Jane Penny discusses the band’s time in Los Angeles, their moments of perspective, and the new album.
Montreal indie rockers TOPS headed out to Los Angeles to record their third and most recent album, Sugar At The Gate. Once there, they found themselves living in a former brothel converted into a mini-mansion, where they spent their time jamming with each other in the garage every day. Describing the experience as living out a “teenage fantasy,” the band aimed to make something definitive emerge from the sessions.
Their most ambitious effort to date finds them examining everything from sex to capitalism, and where those ideas often collide. It’s an introspective analysis of their own music, revealing true curiosity and an evolving maturity as they delve into their public reception since forming in 2011.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with singer Jane Penny to discuss the band’s time in Los Angeles, their moments of perspective, and the new album.
Christopher Friedmann: We are talking because you just released your new album, Sugar At The Gate. So now that the dust has begun to settle, how is the mood in camp?
Jane Penny: TOPS just went on a tour in the beginning of June right when the album came out. We did like 12 days in Europe, and I think it’s the funnest, best tour that any of us have ever been on. We got this new keyboard player, this girl Marta, who is playing with us now, and I’m singing and playing flute and playing a little guitar. Then Jackson is our new bass player, and I guess the live band is just really tight right now, and we are all having a lot of fun together. Just everything seems very positive, and I guess we’re just thinking about the next record already.
I’m really excited to play shows because I think right now, the group that we have for the live shows, dynamically, couldn’t be better, and as a band I don’t think we could sound better. It makes me really excited to tour a lot.
CF: You hit the road again throughout the fall. How has the road experience changed for you since you first set out in 2012?
JP: We still kind of do everything ourselves, don’t really have a tour manager or anything like that, but the first tour we did in Europe, we took the bus everywhere, like mega buses, and I had a little backpack that my keyboard would fit in, and it was just very different. I guess there is always the experience of the camaraderie. I feel like I’ve always had a lot of fun traveling with David and Riley, who have always been in the band.
It has changed so much, it’s just nice to know that you’re going to show up to a venue and there’s going to be people there that are excited about the music because then you can kind of move onto the next… just keep leveling up, I guess, just in the energy of the room and what you’re actually able to make happen in that night time.
CF: The album’s title is a reference to a variety of things, orgasms, carrot chasing, the social contract. But rather than the differences between those things, what is the underlying theme that connects those ideas and your music?
JP: I guess the thing that when they talk about orgasm versus this, like, social contract or something, I think David and I were just both finding unrequited desire that is kind of like the underlying motivator of capitalism, I guess, like consumer society. It’s this idea that you want things and you don’t have what you want. I think that’s also what a lot of love songs are about. It’s interesting to me to also… I guess it’s a bit of a wink at the way I feel sometimes my voice or me, musically, has been kind of commodified or sold by the press, and people always talk about how sweet it is and how sugary I am and just the idea of my sexuality being this kind of, like, important element of what we do.
But also maybe sometimes, somehow it’s like the more expressive I am, or the more emotionally I come across, the less valid I am in terms of this seriousness of music. Even though I feel like that is to me, when I listen to a good song, I just want to emotionally connect with somebody. So the Sugar At The Gate is, I guess, like taking over this thing that maybe when I read stuff about the band or whatever or experience people like, “Oh, it’s so sweet, it’s so soft,” it’s like how can we play with it. There’s something proud about it, but also a little bit complex.
CF: I found what you were just saying interesting because you went to L.A. to record the record, and you said it was like “living out a teenage fantasy”, which would definitely give it that initial sweeter sense, even though we know teenage years are never as sweet as we make them out to be…
JP: … You’re from L.A. right?
CF: Yes, I am…
JP: I don’t know if your adolescence, if your idea of yourself as a kid incorporated this idea of being in L.A. and what that means, but I feel like more for people from L.A., everyone else around the world has an understanding of what it would be like to be a teenager in L.A. because that is where all the movies come from and stuff like that. So I guess for me, when I say teenage fantasy, not to mistake it for being something that I necessarily wanted to do at that point of my life, but it was more like the idea of being so close to all of this culture that you experience and really understanding why it’s always so sunny in these movies and why there are palm trees and swimming pools and all the radio I would listen to when I was a kid was coming from there.
So just making me think about how I connected with culture, and how can I make something that’s, like, definitive in a way that has a character to it, that I would understand if I was, like, 16. Not even because it relates to youthfulness, but just the idea that the best cultures are the ones that make an impression on people, I guess. We just tried to make something definitive, like this is the time, and then also just having a garage that you jammed in with your friends in this huge house that you’re living in together. It just felt very ridiculous and not real.
CF: That was part of what I was wondering because you are living this somewhat unreal life, but Los Angeles also has these associations like it’s “fake.” I like to refer to it as the dream factory because they just pump them out. I was wondering how did you deal with and use that contrast?
JP: I just felt like I was a fly on the wall a lot of times in L.A., where I would just experience things and it all felt a little bit over my head or I was just getting initiated into these things because it seems like… I mean there’s a lot of potential in the city, and there is also just a lot of people. There’s just so many people.
I think Montreal has a certain romanticism, where it can almost be easy to be a little bit delusional about what you are doing because there is such an idea that creativity happens here that people think that just by being here and being creative that they like get a prize for just showing up or something [laughs]. Which is cool and I think has a positive impact on the city, but something that was cool about coming to L.A. was that you have this whole concept of yourself but everybody doesn’t, and nobody knows the TOPS there and I found that there is a different anonymity that I found there that I really appreciated because I don’t think I’m that hot or whatever.
I think that whoever I am is whoever I choose to be every day. So it’s kind of nice to have that opportunity to really decide who you are and present that over and over again and just meet so many different people, and everyone is just kind of getting through things there. I think it’s just nice to get into contact with that. It’s hard to totally explain, but I think it’s a matter of scale.
CF: Speaking of creating, and having control over, your own image, you self-produce all of your music or the band does. Does this create another level of anxiety, since you have complete control? Or is it freeing and providing relief?
JP: I think it creates a little bit of conflict in a sense, where David and I are really honest with each other about what we think, and we really push things, and are not afraid to just throw stuff out and start again. It creates a lot of conversations about that kind of stuff, which we also like to have with each other, so that’s good, but it also just takes a lot of time. It makes it take a lot longer [laughs].
I feel like we are all so much happier with the product. I feel like maybe we are too nice to work with a producer, like we would just let them steamroll over the whole thing, and then be like, “Oh s***, we don’t even like it that much.” So it’s our little way of being overly controlling and making sure that it’s good.
CF: Throughout your career we can imagine that you’ve had a fair share of interesting experiences. But is there one moment that stands out, a grounding experience or moment of perspective that reminds you why you do all of this?
JP: I guess a few nights ago we were all working on our set for this show in New York on the weekend, and we just started working on a new song and it’s a song that I wrote with the guys a few months ago, but it didn’t really make sense until we just started playing it again. A lot of things changed really quickly about how it sounded.
I guess it was just developing over that time, and then also Marta was playing on it and it just became so much more than it was before, and I guess like I… I fell in love with somebody recently, and I feel like the words make sense now, and I understood how I wanted to sing it, and I took a voice memo of it, and then I went home and listened to the voice memo like 30 times and was just so excited that it exists, even though it doesn’t sound at all like what it’s going to once it’s recorded.
But there’s this level of excitement with things when you make music with other people and you’re able to really make something good together that is like the most gratifying feeling. And you never know really when you are actually going to be that excited about something because it actually has to be good. When that happens, it’s just worth it, it’s worth doing just for that.