Rio McGuinness of Belfast pop noir duo Dark Tropics told David Hennessy about their new music. Overcoming her anxiety to step onstage and dedicating their acclaimed debut album to their late manager who sadly passed away before its release.
Backed by big names like Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley since early on, atmospheric Belfast duo Dark Tropics have had a steady rise since launching in 2020 with not even a pandemic seeming to really slow them down.
Their latest single I Bet You Can has been RTE 2FM’s Track of the Week.
Dark Tropics have often been called cinematic, but their latest offering is something new with its triumphant call to let go of doubt.
Rio says the song has been massive in her journey of overcoming the nerves that she had to conquer to step onstage as its infectiousness and upbeat tempo allowed her to just ‘let loose’.
It follows Midnight 10th of December which was played regularly on BBC 6 by Lamacq who has been a big supporter of the band and had them play the 6 music stage at the Great Escape last year.
Dark Tropics is made up of Rio McGuinness and Gerard Sands.
The pair found each other on an app called Join My Band.
They would bond over their shared love of bands such as Radiohead and The Velvet Underground.
They would announce themselves with their 2020 debut single Badlands, a slice of Lana Del Rey-esque cinematic pop, and have hardly stopped since releasing their debut album Ink to acclaim later the next year.
Rio told The Irish World of the positive reaction to I Bet You Can: “I’m so happy but part of me isn’t that surprised.
“That sounds massively big headed.
“We’ve had that song in the pipeline for a long time.
“Myself and Gerard write songs together but there’s some songs that I’ll write myself and some songs that Gerard will write himself and this was one of the ones that Gerard wrote.
“When it comes to pop, I genuinely believe that Gerard is an absolute lyrical genius.
“Not so much myself for pop, ballads are my thing.
“But when it comes to pop, I think Gerard is phenomenal and the song that’s come out is so different from what we had originally had.
“When we were doing a lot of the recording, which was quite a while ago, I actually had COVID.
“So the first time that I properly heard what the finished product was going to be was when I was in the studio recording my vocals, and the chills that I got. It was insane.
“I just thought, ‘I didn’t think what we’d already done could get any better’.
“But I loved it.
“So when I heard it I just thought, ‘This is amazing. This is absolutely amazing’.
“And I think Gerard has completely outdone himself this time.”
What does the song mean? “I feel like it’s going to mean something different to different people.
“I mean to myself personally, I feel a kind of unsure love.
“But I know the majority of the people that have listened to it have got a personal empowerment message from it which I think is a better way to look at it personally.
“But it’s the good thing about music is you will get different things from it.”
It may be hard to believe- especially for anyone who has seen her play around in the video for I Bet You Can – but Rio had to overcome her own anxiety if she was going to sing onstage at all.
“I would say that I Bet You Can was probably the biggest aid in that journey.
“That was something I had totally forgotten about.
“But when we started adding that into our setlist, it was a song that I could jump about in, it was a song that I could dance in and it was a song that got people up and dancing.
“More than sitting and listening and appreciating, they were feeling the song.
“And adding that into our setlist just completely changed how I felt about everything.
“It really, really helped with the anxiety.
“It helped with everything because I knew I was counting down the songs until that song came up in the setlist because I knew that I could just completely let loose in it. And I think that is shown in the video.
“But it’s the most fun I’ve ever had recording something, it’s the most fun I ever have performing.
“And I think it was probably the biggest aid that I had in overcoming that journey of quite severe crippling anxiety on stage.
“When we started to play live, I had no experience singing and performing.
“I had a bit of dance and acting experience, but none with singing really.
“So when we started performing and when it was a very slow set, I feel like it was a good way to ease me in.
“But you don’t have something that you can completely let go in, something that you can just be the music.
“The slower ones, there’s a lot of emotion in them and I always channel a lot of emotion on stage because it’s just what I know how to do.
“But being able to let loose and be a wild thing that flits from here and there and just is, I think it’s something really nice.”
