Fool's Gold's Luke Top Talks Singing in Hebrew and Not Sounding Like Vampire Weekend
The band is notorious for incorporating and African flavor into their music and their second album Leave No Trace, which dropped on August 16, holds true to that style. But frontman Luke Top says the concept behind the album points in a totally new direction for the band.
For one, he says, the band digressed from more than 12 people to five members while their music shifted in the opposite direction, moving from a "free for all" of creative collaboration to a structured and well thought-out plan of attack. Also: The whole writing, recording and producing process took just four months total.
The general indie community opinion of Leave No Trace is that it doesn't live up to its self-titled predecessor, which came out in late 2009. Top, to little surprise, disagrees.
With Fool's Gold's first-ever in Dallas coming up this week as the band opens for Cold War Kids at the South Side Music Hall on Thursday night, we caught up with Top to discuss how he feels the two albums differ. Along the way, he was also able to dismiss a few misconceptions about the Fool's Gold sound as it compares to other buzz bands.
Fool's Gold has been described as a "musical collective" rocking anywhere between five and 15 members in the band at one time. How many people were recorded on the first, self-titled album as compared to your latest album Leave No Trace?
The first album was kind of a snapshot of who we were at the time, which was an open door collective with anywhere between 10 to 15 people that would come through our jam sessions or collective experiments or whatever you want to call it. So when we recorded the album we were like, "OK, who wants to be a part of this?" I think there were total 12 people on the [first] record. It's hard to remember. Basically, how it worked is we were somewhat commissioned to do a 7-inch single, "Surprise Hotel," and had three days of studio time and we decided we would just record everything we had at that moment, which was basically the eight songs that then comprised the album. When we recorded those songs, however, we never expected them to be an album per se. We were just doing our thing. We tracked all the instruments in the few days and then over a long period of time, [guitarist] Lewis [Pesacov] and I worked on it super casually more or less as a side project. And then when a label came into the picture, they wanted to do an EP and we thought, "We have all these songs, why don't we just do an album?"
Then there was obviously some reorganizing you guys did when it came time for the second album. What was the thinking behind this?
A couple years had passed since the release of our first record in September 2009, and, since then, we've been doing a lot of touring. Because of that process, the band got kind of whittled down to the core five people, minimum and maximum, that couldn't be replaced. It's much more like a proper real band now than it has ever been. I think, up until recently, we never had the same lineup for more than one tour. It was always like "Are you coming? Can you come? You can't come? Oh shit. We need to get this other guy to play the part." It was always kind of crazy. The early tours -- like the first year or so -- it was just a free for all. I can't even remember who was in the band. Over time, doing all these shows narrowed down the people who wanted to dedicate their life to it, because it does take really comprehensive commitment to do this full time. So, for a while we, were touring like that. And, right before we left to record Leave No Trace, the band officially became a five-piece. That definitely transformed the way we made the second album.
That's quite a turn in a new direction. How did the change in dynamic affect everybody's role in contributing to the creative process of the second album?
This time around, one of the bigger differences is that we actually had a preconceived idea of making an album. We wanted to make an album, we wanted to write an album. It was much more honed in. I guess the process started when Lewis and I rented a house in the desert near Joshua Tree in California, and we had been stockpiling ideas for a long time and, much like the first album was a vomiting of ideas in just a few days, kind of like that, we got together after touring and talking about music and playing music and being together and dealing with each other for a few years, and we came to this house and everything we had been talking about in terms of music just took over. We each had song ideas, little demos and we also both wrote songs from scratch. We basically wrote the blueprint for the album in that week. When I think back to it, I really have fond memories of it. I really wish I had more time to do that sort of thing, you know, that creative space. The funny thing about making music is the process is so different along the way. It's not like you make a painting and you're done with it and the painting gets shown around the world. If you make an album, you have to evolve it on the stage. It's like a whole different process right there. The songwriting process is really fun.
I know there's a lot of African influence in your music, on both albums, really. You guys are kind of known for that. What kind of instruments to do you use that reflect that culture and how does it specifically influence the music?
Yeah, this genre definitely influences our music, and the other genres we draw from are really a wide range, from various parts of Africa, and not just Africa, all different parts of Brazil and the UK. It's a big pot we're stewing from. It's really about the feel and the songwriting and the intention behind the music. Instrument-wise, having these kinds of interwoven guitar lines are distinctly African style, and some of the beats we have are made distinctly Ethiopian. Bass lines as well. Some of the drums play into that -- Conga drums, a Djembe, talking drums, etc. But it's defiantly pervasive. Africa is a massive continent, but there are a few countries we listen to the most -- reggae music from Zimbabwe, Ethiopian soul music, Ethiopian folk music, music from Mali, music from Congo, South Africa. It's wide. You have a lot of time to listen to music in the van when you're on tour. That thing about international love of music is really the spark that started the band so it's going to be there always.
