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Jose Castello, the brainy, loquacious vocalist, keyboardist, and chief songwriter of Miami-based indie fusion act Animal Tropical, knows the ins and outs of prolific obscurity. "This is our tenth release — that nobody will hear — in nine years," he quips, referring to his band's new Just Between Us Girls ten-inch vinyl split with South Florida rock band Ice Cream, which complements Animal Tropical's colorful sonic potpourri with monochromatic, self-described "doom pop," of equally distinct, instantly recognizable character.
While the groups pair nicely as similar but different release mates, they also form a tidy dichotomy, pitting veteran outsider workhorses versus fresh-faced forerunners of an emerging party-rock scene. Ice Cream started in 2009 and now finds itself a comfortable local draw — sometimes even a headliner — at venues such as Churchill's Pub, Bar, and makeshift warehouse spaces along the Biscayne corridor. Animal Tropical, through various incarnations and under different names, has been slogging away for three times as long, pumping out self-released, fully realized albums packed with music no one listens to.
Well, that last part isn't entirely true. Since the early '00s, Castello and company — a tight-knit collective of musicians including guitarists Kris Pabon and Max Johnston, drummer Jorge Rubiera, bassist Jarret Hahn, and vocalist Edward Adames — have garnered a fair degree of local press and played shows at nearly every bar, club, and alternative space in town. The original project was a math-rock-y, posthardcore group called Pygmy, featuring Castello, Rubiera, Pabon, and Johnston, and fronted by the spastically high-energy Adames. The first reshuffling came when Castello left Miami to pursue a degree in literature at the New School in New York City: Hahn was added to the mix as a replacement and, ever since, the group has relied on that core cast for various endeavors, including a stint as a country-soul band, the Down Home Southernaires, as well as Rubiera's fuzzy indie-pop project Can't Stop.
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Through constant activity and an eagerness to accept every invitation to play, the crew established itself as a cross-demographic constant on Miami's hypertransient music scene. Pygmy, the Southernaires, and now Animal Tropical have sounded like none of their local peers. Yet at one time or another, this band has shared the stage with all of them.
In the end, Castello's lighthearted, pithy negativity regarding listenership might refer to a national audience, which Animal Tropical has never fully cultivated, despite regular touring and aggressive self-marketing. A big part of that lack of attention might come from the group's signature herky-jerky, pan-genre songwriting. As vertiginous and linear as Pygmy's superintricate songs were, the group could still be identified as a distant relative of rock music. But once the boys began explicitly integrating a more stylistically diverse range of influences — beginning with honky-tonk, ragtime, and eventually R&B and soul in the Southernaires — the sonic schisms within single songs became more frenetically pronounced.
The kicker, though, is Animal Tropical's dedication to pop via appropriation of Latin music idioms, vaudevillian bravado, punchy '80s New Wave, and other sources. The listener is drawn in by ostensibly melodic music, sugary pop harmonies, and big, bright production, only to be alienated by a Zappa-like frantic ride through infinite, seemingly disparate passages.
As Castello says, each of the collective's nine self-released CDs (four as Pygmy, three as Down Home Southernaires, and two as Animal Tropical) are "necessarily different." But every record after the Southernaires' Negro en Bicicleta has increasingly followed a multistage process of group collaboration and solo production. "The songs are mine, I guess, but mostly made up on the spot with only the most patient participants present," he explains.
After an initial recording, the material goes through a few phases of editing and tinkering, with Castello and Rubiera "overstuffing basic tracks with additional and increasingly exotic performers," followed by a series of editorial check-ins by Castello over the course of a few months. And all of that dub-style studio trickery, alongside already dense songwriting, explains the group's signature, disorienting pop wallop.
"That's why [our recordings] sound so peculiar and unlike the live performances," Castello adds. "This split [with Ice Cream] is our most radically edited. The original performances were shaped, warped, crunked, screwed, scissored, and hardly resemble the originals at all. Always a nice surprise for the rest of the band."
Ice Cream's story, meanwhile, is much briefer and considerably less complex. The band came together two years ago over an appetite for its namesake. "I was really hungry and without money one night," vocalist Justin Anthony Rivers recounts. "I had a long walk [to the store], and all I could think about was how I wanted ice cream." The First-World irony of craving junk food when you're hungry struck Rivers as potent, and he suddenly knew what he would call his new band.
Featuring Tomas Kennedy on guitar, Alexander Lashley on bass, Joel Gutman on drums, and Roy Neil Hunter on MPC2000XL, Ice Cream is all about dark, meandering tuneage. "Doom pop," Gutman explains. "It's pretty self-explanatory." According to the band's members, they have been described as "the Satanic Strokes" and "like the Doors." And both comparisons are true, for the band fuses gloomy '60s psych jangle with '00s reverb-heavy nursery-rhyme-style moaning.