You’re in a band, masks are part of your gimmick, seems simple enough: who knew what a task it would be to select a style? Three lads from London figured it wasn’t worth the Slipknot sweat or Daft Punk protectors. ‘From our first gig we wore masks and it followed on,’ says Is Tropical's Simon from behind a cabaret fringed blackscarf, which he has donned in true apologetic English style at the beginning of our chat: (‘Shall I wear the mask? Sorry.) We went for a lot of mistakes,’ the singer, bassist, guitarist and electric pianist continues. ‘The African fabric we’d get from all the markets in London were really thick, like these starch scarves are made out of, so we went for a Lady Gaga style. Before jeans and jumpers and even like underwear, people wore masks. Masks are involved in religion, crime, theatre…this is a romance kind of mask.’
Big ideas in squat London
Whilst accepting the long tradition that Is Tropical has been following in marketing terms since their beginning – they launched as a music group in January 2009 – Simon emphasises the importance of performance in their work. ‘We have a live show with a projection. We want to be a bit more theatrical and take it as far away as guys sitting round the campfire and singing with an acoustic guitar, make it a bit more like a performance. When we put the masks on we just get into a mode. A lot of our music is escapism as well,’ he says. Their songs are definitely pop but widely differ in musical style. ‘We didn’t really want to be a band writing about going down the shops and buying cigarettes. You end up writing a song about love just because, ah shit, it’s all really cheesy you know…We don’t sing about the crisis or student rises but more stupid stories about some guy losing his dog and finding it in a weird place. We're not a political band.’
The atmosphere which allowed Is Tropical to secrete as a band was far from political, and literally 'free'. After Simon and guitarist Gary graduated from art studies, they moved into a Georgian house in London which they converted into an art gallery. They would regularly play music at the exhibitions they held with drummer Dom, as well as encouraging other creatives around them, encouraging a unique self-contained collaborative scene south of the river with artists including Matthew Stone. ‘We lived in a creative hub and there was another squat called Squallyoaks with similar creative outlets. In London everyone gets up and helps their mate up. For example we have a lot of photographer friends who have only got where they are because they have got mates in bands who they help out. This year everyone has got something back from that: one friend has moved back to New York and will publish a book. Dominic Jones has done jewellery for (American pop singer) Rihanna - and he came from a horrible house.’
Europe not US
For Is Tropical success has meant being signed to Kitsune, a music and fashion label based in Paris. It explains their presence at the Transmusicales, a music festival in western France, where we meet today. Having played a couple of UK tours, they have appeared on European tours with the likes of LCD Sound System, The Klaxons and Manchester band Egyptian Hip Hop. ‘We don’t want to be an English band,’ explains Simon. ‘A lot of bands in England want to be just an English band. Some people want to be big in America and I couldn’t think of anything worse. I’ve got an American passport. I went out to San Diego and LA when I was twenty and it was so fucked up. I was there when those bombs went off on the trains in Spain and I didn’t find out about it in the news. Everyone’s got a lot more culture in Europe...that sounds snobby.’
London may have an excellent scene for growth, but the opportunity window narrows thanks to the inevitable competition. ‘England is very oversaturated in music, in London especially. Any night of the week you go to a pub and even if you don’t want to see a live band, you’ll see three. We'd much rather be big in Italy or France! We played Trieste in northern Italy, where our online press agent was born. It was a really good venue near a port, they took us out for meals - in England you’re lucky to get five warm beers! We played a festival in Moscow before we signed. We had no money and all these preconceptions - I always thought it’d be really gangster - but every day we met the nicest people in the world.’
'Some people want to be big in America and I couldn’t think of anything worse'
One of the best tips from the continent comes from Is Tropical’s encounter with the feisty girl band Les Corps Mince de Francoise, who rejected their native Finland to make it in Europe. ‘They were really cool, they stuck to their guns,’ concludes Simon. ‘As long as you’re making music that you’d want to listen to, because a lot of people don't do that. I made that mistake. Do new metal! Get massive crowds and sell lots of merchandise! Like all the goth bands selling out the massive arenas!’ We bump into each other again later, as he is wildly looking for his lost scarf in a panic before that night's early morning set before M.I.A plays; it's not long before he's off again, giggling, when he realises it's wrapped around his neck.
Catch Is Tropical at the Printemps de Bourges festival in France on 22 April and at dates across London and the rest of the UK here
Images courtesy of ©Is Tropical facebook page