The Waveform Transmitter’s Léa Ben Saïd caught up with Camella Lobo from Tropic of Cancer before their gig at Nuits Sonores. As Camella explains this was the last leg of their current tour, she spoke about her evolution as Tropic of Cancer, club culture, and love.
Among the madness of Nuits Sonores, the chat I had with the protagonist of Tropic of Cancer, was the most relaxing and emotional activity I could have taken part in. For anyone who has listened to her music, Camella Lobo is exactly like you picture her: simple and sensitive, but funny and almost disconnected from reality at times. Tropic of Cancer was carefully handpicked by Daniel Avery to play during his day, and after her gig at De School the night before, Camella agreed to chat with me before her set in Lyon.
Tropic of Cancer first started as a collaboration between Camella Lobo and Juan Mendez, better known as the techno DJ Silent Servant. As the project evolved, Juan did not have a lot of time and Tropic of Cancer became Camella’s solo project since 2011. On stage, she is joined by Taylor Burch from Dva Damas, but the music is very much her own. She creates when she needs it most: “A lot of the times too, music is just a part of a healing process.”, she says.
Waveform: You did not start making music until you were quite a bit older but it seems like once you started, you never stopped. When did you realise it was becoming a serious professional path for you? And how did you feel about it then?
CL: I don’t think I got really serious about it until I went on tour for the first time. It was kinda surreal to have this kind of attention very quickly, but it felt very cool. So I went on tour and started meeting the people who actually listened to the music and it just sort of grew from there. I started to feel like… I went through this period where I wasn’t saying no to anything because I was so excited to be out there and working and making music and finally doing this thing I really wanted to do.
I felt very very lucky, and I still feel really lucky, regularly, when I’m not complaining about shit. I started to make commitments to labels and stuff and it got to this point where I was like ‘oh shit I’ve made loads of commitments to people and music and stuff’ and then I spent the next two to three years working on stuff to satisfy the agreements that I had with everyone.
I probably didn’t do as much as as I should have in that way cause I over promised in a lot of ways in the excitement of it all. I was just feeling very excited and super happy, super new and caught off guard, and amazed, and stoked, and never looked back. It all became apart of who I am now so it’s really cool.
Waveform: I know Tropic of Cancer was a project you originally started with Juan Mendez, Silent Servant, but since then it has become your solo project. How did you make the project your own and did you find it challenging?
CL: At first it was really stressful because there were two things going on at the time: I had already agreed to go on this European tour, and I was trying to pressure him to come on this tour with me because I was 100% sure I was going to say yes and figure it out later somehow. Touring Europe was such a crazy idea, I wasn’t even at the point where it was a dream yet. I felt like I absolutely needed to make it happen because it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
So, that was very stressful because I didn’t think I could do it without him, but then I was already friends with Taylor and I was playing a bit in her band, DVA Damas. We weren’t really friends then actually, we were more like colleagues, as they say in Europe. We were just chummy, and I asked Taylor to come on tour with me and play guitar. And I was also very stressed because I had made loads of commitments to people, and the music I had made with Juan up to that point was very collaborative, so I did go through this uncomfortable period when we were sort of still working together and I would grab scraps of things he would throw my way and then I would take them and build up on them.
At first I had a very hard time with percussion things for a while, so I was kind of doing that to pull things together that were lying on the cutting room floor basically and our lives, using weird instruments and things to hack the drums etc. Then there was the whole other element of learning to play live, learning to play at all, as I had never been in a band so there was this crazy learning curve. And also on top of that, making sure to translate the sound because that’s the most important thing for me personally, otherwise it feels disconnected.
So yeah, there was a lot of crazy things happening in those few years, but after that point it really became my own thing and I found ways to get around a lot of the challenges I had and the most recent thing is working with Joe (the other half of DVA Damas), having him as a sound engineer on tour with us. It has made such a big difference. It’s been a lot of ups and downs, a lot of learning curves, a lot of embarrassing gaffes on stage and terrible reviews, and good reviews, and really fighting my way the best that I could.
Waveform: I guess that you learned from everything really.
