Fools for Pop
LA’s Fool’s Gold plays Afro-soul and pop in Hebrew
by Adam Perry for the East Bay Express, 5/26/10
A band has all the years leading up to its debut album to write and record it, and just a year or two to finish the follow-up, the old adage goes. As for Fool’s Gold — a heat-seeking Afro-soul collective based in Los Angeles — its impressive eponymous debut, released last fall on IAMSOUND Records, took just two days to record but was the product of vocalist/bassist Luke Top and lead guitarist Lewis Pesacov’s culturally deep and musically diverse backgrounds.
Top left Israel for America at age three and has since been obsessed with African pop music, although virtually all of his singing with Fool’s Gold is in Hebrew. Pesacov, also of noted LA folk-rockers Foreign Born, holds a degree in classical music theory and composition and relates with Top’s breadth of fondness for jubilant African and Western sounds. With the help of a well-schooled (and immense) backing band that features former members of The Fall and We Are Scientists, Top and Pesacov have created a sonic extravaganza somewhere between Fela Kuti and Santana, with fresh gusts of mellower ocean sounds à la Orchestra Baobab cooling the frenzy of Top’s elated vocals.
Amid all the surprising ethnic angles, however, Fool’s Gold’s unique music has been as affected by stereotypical Western cheese as you’d expect a group of American-raised lads (and one lassie) to have been. “I’ve certainly watched a ton of Adam and the Ants and Smiths videos in my day,” Top said. “[But] I don’t think we’re consciously aware of that kind of thing. The whole process of the band has been so natural and unforced. We’re at a place where our influences just find a way to reveal themselves on their own terms. I think that our music is somewhat universal, and miraculously we’ve been supported by people from many different places and backgrounds.”
Top told the Village Voice recently that Fool’s Gold originally wanted to embody what he calls “international pop music;” surprisingly, he says that the idea had nothing to do with Paul Simon. “I have seen The Graduate a ton of times, [but] Paul Simon has had very little direct influence on me, as far as I am consciously aware of,” Top noted. Regardless, using confident and clean lead guitar, dynamic horn and percussion sections and (perhaps most important) Top’s elated Kirtan-esque singing, Fool’s Gold tracks like “Ha Dvash” and “Yam Lo Moshesch” fit nicely between lines previously drawn by the aforementioned Orchestra Baobab and Simon’s Graceland — whether intentionally or not.
The fact that the group’s lyrics are almost all sung in Hebrew somehow adds a pulse of heartfelt significance, and Top is convinced that little is lost in translation. “This is, at the end of the day, music to feel and to dance to,” he explained. “Generally, people will connect to our music viscerally first and then might dig into the cultural questions later. I feel very fortunate for that. It is a really beautiful thing when people who might not speak [Hebrew] are singing along. To me, it’s the ultimate form of trust and acceptance.”
Fool’s Gold is a dance party on disc and, as per the euphoric live shows the band is becoming notorious for, Top claims the group’s creative outlook on performing is pretty organic, adding that it’s been enriched by everything from MTV to the NBA. “We hope to be selfless and truthful to ourselves while we perform,” he said. “We try to shed our inhibitions and fully submit to the music in the reality of the moment. I think sometimes the audience is able to tap into that energy and push themselves a little bit, too.”
Top couldn’t think of a modern musical artist whose performances informed what Fool’s Gold does live, but again mentioned the Smiths and Adam Ant, plus the great soukous musician Kanda Bongo Man and “Carmelo Anthony dancing through the air in crunch time.” “There is a special kind of magic that happens between the band and audience [at Fool’s Gold shows], and it is utterly addicting,” Top explained. “The trance-inducing rhythms definitely help propel us all to that shared ecstatic destination.”
Fool’s Gold has been touring steadily since 2007, traversing the United States last year with fellow revelatory Los Angeles raga-meisters Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, but the band hasn’t experienced any tangible internal tension thus far. “I’m kind of amazed at how well we all got along on the last tour,” Top said. “I think we’re the chattiest band in the business. And the hungriest. Our French booking agent Romain tells us that we ‘talk slowly about nothing.’ That may or may not be true. I feel fortunate to be in a band full of people I actually love. It helps. The touring has been shocking and inspiring. I think we’re addicted to it and it’s definitely helping us evolve into better musicians and an overall tighter band. ‘Next level’ is a phrase being thrown around.”
That “next level” just might include some element of children’s music, or at least embracing the fact that children seem to adore Fool’s Gold. Top wasn’t at all surprised when I told him my five-month-old daughter has been soothed by his group’s tropical-cum-Middle Eastern music like almost nothing else, literally since she was born.
“I think that since we are so immature as people, infants can pick up on it in the music and relate,” Top said. “Or maybe it’s the repetition, like a mother’s beating heart. I will say, though: Kids do appear at our shows. I saw a few families on the last tour. Bop Magazine, I hope you are listening. I’m waiting for your call.”
One of the most interesting things about Fool’s Gold’s powerful appeal is precisely the giddy immaturity that Top mentions; only, it doesn’t truly reveal itself until one discovers the English translations of Top’s lyrics. Some rock acts — Radiohead is an example — powerfully affect listeners on a serious emotional plane even if their lyrics are sometimes impossible to understand. Fool’s Gold, on a similar level, regularly penetrates its English-speaking audience’s core with passionate singing over entrancing beats; often the subsequent emotions experienced by listeners are gut-felt and tangible, even if, in the case of upbeat tracks such as “Surprise Hotel,” some listeners might not be as fond of Fool’s Gold if they heard Top singing the English translations first — let alone stumble upon primal emotions.
“You built a surprise hotel/why?” reads the English version, “Now I’m floating in the pool/and waiting for the bellboy/I’m trapped in air conditioning/Just because!”
It’s a far cry from the beauty of what’s heard (and felt) when Top is crooning in Hebrew. Still, Top says, sung in their language or not, Fool’s Gold’s music is too much for the traditionalist side of his family in Israel. “I have one super orthodox uncle [who] lives in Jerusalem with his family. He used to play me The Police and Genesis when I was a kid, before he switched over to a highly conservative life. I’d imagine he’d say some of my lyrics were blasphemous. I could picture him sneaking away to the beach and listening to our album on headphones, though. Once a rocker, always a rocker.”
Top isn’t offended when fans who don’t know the English translations sing along at shows; nor was he irked when I told him we sing “Ha Dvash” (“The Honey,” in English) to our daughter as “Hot Fudge.”
“Ha! Some of my band mates sing ‘Hot Fudge’ during soundcheck, so I’m used to it,” Top laughs. “I’m sure it’s much cuter [with] your daughter … [but] I love it when people sing along at the shows.”