For a sharp, colourful and very-natural feeling collaboration in what they brand as the ‘pop noir’ world, Belfast duo Dark Tropics’ are growing fast. Their original formation, which saw them evolve into an act receiving a surprising level of early-career international radioplay almost overnight, was somewhat more mundane, but an immediate fit.
“About two years ago I saw an ad online on ‘join my band’ from a singer based in Belfast looking to perform live in a jazz band,” multi-instrumentalist Gerard Sands explains. “Although I didn’t really want to play jazz, I thought it was intriguing so I messaged Rio [McGuinness] and she emailed me back from Morocco where she was volunteering for the summer after her A Levels.”
“She sent me this really jazzy voice note of her singing ‘Crazy’ by Gnarls Barkley acapella. It sounded beautifully strange, so we organised a meeting 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 the following week. We wrote and recorded two demos very quickly, sent them off to a few industry folk, and a few months later we were in Attica studio in the Donegal countryside recording our debut album ‘Ink’.”
“We did have a lot of gigs scheduled when we released our first single so obviously it was a disappointment when covid stopped all that. It did give us an opportunity to write new songs though. We couldn’t meet up during lockdown so we’d send each other song ideas via WhatsApp and develop them that way.”
“Now that shows have started again we’re keen to get out and play. We’ve only done a handful of shows, actually just three, so we need to play in front of an audience and get that feedback.”
Speaking of one of their bigger songs, ‘Moroccan Sun’, McGuinness talks of the experience she was having just before the pair met.
“I’ve travelled to a few different countries to volunteer,” she tells us. “Right before we recorded, I spent a month in Puerto Rico. Every time I go somewhere new, I feel like I learn a little more about myself. I meet new people and have new experiences, I guess that does seep into most of what I do. But yes, ‘Moroccan Sun’ is a direct reference to what happened while I was in Morocco, which ended up as a living nightmare, but a beautiful one that I wouldn’t take back.”
“To be honest the sound of Rio’s voice dictates how the songs sound,” Sands says. “We wanted to keep the instrumentation mostly acoustic and vintage sounding without heavy beats or synths. Every decision was made so that the vocal would be right out front and never buried in too much electronic production.”
The pair, then, lift that emotion and toned-down approach to produce these beautiful swirling melodies in a style they call ‘pop noir,’ one that feels fresh and impactful, and instantly accessible. Their future has been semi on-hold, like almost every other artist, but with a first Dublin date announced and an album out in the world, Dark Tropics are coming for you.
“I want people to listen to our music and feel something. That will make me happy,” McGuinness concludes. Based on early releases, that doesn’t seem a lot to ask.
Dark Tropics debut album ‘Ink’ is out now.