Tokyo Police Club Look Back on 'Champ': "It Was Our Big Swing"
"The plan was for us to take our rightful place among the titans of indie rock — and, young fools that we were, we never considered that it might not be so easy," says keyboardist Graham Wright
Published Feb 22, 2021With Champ, Tokyo Police Club were calling their shot.
After a hotly buzzed EP in 2006's A Lesson in Crime and a momentum-carrying debut album in 2008's Elephant Shell, the Ontario band were poised to conquer the mainstream. They had producer Rob Schnapf on board, whose credits included Beck and Foo Fighters, and they had a high-powered American label in Mom + Pop Music. And, most importantly, they had a streamlined sound that highlighted sparking pop-rock hooks over the fidgety post-punk adrenaline of old.
And so they called it Champ and put confetti on the album cover, as if to throw themselves a victory party for success they hadn't actually achieved yet.
Things didn't go quite like they planned. It's not as if Champ flopped — the 2010 album still stands as their best-ever chart performance in the U.S. But it also didn't turn them into household names, and the initial critical response was fairly mixed; it holds a respectable but unremarkable 71 on reviews aggregator Metacitic, and Exclaim!'s own review of the album compared it unfavourably with the prior Elephant Shell.
But hindsight casts Champ in a new light. Now more than a decade removed from the burden of expectations that weighed on Tokyo Police Club in their early days, listening back to Champ is a giddy sugar rush of holler-along hooks and just the right amount of sentimental sweetness. Opening tracks "Favourite Food" and "Favourite Colour" are steeped in aching nostalgia and world-weary reflections on growing old — a surprisingly affecting look at mortality from four guys still in their early 20s. "Boots of Danger (Wait Up)" and "Not Sick" are summer anthems with instantly singable choruses, while "Bambi" and "Big Difference" streamline the herky-jerky tendencies of the band's early releases into more accessible pop structures.
Singer-bassist Dave Monks, keyboardist Graham Wright, guitarist Josh Hook and drummer Greg Alsop missed celebrating Champ's 10th anniversary due to the pandemic, but they're making up for it on March 5 by reissuing the album along with unreleased tracks, demos and remixes. As the album finally gets its much-deserved reappraisal, Exclaim! caught up with Wright to discuss shooting for the moon with Champ and becoming a "real band" in the process.
What do you remember about making Champ?
I remember learning. It was the first time we'd really been confronted with how little we knew. We'd been "doing it" as a band for four years at that point, and pretty successfully, but working with [producer] Rob Schnapf quickly made clear just how much we'd been flying by the seat of our pants. At that point, I was by all rights a professional synthesizer guy, yet when I got to the studio I realized that I barely had any idea how subtractive synthesis worked. Luckily, Rob was patient. We'd worked for ages on the song "Big Difference," cobbling together what we thought was a really interesting and clever structure. Rob listened to us play it once and was like, "Uhhhh have you considered making it go verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus" and our jaws all dropped like he'd just split the atom. So it was really a belated lesson in fundamentals.
What does this record mean for you as a band — both at the time it first came out, and now in hindsight?
When it came out, it was our Big Swing — hot new label, A-list producer, shiny radio single (we thought). The plan was for us to take our rightful place among the titans of indie rock — and, young fools that we were, we never considered that it might not be so easy. So I think at the time we were all too busy waiting for our kudos to realize what was really happening, which was that we'd become a real band — we knew what we wanted to say and we knew how to say it in a way that people knew how to hear. Which sounds simple, but until that point we'd really just been taking frantic stabs in the dark, which luckily for us people found amusing. After Champ, we felt like we'd unlocked creative superpowers (which comes with its own set of drawbacks, but that's a tale for the Forcefield 10 Year Anniversary — see you in 2024!).
Listening back to Champ 10 years later, what stands out?
It just sounds good as hell, man. Sonically speaking, it's exactly right. I think we recorded it at exactly the right moment — I can hear us moving from one state of being to another, right there in the songs, which is so exciting. I'm really proud of it!
Is there anything you wish you had done differently on Champ? Conversely, are there any qualities of Champ that you wish you had carried forward to subsequent albums?
You don't like to get too "if I only knew then what I know now" about the process of making things, because if we knew all that stuff then we would have made Champ differently, and I don't want Champ to be different. Sometimes I wish I'd been more present for all the touring, less worried about what "should" have been happening, business-wise, and more tuned into how cool everything that was happening was. But then I open the box of Champ-era memories and I find that it is overflowing with beautiful and hilarious moments, so maybe we actually nailed it?
Everything that we needed to have carried forward from Champ, we did carry forward. Looking backwards obviously invites a million "Wow, your old stuff is so great" comments, and I'm pleased to report that this has only strengthened my conviction that we've been awesome the whole time. To paraphrase Mitch Hedberg: We used to kick ass. We still do, but we used to, too.
Do you feel that Champ got the respect and attention it deserved? Why or why not?
If any Tokyo Police Club release received the respect and attention that I think it deserved, I would look like Homer Simpson when he's the biggest man in the world and covered in gold — 14 karat gold.
How did Champ shape the future of Tokyo Police Club?
It put us definitively on our own path. Had it been the big smash hit that we all thought it was going to be, then we would have turned into the Black Keys or something, and plugged into that apparatus of success. And if we'd been a little more clear-eyed about the industry landscape or whatever, we might have re-committed to being indie rock cult darlings or some such. Either one of which would probably have been more financially rewarding. But not being rewarded financially is one good way to free yourself of the obligation to finance, which might be the key to longevity? But of course that's how making Champ shaped our future. The album itself did what, so far, all our albums have done — it bought us another few years doing the best job in the world, and so I owe it a debt that can never be repaid.
How will this experience of digging back into Champ influence what Tokyo Police Club does next?
You kind of hope that it doesn't influence anything creatively. We've never been into going back to any wells, and nobody would like it even if we tried. (Nobody really wants you to go back to your old sound anyway, they just want to be young again, and no amount of pale imitations of past glory can accomplish that, so why torture yourself trying.) But of course I do hope the reissue reminds some folks who got off the bandwagon that the bandwagon is still rolling, and there's plenty of room to jump back on!
What are the members of TPC working on now?
Well, Josh and I have Girlfriend Material, and I've got oodles of material for that next album just waiting for the pandemic to be over with so we can get back in a room. I'm going to do another solo thing over the winter, too, and I wrote a book during the first lockdown. That's something I've always wanted to do but never thought I was capable of, so I'm going to try to do that again. And then Dave has another solo album in the hopper, plus I'm sure bandcalledmax will start gigging again as soon as they're able. He's always writing, so there's probably stuff I don't even know about yet, which I love — it's fun for me to just be a fan of his and not have to worry about not fucking up the songs too badly. Greg is doing Delta Underground, plus he's got his studio on the go. He lives out in utopian P.E.I., so I assume most of his time is spent going to bars and restaurants, laughing at us poor schmucks here in plague hell. The bastard.