Interview with Topographies’ Gray Tolhurst

Ideal Form, Available now from Funeral Party

One of the things I noticed on first hearing the group Topographies is their effortless authenticity. There’s no better way to grab my attention than crafting songs that are okay with being themselves. And the guys from Topographies shoot from the hip. All fluid motion. This innate flow appeals heavily to my sensibilities.  After all, in my relatively advanced age I tend to be drawn in more by an unsettling grayness than anything pitch black. 

I could prattle on for days about any of this San Francisco trio’s spattering of EP’s, singles or live sessions. But today the matter at hand is their first full length LP, Ideal Form (Funeral Party Records), and a pleasant little discussion with Tolhurst in which we can hopefully get to better know what drives this group. 

Consistent, minimal, lo-fi and claustrophobic, Ideal Form cuts straight through to its true essence at the opener “Mirror.” With its driving, mid-tempo beat and clearly defined bassline hammering out only what is necessary. It’s a lovely backdrop for the wet tones of the lone guitar riff to blend seamlessly into. When Tolhurst’s voice joins the fray, it seems detached and otherworldly; a haunting, distant quality that convinces me no other approach would compliment the music so distinctly. At this moment, you should realize something serious is taking place. One is spurred on to wonder if the rest of the record will sound this good. Cast off all fears; the answer is yes. It even gets better.  

I find “This Evening Also” to be a very striking tune. Starting off with the same fantastic brand of drum machine/bass guitar combo, the swirling guitar comes in like an electrical conflagration. The effect is exciting and things calm down a bit as Tolhurst gently intones the verse. The whole thing cranks back up again on a dazzling, catchy chorus with some sober synth-work added in. Dreariness is present, but a touch more indifferent. 

These aren’t always lyrics you so much understand as sense.  I personally prefer a vocal melody that acts as an instrument first, enhancing the musical arrangement. In situations like this I usually look up lyrics, which has never put me out. But the words you can make out on this record are lovely. They seem nimble and will likely have a different meaning for each listener. One thing is for sure, Tolhurst does a phenomenal job of weaving emotion into the seeming nonchalance. The balance is precise. 

Gray Tolhurst was kind enough to answer a few questions for us. Enjoy!

What is your earliest musical memory? At what point did you realize this is what you wanted to do?

Earliest musical memory is difficult as I feel like I’ve been surrounded by music as long as I can remember.  I remember my parents had a fancy Bang & Olufsen CD player where you opened it by waving your hand in front of the glass door on the front. My mom would play Fleetwood Mac and we’d “dance”. I still like Fleetwood Mac.

I didn’t start playing music until I was about 13 and then it happened accidentally. A friend brought out a short scale guitar he had been given by his parents who were musicians and I just kind of became obsessed with it. Then about a year later after taking some lessons and such I got my first guitar, a blue Fender Mustang which I still play 15 years on. I played in bands on and off through high school and college and didn’t really take it that seriously. I made a lot of lofi 8 track recordings, that was what I was most interested in in high school. I wanted to be like Robert Pollard or something, just bashing out tapes but not really like being a “musician”. It was only when I moved to San Francisco to study poetry that I became involved seriously in music and that was by accident, I was strumming an acoustic guitar in the collective house I lived in and my room mates who had a psychedelic band heard and asked if I could sub on bass for a Halloween show. After that the response from making music kind of blew the response I had been getting for poetry out of the water and I liked that music was a communal activity. The results were more immediate and people related to it more easily than the kind of poems I was writing. I never like “gave up” music I just mostly made it for myself prior to then.

Where do you draw your inspiration from in terms of lyrics?

Poetry, especially 20th century poetry, the works of Paul Celan, Robert Creeley, George Oppen, Alice Notley etc. The kind of “abstract lyric” sensibility. The poet Louis Zukofsky said of language “Lower limit speech, upper limit music” and I’ve kind of followed that through poetry and lyric writing.  I also jot down phrases I hear in passing or read in books that I like to use in lyrics, just things that have a good feeling in the ear.  I work as a bookseller so I read a lot and across the board; poetry, nonfiction, biographies, philosophy, books about sailing, etc. I steal little snippets from all sorts of texts to use.

