We caught up with Sam Apley and Natalia Tena of Molotov Jukebox to talk about their explosive second album Tropical Gypsy – and learned a lot about Ryan Air, cat-sitting and how not to impress your childhood crush.
The band have finished soundcheck and are waiting for the gig to start at The Round Chapel, Hackney, in late July. They’re performing as part of Raise the Volume, a secret charity gig in aid of chronic pain in women, that’s raising funds for an osteopathy clinic to provide free and reduced cost treatment to those who usually wouldn’t be able to afford it. CoreCIC’s centre would also undertake research and train osteopaths, and the project has so far raised £200k to acquire and renovate premises in Clapton. The band have just flown in (via Portugal) from Santiago de Compostela on a night flight but as we get nearer to showtime are still somehow buzzing with energy – and gushing about Santiago.
“The cathedral is fucking enormous,” Natalia informs us with glee. “There were all these nuns doing amazing a cappella and fucking smashing this gig. So much gold and god everywhere.”
“We left at 1:30 last night, the nearest airport was Portugal so we had to drive into Portugal, kip on the floor and then Ryan Air –“
“Oh Ryan Air!”
“ The glamour of the rock and roll life.” Sam finishes with a wry smile.
I first came across Molotov Jukebox reading a review of their debut Carnival Flower in Songlines Magazine. Recognising Natalia as Tonks (from Harry Potter) and Osha (from Game of Thrones), I immediately checked out the band and was completely blown away. Having made a name for themselves as a festival-favourite, their blend of Balkans- and Latin-infused gypsy-funk has gone from strength to strength, seeing them sell out arenas across the globe as well as performing at more intimate gigs like today’s. While Carnival Flower was impressive – especially the ode to London, “Neon Lights”, which featured Natalia’s friend and co-star Oona Chapman in the music video – Tropical Gypsy is more cohesive, and slightly darker in subject matter.
I first came across you guys with the release of Carnival Flower and there’s been so much development since – how do you guys feel your sound has changed since that first album?
Natalia: For me, I think the first album was very much “we finally have money” – we’d done a pledge campaign to fund it and we didn’t think anyone was going to really give us anything – and then people did and we were like “shit we’ve got to make this album”. At the time we had a whole load of songs we’d only ever played live, because obviously we’d never had the money to record, and were writing new stuff as well. We sort of just shoved it all in an album, so it wasn’t especially well thought out. This time we were like ‘let’s define our genre – it’s tropical gypsy: let’s call the album that; let’s make the songs adhere to that,’ like a book where each chapter actually relates to the rest.
One of the things I find amazing about South America and the Balkans is that their music deals with real shit, they don’t shy away from life. Their music deals with betrayal or being fucking broke, or your lover dying or leaving you after 20 years – topics that a lot of pop songs here don’t deal with. I love the juxtaposition of making music about that kind of stuff and dancing to it as well”
Who would you say your influences are? Dan our photographer was just saying your stuff reminded him a lot of Freida Kahlo…
Natalia: I’m obsessed with Freida Kahlo! We got tattoos in Mexico and went to visit her house.
Sam: We finished off the single we brought out before the album “Highlife Crisis’, when we were out in Mexico. We’d just been to her house and were really feeling that whole Mexican vibe. There’s a big Latin American general inspiration especially in the music, partly because we’ve done a couple of tours in Brazil when we were first starting out. We didn’t have a tour booked but we all sort of impulsively bought tickets to Brazil with 2 gigs booked. A friend had a bar where there was a regular music night and we just sort of took that over.
Natalia: It was pretty poor area but loads of rich white Brazilians go there and they were all like “what the fuck is this?” By the second night, word had spread and it was completely packed.
Sam: We didn’t even have the whole band on the first day, our guitarist was throwing up and our drummer was out of action so it was just some violins and an accordion. We ended up just going round bars being like “we’re a band from London do you want to give us a gig?” We met some real characters.
Natalia: We literally met the Brazilian real-life versions of Ab-Fab, they drank vodka and this 60 year old just did a fuck-tonne of cocaine all the time – we were like “she’s definitely gonna die” – and all her friend did was drink champagne. We were in awe of these women running the whole show out there. We tried to fit the craziness of those experiences in the music.
Do you guys have a favourite track?
Sam/Natalia: The new single.
What is your writing process like? Does it tend to come from one idea or do the words come first?