CL: Yeah, I never came into it saying that I knew everything. It was just sort of ‘I have this opportunity, I am going to take this opportunity, and I am going to learn on the way’. Now, I feel fairly confident with where we are as a live band, and also in myself as a musician. I still have a lot to learn but in a way, and in a way I am still recovering from four, five years of craziness. It’s just a constant evolution as an artist.
Waveform: The ways to describe your music as Tropic of Cancer are numerous. People define it as shoegaze, or cold wave, or minimal, or drones… Where do you place yourself within all of this?
CL: I don’t, I just don’t. If anyone asks me what kind of music I play, I keep it very generic like ‘electronic music, I play keyboards, there is amplified pianos, there’s some guitar involved’. I don’t think about it in any way. No one likes to be labelled because once you get into it, you realise how constructing these labels are and you start to hate them. And hate everything related to them. I just say that I play instruments that you plug in a power strip. That will never change really. You’re not going to hear a Tropic of Cancer acoustic album anytime soon. Maybe when I’m like 60 I might go down that road (laughter).
Waveform: When you get tired of the synths.
CL: Yeah, I’ll probably get tired of it. I’m sort of almost tired of it honestly (laughter) but I don’t know. I won’t though, because the bass part of this is very inherent to a very particular type of instrument. I can’t imagine playing bass sounds on anything else.
Waveform: I think it is really interesting the way you are so attached to the electronic music scene, even though your outputs are mainly dark electronic music, leaning towards drone and ambient. The use of vocals, and the evident melancholy in your texts remind us more of music by the likes of Joy Division for example. Have you always truly felt like you were part of this community?
CL: No, well, I feel privileged a lot of the time to be at these events like Daniel Avery curating this night is wow, you know. Being able to perform in these circles is such a huge compliment. As far as belonging to a certain scene, I don’t think I’ve ever felt like I belonged to the club scene, but I’m definitely happy that our music is welcome there. People have been trying to adapt it to club scenarios.
We spent a lot of tours opening techno clubs, like at 10 o’clock or whatever, and then it goes on until 8am. Like at the White Hotel a few weeks ago. We even played several Berghain shows that were like that too. We’ve played some proper headline shows at Berghain where we played and that was it, it was finished after us, but a lot of the rest were opening up for club nights. It’s really cool, it is where we live, for a lack of a better word. It’s really cool because I think a lot of what these people do is very inspiring. It’s cool and different.
Waveform: It’s really interesting and cool that you can be everywhere on the spectrum.
CL: Yeah kind of, and it’s sort of always been like this. Also because Juan was involved and predominantly known as a techno artists, so we were really embraced by that scene, and those people, those promoters, those labels… And they tried to get very experimental with how they could fit us into their programming. Then, it just sort of transcended that almost, and we spent period of times pigeon-holed into golf clubs and these kind of versatile shows, sort of shape-shifting performances depending on who was into it at the time. It was really cool. I’m happy to be here.
Waveform: You have been playing your music in clubs late at night, but also in a gig setting. What does club culture mean to you? A lot of people agree that it is deeply political and powerful and can achieve great things such as foster inclusion. Do you agree? Do you think your music contributes to this or is it what you aspire to?
CL: No I don’t think so. I like to stay in my lane, and club culture definitely does not. It’s not where I’m from, and I don’t have negative feelings about it, because I’m a part of it too. Politically, I don’t think my music lives in politics in an overwhelming way. I don’t know because club culture is such a big part of my life, partly because I was married to a techno DJ for 10 years and it just sort of ingrained in me. This is where I emerged and it was the genesis of music for me. I do see it a lot differently. It feels welcoming and comfortable.
As far as being at clubs, and performing at clubs, I don’t do a lot of clubbing. I am a little too old for it, not that anyone is too old for this but… I’m too old for this (laughter). I can’t keep up with the kids, I get too tired. I have a child and that ship is sailed for me. That’s why I stay in the 90bpm area. That’s my heart rate, and it always sort of have been. Even when I was married to Juan, it was one of those things where he would stay out all night and I would go back to the hotel and sleep. Every once in a while though… At Berghain… Yes, there you’ll see me! (laughter) But I didn’t grow up in clubs, I grew up going to punk shows and listening to indie rock. I didn’t have a lot of exposures to clubs until I met Juan. Maybe five years from now I’ll be like a big clubber phase in my life. Getting the bpm from 90 to 101 or 105 (laughter).
