A band walk into a bar… at least we think it was a band



Is Tropical have barely been together a year, yet they’ve already recorded with Al O’Connell (Klaxons, Big Pink), knicked a boat (“We got lost a little bit, had a bit of an argument but got back to the hotel and everything was alright.”) and started up their own club night (ADULTS at The Macbeth, Hoxton). “I think it’s important not to latch onto someone else’s scene and to create your own,” states Gary Barber – not so much a frontman but one of the guys who tackles vocals, guitar and keys. “In London,” he continues “there are always five bands that play together and they keep to the same clubs and the same kids go to those nights, but because ours is so different the bands from those little scenes will play our night and be seen by different crowds.”

If this London three-piece hasn’t bumbled into your conscious yet, let us give you a heads up. Simon Milner, the other one on v, g and k, favours an emerald green lady’s coat with fur collar and cuffs. Barber’s long straight hair protrudes from his hood and covers half his face, while drummer/programmer Dom Apa sports a brightly coloured jumper and a side-sweep to give Rihanna’s beret-hair a run for its money. They studied fine art, illustration and English literature, respectively, and love to surf (who doesn’t, these days?). They’re now sat in a pub where everything is a bit broken and wobbly, including the peeling décor, which is somewhat fitting for a band who live in squats and scrounge instruments.

“We just have no money,” Gary explains. “We booked a live show before we had any instruments and then we were running around phoning people saying, ‘Have you got a KORG I can borrow? I need a bass…’”

“Gary made his own guitar,” Dom interjects.

Gary laughs. “Yeah, out of a broken one. But everything went wrong at the beginning. We all planned to have money coming in from certain places and that didn’t happen.”

“There’s something about serendipity as well,” says Dom. “Because we ordered a keyboard that never came and I bought one that exploded when I plugged it in, but the one thing we did get was this SPD [drum sampler] and that got a really big role. So the way we ended up sounding was dependent on what we actually had to use.”

And Is Tropical have filed a little of everything to make that sound: pop, dance, electro, punk slurs…you name it. Their upcoming single alone – ‘When O’ When’ – is a mesh of accordion-based sea shanties morphing into drum-heavy Mystery Jets-on-fast-forward. “There’s no specific genre that can be put to it, but I don’t think [the songs are] so disjointed that you can’t see a relation,” utters Gary before Dom adds: “It makes it more fun to play the set as well because you can be swapping between loads of different sounds.”

“If something’s written on the guitar,” Gary maintains “a lot of bands would think, ‘Oh, the next song has to have the same thing played on the guitar’. But if we write something on the guitar and it sounds good we think, ‘Let’s play it on the glockenspiel, make it sound different’, because a good riff is a good riff.”

“A glockenspiel’s not even an instrument that we use,” Dom scoffs.

“But we’ve got one…” Gary says with a glimmer in his eye.

Speaking of the live show, if you’ve seen it you’ll know that these boys come adorning masks and basking in projections, because aesthetics is an important part for them. It’s not so much about a band-audience formula, but an all-inclusive performance. Gary is the first to enlighten us. “It destroys the magic if the first time somebody mentions a band you think of what they look like. It’s like reading a book – you have an image of exactly what you wanna see…” he says, before Dom interrupts. “And then you watch the film and it’s fucking Matt Damon!”

“Also, I’m a fan of nice fabric,” Simon mutters as he pulls a yellow and brown silk scarf with a mouth hole from his pocket.

Gary explains that they’re also trying to eradicate a frontman, a leader, which is also why they switch places a lot. “If you swap around it’s anonymous. You don’t really know who’s doing what and you can’t make out the vocals because they’ve got too much distortion on.” Plus, they were in a previous band together and ousted a few members… “We kinda wanna be those criminals who move town and change their names,” Simon jokes.

As for the projections? Inspired by documentary-maker Adam Curtis, the band cut together pieces of stock footage to liven things up and give you something other than them to focus on. Simon unfolds the logic behind it: “Sometimes it doesn’t match up to what he’s [Curtis] talking about, but the visuals draw you in and that’s what we want in a live show. Maybe they’re not exactly what we’re singing about but it’s something beautiful that you can be involved with.”

“That’s why we wear the masks,” adds Gary “and face each other and get involved and put our heads down and don’t interact with the crowd too much. It’s not about turning our back on them; it’s about doing what we do. If you’re gonna stand and face the front you might as well have something nice to look at, as opposed to watching the backs of three people getting into their own music.”

By DK Goldstein

Originally published in issue 13 (vol. 3) of Loud And Quiet. December 2009

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