Gyp-step, calypso, swing, dub – call it what you like, Molotov Jukebox’s carnival sound is unlike anything else we’ve ever heard. Emma Payne speaks to lead singer Natalia Tena ahead of their visit to Bristol…
‘You sound like you’re in a far away toilet!’ cries a characteristically exuberant Natalia, as we iron out the signalling problems between our phones. Known for her acting roles as Osha in Game of Thrones and Nymphadora Tonks Harry Potter, Natalia is no shrinking violet, and her kaleidoscopic, eclectic music with Molotov Jukebox is just about as extrovert as it gets.
‘I was born in West London and you know there’s Notting Hill carnival – I definitely remember that as the soundtrack to my childhood’, she explains, as we pry into the influences behind their eclectic vibe. ‘I suppose at the beginning Gogol Bordello was a big influence, when I was younger I loved Etta James and Carla Thomas, Nina Simone and Amy Winehouse, who’s amazing,’ she adds. ‘All the boys have different influences and everyone came to the band bringing their own style, which I think jigsaw-puzzled together quite well.’
We certainly agree, and their latest album, Tropical Gypsy, emerges from the melting pot of musical styles as something of a ‘mission statement’ for the band, as Natalia describes it. From the seductive brass and sultry vocals on ‘Just The Thrill’ and the joyful West African highlife echoes in ‘Pineapple Girl’, to the lamenting accordion – played by Natalia – of ‘Gypsy Funeral’, Tropical Gypsy is as much a trip around the world as an encyclopaedia of musical influences. So there’s plenty of scope for worldwide domination, perhaps? ‘We played in the Ukraine this year, and because we’ve got that gypsy element Eastern Europe and South America seem to really get us’, agrees Natalia. ‘Mexico was incredible; they really had it. I loved it so much I got a tattoo!’
The latest single, ‘Just The Thrill’, from album Tropical Gypsy
But back at home, Molotov Jukebox’s sound is perfectly suited to the eager crowds of the UK’s biggest and best-kept-secret festivals. ‘Festivals are just strange. I can’t really remember specific things because it all just merges into one glitter chaos mud thing,’ she laughs, as we ponder her weirdest experience with the band. As her horror at festivals past subsides – ‘oh God!’ – there’s no end of eccentric anecdotes. ‘I’ve been lost at a festival for three days, and then somehow turned up in London just wearing glitter,’ she says casually. ‘There was a gig that we did which was pretty weird. I was dressed up as Mary Antoinette at The Secret Garden Party and we played in a tree…’
Fittingly, the 6-piece emerged at Cambridgeshire’s Secret Garden Party – ‘the seeds of it started in this festival’ – to which the band returned this summer. ‘When we played there this year it felt amazing that we went from beginning to have a band to then playing the main stage years later’, Natalia remembers. ‘We played with the sun blazing and it was incredible. Everyone was dancing, we were on the main stage and it was a sea of people in fancy dress.’
The carnival vibe of ‘Pineapple Girl’ from Tropical Gypsy encapsulates the Molotov Jukebox sound
Speaking of which, fancy dress has become something of a hallmark for lead singer Natalia, from mermaid tails and tropical prints to golden body suits and Carmen Miranda-esque fruit on her head. ‘A woman called Bink creates my headdresses, and her company is called Pearls and Swine. Go online, look at her stuff, it’s amazing,’ she says with gusto. ‘Basically what I do is I base my outfit on what she’s going to do. So for our next tour we’re going to have a nautical theme…’ she teases.
But for somebody with such sartorial boldness, Natalia’s not one for clothes shopping, and more often than not it’s bassist Tom Wilson’s wife making the style choices. ‘She loves online shopping – which I don’t understand at all – so she’ll send me a link and tell me what to buy!’ Natalia laughs. ‘She stays up at night and does Pinterest boards of what she’s going to wear! It makes me break out in cold sweats!’
The band at Figueres Acoustic Festival in Spain
When she’s not busy rehearsing, Natalia can be found hunkered down with a good book. ‘I’ve just started World War Z. It’s awesome!’ she cries, although we wonder how she manages to balance her rapidly expanding music career with acting roles, and still have time to relax with a novel. ‘I’ve got so much on at the moment that I’m monitoring myself, and I only allow myself a tiny bit before I go to bed, but I absolutely love it,’ she says, with the air of a naughty school child reading under the covers after bedtime.
Despite touring extensively over the summer, Molotov Jukebox have released seven dates throughout the UK in support of their latest single, ‘Just The Thrill’. But despite taking it’s toll from time to time – ‘you can get on each other’s tits!’ – Natalia loves taking to the road. ‘I think what I love most about touring is that at the beginning, you are trying to remember how you work as a team. Even though you rehearse together and see each other a lot, touring is a different thing,’ she explains. ‘After the first few days it all slots in, the shows get better and better and by the time you end the tour you feel like you’re perfect!’
Ideal timing then, as Bristol is the last stop on the ‘Just The Thrill’ tour, with an appearance at The Fleece on 15 December. As it transpires, ours is a city with which Natalia has an unusual, aquatic connection…‘I’m on my boat at the moment’, she chats amiably, which explains the raucous sounds of her band mates in the background. ‘I was playing at Bristol Old Vic for the first time with Kneehigh theatre when I saw these boats, and I thought, “that’s amazing!”’, she adds, revealing the origin of her seafaring dreams. After a series of eclectic memories of the ‘sweaty, fun, mad box’ that is Thekla, Christmas services at the cathedral and times visiting her best friend at university, it becomes clear that Natalia is looking forward to the band’s maritime-themed jaunt in the city – and we have to say we are too. Now, where did we leave those flippers…
Molotov Jukebox are bringing their ‘Just The Thrill’ winter tour to The Fleece on 15 December. Tickets cost £16.50 and can be purchased via molotovjukebox.com
Feature image © Drew Cox