Dark Tropics: “it’s mostly acoustic and vintage sounding without heavy beats or synths”

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.”

Robocobra Quartet: “pretty much every song is loosely based on something we should aspire to”

Ever-morphing Belfast six-piece Robocobra Quartet are one of those bands that are very hard to pin down: equally at home in jazz and punk quarters.

‘Living Isn’t Easy’, their first full-length record in four years, is typically exploratory, with a single ‘Wellness’ in which vocalist Chris Ryan reads verbatim a bizarre article about an influencer’s daily routine, is typical of the band’s leftfield exuberance.

I spoke to the band around the launch of the record, and found them in thoughtful form…

Hi lads, congrats on the new record. You did some interestingly specific things in the studio around creating a mood. Can you tell me how that worked in practice?

Ryan Burrowes: Thank you! We decided to record the album in a studio in rural Donegal, a cool looking modern studio set in a sort of idyllic rugged Irish landscape. The idea was to focus solely on the music and spend time together as a group of 6, which up until that point we have never really done.

The album was written and arranged very collaboratively compared to previous records and we wanted to maximise this when recording by forcing ourselves into the same location for a week, while also recording many of the tracks live. We decided on a strict ‘sound palette’ for this record, which allowed us to be as creative as possible within strict parameters. I think this has all contributed to our most direct sounding release thus far. We also had a great time as a collective.

The title of the album suggests a response to circumstance. How do the songs link in with the concept?

Chris W Ryan: The title is a play on the way lifestyle brands sell ‘easy living’ as something to aspire to. As if complacency is the goal or something? It seemed like a good title to group a collection of songs about our modern life of aspiration. Pretty much every song is loosely based around something we try to aspire to (or are told we should aspire to).

Did covid feed into your musical worlds at all?

Chris W Ryan: In a way we wouldn’t have been able to make such a focussed album without the pause on touring that Covid forced us into. As a band we tend to do a lot of small runs and fly-gigs which can make the brain a bit scattered and lose momentum when writing. But the break in schedules allowed us to bash around songs in the room for a whole year.

Ryan Burrowes: Covid definitely fed into our musical world for this album as the downtime also allowed us to work on new ideas in our own time separately in isolation. Once lockdowns opened up a bit we spent a period intensely arranging these ideas into songs and recording an entire demo version of the album basically, with many tracks that didn’t make the final cut.

Tebi Rex: “we used to have to pretend we weren’t a hip-hop group to get a gig”

Hip-hop duo Tebi Rex’s new album ‘It’s Gonna Be Okay’ is the culmination of a long and complex road for Kildare natives Matt O’Baoill and Max Zanga, one that started in a deeply buried Irish scene that has transformed in the intervening years.

The pair, a strong part of healthy hip-hop collaboration Word Up Collective, have spent the early parts of this year putting the finishing touches to the record, and then bringing its pointed message to international audiences. Whilst still barred from gigs at home, they’ve starred virtually at Dutch newcomer festival Eurosonic and American industry giant SxSW.

“It’s mad to think how recently things were really underground,” Matt O’Baoill tells us of the early days of the band and the changes that followed. “We used to have to pretend we weren’t a hip-hop group to get a gig. And we’d go to slam poetry sessions with our guitar and say it was a gig.”

“I think there was a view that hip-hop was a US or UK idea, and that the Irish idea of music was a couple of white guys and a guitar, or a pretty girl lamenting something. We didn’t have many rappers, and the ones we did have were like MCs from Dublin talking about poverty, a lot of it quite grim and not very palatable to people outside of their scenario. Fast forward five, six, seven years and there’s hip-hop acts everywhere. It makes things a lot easier, and makes the scene a lot less threatening.”

The new album, out now, is divided into ‘chapters’ as opposed to songs, a nod to the storytelling side of the band.

“We’re kind of storytellers posing as musicians, ” O’Baoill says. “The last album was in ‘acts’, and this time it’s in chapters so we can have a lineage and a storyline going through it. We want people to see it as a story.”

Elton John: “Billie Eilish has just astonished me.”

