Rolo Tomassi's Chris Cayford: “If something sounds good, don’t worry about how many notes there are or what time signature it’s in. Just keep playing and experimenting”

Chris Cayford of Rolo Tomassi
(Image credit: Ellie Mitchell)

Though loosely rooted in the UK’s hardcore scene, there’s always been something conspicuously different about Rolo Tomassi. The Sheffield quintet’s music has never been easy to categorize, twisting elements of shoegaze, black metal and filmscore into their own seductive blend of heavy atmospheric noise – one potent enough to put just about kind of listener under its esoteric spell.

This year’s sixth album, titled Where Myth Becomes Memory, sees the group taking this idea further than ever before, adding to the ethereal dynamic range that gained them world recognition. For guitarist Chris Cayford, who joined in 2012, the new music reflects a sonic maturity that’s come naturally with time and a more refined balance between his six-string and the other instruments in the band…

“There hasn’t been too much change on this album, but it feels like the guitars sit differently than on our past ones,” he explains. “[2015 album] Grievances was pretty full-on, with the guitars at the front of the mix but since then I’d say they’ve started to compliment other things and sit better. 

“Me and our producer [Lewis Johns] always have a ridiculous time getting tones right for the records. And actually this new one has some of the heaviest tones I’ve ever used, as well as some of the weirdest and cleanest too, mixed in a way that sits better around what everyone else is doing.”

His live rig, however, has undergone a complete overhaul. With singer Eva Korman now based across the pond in New Jersey, the group will be operating with more of streamlined approach to their backline. Cayford’s days of traveling around with two amps running in stereo – or renting out the best things available in hope of dialing in his favorite tones – are now over…

“I used to have two Fender amps running in stereo, which weigh an absolute ton and aren’t as easy to fly with,” he shrugs.

“Our touring schedule is looking quite different now – we’ll be touring through more territories than ever so it’s just not feasible. I didn’t want to go places and hire amps that were totally different to what we wanted and took forever to get sounding right. So we’re moving towards a more streamlined live rig with Kempers that we take everywhere. It’s a big change on that front.”

The opening track on the new album, Almost Always, has some really interesting ambiences. What’s your secret to getting such dreamy sounds?

“I always have my delay and reverb on, especially with clean stuff. The best reverb I’ve heard is the Neunaber Immerse so I had to buy that. There’s a band called Cigarettes After Sex who have this super mellow sound and their guitarist uses a Parker Fly [electric guitar] into a similar Neunaber pedal, the Wet Stereo Reverb, for their own custom wet sound. 

“Their pedals toe the line between super-saturated reverb and something more direct, which is great, because sometimes those intense ambiences mean you don’t cut through. The Immerse almost sounds like there are two signals, with a clean reverb on the top and a deep swell underneath – it’s just so good. I also like to add in delay, usually something basic.”

As I’m the only guitarist in Rolo Tomassi, I can go a little bit overboard with effects and not worry about clashing with something else in the exact same spectrum

What kind of delay pedals do you tend to stick with?

“I’ve been through a whole bunch over the years but usually it’s something like a Boss DD-7. I like how delay before the reverb keeps the trail moving as you play and how one pedal can make the other react differently and jump out in certain places. 

“If you heard my clean sound on its own, you might think it’s too effected, but within the context of the band it works really well. As I’m the only guitarist, I can go a little bit overboard with those things and not worry about clashing with something else in the exact same spectrum.”

What kind of guitar players inspired these kinds of sounds?

“My main influences for clean tones are bands like Slowdive. They have some really tasteful use of all that stuff. They know how to use effects to compliment the songs and band in general, almost like effects are as much as instrument as anything else. I try to abide by that philosophy as much as possible. I also love Kevin Shields [My Bloody Valentine] because his sounds are always incredible.”

Chris Cayford

(Image credit: Ellie Mitchell)

Cloaked features one of the heaviest riffs on the album, with an octaver adding to its brutal intensity…

“That’s probably been the one constant sound I’ve had through the years, having a poly-octave generator. I’ve gone through a bunch of different ones, but this time it was the one built into the Kemper, which was used like a pedal going into a Diezel VH4.

“All pedals sound different. Maybe most people don’t notice it, but those of us who nerd out on this stuff can hear the nuances. I can tell the difference between a [TC Electronic] Sub ‘N’ Up and a Foxrox Octron. 

“I just know how the tones sound different. Some of them can be quite smooth-sounding, to the point where you almost don’t notice them, but we tend to prefer the ones that are a bit more gnarly and lo-fi, that have a certain fizz to them.”

