Interview by Ellis Heasley
Many of you might’ve missed the debut full-length from UK progressive metal trio Jomo Tuun. Released right towards the end of last year, it sort of flew under the radar at a time when most people had already finished up their AOTY lists. That’s a shame though, because One Tuun is nothing short of a fascinating work of instrumental prog-metal that should appeal to anyone who’s become tired of the relatively repetitive djenty fare that’s come to define the genre lately. It’s an album that draws heavily on historic progressive influences like TOOL and Rush, but still manages to feel fresh and invigorating, so it was great to chat to all three of the brains behind it (guitarist Samuel Easter, drummer Joe Burns and bassist Oli Cross) to go in depth on everything from the making of the record to the wider situation of progressive and heavy music in the world today.
How would you describe Jomo Tuun to someone who has never heard your music before? What’s the elevator pitch?
Joe Burns: A sort of Tool-like progressive metal band but with maybe a bit more of an old-school raw ferocious edge to it I guess. Quite a lively live trio is what I’m trying to go for.
Oli Cross: Yeah I think that’s a fair assessment of it. If you don’t write down like a media ready sentence, it’s difficult to condense it into one, but I’d mirror that assessment really. Obviously the record is layered with so many other things, but there is this really nice intensity to it live because you’ve got to fill that space with something and I think Joe’s hit the nail on the head.
Samuel Easter: I think someone put on our Bandcamp page something like “weird, angular riffs, proggy, slightly off kilter…” I think that sort of sums it up. We’re not the heaviest but heavier than your typical prog band, and proggier than your typical metal band. Angular I think is the big word for it.
How do you capture that live intensity on the record, where it feels like you’re in the room watching it happen?
Samuel: It’s just really, really hard to play. Not to toot our own horns, what I mean is it’s really hard to play so it had that sort of live sense as when we were playing this stuff we had to go for the best we could do given that we’d learnt these riffs a few minutes ago. Staying on your toes helps keep that live edge even though we were sort of stacking things up and all that.
Even though it’s tough to play, there’s also real groove, e.g. on a song like “Omni Potenta”, and it doesn’t sound like you guys are just shredding away for the sake of it, how do you keep sight of a song and how do you strike that balance between playing really hard stuff but also giving people something to grab onto and get their heads round?
Oli: I think the song always has to come first. You can easily get carried away with playing tricky stuff but I think the nature comes from the type of song you’re trying to write. I don’t think anyone sat down and went “let’s do five and a half minutes of showing off”, that’s not what it’s about. I think because of the genre, because of the nature of the stuff you’re playing, it lends itself to that. If you’re already messing around with time signatures you’re thinking “how else could we open this up?”.
It’s challenging in a way – that can come down to anything from melody lines to the difficulty in the drums and all the instruments, and then the nature of the genre itself in terms of time signature changes and I think it’s quite dynamic as well. There’s a lot going on basically. But I was lucky enough that when we got round to recording the bass most of the tracks themselves had actually already been written and recorded – like the bass and the guitar and the drums – obviously more guitar was added after we recorded in September, so I had the pleasure of actually being able to step into the tracks with a lot of freedom as well once we were there. We come from a lot of different musical backgrounds, like traditionally I’ve played jazz for most of my career, and this is such a welcome addition but some of that definitely leaks into the bass I think.
Joe: I also remember as we were getting the tracks down, if we had a particularly intense section or a super angular and chaotic section, we’d say ‘right let’s do a big chord section’ just for a bit of a release, so it’s not just chaos for the whole thing. And we’d try and get some groove parts and some nice sounding bits which creates quite a nice pull and release and keeps the dynamics nice as well.
It feels like each of you gets to bring your own flair to the record, but how also do you then bring it all together?
Joe: I don’t know really! Haha.
Samuel: The three of us wrote our own parts I suppose, and because there’s not loads of instruments and loads of parts, there’s a very clear space for the drums, a very clear space for the bass and a very clear space for the guitars. So once we’re all more or less rhythmically and harmonically playing the right thing, the same key and the same rhythm, there’s just so much space for us to sort of do our own thing within our little world, our own space on the record.
Would you say you react to each others’ playing as well?
Oli: Certainly, and that’s not just a live thing. When you’re locked in there’s a lot of looking at Joe for cues and stuff like that because there are times when you get to some of the more tricky time stuff, you just learn it in your head and you know when to come in and it’s not that I’m necessarily counting, but fortunately at least one of us is and that’s who I’m essentially looking at for cues… when we got round to recording the bass the tracks were almost fully formed at that point, which was great for me, but also there was a huge amount of space where I was given free reign, and essentially reacting and interacting with Sam was a big part for me.
