In the midst of their biggest tour to-date, Greg Alsop of Tokyo Police Club sat down for a long talk with QRO. In part one of the interview, the drummer talked about the current tour with Two Door Cinema Club (QRO photos on the tour), making their latest record, Champ (QRO review), how it was so much less stressful than making debut LP, Elephant Shell (QRO review), their heavy road schedule (including festivals & frosh weeks), playing with Matisyahu at a Christmas party, playing as ‘Cold Splash’ on Desperate Housewives, not playing with dogs, imitating Weezer, blinding the audience in Salt Lake, and much more…
QRO: How’s this tour going so far?
GA: The tour’s been going great. We spent the first four days of the tour in Canada, and the third show was in Toronto again, so it doesn’t feel like we’ve been away that long. It was nice having that trip back to Toronto, because I forgot to pack a bunch of stuff…
QRO: So you didn’t start the tour at home in Toronto?
GA: No, we left from there, we went up to Ottawa, played [Durham College] in between Ottawa & Toronto, and then made it back to Toronto.
It was weird being back in Toronto as just a ‘stop on tour’. It was definitely a strange way to revisit your home. Just to be like, ‘Oh cool, I’m not gonna get to sleep in my own bed tonight, but I could take a nap there, for a half-an-hour, and go to, like, my favorite coffee shop down the street…’
That was kind of a strange experience. Hopefully we won’t do that too much more – it was to get a chance to come back and see all your friends again before you go, but once you’re gone, you’re kind of in a different mind-set. And so it’s kind of strange to be in this weird limbo.
QRO: In New York, you’re headlining your biggest venue to-date, Terminal 5 (QRO venue review). Is that true throughout this tour?
GA: Yeah, definitely. We just headlined – well, I guess co-headlined, with Two Door – the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., which is the best venue in the country. That’s been amazing. We’d played there twice last year, and once before [that], but we’ve always been opening for bands. First time we played there, we opened for Cold War Kids (QRO photos at Terminal 5), then Passion Pit (QRO photos at Terminal 5), and then New Pornographers (QRO live review at Terminal 5), so to come back there and finally get a chance to do it ourselves – it kind of gives you a sense of justification. ‘Okay, we’ve like ‘arrived’ now. We’re an established band.’
QRO: Have you been able to take the opportunity for a bigger light show?
GA: Yeah, yeah, we’ve rented some lights for this time around. Which we’ve kind of had before, we’ve done in the past, but the weird thing was that we’d rent light packages, but the clubs would be too small for our production a lot of the time.
Like we rented lights for the first time back in 2008, when we were first starting to tour to support Elephant Shell, and the first show of that tour was at this place called Kilby Court in Salt Lake City. It’s literally a garage, on somebody’s property, just out back, with these trailers, and not much bigger than this [backstage dressing] room. But we had full light production there, so kids were just being blinded the whole time! They tried to get up close, but they couldn’t actually watch us.
So this time, it feels like we can actually bring the show to the people, and make it count.
QRO: What is the set list (QRO photo) looking like – is it primarily Champ, and how much older stuff do you get in there?
GA: It’s actually a really varied list, stuff from every album. We have I think three, four? EP songs that we play from Lesson In Crime, and then three or four Elephant Shell songs, and then the rest is all Champ. So it’s a pretty good mix of everything.
I mean, we love of our old songs, too. We’re not sick of playing them yet. It’s kinda cool to revisit old material and get a chance to rework it, in some ways. And to learn to play it in the context of this set, you kind of adapt it to maybe a slower tempo, or add in an audience interaction kind of thing, or put a breakdown in there. So it’s kind of cool to almost ‘cover’ your own songs, in a way.
QRO: How did making Champ compare with making Elephant Shell?
GA: It was a lot more confident in the writing and recording process of it.
With Elephant Shell, we never really had a chance to take time off from touring, supporting A Lesson In Crime, to actually to sit down and be able write the album. So it was kind of a process of starting & stopping a lot, where we’d get maybe a week off here, and we’d try to devote five days to writing, but you can only get so far in that amount of time. So you could start an idea, but then you’d have to leave to go back on tour for a month. So it was really difficult to find ways to recapture what made you so excited about that idea initially, a month-and-a-half later. And so it never really got the momentum that you’re required to write an album.
