The Popdose Interview: Joe Washbourn of Toploader
It’s bad enough to be pegged a one-hit wonder when you’ve had more than one hit, but it’s even worse when that perceived one hit isn’t even a song that you wrote yourself. Alas, such is the way of the world for the guys in Toploader: they became superstars on the strength of their admittedly awesome take on King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight,” but few remember that they actually had three other top-10 hits in the UK from their debut album, 1999’s Onka’s Big Moka: (“Achilles Heel,” “Just Hold On,” and “Only for a While.”)
Unfortunately, the boys in the band – Joe Washbourn (vocals / keyboards), Dan Hipgrave (lead guitar), Matt Knight (bass), Rob Green (drums), and Julian Deane (second guitar) – were rushed into making a sophomore album in order to build on their “Moonlight” momentum, and the end result, 2002’s Magic Hotel, proved both creatively frustrating and commercially disappointing. By 2003, Toploader were no more.
It may surprise you to learn, however, that the band’s status has changed. Although Deane has departed the ranks of Toploader, Washbourne, Hipgrave, Knight, and Green have reunited, recorded a new album (Only Human), and are ready to take on the world once more…and, yes, says Washbourn, that does include America.
Popdose: First of all, I should tell you that my wife and I discovered Toploader’s cover of “Dancing in the Moonlight” when we were on our honeymoon in the UK, and she defines it as one of her all-time favorite cover songs.
Joe Washbourn: Oh, brilliant! That’s great news! Funny thing, but a lot of people in the UK had never even heard the song before, because it just wasn’t a big hit when King Harvest did it in…well, whenever they did it! 1973, I think it was, or something like that. It wasn’t a hit out here at all, so everyone thought we’d written it. (Laughs)
Well, to sort of begin at the end, as it were, based on what I’ve seen online, it appears that Toploader broke up in 2003 as much because of the demise of S2 Records as anything else. Is that more or less accurate?
Yeah, kind of. I mean, we had quite a lot of people perceive that we had a lot of success overnight. Obviously, for us, it was a little more progressive than that. We kind of started out, like all bands do, in little vans, going up and down the UK. But I think by the time it came to… (Hesitates) I mean, we had two albums out, I think we’d sold, like, over two million records, and I think by the time S2 folded, we’d had enough of it all, really. We kind of imploded. We’d had enough of being with major labels, we’d had enough of…well, to be honest, by the time it sort of came to a decision of whether we wanted to carry on, I think we all, me especially, decided that we’d rather go away for a little while, have a break, reevaluate things, and, y’know, I think we’d just run out of steam. I don’t think any of us intended it on being quite such a long break, really, but it just worked out like that.
So what were you doing in the interim? Did you go back to, God forbid, a day job? Were you still working in music in any capacity?
Yeah, absolutely. We were lucky enough to sort of walk away with a couple of sheckles in our pockets, and…I cut all my hair off. I’d had enough of being Joe Washbourne of Toploader, and I went out to live in L.A. for a little while. Originally, I was there for sort of three weeks, but I ended up staying for two years and found a place up in Topanga Canyon and pretty much didn’t come down the canyon for two years, really. I just was up there writing music and playing music and did a couple of scores for films. I just wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, and I absolutely loved it. My wife and I just had a great time up there.
What were the films that you wrote the scores for?
Well, I did a film called “The Skeleton Key,” with Kate Hudson, which I did a piece of music for, and it was really nice for me to write sort of brief, because for years you’re writing for a rock band. It was nice to sit down and have the visuals in front of you and have to fill up this 30 seconds and you have to reach this mark on this point. I really enjoyed that. It was nice.
Having branched out into that music capacity, was it hard to find the Toploader groove again when you finally got back to the band?
Funnily enough, not really. I mean, when we first got back together, we were just going to go out and play some festivals and, y’know, not take it too seriously and just see what happened. And then one of the members left because he had other commitments, and I think as soon as we became a four-piece, that whole kind of dynamic of the group changed, and the sound changed, and suddenly we had lots more space. And I think that’s when suddenly for me it kicked into place, that writing for this new Toploader, Pt. 2 was going to be really exciting, and we could try new things. So, no, once we started playing, it was easy to get back into writing for the band again.
