Interview: Os Tropies, “The Soil”

Os Tropies’ latest project, “The Soil,” is quite likely a very different listen from anything else you will hear this year. It’s firmly rooted in the Brazilian tropicália tradition, but elements of psychedelic rock creep in as well – I could swear I saw Syd Barrett’s ghost ever so briefly as I listened to this album.

However, it also provides a deep and thoughtful listening experience if you dig into its lyrics and themes, rewarding the listener with tremendous food for thought on issues ranging from patriarchy and colonialism, to environmental devastation and the unfortunate legacies of previous generations of misappropriation of others’ bodies, land, and livelihoods.

The band’s singer, Amy Medvick, was kind enough to do an email interview with Great Dark Wonder about the new album – which, given recent events here in the United States, has proved more timely and relevant than they perhaps could have anticipated.

Let’s start off with a really basic question that new listeners probably are asking: what does your band name mean, and how did you choose it?

Os Tropies wasn’t always our name. We were originally called Tropicalia, no muss no fuss. This was when the movement was not so well known in Canada, so it made sense. The word was already the name of a movement, a song, an album, and an art installation—why not add “band name” to the list? But after awhile it became confusing, and we wanted something more “our own.” We tossed a lot of ideas back and forth but none of them satisfied us.

Meanwhile, in our emails we often addressed each other collectively as “Tropies,” a nickname based on shortening “tropicália.” Eventually we thought, hey, maybe we’re just The Tropies? But being special fans of the tropicália band Os Mutantes, we thought we’d translate the name into Portuguese—Os Tropies. So that’s it—it means absolutely nothing, which jives with the Dadaist inclinations of the tropicália movement, to boot!

Here south of the border (we live in the US), patriarchy, misogyny, and ignorance of environmental issues in our political leadership are very much in the public conversation at the moment.  I’m guessing you didn’t anticipate just how timely your songs would be, but how do you see your message in light of recent political events?

Yeah. Damn. I have been living south of the border as well, for the last year and a half, in New Orleans. Best city ever! But also a city facing many problems in the extreme, especially racial and class inequality. I have been feeling this political campaign deeply.

I think I was definitely surprised like everyone else, but also not so surprised. I never felt I could count on seeing Trump lose. In fact, I wrote these songs because I think they are timely all the time.  These were problems before he won, they will be problems after he goes. UNLESS, this unfortunate turn of events provides a kick in the ass for the Left. I hope it’s eye-opening, I really hope it’s the proverbial rock-bottom. Time will tell; also, concerned people taking action will tell.

I’ve listened to “Love Song” in particular several times as I’ve been working on these questions.  It has me thinking not only about the environment being wastefully and wrongfully ‘harvested’ (to use your word) but also human beings – women, minorities, colonialized peoples. 

Many acts of violence and destruction have occurred in the name of ‘love,’ ‘bringing God to the people,’ and ‘taking care’ (all of which too often have meant imposing the will of the powerful over the powerless).  How do you think the concepts of love and care, and perhaps even God, can be reclaimed in light of historical and current events?

Great question! This song is precisely about what we were talking about in the question above. It’s about all the false logics that delude us into believing that inequality and domination and violence are natural, inevitable. It’s also about silencing, and about people seeing problems but doing nothing. The original inspiration was about violence against women, but using these environmental metaphors. At the same time, I wrote it knowing it could be about so many things. The feeling that I go for when I sing it is that I am on the verge of screaming, but I never actually scream. It’s always reined in.

As for love—that one thing that feels like our only hope as a species has often been so wrapped up in our problems. It’s no coincidence that I got there through thinking about issues of sexual and domestic violence, which so often take place in the context of love relationships.

There’s a lot of self-help wisdom I could spit out about love and God. In the end, what I will say is this: it’s my opinion that what you feel, think, and believe do not matter. At least, in the big picture of what your life means in the world, they don’t matter. What you do matters. Your actions. That’s it.

You’ve commented elsewhere about wanting to write songs that respond to the tropicália movement of Brazil.  How do you feel your songs speak to the North American context in which you live?

Another good question! The tropicália movement was part of a response to an identity crisis in Brazil—basically, this huge cultural polarity between people who were militantly against US and European influence on Brazilian culture, and people who wanted to play rock-and-roll and jazz. This was in the 60s. The tropicália movement tried to create an aggressive hybrid of styles in order to intervene in this polarity. The basic gist was that they could absorb influences from the US and still make it “feel” Brazilian. At least, that was part of what tropicália was about.

I think, as a Canadian, I have always been able to relate to that tension. Our popular music is so intertwined with US popular music. We’ve made major contributions to it (RIP Leonard Cohen!), but its origins are in the US. Finding our own identity can be hard, and maybe even more difficult for us because we essentially DO share a common culture with the US.

One way Canada often distinguishes itself is through the idea of multiculturalism, and musically I have grown up seeing a lot of “fusions” with music from other parts of the world. Yet, on the ground, I don’t think Canada is the integrated, egalitarian, multicultural paradise we like to imagine it is. And a lot of those artistic experiments have been one sided or have fallen into stereotypes. Tropicália was compelling to me because it messed with stereotypes.