And this time, we played our last show of 2009 in late August, and then we just said, ‘Okay, no more shows until the record’s done.’ And we had never really had the freedom to do that before. And it made all the difference – it made it so that we could actually fully realize ideas when we had them, as well as have the album as a fully ‘cohesive idea’ by the time we were ready to go into the studio. So I think that definitely helped.
QRO: When you were doing Elephant Shell, or now, do you do any work while you’re on the road?
GA: Try to. We can come up with ideas when we’re on the road, and that’s kind of the most you can do, just stockpile them until you have a chance to sit down and write.
We’re taking a month off after this tour to just kind of decompress a little bit, and also get the ball rolling on the next record. Hopefully we’ll actually be able to take some time and figure stuff out.
But it’s impossible to really write on the road. The most you can do is kinda jam something out on stage every night, but it’s not enough to actually work out a song.
QRO: Did you feel there was more pressure in making Elephant Shell than for Champ, considering Elephant was your ‘full-length debut’ and coming after A Lesson In Crime?
Journalists would write about that, and fans would write about that. And so it definitely kind of helped dictate the sound of it.
And it was kind of a difficult balance to strike because we wanted to grow as artists, but we didn’t want to completely change our sound and throw a curveball in there, that early in the game. So I think it was kind of a stressful writing process in that way, because we were always kind of second-guessing ourselves, and we weren’t confident enough in the idea of writing a record, ‘cause we’d never actually written a full ‘album’ before. It’s a different process than an EP, which is kind of just a collection of songs in that moment, where an album should feel like kind of a cohesive package.
But with Champ, I think we had ideas, more of what we wanted the album to sound like as a whole, but we also just kind of knew that the connecting threads would be there, and we would just kind of write the songs that excited us at that time, and let them develop as they kind of ‘wanted to’, more than try to fit them into this niche, ‘angular sound’ that people used to know us for.
QRO: Was it just coincidence that the first two songs on Champ are "Favourite Food" and "Favourite Colour" – and include three Anglo-style ‘ou’s?
GA: [laughs] Yeah, we were making ourselves very ‘distinctly Canadian’ with that…
It is a coincidence that they are there together. We were gonna put "Favourite Food" later in the track listing – that was actually a label call on that one. And a producer call – Rob Schnapf (Elliott Smith, The Honorary Title), who we recorded the record with, he kind of came up with the track listing, "Hey, I feel really strongly about this shit opening the album…"
Tokyo Police Club playing "Favourite Food" live at Terminal 5 in New York, NY on January 21st, 2011:
QRO: It’s still relatively soon since Champ – have you or anyone in the band done any work on new material?
GA: Just a few ideas right now. We had been playing an older song that happened made it onto "Champ", that we’d written around the same time, but we aren’t doing it this time, because we don’t have the time in a sixty-minute set. It’s called "Top Five" – you can hear it on our Daytrotter session.
But no new material yet.
QRO: You just did a tour that ended in December, and now this one – why such a heavy road schedule?
GA: Because you need to…
One, it’s the only way to make a living in this industry anymore, because no one buys albums. That’s kind of out the window…
Also because you kind of need to ‘strike while the iron is hot’, and so far it is right now. It feels like we’re just starting to gain the momentum back that we used to have off Elephant Shell. We took a long time off in between, when we stopped touring Elephant Shell and we did Champ. I think it was close to like ten months by the time we started really playing shows again.
And so you kind of have to make the most of an album. ‘Cause it does take so long to do, and people are so… ‘fickle’, I guess? In giving you their attention? I mean, there’s so much new music out there. Blogs only want to talk about you when you’re doing something new – it has to be something ‘novel’. Just touring isn’t enough, but I don’t know, that’s kind of the only thing you can hope to do, just keep coming back to the city, and hope that through word-of-mouth and a good show, you’ll gain an audience that way.
QRO: Do you like this newer way of touring, doing a bunch of tours in a row, then really taking time off to do the record?
GA: Yeah, that’s how we have to do it.
It takes its toll on you. We had our first break over the holidays really since starting to tour this. Since back in May, April even, late April – I think Coachella was kind of the ‘first thing’.
QRO: How do you fight ‘tour burn-out’?
GA: You kind of find some time for yourself. We always take a few days, maybe a week or so off, in-between one tour and the next, when you can.
But you just learn to live on the road as comfortably as you can. Having the bus can definitely help, sometimes, because you don’t have to deal with the long drives yourself. You kind of just ‘wake up in the next city’.
