TOPS Ask Video Age Some Hard-Hitting Questions

On coming of age vs. midlife crisis records, recording retreats, and more.

Ross Farbe and Ray Micarelli are the guitarist and drummer, respectively, for the New Orleans-based rock band Video Age; David Carriere and Jane Penny play guitar and sing lead in the Montreal-based band TOPS. Video Age’s new record, Away From the Castle, is out tomorrow on Winspear, so to celebrate, the four got on a Zoom call to catch up about it.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Ross Farbe: Where are you all right now?

David Carriere: Montreal. Are you in New Orleans? 

Ross: We are.

Jane Penny: Is this your studio?

Ross: This is the studio, yeah. 

Ray Micarelli: Yeah, see? [Ray leans away to reveal one acoustic panel.

Ross: That’s where we record the vocals. [Laughs.]

David: Y’all’s record is great. How do you respond to criticism? 

Ray: Oh, thank you so much. Also, I wanted to say Empty Seats is so, so good. A perfect EP. 

Jane: Thank you.

Ray: That was the best pandemic record, definitely 100%, I would say.

David: We did it pandemic style. We were all in different cities.

Jane: It was possibly our first and last EP. 

Ross: Why is it the first and last EP?

Jane: Making records is more fun. I think that’s sort of where we’re at now — make big bad records.

Ross: I’m with you.

Jane: But it worked. David has a lot of hard hitting questions that he’s asking you about your criticism though.

Ray: [Laughs.] It depends who it’s coming from.

Ross: Yeah, if you guys wanted to give us some criticism…

David: What about one of your dads or something? Are they like, “What are you doing?”

Ray: They kind of don’t really get it. They’re so supportive, though, and that’s why you can’t be really upset.

Jane: Yeah, they’re not engaging with it in a way to have really pointed observations about it.

Ross: One time, one of my dad’s friends was like, “You’re getting good at guitar.” [Laughs.]

Ray: My dad sends it to all the people that he knows, and they all say — a baby boomer type thing is, “Oh, I like this one much better than the other one.”

Jane: Yeah. Or I’ve definitely gotten a lot of, “I can’t believe your band is doing so well!” [Laughs.] There’s a little shadow in there always.

Ray: They were around when the music was invented, the kind of ‘60s thing, so there’s no part of their brain that’s like, “Oh, I may not understand this…”

Jane: That leads to a question, actually, about your guys’ album and your whole approach. Because you obviously are doing the Beatles thing — which is really funny, that satire. But I also feel like I’ve heard a lot of Beatles-esque songwriting that you have, and it seems like you’re trying to really not do something traditional production-wise. You really stretched yourselves in a lot of directions. So including that in such an overt way, what was the thought behind that? 

Ross: As far as the Get Back homage?

Jane: Yeah. Is the Beatles thing something that people already say about you guys? Or were you just like, “This is going to be funny as fuck, let’s do it.”

Ross: Yeah, it was more like we just thought it was fun. 

Ray: We all saw Get Back and we were like, “Oh, my god, it looks so cool, it’d be so great to be there.” We were like, “Let’s use the budget to be there!”

Ross: Well, it also came from the circumstance — we were going to do the same sort of concept, but at a live show, and then we were like, “Oh, but then we need to fake an audience.” And we have a buddy with a giant green screen warehouse, so we were like, “OK, change of plan. What if it’s not a show — it’s a movie and an album recording?” And then we’re like, “Oh, yeah, it’s Get Back.”

David: It’s very good. I love the song. So when is The Last Jester going to be released? 

Ray: [Laughs.] Yeah, I’ll be tied up working on that in the coming months.

Jane: Oh, I don’t know what that is. For me and the folks at home—

Ray: Nick [Corson], our bass player, watched Get Back because we wanted the headers at the beginning. And so he basically just ripped the entire dialogue of that and replaced the Beatles things with our the things that we were doing. I think in Get Back, Ringo is scheduled to film a movie called The Magic Christian, so time is tight, they only have two weeks to record and produce an album.

David: That’s crazy. That feels like an unnecessary restraint, time-wise, to put on a record for something that doesn’t seem that important. 

