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May 20, 2015Feature

Front-woman of Montreal’s finest indie four-piece TOPS, Jane Penny, spoke with Eoghan Barry on the phone ahead of their gig in Whelan's earlier this month

“Are you excited to be on tour again in Europe?” I ask Penny. “Yeah I just got to London today actually, I’m at my friends house right now and I get to see his dog again,” Penny replies cheerfully, in a voice as sweet and mesmerising as her vocals.

TOPS are the real deal and their authenticity is a defining quality both on and off stage. The songs are sensual, intimate and fun – simple enough that they’re not pretentious, but intricate enough that they’re something special. They’re songs that you believe, and they keep on rewarding, listen after listen.

The band write, record and produce all of their own music, and their latest album Picture You Staringis the product of a dedicated 12 month stint in a warehouse studio. It’s lo-fi, alluring and honest. It’s perfect.

I ask Penny to describe their sound in her own words.

“I say that it’s pop music with instruments, ”she answers. “Somebody once said we sounded like Steely Dan with Broadcast vocals. – I like that.”

I like that comparison too. In terms of the Steely Dan reference, It’s hard to find a band that plays together as tight as TOPS on stage, with Riley Fleck and David Carriere effortlessly producing a studio-quality performance on drums and guitar. And what an honour for the vocals to be compared to that of the late Trish Keenan, though if I dare say so, the rounded Canadian accent of Jane Penny proves even more palatable on my ears.

There’s a fresh face in the TOPS lineup too, Penny tells me.

“We have a new bass player, her name’s Alana (Marta DeVito). When we figured out we needed another bass player, she was in town for a few days, so she came, figured out the parts, she’s a good musician, and she’s fun!”

Mac deMarco makes a cameo appearance in TOPS’  ‘Way to be Loved’ video, flashing his testicles at the 1:47 mark. What’s the connection there?

“We grew up in the same home town, in Alberta,” Penny explains. “He’s like 2 or 3 years younger than me, I met him when he was like 16, and we played shows together when he was in other bands and I was in other bands for years. He’s been at it longer than I have actually.”

Mac isn’t the only serious talent to stem from the same crew, and Jane Penny lists off a number of other hometown friends who have their own music projects on the go.

“There’s Sean Nicholas Savage. We’re really good friends from there, and Peter (Sagar), this guy who used to play guitar for Mac and now he’s got a band called Homeshake.

“He’s actually like a second cousin of mine. And this guy Renny Wilson as well, and Jenny Roberts is a girl that’s played bass with us before, she plays in tons of bands there.”

“Somebody once said we sounded like Steely Dan with Broadcast vocals - I like that.”

That town in Alberta is called Edmonton, much the same size as Dublin. Penny has her own idea about why it’s such an epicentre of musical creativity.

“It’s the most Northern city in North America, and it’s very cold, and it’s very conservative, and I think a lot of those factors push a lot of people into their rooms. I know I wasted a lot of time in my room playing music and drawing and stuff”. Hardly wasted.

TOPS are signed to Arbutus Records, the Montreal based independent label with releases from Grimes and Doldrums, home to Braids, Blue Hawaii and Sean Nicholas Savage. It’s a label that has made waves on many of my friends’ playlists.

Every artist who has been involved in the community and movement of Arbutus has been hand-picked for their authenticity and individuality, and it shows.

Penny acknowledges how lucky the band feel to be a part of it.

“It’s really good, it makes me feel really good. Actually my friend who’s dog I was catching up with is the guy who runs Arbutus Records (Sebastian Cowan),” Penny reveals.“He lives in London now. and he manages us as well, so it’s really nice because I have a good friend that’s looking out for me and then it doesn’t have to be really any more complicated than that.

“It can be kinda confusing when you’re trying to figure out how everything works in the music industry,” she continues, “and so I just really agree with the ethos behind it and I know that whatever we manage to do with them I’ll be really proud of it.”

A band called TOPS and a District writer called Eoghan

Before we finish the phone-call, I ask Jane Penny to recommend some music that she’s been listening to. “I’ve been kinda transitioning lately, trying to get new stuff going on, and we got a record player too, so I was listening to some nice records”. She pauses to think about it for a few seconds. “Oh! The record I’ve been listening to a lot is the Chambers Brothers. They’re really really good. Yeah, check it out”.

Hats off to Hidden Agenda for bringing another first-rate band to Dublin. The guys have impeccable taste and absolutely every act they put on are worth checking out.

Photos by Laia Miret

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