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INTERVIEW: Belfast’s Dark Tropics on Their Soulful New Track

Based on different continents, musicians Rio and Gerard came into contact with each other, and quickly bonded over their shared love of Radiohead, Aretha Franklin and the Velvet Underground. Not long after, Dark Tropics was born. With only three singles out, they have already created a distinct sound that mixes soul and pop, as well as taking inspiration from the 60s. We spoke to the duo about their latest single, the accompanying video and working through a pandemic.

RC: Hi! Can you describe the music you make in three words?

Gerard: Modern Pop-Noir

RC: How did the formation of Dark Tropics come about?

G: I’d been on the look out for a singer for a while. Just over 2 years ago I saw an ad online from a singer based in Belfast looking to perform live in a jazz band. Although I didn’t want to play jazz I thought it was intriguing so I messaged Rio and she emailed me back from Morocco where she was volunteering, seeming interested. She sent me this really jazzy voice note of her singing ‘crazy’ by Gnarls Barkley acapella. It sounded beautifully strange so we organised to meet on her return. At our first meeting we discovered a mutual appreciation of Radiohead and The Rolling Stones song ‘Sympathy for the devil’ and decided to try recording something. 

Rio: The first time we actually met I was just out of work, my manager had made me re-set half the restaurant because the salt and pepper were on the wrong sides so I was not only horrendously nervous but also late (very typical of me). I was surprised at how well we got on and how much we had to talk about! As soon as we met I abandoned the jazz band I was planning on busking with.

RC: You just released your latest single, Keep Searching, what is the story behind its creation?

G: I wanted to write a song that sounded like an old 60’s soul sample you hear a lot in modern hip-hop. I started playing this 4 chord sequence over and over again cause they fitted together so well and eventually that chorus melody just wrote itself fully formed. I thought it would be a massive Aretha sounding chorus but in the end it turned out more subtle and delicate. 

RC:The single has quite a different sound from your previous releases. What made you go in this new direction?

G: The original demo was very heavy and electronic. When we got to the studio to record it properly Rio and our producer Orri McBrearty thought we should strip it back to it’s essential parts. I think it’s much better for it. When we added the strings it really took off and now it has a kind of vintage sound but with modern touches.

R: This was a technically challenging song in the original demo, the low vocal was very harsh. This worked really well with the distortion but when it was stripped back, a softer vocal created a completely different sound and an entirely different vibe too. This song is a pleasure to sing (although that starting high note always manages to freak me out, no matter how used to it I may be!) and there is genuinely no better set closer than this one!

RC: You’ve said that you were inspired by the romance of 60s American soul music, what specifically drew you to this decade and what else do you get inspiration from?

G: For me the 1960’swas the most important and exciting decade for pop music. I love the sound of the distorted production from that era and the amount of classic songs and artists is astonishing.

R: Inspiration for me comes from all over. I’ll find a note I like or a theme or even something as small as a set of syllables, or sometimes I could be listening to a symphony and get nothing. But generally I adore Ella Fitzgerald’s vocals, they are consistently beautiful.

RC: What is the typical process for you both like when creating music? Has it changed a lot due to the pandemic?

G: It’s definitely been different since Covid. We’ve had to write more via whatsapp. We’ll send lyric ideas and musical voice notes to each other and if there’s anything good we’ll keep it in mind until we can meet up to finish and demo it.

R: Definitely harder to get motivated, although Gerard does get hounded with random sentences now and absolutely no context when I do get some spark of inspiration from somewhere. We end up with 7 songs all a quarter written.

RC: The accompanying video to Keep Searching is beautiful, and Rio performs in it as well: how did the idea of the video come about?

R: Our director/videographer Thomas McKeown and I had the idea for a video showcasing an unhappy and unhealthy relationship. We were both really excited at the idea of choreographing a dance to match the song. I worked with Belfast actor and friend of mine Steffan Kerr, it was half me choreographing before rehearsing and half choreographing during rehearsals. Thankfully Steffan was absolutely brilliant at keeping up with my insane erratic last minute changes in choreography and made the entire process not only less stressful, but super fun! The story of the video mostly came from whatever my first thoughts were and what I pictures when I listened to the song.

RC: With the future looking a bit more hopeful, is there any particular venue you would love to play in and why?

G: The Ulster Hall is a very special venue and it would be wonderful to get the opportunity to play in a room where I’ve seen so many great shows.

R: I wish I could’ve had the chance to perform in the Mandela Hall, I saw my first band there and so many amazing bands play there!

RC: Lastly, if you could perform with any musician, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

G: I think an afternoon in the studio with Sam Cooke would be pretty fun.

R: My dream is to be able to do a vocal (live or otherwise) on a Gorillaz song, think if I managed that goal I could depart a happy woman.

Keep Searching is out now, watch the video here.

Photography by @wrapped_in_plastic_

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