Dark Tropics are a new and exciting pop-noir duo from Belfast. They are on the cusp of releasing only their third single, yet their songs have a cinematic quality and a depth to them that would lead you to believe they have been making music for a long time. Lee Campbell caught up with lead singer Rio McGuinness and producer/musician Gerard Sands to discuss their unlikely origins, making music videos in their home city, plans for an album and obsessions with The Beatles.
So I’m gonna start with the obvious one. ‘Dark Tropics.’ How did the name come about?
Gerard: It’s a weird one because it’s very, very tricky to get a good band name. When you think of a really good one and go to Google it, there are about three or four other bands, like some garage band in Australia that has it. But for Dark Tropics, I remember coming up with it, and it was a while even before I met Rio, thinking if I were ever in a band, that would be a really good name. Kind of like ‘Primal Scream’ or something where you have to hold onto it if you get a good one. And then kind of bizarrely, it fitted the music.
When we sort of did our first couple of demos, ‘oh this totally, totally fits’, and then, later on, when we did the photography and made the videos, there was an awful lot of tropical backgrounds, and in the songs, there’s a few mentions of those kinds of things. So it’s just worked out well in the end. It’s just two words that fit and look cool together.
It says on your bio on Spotify that you were “drawn together by a bond that stretches from Ireland to Morocco.” So I’m quite intrigued. Can you tell me more about that?
Rio: I did a few weeks of volunteering in Morocco. Various things, mainly community projects. I’d put up an advert before I left, “come join my band.” I got a few messages about it, but nothing really ever stuck. I didn’t meet up with any of them. I didn’t really vibe with any of it, I guess. And I had totally forgotten about it until I got an email completely out of the blue. And I’m looking and going where’s this come from? I totally forgot that I had the adverts still up. I go to look at him (Gerard) up online- nothing online. So I’m messaging everyone going, ‘do you know who this person is?’
Eventually, I was just like, right, okay; there’s something about this. This seems like it could be something. This person seems serious. I’ll meet up at a cafe near where I was working. And of course, I was late. And yeah, it just sort of went from there. It was still, to this day, the most bizarre series of events. It’s worked out pretty well, so it’s great. I’m chatting about music and realised that we had very similar music tastes. I heard some of what Gerard had done and was really, really impressed. Then we did our very first, my very first ever demo, for which I was absolutely terrified and sank a glass of gin beforehand. It just went from there. Just two years ago.
The most recent single ‘Moroccan Sun.’ is a great track. Can you tell us a bit more about the origins and themes of the song?
Rio: I suppose that was my first attempt at songwriting but hadn’t come from any previous poetry or previous work that I’d done. I’m not a seasoned songwriter at all. So I’m really, really enjoying learning how to do it. And that is definitely one that I’m very proud of for my first attempt. Everyone has loads of crossroads in their life, and everyone has loads of opportunities where they go, ‘oh God, I can’t believe I did that, or ‘I shouldn’t have done that, or ‘I can’t believe I was with this person, I can’t believe I wasn’t with this person.’ But there’s always something that remains constant. And I suppose the song was sort of like a reminder to me because, you know, it was written right at the start when everything was changing rapidly. But I still had constants. It was like a tether or a grounding-type thing. Like I still had what I needed.
I still had so much. One of the comments I actually got about the song, which made me really happy, was from someone who listened to ‘Badlands’, and they said, ‘loads of us are going through break we’re crying over ‘Badlands’ right now, and it’s making us really happy, well not happy, that weird kind of happy.’ I sent a message like, ‘Okay, once you get past this crying stage, check out the next song. And you’re gonna start to rebuild yourself.’ And lo & behold, a while later I got the message – ‘we checked out the song. You’re right. It’s a great move-on stage. So it’s just something hopeful, something summery, something light. Yeah, I think it’s easier to express in feelings than in words.
Gerard: For me, I really like it because of the structure of it. It’s got a very definite chorus, and a proper middle 8, an old school middle 8. Yeah, So for me, I really like the song structure of it.
You describe yourselves as cinematic pop-noir. Your music would sit perfectly in a lot of dramas and movies. If you got that call from a TV or movie producer that they’d like to use your music, what movie or show would you choose?
Gerard: I remember when we first sent our demo of ‘Badlands’ to our manager Lyndon (Stephens), who passed away, unfortunately. He was very, very enthusiastic. It was like a country thing. Really sort of strummy, Americana kind of thing. He came back and said this was like the start of ‘True Detective.’ One of those HBO shows. Yeah, that would be amazing. I really like the idea of our songs, being films and TV shows because it’s a lot of time where I would now find music.
Rio, are there any ones that you would have a preference for, that you’d like your music or your lyrics to be used in any particular movie?