The band announced themselves in 2020 with their debut single Badlands just before Covid came along to scupper any plans of live performances.
With your anxiety around live performance, was that something of a relief perhaps?
“It was a very strange experience.
“All I wanted to do was scream from the rooftops about everything that was happening and everything that was going on and I wanted to get out there and perform and do all of these things because even with the anxiety, still the thing I love most in this world is being able to get out and perform.
“So it was definitely relaxed- We wrote a lot of songs in that time- But definitely not something that I would say was entirely enjoyable.
“I much prefer being able to go out and perform now.”
What has been a highlight of the live shows you have got to perform? “I loved The Great Escape.
“I looked out at the crowd before we went on and usually Gerard can sense when I’m nervous and this time he sort of looked at me and went, ‘Oh god, she’s really nervous’.
“I was terrified but it was a lot of fun.
“I really, really enjoyed playing in Wales.
“But the most fun I’ve had has been definitely performing in Belfast.
“The people that come to see us, the crowd are amazing.
“The two gigs we did with the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, the one at The Black Box. The one recently in St. Joseph’s Church have been the most energy that I’ve ever seen at one of our gigs, it was unbelievable.
“They were so fun. The crowd were amazing and I just couldn’t ask for more. I really couldn’t ask for more.”
Just last month, and since our chat, Dark Tropics supported Belle and Sebastian on their Irish tour.
Dark Tropics released their acclaimed debut album Ink in 2021, are they working on material for album number two?
“I think we have enough material for about three albums but we’re really selective.
“So we’re working on a new single at the moment.
“It’s all recorded, being mixed.
“We’re just working on a lot more of the visual thing.
“The visual things are where I have a lot of the fun.
“But in terms of another album, we’re just being really, really selective.
“I know we have enough to make a pretty good album.
“But I don’t want to make a pretty good album, I want to make a brilliant album.
“We’re just trying to put out the best that we possibly can.
“I think, especially with that, when you’re putting together an album, you have to truly believe in your heart that every single song you put out has the capability to be a hit, or has the capability to make your fans happy as well.
“Because if you don’t truly believe that, and if you don’t truly believe in yourself and your music 100%, then what’s the point?
“So there will be an album soon, but there will be an album as soon as I feel like 100% every song on there is exactly what we want.”
The previous single Midnight 10th December dealt with some serious issues in the song and the video.
“That’s another one of the ones that Gerard wrote.
“And as I said, he’s a phenomenal writer. And when he brought the song in, I was really enthusiastic about it.
“I brought my own style to it and I brought a lot of my own things to it and he gave me the song and I said, ‘Right, just let me do the video myself’.
“And I brought the video back to him, and the video that I had chosen to do was sort of a journey through mental health and I wanted to have a pseudo horror aspect.
“We wanted the video to be almost Courtney Love-esque and we wanted to bring it through mental health essentially.
“And I had the idea with it of, ‘You stand up, you stand down, but you get that chance only one time’.
“And that whole thing is pulling yourself through and breaking through and pulling yourself back up again when you fall back down.
“The verses are so nice and delicate and the choruses are so booming.
“It is like those little peaks in your life where you really do just have to break that glass ceiling, and you have to push yourself through it.
“Even though the message was the same, the way Gerard envisaged the song was completely different from how I did.
“And that happens when we write a lot of songs together as well.
“I always find it quite funny. Whenever we’re listening back on a song we’ve done and I’m sort of giggling going, ‘Gerard, you know that means that and you know that means that’, and he’s gone, ‘What? No’.
“And we have these laughs sometimes. I’ll pull a few jokes on him and I’ll put a line in a song that references something else that references something else that references something else.
“It (Midnight 10th December) does mean different things to different people.
“But for me, it’s about no matter how low you may be at any point in your life, no matter what you’re struggling with chances will come for you to pull yourself up, for you to break through that ceiling, for you to pull yourself together.
“You just have to be able to recognise them.
“You have to be able to seize them, and you have to be able to make use of them.
