[29 November 2009]
The debut album of Los Angeles afro-pop collective Fool’s Gold erupts with an exotic mix of African rhythms, percolating rock melodies and purring synths. The urge to dance grabs you instantly, shortly before the fantastic fusion of music and lyrics (sung mostly in Hebrew) sends you on an ancient journey that’s majestic, yet intimate, as the songs unfold with a spiritual subtext of adoration and celebration.
Sitting backstage with the band’s two frontmen—vocalist/bassist Luke Top and guitarist Lewis Pesacov—it’s obvious why the album sounds so warm and genuine. As we start to talk about the band’s origins, I instantly get the feeling that Fool’s Gold eclectic hybrid of joyous world rhythms is simply the result of a strong friendship that’s developed over time.
Many of the Fool’s Gold’s songs soar on the strength of Top’s bass work, but it’s his other strength—his unique vocal style—that recalls the soothing and emotive croon of an ancient Hebrew cantor. Top was born in Israel and moved with his parents (his Iraq-born mother and his Russian father) to Los Angeles when he was three, so he embraces his heritage and naturally melds the English and Hebrew languages to express deep feelings that speak directly to the soul, with or without help from the liner note translations.
But his mostly Hebrew lyrical approach concerned Top at first, even though it was giving him a new psychological perspective to songwriting. “Singing in these two languages really altered my psyche and changed me as a person,” Top says. “At first I was worried about singing all the lyrics in Hebrew. I was thinking that it would color our sound in a way that would make it undesirable. But people aren’t necessarily noticing it as Hebrew. I think that’s because when I listen to music where I don’t understand the language, the voice and timbre is usually enough for me to understand the song.”
When asked why he chose to sing the lyrics mostly in Hebrew, Top explains that his decision was a significant because it drove the creative process for the first two songs written for the album “Nadine” and “Surprise Hotel.” “As the lyrics became more complex, the music developed too,” Top notes, “so singing in Hebrew allowed me to sing simply even though I was singing about deep and emotionally complex topics. My mix of language helped us develop the album as we went along.”
Considering Top’s family history, playing music is nothing new. “My mom is a pianist and artist abstract artist.” Top says. “I’ve also been told that have an Uncle Eno Topper who was a famous opera singer. I heard different stories about different family members, too. But for the most part I found music on my own. The bass fits my personality perfectly because I’ve always loved the natural feel and groove of bass and rhythm. I’m not formally trained in music so that’s why I loved playing with Lewis. We balance each other out because we use stretch each other by relying our strengths and challenging each other.”
As Top points out, lead guitarist Lewis Pesacov is a classically trained musician with a degree in composition. Taking his formal training in composition to the next level, Pesacov uses it to evolve Fool’s Gold songwriting into an exploration that starts with improvisation and works towards sculpting each song, incorporating other styles of Western rock and soul with a myriad of world music influences ranging from Congolese to Ethiopian to Eritrean to Malian.
Putting their passions together, the duo sets out to redefine the African pop and folk music that’s inspired them since they first began listening to and playing music.
In our tandem conversation, the duo explains that preceding their debut album, Fool’s Gold is also a story of two musicians coming full circle in their musical journey. In high school, Pesacov and Top had a friendly rivalry as each other ran with different crews and played in competing bands. And it wasn’t until they met in San Francisco in college a few years ago that they finally connected and began talking about playing together. “We’ve both always loved world pop music and gone through different bands from world music to Western rock,” Pesacov says. “And we’re excited because this is the first time we’ve been able to come together on album.”
Since that meeting in college, gradually and organically, the two began inviting members from some of other their music projects (such as Foreign Born in which Pesacov also plays guitar) to contribute to Fool’s Gold live shows and their first album. Song by song, and with each jam session, the band started to take form.
Top and Pesacov relied each other’s musical backgrounds and strengths to solidify how they wanted to celebrate write the album. “I studied and lived in Germany for awhile,” says Pesacov, who played and studied under American avant-garde expatriate composers Mark Randall and Frank Cox . “So when I met Luke and began working on songs it was good to get back to playing music instead of just writing it. It was very different and joyous.”
Since we were moments away from their live show in Chicago’s Bottom Lounge, I wondered how they approach transforming and unfolding the tracks in front of an audience. “We stretch out the songs more live,” Pesacov says. “Sometimes we’ll play four songs in 45 minutes. At times we even feel like we don’t come close to pushing the limits. When it comes to playing live, we’re very inspired by the intense psychological framework of Fela Cuti’s live performances. He would play songs with the intention of celebrating for hours all night long. So when we play live we’re aiming for that mood, too. Our sincere love of his music, and how he performs it, propels us so when we’re in front of a crowd it always feels very experimental, social and community-based.”
Their debut album was recorded live over a two day period with Top and Pesacov collaborating on the songwriting over a three-year span. Front to back, the songs are nothing short of beautiful. Some are extended rhythm jams and afro-pop anthems, some find their place as communal worship or sparks for community uprising, while others are just a gentle whisper between lovers. From the warm and buoyant lead track “Surprise Hotel” to the whispering crickets of percolating send off “Momentary Shelter,” nothing is lost in translation as Top evocatively croons and swoons. A helix of Top’s bass and Pesacov’s jovial guitar twists around “Ha Dvash” (Hebrew for honey), an eternal sentiment of love and longing, and a song that simmers as sweetly as its title suggests.
Now it was time to woo a live audience as Fool’s Gold took to the Bottom Lounge stage. As the tribe of several players gathered, I remembered what Top and Pesacov said about how their dealing with the reality of band’s touring plans knowing that can’t all travel together. “We know that there will be a shifting of players because it’s going to be hard to tour with twelve people,” Pesacov says. “But we’ll have a core group that will mix with other players in different cities.”
“It’s a miracle to bring them all together to make the album,” Top adds. “We’ve always kept a low pressure vibe in the band’s vibe and by doing that, [it has] made playing together a lot of fun. And we’re counting on that and our friendship to carry us forward.”
Putting their righteous mark on Chicago’s weeklong World Music Festival, Fool’s Gold filled the Bottom Lounge with their percussive and percolating rhythms, wrapping their set with the pulsing “Night Dancing” and the final soaring chorus of “The World Is All There Is.” It was fitting final celebration that surged through the crowd, moving and lifting our bodies to an eternal place.