It’s an odd-time riff, which is definitely something your band are known for…

“I don’t actually know the time signature for that one, in all honesty! We’ve gone so far down the route of playing in odd times, playing in 4/4 can feel quite odd to me! I tend not to think about the time signatures too much – I probably could work them out if I tried, but they change so quickly anyway it ends up being a whole bunch of different things.”

The guitarist who properly got me into playing was Stevie Ray Vaughan and he liked those rotary sounds. I found out what pedals he was using and of course had to buy every single one

Closer has some really interesting use of delay – almost reminding us The Edge at points!

“Yeah, they do get a bit Edge-y don’t they [laughs]! I can’t remember what happened exactly, but when it cuts to the first drop before any distortion comes in I’m basically just ringing out notes and the delay accents were spiking in really weird places…

“We couldn’t figure out why. Listening back, sometimes the second note would really jump out and then the next time the fourth note would be doing that. Because they’re panned quite wide, it made what was a simple guitar part really interesting to listen to. It was more accident than design!”

What kind of modulation pedals would we find on your current pedalboard?

“The guitarist who properly got me into playing was Stevie Ray Vaughan, and he liked those rotary sounds. I found out what pedals he was using and of course had to buy every single one. Even stuff he was less known for using, like the Uni-Vibe, I had to own. 

“I love that warbly kind of sound, though I don’t use it as much as I used to. The delays and reverbs I use often have modulation already. I had a Roland JC-120 for a while and the chorus you get with that is unbelievable – you just can’t get it anywhere else. Nowadays, I don’t really use much, just a little bit of chorus on clean sections…”

That’s quite surprising – SRV feels like a million miles away from Rolo Tomassi.

“Honestly, he’s my number one influence on guitar. When I was in high school and started playing, a friend’s dad told me to watch the Live At The El Mocambo DVD. I couldn’t believe how good he sounded. It didn’t sound like the same instrument I was playing and I had no idea how the fuck he was doing it!

“Even with all the money in the world, his sound can’t be replicated easily. You see people trying and some of them are amazing guitar players with incredible equipment, and it still doesn’t sound exactly like Stevie. I think I’ve only seen two or three videos where they’ve nailed it – one was a guy with a Fender Blues Junior III and some version of a Tube Screamer. The other was someone with – believe it or not – Kemper!

“I have 13-56 gauge strings on my Telecasters, just like Stevie! I could never get 9s or 10s to replicate his sound at all, so that’s why I went super-heavy gauge. It all goes back to being 14 years old and trying to copy what he was doing!”

Tell us more about the guitars we’re hearing on the record – you tend to use Telecasters live…

“Yeah, for live shows I just used Telecasters – there are five in my rig with varying pickups, though I guess the main one for me is a Seymour Duncan Hot Rails in the bridge for extra beef. That’s my go-to for rhythm tracking; it’s my number one. 

The super-heavy stuff is always HM-2. I absolutely love the sound of those things: for certain things there’s just no beating it

“In the studio, there was also a Gibson Firebird-style guitar made by a different company with a longer scale length, which worked really well for certain riffs. Because my guitars have so much tension from how they’re strung, they sound really tight… but sometimes I might want something with a bit more string movement.

“So that guitar came in handy, though I can’t remember who it was made by. For a couple of parts, I also used a Strat – playing Rolo riffs but with something closer to Stevie’s tone.”

You mentioned a pair of Fender amps running in stereo and a Diezel VH4. Were any other amps used on the record?

“I used to use Blackstar and then moved onto Fender. I got a Super Reverb which was my main amp and then a 4x10 Blues DeVille, running them in stereo because they have two inputs. One would be the clean in stereo and the other would be the distortion – which meant I needed a clean pedalboard and a dirty pedalboard and basically four cables out from my set up!

“Now, thanks to the Kempers, we don’t need to do that. There was a VH4 in there, a standard Peavey 5150 and we’ve always used a bit of Marshall for those in-between kinda tones. Interestingly, we used the VH4 clean channel a lot! And we even used some Neural DSP plugins for the super-sparse reverb sounds where we didn’t really need to use microphones. There was a whole bunch of different stuff.”

Labyrinthine is another math-metal monster, with a crushing distorted tone that reminds us of the Boss HM-2 sounds that bands like Entombed popularized… 

“Yeah, that’s exactly what you’re hearing: a Japanese HM-2 going through an [Electro-Harmonix] POG. Weirdly enough, I don’t think I’ve ever bought a brand-new instrument and most of my pedals are secondhand, too. I tend to find things quite randomly. 

