“Alternative pop” has always been difficult to define, mostly because pop itself is difficult to define. Pop, after all, is characterized by what music is popular at a given moment, which means it’s more fluid than most other genres: if a Lingua Ignota song topped the Hot 100, the definition of pop would at least temporarily expand to include neoclassical death industrial. Alt-pop is similarly fluid. Sometimes it serves as a sort of mirror universe to the pop scene, with artists like CHVRCHES or Robyn who would be household names but for the grace of God. Other times, it anticipates what comes next: artists like Lorde or Billie Eilish were both alt-pop before they broke through.
If Is Tropical ends up being a taste of what comes next, I’d be quite pleased. An experimental pop group from the UK, their latest song, “Hummingbird,” sounds familiar enough to welcome the listener and different enough to intrigue them. The song boasts a bouncy, satisfying bass line, the kind that feels balmy and tropical without falling into tourism-commercial kitsch. The main hook, too, is the kind you can imagine shouting along to in a club, or nodding along to in the back of an Uber (y’know, whenever we can get back to those things.)
But there’s a restless spirit here, a spirit that the song’s name hints at. You can hear it in the bleary, buzzing horn sounds (a little like Jon Hassell’s smears of trumpet) and the cryptic, knotty lyrics. And, of course, in that main hook: “I stand still/Like a hummingbird.” The band talks about what they meant by that line in our interview, but I found it perfectly appropriate: it’s the kind of song that seems so easy that you forget just how quickly its wings are beating.
What was the impetus behind writing “Hummingbird?” Is there a story behind it?
The idea came from a collection of Henry Miller writings in a book with the same name. He didn’t apply the metaphor in the same way but it made me think about emotions being unseen like hummingbirds wings, hectic beauty.
The song’s chorus goes “I stand still/like a hummingbird.” Hummingbirds, of course, are famous for almost never standing still. What’s the significance behind that image?
It’s that specific moment when they hover and appear motionless, yet their wings are beating “from around 12 beats per second in the largest species, to in excess of 80 in some of the smallest.” Humans have this way of appearing calm on the surface when really their thoughts and emotions are going crazy. Kind of like that old classic everyone’s whacky auntie has in their house: “be like a duck, remain calm on the surface, and paddle like hell underneath.” But “Duck” or “Mallard” would be shit song titles.
I know that John Maus is cancelled now, but he said something in an interview that I think about when it comes to alt-pop. He said that, when he was first writing his deeply weird, idiosyncratic music, he thought it was pure pop that could be played on the Top 40, and he didn’t think there was anything strange about it until he showed it to other people. Do you set out to make your pop sound off-kilter, or does it just happen like that?
It’s almost harder to write things with the intention of being “odd.” There is always someone that has done things more fucked up before, so we try and prioritize melody and feel. But saying that we’ve always thought we were very pop and can’t understand why we haven’t had a number one yet, haha. When you’re writing a song, once a melody or structure is firmly rooted in your brain it’s hard to un-hear that straightforward clarity that exists in your mind, you’ve processed the music over and over in your head and it makes so much sense. I guess when someone is hearing it for the first time they haven’t been part of the process, so even the slightest oddity can seem weird or confusing to the listener. Also, when you start listening to a broader spectrum of music, and those influences naturally creep into your music the amalgamation of genres can often seem off-kilter from the outside.
You were one of the first Western groups to play a concert in Mongolia. Tell me a bit about that experience?
It was such an amazing experience. At the time our management wanted us to play in the UK as it was “important” for us to be playing the right venues at the right time as our second album dropped, but for us it’s wasn’t about trying to do things formulaically in order to tick the boxes of what promo bands should be doing around a campaign. We wanted the adventure of playing in pretty much unchartered territory, which ironically became the best promo we could have done.
We asked the promoter before doors opened if he was expecting a good turn out, and he said he had no clue as nobody had done it before. Admittedly that was a little worrying, but it sold out and every musician came from all genres as it was a spectacle I guess. It became more than just a live show too, we got to stay with a traditional nomadic family in a ger on the Mongolian steppe, had vodka ceremonies, and they even slaughtered a sheep in front of us for our dinner. That was pretty intense. Later that night we went to DJ in Dakahn City, when we came home into the tent there was a new born baby calf covered in blood in [band member] Simon [Milner]’s bed.
What are some goals you have for the future?
We’d love to be able to tour and play the new music live, but with the current state of the world it’s almost impossible to plan ahead. We’re keen to keep writing, creating artwork and being as productive as possible in the meantime though. Is Tropical’s main goal has always been to travel the world and have a party along the way. We’re hoping we’ll be doing that sometime in the not so distant future.