The New York-based duo Tropic is the musical project of EDM producer Phuse (Jarel Hill) and R&B singer/songwriter Jo-B Sebastian, who recently released an EP, Bittersweet, that fuses electronica, soul, pop and R&B together to give listeners a unique and eclectic sound. They both grew up listening to Earth Wind & Fire, Hall & Oates and Michael and Janet Jackson and currently are listening to artists such as Marian Hill, Disclosure and Mura Masa. Sebastian, who was born and raised in Hong Kong, moved to Manila in his teenage years and performed residencies in many of the top clubs there, as well as appearing on TV and radio. Hill’s interest in electronic music was sparked in high school, having always been drawn to the beats and instrumentals of electronic music. He attended the music production school Icon Collective in LA to further pursue his interest in a music career. In 2014 he was one of the winners of the Discovery Project DJ/Producer Competition which allowed him to play at Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas alongside some of electronic music’s biggest artists. They both made their way to New York where they met through a mutual friend, and after discovering they had many of the same tastes in music they decided to write music together, thus forming Tropic. In addition to the release of their recent EP, the duo also just released a video for their song “Over You” and an amazing cover of Earth Wind & Fire’s song “September”. As the band continues to grow and learn together as musicians, they are continuously forging a sound that is uniquely their own. With another music video, more covers and more new music coming up, Tropic has a bright future ahead of them. Staff writer Emily May spoke recently to Sebastian and Hill recently via email about the new EP, their musical backgrounds and influences and what’s next for them. You can stay up-to-date with the band, all upcoming music and tour dates and where to purchase and stream their music from the following links- Website, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, SoundCloud, YouTube, Spotify and Apple Music/iTunes. You can watch their video for “Over You” below, as well as check out their cover of “September” by Earth Wind & Fire below.
You two met through a mutual friend and listened to and liked each other’s music. What was it that drew you to both to the other’s music and made you want to work together? What was it like to work together for 4 months before ever meeting?
There was just an immediate sense of respect for each other upon hearing each other’s music. We both knew we wanted to work together just based off what we had heard and our mutual friend put us in contact with each other. It was definitely an interesting experience, working without having physically met before, but modern technology helped bridge that gap. Collaborating with each other seemed like a natural, easy fit, and we became fast friends before we even met.
Jo-B, you come from an R&B background and Jarel, you come from an EDM background. Tropic combines elements of both of your influences to create your own unique sound. Did you find that the different genres combined pretty smoothly or did it take some work to turn them into a cohesive sound?
It took some time to find out how to fit both of our styles together harmoniously, and in many ways we’re still finding our combined voice. It’s exciting because our first EP is already so different from the music we’re making now. We’re growing, we’re learning how to work alongside each other, and we’re forging a sound that is uniquely our own, something only achievable together. Although we both come from seemingly different backgrounds, we have very similar tastes in music and share many of the same influences. We both grew up listening to old school R&B and pop, and have common favorite contemporary artists. We also have a deep love and respect for R&B and Electronic music, which is probably why working together came so easily to us.
Who were your musical inspirations growing up and who are some current bands that you are listening to?
One of the things that brings us so closely together as musicians is how in sync our musical tastes and inspirations are with each other. We’re inspired by both the new and the classic. We grew up listening to the classics like Earth, Wind, & Fire, Hall & Oates, Michael & Janet Jackson, Sade, and Mariah Carey. Currently we’re listening to a lot of SG Lewis, Majid Jordan, MNEK, Marian Hill, Disclosure, Mura Masa, and NAO.
Your EP Bittersweet was released on July 23rd. What can you tell me about the inspiration behind the album? What was the writing and recording process like? Does one of you write the lyrics while the other works on the melody or is your songwriting a more collaborative effort?
Like most modern music, the Bittersweet EP is about love; love’s end, to be specific. The EP is fueled by heartbreak, with the overall theme of the EP being the aftermath of a relationship coming to an end. We like to view each track as a different facet of the breakup, the different stages of grief and loss.
The writing and recording process was truly a collaborative effort. Jarel sends Jo-B a sketch or beat he’s been working on and Jo-B takes the track and writes the lyrics and melody. Each song has a different collaborative process. On “Bittersweet” and “September”, for example, Jo-B came up with specific chord progressions and played them out for Jarel to take and incorporate into the tracks he had produced. For “Over You”, Jarel took Jo-B’s melody and lyrics and rearranged the song, crafting a new chorus and hook in a way that changed the song completely.
