Ice Cold and Funky Velvet

Local Rock Outfit TOPS Shred Without Sacrificing Dancey Sensibility

Photo Courtesy Sarah O’Driscoll

As Montreal indie-rock band TOPS drove through the fall-coloured landscapes of Wisconsin, drinking coffee and tasting free cheese samples, singer Jane Penny got on the phone with The Link to talk about the band’s current tour and their creative process.

Penny has lived in Montreal for eight years, and enjoyed talking about a few of the city’s staples, including a long conversation about the grocery store Segal’s, which won’t be included in full, despite drummer Riley Fleck’s request.

The band is touring the United States, but will be back in Montreal just in time for the Arbutus Halloween Party at the Théâtre Fairmount on Oct. 31. TOPS will headline the show, with support from pop duo PURO INSTINCT, and from the Montreal-based, mesmerizing singer-songwriter act Mozart’s Sister. Dancing is guaranteed.

TOPS’s members currently include Penny, Fleck, guitarist David Carriere and bassist Alana DeVito. The band was formed in 2009, when Penny and Carriere began a musical collaboration, releasing an album as members of the Silly Kissers, a group whose sound shares a few elements with that of TOPS, despite being much more akin to a 1980s dance party. Fleck joined in 2011, and together they released Tender Opposites, their first album as TOPS in the following year.

The album established the band’s characteristic sound, featuring ice cold, melancholic synthesizers, funky bass lines, rhythmic beats and Carriere’s brilliant guitar riffs, which envelope their music with a layer of mellow tenderness, but can also turn a song into an instant call to the dance floor. Penny’s soft, velvety vocals lull the listener, a kind of dreamy loneliness pervading her lyrics.

“It’s my perpetual state of mind,” Penny said with a laugh. Songs from their latest album Picture You Staring have a similar sensibility towards feelings of shyness, insecurity and isolation. Their catchy single “Way To Be Loved,” for example, deals with the perception others have of us, beginning with the haunting, self-conscious opening lines: “Walking down the sidewalk / is that the way that you wanna be seen?”

Picture oozes a similar vibe, although the music alternates between slow, delicate ballads like “Outside” and solid dance tracks like “Change Of Heart,” which kicks off with Fleck’s powerful psych-rock drumming. The album was released in September 2014, after a full year’s work. It was written, recorded and produced by the band.

“The idea of having to have connections in the music industry, or a major label behind your project…that works if you want to make money,” Penny said. “We have total control over our music. The songs come out casually, from the endless hours we spend playing music together.”

The album is being distributed by independent Montreal-based label Arbutus Records, which is also home for artists such as singer-songwriter Sean Nicholas Savage, Blue Hawaii, and was an early platform for Grimes, Doldrums and Majical Cloudz, among others.
Arbutus began as a DIY loft space for a number of bands, and has since branched out to a number of different kinds of media, including literature and film. Diversity and collaboration seem to be at the core of the label’s success.

“We’re just a big group of friends,” Penny said, revealing that the band had been having fun jamming with Sean Nicholas Savage over the summer—material that won’t be released, sadly.

TOPS and Savage are just some of the incredible artists that have been busting out of Montreal’s underground music scene in the last decade, many of them associated with Arbutus Records. Some have already received international attention, while others are rapidly gaining a loyal group of followers, such as the duo She-Devils, which Penny pointed out as one of her favourite acts in the city, and with whom she seems to share a fascination for old-fashioned soul music.

TOPS’s Halloween show will be a chance to hear some of their fresh material, as the band has been working on new music and is planning to work on their third album at the end of their tour.

In the meantime, they have released yet another beautiful music video to accompany their new single “Anything,” a song which captures a moment of confusion in one’s life, and indulgence in nostalgic feelings for a loved person. Underneath the melancholia evoked by the lyrics lie some groovy instrumental parts, which leave room for Penny’s soulful melodies.

“We are trying to keep the new songs fun and danceable,” Penny said.

There could be no better news, in light of their show at the Arbutus Halloween party—except perhaps that, apparently, if you show up at the venue wearing a costume, you’re eligible to enter a free raffle.