Montreal’s Tops Are Indie Rock’s Hardest-Working Band

meet montreal’s soft-rock sweethearts

by Noah Jackson

Ever since they released their sophomore album Picture You Staring in August 2014, TOPS have barely taken a break. After two stints in Europe and a 14-date junket across Japan, Montreal’s premiere soft-rock sweethearts are now wrapping up their third (third!) North American tour in the past 18 months before starting sessions for album number three. We caught up with frontwoman Jane Penny to uncover the secrets behind indie music’s hardest-working band.  

You guys were on tour for over two months last year, four months earlier this year, and now you’re at it again. How do you have the energy to stay on the road for so long?

You kinda learn how to teach yourself a little bit, and the shows actually keep you going, too. I think traveling’s really fun, but it just gets tiring. At this point after this tour, I’m really excited to have a few months off to make the next record. I’m looking forward to having an elongated period of time to focus on making new music.

Even while you were on tour, you still put out two new singles. Do you find that you have time to write in-between shows?

Yeah, we do. I think that when you’re an artist, you operate in two different modes of presenting your work and then creating it, if you want to stay productive. When there’s touring involved, you especially have to think about the presentation of what you’ve done, but you can still use that time to progress if you stay a little bit ahead of yourself. We actually used our time in England to rehearse in jam spaces in the different towns that we went to, because the drives are a lot shorter than in the States. We’d work on stuff for the live show or work on new songs.

Did you guys have a general aesthetic vision of what you wanted the album to be, or is it still a work in progress?

We each have a certain type of taste that we’ll always bring to it. When you’re traveling around with people and making music, it’s like an ongoing conversation of things that inspire you. We have a pretty good sense of it, but it’s something that has to happen when it happens. There are a lot of threads that run through it, things that I wanna push for. I feel like David’s guitar playing is something we really like, so I hope there’ll be a lot of songs with guitar, and there are electronic elements that I’d like to include.

When you were on tour earlier this year, you played 14 dates in Japan, including smaller cities like Kanazawa and Kumamoto. What was it like spending so much time out there?

We were really excited to go there, and it was so cool to get a feel for the place. It ended up being really nice, because we loved the shows that we played and it seemed kinda DIY. A lot of the shows were like ones we’d organize with our friends in Montreal but with Japanese bands, so we got to meet a lot of local musicians. They have a strong sense of counterculture to the mainstream, which was really inspiring. A lot of the bands were half—or more than half—female, and it was really cool to meet so many of those musicians. I really liked this band Homecomings that played with us.

What was the strangest thing that happened to you guys in Japan?

We ended up picking up a hitchhiker for a few days, this girl named Mitsuki. She was 18 and barely spoke any English, and ended up traveling with us everywhere and selling merch. It was the first time we had a groupie join us, and she was really amazing. We spent a lot of time getting to know kids there, and there were a lot of inspiring people.

Now you’re back on tour in North America. What were your hopes and expectations going into this round of touring?

For us, it’s kinda like a conclusion of the last record. On some of the initial dates, people were only kinda interested, but at this point, our record’s been out for a year and the people that come out have really formed a strong relationship with the music. It’s made the shows really special. We’re ending up on the West Coast and staying there for a few months, so it’s a cool journey for me because I’m moving from Montreal for the first time. I’m hoping to push myself outside my comfort zone because Montreal’s a comfortable, homey place for us.

Speaking of Montreal, you produced a track for fellow Montrealer Sean Nicholas Savage’s recent album. Was that the first time you’d produced for someone else, and would you do it again?

It’s definitely something that we’re interested in. David [Carriere, guitarist] is pretty much constantly making music, so for him that wouldn’t be a stretch. Sean is actually somebody we’ve known for a really long time. I started making music with him—it was a pretty natural thing. He was at the Arbutus Records office, and he came by and showed David the chords of the song. I think he said he wanted it to sound like “Time of the Season” by The Zombies, and David was like “Okay,” then did something completely different. Sean did the song, and we ended up interpreting the lyrics and rearranging a lot of it. I think music can sometimes benefit from that combination of personal, intentional soul speaking and someone else making it fun.

Molly Nilsson was supposed to go on tour with you but had to cancel due to visa issues. Do you find that there are a lot of difficulties for you guys as musicians, just in terms of getting from place to place?

Yeah, there is a certain level of difficulty. I think now in the Internet age, you look at borders and ask why we even have them, but it makes sense if you consider a larger scale of people trying to work. It really depends if the border guard is a music fan, to be honest. When you get there, they either like the look of you or they don’t.

Earlier this year, you put out an interactive video for “Outside.” A-list artists like The Weeknd, Rihanna, and Paul McCartney have been releasing 360-degree videos and virtual-reality content. Does virtual reality interest you?

I haven’t used virtual reality yet, so it’s hard for me to speak on it, but I do like the idea of an immersive video. It’s still maybe in the 3-D movie realm, where it’s slightly gimmicky. For our next record, I’m interested in pursuing some more performance art-motivated things or even more cinematic-type things, but that’s just because I have a passion for filmmaking. I really like the idea of having something interactive online, though, particularly if people can contribute to it.