Interview: Luke Top from Fool's Gold on Being a Paralegal, Singing in Hebrew, and the Lost Art of Improvisation

That's a lot of people.
That's a lot of people.
Marianne Williams

Bands that list too many influences tend to sound like a mess. So what does Fool's Gold, a band that's a goulash of Ethiopian soul music, Touareg music from Mali, Congolese secousse music, Eritrean soul music, tropicalia, and '80s dance hits (and with Hebrew singing thrown in for good measure) sound like? Basically, they sound like a wide-open dance party. The Los Angeles-based octet, led by guitarist Lewis Pesacov and lead singer Luke Top, is playing the Music Hall of Williamsburg tonight, and so we got the frontman on the phone to talk about the musician's day job, the lost art of improvisation, and singing in Hebrew.

I'm calling you kinda late at night because you just got home from your day job as a paralegal. Do you ever have moments where you're sitting at your desk, staring at some memo, and you just sort of take a deep breath and go, "I'm going on tour next week, I'm going on tour next week, just five more days, and I'll be on tour..."?

[laughs] You know, sadly, there haven't been enough moments where I can pause and think about my life in any sort of way these past few months. It's just been about getting through the now, and I'll deal with the next moment when I get there. I'm just so busy with so much shit. But obviously, in the back of my head I have visions of the open road, snow falling, being up on stage and people dancing. There's not a whole lot of joy in my office.

I was surprised to hear that you and Lewis [Pesacov, Fool's Gold's other founding member] both have real, grown-up jobs. I've been conditioned to think that everybody who plays in a band is either a bartender or a barista or sells pot or something. The only exception I can ever remember hearing about is Girl Talk. He was some kind of bio-mechanical engineer or something, and in interviews he used to talk about how desperately he tried to keep his co-workers from finding out about his music.

That's funny, I had a similar experience. I've been a paralegal for so long, and one day somebody in the office just Googled me, and things started coming up, and I had to explain to everybody that this [music] is what I do; this is just my job. [laughs] But this is my last week of being what you'd consider a level-headed adult. But I think having this thing that I have to do every day makes music-making that much more important. There's this weird tension of having all these different identities at once, and I feel really accomplished because I made two records this year and held down the day job. It feels really good. I think when you're stagnant, I tend to not get a whole lot accomplished. So when I've also got to work, it makes it even more important that I get music shit done.

Luke Top, top left
Luke Top, top left
Marianne Williams

So let's get to your musical identity, then. Your songwriting partner, Lewis, already had something going musically with Foreign Born, a group that Fool's Gold has kind of swallowed up.

I don't know if everybody shares the opinion of Fool's Gold swallowing up Foreign Born...[laughs]

...Oh yeah. I bet some of them don't.

Yeah, my priority's Fool's Gold, but they're all my really good friends.

But there's no jealousy simmering beneath the surface?

I don't think so. They're all my really good friends, and it's all really open. Most of Foreign Born is in Fool's Gold. Like the singer from Foreign Born plays guitar in Fool's Gold, and their drummer has been our drummer since we started. The whole thing with Fool's Gold is that it's not like we sat down and said, "Arright, we're going to branch out, we're going to restructure, and we're gonna take off!" It was never like that.

No hostile takeover.

I mean, the first year we were a band we'd say, "Anyone who wants in, come down! We're playing a barbecue, we're playing a party, whatever." It was such an open environment that rather than hostility, I think everybody who played with us felt liberated by Fool's Gold. It was kind of a free and open thing where there was no answer, where there weren't any rigid roles or anything, and that's kind of emblematic of our band and our music.

Let's stay with that subject of openness for a second. Your live shows are so wide open and free compared to most western rock/pop bands. I read another interview where your bandmates made it sound like you all start feeling and thinking the same things. Can you elaborate on that at all?

There's definitely this thing that happens. Sometimes, when we start our songs, I think what we're all trying to do is tap into a moment together, and sometimes it takes longer to do that, but what I love so much about this music is it allows you to be patient. And if you're patient when you're playing, then sometimes you can just walk into one of those magical things that makes all the hard work and all the bullshit that comes with it worthwhile. You know, eight people from different backgrounds finding this place together. And the audience definitely can feel that. I feel like we're all living in the moment, and locking in, and thank God it keeps happening, because it makes me want to keep doing shows and going on tours. And I think it's more special because there are so many people involved; it makes you feel more selfless.