Natalia: Sometimes we start with lyrics, sometimes with an idea. Just now we were jamming and you hear a riff or an idea and you try and expand it.
Sam: It varies really, there are so many ways of writing a song and we’ve probably tried them all at some point. Like with some tracks we’ll just sit down and hammer it out in one sitting and some of them take fucking years. Writing a song, rediscovering it, borrowing from it – “Halfway There” is actually an amalgamation of two songs.
It must be quite high-pressured though, how do you get through it when you hit a creative wall?
Natalia: There was a lot of pressure with the pledge campaign – frozen yoghurt is how I got through those periods of writers block. It was just me and Adam in August and I was like “we’re fucked’ and I hadn’t had that thing yet where there was that one song coming out easily. I went for a walk and came back and suddenly Pineapple Girl came out. Or sometimes alcohol can help, stops you overthinking things –
Sam: Bed also helps, bed is a great place to write songs. I have a company called Circus Conneticut and we make big sculptures, mostly event-décor. We’ve just finished building a 6-metre talk fire-breathing church organ dj booth, we took it Nowhere festival, which is the European Burning Man festival. It’s a touring piece, a soundsystem, but we build all sorts of things. I often find that when we’re desperately trying to work it out, just as you’re about to fall asleep your brain starts firing off these ideas and you grab the nearest piece of paper.
What’s it like touring so much?
Natalia: It depends how you travel.
So is this a Ryan-Air advert?
Natalia: I fucking hate Ryan-Air. They lost all of our really expensive gear once.
Sam: Fuck Ryan Air. It’s exhausting doing so much travelling, especially because we [Natalia and Sam] live on a boat. You have to move every two weeks, we’re in Tottenhame Hale today. We’ve got cats as well so that makes it even more difficult. When we’re on tour we have to get someone to look after the cats and move the boat…it’s pretty hectic. The touring part is great, you get completely overwhelmed, you’re in a completely different world to everyone else. For the first week though you’re just a mess, a different place every night.
Natalia: And it’s always Premier Inn!
Sam: God that purple colour! You forget which city you’re in because every room looks the same. After a while though you think “yeah I could do this for 3 months straight”. You also become weirdly anti-social though – all you see is stages, hotel rooms and the inside of the tour-bus.
Natalia: Our tour-bus is basically a transit van, though.
Sam: Yeah we spend a lot of time in a minivan,
Natalia: we know all the service stations. The best service station in T-bay, it’s beyond Kendal, it’s got a deli and butcher’s counter, it had smoked stilton on the cheese counter – it’s magic, it’s beautiful.
Sam: We’ve taken detours to go there.
Noted. What do you do when you come back?
Natalia: See my mates and drink wine. There’s no dairy, no alcohol and no chocolate on tour because you just can’t sustain it otherwise for more than a week of constant gigs.
Sam: We come back and we just want to Netflix and chill. Sit on a boat, close the curtains, don’t talk to anyone for a few days.
What’s your favourite gig been?
Natalia: I really loved the Secret Garden main stage this year, it was where we kind of started. I loved the London show this year but I think one of my favourites was Brazil Circle of Adore.
Sam: It’s a 1500 capacity venue and they put 3000 people in.
Natalia: Absolute nutters. The audience were our percussion.
Sam: It’s a geo-dome in the middle of Rio with a stage in the back, bleachers right up into it, a massive entrance and people thirty foot up in tiered seats. People were literally hanging off the rafters, it was fucking insane. Otherwise there was RJFO3RFJ in Italy, this medieval castle town and there’s a week-long busking festival, musicians from all over Europe and the gigs were really nuts. We were on this massive valley, a stone semi-circle sticking out 20 00 feet above a chasm with a storm rolling in towards us. We’ve had some really surreal gigs. Santiago was also incredible.
Tell us a cool thing about yourselves.
Sam: Nat does a really good lasagna. We live on a boat.
And lastly, an embarrassing story.
Or the second most embarrassing story?
Sam: I think we’re pretty shameless, it’s pretty hard to embarrass us-
Natalia: Okay so when I was a kid, I shat so hard in my mate’s toilet – who I fancied – and I stole his sister’s Barbie dolls and used it as a plunger and then was just left holding this shit Barbie… I was 8 though.
Who are you listening to?
Sam: Aprah Gandi, The General Mystics The genral Mystics, The XX, Chet Faker.
Natalia: And lot of Captain Cumbia – it’s usually stuff on Soundcloud.
Words by Amardeep Singh