva now by the sea in Brighton, the rest of the band in Nottingham, a new drummer in tow, and a different vision knocking around in their brains, the band began to form Grievances.
“Grievances has come from a grimmer place,” Eva admits. “We’d had a difficult year personally. And everything we’ve ever written about has come from personal experience. When we wrote Astraea, we felt so positive. It was euphoric to reflect what we were feeling at the time. But while we took a lot of time off before this album, there was so much changing around us.”
Rolo Tomassi is a band that has never quite reached the levels of commercial success they deserve. This could be because they’ve never compromised on being an independent band. It could be because interviews have been sparse and the music world loves a mouthpiece. Perhaps things could be different this time. Grievances surpasses previous albums in raw feeling. They’ve signed to Mike Patton’s label Ipecac Recordings for US and Japan releases, while the brilliant independent London-based hardcore label Holy Roar, who’ve worked with bands like Employed To Serve and Gallows will do their UK release June 1st. And Eva’s ready for more press this time around: “This interview can be my practice.”
Beyond the summer tour dates, Eva’s plans for the year are exactly the same as her plans for forever: keep screaming on stage, keep writing poetry, and keep living by the sea. Because together those three things are what keep her in perfect harmony. Anyway, she’s been doing it for a decade largely unnoticed. Why would anything change?
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