Waveform: As most artists, I noticed that your music has evolved through time. For example, Stop Suffering is more atmospheric and electronic than your previous releases. What inspires your music? And what is the creative process behind it?
CL: I usually wait for inspiration to strike… or a deadline. I can be inspired by both. As far as what inspires me, usually, I’m not really sure until I start getting into the music, and then I start being inspired. It opens up a world for me as I’m working. It’s less conceptual that it looks from the outside. I just sort of start working and things start piecing together. The ideas emerge from actually working. I piece together ideas, and build upon these ideas, and continue.
A lot of the times too, music is just a part of a healing process. Cathartic in a way. I have to do it to make me feel okay about things around me. Things about me, or about other people, whatever. I had a very big moment of inspiration when I split from my ex-husband. It all coincided with deadlines of course, because it is the story of my life.
That’s where Stop Suffering came from, because I was in this place in my life. It was a love letter to myself, as cheesy as it sounds. I needed to stop beating myself up, figuratively, literally, all of the above. It is very personal for me. I’m not really thinking about other people when I make music. It’s a very selfish process in that way. The fact that other people say it helps them you know… I met a guy last night when we were selling tee shirts in Brussels after the show and he was like “I just want to tell you that I broke up with my girlfriend, we really loved Tropic of Cancer, we would listen to it together. She lived in LA and we bonded over it. We broke up but keeping listening to it helped me heal.’
And there was another guy as well, a shirtless guy with a bow around himself who was wrapped up like a present. He was saying that him and his boyfriend listened to our music and it helped him heal and he started crying. I was just thinking jeez it’s so crazy that these people are feeling what I was feeling when I was making the music. That part blows my mind. It’s always when I’m feeling something when I’m working that those are the songs that people actually relate to. The songs where I push myself, the ones I tell myself what it’s about and everything, they’re the ones which always fall flat and really don’t do as well because they’re not imprinted with emotions.
Waveform: The lyrics of your song are usually quite hard to make out. Do you write around recurring themes, and have those evolved through time as well?
CL: I’ve generally worked the same this entire time. I start with rhythm first, then I start with bass lines, then I add the melody on top of that. Lately, I’ve been trying to, as a challenge to myself, start with melody then build everything from there. It’s been really, really hard. I think it will change, but I’m really stuck in my ways when I’m working. Again, when I push myself to do something a different way, I can’t really make it happen. I can only draw it out when I’m inspired. I try really hard to push myself to do things differently because I feel like it could open something differently and me, and help me write differently, and expand how I’m working. The only thing that I’ve learned is that I need time now. After writing so much music while being pressured and hurried, I know that my best work is when I don’t have that kind of pressure, because I can really think about stuff. When I take my time, and I can spend like a month on a song. It’s a long period of time but it’s just better.
Waveform: Do you think changing your approach to music creation is going to impact the end result?
CL: It might, we’ll see. So far, I’ve tried to do it the way I want to do it, which is leading the melody, and it’s not clicking for me. But the minute I start to do it the way I’ve always done it, then I feel like I have a track. I need to work backwards with the elements I’ve felt comfortable making. I’m still learning how I work.
Waveform: There seems to be quite a strong relationship between your music and visuals. When you produce a song, do you have those images in mind already and know exactly where it is going, or does that come after?
CL: It’s different every time, but mostly it’s after. Because the inspiration does happen when I’m writing, I’m not really ever thinking about visuals first. With Restless Idylls, I was thinking of them in parallel. I couldn’t afford not to because I was working on such a tight deadline, but once those two things came together, it almost fell on itself in a way. I started making the music, then I’d be sidetracked by some types of visuals, colour treatments, and I had a mood board. And all of a sudden, that helped me move forward with the rest of the tracks, and influenced back. Which then came back and influenced the visuals a little more. I think it’s best when it’s flexible, and you have this vision in mind first, and then write something which is that.
