28 Aug CECILIA DELLA PERUTI OF GOTHIC TROPIC TALKS THE BEGINNINGS OF HER CAREER, WORKING WITH BECK, AND GROWING UP IN THE L.A. MUSIC SCENE
At age 28, multi-instrumentalist Cecilia Della Peruti already boasts an impressive lineup of musicians she’s played with on tour—from BØRNS to Charli XCX to her current gig, backing genre-defying icon, Beck. However, Della Peruti’s creative influence extends beyond her credits as a hired gun. As a solo artist, this prolific powerhouse has released an EP, a full album, and a handful of catchy singles since 2011, under the alias Gothic Tropic. The moniker is well-suited to her West Coast sound: playing against her 80s pop grooves and shimmering California psychedelia, Gothic Tropic’s hard-bitten lyrics create a tongue-and-cheek effect. “I will feed you to the sharks/ I will hold your tongue in front of you,” she croons on ‘Feed You To The Sharks,’ her breezy sound striking a compelling contrast against the grit of her words. In an interview with Jammcard, we sat down with the driving force behind Gothic Tropic to discuss her self-taught guitar chops, her early punk phase as lead singer of The Cheats (“don’t look it up,” she warns), and what it’s like to juggle ambitions as a hired gun and solo artist. Gothic Tropic’s recent album, Fast or Feast, is available now on all streaming platforms.
How did you start playing music?
C: When I started playing guitar, I was just finger picking because that’s how my mom showed me. She’s proficient in at least four instruments and languages. She had a nylon string guitar and was learning Joni Mitchell songs. She started teaching me “Blackbird” and with a nylon string guitar. I just kept playing that guitar through high school. She tried teaching me “Classical Gas”. I think it’s like aging-hippies-folk. If you ask any music professor in Southern California, they’ll know what you’re talking about. Over time, I was using my long nails on my right hand as the pick. I’ve just had lopsided hands for years.
On which styles would you say your guitar playing is influenced by?
C: It started out as folk songs because that’s what you pretty much have when left to your own devices. Then in high school, I started a punk band with some friends who went to Marshall High in Los Feliz. I would take the Red Line and we would have rehearsal in the drummer’s garage–using pots and pans. He ended up becoming a real drummer. That’s when I started playing electric guitar. We would go to the Knitting Factory, The Smell, The Vermont House, Illcoral, and the Hive. We had a crew called LA Gators, and we basically would get in fist fights with all the skinheads that were racist at the shows. There were a few people who would go to all the shows that would sort of terrorize people out of nowhere. We were pretty scrappy. A few people got alligator tattoos. During that time, I wasn’t even playing guitar in my band, I was using it as a writing tool. I was the singer, jumping around with little spiky hair. It was called the Cheats, don’t look it up. It was fun. The guitarist Robbie loved Johnny Thunders and The Addicts. But I was into the Descendents, Angry Samoans, and Adolescents. A lot of the lyrical content of those bands in the ‘80s was not PC.
What are your views on that? Do you think it’s necessary to be PC at all times in art?
C: No, because in art sometimes you’re a character and sometimes you’re playing the ignorant character, like in comedy– Some of it is satire and some of it is not.
Was punk the main influence for you during high school?
C: Yeah, I mean when you’re a teenager listening to punk, you really have to hide your Bjork’s and Yoyo Mas. So I was pretty zeroed into that. After that, my evolution went through the years. I listened through everything and finally, I got back to what I was into as a kid. My mom would listen to Yes, Fragile, and stuff like that, which is so incredibly musical and smart. So I absorbed all the dumb stuff, the great stuff, the funny stuff, and then came back to the greats, like Bowie, after.
What was your motivation to evolve as a musician?
C: I think now I love learning other people’s music. Like in Beck’s band, we jam everything backstage from Television to fusion jazz. Jason’s constantly introducing a classic song into the jam. I have gotten more appreciation out of learning other people’s music. I started writing more seriously maybe at like 19 or 20 and that’s about when I first started playing professionally guitar in a band and got asked to gig. Every gig that’s come about is me just not saying no to things, but I didn’t mean to end up on a list of hired guns. Had I gone to Berklee and done all that, it could have been something I wanted to pursue but the hired gun aspect was just a byproduct of me needing to learn how to play properly and learn what was in my head.
How did you start that part of your career?
C: I would do a lot of studio work, more singing, and sung on a Rumspringa album and met Joey from Rumspringa. I think maybe he came to a show or something and asked me to join Rumspringa and then from that point I started Gothic Tropic. I learned a lot from Joey and his guitar style. He played in different tunings, so I learned different tunings, and during that I wanted my own thing. I was just so nervous. I had to override my fear.
How would you know what to practice and how to progress for these kinds of gigs?
C: I would just learn it by ear. I would go through and try to hear all the different parts, because sometimes you’re covering a few bases. Sometimes, they’ll play something that you didn’t even think to ask them to learn and it’s great. I think that’s more fun than just learning the music, because sometimes you can read the brand of the band or the artist. Beck loves suggestions. He’s a curator, same with Bowie, Prince, David Byrne, the people who are playing with them are not just faceless. They have an all-star lineup of people. Honestly, Beck’s band right now–Jason Falkner, Chris Coleman–is just so talented.
C: Honestly, I think it’s better to have good taste and good ideas than be technically skilled unless the artist is super “gospel shred nasty.” Personally, people like Beck and probably Karen O, it’s not about playing fast. It’s about the energy, attitude, the tones.
Did you ever struggle with assimilating somehow in your first gigs doing hired gun work?
C: I think for some reason that’s the good worker bee in me. It’s harder being the artist because you have to stand behind what you’re doing. It’s easier being the hired gun because I got a job and am proud even if this isn’t something I’d be doing.
