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The Audio-Visual Dream Experience: A deep dive into Art-Rock with Tulipomania

16 January 2024

Philadelphia’s Tulipomania is Cheryl Gelover and Tom Murray, who first met through experimental film and animation classes, so it comes as no surprise that their music and animations should explore outrage, powerlessness – and the sorrow that emerges from those states of mind. The duo has released their fifth album Dreaming of Sleep and a remix of the single “You Had to Be There” by UK music icon Martyn Ware (Heaven 17, The Human League) & Charles Stooke. Now, let’s get to know the band.

Can we begin with a bit of background? How did Tulipomania come into being, and what paths did you both travel musically to get here?

Cheryl: We met while studying art and found we shared musical tastes and enjoyed working together. I hadn’t had the opportunity to create original music before – it was exciting to find someone who was as open as Tom is to exploration.

Tom: We started playing music together very shortly after we met. I had been playing guitar, bass, and synth for years, and Cheryl had played piano on and off since she was a kid.

Neither of us liked playing other people’s music. We were both drawn to creating music and playing only parts and songs we created for ourselves to play.

Although Cheryl had some very basic piano lessons, both of us are largely self-taught. We have similar and compatible tastes and found playing music we created together to be a very enjoyable process.

I had played in a couple of bands – but most of the musicians I had known were only interested in playing covers. Meeting one another allowed both of us to create tracks that were ours alone, and we started working on soundtracks for short films and animations. We have always worked together on film and music projects. Both of us have always loved drawing and painting and were instantly hooked by animation and experimental film and the relationship of the moving image to sound and music.

We have been working together continuously ever since our first experiments.

The choice of name offers up a fascinating piece of history. Can you go through it again for me?

Cheryl: Tulipomania is a name given to one of the first documented financial bubbles. A really vivid account of a speculative crisis in the Dutch trade of tulip bulbs popularized the term in a book called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, published in 1841 by the Scottish author Charles Mackay – it’s considered one of the first examinations of crowd behavior. It’s actually pretty funny that later investigations show that Mackay’s version of the bubble was exaggerated – even so, Tulipomania has become a commonly accepted term for overspeculation. It’s still a disconcerting term –– given how common a flower tulips have become now – we always liked it for that reason.

Tom: People actually ruined themselves speculating on tulip bulbs – creating absurd, unsupportable valuations resulting in an inevitable collapse. Greed, delusion, and group madness spiral together toward absurd gains for a few – but ruinous losses for the rest. Sound familiar? Every few years, it plays out again and again, it seems. I remember seeing a video by one of the music services touting the bright future of NFTs for musicians and recommending getting on board before it was too late. We already had a box of tulip bulbs – so – we were all set. If only the flower exchanges had not all filed for bankruptcy a few hundred years ago…

You have stated that there is a fundamental contradiction between the sense of pride in making Dreaming of Sleep and the forces that drove you to make it. Can you elaborate on that?

Tom: I’m not sure how to explain it… Reacting to stress and uncertainty by making sound, images – hopefully art – is a cathartic and meditative process. Releasing the results – that creates its own stress and uncertainty – obviously, I think. Working partly in reaction to and then resulting in a source of some stress – well, that’s obviously a contradiction. I am still proud of the results and the effort – but I am unsure a bit at the same time…

Cheryl: It’s been pretty bleak these last few years – the madness of crowds has been a pretty apt concept to consider as things have been unfolding all around us. At the time David Bowie was singing, “Do you remember, your President Nixon…” I wonder if anyone could have even imagined someone like Donald Trump? And it’s not been a uniquely American problem… that’s what’s been so disturbing. In a better world, there would be less to rail against – but addressing the issues is a start, and that’s something to be proud of; that’s one explanation.

You have been variously tagged as cult synth punks, glam-leaning, post-punk, art-rock, and muscular chamber pop; how important is it to you to constantly evolve, and do genres matter anyway?

Cheryl: I think any evolution has happened organically. What’s been interesting about this new album Dreaming of Sleep is that we made a choice to pare down the guitars – which I felt a bit torn about – because I’ve loved Tom’s guitar and bass parts. What surprised me was how what I loved about Tom’s playing didn’t disappear because he was playing a bass part on a synthesizer instead of a guitar. At times, maybe what I played became a bass part, actually – it often wasn’t clear who contributed the initial idea or advanced it further as certain tracks evolved – and that was interesting. I don’t mind what anyone tags the final result – but maybe labels or genres matter as far as who may be interested enough to listen at first.

Tom: We are not changing for the sake of changing – I don’t think. I think evolution is inevitable. We work from a blank canvas each time with each song, animation, and album. We try to change things sometimes to spark excitement and to work within a defined structure that forces us to embrace some limitations. We always sound like us.

I don’t think labels matter. I know it is helpful and can guide listeners toward music they may like in a RIYL sort of way. Ultimately, I know what I like as soon as I hear it, and the genre is of little concern. Maybe if the genre is listed as polka – I might not check it out –but you never know.

“You Had To Be There” was remixed by Martyn Ware and Charles Stooke. Did you get to meet and work with them in person, or was it a more remote affair?

Tom: We have not met Martyn Ware or Charles Stooke in person – yet. We were just in the right place at the right time and remotely connected with Martyn Ware. Somehow, the timing and question were right, and the response was positive. We have long been fans of Martyn Ware’s music and production. We were just lucky that he liked the track and responded positively to the possibility of remixing it.

He and Charles Stooke reworked the track, and we are very thrilled with the result! We made a music video to accompany its release and were lucky that the track was included on the last Wire magazine CD sampler, too. We have been very lucky that Martyn responded and was willing to remix the track. We hope to meet him and Charles one day. We owe them for sure.

Cheryl: Agreed! It’s been exciting to see that track evolve in their hands – and we certainly do owe them.

Film and animation are important to both of you; what ideas and opportunities do you find in those disciples that aren’t so easy to express in music, and vice versa?

Tom: Film and music are very closely related. Both make demands on the viewer/listener in similar ways – demanding/requesting the listener/viewer’s attention for a set interval. It is a big request and can easily be met with indifference or dislike.

Unlike painting, photography, or sculpture – where the viewer can usually decide when and how much attention they wish to give to any specific work – music and film place forced time and attention requirements on the viewer. Film is even more intrusive and asks even more of the audience. There is something about the combination of the two that enthralls us, I think. The music can always be taken on its own – but the film would be lost without the music potentially.

Cheryl: For us, the music always comes first. Despite the very real issues of attempting to engage an audience that Tom has just raised – we do believe that joining visuals with music can potentially offer a more powerful experience.

And finally, where next for Tulipomania?

Tom: We are working on more animations and remixes to release with tracks from this album. We hope to play some live shows in the summer.
Thanks so much for talking with us!

Cheryl: Absolutely – we really appreciate the opportunity!

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