Before Playing Three Links on Thursday, We Get To The Bottom With TOPS.
Emerging from the same Montreal DIY scene that spawned acts like Grimes and Majical Cloudz before them, TOPS is the latest in a long line of bands borne out of Arbutus Records' “warehouse pop” network. We lump them in with those other bands not to pigeonhole them — really, they don't sound anything alike — but to point out how rich that particular scene is at the moment.
And how talked-about, too: To date, TOPS' biggest bout of publicity came back in September when ex-touring member Mac DeMarco briefly flashed his balls in the band's “Way To Be Loved” video — although, to be fair, the band was certainly on some people's radars well before that. One such person would be Gorilla vs. Bear's Chris Cantalini, who ranked the band's debut album No. 8 on his “Best Albums of 2012” list and its Fleetwood Mac/Berlin-mining follow-up his No. 4on last year's list. So it makes sense that, as that famed taste-making site makes its first foray into curating a Red Bull Sound Select show, it would tap this retro-leaning pop act to headline their first lineup.
Before the band hits Three Links on Thursday for said show, where it'll perform along with Los Angeles-based Puro Instinct and Dallas' Blackstone Rangers, we caught up with frontwoman Jane Penny to talk about that now-infamous music video, getting out of the country and why the band's so stoked to come to Dallas this week.
You guys just got back from Japan. How was that?
It was really incredible, probably the best trip of my life. I've never really been to any place that different. The food was really great. We played a ton of shows — we actually played 14 different shows, so I got to see a lot of Japan, meet a lot of Japanese kids, and a lot of cool musicians there, too.
What do they think of TOPS over there?
They like it! I think they really like North American music over there. A lot of the bands are pretty inspired by that. People really liked us. People liked to take pictures and get you to sign stuff. I think they kind of appreciate that you're coming from so far away, and see it as a really special thing. So they treated us like we were more famous than we feel.
The whole “I'm famous in Japan” thing.
Yeah, yeah, exactly! I think it's more that they're just so nice that probably anyone would feel that way.
Is that the first time you guys have played outside North America?
We've done European tours before, but it was definitely the first time I've been to Asia.
You'll be in Dallas soon. Will your show here be on a stop on your way to SXSW or anything like that?
We're actually doing this Dallas show as a one-off thing. We were in Texas in the fall. This tour, we're just doing the West Coast and then the East Coast and Dallas. We're actually not going to South By this year. I feel like it can be really helpful when you're a new band, or you have a new record coming out, because then you're really looking for people to support you and stuff. But I feel like, at this point, for us, we just want to play shows for all the people that have found the music, people that want to come to the shows — and just like regular shows, not showcases. [We] just want to have fun doing that, and then we want to start a new record at home.
So the move to skip South By this year was a very intentional one.
Yeah, it definitely was. We did it last year, and it was definitely a fun time, but I prefer playing actual shows instead of showcases, in general. Unless we really have something that we need some help with…
The Dallas show is being put on by Gorilla vs Bear, which has supported you guys from pretty early on.
Yeah, they really supported our music from Day One, which is cool, because I think Chris [Cantalini] that runs the blog, when something resonates with him, if he really likes something, he'll just get on board with it. It's been really great to have them help us out. I think a lot of people really trust his taste. I really like his taste in music. I really like how centered it is around a lot of female musicians. I think that's really cool. I hope I get to actually meet him, maybe. That'd be cool! It's a really nice way to come to Dallas. And I'm really excited about the other band, Puro Instinct. I saw them open for Ariel Pink a few years ago. It was one of the best shows I've ever seen, that Ariel Pink show was.
You guys are based in Montreal. What are some advantages that you think Canadian bands might enjoy over American bands?
