Photo by Rebecca Storm | Arbutus Records

Interview: Jane Penny of TOPS

In anticipation of their show at JMU, Music Director Alec Moss recently spoke with TOPS’ vocalist, Jane Penny. TOPS is a four-piece band with a “raw punk take on AM studio pop” from Montreal. All of their music is self-written, recorded, and produced. They have been touring the world since the release of their sophomore album, Picture You Staring, back in September of 2014, including notable performances at CMJ Music Marathon and SXSW.

Alec Moss [WXJM]: So I just saw you guys were in Japan for a while…

Jane Penny [TOPS]: Yeah, we just finished a tour last night actually… we had our Montreal show. It started in beginning of February in Japan. We actually played in 12 different cities over like 2 weeks, so it was really intense. We were traveling pretty much everyday. We saw a lot of the country and it’s so beautiful, it’s crazy. I’ve just never been anywhere that different.

The food was so nice and so cheap too! There were vending machines where you can get hot or cold tea or coffee everywhere. Every 50 feet, they have a vending machine. We actually ate at the convenience store ‘cause you’re driving a lot, so you stop at rest stops and 7-11’s and they have like sushi, and noodles, and all this crazy food that was really good and fresh. It’s kind of a harsh reality to go back to America, to be honest. (laughs) You walk into gas stations here, instead of sushi, it’s taquitos.

A: What’re shows like out there? Did you have good communication between the fans?

J: Yeah, actually, they’re very, very quiet. They’re very receptive. The shows usually start a little bit earlier. The shows usually start at 4PM, which I was not used to. And then lots of times, the promoter will make food you can buy, like really nice curry or like there’ll be different food or snacks or stuff. I guess in Tokyo, there was more of a show vibe. People are just so respectful there, so you never have to worry about people talking at all. And people still dance, and sing along, and stuff. So yeah, it was cool.

A: Did you end up hanging out with people after the shows?

J: We did. A lot of people would want to go out to dinner after the show, like we’d all go to a restaurant, and drink, and eat crazy tons of food, and just hang out. Everyone was really cool there. There were kids that came and hung out in Kyoto and Tokyo. A couple bands that we played with in multiple shows in different cities, and their friends would come. Everyone was really funny, actually, really cool, very chill, and they had a good sense of humor. Yeah we’d actually drink a lot with them after the show (laughs).

A: You guys have a ton of dates coming up and were touring a lot before now. And it hasn’t been a year yet since Picture You Staring came out, but are you guys finding time to write some new stuff?

J: Well, yeah it’s crazy, ‘cause we’ve pretty much been touring since the record came out in September, but whenever we have breaks we just really, really wanna make music so we do have some new stuff coming together, but it’s like as soon as we get home, as soon as we’re not too tired, we’ll definitely be in the studio again. We’re going to try to get the next record pretty fast, I think. Our process got a lot more developed last time, we record everything ourselves, so I feel like the more you do that, the more you get like a rhythm to it. So, I think this summer, we’re gonna really focus on getting a record done, hopefully.

A: When did you start working with Arbutus (Records)?

J: Well, Sebastian, that runs the label, he had a loft that he was running a venue out of a few years ago. I was in Montreal for school, but David, Sean, and just a few friends came from Everton, where we all grew up, and they all came to Montreal super broke to make music and didn’t have anywhere to live. So, a lot of my friends ended up crashing at his place, and then he realized that we were all musicians, and he already had a studio set up there, and was really into music, and wanted to get started on a record label. He would let us practice on the stage in his venue, like before we could afford to get a practice space.

He just was super supportive all the time with all those bands that we were playing in, and we played shows there a lot. All the first shows I played were there. The more the label got developed, it just made sense. And when we started TOPS, it was like, obviously we’re gonna work with our friend who understands what we’re doing and cares about us, rather than finding some stranger and trying to convince them it’s cool, ya know? There’s a lot of really great labels out there, but nowadays with music, it’s really important to scale things back and do everything in the most meaningful way possible. And a lot of times that means just not having too many people involved. You can get your message across better, and working with close friends, like we all really know what we’re trying to do. So I really like that way of working on things. Also, there’s never any pressure to like do anything. Everything fully comes from us… all the video ideas and like everything we do is whatever we wanna do. I think that makes it a lot truer to what we want to be.

A: Has that loft you mentioned been in a video of yours?

