TOPS Create their Most Life-Affirming Record with I Feel Alive

Photo credit: Shelby Fenlon

An artist’s fourth album sometimes has a reputation for breaking sharply with their history and charting a new way forward – think Radiohead’s Kid A or Arcade Fire’s Reflektor.  However, TOPS take a different approach on their fourth and latest album, I Feel Alive. Instead, the Montreal quartet stay the course with their inimitable brand of romantic pop, crafting arguably their best album yet.  Throughout the record’s 11 songs, I Feel Alive balances the giddiness of a new relationship with the agony of leaving old things behind. It's an introspective record that you can dance to, music that hits in an immediate rush but sticks around, perfect for the current times we’re living in. CJLO caught up with TOPS vocalist Jane Penny about the new record, storytelling, and surviving COVID-19.

While Montreal is still the geographic heart of TOPS, the band has been dispersed in different locations outside of the city for quite some time.  After getting everyone together again to make the new record, was there a new spirit during sessions, like family reuniting again?  Does it take a bit longer now to get those creative juices flowing together, or is it just like the band’s early days?

It happened really quickly – I think we all missed playing together and were really looking forward to it, so we just sort of dived right in.  If anything, it was harder back in the early days when we were still figuring out how to write songs as a group.  We used to spend quite a bit more time circling the target. 

The band has described I Feel Alive as an “emotional journey” about relationships, segmented into three distinct acts. While I read that the record wasn’t made explicitly as a concept album, was it perhaps made subconsciously with such themes, as a way to present the new LP differently from the first three?

I think we all have stories that we tell ourselves about different periods of our lives, to better understand what happens to us, or because we want to make a break from a certain period, and when you make a record you kind of have to do that for the press.  Things like break ups or big moves are natural ways to draw those lines.  We really didn’t consider the album in a conceptual way lyric-wise, we just wrote about what we were thinking about and what we were going through at the time.  When it came time for the track listing, the natural progression of the songs ended up telling a certain story, so we went with that. 

I’ve heard a lot about what artists influence the sound of TOPS’ pop perfection, but what is it that the band thinks most makes a perfect pop song?

A perfect pop song changes the molecules in the room for the better, and you remember the feeling and at least some of the words afterwards.  It’s enjoyable to listen to, stands out, and has its own character. A perfect pop song should be more like a good friend than an annoying one, ideally. 

The flute provides wonderful texture on I Feel Alive tracks like “Direct Sunlight” and “Looking to Remember.”  A friend of mine once remarked that adding flutes to a song makes it a banger.  What’s your take on that statement?

Well that’s good news for me because I love recording flute!  I think sax can do a really similar thing.  I’m so happy that I learned how to play the flute when I was a loner teenager with nothing but time and a malleable brain.  I hope young people are still learning how to play instruments; it’s so nice to already know how later on. 

TOPS was recently on the cover of Spotify’s Montréal Chill playlist!  What are your thoughts on Spotify and the age of streaming, as artists but also as fans and consumers of music?

Well, I come from an age of saving up to buy a CD, and then CD burning and music pirating, and I have to say from a listener's perspective it’s quite amazing how available music is to our ears nowadays. Certainly, there are issues with it, but as a lover of content, it’s hard for me to be strongly against avenues that allow people to access music, art, film, etc. easily and cheaply.  The lack of compensation is symptomatic of larger issues within the system of late capitalism that affect everyone, not just musicians.  It wouldn’t be hard for Spotify to pay out more per play, and that’s what should happen.  Luckily, most people actually want to support the musicians they love, and sites like Bandcamp are creating an avenue for that. 

I Feel Alive was released not too long after many social distancing measures were put in place, and has become a soundtrack for listeners to get through the pandemic blues.  It’s obviously not what the band imagined the record would represent, but how does it feel knowing that the album will forever be associated with the COVID-19 crisis?

Yeah, I guess it really will!  Music has been an incredibly important part of my days.  If our record is helping out people, or people are enjoying it right now, I’m just happy for that. 

TOPS is lucky to have an established career to help weather out COVID-19 and its disastrous effects on the music industry.  Despite that, has this whole situation made the band take stock of its past and future?

We’ve definitely been thinking about what the future will hold, it’s just a little difficult to know how much will change and how we’ll have to adapt.  This isolation period has given us a lot of time when we were supposed to be very busy touring and promoting our record, and we’ve been making a lot of music.  Whatever the future holds, we’ll keep making recordings and getting them out there.  If the landscape of touring is impacted for another year or more, which seems likely at this point, then we’ll have a lot more time to devote to video productions and finding new ways of staying in touch. 

Is there any music or non-music related trend popularized by COVID-19 that you hope continues once this is all over?

I’ve been watching movies remotely with friends, and I must say I almost prefer it to watching a movie with friends in the same room … only because you’re cozy, you can be in bed or whatever, with your favorite snacks, and they’re on their couch with their snacks and a beer or whatever.  No one had to travel anywhere, and you message little jokes and comments on what’s happening, but it’s not like this thing you have to negotiate with how much to talk, like when one person talks too much or one person wants everyone to be silent and is shushing everyone else.

It’s been nearly 10 years since TOPS’s debut album, Tender Opposites, was released.  What is it about the band back then that has stayed the same after all these years?

Riley (Fleck), David (Carriere) and I are all still in a band together, and that’s pretty crazy. We still have the ability to come up with ideas together and are usually equally excited about the really good ones.  We still drive ourselves around and do all of our own tour managing and hotel bookings and all that.  We still get excited about old synths, and everyone still cares a bit more about the music part than the other aspects of being a musician.  I guess not a lot has changed now that I think about it!

I Feel Alive is out now (Musique TOPS).

Alex Viger-Collins is the host of Ashes to Ashes, your weekly dose of modern pop, every Tuesday at 8:00 PM EST.