Jane: [Laughs.] There’s so much pressure from all these ridiculous forces, that are so unnecessary. Even doing it on a sound stage and being filmed like that…

David: You’re talking about this keyboard at the beginning of the video, and it doesn’t fit in the case. It’s like some small talk, but then you also have the biggest keyboard ever show up — is that a real synth or is it a made up synth?

Ross: That’s a made up synth.

David: OK, that’s what I thought. I was like, Is Video Age a piece of gear that has no box? Is that the underlying message of the video? 

Ray: Yeah, it’s about the unrealistic expectations of the music industry and how we don’t fit in those parameters. [Laughs.] Yeah, that synth was made by my housemates out of wood. We never shot it, but there’s keys on it that are just printed on computer paper, so that you know where to put your hands.

What are you guys working on right now? Are you working on something?

Jane: Yeah, we’ve got a big old record. It’s not done, it’s in the works. 

David: Yeah. It’s there, though.

Jane: It’s getting there. We worked all year, and now we had to stop because—

David: We’re going on tour.

Jane: I feel like David and I, our work ethic is such that when we work together, we work so much every day that then you have to stop at a certain point, or else something bad will happen. [Laughs.] 

Ross: We’re the same way.

David: Is the studio at one of y’all’s house?

Ross: Yeah, this is the studio.

Ray: [Pans the camera around the room.] We’ve got the piano and stuff, and then we’ve got the synths.

David: Yes, very studio-like.

Jane: And you guys do a mix of tape and digital? Because I heard tape-y things and digi things.

Ross: Yeah, we like both. 

Jane: Do you usually start with tape?

Ross: I think it’s fun to start making music without the screen, if it’s possible. Do you guys ever do tape?

Jane: Yeah.

Ross: I thought you were a no tape guy?

David: I don’t do it with bands, usually, but I do it with electronic music. 

Ross: Gotcha. 

Jane: Riley [Fleck], our drummer, is more digital-minded for drum recordings. And since we start with drums, that kind of set the tone, at least for this record. I read in your press release that you guys went to a cabin? That was like a songwriting thing, or did you whip this thing up in eight days?

Ross: No, that was like a first half of the record thing. We had a bunch of songs going into it, but we had no idea what an album would look like with those songs on it. We just had a bunch of songs that hadn’t landed yet anywhere. So we went to the cabin, brought the tape machine, set up to record live band style — which we’ve never done with this band — and just started with the songs that we had, and kind of messed around and ended up leaving with about half of the album done. And then we came home and finished the rest here.

David: That seems like it’d be the type of situation where you forget one dongle, and you’re in the woods and you can’t record anything.

Ross: Oh, my god, I know. Well, I do that relatively frequently, where I record people location-style bringing all my stuff, so I’ve kind of got it down to a science.

Jane: Nice. Was “Better Than Ever” a full band one?

Ross: Yeah, that was tracked at the cabin. 

Jane: Yeah, it has that sound of your band. You guys are really tight band live. I also like the one note hook — brave.

Ray: [Laughs.] Have you guys ever done a retreat recording?

Jane: No. The closest — I mean, it wasn’t exactly a retreat, but Riley came up recently for two or three weeks. Riley’s a daddy now, so there’s less time to crank out records and jam every day, so he came and we wrote, and worked on songs that were written, and then we had a couple of days in the studio. 

David: And we did half the record, actually. 

Jane: Yeah, it was cool. It was fun to do it that way. I think there’s always that sense when you have the time constraints that you’re not going to be able to do it, or there’s the concern like, “What if it doesn’t happen?” But actually, creating those types of situations usually has the best result, because then you rise to the occasion and it just happens.

Ray: Totally. Completely agree. Do you guys like having your own record label?

Jane: I mean, it’s a faux label, because we have a digital distribution and stuff. I definitely have friends that will go to the post office once a week and send off the records that they’re selling themselves, which is why I know that we’re fakers to a certain extent. [Laughs.] But I think having a better structure to the way that you get paid is good. Definitely a fan of that.

Ray: But is it more work in any regard?

