Warning: this article does not contain any references to concepts that litter many contemporary music reviews. “Lo-fi”, “millenial angst/apathy/disillusionment”, and “bedroom pop” find no place in this piece.
On a most basic level, this is because TOPS’ music is a far cry from any of these descriptors. The Montreal quartet, composed of Jane Penny, David Carriere, Riley Fleck, and Madeline Glowicki, has chosen to create an incredibly clean, constructed sound. Historically, this is nothing new. But at a time when it seems like every currently popular band is being described as a 90s throwback, it’s exciting to hear a band throwback to an even earlier period, in this case, the luscious production of 70s and 80s classics. TOPS’ new album, Picture You Staring, balances melancholy, romanticism, and ethereality in such a fashion that is simultaneously danceable and perfect for daydreaming.
We briefly caught up with TOPS in Willaimsburg before the release of Picture You Staring.
TOPS is always cited as having grown from the Montreal loft scene, but this scene is never described. Can you explain that community?
David Carriere: It’s different now than it used to be because there weren’t as many people living there and there used to be a lot of really cheap spaces.
Jane Penny: The guy who founded Arbutus Records was running a loft a few years ago and David was sleeping on the couch there. We had started playing with our first band, and he let us practice on the stage at that loft-venue and that’s where I played all my first shows.
Carriere: The neighborhood had a lot of DIY-run spaces that you could throw parties at that would last all night. That doesn’t really happen anymore because cops have shut down that kind of thing.
So why has the Montreal music scene been changing? Is the city cracking down on DIY spaces?
Riley Fleck: A lot of the DIY spaces turned into after-hours spaces and they got more popular.
How did you guys form?
Carriere: When I moved to Montreal I started a band with my friend Sean [Nicholas Savage] who is also on our label now, but we were writing these songs and we wanted a woman to sing them. We knew Jane and so we asked her. That thing sort of ended and Jane and I started a new band. Riley was at the place we rehearsed, doing his own by himself for like 90 hours a week or something. It clicked right away. We wanted to play in a band with instruments; I know that sounds dumb, but everyone at the time was playing samplers and electronic music, so it seemed different. Maddy joined the band last summer, I’d say a year ago today. She actually learned bass to be in the band. But about meeting, Jane and Maddy went to elementary together across the country, so they’ve known each other for about 18 years or something.
Penny: We’re all from Edmonton.
Carriere: Well, Riley’s not, Riley is from San Diego.
Madeline Glowicki: I went to middle school with David as well.
So how did you guys click as a band and create a cohesive sound? David, you mentioned that you had been writing songs that needed a female voice.
Carriere: Well, at the point when we started the band, Jane and I started writing together so it was no longer that at all.
Penny: Yeah, I liked playing in their band, it was really fun to sing songs they’d written, but I didn’t want to continue doing that, so I started butting in really early.
Carriere: When we first started the band, we ended up writing like five to six days a week, doing really long hours, slowly working on three songs. I guess there were a lot of people around us who were becoming very successful, and it was really inspiring. So I guess it just clicked because we did it so much. I don’t think anybody has a really big attitude problem or anything, which is something you need to avoid, everyone out there, having an attitude problem!
Penny: Yeah, we played together a lot and we liked a lot of similar music.
What type of music would that be?
Carriere: When we started the band, everybody obviously liked a lot of different stuff, but I think the music we really related to each other about… well, I was listening to a lot of Indian music and Riley was learning how to play afrobeat drums, but with pop music, we all liked 70s and 80s radio pop, like Fleetwood Mac, The Pretenders, Blondie.
Fleck: Prefab Sprout.
It’s been about two years since the release of 2012’s Tender Opposites. What were your goals for your new album, Picture You Staring?
Penny: More refined pop songs, songs with structure that you can place. We got less into the instrumentation. The instruments we were playing dictated a lot of the songs on the first record, this time David and I spent a lot more time prodding tracks and thinking about it in a more abstract way.