Rio: I’m a massive nerd for comic book stuff, science fiction, things like that. And also like, ‘True Crime’, but the first thing that comes to my head is like the soundtrack for ‘Kick-Ass’ or the soundtrack for ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ I think it is unbelievable, but something like that, that could satiate the little nerdy excitement inside me. If I could somehow get something that would fit onto something around ‘Star Trek’, I would be very happy.
Your acoustic performance of ‘Helen’s Bay’. It’s a beautiful song. Obviously, the title itself drew me in. Was it particularly about that part of County Down in Northern Ireland, or was it a bit more general about the story behind the song?
Rio: No, it was specifically about Helen’s Bay. It’s about a day. I don’t remember if I drove up or got the train. We went to walk out, and it was lashing, absolutely lashing. It was really dark, really windy; my hands were gone beyond blue. They were starting to turn like a salmon pink colour. It was weird. But the whole place was just so turbulent. It looked unbelievable. I can still see it so vividly in my head. It was just stormy and dark & reminded me of something that Hemingway would write about. It was unbelievably beautiful. And the one thing that came to my head was ‘Lady Lazarus’, when I saw it, the poem by Sylvia Plath. I went back and stored it in my head. And then I had a thing in school actually, years ago, to write about something, anything, but we had to have a particular form. And that was the first thing that I wrote about – I got an ‘A’. Years later, whenever I was looking for things to put to music, that was one thing that I had was that poem about that time years ago that I wrote for a class assignment. So yeah, it’s always had a very strong meaning for me, I guess. There are so many different memories attached to it now.
Where was it filmed?
Rio: In Rosemary Street Church (Belfast). The acoustics in there are beautiful. I used to be in the choir in that church when I was young, and my grandfather was the organist, so I have so much love for everyone there. They’re family to me, so whenever I asked them about a place to shoot, they were really nice, letting us use there. It’s been a dream of mine to be able to perform something in that church.
Are there any plans for an EP or an album during 2021 or 2022?
Gerard: Well, we have just finished the next single. We just got the master back, and we’re planning the video now for it. Hopefully, it will be out in April or May. I’m hoping for April. The debut album is more or less mixed now. So we have to figure out a way of releasing it. We don’t want to release it during the lockdown, during the COVID madness, so we will probably wait until that has settled, and we can obviously promote it with shows and, yeah, do all the things you want to do when you’re releasing an album. Hopefully, by the end of this year, we’ll release that. We have it recorded, and I’m excited to get it out.
Are you able to give away the title or anything yet?
Gerard: No, we’re not. We haven’t agreed on it yet.
Rio: That’s been a constant WhatsApp argument….
I’m not sure if you saw this story recently. Ian Brown from The Stone Roses recently pulled out of a festival appearance later this year after fans were potentially asked to prove that they’ve been vaccinated. Obviously, quite a controversial topic at the moment. What’re your thoughts on that concerning live music and vaccines & testing?
Gerard: I think we should all wait. I don’t think we should rush back. I think we should wait until the vaccinations have more or less been completed. I imagine that won’t be until maybe 2022. Let’s make sure it’s safe. Asking people to be vaccinated before they are let in feels a bit ‘Big Brother.’
Rio: I feel like it’s maybe, a big. Perhaps you have to have a COVID test to say that you’re negative before you go to reduce it.
Gerard: I can understand that festivals want to get up and running somehow. Everybody’s screwed, and I don’t know if there are any right answers.
What would be your first memory of playing a song on repeat when you were younger or one of the first pieces of music that you really connected with?
Rio: I remember when I was quite young, I think there were two. One of them was ‘Hollywood’ by the Runaways, and the other was ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ by David Bowie. Oddly enough, both of them from the Runaways movie, which was one of the films that had a massive impact on me. It was right when I was getting into doing drama and things. I was also trying to learn some different instruments at the time. Trying. So yeah, I found my dad’s David Bowie record and had ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ on repeat.
Gerard: Well, in our house, there was an absolute obsession with the Beatles. So now, I’m still just as obsessive as I was. Back then, everybody was. The thing about the Beatles is it’s a bottomless pit of joy. It’s the gift that keeps giving even as I’ve grown up, learning the recording techniques. The sheer volume of stuff they put out. They were either releasing a single, releasing a film, releasing an album, or were on tour. It was a crazy schedule, and they were really only together as the Beatles, officially releasing stuff for maybe eight years. It’s insane. I also really like The Stone Roses, but there is so little live footage of them. Whereas the Beatles, there are pictures of them when they’re 15, recordings of them the whole way through. They were catalogued. So every sort of 18 months, I’ll watch the anthologies. I like the fact that they’re all funny. They’re mad witty, and tick so many boxes.
Just talking about inspirations. Your music sounds quite beyond your years – you’re in your early 20s. Which bands have helped provide you with this musical maturity, or which ones have really shaped your sound?