I think there's a lot of advantages of being a North American band, in general. Like, when I was in Japan, or when I've gone to Europe, you really realize how much harder it is for people that, say, aren't writing their lyrics in English to get their music out there. But Montreal is a really, really, really cheap place to live. It's probably similar to something like Detroit or New Orleans. You get a lot of time and space to do what you want because it's not a really expensive place to be. I really like Montreal. It's weird, because I haven't been there since — well, we toured from September through December, then from the beginning of February we're basically touring until June. My friends from Montreal say I basically don't even live there right now. It's a really good community. I think people are always looking for something new when you have really good local scenes like that. So if you're a new band, you can get opportunities to make mistakes and really learn what it is that you want to do. We just played this show in Seattle and it had a similar vibe. There are a bunch of cities in America like that, too. But I really like living in Montreal.
With the living being so cheap, I imagine that gave you the ability to spend a lot more time working on your second record. It sounds to me like you spent a lot of time on each of these tracks, tweaking really small details on these tracks that probably a lot of people don't really hear.
I was wondering if you could point out a few of those elements that fans of the record can maybe go back and look for now.
OK, yeah! In “2 Shy” there's a lot of pitched-down stuff. There's a breakdown session where [guitarist] David [Carriere] took all the pieces of the instruments and vocals and pitched them and created a new separate arrangement underneath the track. That happens a couple times on the record. There a song called “Blind Faze” where, at the end, I sing this part, it's kind of like a harmony. I think it's like a stack, there were like four to seven vocal tracks singing this one big chorus overtop of this drum fill, and you can barely hear it — it's really, really low in the mix, but it's really satisfying. We did a lot of that, like really little harmony stuff that just makes it. People always say it sounds really warm, or that we have a specific sound. That's a big part of it.
Do you think that as a singer, you get credit for writing as much of the music as you actually do?
No. I think as a singer, people generally have a tendency of crediting people with the part they're playing. People will be like, “Oh, Jane wrote and sings all the lyrics.” But they won't necessarily realize the part I have in the arrangements or the production stuff. We recorded all ourselves, so I did a lot of setting up drum mics and stuff. That's not stuff that someone would assume. Then there's also songs like “Change of Heart.” A lot of people ask me what that's about, as if it that's my personal thing that I was going through, and I'm like, “Well, David wrote it…” I think, in the end, David and [drummer] Riley [Fleck] also contributed a lot. And because we all worked so much on it together, it's hard for us to pick apart exactly what everybody's doing.
You also have a pretty big hand in the creative direction your videos take — more so than the rest of your bandmates, it seems.
I've been really involved with all the videos we've made, but everyone was involved with the “Way to Be Loved” video, and David and I made the “Change of Heart” video together. I like collaborating with other artists, and I studied film at one point, so it's something I'm passionate about. We have three more music videos that we're working on now, which is way more than we need for the record at this point. But it's something I really like working on.
As innocuous as decision at it should have been at the time, do you think people fixated too much on the fact that Mac DeMarco's balls were in the “Way to Be Loved” video? Do you think it kind of overshadowed the rest of the
It's interesting that people freaked out considering how many bands make videos with tits in them but no one says anything about it. I guess it's only a big deal when it's a famous person. The director actually didn't initially want to include the shot because he thought it would overshadow the video. Personally, I think it's funny, and I've met a lot of kids that discovered our music because of it.
How do you think the band changed between the first and second records? How did all the touring you did after Tender Opposites affect how Picture You Staring turned out?
We got better at playing together and that definitely made an impact on the new record. We toured a lot while we were recording Picture You Staring, and played a lot of the songs off it months before the album came out, which was a great way to see what worked and what fell flat. When people aren't familiar with the songs, they respond to them naturally, you can tell what works. More than anything, I think we all felt that we could make a better record than our first one so we worked hard to do that.
TOPS performs with Puro Instinct and Blackstone Rangers on Thursday, March 12 at Three Links as part of Red Bull's Sound Select series. Tickets to the show are $10 — or $3 with an RSVP right here. An RSVP does not guarantee admission, just a discounted ticket. Space at the show is limited; admission will be determined on a first-come, first-served basis until capacity is reached.