Catching Up With Fool's Gold
By Courtney Nichols
Luke Top is a renaissance man. Having collaborated with Cass McCombs, the Papercuts, and Foreign Born, his most recent endeavor with guitarist Lewis Pesacov, Fool's Gold, is as diverse as his background. The Israeli-born son of an Iraqi refugee and a Russian-born aviator, Top has adapted his Jewish faith into a new breed of afro-electronic music. Singing in Hebrew and accompanied by a 10-piece band, Luke Top and Fool's Gold is single-handedly transforming the Los Angeles music scene.
We caught up with Top recently and chatted about how the band formed, indirect identity politics, and his undying love for R. Kelly.
Out: How would you define your identity? Do you first consider yourself a musician? Or do you define yourself an immigrant?
Luke Top: Oh, that's interesting. I don't know if I would necessarily define myself starting with the word immigrant. I've lived in the U.S. since I was 3 years old. It's a fact that I'm an immigrant but I'm also very much American. Also, I grew up in a house that didn't try and preserve any folk identity. It was very much a mash-up of things going on in my household, which exemplifies American culture. A musician? I would chose that over immigrant if I had to chose one or the other. The music making is a channel to funnel all my life experiences. It's something I interact with on a day-to-day basis. I think that classically classifies me as a musician.
Did you grow up in a household that spoke Hebrew or was it a language you relearned?
I learned Hebrew in Israel when I was super young. My parents did speak Hebrew but the fact of the matter is, I would typically respond to them in English and I didn't dive deep into Jewish or Hebrew culture. Not really until Fool's Gold, funny enough, did I have a lot of interaction with the language. Singing in this band has connected me to the language in a way that I wasn't before. It was always there. I grew up with it. I didn't feel a personal connection to it until this band. Singing Hebrew now in this band has brought me an angle that hasn't been influenced by family, or religion, or politics. It's very much a personal connection now. I've been pursuing it for the past few years. It's funny how things go.
Do you find your audience members are also of the same culture or are they varied?
I would say varied. When we started this group, we did it essentially for ourselves as an outlet and a way to connect with local musicians and try something new. You had no idea that three, four years later there would an audience of literally every age group and cultural background and religion. It's mind-blowing the effect that music has, because I've seen the world and met so many people of different backgrounds and it's astonishing. I feel like there is very little barrier between our music and people of all kinds. It's pretty amazing!
Since you sing in Hebrew, do you get pursued by many Jewish websites or publications? Do you like that there is a correlation between the religious and the cultural?
It's funny because very little of that has happened and that's kind of amazing to me. I feel people are connecting to our music on an emotional and visceral level and the religious falls away or comes up as third-tier questions, which is amazing because once we started playing out there I wondered if I would get a lot of slack and a lot of these kinds of questions. They hardly ever come up. More so than not, people kind of strip away all the other things and relate to the music alone. It's almost as if since they don't understand the actual words, they are connecting to the emotion of the sound and the melody. It affects people heavily because it strips away all these associations you have with words. I love a lot of songs sung in different languages and some of my favorite songs are sung in these languages that I have no idea what they are saying but they really affect you. Best-case scenario, when I started doing this, is I wanted people to have that same feeling when they listen to me sing to our words. Largely, that is what has happened. All the other stuff has been minimal. I am surprised I haven't had to talk about Israel or Judaism or all these other things.
That's great to not be forced to be political so it can come naturally.
Yes. All art-making is political -- it's a reflection of your time and place and where you are coming from. We are definitely not overtly political. Also, there is a large population of Hebrew speakers like me that are cultural floaters. There is this language, Hebrew, and it is so ancient and there is a massive amount of connotations connected to the language but it's also a modern language that people speak. It didn't really come into existence as a conventional, conversational language until the state of Israel. A lot of people, like me, have this language and don't know what to do with it. There are Hebrew speakers in Israel who aren't religious. It's not a specifically religious language, is I guess what I am trying to say.
Do you get the same open reaction when you play overseas.
Even more so you can argue. We just got back, I am a little slow today because of jet lag. We just got back from a month long tour of France, England, Belgium, and Holland. It was probably one of the coolest tours we've done. Again, the wall between audience and band is getting destroyed. It's amazing to see it out there. Particularly with French culture, we are connecting really heavily with the people out there and I think some of it has to do with the fact that African music is not so out of reach for music listeners out there'it's actually physically and culturally closer in these places. There aren't too many bands -- that I know of -- that are playing this music through an indie rock or American pop filter. For the younger people out there, it's something they can connect to easily.
Can you speak a bit about your musical partner, Lewis Pesacov, and how that partnership came about?
Lewis and I have actually known each other since we were teenagers both growing up in Los Angeles. We both have been musicians our whole life. We met through the music scene of Los Angeles in the early and mid-'90s. There was a great environment for musicians at that time. The Smell had just opened and there were all sorts of venues for us to do our thing. We met at that time, then we both moved up to San Francisco independently and we both went to San Francisco State and met there again and over the years Lewis and I had been in each other's bands. Lewis played keyboard in this Beach Boys'type band for three years called the Cave-Ins, and we dabbled here and there, but it wasn't until we moved back to L.A. that we matured a bit. We decided to try something new and closer to what Lewis and I had grown up with and didn't have the confidence to try to do before. I guess around 2005 or 2006 we were up at wedding in Weed, California, near these mineral springs and we were talking about music a lot and we decided, when we got back to Los Angeles, to funnel through these things we love and we invited all our friends. It was a casual escape for us. There were a lot of people that came in and out of the group. It was more a fun thing to do. We didn't think of it as a band with a career until years later. The whole first year of the band we would play little motifs for 30 or 40 minutes with any number of musicians at random house parties and in backyards. It really just started as a communal approach to music. Whoever played with us didn't have to have a love of world or African music. It was a unique way to start a band. Even to this day, some of the people in the group don't have a firm listener-ship to African music. We are really open with who came into the band as long as we could connect. With Lewis and me, we created a foundation that evolved from there. Now we have a solid lineup. It's less open-door than it was.
How did you find the rest of your band-mates?
We just made an open-call to any friends that wanted to play with us. It was really that open. The people that really love the music and connected with it stuck around. It's funny how the band is now -- it's really the people who stuck around. There was no voting process or any kind of formality to it. It naturally came what it is over the years. Some of the members, for instance Salvador Placencia, the percussionist, and Brad Caulkins, the sax player, I only met on the stage. Some of these people I only met playing. They came in one day and stayed for years. It's funny how it worked out: music first and everything else next.