Photos via Paper Bag Records
Think back to that year spent in grade 12. What were you doing? Were you writing and recording music that would catch the ears of millions worldwide and become your career for the next decade? Probably not. I sure wasn't. But that's how the story of Tokyo Police Club began. Four teenaged "dorks" from Newmarket, Ontario—Greg Alsop, Joshua Hook, David Monks and Graham Wright—took their mutual love of the Strokes, the Libertines and Radiohead, and in their parents' garages and basements fashioned a young, frenetic sound.
And success came so quickly. They were signed in February 2006, and then two months later the four-piece released their debut, a seven-track EP called A Lesson In Crime, via Toronto's Paper Bag Records. The label had built a very respectable roster at the time, breaking the likes of Broken Social Scene, Stars, and controller.controller, but none of those bands took off with the momentum of Tokyo Police Club. To quote the band's keyboardist/guitarist Graham Wright, "It was a lot of work, a lot of luck and a lot of being in the right place at the right time." The EP arrived just in time to reap the benefits of the musician-friendly MySpace, then the best outlet for a young band to get noticed, as well as the numerous mp3-sharing sites populating Blogspot. In 2007, they played every music festival that mattered, got Paul Shaffer to back them on tambourine during a performance on The Late Show, and were hailed as "bold, inventive and brilliant" by the NME when it still had influence.
As the years flew by, their indie rock contemporaries began to either drop like flies. TPC, however, learned to evolve as songwriters and over three albums, a comp of covers and a double EP. They've maintained a fan base that has grown and matured with them. Now as 2016 comes to a close, they have decided to reflect on the EP that got them there. A Lesson In Crime has been reissued by Paper Bag on vinyl – the first time it's been available since its initial release – along with their subsequent 2007 EP, Smith, and a slew of unreleased demos. Unlike a lot of music from that period and scene, ALIC still sounds remarkably fresh and exciting; it's hard to imagine it wouldn't take off the same way today if they were just starting out now.
Noisey connected with Monks and Wright via Google Hangout to chat about the band's very humble beginnings, their ascent to the top of the indie buzz band pile, and the importance of not taking advice from the guitarist in Moist.
Noisey: I can't believe it's been ten years. Do you guys feel old?
Graham Wright: I feel like I've done that already. Like two years ago I felt old. Now that just feels normal. I just transitioned overnight and I didn't mind it.
Dave Monks: I feel like the tours we did this year I would just think, "Damn, it's so awesome we still get to do this." I've gone past the stage of thinking, "Oh, I've been doing this for a long time" and went straight to the reflective, fully-enjoying-it zone. That's what old guys do. And my knees. Honestly, I can't move on stage the same way I could ten years ago.
Old Man Monks!
Monks: One of my knees is actually getting worse. I used to just romp around and wear these boots that were very uncomfortable. So now there are definitely less crab walking on stage.
Wright: When we started there was a lot more self-abuse for the sake of it. Josh and I used to wear injuries and bruises as badges of honour. Because, y'know, Arcade Fire were hitting each other in the head with drumsticks and we were like, "Well, we've got to hurt ourselves too!" So we would just wail on our skin with tambourines until it got really bad and then compare bruises. Now I don't do that shit. My feet hurt constantly, but I don't make myself bleed on the guitar just because it's cool.
Making yourself bleed? That's some Iggy Pop shit.
Wright: Never on purpose. I'm not a good guitar player, and sometimes I miss with the pick when I'm windmilling and I hit the string with my finger instead. And so one out of every 15 times that ends up being gory.
Does it feel weird that you're reissuing records even though you're still a young band?
Wright: I like it. For me personally, it happens to coincide with turning 30, which happens soon. I feel reflective, and not nostalgic, but I can finally look with some objectivity on my life that I wasn't paying attention to while it happened. Take a little bit of stock there. And I'm happy to bask in my past achievements. So it's working nicely for me.
Monks: Same for me. Plus I always get reflective at this time of year.
What involvement did you have with the reissue of A Lesson In Crime ?
Wright: We had all of the extra stuff on our hard drives. There is a Spotify release too that has way more extra shift.
Monks: [Spotify] has two other songs that didn't make the cut for the EP. There's also a version of "Nature Of The Experiment" from before I played bass, which has a different vibe.
Wright: I was very happy to hear that.
Monks: Also we demoed "Be Good," "Nature Of The Experiment" and "Cheer It On" in your basement, Graham, and we pretty much fucking nailed them. There wasn't much different except for the general sound in the studio.
You guys formed the band in your hometown of Newmarket. How hard was it to get noticed there? Did you feel like you had to come to Toronto for just about everything?
Monks: They had this hardcore scene in Newmarket. Not to knock it but it was hard to be lumped in with that stuff.
Wright: We didn't want to get down with a circle pit. It wasn't unwelcoming, but it felt unwelcoming when we played.
