Music

Who Are Nipplepeople? A Mysterious Croatian Electropop Group

Photo: Video still

Who Are Nipplepeople? The masked duo behind a string of electropop hits in Croatia, 2009-2018. We survey the group's music.

People may be born with nipples but not all people are Nipplepeople. Electropop wunderkinds Nipplepeople have been among Croatia's best-kept secrets for nearly a decade now and yet, even on the Croatian-Serbian music scene where everybody knows them, nobody knows them. The male-female duo insist on anonymity, wearing masks during performances or for rare interviews. They've emerged almost yearly since 2009 to debut one new single that's been processed and reprocessed -- a measured, rigorous gestation -- until it's effortlessly up-stirring in its danceable downtempo. Nipplepeople released a new single "Nikada" ("Never") a few weeks ago, another coolly rolling dose of ecstasy, and its companion video is their most accomplished to date.

Before canvassing their singles and videos, some Nipplepeople context. Except for a couple of blog posts, it seems that no full-length articles have been published in English on Nipplepeople (everything I found on them required a Croatian-English translator). Just as they don't want their personal identities known, it may be true that Nipplepeople are not inclined to reach listeners beyond their six-country region formerly known as Yugoslavia. The duo even speak ambivalently about releasing a full album; their songs have been compiled as a singles collection for Bandcamp, iTunes, and Spotify if not released as an official album. The duo's creative pace of one single every year or so suits the Croatian-Serbian music scene, really, with the region's hits largely determined by annual music festivals. The Split Festival, for example, in Croatia's second largest city Split, is known to produce the summer's biggest pop hits. Nipplepeople have performed at the EXIT, Harter, Sea Star, and Terraneo festivals, among others.

Claiming most of the Adriatic shoreline and considered a bridge between West and East, sublime Croatia sits at the junction of Central and Southeast Europe. The medieval seaport Dubrovnik provides the setting for King's Landing in Game of Thrones. Nipplepeople are based in Zagreb, the country's capital, its largest city, and home to its oldest pop festival, Zagrebfest. Croatian pop's preeminent glamazon must be Josipa Lipsac, a vocalist whose career spans genres, decades, and vast wardrobes. More relevant to Nipplepeople is new wave music of the late '70s and early '80s. Manifested in then Yugoslavia as the Novi Val movement, it is now deemed a highpoint in the region's pop music history. I found my way to Nipplepeople on YouTube via eccentric Novi Val gems by Via Talas, Denis and Denis, and Du-Du-A. Nipplepeople currently share the Croatian-Serbian electropop stage with bands like Inje, Yammat, Egoclinique, and Lollobrigida.

Nipplepeople's music has been categorized as downtempo and even "trip-hop", a genre known for blurring hip-hop and electronica under a dark cloud (e.g., Portishead, or Tricky). It's trip hop, then with this qualifier: it's perversely happy trip hop. They can also veer nostalgically, euphorically, into the glossy retro-futurism of synthwave. The male part of the duo serves as masked beat-maker, in live performances stationed at his sound-system, while the masked chanteuse out front sings original lyrics with equal parts warm bounce and cool control. This is a team dynamic not uncommon in electronic music, from The Eurythmics, Yaz, and Soft Cell too, in their way, to Kirlian Camera, Goldfrapp, The Knife, Sally Shapiro, Crystal Castles, and Kap Bambino. Propulsion tends to rule the groove in Nipplepeople songs, coasting a wistful current inward and beyond ("Ne Volim Te," "Tebi") or surging headlong into radiophonic rapture ("Balkan Express," "Frka").

The second hit for Nipplepeople, "Sutra" ("Tomorrow"), won the Loud & Queer Award for single of the year in 2010. Loud & Queer has described itself as the oldest and most famous gay party brand in Serbia and they invited Nipplepeople back again a year later to play a "Cum Back Party". How the duo identify, in terms of sexual orientation, is unknown. Whether or not they are romantically coupled, as one might assume, is possibly irrelevant, given their anonymity. They are, at any rate, loyal to the LGBTQ portion of their fan base. It's good to note that both Croatia and neighboring Serbia have outlawed discrimination against LGBTQ people; neither country has legalized same-sex marriage but in Croatia, after cohabiting for three years, same-sex couples enjoy a status under the law considered equal to heterosexual married couples. Nipplepeople live their daily (unmasked) lives in Zagreb, home to the country's most thriving LGBTQ scene, and their video for the 2018 release "Nikada" (addressed below) is provocatively queer.