J: Oh yeah, the “Rings of Saturn” video. That’s actually where we started TOPS. That was our jam space. It was actually run by some French Canadians. There’s a lot of sweet French artists here. They actually really strongly reject commercialization of music, but they respected us because they were like, “Oh yeah, you’re songs are good” and stuff. It’s just a different atmosphere, ya know? Like, the idea of going out on the road and trying to make coin on your music, that’s not really their thing. But that space was really awesome. That’s where we recorded our first record and practiced.

A: And then what about the “Way To Be Loved” video?

J: Well, what happened is, Sebastian actually got another space in like a building that was next to the building that that loft was in. He got kicked out of there for having parties. In Montreal, there’s a lot of illegal venues that kids operate for shows, which is obviously super fun, and it’s like the best time, but then you know... it gets too crazy, a kid gets too drunk, and then somebody spray paints something on the wall… and then the landlord finds out, and then you’re kinda fucked. So that’s a constantly happening thing in Montreal. So anyways, Seb got a new space for the Arbutus Records office and that room that we did the video actually has a bunch of desks and stuff during the day. But to us we were like, “This is the best space that we have, so let’s see what we can do,” so we just moved all the shit out of there and then changed it into a completely different scenario. I wanted it to seem like a weird psychedelic party from the 60’s. We were also just trying to set the mood a lot ‘cause we got our friends to show up and we tried to make it into a really fun seeming environment.

A: What is your relationship with Mac Demarco? Since he makes an appearance in that video.

J: (laughs) Yeah, he sure does... He is from Edmonton, which is where David and I are from, and we’ve just always had a lot of friends in common, and we’re pals. He actually used to stay at my apartment when he would tour through Montreal. Then, at one point, he was living in an apartment building, where I was living with this guy, Evan, and this guy, David, and another friend, and there was these girls across the hall that ran this magazine called the Editorial. Mac moved in with Kyra, and Pierce, and Joe. At one point, I think we had like 4 of the 6 apartments in the building, and were just all living kinda together where we’d always just go knock on each other’s doors. That’s when Mac was doing Rock and Roll Night Club, and we would just chill all the time. He actually played bass for us a couple shows and Riley would back him up when he was doing Makeout Videotape, before Joe and Pierce had come from Vancouver to do the Mac Demarco band.

So we just go way back! He was in town and we did the whole video shoot and he had another show in Montreal, so we weren’t sure if he was going to make it, but then he just showed up with like 40 beers and a bunch of kids. And I was like, “Yeah! You should be in the video!” and he was like, “Can my balls be in it?!” And I was like, “Of course!” (laughs) He’s always doing stupid shit. Like, whenever we were hanging out in that apartment, at the end of the night, it would always just end up with him with his pants off and doing crazy shit, ya know?

Anyway… the whole video was supposed to be like a social experiment in terms of like just getting people to do what they want, and be themselves, and see how that would come across. And I just felt like that’s the epitome of how he is.

A: Out of curiousity, what artists have influenced the band the most? Or who have you been listening to recently?

J: Artists that really influenced the band… I would say Nile Rodgers is a big one, and Fleetwood Mac, and there’s a lot of other people, but those are the big ones. Recently, I’ve been listening to the new Kendrick Lamar record… because it’s a masterpiece… It’s another level. So, I’ll probably listen to that until I know every word because that’s what I did with this last record. And also, Jessica Pratt’s new record. I think she’s like insane. I saw her play live and it was so captivating, it was crazy. And my friend, Doldrums, is putting out a record. It’s really, really good. It’s just really fun, like... hype music. And I actually sing on a track that he did, which was fun.

A: It also looks like you are close with Dev Hynes (of Blood Orange)... How do you know him?

J: Oh! You know what, he’s actually really cool! We put out that “Rings of Saturn” video, the one that we were talking about, and put out our first record, and he got in touch with us within a couple weeks. We had barely even existed at that point, like we just put out that video. Like nobody had heard of this band, and he just really, really liked it. He just offered to open our first show in New York. Of course everyone was there to see him, it wasn’t like he was opening, but he played right before us at 285 Kent. It was like, crazy to me. He was so popular and he had so many fans there.

So that’s when I met him the first time, and we’ve just stayed in touch. We’ve gotten to play with him a couple other times. He is just super dedicated to music, and lots of times when we’re in NY, we’ll like go to the MoMa (Museum of Modern Art) ‘cause he has a membership, so he can get a guest pass, so we get to go hang out at the MoMa and just see art, and talk about art! (laughs) Yeah, that’s what we do! He’s like the best.

You can catch TOPS at Taylor Down Under on James Madison University’s campus on April 15th at 7p.