Toploader is a British indie rock band who found success in the late 90’s with their debut album Onka’s Big Moka, on the feathered nest lay the golden egg, a cover version of a track by King Harvest called “Dancing in the Moonlight”, this catapulted the band into the stratosphere, helping them go on to sell over a million records and kick starting their career.
I heard that the band are playing at The Terrace Bar in the heart of Exeter and I arranged to chat to the guitarist Dan Hipgrave about the early days, his self confessed confusion of social media and what the future had in store for one of the most successful bands of the late 90’s….
First things first, I wanted to establish the meaning behind the name ‘Toploader’, I thought it was a nod to the 1980’s styled video cassette recorder with its top loading cassette drawer but Dan put me straight, “No, the name originated from a technique used to make a ‘silly cigarette’, we spent years having to redirect that question as we never knew how some of the press would take it, you had to be a bit careful back in the day! It’s not the best band name in the world but then again, which ones are? There are plenty of bands out there filling stadiums with crap names! You come up with a name and you have to live with it because it’s your name but I guess it grew on us and is synonymous with who we are the music that we created”.
I asked Dan about the early days (pre record label) and to tell me more about the time when Paul Weller attended a show in London, “Paul came to the Kings Head pub in Fulham back in 1997, we had no deal at the time and a friend of a friend had mentioned good things about us to Paul and he wanted to come down and see us. Paul was obviously a busy man at the time so for him to want to come and see us was pretty special. He came backstage afterwards and said that he really enjoyed the show and to keep on working hard and we’ll get there…. A couple of weeks later, our manager got a call through asking if we’d like to support Paul on a 2 week UK tour! We were very ‘green’ having only played pubs and it was a real shock going from them to arena stages. Paul’s father (John) chatted to us about how young support bands need to follow a certain etiquette when on the road with a major artist and with him and Paul at the wheel, we learnt from the masters themselves”.
I asked about how they felt about having to adhere to these ‘rules’, he replied, “I guess being a bunch of youngsters, there were certain rules that you had to adhere to and we were thrown in at the deep end but we learnt a lot on that tour”.
Accompanying them as the second support artist was none other than OASIS guitarist Noel Gallagher, Dan explained, “It was us, then Noel Gallagher and then Paul Weller, I mean, could it get any better? And this was our FIRST tour”.
Being an unsigned band, this tour really helped them find their feet and witness first hand exactly HOW it should be done! Dan added, “We learnt SO much from standing at the side of the stage and just watching Paul perform, if there could have been a YTS course created at the time in “how to be a rock star”, I can’t think of anyone better to lead it!” Dan explained how they would sit around after the show and analyse every second of Paul’s performance, “We soon realised that he rarely turned his back to the audience, he never looked round to speak to the band, they were such a well oiled machine, so polished, they knew exactly what to do, he seemed to be focusing intently on the audience and that was an important lesson that we picked up on”.
To share the stage with Noel Gallagher was something of a surprise for Dan and the rest of the band, he wasn’t even advertised on the posters, it was as if he just decided to tag along at the last minute but Dan admitted that he was so glad that he did! “Having Noel on the tour just made it that little bit more special for us all and the crowds were loving it, every night!” Dan agreed that this was the perfect introduction in how to play live and it was something that few bands would have got the chance to do under such industry heavyweights of the time. Dan also told me that Noel and Paul were great guys, happy to sit and share a beer at the end of the night and offer feedback to them.
We chatted about how rewarding it is to be a musician, “Having the ability to get up on a stage and do what you do is great, being able to make money from what you do is even better” commented Dan about moving from being a London based pub band to supporting an artist who has himself, made a career from performing in bands and producing ground breaking music for the past 40 years.
Toploader formed in 1997, just after the Britpop fuel tank had run dry, I asked Dan what good he thought had come out of the scene? “I think in the next couple of years there’s going to be a 90’s revival….I personally think it was a special time, probably more so as they were my formative years, I’m quite passionate about the time but I have to say that I think most of the Britpop stuff was shit, it just hasn’t stood the test of time, think about it, you hear a lot of 80’s music on the radio, 60’s and 70’s stuff is always played but you don’t drive along and hear much from the 90’s, even the OASIS material that was good doesn’t get much of an airing these days! What Britpop did do is captured the moment, the mentality of the beer-swilling, guitar driven sing-a-long tracks that frequented discos and bars up and down the land really defined that decade.”