Flamboyant rock icon Elton John has been promising to slow down for years. At the same time, he shows no sign of actually doing it. Foregoing a moment of lockdown peace, Elton was forced to postpone his farewell tour – one he insists will be the end, but many suspect won’t be – and set about writing a record by Zoom instead.

On it, Elton explores a heap of his old hits with the assistance of a plethora of young superstars, as well as working with them on some of their tracks. The result – The Lockdown Session’ – is a record that he seems to feel is helping him to stay young and vibrant.

“I had no plans to make any music at all during lockdown,” Elton told the press at an event to celebrate the new record. “So, this really came together as an accident. It started in March 2020 when I met Charlie Puth at a restaurant in Los Angeles. I’d never met him before and he actually lived only four doors away from me in LA and he said, I’ve got a studio if you feel like coming up while you’re here and writing something. So, I did and it’s the track that appears on the record, ‘After All’, and that was fantastic. “

“And the next day I went next door to my music publisher’s house, who lives three doors away from me, and I worked on the Surfaces track via Zoom, the first thing I’d ever done via Zoom. They were in Texas and I played piano on some of that track. And so the first two things really were those two things. And I came back to England and then Damon Albarn asked me to play on ‘Gorillaz’, Rina Sawayama asked me to do a duet and play piano on ‘Chosen Family’.” 

Elton’s motivation to help other artists is well established, and part of the story behind the record, though he feels some of them don’t particularly need it, he’s just excited by the collaboration.

Glass Animals: “I tried to sell our biggest hit”

Glass Animals have had a convoluted and fascinatingly varied career so far, one that’s seen them genre hop, drawing on influences from indie to hip-hop, and progress their style from the deeply abstract to the pointedly personal.

Frontman Dave Bayley is open about the band’s journey, which feels like a learning curve combined with a growth in confidence of self-expression, a step up to addressing the emotional and the heartfelt.

“Some songs are so personal I find them hard to perform, like ‘Agnes’,” frontman Dave Bayley says. “I need to be emotionally ready for it, it’s very deep for me and quite dark. I’ve stopped playing it for now, until I feel ready.”

Bayley traces much of his style back to his childhood. “I got a radio when I was about 11, and listened to a lot of hip-hop,” he says. “My small town in Texas, where I lived at the time, had two radio stations, just hip-hop on one and country on the other. I loved the way hip-hop made me feel. I still love artists like Busta Rhymes and Timbaland.”

“I actually have all my sounds on my computer organised by those producers, in folders called ‘Timbaland style sounds’ or ‘Pharrell style sounds’, so they’re a huge influence on my production in particular. It helps me find things, it’s the way my brain works. It makes sense to me. In a similar way, I have all the Apps on my phone organised by colour. It’s just what works for me.”

In recent months, following the launch of the album ‘Dreamland’, single ‘Heatwave’, in particular, has been a remarkable journey, peaking on the UK charts last week at number five, almost a year after release, and reaching over a billion Spotify streams. “It blows me away, I feel very very lucky, I wish I could understand it!” Bayley says. “I’ve always had this philosophy that great songs grow. I remember when I first heard Florence and the Machine, and it took a year to be on the radio. It’s great to have a little taste of that.”

The Crayon Set: “we want to keep evolving from one record to the next”

The Crayon Set’s new album ‘Downer Disco’ is the latest album that was recorded pre-covid to see a much delayed release, and will see the group expand on what they call their ‘hook-filled alt-pop’, a description perhaps as colourful and ambiguous – deliberately so – as the band’s name. They are, in short, morphing into something new. 

“There is definitely more of an electronic and 80s synth-pop influence on the album,” co-frontman Robert Baker tells me. “The idea behind the band name was that it would be diverse and that it would keep evolving from one record to the next so that is important to us.”

“I think this album had more of a groove to it and less layers and less harmonies everywhere – I think when we started off we were guilty of over-doing it, a decent song shouldn’t need 50 tracks! Our last album ‘Lost Languages’ was more folky and acoustic so I think this one will be more fun to play live.”

The album also introduces, or rather reintroduces, Kate Dineen, who brings a vocal swirling between the two into the mix, a permanent expansion after Dineen and the band worked together more temporarily earlier in the band’s lifespan.

