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Tropic Of Cancer: Beneath The Light

Ahead of her appearance at this year’s Unsound Festival, Scott Wilson talks to Camella Lobo about the sometimes challenging path to the release of her debut album, Restless Idylls.

“I’m sorry I had to push the interview an hour,” Camella Lobo explains as I contact her at her home in Los Angeles, “it was my husband’s birthday last night and we had a dinner and some drinks, so I slept in a little later than I expected.” Despite her mild hangover, Lobo is the kind of person that immediately puts you at ease with her warm manner. This domestic scene – occasionally interrupted by her cat – is something completely divorced from her work as Tropic of Cancer, a project whose combination of synthwave, techno and post-punk influences can often be bleak and introspective, and whose image presented through artwork on records for Downwards, Blackest Ever Black and Mannequin has been an occasionally macabre one that seems on the surface predisposed with the darker corners of the human psyche.

Lobo’s lyrics, heavily obscured by reverb, often tell stories of love coated in a powerful atmosphere of longing. “Sometimes a song is about something that has happened, sometimes it’s about something that I completely fathom in my mind, and sometimes it’s about a person and I just start telling the story of that person,” Lobo explains. Her music has found fans across many genre boundaries, in some part due to the interesting nature of her sound, but it seems most likely down to her innate ability to create musical narratives that appeal to some more primal part of human emotion, assisted by her oblique method of storytelling which is no doubt informed by her early interest in short story writing.

Lobo’s husband of course is Juan Mendez, the techno producer better known as Silent Servant who was half of the Tropic of Cancer project until September 2011. Although time constraints were a large part of his decision to let Lobo carry on solo, it was the strain that it put on their relationship that was the deciding factor. “Truthfully, we do not work well together,” Lobo says frankly. “We had different visions of what we wanted the music to sound like, so in that context it just wasn’t healthy for us to work together.”

Lobo and Mendez are still very happily married, but Lobo is honest about her struggle to continue alone as Tropic of Cancer without the wealth of her husband’s musical experience, whilst also juggling her career working for an advertising agency in Los Angeles. Lobo makes it clear, for the most part, that making music a labour of love: “My life is pretty polarised in a sense, but you have to make money – I want to make money (from music) ideally, but what it takes to make money as an artist these days is just not something I’m willing to engage in.” The technology barrier has also proved difficult, with her learning Logic as she worked without Mendez. Despite these difficulties, Lobo has just completed Tropic of Cancer’s debut album, Restless Idylls, to be released on Kiran Sande’s Blackest Ever Black label in September. Lobo is keen to stress the more positive elements of this LP: “I got tired of this idea of sadness and depression – even though some of the songs are like that, I just really wanted to emphasise the light on this one.”

The path to Restless Idylls has been a long one for Lobo. Growing up in Los Angeles, her Brazilian father introduced her to the music of his home country, while her American mother introduced her to artists like Jimi Hendrix and The Cure. Lobo herself was an avid radio listener with a fondness for what she describes as “low rider oldies” and “murder ballads”. At school she sang in a Catholic choir and at college, as her desire to make music had become a more significant urge, Lobo took formal singing lessons, hoping it would help her replicate the sound of the production around Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine. The reality however, almost caused her to give up entirely. “When I got to these classes, they were telling me to do something that was very counterintuitive to me, and so the first time I ever had to perform in front of a class – this was in I think a week of being in the course – I sang the way Kim Gordon would sing. I sang more in ethereal tones, and that’s just not something that is prioritised in classic music instruction…I hated it, to put it bluntly.” It wasn’t until she met Mendez at a show several years later that things started to fall into place for Lobo creatively, with the pair going on to write two EPs and a single together.

Despite the obvious connections to minimal synth and post-punk, Tropic of Cancer’s music is imbued with something much more impressionistic, rooted in the sun-drenched climate of her native Los Angeles. It makes sense to discover that Lobo’s biggest creative influence is Broadcast’s Trish Keenan, whose strong narratives and timeless interpretation of pop and psychedelia could be seen as an earlier British counterpart to the way Lobo combines classic song structures with primitive electronic tones.