We agreed that it was a decade of excess, Dan added, “Oh yes, there were plenty of wild parties going on and the champagne and drugs were in plentiful supply, this is what is remembered but what people forget is that it really was an artistic time too, the fashion scene was fantastic, the birth of the ‘Supermodel’, Naomi Campbell and co were hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons, we had a young Prime Minister who went on to become not such a nice guy after all, there were many good times.” Dan didn’t think that the 90’s was an exceptional time for music, “There were so many bands, there was a voracious appetite for signing bands, probably the reason why there were so many out there at the time and they all sounded much the same.” I mentioned that it was as if being in a band at the time wasn’t enough unless you were signed to a major label, it was all about getting signed, Dan agreed and added, “they were able to spend good money on bands because they HAD good money to spend! The cost of manufacturing albums was low but the cost of physical CD’s cost a lot more back in the late 90’s (on average £14 - £15) way higher than they do now and that meant that the industry was making a lot more than they are now. Look at the bands these days that sell a million plus records, you could probably count them on one hand, Adele, Coldplay, Ed Sheeran etc, back in the late 90’s you didn’t need to be one of the favourite bands, we sold over a million records! People bought records back then and they lived by the album charts, if you were lucky enough to get in the top ten, people would walk into a record shop or the supermarket and they would just pick up whatever was in the top ten and bought it! These days you go onto Apple Music and there are about 150 charts available and you just don’t know where to start!”
We compared the attitudes of record labels back in the late 90’s and now and Dan commented, “Labels were throwing money at you back then, they were all about moulding a band into something that they wanted you to be, these days, the record label want you to turn up with the finished ‘product’ and they just spend money on marketing the album, it’s as if their appetite for risk has disappeared. I like the idea of the creative genius at a label with the ability to turn an old banger into a finely tuned Ferrari, that was kind of what their job was back then and that freedom has been removed from them these days, it’s as if the old school days of ‘A&R’ have gone, no longer required.”
I suggested that maybe because the techniques that people are able to use these days mean that whilst before, a band would need a studio to record, these days, bands are doing the same with a computer setup in their back bedroom, Dan added, “Absolutely and the fact that recording an album is so much cheaper these days has had a massive bearing on that, it used to be so expensive.”
I asked about how they got signed in the first place and Dan explained, “The MD of Sony S2 had turned up at a ‘shitty little pub’ in gods knows where….he was dressed in a sharp suit with shiny shoes and he saw something in us that night, our catchy hooks made him think that we had the ability to write songs and he also liked the way we looked, he took our material and put out our debut album and it sold a million copies as a result!”
Their debut album Onka’s Big Moka was released in late 1999, entering the top 5 in the UK charts and stayed there for 6 months going triple platinum in the process, I asked Dan what he put the success of it down to, “Timing is really important, we were lucky that Britpop was fading and music was very much in a ‘no mans land’ at the time, the new skinny jean movement (The Strokes et al) hadn’t yet reached British shores and this allowed bands like us, Coldplay and even MUSE who were around during this period to gain an identity. We’re proud of our popularity at the time, the skinny jeans period kicked off and unless you were wearing a pair with a faded Ramones T-Shirt and sounded like The Strokes, you weren’t in the club anymore!”
We chatted about the one track that is synonymous with the name Toploader and I asked how they came to cover ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ in the first place, Dan started by mentioning that the track has now had over 83 million hits on Spotify, he went on to explain, “The producer George Drakoulias (Reef, Primal Scream, Black Crowes) came to London and was going through some tracks that we were going to include on the album, he played “Dancing in the Moonlight” to us and we just took it into the studio and added a nice hook at the start and it went from there. We were thinking more of a white soul record at the time and I guess that’s what it turned out to be in the end. Even when you listen now, it doesn’t sound like it was recorded 20 years ago, it stood the test of time and still to this day pops up every now and then! I like the beat, it’s got a bit of Skiffle to it, it’s timeless and is only 4 chords! A definite sign that less is more!