“The way we work is probably pretty much the same [with Kate].” Baker explains. “I’ll usually bring in songs which we’ll work up in rehearsal and then hopefully improve on again when recording them with a good producer. But I do think we’re a better band as a result since Kate joined.” 

“On the last album I ended up doing most of the singing, after our original female singer moved on, and I think the band definitely works better with the mix of the two voices. Kate has also been playing more synths which is great in helping us get the new songs across live.”

Ross Turner: “The NCH was a conduit that gave me a compass and a map”

Between 2014 and 2016, drummer and multi-instrumentalist Ross Turner was the artist in residence at the National Concert Hall. Turner was already in love with the building, a place he’d visited regularly all his life, and, during his time there, connected with its quieter corners. 

During that time, Turner also engaged with many of the musicians who passed through. Five years after that period ended, he finds himself releasing ‘In The Echo: Field Recordings From Earlsfort Terrace’, in which he reveals some of the subtle, atmospheric pieces of music he worked on at the time. The resulting record features some modern greats of the Irish music scene: Lisa Hannigan, Conor O’Brien (of Villagers), Paul Noonan (of Bell X1), Katie Kim and Lisa O’Neill, with a focus very much on collaboration, and exploring the NCH’s atmosphere.

“I was keen to utilise my time as creatively as possible whilst situated in the National Concert Hall and how I might document that time in a memorable way,” Turner explains. “I set about trying to involve the building, the architecture itself. The idea to record remotely or ‘field record’ was inspired by hearing music travel throughout the building each time I passed through it.” 

“The variety of sounds produced by orchestras, choirs and soloists rehearsing throughout the building travelled naturally due to the marbled hallways and stairwells. It was beautiful. Once I had the idea in my head that I should document that sounds and spaces I set about formulating a plan and who might be interested and interesting to have involved.”

“It was pretty tricky logistically. From approaching the artists to getting people in the same room took time and patience. Finding quieter moments to record around the building was a factor also. The building was a conduit which gave me a compass and a map in a way. I had expressed the intent of the album to the artists but it was a singular experience for them. As the recordings were made one by one, I could hear it take shape and offer much more than I had hoped for.”

The reality of the record, which fell through an initial intended release at the time of its recording, has a real sense of when and how it was recorded, something Turner was very happy to place at the forefront. 

AJ Wander: “music is an emotional crutch through tough times.”

Having grown up with music – the son of a pianist – AJ Wander was perhaps destined to develop from a household in South London surrounded by instrumentation, to a modern day pop artist.

Performing a kind of driving, emotionally-wraught pop that underwent a breakthrough in 2020, when the single ‘Time Out’ became by a distance his biggest hit, gathering in excess of four million Spotify plays. Post covid, AJ returns with new single ‘Take It All’. Around the launch, we talked about his career to date…

First of all, ‘Time Out’ has done really well – congrats. It’s obviously a hugely personal track. Have your feelings towards it evolved since you wrote it?

I feel pretty distant from the headspace I was in when I wrote the song. Having to accept that something beautiful has run its course is a pretty common place for humans to end up in. It’s a great feeling to know so many people have connected with the song because of this mutual experience.

Judging by the themes of the new single, you’re quite happy to put your emotional side out there. Is this how you connect with music?

Not exclusively, but music is an emotional crutch through tough times and it just so happens I relied on that crutch for the whilst writing the singles I’ve released up to now.

How did ‘When You Say I Love You’ come together, and what’s the story behind it?

I wrote ‘When You Say I love You’ with my mate Geth in Wales. WYSILY is about when someone falls for you too fast and you go along with it just because you don’t want to hurt them. Then finally realising that pretending to be in love isn’t a healthy solution…honesty is the best policy.

Is the contrast between an upbeat feel and some quite self-exploratory lyrics something of a calling card for you?

I think the contrast between sombre lyrical content and anthemic production is definitely something I’m unconsciously drawn towards. However, there’s lots of music on it’s way that’s far less self-explorative…

I understand there’s an EP on the way. What should we expect from it

There is indeed! This EP is going to be a bridge from the music I’ve been releasing up until now and what I will be releasing next. I’m stepping outside of my own head little.