Interview – Tropic of Cancer

June 6, 2011
By Rachel Evans

Camella Lobo and Juan Mendez, the duo behind Tropic of Cancer, have been stirring up attention regarding their recent LP, The Sorrow of Two Blooms. This Californian couple were gracious enough to answer some questions regarding their relationship in and out of ToC, their musical backgrounds and influences, and the band’s plans for the future; their responses are what follow:

Tell me a bit about the origins of ToC… how did the two of you meet? Was it love at first sight, or was it friendship before love?

Camella: We were introduced at a mutual friend’s punk show back in 2005. Funny you should ask because Juan didn’t like me too much when we met. I won’t get into why. I’ll only say that we had some weird energy happening. So, it was a hesitant friendship for a little bit. But I liked him a lot right away and was persistent about becoming friends. Needless to say, he has since come around.

Have you always collaborated musically? What’s the story behind the formation of ToC?

C: Tropic Of Cancer didn’t happen until a couple of years into our relationship. Juan and I have always been connected through a mutual love for underground music. We shared many of the same influences throughout our lives. At the time that we decided to start working together, Juan was at a lull in his techno producing and DJing but was still making weird electronic tracks. I always wanted to play music. When we came together it was the right time for both of us to explore new directions.

Tropic Of Cancer was an inevitable part of our future, I think. I can’t even remember how it all began. I think I actually asked Juan to work with me on something/anything. But I know within weeks of creating and recording our first songs, we had booked a show at a good friend’s tiny space in LA. It was terrifying and completely too soon. I have never been so scared in my life. But it was amazing to finally put it out there – good or bad.

Are there other artistic arenas in which you work together?

C: The only thing we’ve collaborated on artistically outside of music is when I force Juan to make me fliers for my DJ nights. That can be pretty painful – especially for him.

When did you two first start making music? Do you have backgrounds or formal educations in music?

C: Like you and I have bonded over in the past, I had a drive to make music from childhood. One of my earliest memories was singing on cassette tapes with my sister. I was in a Catholic choir all through elementary school and went through some classical vocal training but hated the way the teacher required us to sing. It was not at all what I envisioned I would make musically but it did teach me a lot about myself and how far I was willing to go to conquer my fears of singing and playing music alone in front of strangers.

Juan: No formal training. Just always into making noise. Got into Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine via 120 Minutes on MTV during middle school and that was pretty much the beginning. Tropic Of Cancer is more of a constant experiment. As corny as that sounds, that’s how I treat my part.

You’ve released albums before. From listening to your releases, I gather you have both sung on ToC tracks. What role do you each have in the band? Are these roles static, or do they change from album to album, or even track to track? What instruments do you each play, in and out of ToC?

C: We kind of just do what feels natural at the moment. Juan lays a lot of the foundational structure and I just kind of pick up whatever instrument he isn’t using at the time and start playing. I gravitate toward the bass and guitar, which is probably why those elements are always so basic. From there, we start layering each other’s parts – whatever they may be. As far as vocals go, we both contribute. We go with what is happening at the time and how we are approaching whatever project we’re working on. We don’t ever have a clear vision. It all just happens on the spot.

From doing a little bit of research, I’ve gathered that Juan, you are in at least one other band. Do the two of you each have other music projects? Do you record solo? Tell me a little bit about each.

C: I have never worked with anyone else. Though that is changing. I am excited about collaborating with other like-minded people who share an inclination toward directions I want to pursue in addition to Tropic Of Cancer. There is a little more pressure on my own but I consider that a good thing.

J: Currently serving as part of Sandra Electronics, one half of Tropic Of Cancer and one part of Sandwell District. Also making music as Silent Servant.

One of the things I love about ToC’s sound is the way you two are able to mix together so many of the sounds of my own musical influences. What are the main musical influences for ToC? What are each of your top personal influences?

C: If I had to pick a single personal influence, it would undoubtedly be Trish Keenan of Broadcast. As far as Tropic Of Cancer itself, I could list several others – The Names, Sonic Youth, The Smiths, The Cure, The Pixies, New Order, Joy Division, The Cramps, Siouxsie, Bauhaus, Electrelane, Grouper, Kendra Smith and anything on Factory Records.

J: TOC influences for me are Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, Suicide, Factory Records, Mute records, Martin Hannett, Galaxie 500, The Velvet Underground, Doctor Mix and the Remix, Broadcast, Crescent, Basic Channel, Chain Reaction and most importantly Karl O’Connor.

