TOPS do DIY indie with a shimmering layer of pop gloss
You think you didn’t see it but you did. Around one minute and forty-seven seconds into the video for Way to Be Loved, the latest single from Canadian dream pop outfit TOPS, fellow Canuck Mac DeMarco makes an eye-searing appearance. The camera lingers as a shirtless DeMarco dances seductively under a soft focus light, before abruptly panning down to a shot of his crotch. Right then, apropos of nothing, we’re treated to a full-frontal view of indie rock’s man of the moment fondling his own balls.
Pitchfork, Stereogum and a host of other music news outlets picked up on the band’s sly act of subversion back in September, and since then DeMarco’s testicles – and TOPS themselves – have left an indelible mark on the blogosphere and beyond. “A lot of kids found the band because of that,” sniggers frontwoman Jane Penny, speaking over Skype from a promoter’s house in Berlin. “The song is supposed to be about being who you are and the roles that people play, so I suppose it only made sense that he would be the craziest person in the video.”
DeMarco and his nutsack may have inadvertently gifted TOPS a canny marketing strategy but the band were genuinely keen to have him involved in any capacity, naked or otherwise. “It’s cool to get a glimpse of him in there because he grew up in the same city as us,” Penny says. “We all used to live in the same building too,” explains guitarist David Carriere as he finishes his coffee and joins Penny at the microphone. “So it was just like, we’d seen him naked before, you know?”
TOPS got started in Montreal back in 2011 following the dissolution of synth- pop group Silly Kissers, of which both Penny and Carriere were members. The pair recruited drummer Riley Fleck and Madeline Glowicki on bass and the newly- minted foursome immersed themselves in the city’s DIY loft space scene, where they bumped into people like DeMarco, Claire Boucher (Grimes) and Doldrums. Central to all of this were Sebastian Cowan and Arbutus Records, who acted as kind of arbiters of the scene. Cowan quickly signed TOPS to Arbutus and the label has since become a clearing house for Canada’s up and coming pop music adventurists.
Aesthetically at least, TOPS seem to share precious little with their esoteric stable mates. Where somebody like Grimes has built a career on expanding and transmogrifying pop music’s boundaries, TOPS seem quite happy operating within them, earning themselves comparisons with the likes of FM radio mainstays Fleetwood Mac. “Yeah but the city just allows people to do whatever they want though, so I guess that’s what the community is,” Carriere offers in reply. “Everybody who’s making music in Montreal now seems to be doing whatever the hell they feel like.”
New album Picture You Staring was actually recorded in a spare room in the Arbutus Records studio using some leftover equipment. In some ways the idea of even recording in a studio sets TOPS apart from the Artubus scene, I suggest, in that for a lot of other people it’s a bit anachronistic. Penny pauses as she figures out a diplomatic response. “We’re a real band though! I find the solo stuff is more persona-based, you know? It’s more about that person’s laptop. They want all the control and shit. I’m not deriding it, it’s just different.”
We are beginning to broaden our inspirations and luckily Pilar and I both get really bored if we have done something already, and especially if other people start copying our vibe. But we love it, we’re flattered! Friends always send us artwork that seems to be inspired by us, and whether it is or not, we get really excited because now it’s our chance to improve and change what we do, ascending to the next level. It’s very challenging but we love it.
Either way, the extra space and hardware allowed the band’s sugary aesthetic to blossom. The result is a record that sounds like a magpie’s haul of shiny pop nuggets from the past 30 years, with Circle the Dark’s jangly guitar lines bringing to mind Johnny Marr’s handiwork for the Smiths and the breezy rhythm of Blind Faze sounding not dissimilar to something from 80s synth rockers Romeo Void. Recent single Outside has come in for particular praise as a spaced-out slow-burner with a beat that seems to channel Berlin’s Take My Breath Away.
All the same, Penny and Carriere are keen to disavow any notion that Picture You Staring just represents a guided tour through the annals of rock and roll. “It’s definitely not like wandering through a record store and choosing a section or something,” Penny says. “People drop references to bands from the 70s that songs remind them of, but think about all the shit nobody even remembers, or some of the really obscure shit that people only find out about later. Like that shit is more relevant and known now in 2014 than it ever was in the 80s, you know?”
Ultimately, Carriere has the final word on the band’s perceived nostalgia: “I think because of the instruments we use, like the guitar, the bass and the drums, those are just the instruments people have always used. So it’s very easy for that music to sound like it’s from a certain time,” he states. “I think a lot about music hasn’t changed, and the feeling and the vision – the voice of the music – could only come from today. So I encourage people as much as possible to listen to the tracks that we’ve made then make their own minds up.”
Picture You Staring is out now via Arbitus Records