Photography by Niko Mitrunen
Words by Eleanor Taylor-Davis
It’s the first balmy day of the year and London is awash with hopeful summer enthusiasts eager to hang up their winter coats. The City slows down for a moment as dwellers slow down to appreciate the unexpected but fortuitous change, for a brief moment spontaneity reigns, “I hung my washing outside for the first time this year!” Kirstie Fleck, member of electronic band ‘Is Tropical’ tells me excitedly as they welcome me into their North London recording studio. I’m here to chat to the band about their recently released third album and having known them all for some years, I find myself reminiscing back to when we met, a time when I had fewer grey hairs and far fewer responsibilities. My penchant for dissociative drugs and pursuing scruffy artists lead me to discover the bands former outfit Ratty Rat Rat at a squat party one night, and being totally charmed by their youthful and hedonistic energy.
As charming as they were, Ratty Rat Rat didn’t last long and as the boys matured (ish) they moved on to more legally sound premises. It was then that Gary Barber, Simon Milner and Dominic Apa reformed as a three piece called Is Tropical, and what they lacked in musical education or experience they made up for in creative insight and charisma; delivering energetic live performance and funnelling their inherent chaotic style into raw and unusually structured songs.
The band were soon spotted and signed Kitsune which was to be a defining moment for them; being a global label, Kitsune presented the band with opportunities to gig overseas from very early on in their musical career, something that undoubtedly wouldn’t be possible had they signed to a British label. “The first time we played Paris we just thought; wow, we need to do this more”, Simon tells me, “and that’s why we were so lucky to sign with Kitsune, ‘cause a lot of bands sign to an English label and get punted around the UK about 20 times, before even the possibility of an overseas gig arises.” This global touring schedule has undoubtedly affected their fan base (when I ask if the band have ever played a gig to a non-existent crowd, Gary jokingly replies “England, every time”) with their fans disseminated across continents in little pockets. “It’s great because instead of expanding our fan base from the cool kids to the mums, and selling our CDs in supermarkets, we’ve just got the cool kids in every country!”
So with the move to a new record label last year, offering the band much more creative freedom, it seemed natural to somehow incorporate this nomadic element into their third album. They decided to record the entire thing on the road, taking field recorders and setting up makeshift studios at random locations across the globe. The physical record is emblematic of the entire process in that it comprises a series of five records (each with two tracks, all to be released as singles) featuring the segment of the map in which it was recorded. When stacked, they present the album’s global footprint and ethos of Is Tropical, as Dom says “it’s a logical extension of what the band’s become”. At this point Simon leaks change from his pockets onto the sofa we’re all slouched on, “you’re dropping money” I point out, “so that’s where it all goes!” he shouts “yeah right” laughs Dom “not on booze”, “down Wetherspoon’s sofas” Kirstie adds. Thinking they’re joking I express how depressing that sounds, to which they all respond “welcome to our life!”
On a brighter note, however, recording in the way they have been doing – on the road – sounds pretty great and I can’t help but wonder why more musicians don’t do this; surely the removal of time constraints and addition of beautiful surroundings are far more conducive to producing interesting and brilliant work. Simon concurs, telling me about an experience setting up studio at a house in Spain they stayed in through Airbnb, “we had amps set up outside and everyone around this pool, the producer would just do a couple of laps then press record.” I can’t help but laugh at how dreamlike the whole situation sounds, (literally) a million miles away (literally) high-pressured neuroticism of the music industry, recording like this must affect the sound dramatically? “Yes” Dom tells me “because you ‘re surrounded with inspiration when you’re on tour, and usually you have to write ideas down and come back to them later in the studio. But when you can instantly put a thought or feeling into a song, it naturally translates better, good producers try to recreate that energy in the studio, but we were immersed in it already. Gary adds that time constraints in the studio can limit creativity, “if you come up with an idea and things are developing naturally, there’s a tendency to try and speed things up as you’re running out of time. By a pool in the sun, you can just go off on five hour tangents and get really interesting results”. You also make new friends, apparently; the guy who owned the villa in Spain came back early to find the band had gutted the house and filled it with recording equipment, but luckily for them instead of flipping out – as you might expect – he applauded their creative insight, and the group remain friends with him to this day, “He came and stayed with us recently, with his family” Kirstie tells me.
Another big change that’s undoubtedly affected the third album, is the addition of a new full time member; Gary’s long term girlfriend (and long time Is Tropical supporter) Kirstie Fleck. When I ask about the reasoning behind this decision, the band is pretty unanimous that it was imperative, something that just needed to happen; “the only song anyone liked, pre her joining, was the one with her singing on it” (Dancing Anymore) says Dom. “She was on our first album cover too, and drove us to our first gigs in her mum’s Fiat” Simon adds “then when Gary had her sing on the demo of ‘Dancing Anymore’ – just for reference – we all said ‘Wow! Kirstie has a voice!’”
Since she joined, the band has been able to relax on stage a bit “none of us ever wanted to be the front man on stage” says Simon, “yeah” Dom agrees, “we’ve always tried to be cool, looking down and not engaging with the audience”, Simon laughs “we thought we could be like The strokes, but only The Strokes can get away with being like that.” Kirstie, however, has taken on the position of front woman with aplomb, and the fans love her. In fact some fans love her a little too much; “strange things happen to me now, I’m a bit more freaked out!” she says, “Oh yeah!” Simon laughs, “this is really weird; someone stole Kirstie’s shoe and set up a Facebook page called ‘Kirstie’s Missing Shoe’, and they’ve taken it on a ski holiday!” Other weird incidents include an Italian female fan putting a photo of Kirstie on Instagram with an axe Photoshopped into her head, creepy and terrifying in itself, but even more so when the girl turns up to a gig that same night and stands at the front grinning at Kirstie throughout the performance.
So what’s next? No more Italian gigs? “Lots of European festival requests are coming in” – Gary replies – “we’re playing about six Spanish ones which is cool”. “Yeah” adds Simon “and we’re going to China again for a Kitsune night, and then a gig in Bahrain, and a residency in New York”. So the rampant touring schedule continues as the band move forward with a fourth member and third album, which by the sounds of things is a lot darker than it’s predecessors; “I think before we were holding back on writing sad songs and trying to be positive ” Simon tells me “but we’ve realised we’re all just fucking goths inside!” “Yeah”, Dom adds, “this album is our insides.” And so these self proclaimed goths move forward with their rampant touring schedule, and – in the more immediate future – into a balmy London evening, to look for, I can only presume, the nearest Wetherspoons.