How does your approach to songwriting differ now than it did in your earlier projects?

I think Topographies is more collaborative in nature than any project I’ve done and that’s aided in no small part by my bandmates amazing skill and ability. Also since we use programmed drums and synths we can write piecemeal on the computer and I think that makes writing music much more additive and kind of editorial almost. It’s like I’ll make all these fragments and sew them together where before I would kind of do the classic “sit down with an acoustic guitar and bash out a song” thing. I’m very inspired by the studio practices of visual artists and I like to treat our rehearsal space in a similar way, just experimenting with sounds and motifs in novel combinations until it sings.

What have you been listening to?

I’ve been listening to a lot of minimal synth stuff like Oppenheimer Analysis and Modern Art but also just discovered This Heat and some of their offshoot projects like Flaming Tunes. I’m really attracted right now to this lo-fi 80s synth music, people just emerging from punk and post-punk sensibilities trying to make music at home with the most rudimentary of electronic instruments. Also at work, I’ve been listening to this ridiculous 7 hour long mix of Russian guitar music from the 19th century which I find really helps me focus and feel kind of jolly during the day. Also contemporary stuff, really digging Soft Kill’s new album (Dead Kids R.I.P City) and all the stuff Mannequin Records puts out.

Reading?

A critical biography of the poet Paul Celan and Zak George’s dog training book as I just got a brand new puppy and I am in constant need of reassurance that I’m not fucking up.

Under these unprecedented circumstances what are your next steps, assuming you aren’t supporting the record with a tour?

Oh jeez, I have no clue. We just have to continue making music and wait I guess. I like to keep up with everyone’s releases and feel connected but also just sort of dive in to our own minds and see if we can come up with some really different stuff. There’s a lot to explore and to learn and I never really feel bored or at a loss for things to do. I don’t even really know how to work all of the equipment I bought during the early pandemic ! I made an impulse purchase and bought a Soviet-made synth the Formanta Polivoks and I just sit there making grinding noises trying to figure out how to use them in our music. I think this time will be useful for research and songwriting if nothing else. People’s love for music is inextinguishable I think so when we can tour, we’ll tour, until then we’re just going to keep making things.

What do you enjoy doing, apart from music?

Reading, baths, hunting for books and records, going to museums and galleries, cycling, washing dishes, walking around San Francisco looking for cool stuff people put on the curb.

Did you at all anticipate the wonderful reception Ideal Form has gotten? Why or why not?

I don’t know if I really anticipated anything. it’s hard to know what people will think or if what you made is any good at all. After working on a record for over a year, it’s hard to hear it for what it is, it becomes noise in a way. So I didn’t anticipate it, no.  I always hope that people will enjoy what we put out and get something from it that they can use in their own lives, a way to interpret the world and their experience t because that’s what music does for me, it provides a lens for experience.  I’m pleasantly surprised!

Tell us a bit about Topographies transition from an almost decidedly shoegaze outfit to the newer, more dreampop/post-punk sound.

I think the transition owes a lot to having to figure out how to continue when we lost our drummer Lauren.  We were very interested in the kind of mechanized feel of post-punk drums and bass but really that is quite boring to play as a drummer. I think we wanted to do that and retain the dreamy shoegaze guitars and this is what came out, a kind of strange amalgamation of things.

Are there any particular artists or bands that you could cite as inspirational to the current sound of Topographies?

Asylum Party, Soft Kill, The Chameleons,  Belong. 

How can we, the fans, support you? Where are all the records and gear to be found online or otherwise?

You can always support us by buying a record, shirt, or tape of course but also just by listening and sharing your thoughts with us. Making music is such an insular thing sometimes, I love to hear others’ interpretations. Our records and such can be found at topographies.bandcamp.com and on  our label’s website www.thefuneralparty.com.

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