But even that can be exhausting, in a way, because the bus isn’t providing everything that you need. You wake up in a city, that you have no idea where you are in relation to anything else, so you have to find the Starbucks to get your morning coffee and go to the washroom. Bring your toothbrush with you, because this venue won’t be open for a few hours…
So even the small, day-to-day things can become stress on that. So you learn to not stress on it, ‘Cool, I haven’t washed my face today, but I’m not letting that not start my day.’ Where, if you didn’t shower in the morning, maybe when you were living at home, it would be kind of a weird…
You just kind of gotta take it easy, I guess.
QRO: Speaking of festival, it seems like, practically since you started, you’ve been doing lots of festivals as well. Are you particularly drawn to playing them?
GA: Umm, no… [laughs]
I mean, they’re a great way to reach out to a new audience, hopefully. And they’re a fun hang, when you have a lot of friends there, bands who you’re friends with, playing there as well. Coachella was great for that – we got to see Ra Ra Riot (QRO spotlight on), Matt & Kim (QRO spotlight on), so that was incredible.
But they’re a really big stressful situation, because you have to work within a very strict time limit. A lot of the times, you’re flying in for them, and so you have to play on rented gear. You don’t even really get to do a proper soundcheck on ‘em. There are a lot of factors that could make for a tough show to get through. But we’ve gotten better at it since then.
Coachella was a weird one for us, because it was one of our first shows back, and it was on the main stage – which we had done before, but never at a festival like that, never in the middle of the day, when you’re up against like The Gossip (QRO album review), I think The xx (QRO live review) or something like that…
It was kind of a weird time for us to go on. It was just before that amazing sunset spot – we were just shy of that! [laughs]
QRO: You played New York City just last month, at the WIRED store…
GA: At our manager’s Christmas party.
QRO: Matisyahu showed up for "The Hanukah Song" at that show. How do you guys know him?
GA: We don’t…
It was kind of a funny way to get him out there. Our manager had to come out to a show that we were at in Portland, and he was playing us that song, and we just became obsessed with it. We love. It’s just such a fun, festive track. It kind of just like ‘fit’ in the moment, because we were touring in December, gearing up for the holidays.
We learned – well, we didn’t really ‘learn’ the song. We’d listened to it a bunch, and kind of figured it out, because we thought it would be kind of fun for [our manager] and a couple of other guys from New York to come up and sing the song for us for his holiday party. And they all got cold feet at the last minute and backed out, and we were like, ‘Cool, we don’t really know it anyway…’
It turned out Matisyahu’s manager was at the party, and he’s friends with our manager Rich [Cohen]. And Matisyahu was playing up at, I think Times Square, that night, so it was an early show. Rich, our manager, talked to Matisyahu’s manager and said, "Is there any way he could do this?"
And at first he said, "No…" [laughs] Why would he come to do that? But, I don’t know, I guess we just have an amazing manager…
QRO: He came on late in the set. Did you guys stop before he showed up?
GA: We actually had to keep extending the set. We heard he was on the way, and he was stuck in traffic in a cab. "Just stretch it out – [Weezer’s] "My Name Is Jonas" (QRO video of Weezer playing "My Name Is Jonas" two days later), do the cover you used to do, "Cheer It On" in there, a couple of older songs…" We were only supposed to play for a half-an-hour, but we ended up playing for like forty-five minutes.
But it was cool – he came up, he did it, and it was perfect. He destroyed up there. We had never played the song before; we had never met him before. We shook his hand, took a picture with him, said thank you, and then… never saw him again. That’s our brush with Matisyahu.
QRO: The other guys in the band do a lot of instrument switching. Do you like watching them run around like that while you stay seated, or would you like to take up the glockenspiel for a song?
GA: It doesn’t interest me that much. I can play other instruments, but I don’t care to. It’s enough stress just having to start every song, make sure the tempo’s right, and get everyone at the right point – that’s enough for me. I don’t wanna have to worry about pulling out a keyboard now, or a laptop.
I mean, that’s why we have four members of the band – one of them can sit back and do his own thing…
QRO: You mentioned playing a college. You also did ‘Frosh Week’ at Carleton & Nipissing Universities last September – what are playing college shows like?
GA: They’re bizarre, because, a lot of the time, the audience doesn’t know who you are, or care who you are. They’re a captive audience – they’re just kind of coming to your show because you’re the only thing happening.
