Since their debut in 2006, To-mera have fast become one of the leading lights of the UK progressive metal scene. With a new line-up, and a new EP on the way, I caught up with guitarist Tom McLean to talk about his history, gear, technique, and the future of the band.
Tell us a little about yourself and your musical history...
I started playing classical guitar aged 10. I studied it formally up to grade 8, then made the switch to electric, which has been my primary focus ever since.
Which guitarists were major influences on you early on?
Way back in the beginning, it was Slash. I maintain to this day that he's never played a superfluous note. He made me take up the guitar to begin with actually. When I discovered shred, it was the likes of Marty Friedman, Yngwie Malmsteen, John Petrucci and Steve Vai, the latter of whom had a particularly strong influence on my style and phrasing (hence the UV777, which I got back in 2000 and was my first seven-string).
How were you introduced to jazz? Did you ever formally study it?
That's a funny one. I can't pinpoint the exact moment when I got into jazz. In fact I think it was something that grew on me gradually until one day I woke up and realised I actually enjoyed it! I think mainly it came through studying at Cambridge. I wanted to form a metal band there (and eventually did, in fact - the aptly titled "Forlorn Hope"), but I really couldn't find any like minded musicians. I was so desperate to play, that I joined a saxophonist friend of mine to form an avant-garde jazz-rock band. The music was pure self-indulgence, but I learned a lot about improvisation.
After finishing my neuroscience degree, I was set to do a postgraduate medical course, but decided to spend a year learning more about jazz, which by that point had become an obsession. So I went to Trinity College of Music for a year. I learnt a lot about harmony and theory, but to be honest my improvisational ability was so primitive compared to a lot of the kids there that it made me realise I was probably never going to be a jazz pro :P
How did To-mera originally come about?
This already seems a distant memory, but basically a chance encounter at a Dillinger Escape Plan concert with Julie (whom I knew from her previous band Without Face) and Lee (original bassist) set the ball rolling. This was whilst I was at Trinity and desperate to form a metal band that would be interesting in trying out a jazz approach. I think Julie and Lee were the only people crazy/ foolish enough to indulge me!
What gear are you currently using live and in the studio?
Well, I'm still using the Framus Cobra head and cabs. I have a couple of pedals, namely the Holy Grail reverb, a Boss chorus pedal and the ISP Decimator. Guitar-wise, the LTD SC607B is still my favourite for chug, but I've recently acquired a JP7 which I'm hoping to make use of on our upcoming EP.
Studio-wise, the guitars will be DI'd through and M-Audio interface, recorded on Logic, and will be reamped at a later date.
Do you use any alternate tunings, especially for the super-heavy sounds on Delusions?
On Delusions there were three seven-string tunings: dropped F sharp, dropped A, and standard B. Now we've settled on dropped A as the standard tuning.
How do you get your fat jazz-guitar sounds? Is it your regular set-up?
On the album I used a Hamer Studio GATSSO for the jazz tones. It's a lovely warm-sounding guitar that I bought with the original intention of becoming the next John Scofield/ Pat Metheny, but that project has been shelved for now :P
What does a typical practice regime entail for you these days?
I haven't had a serious training regime since 2007. Life has been pretty hectic and disruptive since then, but when I find time I try to just enjoy playing the guitar for the sake of it, and focus more on being creative than technical workouts. I guess it's a phase I've been going through for a while, but that said, I feel a new technical regime is just about due.
What would be your advice to metal-heads interested in exploring jazz for the first time?
I guess venturing down the fusion route, via players like Greg Howe, Brett Garsed and Tony Macalpine, would be the most enjoyable and immediately relevant. It's from there that you can take it further and delve into the origins of this kind of music.
Have you considered doing some form of instructional video in the future?
Honestly, no. I don't feel I'd have much to offer that hasn't already been done much better.
Are there any new bands or players that've caught your ear recently?
Hmm.... well, the UK seems to have quite a healthy underground progressive scene, although it's been growing for quite some time I suppose. There's a big emphasis on rhythmic precision these days, which I quite like. Bands like Tesseract I think could have a lot of potential, although at the moment perhaps their influences are a bit too raw. Also, check out my friend Nik Wolf's project, at http://www.myspace.com/eideticblur . This could yield some interesting things I reckon :)
What can we expect from the new To-mera material?
I'm quite excited about it. I suppose, logically, we're following on from where Delusions left off, but I think the style has started to boil down to something quite fresh for us. More groovy but more melodic. And, dare I say it, perhaps not quite so dark anymore :P (but, don't worry, it'll be anything but power metal!).
Tom, thank you once again for your time, and good luck in the future!