Monks: We did get noticed playing in my garage [laughs]. Constantly people would walk by and go, "Who's that playing in the garage?"
Some members of the band dropped out of university to keep the band going, right? Monks: Yeah. Greg was at Ryerson and I was at McGill. I left because we had some demos that I knew were hot shit. We played Pop Montreal and Trevor [Larocque] and Enrique [Soissa] from Paper Bag came out, and I just thought, "That's it! I'm definitely gonna be doing this for sure." They came to half a show and said, "Yeah man, you should play with Magneta Lane at The Social." And I was like, "Holy shit, I'm made!" So that's why I dropped out. We didn't have a tour or a record deal, it was purely bravado. But we were getting really good feedback from our parents and friends, so… I felt that we were on to something.
And so some DJ invited you to perform at Pop Montreal?
Monks: Yeah, we put our demo in the mail, like a year before, totally forgot about it and then this guy that ran a blog found it and liked it. And so Lexi from Magneta Lane was interviewed and asked who she was excited to see and she mentioned us. Wright: That was for the National Post, which was our first ever press clipping. She just thought our name was cool.
Do you think festivals like Pop Montreal still have the ability to break bands the way it did for Tokyo Police Club?
Wright: Not like that. But we found out later that it was a real stroke of good fortune that we even got in because Pop Montreal isn't in the business to populate their festival with random bands that send in their demo CDs. No one would buy tickets to that festival. They book mostly "real" bands, and then parachute in eight or so unknown bands, and that's the whole thing
Monks: Obviously right now is a different time for bands though. People were really excited in 2005 about discovering a band they could dig into. And now, I don't know what it is, but bands don't seem to be as important.
Wright: There is no zeitgeist-y cool value in discovering the next great guitar band in 2016
Monks: It's more like a scented candle or a T-shirt with an Ontario logo that says "Drake" on it or something.
Wright: Before Pop Montreal, when we were in the suburbs, MySpace existed, but there was also a bunch of other shit to sign up for.
Monks: Graham had this book in high school written by the guitarist from Moist called Indie Band Bible. This is 1999 or 2000 knowledge, so it was a "how to" on making posters, reaching out to promoters, sending a demo tape – that kind of advice. Wright: Candles. That was the main takeaway from that book. "A cheap way to make your stage stand out from the rest is to light a bunch of candles." We didn't take that advice.
How important was MySpace for Tokyo Police Club?
Monks: Very, especially for meeting bands in Toronto.
Wright: I went to a movie with my friend the other night, and we were talking about MySpace. And I was remembering when we were the featured band on MySpace. It was one of the biggest, quantifiable career bumps we ever had. Like, I don't know if it ever translated, but I remember the first time we played Letterman, I thought the next day someone would be deliver me a pool. Other than impressing your grandma, we didn't really notice anything physical change after playing Letterman. But I remember being the feature band on MySpace and it being a big deal. And when I was talking about this in the bathroom at the movies the other day, this guy says to me, "Sounds like a cool story, man." [Laughs]
When exactly did you sign to Paper Bag?
Monks: February. I think it was a handshake deal and then we got the contract together when we needed it.
Wright: When you're a kid you imagine there will be a manila envelope with a cheque containing a lot of zeroes, but I remember walking from the Pita Pit with Enrique, who said, "If you guys make an EP we will put it out." And my heart took flight. But in retrospect that wasn't exactly a record contract.
Monks: We borrowed money off our parents to make it.
Wright: I used all the money I saved for university that I made working at Chapters during my gap year. Greg used all of his savings, and the day before or after we recorded it, he backed into his girlfriend's dad's car. And the repair was the exact amount of money he needed to pay for the EP.
What did the EP cost to make?
Monks: I think it was $2400 to record and then $500 to mix.
Wright: I thought it was more than that. I thought we put in $2000 each. Maybe I'm wrong. Wow, I didn't save much money at all then. I was never gonna afford university at that rate. We did it fast as shit too, I think in four days.
Monks: Yeah, three $800 days and then a mix day.
So you finished the EP and then Paper Bag signed on to release it?
Monks: I'll give you the full timeline: We played Pop Montreal in October 2005. We did The Social in Toronto and hung out with Paper Bag in November. In December I dropped out, came home and we played a show with MSTRKRFT on December 21, 2005, the day I got home from Montreal. That was the night we went to Pita Pit and they said they'd release the EP. Then we met Jon Drew, who we hit up in February 2006 and recorded with for four days. And then it came out in April. I remember seeing Trevor at The Boat and saying, "We'd like to change the tracklisting." And he said, "Oh really? It's already been mastered and it's now being pressed."
I remember when the EP came out and it just took off immediately.