“I really wanted to present this idea that there is a light within this music, that it’s not all sad – I hope that people could grab on to that light when they’re listening to the music.”

Keenan’s tragic and untimely death in 2011 had a profound effect on Lobo. “I had met her (through Juan) a couple of times, but to be honest I was completely terrified of her… I don’t think I’ve ever intentionally tried to make music like Trish. But I think about her a lot when I make music – not just in the sense of thinking about her as a person, but I think, ‘I wonder what she would think about this, I wonder if she would listen to this’ – I don’t know, it’s just become that thing for me.” The song, “A Color”, which featured on 2011’s The Sorrow Of Two Blooms EP was specifically written about Keenan shortly after she died. “I had a really hard time with that song in particular because it never felt good enough to say, ‘this is how we’re feeling’ or ‘this is how we feel about you’ – it just never felt like it was enough for her.”

Although Tropic of Cancer is now well established and much beloved by a wide range of fans, it feels that in the wake of Mendez’ departure – and perhaps to a lesser extent the death of Lobo’s primary influence – that the Tropic of Cancer project has entered the second phase of its life. The change in sound isn’t immediately apparent, but it does feel warmer, more enveloping, and less sandblasted
than when Mendez was involved. It’s not a stretch to imagine the album opener, “Plant Lilies At My Head”, or the drawn-out guitar notes of the stunning “Children Of A Lesser God” soundtracking the end credits to some imaginary, tragic ‘80s teen movie. “I think the framework is different,” Lobo explains, “I think the overall emphasis on the aggressiveness of the sound has changed just because that’s not intuitive to me.”

Although this tone is audible in the music, the most readily apparent break from the earlier phase of Tropic of Cancer comes in the artwork for Restless Idylls (designed by Lobo and Mendez), whose vivid palette of jade and brass is a far cry from the monochrome covers of The Sorrow of Two Blooms and Permissions of Love. For Lobo, this was a conscious decision to break with the darker image the
project had portrayed previously – one that had gained her music a ‘goth’ tag in critical discussion which she was keen to distance herself from. “I think the idea behind the colour was just about moving in this other direction”, she explains. “It’s so hard for me to talk about this, because I just don’t want anyone to get offended, upset or think that I’m saying ‘fuck goth.’ That is not what this is about. I think I just got fucking tired of the dark look, the whole aesthetic of death and destruction. I really wanted to present this idea that there is a light within this music, that it’s not all sad – I hope that people could grab on to that light when they’re listening to the music. I don’t think that I could stomach another record that looked like a page out of a horror movie, y’know?”

Despite the cover’s rejection of a certain aesthetic, it nevertheless taps into another in its iconography of early Hollywood’s emotional duality – a fascination that she tells me came in some part from her father, who was a homicide detective for the LAPD. “I’ve always been completely obsessed with that Noir age of Hollywood decadence,” Lobo explains, “when I was growing up, I used to read tons of books about crime and about Los Angeles in particular.” Although the interest in her environment and its rich history has certainly informed the album’s artwork and the visual aesthetic of Tropic of Cancer in general, Lobo is keen to stress that the influence on the music itself is much less literal. “I guess Hollywood particularly is an influence because Los Angeles is where I grew up – but it’s that idea of the rise and fall, that whole idea of ‘the brighter the light, the darker the shadow’, that the better your life looks on paper, the worse it is in reality.” Even if not taken literally, it’s hard not to see this idea in track titles like “Beneath The Light”, taken from last year’s Permissions of Love EP, whose cover (and that of A Sorrow Of Two Blooms) seemed to tap into film noir’s idea of a surface beauty obscured by shadow and uncertainty.