We’ve had some that went really well. The Carleton one was actually really great. We did the Nipissing one the day afterwards, and there was – I can’t remember if there was four or three bands? Bands that we were all friends with, Ruby Coast played, Born Ruffians (QRO live review) also played as well, and then we played. But the show ended up starting really late – I don’t think the first band went on ‘til like 10:30. So we were going on about like 12:30.
And it was ‘Frosh Night’ – everyone was already trashed, and there were a bunch of other things to do: there was dance going on down the hall from us. And so, literally by the time we got on stage, everyone had left. There was maybe fifty people there? And it trickled down to like twenty by the time we were there. It was just too late for people who had been drinking since two in the afternoon…
So they’re a bit bizarre, but sometimes you get one that’s great. Like the one at [Durham College]. I think there were like six hundred kids there at the student bar, and all of them were so psyched. So if it turns out to be kind of like a ‘real show’, then it’s gonna be alright.
QRO: This was a few years ago, but what was it like performing on Desperate Housewives?
GA: Good! It was good. They really treated us well, and they catered to us, which was nice.
We got that because [Paul Bullock,] the best friend of our band, kind of as a unit, is a writer on that show.
QRO: Oh! They mentioned you another time…
GA: Yeah, though it’s weird – they mentioned the name in the episode previous. But we had to become ‘Cold Splash’ because the Desperate Housewives universe doesn’t exist in this reality, and so they couldn’t actually have a band that really exists come play their show, because it wouldn’t make sense in context of the episode.
QRO: Also maybe they had to call you ‘Cold Splash’ because it was just a ‘Battle of the Bands’…
GA: Yeah, it was against the Desperate Husbands!
It was weird. It was definitely a strange experience, like a lot more bizarre than shooting a music video or something like that. But it was fun – we got to go to L.A. in the middle of the tour, we all had our own trailers, we got catering all the time… It was a blast.
It was good because it was our friend was the one who pitched it to us, and he was there to make sure that nothing, like, really strange happened. The director [Dave Grossman] was awesome that episode, he had a really good vision, and he was easy to work with. We had to do some acting, which was dumb… [laughs]
Dave & I got lines, "There’s a party up in our manager’s loft…" or something. And they started screwing with us as well, because it was the last thing they had to shoot of the day. Literally, it was maybe like eleven PM, and everyone had been there since noon, so they were working like eleven-hour day, I guess.
The other husbands just started like – they just needed to get our shots, it was just reactions for that; they weren’t even on camera. So they were saying ridiculous bullshit all the time…
It was fun. I’d love to do more stuff like that if it ever came up.
Tokyo Police Club ‘acting’ on Desperate Housewives:
QRO: Are you ‘old hats’ at playing talk shows by this no? You’ve done Letterman a few times now (QRO Indie on Late Night TV).
GA: We’ve done it three times, and that’s kind of the only one. We did that one and Ferguson, and that one was even more strange, because they tape that one completely separately.
But we’re getting better at it. The first two times, we were really uncomfortable up there. It’s strange because again, the audience doesn’t know you – just tourists who got to tickets to the David Letterman Show.
But also it was an amazing experience, because I’m a huge fan of the show. Just to sit in the green room there, get to on the set afterwards and sit in Dave’s desk. That was incredible.
QRO: Where did you shoot the video for "Wait Up (Boots of Danger)" – and where did you get the dogs?
GA: The dogs were actually hired dog actors. So we weren’t allowed to talk to them, play with them at all – they would, like, ‘break character’ if you tried to distract them in anyway.
But we shot that in Toronto, at a friend’s house and rehearsal room. It was a friend of ours who came up with the concept for the video. He just had the idea of a dog pool party, and we loved the idea, we love dogs. It was kind of what we were going with our album aesthetic at the time. It just worked out really well for us.
Tokyo Police Club’s video for "Wait Up (Boots of Danger)":
QRO: That basement reminded me of the basement for the old Weezer video…
GA: Yeah, "The Sweater Song". That was a bit of an inspiration for.
QRO: Is doing music videos, appearing on TV, etc. extra-special for you, as you’ve done comedy sketch videos?
GA: Yeah, a little bit. That’s what I was going to school for, before I dropped out to do the band. Mostly for screenwriting, but there was a production element in that.
I am interested in that stuff, but you’re so removed from that stuff when you are on camera. You can like hang out and watch them, but it’s pretty boring, just checking the monitors, ask them, ‘Oh, what lens are you using? Is that the Sony Red Camera?…’