Tomaga are a loose-limbed two-piece who bring monumental noise and psychic psychedelia wherever they venture.
Eschewing musical convention in favour of freeform flair, drummer Valentina Magaletti and bassist Tom Relleen are master shape-shifters, gently goading your ears from womby warmth to aural onslaught in the blink of an eye.
Over a steady stream of releases and live dates, they’ve amassed a fleet of homemade instruments which help them push the boundaries of rhythm and bass, using contact mics to plug their weird shapes into the mainframe.
Their experimentation loosely incorporates jazz, electronic, industrial and psychedelia, and sees them share musical meaning with likeminded voyagers Wire, Pierre Bastien and Faust.
Outside Tomaga, Tom and Valentina make up the rhythm section of psych-rock trio The Oscillation and between them have played in loads of other genre-bending bands like Neon Neon, Raime, Shit n Shine and Voice of the Seven Thunders.
We were lucky enough to have them co-headline our recent M gig for Independent Venue Week at the Sebright Arms, Hackney, where we immersed our ears and minds in their delicious melt-in-the-middle sound.
Here, they explain more about their rhythmic roots and tell us about the slew of new releases they’ve got slated for later this year…
How did you first get drawn into making music?
Valentina: I guess it happened quite naturally for me, as a growing force. I have been playing drums since I was really young. ‘Drawn into’ is possibly not quite the accurate expression I would use to describe the reasons why I ended up being a musician. Being quite an outgoing person, I have always enjoyed being surrounded by people of all ages making music together. I felt a strong sense of community, it was socially very rewarding. I guess I embraced and experienced a sense of freedom of expression different from the one granted on the paper by the authorities.
Tom: I grew up in London and have been going to gigs since I was a young teenager. When I was 16 I ended up playing bass in a grungy punk band started by some other kids at school. I never had any musical training, I just wanted to play music like the people I was watching on stage. Then I moved to Manchester and got heavily into electronic music. When I moved back to London I worked in a record shop, then for a record label, then for a booking agent. Meanwhile I was always playing in bands, DJing, buying records, so music has been a constant in my life always. Tomaga feels like the culmination of all that.
How did Tomaga first start? Was there a particular aesthetic you wanted to explore?
Valentina: Tomaga started as a natural reaction to spending your entire youth touring with a rock band in a van. Everything sucks around you, but ‘it’s cool, because it is rock and roll’. I found that a duo building their own instruments, playing in museums and jazz clubs would suit my adult life better. What a cracking formula! We get invited to prepare graphic scores and to play with some of the artists we worshiped since we were teenagers like Wire, Silver Apples, Pierre Bastien…
Tom: Yes indeed, Tomaga started as a bit of an ‘anti-band’. We both played a lot as a rhythm section in other people’s bands for years, and as the rhythm section you’re always at the back, driving things but not the focus of attention. So for Tomaga we dispensed with all those singers, guitarists etc and placed ourselves at the foreground. This also meant we quickly explored ways to get different sounds out of the drums and the bass, and added contact mics, oscillators, tuned percussion and other things to augment the rhythm section. We are building our own instruments now, exploring further to find new sounds and textures!
Would you say you are a studio band that likes to play live or a live band that likes to record? Which is most important to you?
Valentina: I love playing live. Every gig is like a new day with something else to add. I get the chance to speak my mind on stage. It is also very physical and I love when miss adrenaline is involved. I also have a mild fetish for records so I love seeing and owning my own records. Let’s say that the conventional recording process is what I enjoy the least, especially if it entails sitting in front of a computer. However I do enjoy the composition side of it. It is more challenging.
Tom: I also love playing live, its really addictive, and with Tomaga we end up in clubs, jazz venues, rock venues, museums, town squares, we seem to fit anywhere! But I also love the studio, it is like going into our own world. Our recorded output and live shows can differ quite a lot, but I think that is a strength. Each track, each record, each concert, is its own world. The chance of us repeating ourselves is extremely remote since there is always a spontaneous element in every Tomaga utterance.
You are a predominantly drums and bass led duo – why is rhythm so important to you? Where does melody fit into it?