As soon as I heard “Never Stop Wondering,” I loved it, but I couldn’t help thinking that it sounded a bit different from the Toploader sound that we’d heard before. Was that an intentional change or just the evolution of the band?
I think kind of both, really. (Laughs) You know, I think it was a very natural thing. I mean, we’re eight years older, my tastes have changed, I think music in general has changed. I think in 2000, when Onka’s Big Moka came out…I mean, that’s such a beautifully naïve record. It’s very optimistic and, you know, it’s lovely, but it sounds like a record that a 22-year-old guy wrote. A few years later, different things have happened in life, and…I think we just wanted to make something a little more serious, with a little bit more weight to it, and I just think that, as you grow older, you become a little bit more…worldly? Cynical? Jaded? Whatever you want to call it, but all the good things that make good records, hopefully.
On Wikipedia, which is, of course, always 100% accurate, it refers to how Toploader’s live career began with you guys playing with Coldplay and Muse. First of all, let me ask if that’s true.
Yeah, it is true, actually. We all came out at the same time, and a couple of years before we all got deals, we were playing in the 100 Club on Oxford Street, and we were playing with Muse, and…it’s funny, but in those days, we played with so many different bands, but there was only ever a handful that we thought were great bands, and of the two that we really remember, one was Muse and the other was Coldplay. And they obviously went on to do incredible things. We also did a Rolling Stone tour in Germany where Coldplay supported us at first…and then, obviously, things got flipped on their head a little bit. (Laughs) So, yeah, we came out at a good time for music. I don’t think our music was anything at all like theirs, but it was a good time to be coming out of the UK with record deals.
To play off of that, now that I know it is indeed accurate, as you’ve watched those guys become world dominators, has there ever been a point where you were, like, “Oooh, we should’ve kept going”?
I think… (Hesitates) I mean, obviously, we were lucky to have the success that we had, really. I think in hindsight, back in the day, we were very much…when you’re young lads and you get thrown into that situation, it’s very easy to get wrapped up in it. You’re partying after the gigs, and you’re partying even before the gigs, really. It’s just one party! And when it came to making a second album, I think we were just completely burnt out and completely run out of juices, creatively. And I think with what worked for those bands, and for lots of bands, really, the clever thing to do is to take whatever success you had with the first album, go away, and evaluate it. And both those bands came back with incredible second albums. I think if you were ever going to say what we should’ve done, we probably should’ve had a break before the second album instead of rushing straight into it, really.
Actually, that leads to a question I had about Magic Hotel. To look at the track listing, you’ve got a cover of “Some Kind of Wonderful” buried at the tail end of record, which makes me wonder if recording that track was a label demand rather than a band decision.
Yeah, well, I think in hindsight…I mean, at the time, we didn’t quite realize how much we were being manipulated. You know, at the time, we always thought we were a rock band, and we’ve kind of gone back to this now, but only after these years. We had tracks like “Achilles Heel,” which we were all really proud of at the time, but I think Sony thought…once they got a sniff of what “Dancing in the Moonlight” achieved, I think they thought we were a pop band, and it was them that tried to emulate that success with something like “Some Kind of Wonderful.” We were never behind that, and we really kind of did it as a jokey kind of thing in the studio, but it ended up being… (Hesitates) It was a different kind of song than “Dancing in the Moonlight.” I think “Dancing in the Moonlight” was an incredible song, and that version of it had something very magical about it. But trying to recreate that again was purely Sony’s idea, and this time around, to not have to have that big machine behind you, it’s been very refreshing.
I can imagine. Pretty much everyone I talk to nowadays who’s gone the indie route has been pretty much thrilled with the end result. I always cite something that Glenn Tilbrook told me: when Squeeze had only just released Domino, their first indie album, he said, “This is already more successful than any record we ever did on A&M.”
(Laughs) And that’s a nice bonus! But just to be sort of left alone to make your own decisions and be creative, and to really work with producers without them getting phone calls every ten minutes from the rep from Sony telling them, “It needs to sound like this, it needs to sound like that…” It’s no surprise that what we came out with didn’t sound like it came from us.
I know Dave Arrengo produced the first two albums, but who was behind the board for the new record?