Waveform: You have had a residency with NTS for almost two years now. How is your radio show an extension of your live project? What is the creative process behind it, including the way you pick the songs you play? Would you ever enjoy to start touring and DJing or do you prefer performing live?
CL: Has it been two years already? That’s crazy! Just letting you know… Haha, that’s the story of my life.
Usually my music is about love. It’s about basic emotions, primitive feelings, and things people can relate to, and the format of the radio show is such that it is a dedication show. I really love love, and I love giving people the opportunity to dedicate songs to the people they love, their families, their lovers, their ex-lovers. I think it fits because I am kind of a hopeless romantic in that way, so it was really fun for me to come up with a format idea. That’s why I decided to do a dedication show, but I didn’t know how difficult it is to do.
I’ve wanted to have a radio show since I was in 5th grade or something, elementary school, and I’ve wanted to do a dedication show since junior high or something. I was listening to the one by Art Laboe in my teens, and my twenties and thirties. He’s this huge DJ from Southern California, well he’s huge in some circles, and he’s like 90 years old now. He was my inspiration to run a dedication radio show.
Depending on how many dedications I have, I’ll pick the songs around what people are dedicating. What I do is look ahead to each month, and if it’s February I’ll do a Valentine’s show, if it’s December I’ll do a Christmas dedication show, same thing with Halloween. All the holidays basically. If you can have a theme, it makes it a lot easier for the visual side but also for the dedication side and picking tracks. Usually I start with whatever people have sent in and I build my set around that. When I have time to listen to music, which is rare these days, I write down tracks on my phone or my computer and I’ll play these songs. Or if inspiration hits, I’ll put together a loose tracklist.
Waveform: Would you ever enjoy to start touring and DJing or do you prefer performing live?
I would be so into that, yeah ! I would have to learn how to DJ properly though. I would put that pressure on myself. I almost enjoy more putting forward the music I like rather than the music I make. I had a DJ night in Indianapolis, I used to DJ nights for my friends, I had a residency at a hair salon for like 6 months on Long Beach. I love DJing. I was that person in high school, giving people mixtapes all the time. I was a fan and a music lover first, and then a musician. I would love that. Even sometimes when we go on tour, I get a random DJ gig, every once in a while. I love to DJ. I don’t DJ techno and I don’t DJ anything where I kind of have to beatmatch, but slow and steady stuff. Electronic music that I manage to trick people into believing that I know what I’m doing.
Waveform: What is next for you? Have you got any projects you can share with us?
CL: I am working on a record. I’m writing an LP that I’m working to finish. That’s the next step, I want to get an LP out. We’ve got a couple of demos ready. Mostly I have to listen to myself and tell myself to stop touring and focus on writing. I always say that I’m going to do that but I don’t do it. I don’t have a lot of deadlines right now, so that I can focus, but I feel like I should put some deadlines back in because the months keep going by and I don’t have a lot of time to work. I need to be realistic about my schedule, and be better about getting away and writing. Right now it’s really a big challenge; a challenge I’m very much up for. I just need to commit, and I don’t think I’ve fully committed to this record though. So it might take a record for me to commit. We also have a big festival coming up, Meltdown Festival in London, curated by Robert Smith, which is a huge deal. It’s really exciting and it’s probably the last big thing we have coming up and then just working on the record.
Later that day, Camella Lobo and Taylor Burch invested Le Sucre for their hour long live show. Dressed in pink suits, the members of Tropic of Cancer delivered a performance in tone with their usual aesthetics: beautiful and emotional low-bpm music. The audience of Lyon seemed as enchanted as I was, not dancing away, bur rather carefully listening and taking in every song they were playing. As the lights came up at the end, a long applause greeted Camella and Taylor, before they left the stage.
You can take a look at our other interviews, here. Find out what the hottest underground artists think about the current climate of the electronic music industry, their go-to records, and all manner of other interesting topics.