Carriere: Not talking about the songwriting, I guess the sound of it, in the first record we tried to create an accurate depiction of how we sounded in real life, it’s basically just us playing. This time, we tried to make each song its own individual thing, where it’s not necessarily a band, it’s just music coming from somewhere. The content of the songs, lyrically, is kind of different too. Jane wrote most of the lyrics. It seems a lot more personal.
Penny: I think more personal, probably. I tried to make something very sincere that people can relate to and make them feel good. I think our music is pretty feel good.
Do people dance at your shows?
Glowicki: It’s so fun, in Montreal especially playing at the place we practice, at the loft space, and it’s so fun because no one has any reservations and they’re all friends and people actually dance. Everyone just psyches everyone else out. We’ve played cities where everyone is just standing there, but in Mexico, everyone was going crazy!
Speaking of dancing, let’s talk about the video for your song “Turn Your Love Around”. The concept is that the song was translated to a classroom of deaf children using vibrations and mirrors. What was your reaction to the video?
Penny: I wish I had been there when they made it because I was really curious to feel what they were feeling.
Carriere: I think it’s very cool. My experience with music is very overwhelming and I’m super fascinated by every aspect of it, so for someone’s only experience in their life with music to be something that I’ve been a part of is really cool.
Penny: I thought the idea sounded really strange and I felt like I had seen something like it on PBS, like Reading Rainbow or something, and I couldn’t quite place it, but I remember thinking it was really odd and cool. Plus, it’s more conceptual. It’s nice to do something that gets away from the commercial strike-a-pose, fashion music video because that stuff doesn’t interest me that much.
For our new video, we got a bunch of our friends to come to the studio where we recorded the record and the idea was that they would all have fun and it would be a dance party video, but I wasn’t sure if they would all be awkward. But I came back into the room at one point and everyone was going absolutely nuts, they broke the speaker!
Carriere: We got everyone very very very drunk though. I felt like a huge loser because me and Riley were at the liquor store and we were trying to buy a lot of alcohol and there was this huge unmarked bottle of vodka, and I brought it up to the woman and I asked her how much it was, which was already embarrassing since it wasn’t labeled; It wasn’t very much. So we showed up with six more of them and then Riley forgot his card and we thought we couldn’t afford it, and it was really dumb.
Can you talk about the informational PDF about Riley that comes with the iTunes pre-order?
Penny: Our record label wanted us to make all these special bonus promotional materials. I thought about including drawings or lyrics… I got a bunch of stuff from my sketchbook together, but I don’t know, it felt a little too revealing, but not especially in an impressive or interesting way. So we got Riley’s dad to comb through the archives and pulled out all this footage of Riley as a child and developing into a man. It was really funny because I didn’t realize how far back the whole drumming thing went with Riley, but there’s a lot of documentation of him hitting things and drumming, from like age two.
Fleck: I didn’t remember that either, I thought I started drumming when I was 15.
Is it a multimedia PDF?
Penny: We weren’t able to include the video, iTunes has a very specific format you have to follow. But it’s photos of him as a child, his development, and then we have some trivia. We have some photos of Riley in other bands, there’s a long section where he describes his ideal drum set, which has a lot of technical information. It’s just supposed to be funny. Plus, a lot of times, people will focus on David and I as songwriters, people aren’t necessarily thinking to ask Riley what drum kits he would buy.
What are your plans following the release of Picture You Staring?
Penny: I think we’re going to play some shows, write some more songs. We have a few weeks back in Montreal before we go on tour with this band Wampire. We want to play as much as possible, maybe learn some covers.
What would you want to cover?
Penny: I really want to cover “Lovefool”, but then I feel like we also have to do something to counter that. I like sing-a-long covers. We did “Young Hearts”?
Carriere: Yeah, “Young Hearts” by Candi Staton.
Penny: That was a good one. We’ll just try to imagine everyone has a good time at the shows. Oh my god, I just imagined that in block quotes…
TOPS’ Picture You Staring is out now on Arbutus Records.