Well, they were produced along with George Drakoulias. He did “Dancing with the Moonlight,” and he also did the majority of the second album, and we had a great time making it with him. We made that where the Beach Boys did Pet Sounds, out in L.A., and that was kind of what gave me the taste for L.A., to be honest. But this album’s been produced by Danton Supple, who also produced Coldplay’s X/Y, he’s done stuff with the Doves and Morrissey, so very kind of distinctly English or British artists. But I think also he’s a kind of serious producer as well. It’s not gimmicks. It’s not super-pop or anything like that. It’s just very about trying to get the songs down. And, also, at the point where we were at, I’ve learned an awful lot on my own about production, so instead of like we used to do, where we’d just take the songs to a producer and go, “Sort that out,” now we have a definite idea of what we want them to sound like, and he just helps us kind of fulfill that, really.
The British music press is notoriously snarky, of course, but how are they responding to the idea of Toploader being back?
I think it’s…I mean, it’s been a long time. I think we’re realizing how long it’s been, you know? Lots of band have been and gone in the meantime. We always used to get a bit of stick for “Dancing in the Moonlight” ‘cause, you know, a proper band really isn’t supposed to do something so overtly happy as that, really. (Laughs) You’re not really supposed to be happy! And, also, in the States, it’s much more widely accepted to do a cover if you make it your own, whereas here I think it was kind of frowned upon. So obviously we’re getting a lot of “it’s the ‘Dancing with the Moonlight’ band,” but I think the album we’ve made is strong enough to stand on its own, and…we’re reconnecting with the old fans, but hopefully we’re turning around a few who weren’t fans before.
As I said, I’ve obviously heard “Never Stop Wondering,” but can you talk a bit about some of the other songs on Only Human?
Yeah, there’s a song on the record called “Sound of Your Soul,” which was written at the start of last year – all these songs were written within six months – and that was the real turning point. It’s much more indie. It’s harking back much more to the original band, what we were when we started out. It’s a much darker kind of sound, much more melody driven, as opposed to tambourines and gospel choirs and stuff that people would naturally associate with Toploader. The name of the album’s Only Human, and there’s a song on there called “Only Human” which is…we’ve never written a song like it before. It’s just four chords that go around and around and around and around and around. There’s no real verse or chorus, no real massive structure to it. It’s just like a kind of dark groove, really. It was just nice for us to go and experiment and do something we’d never done before, and no one was expecting super happy clappy gospel Toploader, so we didn’t have to feel like we had to give them that, either. I’d like to think it’s more grown-up. It’s a slightly darker record and has more depth as well.
So how has social media helped the band? I would expect that it’s at least help keep people’s memories of Toploader alive.
Yeah, we had a really sweet thing that happened really early on. I mean, we never had a MySpace page as the band, as we’d already split up by the time MySpace got going…which really makes us sound old! (Laughs) But we had a fan page that someone had made for us, and it had, like, a million views or listens or blah blah blah. And, amazingly, when we got back together, the guy who was running the page for us, he wrote to me and said, “Well, look, as you’re back now, did you want to take over this MySpace page which I’ve basically run in memory of your band?” So we kind of inherited our MySpace page from the guy who had been running it for eight years without us! Which is such a sweet thing to do. I mean, he could’ve really cashed in on it if he’d wanted to. But, yeah, for us, it’s been great. We’ve just done a small tour in the UK, and you just get instant feedback right away. You can talk to the fans, they can tell you which songs they like. We’re going out there and playing a lot of the new stuff, and they can tell us straightaway if they’re digging one song or another. And it’s meant that the real hardcore fans have been able to sort of stay in touch. I did a few shows on my own in the interim, and the same people would turn up, and I’m, like, “Blimey, how did you even know about this?” (Laughs) So it’s incredible. It’s a really good thing. I mean, obviously, it gives people a voice to be critical sometimes, but that’s the nature of the beast.
I wanted to touch again on the other two albums. With Onka’s Big Moka, obviously we know the big hit, and I know you cited “Achilles Heel” as another important track, but are there any other songs on the album that you’d recommend people check out, songs they might’ve missed if they were only focusing on the singles?