Jane: I think it’s less work on the other side of things. I mean, I think as a musician it’s always kind of your option to do as much work as you want to or not with every aspect of it. But it’s been good. But it’s also good to have access to resources and smart people… It’s hard to say. It’s just so fucked up the way that musicians don’t make any money at all, and I think it’s always good to look for solutions. But, uh, let me know when you find one.

Ray: Oh, my god.

Jane: [Laughs.]

David: As time goes on, you either choose to release something yourself, or you do it with someone. You would never be able to compare how either went.

Jane: That’s exactly it. It is what it is. There definitely wasn’t like, “Oh, we should have done that, or we wish we could have whatever.” No regrets. 

So we have we have a whole list [of questions] here. What do we have going on?

David: Oh, I’ve got one — “In the Breaks,” I like that song. Have you ever sung in a choir? 

Ross: No. I always wished I did. The choir moment in that song is heavily influenced by our friends, the Shy Boys.

David: Oh, no way. That makes sense. They’re great.

Jane: Did you guys always naturally kind of have similar voices? Because I feel like I can just barely parse them.

Ross: There’s a little bit of analog pitch shifting going on…

Jane: Ooooh.

Ross: [Laughs.] It’s the wonderful formant knob. 

Jane: The formant shift, yes, I know it. So did you guys just get melodyne or what?

Ray: [Laughs.] Yes, actually.

David: Someone taught me a trick recently for the tape machine, if you’re going to be changing the pitch: at the beginning of your song, just before the count, you just put a big old C or something and hold it down for a while so you can tune your whole thing.

Jane: That’s smart.

Ross: That’s really good. I’ve done a lot of weird stuff to make that work.

David: Yeah, that’s the move. 

Jane: There’s lots of really funny references of different things. You’re talking about not wanting to be passé, that kind of thing. Do you think about relevancy? What are your thoughts on relevancy as a band that’s plugging into amps in 2023?

Ray: Yeah, the song [is about how], because you’re writing the tune to be relevant — at the end of the day, you want people to listen to it — and then sometimes you’re like, What am I doing playing this retro music? And you know, I may not be on the most cutting trends, and the people at the top kind of want you to be because they’re trying to market stuff. And then you realize if you just be yourself and do what you believe in, and you work with great people, you can’t go wrong.

Jane: That makes a lot of sense.

David: OK, so this message of being yourself and how that’s important — would you say this album is more of a coming of age album or a midlife crisis album? 

Ray: Oh, wow. There’s little midlife crisis in there, that little, “What are we doing?” And it’s definitely crossing a threshold. 

Ross: I would say coming of age.

Jane: [Laughs.] Yeah, I feel like you’re moving into a new house, that’s more coming of age. Midlife crisis, that’s more like second repossession vibes. I actually got a lot of “Up the Junction” by Squeeze. You know that song? 

Ross: No.

Jane: It’s a nice song about the passing of time. It really reminded me of the first song that’s on your record.

Ray: Yeah, it’s definitely a growing up record.

David: So are you coming to Montreal to play a show or what? 

Ray: We are! This spring.

Jane: We’ll be around. So, what’s the big finale here?

Ray: Well, one day we’re going to do something together, I hope.

David: Yes, we should. 

Jane: I really liked when Ross was on stage during the guitar-monies at our shows, way back when. That was fun.

Ross: Best night of my life. 

Jane: It would be funny to set up both bands in the same configuration — like Duncan [Troast, Video Age’s keys] is in front of Marta [Cikojevic, TOPS’ keys]. Just do something really confusing that involves a really long sound check, and nobody really knows what’s going on, and maybe it goes on for, like, two hours. How do you guys feel about that?

Ross: I’m in.

Ray: Just a big band. Or we play, like, one after another.

Jane: Oh, like just a show?

Ray: [Laughs.] Yeah.

Jane: I mean, if you think that sounds better than what I’m proposing, I guess I would consider it…

Ross: Thank you all so much for doing this. 

Jane: Congratulations on an amazing record.

David: Yeah, I love it. It’s really sick.

Jane: And I hope for the days that our paths shall cross, sooner than later. Spring-summer 2024  — see you there.

Video Age is a rock band from New Orleans. Their latest record, Away From the Castle, is out October 27, 2023 on Winspear.