Nipplepeople are a low-key, high-frequency phenomenon, ducking the world's radar. Their near-annual offering of singles, as cleanly cut as diamonds, is a sign of talent expressing itself under its own pressure, in its own time. Nipplepeople don't want anyone to know who they are -- they only want people to focus on their music. The best way to honor this credo is to answer the question "Who are Nipplepeople?" song by song.

2009: "Broj"

Nipplepeople take off with their debut single "Broj" ("Number"), crashing the domestic top ten in early 2009. There is already sophistication to the layering of digital spasms and impudent loops, a pummeling undertow countered by the singer's controlled pop-buoyancy. Translation of the lyrics suggests alienation: "Now everywhere is dark" and "I got a new number; other people place me". There is no official video, only a later appearance on a Croatian MTV show. The black-clad duo hide their faces behind DIY masks made of round-hole perforated aluminum. Her right arm is in a plaster cast, dressed up with a spiral strip of what might be masking tape.


2010: "Sutra"

Nipplepeople's follow-up hit "Sutra" ("Tomorrow") surpassed the first, spending six weeks in the national station Open Radio's top five and, as noted, winning a Loud & Queer Award for single of the year in neighboring Serbia. A whispery vocal dominates the song, intensifying as the cold plucky beats activate a wall of sound around the dance floor. The chorus beckons someone's touch at a bar, if the translation is accurate: "At the end of the day I'm here," she sings, either resigned or hopeful to "fall in love tomorrow". The official music video is an anxiously-paced montage of the masked duo in all white (with white papier-mâché half-masks, against a white backdrop) and home video-like footage of a rather quirky party scene, often projecting the latter onto the former. The singer's red lips, all we see of her face, makes for the boldest color in a video awash with light and texture. Also look for remixes by Agramsville (see below) and Inje.


2010: "Sanjam"

Nipplepeople released "Sutra" as "raw material" for a remix competition. The winning mix by the Zagreb-based Agramsville was included on an excellent Croatian electropop compilation, along with the original Agramsville track "Sanjam" ("Dream") that features Nipplepeople. Dreamy it is, rhythmically furtive in its low, slow ride and gentle hook. The "Sanjam" video follows a Pierrot-like woman, in a shiny frock suitable for an outer space b-movie, as she meanders through her day in the city. A timing of song's rhythm and the rhythm of transport (bicycle, train, elevator) is a motif that will culminate four songs away in Nipplepeople's brilliant "Balkan Express".


2011: "Ne Volim Te"

Here is Nipplepeople's own reverie, with its lonely outer-space frequencies and a driving thrum at first aligned in the video with a rapid train. The forward pull in "Ne Volim Te" ("I Do Not Love You") becomes an inward pull, however, or nostalgia's pull heightened by split-screen montages of childhood photos of the duo (ostensibly). The video suggests a previous innocence while the lyrics take on romantic disillusionment: "Only when in tears I know you well. But why these masks? Why don't we ever take them off?" Interspersed concert footage of the masked duo reminds us that family album snapshots from the '70s, however candid, do not expose identity. So the Nipplepeople mystery endures. They premiered the song at a concert for the Museum of Science & Technology in Belgrade, Serbia, and it was affectionately received at home in Croatia. It might be described as a sleeper hit, its massaged mini-crescendos addictive.


2012: "Bolji"

Nipplepeople tease fans with a different kind of glimpse into their lives in the black and white "Bolji" ("Better") video, filmed in what seems the duo's modest apartment. Crumpled sheets give way to deftly edited close-ups of domestic minimalism: an oscillating fan, making the sofa-bed, hands at a laptop keyboard, hands at a piano keyboard, a napping cat, another cat, a cat coffee mug. Nipplepeople are definitely cat people. As for this pensively funky song itself, a fleeting arrangement of wind, chimes, and klaxon introduces twitching, moody beats in tandem with hushed until heated vocals, perfect for dancing off agitation in a small urban apartment. I say this because the lyrics seem to be about a troubled though enduring relationship. There's no way to know to what degree Nipplepeople's songs are autobiographical.