Yeah, I think…I mean, that’s got lots going for it, that album. As I said, as a whole, it’s such a beautifully naïve, positive, summery kind of record. I think we just captured something quite special there, and we were quite lucky to do it. There’s a track on there called “High Flying Bird,” which is a bit of a spun-out, hippie-ish track which I wrote about the book “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” where he’s aspiring to be a better seagull. And I was brought up by the coast, so… (Trails off) Yeah, that’s a really nice track. But I listen back to it now, and it’s…wow, it’s really out there. (Laughs) I think I must’ve been smoking a lot of weed then! I don’t know. But, yeah, that’s a great track, and, as I said, we’re really proud of that album. That one captured a moment in time for us.
And with Magic Hotel, as you said, it might’ve benefited if you’d taken a bit of a break before you leapt back into the studio, but are there any songs that stand out for you? And is there anything on there where, looking back with the benefit of hindsight, you can see where you wanted to go with the band?
The first single off that album was a song called “Time of My Life,” which is really kind of a balls-out rock record. We recorded it with George Drakoulias, and I’m really proud of that. That sounds like a great song. We’ve been playing that live recently, and that’s still got a kind of energy to it. I think we were just caught between two things, and I think that as a band we would’ve loved to have just gone to L.A. and made a country-rock record. But I think the record company was desperately trying to “pop” up this country rock record, and where it kind of met the middle, it wasn’t either. It wasn’t one or the other. If we’d just been left alone to make it, we probably would’ve come back with a Crosby Stills & Nash record. (Laughs) Maybe, anyway. And I would’ve liked that! But there are still some great tracks. There’s another song called “Lady Let Me Shine,” which is really nice and a very sweet track as well.
I know Toploader played with Robbie Williams and Bon Jovi, but who would you say is the strangest artist you guys have been paired with over the years?
Good question. The strangest…? I dunno if you’ve heard of a band called the Wurzels, but they’re kind of crazy, cider-drinking Somerset guys who sing about ladies bosoms and things like that. We went on a festival after them once, and that was kind of a weird pairing. But, I mean, even Bon Jovi and Robbie Williams, they were kind of super stadium animals, really, and I think at the time we were, like, “What are we doing here? This feels a bit strange.” But it’s amazing how quickly you start picking up Jovi-isms. (Laughs) I remember we did a tour after we’d been on tour with Bon Jovi, and very quickly you’re bounding about the stage as if you’re playing in front of 90,000 people, and yet there’s only 2,000 there.
Sometimes you guys are lumped into Britpop, sometimes you’re not. Do you perceive yourselves as Britpop?
Not really. I think we came after Britpop, really. Since we’ve been doing this again, people have also been saying, “Ah, you’re a ‘90s band,” but we’re not really that, either. (Writer’s note: He’s right: their debut came out in November 1999.) I think we were part of something a bit refreshing after Britpop, really. It wasn’t particularly guitar, it had a different measure, there was other instrumentation. So I don’t think we necessarily see ourselves as Britpop, really, even though it was a great era of music.
What’s your most memorable experience from doing the TV rounds, the chat-show circuit and whatnot?
We did a show called “TFI Friday,” which is Chris Evans’ show, and it was our first TV appearance, it’s live TV, and it went out to, like, eight million people or something like that. That was incredible. And you watch it back now, and we look like rabbits in the headlights. (Laughs) But the energy and the nerves actually made the performance something quite magically, really, just because we were so nervous and we didn’t really know what to do, whether to look at the camera or not. I mean, on top of that, we also played at the Queen’s Jubilee, which is at Buckingham Palace. On the actual grounds of Buckingham Palace, which is bizarre. They’ll tell you not to walk on the grounds ‘cause there’s snipers in the trees, and there’s this and that, and…yeah, that was pretty weird. That was televised to probably a hundred or two hundred million people. So, obviously, we did “Dancing in the Moonlight” on that! So, yeah, that was kind of weird. When you watch the footage back, you see the Queen saying “hello” to George Michael and everybody else, and then she walks past us and gives us a look up and down and then just walks straight on. (Laughs) I don’t know why, but there you go.
Might’ve been the hair.
Yeah, maybe! We were the scruffy ones there, that’s for sure.
Who’s the most unlikely or surprising person you’ve found that is a fan of your music?