Rio: There’s so many. I’m quite a big jazz lover. I absolutely love Chet Baker, but I also remember my Mum playing me a lot of Portishead when I was younger. It was just the kind of music that transported you, so I feel like that’s resonated with me quite a bit. But honestly, you could pick a name out of a hat, and there would probably be something there.
Gerard: 60s soul music is a big one for me, like further Aretha (Franklin) and those kinds of things. And then I love Radiohead and early noughties hip-hop. Yeah, but I love Bowie, and I went through a period of being obsessed with Dylan as well, which also never really ends, I think. I don’t think I’ve got past 1977 yet.
From the videos and tunes you have officially released, you seem to have a real understanding of the mix between visual and sonic you, which looks great, but it also sounds brilliant. Any favourite album covers that stick out in your mind over the years or a favourite music video that just blew you away in terms of how it was shot or how it was produced?
Rio: For me, I think it’s actually a fan-made video with different clips is the Bauhaus song, ‘All We Ever Wanted.’ Unbelievable video. In terms of album covers, I really liked the Roxy Music one. An album cover, and it was just entirely blue. It’s just one of my earliest memories of looking at an album cover and going, oh, ‘that’s pretty cool. Apart from that, I’m a massive fan of the videos from Aurora and Bjork. They’re just absolutely unbelievable, or anything produced by Paul Thomas Anderson. He has such an amazing eye, especially the one he did with Thom Yorke, the short film, ‘Anima.’
Gerard: There’s the video for the band, ‘The Walkmen.’ Their song, ‘The Rat.’ One camera, black & white, them in a rehearsal room. It’s just amazing because it’s just so visceral and punkish. There was one made for ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, which also was good. It was probably made years and years after its release, but it’s good. I like the Prince video for ‘Kiss’ because it’s so Princey. I like ‘Single Ladies’ by Beyonce because it’s so simple yet so madly modern. Videos are a strange medium, ‘cause it’s not always something I think about when I’m writing. Maybe Rio does, I don’t know.
Rio: Yeah, oh yeah.
Just talking about videos. I watched the ‘Badlands’ video, which is very good, obviously shot in Belfast. What was it like to shoot a video in your home city?
Rio: I have very little shame when it comes to this now, like videos, photos, stuff like that. I’ve done acting, I’ve done modelling for the last seven or eight years. The really weird things that photographers would have you do in locations. You’d have one they’ll go right, ‘okay, what I want you to do is run and jump on this step.’ Really bizarre things, things that make you feel very, I guess, embarrassed because you look like an absolute idiot, but it always comes out really well. So whenever it came to the video, I was just alright, yeah, let’s do this. I will do anything if it’ll look good in the end. Whenever it’s out in the open and stuff, you do get people staring, but you expect it when you’re doing something like that.
Gerard, you prefer to take a backseat when it comes to the videos, yeah?
Gerard: I do, yes (laughing). I was actually there on the shoot. There was one shot on the video, especially where Rio’s just walking through the Botanic Gardens – the greenhouse or whatever it’s called. Yeah. Our director, Kevin (KB), was shooting it, and he was walking backwards. Rio was walking forwards, and I was kind of holding his bag and directing him where to go. So, you know, you’re looking at Rio, and she’s walking and singing, and I am thinking, oh, this is gonna look ridiculous. And then we got the video back, and we’re like, ‘this looks amazing.’
Now, when I’m watching films, I can see how everything in the shot has been worked out. I never really thought about that before, but everything’s important. I remember watching this thing about Paul Thomas Anderson, making his last film, which was ‘The Phantom Thread’, I think. And then he was talking about a pre-production thing, where everybody was dressed in the shots, and they’d done all the lighting. I think Daniel Day-Lewis is sitting at his desk, and then someone comes in with the tray. Maybe the maid or his wife comes in with a tray of tea. And then (Paul) goes, ‘Oh, the only thing we changed here was the teapot. We needed to change the colour of the teapot.’ And immediately when you’re watching, you think, yeah, the teapot doesn’t look right.
So I think all of those things are important, especially when it gets to that level. But even for us, after a couple of hours, you knew what would work and what wouldn’t work. Rio is so natural that anything kind of works to some extent. She’s done it so many times.
Rio: Yeah, but some things still look very, very ridiculous. You have to do the ridiculous to get the weird, solid gold shots.
Thanks for taking the time. Best of luck with the new single and hopefully the album in the not too distant future. Is there anything you want to put out there to some of the people who follow you guys, or just generally just in terms of what’s coming up for Dark Topics for this year?
Rio: I guess just the message of the comments about some of our music videos. Some of them are really, really lovely, and I’m always so unbelievably grateful for that. I guess I am stunned that people are enjoying this. People want to listen to it. People get the word out about things. Just happy and grateful for it, I guess.
Gerard: Any interest that people are showing, I’m always pleased, so that’s great. Thank you very much.
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