Let's talk for a minute about the most obvious difference between your first and second albums -- the language in which the songs are sung. Why did you switch over to an almost totally English vernacular from Hebrew?
Well, how good is your Hebrew? Let's test you.
Umm, I don't know any. I guess I fail.
In this process of honing and articulating our ideas, I was really drawn into the lyrics as well in that process, trying to articulate what I wanted to say in a more precise way. English is my first language that I use from day to day and I wanted to apply what I got from singing Hebrew to English. I think, in that process, it adds another layer and makes it more powerful to me. By extension, people can connect to it in a different way now. It was a small part of the process to me; I didn't think we had to make an English album or anything like that. The thought was that I'm so used to singing in Hebrew, and it's almost challenging or daunting to me to sing in English. Because of that fact, I was drawn in to it.
Many recent reviews note that the songs on Leave No Trace are simpler, more conventional, even watered down compared to your previous album. Do you agree?
I couldn't disagree more. I think the songs are extremely intricate and colorful and, if anything, way more developed than the songs on the first record. The first record is like a jam basically. There are really no changes that happen within the songs, which is great for that niche. But, this time around, there's a lot going on in each song and there's a lot of things we're drawing on for each song. It sounds like a band to me. It sounds like growth, like evolution. So that's so strange. I'd make the person really have to defend themselves if they called it watered down. I've been hearing these kinds of things lately and, in the reviews I'm reading, a lot of times it seems the people commenting on the record aren't really listening to it. It seems like a kind of a passive approach. Sometimes people really connect, but others seem to have missed the ball.
So then what's your opinion about the connection everyone draws between Fool's Gold and Vampire Weekend? What about some who compare you to The Smiths? Do you get inspiration from either of these bands?
The Vampire Weekend thing has been happening since we started. I just don't really, even on this latest record, see any similarities. It's all these people with particular reference points. If you don't hear what we draw from and you don't know the context in which we make our music, then it's all too easy to point to a band like Vampire Weekend and tag us as "bands that draw from Africa." But it's totally different, and the things they supposedly draw from in Africa are different as well. There's this whole thing about the next Paul Simon Graceland world of pop or Afro-pop and I can see that -- I could see that that they're in that realm. I don't even own Graceland, but I feel it's a lazy comparison to make because it's all too easy. It's vastly different. If you put one album next to the other, there would be hardly anything in common. There are some things I just feel, in our sound and our inspiration, that are strictly Fool's Gold. But, The Smiths... I hadn't heard that actually. People are saying that?
Yeah! A lot of them point to your voice as kind of reminiscent of Morrissey's.
Ooooh, that's cool! I love the The Smiths. I much more appreciate that. In the '80s in Los Angeles, the radio station KROCK was known for championing The Smiths and The Cure. They would play awesome music and, at that time, if you were in L.A., you were immersed in that music. I'm definitely huge fan of The Smiths, so if there's any incidental echo of The Smiths, it's totally per default. I will have to listen to The Smiths to put out the heartburn I got from discussing Vampire Weekend.
Fool's Gold has done a lot of unique things as a band, and you're talking about this constant evolution as people and musicians. Where do you see yourselves headed next musically, sound-wise, career-wise, etc.?
We're really excited to be in a place where we can have longer [stage] sets. We really develop on the stage with our audience right in front of us and we really get a lot from that. On this record, we haven't really been able to stretch out or fully be ourselves yet. As far as the distant future, who knows? We have the next three months planned out for us -- the US tour and then we're doing an overseas tour for a few months.It's weird; we've played Europe more than we've played the US.
Have you been to Israel?
No, we haven't been there. For some reason we haven't been fully embraced by Israelis; I can't figure out why. My theory is that, because the first record is in Hebrew, it's not that special to them. They hear Hebrew all the time. Maybe I'm wrong. Also, the Hebrew usage I employed is somewhat strange to them. It's strange to Americans and it's strange to Israelis. The way I wrote is really playful and poetic and it really reflects my relationship with the language, so I think they might be turned off to that as well. I don't think any Israeli writer would write the way I did on that album. But we'll make it. Playing in Israel is one of my goals.
What causes you guys to tour more in Europe than in the U.S?
This upcoming tour we're doing is the first U.S. tour we've done this year. We've probably done like eight European tours in the last couple of years. So I want to do as much U.S. touring as I can and build a connection with people in my home country. I don't know, I really don't know. We have pockets of followings in different countries, so we go where we're wanted. We're doing 10 shows with Red Hot Chili Peppers in the UK.
Awesome! How does that feel?
It's awesome! I've been listening to them ever since I was a kid. It's going to hit me when we pull into the stadium and really see what we're getting into. These things don't tend to register until I'm in the moment. Then I'll have the heart attack.