The Summer Issue of the Subbacultcha quarterly magazine is out now
TOPS are back this summer with album number three, Sugar at the Gate, a subtle nod to achieving satisfaction and pleasure, but also encountering a barrier to what’s desired. If you know records numbers one and two, you’ll recognize the dreamy TOPSy pop that made your heart swell and hips sway when you first heard it. But you’ll also feel more pronounced tremors of strange psychedelia and live show exuberance, and a lyrical confidence of self-expression that’s come into its own. In their video for Petals, the band is pictured in their Glendale home filled with light and technicolor balloons, gorging on heavily frosted pastel-colored cakes with Michael Jackson and Madonna impersonators, racing through the local cemetery in a red convertible.
TOPS’ vocalist Jane Penny picks up the phone in Montreal, where the trees are on the cusp of blooming. She’s been home since January after spending all of 2016 in LA, living in a house called Glamdale with her band mates, David Carriere, Riley Fleck and Jackson Macintosh. Spacey electronic music gently bleep-beep-bops in the background as Jane occasionally giggles in between answers about where their Californian adventure has taken them musically. In between pauses, we joke about her really taking the call from a space pod instead of the Arbutus Records office.
Whose decision was it to move Los Angeles?
Moving to LA seemed like a good opportunity to take the music out of Montreal and into a new context
Riley is from California. He was having issues with staying in Canada at the time, we decided it made sense for us to spend some time together elsewhere. We had all lived in Montreal for basically the entire time that we have been adults. Moving to LA seemed like a good opportunity to leave the Montreal scene, which can have a deterministic effect on your worldview and day-to-day. It was nice to take the music out of Montreal and into a new context.
You came back to Montreal a few months ago. Do you miss LA?
I admire LA more than I miss LA. It’s a beautiful place to be, I love the beach and everything else about it, but I’m not yearning to go back, you know? The cool thing about being in a band is that you never really have to leave any place, you always get to come back. There’s something that feels a little dreamlike about going to California from Canada, it fascinates me to no end. In Canada, it’s easy to have your little life set up, when you travel in California you are hit with many more complex experiences. But no matter how much time I spend there, I think I will always feel like a visitor in America.
I read that you learned how to drive in the Forest Lane Memorial Cemetery in Glendale during your year there.
We lived in a house in Glendale that was on a hill with a big driveway from which you could see the cemetery. That driveway also features in our music video for Petals. From that driveway you could go on to these grand suburban boulevards that spread across the area. I needed to go somewhere big and open like a parking lot, the memorial ended up being the closest to practice driving. There was only one time someone else was there, it was a fifteen year-old learning how to drive his dad’s SUV.
I just left my car there for the night and got drunk at a bar instead
What did you drive?
I learned to drive in my friend’s black 1991 Mercedes. He lent it to me, and I played everyone’s designated driver and chauffeured them around town. I dented his car slightly and sent him a picture of the damage with no scale indicator and he freaked out. My first experience of going on the freeway was when my friend forgot to disable freeway routes on my GPS as I was trying to get us to a Julian Schnabel opening in Century City. I was driving in a panic through Downtown LA and got lost so badly, that by the time we arrived, the opening was over. Apparently Pamela Anderson was there and we missed her. So I just left my car there for the night and got drunk at a bar instead.
Tell me more about the new album that TOPS are releasing, Sugar at the Gate.
I think it’s an interesting record because we made it in a bit of a time capsule of putting ourselves in a position of being in a new city and a new house. In many ways it’s a classic TOPS record, just more pushed to the edges. Our second record was quite poppy, whereas with this album we managed to incorporate influences from pop, but also a range of more psychedelic, heavier and stranger undercurrents that we have always had, but get characterized by less. Overall, it’s still quite smooth and has some classic TOPS elements to it, but mood and lyrics-wise there’s more variation and diversity in them. It’s nice to have something to share again with our fans. I’m really happy that there’s songs like Dayglow Bimbo on this record.
You sing and write the lyrics, what’s worth noting in these particular areas?
Apparently Pamela Anderson was there and we missed her. So I just left my car there for the night and got drunk at a bar instead.
I’m just more confident with allowing myself to believe that I can say something and because it has meaning for me, it has value in the context of a TOPS song. In general, it’s allowed us to go into a lot more interesting and unique kind of songwriting. Up until this record, a lot of my lyric and songwriting has been more exploratory than confessional. In the past, a large part of the pursuit was learning how to write a song, as well as expressing one’s emotional response to life. Whereas now, I have gained confidence in my ability to create a song that is successful, and I was able to use my intuitive personal perspective when writing the songs with David and Riley, and the lyrics came more spontaneously. Once I wrote them, I was committed to them as an expression of myself and what I thought was valid, I was not in pursuit of perfection. I really love the lyrics on Hours Between that I wrote with David, it goes into things that really resonated with us all, and David’s contribution there was intended to make the record represent something that we could all stand behind. After playing so many shows, it emerged to me as an artist that that is something very important, more so than attempting to create the perfect pop song.
Did you surround yourselves with any particular sounds in your record-making capsule in Glendale?
Sade is one of those artists who I always go back to. I listened to Virna Lindt’s song Underwater Boy, which quite a TOPSy song. David and I listened to a lot of 90s R&B instrumentals from Faith Evans, Janet Jackson and Aaliyah. With their compelling vocals laid on top, it’s hard to focus on just their pop production. Without vocals though, it’s laid bare what’s going on, and I feel like we eventually were able to reference some of that on our own record by recreating it sonically.
What conversations are you having amongst yourselves as you await the album’s release?
It made sense for us to live together because we are all constantly engaged in our music already. We moved to California because we wanted to stay together.
We do not engage in self-exploratory conversations about the music we made, we just talk about the songs when we play together. When we were in the process of writing, David, Riley and I will discuss the lyrics and arrangements, but after recording, we don’t dive into conceptual presentations or how others may interpret us. David and Riley are fine with having people think what they want to think. I agree to represent the band to the public, which is a privilege for me, it means a lot that I have their trust. It’s a healthy balance as they have much less outgoing personalities than mine, ha-ha.
What can you tell us about your friends with slightly less outgoing personalities?
Riley and David are very dedicated musicians with real practices. Riley drums at least four hours a day, he does various technical exercises and pursues explorations in electronic music, music is most of his day-to-day. David is producing, recording and songwriting constantly. It made sense for us to live together because we are all constantly engaged in our music already. We moved to California because we wanted to stay together. We just enjoy certain aspects of playing together so much and have a lot of respect for each other, that when issues arise, it’s always worth working through them.