I feel like that's become something of a lost art in North American pop music. It's kind of gotten to the point where if you describe a band as a great live band, or a party band, it's almost a backhanded compliment.

I agree with you, I don't understand it. Music is all about having a moment shared. I think there are a lot of bands out there who have a business model and all these priorities. Our only priority is to make it fun and different every time, and the only way to do that is to have it be different every time. I really feel like I can dig into this music every single time. It's like a miracle. It's so open, you have so much freedom--I mean, there's a lot of structure too--but as a singer, I can come in whenever I want, I can yelp and scream and also sing. I dunno, with my personality, I just [enjoy] the feeling of, "Wow, I don't have to sing my part right now!" I can get into it a little. It's such a cool thing.

 

I want to talk about your West African influences. There have been a lot of bands lately who have started incorporating that style of guitar playing into their sound. And I know you can't speak for Vampire Weekend or the Occidental Brothers Dance Band, but what specifically about that music appeals to you?

Well, I should preface this discussion by saying that when we started playing this music it based on a loose idea of international pop music. It wasn't especially drawn out. The whole conception of the band was that any influences the band had that weren't welcome in other settings would be invited here.

To answer your question more specifically, there's something about this thing that happens when like, for instance, Touareg music, from Mali, is completely inspired by American rock music. And like, with tropicalia, you've got bossa nova, Beatles, and psych rock all thrown together. And it's amazing how this happens, all around the world, and I think sometimes people lose track of that tradition of being inspired by foreign cultures. I've always been inspired by that, and I think it's totally natural to look for inspiration and music that comes from outside of your own world. And for me, whether it's because of wiring or DNA or whatever, when I hear Ethiopians singing with an American soul tinge to it, I find it to be absolutely soul-shattering. And I don't know why that is, it's amazing to hear people reaching outside of their own world. And that's what we're trying to do, to continue that tradition and conversation. It's all about filtering music through our own systems rather than taking a bunch of bits and pieces and putting them together for the sake of that. I wouldn't even consider us a world-music band, I think we're being totally natural and truthful to ourselves, and what a shocker that it comes out in this way. [laughs]

But I really feel like we're being truthful to ourselves, and if we weren't, then I wouldn't bother. Music isn't exactly an awesome way to make money.

This ties nicely into my next question, which is about your singing in Hebrew. In earlier interviews, you described the decision as kind of spur of the moment and natural. And on songs like "Nadine" which have these vocal melodies and delivery that are so reminiscent of Ethiopian soul music, Hebrew lends itself more gracefully to that style than English does.

You're absolutely right. There's no doubt that the shape of the words definitely lends itself to the melodic structures, and since I've been singing in English pretty much my whole life, starting from scratch in another language really kind of changed the way I look at melodies, and maybe even helped me tap into my influences even more, which in turn made the music feel even more truthful to me. That definitely is a part of it.

And from what I've read, you really were starting from scratch. Have you secretly bought a Rosetta Stone CD for Hebrew and spent months secretly brushing up?

[laughs] No, no, for better or worse, I think I've maintained my average or below-average vocabulary. But writing lyrics in Hebrew made me re-examine my knowledge of it. But I also wasn't alone; while I was writing lyrics I would tap various family and friends to help me, because there were words that I didn't even know how to say, like "seagull." I wanted a seagull to be flying over a trash heap, and I had no idea how to say seagull, and because there are a few different ways of saying it, I got a few different people to chime in and give me some options. But it was good to think about Hebrew, I hadn't thought about it at all since my bar mitzvah [laughs].

Finally, your shows out in LA have this reputation as being big on audience percussion. Should people plan to bring maracas and shakers with them to your shows on this tour?

I've seen a couple tambourines, here and there, so far. We used to make our own percussion, little shakers, and sell them, but that's probably not going to happen on this tour. We have two left and we're trying to sell them for $40 each. [laughs]


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