We’ve learned that the key to working together is to keep an open mind, to trust one another completely, and to not be afraid to push each other creatively.
Following the release of your EP, your plan was to release 6 different projects in the form of songs and music videos in the span of 3 months! What inspired the plan and how has the response been?
Our debut EP was our first official release as a duo and while we were excited to share the music we had been working on for the better part of a year we also wanted to make sure we didn’t fall off the radar. We wanted to have a visual component to the EP so music videos were a natural direction for us to take, but we wanted to keep our music releases rolling as well. As a new duo we came to the conclusion that a good way to garner new listeners was to release cover songs, something familiar to draw people in but with a Tropic twist that would have them sticking around and interested in exploring our original music. Cover songs are also a great way to pay homage to the artists who have shaped us into the musicians we are today. So far the response has been great! People have been reaching out to tell us how much they love what we’re doing – it’s been a great reminder of why we make music in the first place.
Jo-B- You were born and raised in Hong Kong, spent your teenage years in The Philippines and now reside in Brooklyn. How did each place influence you and your music. I also read that your Grandfather was a Julliard-trained concert violinist and conductor. What kind of influence did he have on you and your love for music and did you always have a love for R&B?
I think of the places I’ve lived in as chapters in my musical life. Being born and raised in Hong Kong, it’s where I discovered my love for music. I went to a school that had a very active music program and it’s where I found my passion for music and, more importantly, where I discovered that music was something I was good at, something I wanted to dedicate my life to. Moving to Manila in my formative years, it became the place that I honed my craft in. I had a bit of a tough time moving to a new city. With no friends, a weird accent, and zero chance of fitting in, music became my refuge and my most steadfast friend. I had never formally trained or studied music at that point except for sporadic piano lessons, so I turned to the greats, Aretha, Billie Holiday, Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, to teach me how to sing. I moved to New York to pursue a scholarship at the New School for Jazz and I credit New York with the development of my taste and musical foundations. Up to that point I was very secure in my vocal ability but my theoretical knowledge was based on intuition. Coming to New York broadened my musical horizons, introduced me to music that has now shaped who I am as an artist, and helped me discover my voice as a songwriter.
My grandfather had a huge impact on me. I remember growing up and listening to him teach his mentors. He had the reputation of making his students cry. His meticulous ear, hardcore discipline, and perfectionist attitude were values I’ve long tried to strive for, and has encouraged me to trust my musical instincts and not settle until I’ve reached as close to perfection as I can. It’s also been so inspiring to hear the people he has worked with speak so highly of his ability and passion for music. I hope to one day reach a similar level of renown and skill. Interestingly enough, I never developed a proper taste for the Classical music my grandfather was known for. My parents, my mother in particular, raised me on Motown, R&B, and soul. I spent my Saturday mornings listening to the Jackson Five, Earth, Wind, & Fire, The Temptations, and the Stylistics. I have had brief flirtations with other genres and I pride myself on being open and appreciative of other genres but R&B and soul will always be my home base! Despite that, I think it’s important to allow yourself to look for inspiration outside of what’s comfortable. Every genre has something to share that can help elevate your music and taste.
Jo-B- You spent years cultivating a music career in Manila, performing residencies at many of the top clubs in the city, as well as appearing in radio and on TV. What drew you to Manila and what was the music scene like there? I read that despite many lucrative offers, a scholarship from The New School For Jazz and Contemporary Music in NYC caused you to walk away from those offers. What appealed to you about attending music school at that point in your life and was it hard for you to make the decision to leave Manila?
Manila is my home, so it was only natural that I start my career there. I cut my teeth at the local clubs, performing every chance I could get. Eventually I started making waves and was soon playing at the biggest music venues, performing alongside Grammy nominated artists at international music festivals, and appearing on radio and TV. It was a great experience and really taught me how to be on stage. Being in the studio and performing in front of an audience are two different beasts, and being the shy, introvert I am, I was forced to come out of my shell and learn how to not only sing, but to entertain. I’m still learning to be comfortable in my own skin on stage but Manila is definitely where I decided I wanted to electrify the stage, not just be on it.
