Reviews

Elephant Shell

Author: Cam Lindsay
04/01/2008 | exclaim! | www.exclaim.ca | Feature
The story I wanted to use as an opening has backfired and I'm kind of gutted. A source close to both Tokyo Police Club and myself told me singer/bassist David Monks had a great story involving Woody Allen. But when I mention it to the band, they explode with disappointment. "Woody Allen? That's way better!" yells keyboardist Graham Wright. Monks interjects: "Let's tell the Woody Allen story instead. So we were doing this stand-up night, and Greg was up there… No, I can tell you the Lily Allen story." Seems that Monks left his cell phone at a hotel in Sao Paolo, Brazil where it was picked up by the pint-sized pop star, who eventually returned it.

Whether it's Woody Allen or Lily Allen, or even being flown over to Brazil for a one-off performance, moments like these help magnify the rise of Newmarket, Ontario's biggest musical export since, um... Glass Tiger? Serial Joe? Actually, we can safely call them Newmarket's biggest musical export ever. Of course, the four members — including guitarist Josh Hook and drummer Greg Alsop — are all now based in nearby Toronto, a move mirrors their rise into the upper echelon of Canadian music. And really, is Newmarket any kind of place for emerging rock stars to live? "[It is if] you really like shopping," says Wright. Touché.

In their first two years, TPC achieved more than many bands do in two decades. In a six-month span, they graced David Letterman's stage (with fellow Ontarian Paul Shaffer contributing some tambourine), as well as the massive platforms at Coachella and Glastonbury festivals. "Those are three big milestones for us and they definitely came as surprises," admits the boyish Monks. "They were all over and done with before we had time to realise what was happening. But I'm more proud that we have a fan base to back it up. Those people know us from touring and from tons of different shows and not because we had a huge marketing budget or a big wig got us on Letterman.

"It's so weird how any type of moderate success in your life is always lagged six months behind whatever your band is doing," he continues. "Like, 'Oh man, we're playing Letterman! I wonder if I can afford to eat at [Toronto watering hole] Sneaky Dee's tonight.'"

Sitting at a trendy Queen Street restaurant with the four early 20-somethings, TPC remain very much the kids who weaselled their way onto The New Music's 2005 Pop Montreal special by strategically postering right behind then-host Hannah Sung. Like any young band, Tokyo Police Club were dreamers with big ambition. They've known each other since elementary school, and formed out of colourless suburban boredom. Just months before Monks and Alsop set off for university (McGill and Ryerson, respectively), the band submitted an application for the Pop Montreal festival. They were accepted, but completely unprepared. "We didn't really practice before when we got to Montreal, we just emptied out a dorm room," says Wright. "I don't even know how we did this in retrospect. The dorm rooms at McGill are not any bigger than other dorms, and we just took a bed out of one, put the drums in there and rehearsed for two or three days."

The band's Pop Montreal performance was a pivotal moment, even if they didn't know it. Tipped off by another of their roster, Paper Bag Records checked out TPC's performance, but the young band didn't know what to expect. "[We] assumed that [labels] would see you once, bring a contract and a blank cheque, and say, 'You guys are great! Now you are stars!'" Wright says. "So when they left before we were done we thought they hated us because they didn't sign us on the spot." The record deal came eventually, but not before Monks and Alsop told their parents they were dropping out of school to pursue their dreams. Showing their dedication by balancing nine to five jobs and daily rehearsal, each member proved just how badly they wanted it. "Everyone should have concerns if your kid comes home and says, 'Hey mom and dad, remember when I said I would have a stable career? Well, now I'm gonna travel around in a band,'" Alsop says. "And then Paper Bag contacted us and we thought, 'Hey, we're talking to record labels.' We still didn't know what we were talking about, but the parents knew we were at least making an effort out of it and we could always go back to school."