So there’s a lot of sections in the record where I am essentially mirroring what he’s doing, that happens a few times, but what was really important for me was also to not have too much of that, to have my own goal. So there is obviously deliberate harmonisation as well, but then there’s complete removal from it sometimes so you get some real chromaticism, which happens a lot because that’s how you get those more chaotic, more clashing moments which give it that real chaos I think.
There’s times as well, I think in the end section of “Barghurst”, where for a lot of the drum hits and fills I’ll be doing the exact same rhythmic stuff. I was given free reign to move away from that, but mirroring the drums is something that Joe kept saying in recording like ‘try this, see if that works out’ which I think it did, so there’s a lot of deliberate interaction on the record.
Samuel: On my end, I don’t think there’s anything particularly intentional with it, you just get a feel for these things don’t you. I think something has to be said for when Oli locks in with something I’m doing, or locks in with something Joe’s doing, and then maybe goes to a section which is something completely independent. I think that can do a lot for a record, where you’ve got that tightness and then it suddenly gets looser, that contrast can make a three-piece like we are sound a lot busier and larger than it is because there’s that disparity between what we’re all doing.
Samuel, you recorded and mixed the record, what was that process like for you guys?
Samuel: It was surprisingly quick really. There were a lot of revisions where it was like ‘right 33 minutes into the album, bring up guitar four for half a bar and then chuck it back in’, but the main bulk of it was just getting a nice drum balance. Drums and bass stay pretty constant throughout the record so there’s sort of a consistency there, and we brought in four different guitar sounds – main clean(ish), left and right, more distortion, and even more distortion – they were the sort of voices in the guitar, for harmonies and stuff. And it was just about going through it and finding a balance really once we’d established the bed of the album.
And how much attention would you pay to the overall flow and sequencing of the record?
Samuel: That was in the writing really. We sort of got the idea for when we were going to need to stack up the harmonies and add an acoustic, but the flow I think comes down to the composition, more the riffs themselves.
Joe: As we were writing it we were doing it in sequence, so I remember having some conversations like ‘this one’s gonna be the last track so let’s build it up to something’. We start off with something quite intense at the start of the album as well, that’s literally the same riff but we take one note off the end of each bar, so it’s going like 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and then it goes back up again or something like that.
Oli: We didn’t get quite as into the adding and taking away of beats in a bar like Fibonacci like Tool have done, but there’s maybe a tiny iota of that going on there. But it was less for symbolism and more the fact that we thought this would be cool to play.
As an instrumental band, were you focusing on conveying things like meaning and emotion, and how do you do that if so?
Oli: It’s a double-edged sword really, because even though lyrics can be symbolic and not right on the nose, obviously in your writing you do have the opportunity to directly convey feelings and emotion, be they explicit or implicit. And you might think that that would work against you if you don’t have vocals, but I think what then happens is that people are going to focus more on how the music brings things across and that’s something that might be ignored a little bit more in a band that has vocals. I think it can work in our favour actually because you really have nothing to hold your hand through that, it’s literally just instrumental music taking you through those things. Again, talking about “Barghurst” and that end section – up until that section we’ve really only had snippets of major keys and non-chromatic stuff, and then right at the end for the longest period on the whole record you’ve got this whole major section, and that’s almost like a bit of a finishing line and like the sun coming out on a bit of a storm.
Speaking of that stormy side of things, even though One Tuun isn’t the heaviest record, it is still quite heavy by prog standards. How do you pursue that heaviness?
Joe: I definitely came into it saying ‘this is gonna be heavy’, because the start of the group was because I wanted to do a heavy project and we don’t really have anywhere else in our other musical groups where that can come through. So that was the whole idea, but in terms of the heaviness, obviously that comes through in the production style as well, but it’s just Sam writing super demented riffs is like the heaviest thing I think.
Samuel: There were points where me and Joe were sat around trying to think of riffs and he would be like ‘yeah I like that, but all of the notes in the middle there need to be more fucked!’ or ‘can that chord not sound like that…’.
We’ve already kind of touched on the live aspect of a lot of these songs, but obviously you got your first chance to play a lot of them to other people at the Norwich Rock Fest a couple of weeks ago – how did you feel about the response to the songs?