It was actually offers from major labels back home that made me decide to pursue a proper music education. Granted, the appeal of a major label record deal was not lost on me, it was definitely something I wanted, but when I was asked what kind of music I wanted to release I was drawing a blank. After spending a significant amount of time thinking on it, I decided I’d rather strengthen my musical foundations and find my voice as an artist rather than allow someone else to dictate it for me. I decided to move to New York not only to deepen my musical knowledge but also to find myself, and that’s how I ended up taking that scholarship.
Jarel- You were selected to play the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas in 2014 by winning the Discovery Project DJ/Producer competition, joining 15 other winners in playing one hour showcases throughout the 3 day festival. How did you become involved in the project and what was that experience like for you? What was it like to play your original tracks to the public for the first time and perform with artists such as Calvin Harris, Tiesto and Avicii?
That was such an amazing experience for me! EDC was the first festival I ever went to, so that’s the stage I wanted to be on ever since I started producing. Playing that stage was one of the greatest feelings. I had applied for the same competition a year earlier and didn’t make it so when it finally happened it felt extra special.
Jarel- You started playing piano at the age of 2 until you were in high school, when you transitioned to making mixed tapes for your friends. What kinds of mixed tapes did you make and do you still play the piano? What sparked your interest in electronic music and Dj’ing?
I always had a passion for music so when I stopped playing piano in high school it made sense that something else would come along. I was making electronic music mixes but everyone that didn’t know about electronic mixes yet called it “techno”. It was a bunch of Justice, David Guetta, Armin Van Buuren and Daft Punk. I’ve always been more inspired by the beats and instrumentals, which is why that kind of music really hooked me. It was the first time I heard songs with that much energy and without any lyrics. Justice’s Cross album was a real turning point for me.
Jarel- You attended Davidson College as a psychology major, working as a DJ on the side. During your junior year, you studied abroad in Australia. What was your experience like in Australia and what was it about that trip that made you seriously consider a career as a music producer? Upon graduating from Davidson, what made you decide to enroll in the music production school Icon Collective in LA?
Davidson wasn’t really into electronic music yet. So all my mixes were falling on deaf ears and I basically played them for myself. When I studied abroad in Australia that completely changed. All my Australian friends had the same musical taste and they would use my mixes to pregame. As small as it probably seemed to them it was huge for my confidence. My hobby started to turn into a passion and I started thinking seriously about making a career in music. After Davidson I decided to go for it but I knew I needed a lot of help. That’s when I turned to Icon.
You guys recently did a cover of “September” by Earth, Wind and Fire. What do you love about that particular song and what made you decide to do a cover? I read that you both made a list of songs you wanted to do covers of when you formed Tropic! What other songs made the list?
When we decided that we wanted to release covers after our debut EP, we both agreed to write our list of which songs to cover. “September” topped both of our lists. Earth, Wind, & Fire is one of our shared influences and inspirations so it made sense that we’d choose “September”, one of their most popular songs, as our first cover. The groovy, upbeat nature of the song also made a great contrast to the melancholic material on our EP and it was definitely a unanimous decision. We have a few more covers coming out so we don’t want to spoil the fun, but it’s a good mix of old and new, we wanted to pay homage to the artists who have shaped and formed our music.
What can you tell me about your song “Over You”, as well as the making of the video for the song? Did you go into the video with a specific idea in mind?
“Over You” is a song wrought from the desperate attempt to mask the lingering feelings after a breakup. When we were deciding on which songs from our EP we wanted to adapt into music videos, “Over You” stood out because of its visceral nature and story-like lyric. With the music video, we wanted to visualize the dreamlike post-break up state and transcend the auditory experience with striking imagery and narrative, a feat we achieved through our collaboration with filmmaker and long time friend, Evan Carter (Jarel’s best friend from college).
What’s next for you guys?
We’ve got a lot more in store! The EP was just the beginning, we’ve got another music video, a few other covers coming up, and we’re already working on new material so watch this space! We’re also excited to start playing our music live, getting out there and interacting with our audience is one of the reasons we love music so much so it will be great to finally get out there and share our music with you all! Hopefully we’ll soon be playing in a city near you! Stay tuned!