By Zach Schepis
Photo from How To Be Topp.
Lose yourself in swirling guitars, unwrap your head to a river of harmonies, or marvel at the purple quartz wilderness nearly swallowing the band in their album art – just whatever you do, don’t call them psychedelic. You won’t need to drop acid to appreciate the fun grooves of How To Be Topp, Brooklyn’s newest rock quartet. The group seamlessly merges elements of folk, rock, blues, and even jazz to create a sonic stew that is both refreshing and uncannily familiar. Like you discovered one of your dad’s dusty vinyl from the ‘60s, only to find that it has gone through a time-warp to Bushwick and back. For the February 1st release of their EP Offshore Accounts, the band played a release party gig at Shea Stadium with fan favorites Zula. It was a badass way to kick-off what promises to be an eventful musical road ahead. BTR sits down with the fellow Brooklynites to discuss their sound and vision.
You guys have a pretty diverse background – with members from Sri Lanka, El Salvador, and Israel. How did you come together, and in what ways does diversity play into your sound?
It doesn’t really come in a straight-forward way- like “this is influenced by Sri Lankan music or Israeli music” etc., but our individual experiences of coming to NYC at a young age affected our perception of the city. New York is our hometown, but we still see it from an outsider perspective. Being immigrants affects the way we interpret things and our sense of humor, that probably has the biggest influence on why we all get along. Which, in turn has a big impact on the music we are able to make together.
That being said, musically speaking, New York itself is extremely diverse. The music scene here has especially had a strong influence on all of us.
Psychedelic seems to be a good word to start with in describing some of your music. What influences do you draw on to create these heady soundscapes?
We used to call our music psychedelic all the time but the more we thought about it, the more problematic it seemed. Because “psychedelic” pretty directly refers to psychedelic drugs, and we can’t say that acid has been a huge influence on our music. What it maybe shares with a trip is that it is supposed to be immersive and at times dreamlike. Immersive in that it should absorb you entirely while you are listening to it. It’s about your head more than your body- more psyche than psychedelic.
Last week saw the release of your new EP Offshore Accounts, and a show at Shea Stadium with headliners Zula. How was the show? Did it feel good to premiere the material in Brooklyn, the band’s home borough?
That was one of our favorite shows we’ve played so far. It’s great to be able to play with bands that you love and are inspired by. It was also our first time playing at Shea, which was nice because we’ve gone to so many shows there, and it’s such an important part of the thriving music and arts scene in Williamsburg/Bushwick.
Tell us a little bit about the making of Offshore Accounts.
We recorded it at Gravesend Recordings last fall. Most of it is older material that Yona had written, but we’d been playing it and modifying it as a band for a while. “Offshore Accounts” is the only song on the EP that was written from scratch with our current lineup. We had a residency at Goodbye Blue Monday last summer, which gave us a chance to really refine all the tracks. Around that time we started experimenting more with different textures. We got a couple of awesome Casio vintage toy pianos (which you can hear clearly on the title track) and veered away from the organ we had been using and started using more effects.
You also recently released your first music video for “Offshore Accounts.” The green-screening and mirror art from videographer Deborah Forrest are really trippy and complement your sound well. What was this collaboration like, and do you plan on doing more like it in the future?
Videos are hard to make because your brain automatically forms a very strong link between music and an accompanying image. This is why film soundtracks can be so powerful. But it is also dangerous because if your music is tied to a certain visual in people’s brains and it isn’t the right one, you’ve damaged the impact of the music. So we wanted a video that was pleasing to watch but didn’t distract from the music. All we really knew is that we wanted the video to be abstract and visually driven as opposed to narrative. Deborah did an amazing job turning this vague desire into a set of concrete images that are both attractive and artistically interesting. Almost everything in the video was her idea and we couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.
During the creative process is there generally one songwriter or do you all contribute?
Everyone contributes. Yona will usually come into practice with the skeleton of a song- like a chord progression or melody and then we flesh it out into a full bodied song as a group.
Offshore Accounts album art.
So what does your band name mean?
(Yona): I named the band after one of my favorite books as a child – How to be Topp: A Guide to Success for Tiny Pupils, Including All There is to Know about Space. I loved it because it’s funny and has great illustrations by Ronald Searle (some of our album art, not the cover but the image on the actual CD is based on one of his drawings). But I also like the idea behind the book- it is supposed to be a guide for success, but the character from whose point of view it is written is an outsider and by most standards a complete loser. Only a failure would have the gall or desire to write a guide for success.
What are your plans for 2014?
We’d like to get back in the studio soon. At this point we’ve got a ton of new material and want to record some of it while it’s still fresh. We also really want to put together a cross country tour this summer. So if you’re reading this, buy the CD so we can afford to do it!
What’s the strangest thing that has happened to the band so far?
We made a fake Coachella poster that listed us as headliners and got way too many emails from friends, family, and random people congratulating us.
Or check them out live at one of these dates:
February 9 – The Dunes – Washington DC
February 14 – Pianos – New York, NY