Music/Interviews

TOPS talk bandmate breakups, stupid jokes and silly music

October 2, 2017

We asked the Montreal band how they stay sane on a 49 date world tour.

When I spoke with Jane Penny, the vocalist in the Montreal dream pop band, TOPS, they were outside a Motel 8 in Davis, California, in between stops on a rigorous 49-date tour that will take the band across North America and Europe by the end of the year. Over the course of our conversation about the trials associated with making a private situation public and telling stories from a feminine perspective, Penny explained their primary and most effective strategy for managing in each other’s company: “stupid jokes and silly music.” Band member David Carriere grabbed the phone for a few moments to list off a few playlist essentials: “Bruno Mars, Limp Bizkit, Britney Spears, Ace of Base, Ozzy Osbourne, Dr. Alvin, ‘Uh Oh’ by The Nutty Squirrels, Gangnam Style Style, Party Rock Anthem.”

“On tour and on stage it’s mainly about having fun,” Penny explained. “We’ve just gotten a lot better at having an understanding of how to behave. Everything gets less stressful and less intense the more you do it. I guess we’re really lucky we’re able to enjoy it so much.”

Since emerging in the early 2010s with their stellar debut release, Tender Opposites, they’ve gone from being the instrument-wielding outliers on Montreal label Arbutus to becoming the latest Montreal band with international name recognition. On their third album, Sugar at the Gate, the band—who describe their sound as a “raw punk take to AM studio rock”—have accomplished the often challenging task of offering a refreshing, new update to familiar-sounding music. On Sugar at the Gates, stories of love and loss sweep over the listener as they arrive at revelations in real time with its creators.

“There are certain elements of American indie, jangle pop that I personally find it a little boring, or ‘masculine boring’ at times.

“There are certain elements of American indie, jangle pop that I personally find it a little boring, or ‘masculine boring’ at times. I don’t want to offend anyone, but I don’t think we’ve ever tried to make indie music, except for being sonically experimental.” It’s an astute distinction. In an age where Chance the Rapper has become the patron saint of grinding your way to the top solely by your own volition, Penny explains that their perception of the genre is more of an artistic ethos rather than a look. “Actions matter more than the appearance or sound of [an artist],” she continues. “That aspect doesn’t interest me but the approach, attitude and the democratization of [music] does. Also freedom of expression.”

The band’s unfiltered approach to what they chose to express and how has become a defining factor on Sugar at the Gate, which was released this summer.

Drawing influence from French pop music, Penny reminds me that the palpable air of familiarity found all over Sugar at the Gate comes from the fact that they play instruments that have livelihoods and legacies of their own; that their method for making music is the reason why lyrics like,”We all know our troubles will end/ Why’d you have to go and make illusion your friend?”, on “Cutlass Cruiser” feel like intensely personal ruminations with space for collective interpretations.

“Communication through music is a big part of what we do. Everything comes from playing instruments together which gives things a certain sound. There’s a certain attitude to playing that’s more social rather than computer-based.”

After the relationship between Penny and guitar player David Carriere came to an end, the band continued; emotional aftershock of the situation became a prominent theme on the album. Naturally, Jane and David’s story has become a matter of public conversation and for such a personal circumstance, it’s also become etched into their music.

“Ultimately, I’m not made to feel uncomfortable talking about it. It’s weird because we never talked about it when we were together and when I started talking about the album, it seemed like such an important part of the evolution of the band and where we were at,” she explains. “It didn’t make sense for me to talk about [the album] so much and not be honest and sincere with what that was.”

 

“Maybe that’s why songwriters write songs, not so much because they’re so fluent with their emotions and emotional life but maybe because they’re not and need to translate it that way.”

For Penny, putting her emotions into lyrics has been crucial in helping her better understand them. “What’s important to me, especially as a woman singing songs, is the songs reflect a female experience of being in a relationship. I’m a pretty private and introverted person but then [songwriting] a way for me to explore my emotions and express my feelings about things.”

“Maybe that’s why songwriters write songs, not so much because they’re so fluent with their emotions and emotional life but maybe because they’re not and need to translate it that way.”

It’s hard not to realize that there is something both empowering and refreshing about the way TOPS talk about relationships as evolving, ambitious entities that can be as good as you imagine them to be. “I guess it just becomes a space where I can articulate how I’m really feeling about something. It’s nice to think about possible ways of people treating each other and being in love that’s more aspirational. It’s a way of reflecting but also trying to actively create what you want to see in the world.”

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