Valentina: If I think of the work we have done so far, melody for me it isn’t a word that would describe the sonic palette achieved. There are only few melodies in Tomaga, mainly evoking a modal nostalgia. Having said that, our main instruments are drums and bass so it would have been hard to scrap these.
Tom: If I can make a huge generalisation: melody speaks to the mind, whereas rhythm hypnotises and makes people dance. This is what we see in the faces and the bodies of the audience when we play. Melody sometimes gets a look-in, but we are ultimately rhythm people. We love ferociously loud polyphonic drones too though.
You’ve just finished work on a new album – can you tell us more about it?
Valentina: The current material offers a broader selection of sounds, field recording, and few collaborations with artists we love. A couple of tracks were recorded in Florence with an incredible Italian radical jazz improv ensemble called Blutwurst.
Tom: We’ve got further away from conventional instrumentation on this new recording. The time in Italy resulted in us using some very different materials to make sounds, since we were away from home and had to look around us to find things to use in the studio – both objects and the wonderful musicians from Blutwurst that Valentina mentions. I’m very happy with this ‘otherness’ that we have achieved, although it has been very tricky to mix, since there are very few reference points.
How do you think the Tomaga sound has evolved since Sleepy Jazz for Tired Cats?
Valentina: Since that first cassette release we had the chance to take Tomaga on the road, to liaise with an audience, to have ongoing feedback from everyone around us. So it grew, just like a little kid who has seen a little more of the world out there and wants to take the most from it.
Tom: Sleepy Jazz… was made with very little equipment. We only had two mics back then, and we recorded live so we couldn’t really edit much either – so it just came straight out like that. Now we have spent many more hours playing together, with more instruments and more recording gear, but some of our processes are exactly the same – creating sonic pre-conditions in the studio and then improvising. This is our basic mode. Adding tuned percussion to our repertoire is probably the most significant change to our palette.
Has your recording process changed much?
Valentina: Not really, what changed is that we now own more gear. We invested in a mini portable studio and we can record on the road or in different locations.
Tom: Yes, we got kicked out of our studio in Hackney when they put the rent up by 40 percent, and rather than paying a fortune on a new one we bought some great mics and a snazzy audio interface instead, and now we can record anywhere. But we still do the same things, as I have described above: create a strange sound world that we then climb inside and improvise.
What does your studio look like and what’s your favorite bit of kit in there?
Valentina: I am a big fan of resonating bells and metal object but I guess the purchase of the year in terms of beauty goes to the ‘moisturizer’, a marvelous American spring reverb, a machine able to enhance your daily vitamin intake.
Tom: Our studio is now spread between our houses in London and gets assembled in different permutations all the time, depending on what we feel like doing. I recently bought a fifties’ rosewood marimba which is amazing but huge and far too big for my house. Valentina is amassing a vast amount of strange drum kits and percussion objects. Contact mics and hydrophones remain a favourite thing to attach to whatever we can.
You both play in other bands too – how do those experiences influence the Tomaga sound, if at all?
Valentina: It has impact on the execution of the work, not so sure it influences the sounds. Playing everyday is crucial to your musicianship and the more I play the more I can say with my instrument.
Tom: For me its often an anti-influence, as in I will go on tour playing bass for a rock band and then come back and want to make something completely and utterly opposite and different to that in the studio with Tomaga. We do get to play with and meet lots of great musicians though, which makes for a wonderful sense of community and keeps you inspired, and critical.
Who from music and wider cultural life has influenced your music most?
Valentina: The Cure when I was a kid, The Residents when I was a teenager, Charles Mingus as an adult.
Tom: Chris Watson, Autechre, This Heat, Catherine Christer Hennix, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Can, Faust, Don Cherry, Max Eastley…
What was the last record you bought?
Valentina: Andrea Curra Rapsodia Meccanica.
Tom: Aksak Maboul Onze Danses Pour Combattre La Migraine.
What’s your favourite sound?
Valentina: The sound of the coffee machine in the morning.
Tom: Currently my new fifties’ rosewood marimba played at highest possible speed.
What’s next for Tomaga?
We have been finalising the mixing of a full length album, an EP, a live album and a seven-inch. We will be announcing all these releases very soon, and they will all be out in the second half of the year when we will also embark on comprehensive tours – so we’ll be all over the place very soon.