Are the other influences for ToC’s sound and/or concept? Many reviews accent your gothic aesthetic. How would you each describe the band’s aesthetic? Are there any particular artists, visionaries, icons, writers, or philosophies that have influenced the band’s aesthetic and/or sound?

C: I love everything about the gothic period but I would never describe our aesthetic as an assertion of goth culture itself. Although similar motifs and themes are imbued in the imagery and overall tone surrounding our music, I think that’s an overused word right now.

For me, it’s a lot more about projecting a distinct narrative through our music. I am naturally drawn to the Greek tragedies and writers like Arthur Rimbaud, Sylvia Plath, D.H. Lawrence  and Charlotte Bronte. I have always been obsessed with old horror films from directors like Jean Rollin, Hitchcock and Mario Bava, and especially anything gothically surreal that came out of Czech new wave cinema. It has a complete influence over everything I do and I am sure has an impact on both our visual and sonic aesthetic as a band.

J: I would say Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. People hate on both of them but they changed things on a level that most people only dream of. To answer the goth aesthetic question — if you can call Galaxie 500 or Crescent goth because of reverb then we are goth.

Everyone has a favorite quote. What are each of yours?

C: “Les plus belles choses ont le pire destin.” — Francois de Malherbe, excerpt from “Consolation for Mr du Perier”. (Typical.)

J: “And these times. They are just passing. They are not real.They happen. We pass through time As it happens” — Genesis P-Orridge (excerpt from Distant Dreams Part 2)

Now tell me about your “real lives”… Is music a career for you, or do you have “day jobs”? What are your hobbies and fascinations (other than music)? Do you have any pets?

C: I have a background in music journalism and writing, so by day I am a copywriter. When I’m not doing that, I’m scouring the internet and updating my blog (The Ladies & Gents Auxiliary) or obsessing over song titles or lyrics for Tropic Of Cancer. It’s a bit schizophrenic feeling at times. Luckily I work from home now so it’s easier to balance than it was being in an office all day.

As far as fascinations and pets, we have two furry members of our clan. We live off of a bluff on the point in San Pedro and I do a lot of walking with them along the cliffs and beach here really early in the morning. That’s when I tap into my mind’s eye. It’s the best part of my day.

J: Currently serving as an art director for various clients. Working on music and DJing full time. We have two amazing mini dogs that we love and hate at the same time.

I know the two of you re-located not too long ago to California. Are you originally from CA, or is this a new zone for you? Why did you choose to move when you did?

C: We both grew up here in the LA area. We moved to Minneapolis for work a few years ago. Three harsh winters and being away from friends and family was difficult, but we managed to get a lot done musically and befriend several amazing people there, as well. Now we have them to miss. And we do.

The label that released your recent LP, Blackest Ever Black, is based in the UK. Why did you choose a foreign record label for the release? Does your music typically get better reception in countries other than the U.S.?

C: I suppose the fact that our music is well received outside of the U.S. is part of that. But it also has to do with the relationships we (mostly Juan) have formed over the past 10 years with Karl O’Connor (Regis – who runs the Downwards label in Berlin/UK together with him). They are really close and work on all of the Sandwell District output together. Karl introduced us to Kiran Sande, who runs Blackest Ever Black, and it was a fortuitous pairing.

I know you’ve released at least 10″ and 12″ LP so far. Is vinyl the format you prefer, and if so, why? Have you released music on other formats?

C: We prefer vinyl, though it’s been really nice to see our old material finally released digitally via Boomkat. We both also hold to the idea of a record as a piece of artwork, something tangible. Juan and I both DJ , so it’s always nice to have your favorite things available to share with other people out in the open instead of on a blog or something. In the face of such a digitally consumptive music culture, it’s also nice to have the record as a talisman or something influential – like, “It was real. We made this.”

How many releases does ToC have under their belt?

C&J: We’ve released two EPs on Downwards, one on Blackest Ever Black and a digital single with Beko Digital Singles Label.

What releases do you have planned for ToC in the future? Any other future plans for the band?

C&J: We have an EP slated to release in October 2011 with another label in Europe that we have yet to announce. And we’re going to be part of a comp that’s coming out this summer. After those two things are out, we plan on recording a full length record if it feels right.

What would be your “dream come true” for the band?

C&J: To play All Tomorrow’s Parties with The Smiths.

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