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.
Have you taught your band members Hebrew?
[Laughs] Sort of, in a minimal way! The whole band sings backup in Hebrew so I phonetically have to work it out for them and give them the meanings. They know what they are getting themselves into. Luckily I have another band mate, Amir Kenan, who I have again known since I was 10 years old, who is also an Israeli immigrant who speaks Hebrew (not as long as I have), so that makes it a lot less lonely for me on stage because he understands every single word. We can talk to each other in Hebrew on stage. It adds another layer to our friendship. He's had the same sort of evolution with Hebrew and his identity.
I know I am totally obsessing over this Hebrew thing, but I am also Jewish! What does your family think of your music?
They are really supportive. They are the kind of parents who would be into whatever I do so they are really into it but if I was playing polka they would also be enthusiastic. It's hard to say. They really haven't expressed so much about me singing in Hebrew. I haven't had any serious conversations with them about it. I think they are definitely stoked. It's not like I finally made my mother proud and married a Jewish girl!
During your live performance, do you just sing vocals or do you play live instruments? Are there graphics involved?
[Laughs] Graphics! That would be amazing! That's the next level. We have to get there. Actually, I play the bass and sing at the same time. There's that. There are not too many effects. We always request fog machines at the venues. We like a lot of fog.
Fog never hurts.
Exactly. Fog is always the answer.
What's your process of recording a track? Does the whole band collaborate or is it just you and Lewis?
Lewis and I start the process and sometimes we make sample demos of songs and take it to the band. The band sort of colors it in their way. We definitely write the song and create the mood. The band has never written something all together. But, for instance, the song 'Nadine' is just a bass line we would jam on (for lack of a better word) for half an hour or so and eventually it became a song. A song like 'Night Dancing' too was essentially a trance that everyone got into. But again, Lewis and I mapped it all out and wrote the horn arrangements and all that. With this next record we are totally open to having the guys be more involved. Again we are going to make demos for everyone but I am trying to encourage the drummers to come up with beats and materials for us to work with. At the end of the day, Lewis and I are the driving force because we are so obsessed with it.
I was just going to ask you about 'Nadine.' I interviewed Memory Tapes a couple months ago and he did an awesome remix of that track. Do you commission remixes or do artists come to you?
I think it's both. Mostly they come to us -- as far I know. We are really into someone playing with our music. That's one of my favorite remixes definitely. I think it's both. We've reached out.
And conversely, what you did with the Marina & the Diamonds song 'I Am Not A Robot' was also incredible. Do you consider yourself equally a DJ and a live musician?
I personally do a lot of DJ gigs on my own around town and mainly in California. I love playing with music and playing music for other people. I do a lot of DJ gigs with international pop and psychedelic and afro and it's funny to see the reaction that comes out from doing that. Let's just say I get heckled by the bunch.
People just don't get that seeing a DJ set of someone in a band does not mean you are seeing the band!
Totally. It's also shocking how much people want to hear the obvious hits or something new. Since when is complaining about music being old a factor? I've had mind-blowing hecklers in the last year during DJ sets.
They want you to be a radio DJ! So odd.
Some people will be totally into it and dance and another half will fight me every step of the way. I do have a reserve of '90s R&B and R. Kelly -- just in case.
When in doubt, R. Kelly.
What did you study at SF State?
It's a very liberal school. They have this thing called Special Major where essentially you create your own major by pulling classes from three different majors. My official degree is in musical and recording arts. I did a lot of ethnomusicology and media studies and creative writing. I made a list of all the classes I wanted to take and they made a major around it. Kind of funny, but I love it.
So what's your favorite venue -- if not in L.A. then anywhere?
The Echo in L.A. is a venue that cradled us and helped us grow as a band. We did a residency there a year ago and it kicked off our touring career and made us think of the band in bigger terms. It helped us find our sound. We did a lot of shows at the Echo. That space is my home. The last tour we did, we did our homecoming show at the Echo and it was one of the best shows we ever did. It's a small little hole in the wall but something about it just feels really good.
And bands that play there typically get huge. You're on your way to icon status!
A lot of interviews poke fun that up until a few months ago you were still working as a paralegal. Do you have another hobbies or jobs that you maintain as you tour?
I like the word hobby. That's funny. Music -- definitely not a hobby. I'm a freelancer at a recording studio called Black Iris that does music for movies and TV. I go in when I can, when they hire me, to make commercial music. That is my only other source of income other than DJ gigs. I love it! It sure as hell beats being a paralegal. They are getting known as a record label as well. They just released Best Coast's seven-inch. They had a lot to do with Fool's Gold because they released our first seven-inch and help fund our studio time. All the initial tracks we did for the album -- eight songs -- we did in two days. We were there to do a single for Black Iris and since we were there and set up we decided to record everything we knew at the time. That set the beat for the record.
You are signed to IAMSOUND. Have you met any of the other artists on the label?
Good question. I think we are the only L.A. band on the label. They did a seven-inch series of a bunch of L.A. bands that we do know, like Local Natives and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. We are doing a split seven-inch with Local Natives on their label.
They are based out of L.A.?
Yeah, but they don't have that many artists on their roster. I think the other artists are New York or London-based.
What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?
I've gotten over the hump of knowing whether or not I can survive being a touring musician: that big question mark. Can this band survive the grueling touring schedule? Can we get along? Can I not get sick and not lose my voice? Not hate life? All these things. I sort of feel I have gotten over the hump and now I am so into traveling in a way I have never been before. The idea is to play in more countries. Let's get out and see what sort of reactions we get because thus far it's been really positive. It's kind of in the works, but I think our record is going to be put out in more countries as well: Japan, Germany, and Australia. We are planning on going to all these places and Africa and Israel. A lot of the things we have been talking about lately have to do with travel. It's amazing what music allows you to do in this world. It's such a powerful thing. I am getting shocked by it.
For for more info and upcoming Fool's Gold concert dates visit the band's official MySpace page