This album has also seen Lobo enlist the help of her husband’s Sandwell District associate Karl O’Connor to assist in the album’s final production, as well as adding musical elements to certain tracks – most notably on “The Seasons Won’t Change (And Neither Will You)”, which features a piano piece from O’Connor, and on “Court of Devotion”, which features vocal treatments and icy synths from the producer. His involvement was something that proved to be invaluable in the wake of Mendez’ departure from the project. “He really provided this ability for me to just think about the music and not have to worry about the end production and the mixing,” Lobo explains. “It really was a relief just to have someone else involved because I think the reason why there’s been a lot of pressure is because I don’t really have anyone to tell me ‘yes, keep going in that direction’, or ‘why don’t you dial that back and focus on this’. Juan was there to some degree, but for the most part I didn’t want to involve him, because to keep him entrenched in my business in Tropic of Cancer was too much for him.”

This iteration of Tropic of Cancer’s live show also features DVA DAMAS member Taylor Burch (pictured below) in place of Mendez, a change that has further increased Lobo’s confidence in continuing the project solo. “Her and I at this point have almost become like sisters”, she explains, “we have literally never had an argument – knock on wood – about the music or over anything, we just genuinely support each other, and I feel so lucky to have her involved.”

Of course, aside from those immediately involved in the Tropic of Cancer project, it feels particularly prescient that the album is being released at the height of what seems like a flurry of similar acts which have released music in the past year. Aside from DVA DAMAS, who recently released an album on the Downwards America imprint Mendez curates, acts like The KVB, Oake and HTRK have risen to prominence, while Blackest Ever Black and Powell’s Diagonal imprint have also championed the intersection between guitar music and primitive electronics. Although in a previous interview Lobo has denied being part of any LA-based scene, so does this preponderance of similarly parched sounds, make Lobo feel like she’s part of a growing global movement?

“I think what’s happened since then is that something has gathered all of us together, and now it’s become a very cohesive scene – of people who genuinely love each other, and who are very supportive of each other’s music. It has to do with a number of reasons, but one is Mount Analog, the record store in Los Angeles. They’ve really created the nucleus in all of this I think, it’s like the glue that’s holding all of this together. And then you have Juan and Karl with Downwards America and Downwards in general, just allowing these artists to be part of this family. There’s Michael Stock from Part Time Punks, and everybody that comes through plays at Part Time Punks, the LA standard at this point for our scene, and Kiran (Sande) has just been such a big part of things – I just trust Kiran with my life basically at this point, I mean he’s been really super supportive”.

Despite Lobo’s network of friends and collaborators willing to help her bring her vision into the world, and her opinion that the early music she made with Mendez was, in her words: “the best music that will ever be produced as Tropic of Cancer,” it’s obvious that Tropic of Cancer has always been, and still is Lobo’s musical vision, albeit one that is very much still developing. “I think the hardest thing for me is that I would love to be able to make songs that were above 90BPM, but it’s impossible for me,” Lobo explains. “Tropic of Cancer, I guess when I say ‘that’s the best it will ever be’ is because it’s kind of impossible for me to see Tropic of Cancer as fully formed because I would really love to make faster, more aggressive songs, but I can’t do that yet on my own.”

Although Lobo may not feel herself that Tropic of Cancer has finished gestating, it seems clear that Restless Idylls is undoubtedly the most emotionally affecting, personal, and fully formed work the project has generated to date, and one that comes with a very distinct message. “I don’t want my music to make people more sad or make them wallow in their strife and upset,” Lobo explains, impassioned, “I just want people to be able to come to this music and listen to it and feel better on the other end, and feel like there’s a light, and there is hope. I hope that it comforts, and that’s all I want.”

Interview by Scott Wilson
Photo of Camella Lobo and Taylor Burch courtesy of Autumn Andel

Tropic of Cancer will be performing at this year’s Unsound Festival in Krakow from October 13- 20, and at this year’s Blackest Ever Black showcase in London on October 12.