How do you balance this work with your own creative work? Do you feel it’s easier at times to be hired and do you sometimes feel stifled writing for your own stuff?
C: Those feelings sort of ebb and flow throughout a year. You can decide to perceive the long term, the short term, it just depends on what you’re doing. I have a high tolerance that makes thinking in the long term a lot easier. I can also recognize that sometimes having less time to record something of my own lights a fire and makes me do it quicker. With Beck, it’s been a year. I think he respects everyone’s personal projects and doesn’t want to stand in the way of anyone living their truth. Personally, an artist gigging for another artist has a lot to learn from that experience creatively. I’m just able to see what someone I really admire is doing creatively–right in front of me. That’s invaluable. It’s hard, but it’s a good kind of hard.
In terms of your creative process, do you think playing with people can be a lot more helpful than being entirely on your own?
C: Yeah, sometimes you just have to make a lot of noise. When you’re with other people and you’re just jamming, it helps you break through. This year I started writing with other people for my project, which I hadn’t done before. Everyone has a chemical reaction to the other person, your brain reacts differently to another person. It’s sort of like dating, you know when you go on a date and are like ‘I’m really funny!’ or ‘why am I acting so weird right now?’ It could be anything. There was a band I started with a few other girls called Clear Plastic and the camaraderie was large and there was something about it that just felt like summer camp, so sometimes you need that even if it costs you independence. If you don’t mind collaborating, it could be really cool.
How long does it take you to finish a project involving many people?
C: Once you get in with a producer and you know what you want to do, it shouldn’t actually take that long. What takes long is the writing and A&R-ing your own songs and trying to figure out the family of songs, because sometimes you have songs that have disparate vibes. The writing and the logistics take a long time until they don’t and that’s a privilege of being signed and having all that figured out. For me, the logistics take 300% longer than actually doing it. If everything was easy peasy I would be putting out records every year. I write a lot. Somehow, I have four albums worth of songs, so the work is there but I actually don’t even write that much consistently. It’s all bursts. Sometimes you’ll write like four songs in five days all of a sudden and then sometimes you won’t write anything for three months.
Do you think taking listening breaks helps with your writing? Sometimes when I hear something I really love, I get too intimidated to manifest that inspiration and maybe by just coming from a place of entirely your own originality and not listening to your favorite artists that may impact your writing approach.
C: That feeling of intimidation will change to ‘I can do that, I want to do that’. That’s self-love related and inside of that is confidence, but what’s really cool is there is some music that I love that is so dumb and easy, so it’s cool to see artists get big for doing dumb shit because then, ‘oh my god, cool I can do that’. so if you listen to the voices that are more like, ‘I can do that,’ rather than ‘I give up’, just listen to the positive one. You’re probably better than what you let on.
Did you ever think that playing DIY spaces was, at times, harder for you to be a female musician?
C: It’s gotten a lot more chill with women in the music industry now because of all the work women musicians have put in in the last century. We owe that to Nina Simone, Lesley Gore, Patti Smith, PJ Harvey. When I was growing up, no one believed me until they saw me on TV. Maybe I don’t look like a band girl–so I don’t get taken seriously. Also, it’s almost like when they hand you a guitar–they’re holding you at a higher standard than the guys. Thankfully, the people who have been in this game for a long time, it’s not even a thought. They respect, write with, and are mastered by incredibly talented women.
What’s working with Beck like?
C: The schedule’s really great because when we’re home, we can do whatever we need to do. We get proper rest time, lodging, and travel. He makes health high priority on tour. If he wants to change up the set, do new arrangements, we’ll meet a couple days before the tour. The really cool part of this gig for me is that I’m good at improvising, as well as the rest of the band, so if he wants to try new things we got it. It’s fun to be a little bit on your toes because you get to remind yourself ‘I’m killing this!’
Does being in LA influence your writing a lot? Do you feel grounded in a community when you’re here?
C: Yeah, I do. I grew up here, so I feel no different. I’m at home anyway. I went to coffee dressed like this yesterday. I’m wearing almost nothing. So yeah, I feel very comfortable here. There have been so many times as a teenager, where I’m like ‘I could die!’ driving in LA, going to shows, going to things after shows. I remember realizing after high school that people move here to make their stuff happen. Also, peers and friends who blew up and made it and so, having that history already makes you feel you didn’t have to try so hard or be a cheeseball. There’s a quiet confidence. I’m saying this because I’ve had a slow growth, which isn’t a bad thing. With having a slow burn comes longevity, where sometimes there’s a project that comes up real quick and then dies in a month. That’s the whole perception thing of big picture/small picture. Other people’s success is not a demotion to what you’re doing. It doesn’t mean that the position has been filled and there are more positions constantly creating themselves. If you keep your head down and focus on your work, the only thing that should matter is the song. All the other feelings melt away because all of a sudden you’re zeroed in on your work and are proud of what you made.
Are you working on anything now?
C: I have an EP, a record, and a project called Blood Thirsty. We’re writing that now. Blood Thirsty is going to be sort of its own project. It ended up happening pretty organically because Alex Goose and I were working on Gothic Tropic stuff, he showed Danielle, and she wanted to get in on this. I was thinking if I had an alter ego, my punk name would be CC Section. So that’s a fun project.
What do you think makes a great guitarist?
C: Number one, taste. Number two, what you write on guitar. I think what you write on guitar when you’re just jamming can be very valuable if it’s really cool. And then number three, proficiency, because you don’t want to be stifled by not being proficient, it’s so frustrating. But your taste goes a long way.
Be sure to be on the lookout for new music from Gothic Tropic!
Written by Alexandra Dwight
Interview by Siena Goldman
Photo by Thom Corbishley