Oli: Up until that point we’d done three long rehearsal days, which was an interesting way of doing it, like really enjoyable because until that point it had just been practice. There was a bit more practice at rehearsal, it wasn’t like we were polishing straight away. There was definitely stuff that Sam and I had to work on, Joe basically rocked up and knew it all anyway, but the response to the show was really good and there was an eclectic mix there – it wasn’t just prog outfits and it wasn’t necessarily all as heavy. We fit in quite nicely there but we were the only one of maybe two prog outfits so I think when you’re in that niche you’re gonna get a mixed bag of stuff because some people will deliberately come for that, and some people might be just finding out about it, and some people it’s just not their cup of tea. But we got a really good reception from the people who like that kind of music and I couldn’t’ve been happier, and it seemed to go down really well in the room. For a first show, [we were] psyched with the response across the board.
How does it feel to have people paying attention in such early days for the band?
Joe: Obviously, as Oli said, it’s a super niche part of music, but nowadays there’s so much access to music that there’s a niche for everything and there’s an audience for everything, so the people who want to hear this sort of music have and they like it. The response on Bandcamp has been really good, we’re happy with that.
Also, at Rock Fest, obviously the sort of music we play is gonna lose some people, but we had loads of extremely nice comments afterwards in person which was really good to hear. One guy was saying he couldn’t believe what we were doing and all that sort of thing which was cool.
Reflecting a bit more broadly, what kind of appetite do you think there is in general for progressive music at this point?
Joe: I don’t think it’ll ever be popular, just because that’s not gonna grab people who aren’t like music enthusiasts, they’re just not going to get into it. But there’s room for every niche of music now, so whatever you’re making no matter how weird it is there’ll be even just a hundred people out there who are into it.
Oli: I think even the biggest prog acts of all time wouldn’t even make people’s biggest or at least most popular bands even within that genre. Some sneak through obviously like Tool, Rush and Primus and stuff, those I would say off the top of my head are some of the most famous, but they still have a little niche to them no matter how big they get – especially Primus! It’s difficult to explain but despite all that there’s still something that separates us from even other prog bands at the moment and I don’t quite know where that comes from. I think there’s definitely a space that we can carve ourselves into.
Just as we come to wrap up, what are you guys getting excited about in music at the moment?
Samuel: When we were recording, me and Joe would pretty routinely go back to mine and stick on Supertramp, which might not be what you think we’re listening to but that was like our anthem.
Oli: I listen to a lot of post-punk stuff, and there’s so much incredible guitar music around at the moment. I’m part of the AF gang – the Idles group on Facebook – and people were mentioning CLT DRP who were on the bill with us at Norwich Rock Fest. I like the scuzzier punk stuff and there’s so much good stuff in the underground at the moment like Amyl and the Sniffers, Crack Cloud, Squid – who are closer to what we play – and black midi as well who are just outstanding.
Joe: I’ve been listening to this group from Madagascar called Damily that I’m really into at the minute. It’s like very danceable acoustic stuff that’s really decent and they’ve got some great clips online of them playing in random bars in rural Madagascar and stuff.
Oli: I also wanted to add that I’ve been listening to a lot of the other bands that we’ve been playing with. I’m particularly liking Dr. Clyde, Eat Your Own Head and Alpha Male Tea Party.
Lastly, what’s next for Jomo Tuun? What’s the big picture going forward?
Joe: We might try and do some more gigs later this year. There’s discussions about doing some little runs and a gig or two in London, this year it’ll just be doing some more live stuff, but then my aim for it is to do a record every two or three years basically just to keep that creative outlet on the burn.
Oli: Yeah I agree with Joe. It’s been a while, but with my other outfit we had our first proper gig back only in September 2021 after a huge amount of time off, because we released a record late February 2020, COVID hits and then we played one more show and then lockdown. I think now we’ve got this summer period of getting slightly more back to normality, like I’m going to more gigs without masks and stuff, so I’m really excited to have a semblance of normality playing a lot more music, because that’s what you want to do in a normal year and now we’ve had this huge drought and I just want to be playing live. So for me that’s definitely goal number one; play some live music. I love recording and being in the studio and it’s such a huge and important part of this, but yeah I’ve got the bit between my teeth now.
Samuel: Yeah these boys just said it. We weren’t gonna play live but we’ve done one now. We did the hard bit, learnt the songs, and it was loads of fun. I’d love to do a few more gigs and can’t wait to get recording again, especially now we’ve got the first out of the way so we’ve got something to build on now, see if we can make it better!