- 02 Feb 22
As they gear up for what’s sure to be a break-out year, cinematic pop duo Dark Tropics talk about singing Gnarls Barkley, skinning goats and booze queues in Newry. Photography: Wrapped in Plastic.
The first time Gerard Sands heard Rio McGuinness sing, she was humming Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ into a handset.
“I was at a bus stop, walking to work, singing into my phone,” recalls McGuinness.
“It was this jazzy version. The melody was different,” continues Sands. “Everything about it was weird. I half hated it, half loved it. I was like, ‘We need to meet.’”
So went the origin story of Dark Tropics, the Belfast duo whose Lana Del Rey-esque cinematic pop has seen them anointed one of Ireland’s most acclaimed new outfits. Sands had discovered McGuinness on an app called “Join My Band”, which in Belfast largely consists of heavy metal bass players looking for drummers.
After inhaling her breathless take on Gnarls Barkley they met, mucked around in the studio – and a beautiful partnership was born. Since then, and even with the pandemic doing its best to derail the collaboration, they’ve barely stopped.
“Rio’s voice dictated what type of songs we wrote,” says Sands. “I knew very quickly it wasn’t going to be EDM music, with the way she sang. Slower songs, more thoughtful songs, suited her voice. Her voice dictated where all the production went.”
They’ve had a rapid rise, with swooning reviews for last October’s debut album, Ink, which they have dedicated to their late manager, Lyndon Stephens. Hailed by Hot Press’s Lee Campbell as “atmospheric, moody and complex”, the project has also received sustained airplay both sides of the border.
Given that Dark Tropics’ introverted sound demands the listener lean in and pay attention, this success is not to be sniffed at. Quiet and thoughtful music doesn’t always get a fair hearing, particular in our present era of shrinking attention spans. And yet somehow Dark Tropics have touched a chord.
Their calling card is ‘Badlands’, a vertiginous ballad that combines Philip Glass piano minimalism, pre-stardom Billie Eilish vocals, and an Americana sensibility so rich you can almost feel the desert dust whipping your face. It all comes together as McGuinness arrives at the enigmatic chorus: “Strayed from the heart / Strayed from home / Dead from the start / I let you in.”
“This is the best case scenario in terms of radio play and how lovely people have been,” says McGuinness. “It’s all extremely positive. When people hear us on the radio and find us online and leave a lovely comment – I guess I hope it’s people seeing something in our music that we see. We put a little bit of ourselves in all of our music. Everything is polished to perfection. Those songs do not go out if they’re not perfect.”
“Rio” is short for Rionnach: the singer, who has just graduated from Queens, grew up in a family steeped in traditional music. And if that background hasn’t percolated into Dark Tropics, there is nonetheless something very ancient and hauntingly Irish in the way in which McGuinness can convey a lifetime of heartache in a single, sustained note.
“The man my mam used to work with used to make bodhráns. To the point of choosing the goat [the skin of which was used to make the instrument]. I grew up around trad musicians. Unfortunately I never did it. It’s an entirely different set of skills, especially the singing – it’s insane and it’s so beautiful.”
McGuinness is speaking from Brighton where she is on a post-Christmas break. Her bandmate, meanwhile, is in his family home just outside Newry. It’s a few days since minimum alcohol pricing was introduced south of the Border, and he confirms the roads to Newry have been doing well out of parched citizens from the Republic.
“The road’s chockablock,” he says. “It’s weird. Coming in from the Dublin Road, there is a Sainsbury’s and that carpark is completely packed.”
He’s lived most of the past several years in Belfast, where he received a history degree from Queens. Sands also spent his time at college immersed in the city’s music scene. He came to Dark Tropics having previously fronted the dance project Kid Trench.
“It’s not that big,” he says of Belfast’s indie circuit. “It’s about 20 people all together, not including the artists. You meet bands. It’s a wee bit ridiculous how supportive everyone is of everyone. A lot of the same musicians play in each other’s bands. You kind of know everyone. Even if you don’t know them, you know them.”
Dark Tropics’ music is often described as “cinematic” – and it is frequently suggested that they would be the perfect artists to soundtrack a future season of True Detective. Sands takes that as a compliment – up to a point.
“It’s very easy to get into, ‘it’s a bit earnest and cringe’,” he says. “You have to stay on the right side of that, which is surprisingly tricky. All of the songs are so melancholic, it’s hard to avoid the filmic thing. It’s honestly not that intentional. Rio’s voice dictates it, really.”
Ink is out now:
See more of our Hot For 2022 selections here.