2014: "Tebi"

"Ne Volim Te," "Bolji," and "Tebi" make for Nipplepeople's cool blue period. "Tebi" ("To You") is the most intimate of the three and may have taken the longest to evolve. The original version -- a slow, spare, organ-accompanied two minutes -- was offered online as a Christmas gift to fans in 2010, Nipplepeople's breakout year. Their reimagined "Tebi" unfurls a warmer than usual sound electronically, earnest yet melancholy as the vocalist confesses love in a dark, fearful world, yet it all builds to a cascade of icy bright beats. The video's winter trees montage in impressionistic blues and greys, as if seen out the window of a passing train, mingles with ghostlike silhouettes of the singer herself. It took a few weeks, but "Tebi" came to rule local and national radio.


2015: "Balkan Express"

Nipplepeople roar out of their cool blue period with this monster synthwave earworm. Synthwave is a retro genre, electropop harkening back to the early '80s; specifically the period's colder synth sound (borne of Giorgio Moroder) as it overlapped with an outer space soundscape, electronic horror movie scores, or videogame sound effects. The actual Balkan Express may be a famous overnight train, between Istanbul and Belgrade, but the song "Balkan Express" feels more like interplanetary jet-setting and its video is pure retro-futurism.

Breaking from Nipplepeople's previous video styles, Croatian experimental filmmaker Dalibor Barić animates a neon world of transparent walls and clean urban expanse. There's constant movement: train, sports car, glass elevator, Edward Muybridge motion study of a race horse projected onto a skyscraper, and even a coffee-drinker's sugar cubes multiply into moving patterns, while overhead airships circle-up like formation swimmers and a helicopter hovers with its spotlight searching. Though of a derivative genre, Nipplepeople's "Balkan Express" is a synthwave tour de force that slices through its own nostalgia as if in hyperspace.


2017: "Frka"

The megahit "Frka" is a more understated synthwave, perfectly chilled like champagne. Indeed, the song is a toast to Croatia's beloved singer Zdenka Kovačiček who recorded the 1981 original. Her 1978 debut offers some seriously quirky funk ("Hello Mr. Elton John") and a couple of inimitable electronic-driven tracks ("Elektra") that anticipate the radio-friendlier "Frka". The lyrics to "Frka" are by another national treasure, poet and actor Slavica Maras-Mikulandra. She and her husband cofounded the Off Theatre Bagatella, Zagreb's alternative to traditional theater. Again, the video is directed by Dalibor Barić, this time collaging a lavish kaleidoscope with all the panache of a James Bond movie's opening credits sequence. Look for the round-hole perforated pattern among the rest, an allusion to Nipplepeople's original aluminum masks.

As for the song, it shows the duo's developing mastery of what I'll call downtempo ecstatic, darkly buttressed electropop arranged to hook, tease, lift, possess, and transport the listener. Possibly because the duo were doing a cover this time, they claimed in a promo for "Frka" that their typically drawn-out development of a song, agonizing over each detail, was "abandoned" for spontaneity: "Vocals and arrangements slipped out of us!"


2018: "Nikada"

A splicing of their cool blue and synthwave periods, Nipplepeople's ninth single in nine years is their most original, dynamic groove yet.The lyrics are naturally forlorn but "Nikada" ("Never") as electropop is triumphant, with its brisk tempo, nervy liquid beats, and probing vocal. The video features Zagreb-based Toni Flego, an exquisite, almost gender-fluid young dancer fluidly combining ballet and modern dance. As the song throbs and dilates, he twists, struts, and glides across a starkly lit ballroom floor, at times mouthing lyrics with spontaneous dragitude. He seems to be playing muse to each member of the Nipplepeople duo who, in their costumes, resemble giant chess pieces or alien overlords. The video ends with an image of duo and dancer sort of spooning on the ballroom floor. "Nikada" is a masterpiece, as tight, crystalline, and in your face as it is free, sinuous, and elusive. Nipplepeople could be similarly described, perhaps. I'm fine not knowing for sure. Wondering is fine but, really, if anonymity produces music this dazzling then best to let Nipplepeople be Nipplepeople.

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