Brimming with enthusiasm, they jumped right into the studio with producer Jon Drew (drummer for Toronto indie band Uncut). They had no lack of inspiration; it was funds they needed. "We did the EP in three days, and just borrowed the money from our parents," admits Monks. "Please don't say that we borrowed money from our parents," Alsop pleads. "I still owe my dad $600." Released in April 2006, A Lesson In Crime portrayed a group of fresh-faced kids just out of high school venting suburban frustration and feeling the bliss a band doing their best to "make it." In just 16 terse minutes, the seven-song debut EP's unrivalled energy was amount to a keg of Red Bull, thanks to sputtering guitar reverb, hearty gang chants, a surplus of handclaps and a sure-fire hit in the diligent "Nature of the Experiment." "With the EP we had an easy time," explains Wright. "We got lucky and wrote seven songs that went quickly and went really well. We were in grade 12 and really enthusiastic about writing songs — it was just fun."

Buzz quickly followed and the band spent most of the year playing shows across Canada, dipping into the States for a couple of weeks with Enon. When 2007 hit, they hatched a plan to go international. Attention in the UK grew and a deal with Memphis Industries (the Go! Team, the Pipettes) was struck; thanks to favourable reviews and endless blog love, the band's stock in the U.S. also rose significantly. "It wasn't until February or March that we said, 'Okay, we have to break out of Canada,'" Alsop says, "That had always been our goal, so we did a full U.S. tour with Cold War Kids. I think it's kind of a constricting career choice just to limit yourself to Canada."

"It's easier now to get noticed as a Canadian band, but right away we said we don't want to be one of those Canadian bands that…" Wright says, pausing before committing to his thought. "I mean, there are Canadian bands that make very good livings travelling back and forth across Canada — and it's important for us to have success in Canada — but it's equally as important to have success everywhere. We do have to tour ten months out of the year to make our living, but at least we can do it in a lot of different places and have some change of scenery." Buzz naturally led to broader label interest, and TPC chose to leave Paper Bag behind, eventually signing with Omaha, NB label Saddle Creek (Bright Eyes, the Faint) in the U.S. Domestically, they've launched their own indie label, Mean Beard, with a distribution assist from Universal.

"Because we're from Canada and I think we've built up a pretty solid base here by touring a lot, and I think we've had our most success here proportionally, we wanted to make sure Canada would be concentrated on and we wanted to get into a situation where we have someone that was working for us specifically for that reason, to give us the best chance here," says Wright in one long breath. "So, we thought that we'd enter into some sort of crazy, us-related Mean Beard-y thing. We're all about helping the economy, man, giving people jobs."

"There's a pride in being a Canadian band," Monks continues, "like when you explain to others, 'Yeah, our government helps us make music and music videos. And we're not even communists!' It's mind-blowing for Americans to hear that. It's such a privilege to be Canadian. Keeping a Canadian team intact is important."

Message board and blog chat about Tokyo Police Club has recently moved from praise for A Lesson In Crime to bitching about the delay in releasing their full-length debut. A full two years have passed since the EP made a splash, and this month's arrival of Elephant Shell — an eternity for bands, and especially for impatient fans with short attention spans seeking the next hot band.

"I think we did too much [with the EP]," Wright agrees. "People don't seem to have gotten sick of us so we got away with it, but if I had my druthers we would have put out the album a long time ago."

Monks sees it differently: "We didn't have any songs! And I feel like it's essential to have it as a slow build up, because if we had toured it for six months, like most people tour an EP, it would have been like, 'Here's our EP, here's our album,' and we wouldn't have gotten the mileage out of it. It's not like the EP's gone up and down. It's gone up and then kind of plateaued and now the album's coming out."

They weren't exactly slacking — while on tour, they cut another EP (the brisk Smith), founded their own label, and inaugurated it with a one-off seven-inch single, Your English Is Good. As Alsop sees it, they delivered "an album's worth of material.

"We were still a young band who were only around for a year when we released the EP," the drummer continues. "To count on an album? An album is a big statement to make, and you really need to be established when you decide to make that statement. Now that we've been a band for about three years now I feel we can actually go forth with confidence that we won't be some flash in the pan."

After fulfilling tour duties in the summer of 2007, they retreated to Tarquin Studios, in the posh suburbs of Connecticut, for three weeks' work with distinguished producer Peter Katis (Interpol, the National). But things didn't go according to plan.

"We had been touring with six new songs but they weren't where we wanted them to be," says Monks. "We thought we'd go into the studio to iron the creases. The day after we got out of the studio we played two shows with Bloc Party and everything rocked so hard. And then we listened to the record again and it was totally not what we wanted to make. So we spent another month touring and said, 'Okay, what if we scrap everything, go back into the rehearsal space, write for two weeks, record for two weeks and do it right?'"