Wright: It felt like that. When it was announced that Paper Bag was putting it out that had real cachet. They were still pretty new, but they had put out the Social Scene album the first time [2002's You Forgot It In People], and they also put out controller.controller and Magneta Lane. Just the fact that Paper Bag signed "Newmarket unknowns" was enough to make some people perk up their ears a little bit in Canada, at least.
Monks: We were kids, so we didn't know how any of it happened. We had just both turned 19. I think in the U.S. it took another year to catch on.
I think the key to A Lesson In Crime was how concise the songs were. You wrote these exciting two-minute songs. There weren't many indie bands doing that at the time.
Monks: I think it was a mix of two things. We were truly in vacuum. There was no sense of an audience or a label or anything, so we just thought it seemed cool. And I think we also didn't want to overstay our welcome. We wanted to make something that would be a thrill the whole time.
Wright: You always trust your own taste, that's kind of the filter between the band and the world. And that's what felt right to us at the time.
Now when I listen to the EP I can't help but think how different Dave's voice sounds compared to everything that came afterwards.
Monks: I know, right! I just think I hadn't figured out how to sing yet. I hadn't found my voice and I think I had this accent from loving Libertines records. I do have Irish parents, so there is a bit of an accent when I'm at their house. I used to be tone deaf. I once had an argument with my music teacher in grade six about it. So I was really coming from a place of not being able to sing at all. But every record I notice it. Elephant Shell has a thing, Champ has a thing…
Wright: To me you sound like you and we sound like us starting on Champ. That's where I recognize the band as I experience it now. And I often think, "How did we do that?"
Monks: Some of the riffs and lyrics from those early songs make me think, "I have no idea how we arrived at that."
Wright: This isn't a quality judgment, but if a band is good their first record is inherently special and fascinating because they're still inventing their shit. We were just inventing the whole process. It's interesting because we listened to a lot of music, so you'd think we'd know about bridges, but when we went to write a song it's like we forgot they existed. So we would stop for ten seconds and then just come back in.
Oddly enough, the first time I ever saw Tokyo Police Club perform was in April 2006, right when the EP was coming out. You played a Vice party in Toronto.
Monks: Yeah, with Sailboats Are White, baby!
Wright: I fucking hated that show! My decades-long hate affair with cool Toronto people. They just didn't listen. But I mean, I wouldn't listen either if I went to that party now, since I've become everything I hate. But at the time, I was like, "We're busting our asses up here waving a flag. Pay attention, dicks!"
Monks: I think there was a lot of "these guys are kids." Like we played first just because we're young and the other band didn't want to open for 19-year-olds.
Wright: That was when Sailboats Are White were the next big thing.
Monks: Dude, we got paid $100 that night. And free Adidas Gazelles.
Wright: That was my first pair of Gazelles, which I wore into the ground. I wish I still had them.
One thing you guys did better than any other band on Paper Bag was to build an international following. How important was it for the band to leave Canada in order to succeed?
Monks: Well, we got this show at the Mercury Lounge, where we met Rich [Cohen]. He had MySpaced us from Interpol's account, saying he was an assistant manager looking for acts. So he came out to the show and by June, two months after the EP came out, we had an American manager. So I think that helped out and meant we had a lot more touring to do [laughs].
Wright: We said right off the bat that the one shrewd move was that we had to break into the States. We would do whatever was necessary to do that, like go on the tour with Enon and play to 14 people a night in Charleston.
Monks: And I don't think bands that haven't broken into the States haven't tried either. We just got lucky.I think for us it was the Pitchfork thing at the beginning. Because that was where everyone was reading about music, and we were on Pitchfork a lot.
It wasn't just the U.S. though. The UK went crazy for you. In their review of A Lesson In Crime , the NME called you guys "the most perfect, weirdly askew indie pop band the other side of the pond has produced since Pavement." Not bad.
Wright: I think that was used as a pull quote on the sticker of our CD. Wasn't it?
But then a couple years later in the review for Elephant Shell they called you "former blog heroes."
Wright: We should have changed our band name to that. Or put that on a CD sticker.
What was the adjustment like being 19 and just thrust into the touring lifestyle for the first time?
Monks: When A Lesson In Time came out we were still living with our parents. I worked at the Gap in Newmarket, and I remember telling the ladies at the table where you unpack clothing at six in the morning, "Yeah, I'm going on tour, see ya!" And they were like, "Wow, that's so cool. Are you getting paid?" And I was like, "Yeah, $50 a show!" And they were like, "Excuse me? $50 each?" And I was like, "No." I also remember losing my voice a lot. That was hard for me, so I learned that I couldn't party as hard if I wanted to sing. One thing about the four of us is that we're pretty courteous to each other. There was never any band animosity or tension.
Wright: We would bicker in the beginning, and I remember thinking, "Shit, we're falling apart!" But then we'd meet bands that actually fought on the road, and then it was like, "Oh, we never fought on the road." And we don't even bicker now. We never really hit any bottom.