“It’s definitely something quite resonating in my own life.”
When Rio advertised for someone to back her up with instruments, pianist Gerard got in touch. They bonded over shared influences such as Radiohead, Aretha Franklin and The Velvet Underground. Gerard would just have to wait until Rio got back from Morocco where she was volunteering at the time working with disadvantaged children.
“I’d sent off some singing things, not demos, because I didn’t have a clue how to do that.
“But I’d sent off some things of me doing covers to other bands.
“I keep thinking, ‘What would have happened if I hadn’t have gone for Dark Tropics?’
“But when I first met Gerard his energy, his 100% resounding belief that Dark Tropics was going to make it somewhere, it would have been far too much for anyone to pass up on, anyone.
“He always used to say to me, especially whenever I was getting anxious about gigs and everything he used to say, ‘Rio, It’s okay if you get anxious’, or, ‘It’s okay if you believe that you can’t do it because I believe in us for the both of us’.
“And I think that’s true. I think Gerard believes enough for the entire world.
“If he ever decides to go down another career path, I’d say a motivational speaker would be a good one.”
But you wouldn’t let him go down that route surely? “No, absolutely not,” Rio laughs. “I’d never allow it.”
Although based in Belfast, Rio spends some time in Brighton.
“I spend around a month, a month and a half, maybe more down around that area every year.
“My partner’s from there and he came over here for university and now we live together in Northern Ireland but we spend quite a bit of time just over at his parents seeing them and they live around Brighton.
“He actually went to BIMM college in Brighton.
“He was with a band, The Geisha Girls which were brilliant.
“So before we got to play The Greatest Escape he was bringing me around showing me all the bars and showing me all the places that he played and all those sorts of things and it was really, really nice to have that little bit of him on stage with me knowing this was his stomping ground and every place there has memories not just to him, but to us.
“It was really nice and it was also very nice being able to take Gerard around and show him all the best bars and all the best places to get food.”
Ink was dedicated to the band’s late manager, Lyndon Stephens.
Lyndon died in January 2020 so it was a shame that he was not there to see their debut.
“I know,” Rio says with sadness in her voice.
“What I said about Gerard having enough belief for the entire world, Lyndon had enough belief for the entire universe.
“First time going into his office before we signed anything, he had a five year plan on the wall.
“He was brilliant, and I remember thinking, ‘This is far too good to be true’. But it was. It was true.
“He was absolutely phenomenal, wouldn’t hesitate to tell you exactly what he thought.
“And I don’t know if any of Ink would have been what it was if not for him.
“I don’t know if Dark Tropics would be what it is now if not for Lyndon.
“The dedication was definitely important.”
If he had a five year plan, are you still on it? “I don’t think he anticipated COVID at that point.
“We’re definitely a good few years behind.
“Yeah, I think we launched just before lockdown thinking, ‘Oh, it’s fine. It’s just like bird flu or something’.
“And then yeah, everything went absolutely mental and I spent the next year singing to cows, a lot of cows in the field near my dad’s house and found out they quite enjoyed music so I spent a year singing to a field of cows, wouldn’t change it for the world.
“I’ll have to get them on guestlist at some point.”
Dark Tropics have played in London, are there any plans to come back? “Yeah, I would like to. I’d like to go and play it again.
“Definitely the venue we were in, Paper Dress Vintage, was unbelievable and we had so much fun. So much fun.
“Generally, because I’m still in university, when we finish a gig, I don’t really have a drink or anything after it.
“I would finish the gig, go straight back to the hotel, work on my assignments, wake up the next morning, work on my assignments, go do the gig come back. And that’s the way it was.
“I was writing my assignments the entire way back on the ferry, actually from Other Voices (in Wales).
“But London, I was actually able to go and have a drink and have a good time afterwards. And it was so much fun. I loved it.”
So you’ll be back before too long?
“That’s the hope, that is definitely the hope.
“They were a fantastic crowd. So I would really, really like to get back there.”
I Bet You Can is out now.
For more information, click here.