Scrapping an entire album was never in the cards — or in the budget. Having spent their recording budget on the first attempt, they broke the news to their manager and headed home to give it another crack. Almost immediately they found themselves "focused and productive, and it was unanimous" says Monk.

The way Wright sees it they "snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. But sometimes that's how you have to do it. I think we're better as a band because of it too. As soon as we started to write new songs, after the EP came out, we hit a wall and didn't know what to do. It was like, 'Have we lost it? Maybe we only had those songs in us.' But now we learned how to do it when it's hard and the first thing isn't working out, and when you struggle, how to learn from that and get something really good out of it. So I hope that the next record will be easier. We're already having an easier time jamming on new stuff. You can just tell the difference now."

As much as TPC wanted to build an audience abroad, it was home sweet home that brought Elephant Shell to fruition. "In December we spent 20 days in the studio, which is a really short time for making a full-length, but it all totally fell into place," Monks says. "When we originally recorded in Connecticut with Peter we didn't have our shit together, it was the wrong timing. So we came back to record with Jon [Drew] and then went back to mix with Peter, he got it, we got it and it was all cool."

The band paint Connecticut and Toronto as polar opposites. "In Connecticut, as soon as things started going badly it just compounded the situation because you couldn't leave," remembers Wright. "That was the closest I came to giving up hope, feeling like it was all going down the tubes and if that was the best we got then we were fucked. But when we went back to Toronto, we'd wake up and we couldn't wait to get to the studio. I'd wake up with my girlfriend, hop on the streetcar and be like, 'Hell yes! We're going to record.' It was so fun we didn't want to leave at night."

Adds the band's demure member, Hook: "It was worlds of difference and totally us, the way that we worked. When we came back to Toronto we really got that sense and were excited." With everything that's helped shaped it — worldwide tours, jumping labels and studios, and just growing up — Elephant Shell is a true statement by a young, coveted band destined to catch people off guard on the first few listens. Not nearly as immediate as their debut EP, much like their time promoting it, the album is a slow build with a tremendous pay-off once it clicks.

A message posted on their blog by Wright sums it up best: "A Lesson in Crime was a record for Friday nights. It was the record you would throw on at the party with 20 of your friends, the record that everyone could get up and dance to. It was quick and immediate and to the point. But when the party's over, and you're giving a ride home to the girl you have a crush on, that's when you put Elephant Shell on. It's the record that you listen to when you're driving around town in the dark, wondering if she likes you, wondering if you should have tried to flirt more, or less."

Elephant Shell is an album full of idiosyncrasies that go with and against what we've learned to love about TPC. Gone from a lot of the album's songs is that frantic tempo and unbridled energy that made Lesson so fresh. Monks sees it as the result of having less time and more experience to flesh out the songs. "The ironic thing is that we really were in a rush making Elephant Shell but on the EP we took our time," he writes in a follow-up message. "But I don't think the steadier pace was a conscious decision. When it comes down to it, we only put parts in our songs that we feel are really worthwhile. So, being less experienced on the EP (but somehow with pretty decent editing skills) the result of chopping off the fat was less than it was for Elephant Shell. We just had more to say with this record so it took more time to do so. Twenty-eight minutes and six seconds to be exact." Ah yes, time. If we learned one thing from the band it's that they love to keep it short and sweet — and the topic constantly plagues them.

"We've never aimed to write short songs, they've just always come out that way," explains Wright. "Even with this new album, there's a lot more instrumentation, it's a lot less minimal and we were expanding in many ways. But one way we weren't expanding was with length — we just can't write long songs."

If there is anything predictable about Tokyo Police Club, it's that their success will only grow. When Wright says to me, "Man, I saw 'Woody Allen' coming up in your notes and was waiting for you to say, 'Woody Allen's a really big fan of yours,' it would have been so great!"

"Yeah, like he did a cover of 'Nature of the Experiment' with his jazz quartet," Alsop says with a giddy lilt. Woody Allen and his New Orleans Jazz Band tackling some TPC? The way this band operates, it's not impossible. He did almost have their cell phone, remember. Almost.
Elephant Shell

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