“The first guitar I ever bought was when I was working in a skate store. Some guy came in asking if anyone wanted to buy a Gibson SG for £100 and I thought it would be an Epiphone, but when he brought it in it was a real Gibson SG Classic with P-90s in this rare finish. I didn’t ask any questions and gave him the money right there and then. I ended up using that guitar for 90 percent of my adult life.

“My HM-2 is an original Japanese one that someone was selling on [secondhand website] Gumtree for £10. I’ve used it so much for recording over the years – probably every Rolo record I’ve played, come to think of it. The super-heavy stuff is always HM-2. I absolutely love the sound of those things: for certain things, there’s just no beating it.” 

I like playing complete nonsense. When I’m writing I don’t try to play songs; I try to move my hands around freely and find things that sound good interspersed with technical stuff

Are there any other pedals that have been blowing your mind recently?

“The best-sounding distortion pedal for a Fender amp – one which can make your twin sound like a Marshall Jubilee turned up to 11 – is the Lovepedal Purple Plexi, which surprisingly not a lot of people use. I have the limited-edition dual channel version and it sounds absolutely insane. If anyone is looking for a hidden gem in terms of distortion, that’s the one!”

You have a unique approach to guitar – a lot of your riffs move fast all around the neck. What’s your approach when it comes to technique?

“I think I’m probably a bit different to most traditional guitar players. I’m not someone who plays every day. I don’t learn other people’s songs anymore and don’t consider myself a student of guitar. 

“I like playing complete nonsense. When I’m writing I don’t try to play songs; I try to move my hands around freely and find things that sound good interspersed with technical stuff. I do a lot of warm-ups, like chromatic scales, to get my hands moving. If anyone wanted to sound like me, and I don’t think many people would, the secret would be always moving around. 

Labyrinthine is a good example, because there’s one part in 7/8, but on the third cycle I throw in an extra note to make the count eight. It’s little things like that which don’t necessarily do much but can completely change the feel of a riff. For the clean sections in Drip and Prescience, I think it’s something like 13, nine and then seven.”

Rolo Tomassi

(Image credit: Andy Ford)

And that, in turn, makes the music feel more unusual and less repetitive…

“Exactly! If something sounds good, don’t worry about how many notes there are or what time signature it’s in. Just keep playing and experimenting, because you’ll end up writing stuff that’s a bit weirder and more unique than what you’d normally do. There are loads of classic riffs like that. 

“A great example is Money by Pink Floyd. Everyone knows that song and riff because it just sounds so cool, but I don’t think they were trying to write a riff in that time signature. It just came out and they probably paid more attention to that side of it later, after the idea had been written. So that’s what we try to do as a band. 

“I’m not a virtuoso player by any means, but there are so many things you can do creatively with your guitar that aren’t technical. That’s why I like doing things that are a little different, sometimes adding or taking away a note or two to see how it can make riffs feel more unusual. And though it might sound strange at first, experimenting like that can often fit the song better than you originally thought.”

The tunings also feel a little lower in places. What exactly were you using?

“We’ve played in E standard and drop D pretty much exclusively for the past 10 years, very rarely venturing away from that. But on this record, we started using standard tuning with the low E dropped to a B, which is a really cool tuning for heavy stuff. 

“If you play a barre chord on the lower strings, you’re basically playing in octaves – so you can add this really cool low-end to your chords but with so much familiarity – it’s such a minor change but adds so much more weight. 

“I hadn’t mucked around with tunings much before, but we used this one a lot on this record. Use that tuning in 7/8 or whatever and I’m sure you’ll get close to how we sound on this album!”

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Amit Sharma

Amit has been writing for titles like Total GuitarMusicRadar and Guitar World for over a decade and counts Richie Kotzen, Guthrie Govan and Jeff Beck among his primary influences as a guitar player. He's worked for magazines like Kerrang!Metal HammerClassic RockProgRecord CollectorPlanet RockRhythm and Bass Player, as well as newspapers like Metro and The Independent, interviewing everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy to Slash and Jimmy Page, and once even traded solos with a member of Slayer on a track released internationally. As a session guitarist, he's played alongside members of Judas Priest and Uriah Heep in London ensemble Metalworks, as well as handled lead guitars for legends like Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols, The Faces) and Stu Hamm (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, G3).