I loved hearing rock music with a different sensibility to it, and hearing Brazilian music that was insisting on its own voice in an international pop/rock scene. And starting this band allowed us to become involved in the Brazilian music scene in Toronto, and we have grown up as a band while playing in all of these other Brazilian-lead projects. And so the whole thing felt like a good way for Canadians to be playing Brazilian music. So maybe that’s it—trying to deal with and live multiculturalism at its best, hoping to avoid its traps.

One of the things that frequently strikes me about Canadian musicians is their willingness to choose their own musical ground and not necessarily go with the mainstream flow.  Your music, based as it is on a Brazilian musical movement, is even less mainstream than most.  (Note: this is NOT a criticism at all – this is a great album!)  If you’ve road-tested some of this material, how have audiences responded?

This album is much more experimental than our first two EPs. We’ve played almost everything live at some point, though we usually prefer to go for the most accessible repertoire at live shows. Although, that depends on the context. In the past, we have put on performances that incorporate elements of performance art, as well as events that incorporate dance, burlesque, poetry reading, etc. I think our fans are the kinds of folks that appreciate that, but at the same time, you can’t pull it off at every kind of show.

We’ve had to be flexible as a band because we are hard to program. Especially if we are playing outside of the Brazilian scene, or playing at sponsored events, sometimes people don’t get it. What is this psychedelic rock sung in not-Spanish? We’ve gotten the requests for “Brown-Eyed Girl.” But I think it’s been good for us, to be flexible.

From this album, there have been a few consistent reactions. People really love the title track, “The Soil.” In that, I share the sentiment! We’ve had great fun with “As Animais.” The most well-received performance of it was at a Halloween show. A friend snuck up on stage and murdered us all in cold blood with a plastic scimitar while we played it. The audience lost it! They were screaming to me to look behind my back, but alas—I went the way of a virgin in a horror film. Dead as dust.

People tend to find “Love Song” challenging. They don’t necessarily dislike it but it often perplexes. But of course, that is the point. If anyone was like, OMG, “Love Song,” this is my new JAM… there would be something wrong with them, I think. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable.

Tropicália is less familiar to me than other genres of Brazilian music such as samba, bossa nova, or choro.  How would you say tropicália as a style differs from other Brazilian genres?  And what drew you to Brazilian music specifically?

As I mentioned above, tropicália was meant as an intervention in the cultural politics of the era. The movement lasted only 2 years (1967-1969). It wasn’t meant to establish a new genre, but rather to comment on the way other people were approaching music at the time.

The artists of the tropicália movement wanted to find a way between anti-Americanism, Brazilian nationalism, and musical experimentation. The tropicália movement absorbed bits of all other music in Brazil, and juxtaposed it with music coming from the US and England. They were also challenging the protest music movement in Brazil that had risen as a response to the military dictatorship at the time. Their music was politicized and critical of the dictatorship, but they also satirized the protest music movement for being a tad paternalistic and reductive.

As for myself, my journey to tropicália began with bossa nova. I studied jazz in my youth, heard some bossa nova and loved it. I am a flute player and I loved the flute in bossa. I also loved the retro 1960s-ness of it. I started checking out Brazilian music and it became a major passion of mine. Right from the beginning, I started to teach myself Portuguese and I fell in love with the sound of the language. It’s one of the best languages to sing in because it has so many percussive consonants and nasalized vowels to play with. I think the language was a huge part of it. I loved singing it. It was a long process as I started learning about various genres and styles, eventually finding my way to tropicália. The rest is history!

Are there specific writers or other influences (non-musical ones) that informed your writing on this album? 

Let’s see… from Brazil, influences include Caetano Veloso, Os Mutantes, and Antonio Carlos Jobim (he’s not considered to be tropicália, but rather bossa nova, but he has still been a huge influence on my writing!). Outside of Brazil, it’s harder to place. The song “Vir Me Amar” was inspired by my intense fandom for the band Heart, who were heavily influenced by Led Zeppelin, so people often think the tune is a Zeppelin tribute. It’s true, but only indirectly!

In other interviews you’ve spoken about increasingly perceiving the interconnection between art and politics.  How are you seeing that intersection right now (again, given recent events)?  What role should art have in speaking truth to power?

Yes. Truthfully, I am troubled about the connection between art and politics. I think as artists, we have the same responsibility as everyone else to participate in a larger conversation in society.

I feel compelled to put everything I do towards political ends. But I also recognize that art alone can’t accomplish anything. We need more. Art +. I think it can create community, it can broadcast messages, and it can do so non-verbally. It can normalize new ways of imagining the world, and that can be the basis for change. But all of that needs to be followed by action outside of the world of art. So… that’s how I approach art and politics in my life. I can’t pat myself on the back just for writing politicized songs. It’s part of larger plans in my life. But I do think it’s important to use the platform that music gives me for something bigger.

~ Interview by L

To purchase “The Soil” visit Os Tropies’ Bandcamp page.

Check out Os Tropies’ website.

Tags from the story
0 replies on “Interview: Os Tropies, “The Soil””