Early on, I think it was Paul Weller. I don’t think we were surprised that we liked us, but he was certainly the coolest person who liked us early on. I mean, he started coming to gigs really early on, before we even had a record deal, and had us supporting him on tour. And none of the songs we were playing then ended up on our first album. I think, if I’m to be honest, they weren’t very good! (Laughs) But he obviously saw something in us, be it the energy or just the naiveté or whatever. But he’s certainly the coolest person who took a punt on us early on.
What was your reaction when you saw that they were releasing The Best of Toploader?
Weird. (Laughs) Really odd. ‘Cause they didn’t ask us! Weirdly enough, we’d decided that we might go out and do some shows maybe about a week before. We’d met up ‘cause Dan, the guitar player, was getting married, and the band all met up at his stag do, and that was literally the first time that we’d all been in a room together for seven or eight years. A couple of guys hadn’t even spoken! So that was kind of weird. We sort of said, “Maybe we’ll do some festivals.” And then a week later, I was on iTunes, and I was, like, “Shit, they’ve released a best-of!” (Laughs) Which is kind of ironic. It’s not a bad album, you know, but, still, I don’t think it really warrants The Best of Toploader when we’ve only ever had two albums!
Does it ever feel like an albatross that you guys are most remembered for a cover song?
I think lots of bands have the albatross where there’s obviously one song that kind of defines them, and it’s their biggest hit. For us, it’s always been a little bit more of an albatross because it’s the one song we didn’t write. As I said earlier, I’m proud of the version we did, but it was just such a big hit. I mean, it’s still played to death over here. It’s the sound of the supermarket. (Laughs) Over in the U.S., it’s the malls, but here you go to a shopping center, and that’s what you hear. Weirdly enough, when we started rehearsing again, we’d start playing the opening bars of that song, and…that’s just what it sounds like. Even when you’re at rehearsal, it sounds like you’re in a shopping center! So, you know, it’s a weird one. It got a lot of people to the gigs, and it’s still a lot of people’s favorite, but it’s a marmite song. It’s one of those songs where people either love it or hate it. And if you love it, great, but if you hate it…? I think as a band, we’re kind of in the middle, depending on the night. (Laughs)
Speaking of the U.S., what are your thoughts on breaking it over here? I mean, I’ve talked to other UK bands, and, for instance, I remember that Neil Codling of Suede said that it was hard to commit to the amount of touring time it takes to break a British band in the States when you know that you’ve already got all of these built-in gigs at home.
Well, you know, I don’t necessarily agree with that. I mean, I think it’d be really exciting. It was something that…we always thought that our music would translate at least slightly in America, maybe the earlier stuff, but it didn’t. Massively. (Laughs) But ironically, this is actually much more British-sounding, and we’ll probably go down better with this. But I think it’s something we’d be prepared to try. We’re finding over here, anyway, that it’s all about turning people around and reconnecting and recommunicating, so to be honest, it doesn’t really matter where it is. I think it would be amazing to crack America, but, then, of course it would. It’s definitely something that I would be massively proud of. I mean, after living there for two years, having an amazing time there, and traveling around a lot myself, it wouldn’t be that weird. It’d just be a matter of playing a gig every night…for two years. (Laughs)
So are all four of you guys doing Toploader full-time for the moment, then?
Yeah, we are.
How long are you willing to give it?
Well, you know what? It’s so much nicer this time out, and I think we’re really enjoying it and we’re really appreciating it. You can’t forget what you’re doing it for, and toward the end of the last time, I think we forgot. Without sounding crass, you’re doing it to play music, to write music, to get a kick out of it, and to get the crowd into it. As far as how long, I don’t think there’s any time limit. I don’t think any of us has said, “If this doesn’t work by this point…” I think time will tell, obviously, but I think we’re super proud of the album we’ve made, and at the moment we’re just appreciating the fact that we’re playing to people, that people are starting to know us again, and that they’re starting to think that there’s a bit more to Toploader than “Dancing in the Moonlight.”
So do you have any specific expectations for Only Human, or are you just going to put it out there, hope for the best, and see where it goes?
Well, you know, we’re going to work as hard as we can work to make it work. We haven’t said, “If it doesn’t sell 10 million, then I’m not going to get out of bed again.” (Laughs) But, you know, to kickstart our career again, to be able to carry on making records, would be pretty much all I would ask for, to be honest. And from there, we’ll see what direction we’ll go!