“the most stress-free band anyone can possibly be in”: the keith top of the pops interview;
Keith Top of the Pops – iconoclast, Proper Popstar and wrangler of the UK’s only Minor Indie Celebrity All-Star Backing Band – releases his second album next week on Corporate Records. Actually, this being The Internet, it’s already been out digitally for forever (a month is a long time in internet-land). If there was any justice in the world, you’d already know that it was a poignant, hilarious record and you would have burst out laughing in the middle of a train station at 8:30am while listening to Sarah Nixey (Black Box Recorder), Jo Bevan (Joanne Joanne) and Julia Indelicate (The Indelicates) read out genuine tweets on “#ProperMusic”, the best song to use a hashtag in its title
since including Mariah Carey’s. Since there isn’t, that was just me.
TOTP2, a title as “see what you did there” as much of Keith’s hilarious songwriting, features ten tracks each recorded in one take – the perils of featuring 27 musicians with day jobs in bands including Carter USM, The Auteurs and Art Brut. Have I mentioned it’s brilliant? Well then.
Also, he gives good (email) chat.
How did you get started writing songs and performing?
Writing songs is pretty much something that just happened as a side effect of learning to play the guitar. I’d be figuring out a song I’d heard on the radio, inevitably play it wrong, and that’s a new song. The words tend to come pretty quickly, I can have the music for ages and the words will just come all in one go.
Performing was mainly because I’d been on tour with my friends band, just hanging out, and it looked like the most fun ever. So I asked some other people who were in bands I like if they wanted to be in one with me, and they all said yes.
Three words to describe your sound…
Big, Fun, Noise
What influences you?
Musically, lots of stuff. Jonathan Richman, The Rolling Stones, Half Man Half Biscuit, Eels, Oasis. The starting idea behind the albums is basically “What if Jonathan Richman & Half Man Half Biscuit made Be Here Now”
Is the all-star backing band a set lineup, or more a revolving cast (particularly when it comes to live shows)? Is there a collaborative part of the music or are you essentially an all-star indie dictator for the purposes of how the final album sounds?
It’s a revolving line-up, some people are more available to play at gigs than others, some only appear on the albums, it’s a giant collection that people drop in & out. The main thing is it’s the most stress free band anyone can possibly be in. You just turn up and play.
It’s not really a standard collaboration when it comes to the album. I write all the songs, the chords and words. Then go into the studio with Mike and Les, who do the drums and bass, and we record all my rhythm guitar, drums, bass, and vocals as live. Then all the rest of the band come in whenever they can and get one take to play whatever they like over the top of it. I don’t write any parts for anyone else, they’re all much better players than me, or playing instruments I can’t play, so I just let them come up with something. The people that come in later tend to play in the spaces left by the people before them, or react to what’s already been recorded.
Then I play it all back when mixing it and drop people in and out when they play something I want to keep. You can’t really tell how everything is going to sound together until it’s all playing back, with everyone playing all the time. They don’t have any say in the mixing, that’s all up to me.
When you tell people the concept “Oh, it’s twenty six or so people all playing different things at the same time” they think it’ll just be noise, but it actually works really well.
I imagine the logistics of creating an album with so many pairs of hands, with other commitments, must be a bit of a nightmare. If you had the opportunity to dedicate a bit more time to recording the album, is there anything you would change?
The only real problem was people finding the time to come in. Some of the band even live in other countries. So while it only takes an hour per person to record all their bits for the album, it takes a long time to actually get that recording done.
I wouldn’t change anything about it. I think it turned out great. I’m already writing the next one.
What releases/shows do you have planned at the moment? Any Scottish dates on the horizon, now that you’ve shared a bill with LYG house band Dave Hughes and the Renegade Folk Punk Band?
Well, the album is available here.
I don’t have any plans at all at the moment apart from to finish writing the next album and maybe go on holiday.
Do you miss Top of the Pops? Does it depress you to know that most of the kids on Twitter who listen to #propermusic probably have no idea what it is?
I do. I miss the whole idea of it. The way that you’d be sitting through something that you didn’t like and the next thing on might actually be the best thing you’d ever seen.
I don’t mind people listening to whatever they like. It’s the whole superior attitude taken by people who think that because something is played on guitar by a grumpy looking fella who should probably smile more, the it’s somehow more “authentic” or whatever, that annoys me.
Mind you, the other side of the coin. The people who try and excuse liking rubbish with “It’s just a good pop song, man!” also annoy me. Stop trying to justify it. You don’t have to explain yourself. It’s ok to like whatever you like!
And finally: what are you listening to at the moment?
I’ve mainly been listening to the first two Hold Steady albums for the last week or so.
Keith TOTP plays London’s Buffalo Bar with a 10-20 piece version of the Minor UK Indie Celebrity Backing Band on Thursday, 27th June. As the show is headlined by the Indelicates you can probably predict a few (Abdoujaparov is also on the bill, but no Stringer, we’re not going).