You rode this EP for a long time, but it managed to get you slots at Coachella and Glastonbury the following year. Was it hard to perform with only a handful of songs?
Wright: Yes, it was very difficult to fill the set times. They were about 30 minutes long.
Monks: We had the other EP… and I guess that was it.
Wright: The first day of Elephant Shell was really the last day of that tour. We never really stopped to make that record, other than to stop and make it. And that was all the time we really had.
Monks: And Elephant Shell came together really fast: it was written and recorded in December and came out in April. We just kept getting offers and it kept building in the U.S. especially.
There's something about Tokyo Police Club and EPs. You guys love EPs. You have five of them. You've released more EPs than LPs.
Monks: I never want to do an EP again. I'm done. I'm fucking done! Because we did two this year, and last year I did my solo one, and now this reissue. But people are always like, "Great. When is the record coming out?" And I'm like, "There are five amazing songs on our EP!" Just in terms of the songs we had, I think A Lesson In Crime could have been an album because we had "Your English Is Good" and "Box" at the same time. But for whatever reason we made it an EP.
The Smith EP is part of this reissue. Tell me about that, because it just kind of appeared in between A Lesson In Crime and Elephant Shell without any real push.
Wright: Those are the songs that could have made A Lesson In Crime an album. We did it for so long that it came out in Canada and the U.S., but then England wanted it. ALIC already came out as an import so we had to include a bonus track. And then it came out in Japan, which also needed a new bonus track. And so we just kept recording songs and keeping them in our back pocket. Then, of course, we had these songs recorded, only coming out as bonus tracks internationally, so we needed to put them out in Canada and the U.S.
Monks: It's not a statement.
Wright: It's not part of our oeuvre, Cam. It's not part of the Tokyo Police Club canon.
Is it true that Letterman introduced you as Toyota Police Club?
Wright: That is 100 percent true. It happened at the beginning when he announces who is on the show. Paul Shaffer corrected him, and if my memory serves me correctly, Letterman was holding up the record and they cut into a close up and they held onto it while the two of them had this dialogue about our name.
I think one thing that will always keep you guys young in my eyes were those early press photos. Whose idea was it to shoot them in the kitchen?
Monks: Oh that sucked! I liked the guy who took those pictures, and it was more of a communication thing.
Wright: He just had more experience than us. So if he says, "What if you drink these raw eggs out of a cup?" you don't interpret it as a suggestion you disagree with. That was the only thing about being young when we started, was that it took a long time for us to realize that we were in charge. You look at a band like Cold War Kids, who had their aesthetic down from the start, and it was because they were old enough to decide, "This is what we do."
Monks: Same with Dilly Dally. I'm jealous of my sister for that. She took a couple more years to put her thing together.
Wright: Plus we were such dorks! We're not that cool now, but back then we didn't even live in Toronto yet. So we had grasp as to how we should come across. We were just floppy muppets trying to please everyone.
What happened to the red flag you used to carry around?
Wright: We lost one, and then we must have lost another.
Monks: There were a lot of antics at the start. We were kind of the "kooky, sci-fi rockers." I remember being on Stillepost reading stuff like, "Those guys are so gimmicky" and "Watch out Tokyo Police Club, because you're gonna burn out."
Wright: We were so gimmicky! They were right.
Yeah, what was with all of the gimmicks? Cupcakes, flags, plus the sparklers and embroidered pillows?
Wright: I've got one of the pillows on my couch now [grabs pillow, holds it up to screen]. Similar to how we wrote the songs, I think we just had this instinct to fill space and energetically take up all of the air in the room. It was like, "So if you don't like this song, there will be another song in 90 seconds. If don't like the next song, here's a cupcake for you. If you don't like cupcakes, we have a pillow over here. If you don't want a pillow, here, we'll wave a flag in your face!" Then we yell the band name and that was a song. Our instinct was to go right to the wall.
When did you realize you didn't need to do that anymore?
Wright: You sound like my therapist. The answer to your question, Cam, is that I became single, and so we had to stop doing weird shit. It was exclusively to make me look good.
Monks: We also didn't have free labour anymore without Darcy.
Wright: That's a good point. There were no more pillows after my girlfriend left me.
So what has kept you guys together after ten years?
Wright: We kept working for one thing. It's not everyone's cup of tea and not how everyone wants to live. You can't always go to the cottage every summer.
Monks: It's also that we're four genuinely creative people. There are a lot of different kinds of outlets in the band. We were also friends for ten years before the band even started, so I feel like we had some of our kinks worked out beforehand. There aren't many bands in our spot left. It's us, Ra Ra Riot, Cold War Kids, Born Ruffians…
Wright: And how many of those bands are all original members?
Tokyo Police Club play will the Mod Club in Toronto on December 8, 9 and 10.
Cam Lindsay knows everything about Canadian rock. Follow him on Twitter.