I recently listened to the Debut album and I was surprised that it still sounds so current, I asked Dan if the band felt the same way at the time, “Yes, I think the reason for that is because we drew from so many different influences when we made the album, I can listen to an album these days and I can tell you who the band was listening to whilst they were recording it but with us and our debut album, every track stands on its own merits. We were all into different bands at the time and there’s not one track that sounds like another on the album. Initially we were quite concerned that the album wasn’t going to sell because of this but how wrong we were! Listen to another band and they seem to have ‘a sound’, take away the lyrics and you can normally tell which band it is because of this and I guess we just managed to avoid sounding the same. Our new album (due soon) is similar to our debut as the tracks are so different from one another.”
I did a little research and found out what ‘Onka’s Big Moka’ actually meant, I’ll let Dan explain, “We all watched this anthropological documentary about a bloke called ‘Onka’ from Papa New Guinea who gave a large gift ‘Big Moka’ and where this guy lived, the tribes would exchange gifts with each other and the more generous the ‘Moka’, the more highly you were thought of and considered within that tribe. It’s the complete opposite to the way that we live our lives in the West where it’s all about what we own and keep for ourselves rather than giving away, we just thought that was a great spin on life in general! I did regret calling it that as when we were in Germany, we’d done an entire day of press and EVERY journalist asked us what it meant so I got used to explaining it very quickly!” I apologised for asking, but Dan explained that he loves talking about it nowadays as it’s such an interesting story and the more people know about it the better! I asked if there were any other working titles for the debut album, Dan said that there weren’t any others in the running and it was always going to be that.
We chatted about the dreaded Second album syndrome that many bands who put out a successful debut album suffer from, Dan explained, “I guess we did suffer from that, though the figures disagree, Magic Hotel went to #3 in the chart and we obviously wanted it to be as popular as the debut album. We went straight into it on the back of the success of the debut and I wished that we had taken a break beforehand, we thought it was a commercially viable record but I guess it was all about the timing again as The Strokes were at their peak, the ‘skinny jean’ movement was really happening and I guess we weren’t really a part of it! What we put out was the antithesis of that movement, it was very polished, more contrived and just coming off a two-month tour with Bon Jovi, we’d been looking at things through their glasses and it just wasn’t the real world. We should have had a break but we’d spent so long touring the debut album, we weren’t really able to. The album still managed to go double platinum and I think if this was our debut release, we would have been looking at a different set of results. In hindsight, I’m not saying that we should have split up, maybe just taken a year off to recharge our batteries and taken a bit more time.”
2002’s Magic Hotel was the last album they would release for 9 years until their 3rd album Only Human came along, I asked Dan if this album was the result of 9 years worth of ideas that had been brewing? Dan commented, “It’s funny you should ask that and it’s a very valid question! From the entire album, there’s only one song that was old, the rest were new, written around the time when we got back together and decided to get a new record out there. We wanted it to be a more guitar based indie album and we didn’t really spend a great deal of time thinking about things commercially which was the total opposite of how we approached Magic Hotel. There were no hits that came from the new album but we did manage to get a couple of radio 2 playlists out of it. We were really proud of the album but it lacked the major hits and you’ve GOT to have a couple of hits on it to make it work, you’ve got to play the game!”
I asked about their fourth album which they’ve just finished and I enquired when it would be released, Dan explained that whilst they don’t have a definite date fo release, there would be two singles due this summer followed by the album, Dan was excited adding, “It’s all happening, it’s a good solid album and we KNOW that people are going to love it!”
They used a ‘Pledge’ campaign to raise funds for the recording of the new album, I asked how they felt when they reached their target, “The pledge model was something we steered away from for a while as it just seemed a little old, almost like we’re begging and I didn’t like that at all but after a while, we came to think that crowd-funding was in fact a normal thing to do and it puts you much more in control and focussed on the product. I guess we’re better musicians as time has gone by, it’s just a shame that we weren’t able to retain the ownership of the earlier albums!”
We chatted for a long time about social media, the benefits, the pitfalls, the sheer volume of platforms out there, all doing something slightly different from the rest. Dan admitted to not really having an understanding of social media at all, “There’s just too many out there, followers, Tweets, Snapchat, YouTube etc, it’s all beyond me….Twitter is a bit like texting, 140 characters to get your message across, seems a little silly”.
I asked him if he’s a user of Facebook be it for personal or band use, “It’s as if everyone has something to say these days and all these social media platforms allow them to say it but 99% of the time, it’s not important! It makes me smile when you see a post about someone or their family and it’s all rosy, pictures of them having the BEST time ever and it really makes you think that you should be doing more of it but then again, they never post about the bad things that happen, the rows, cleaning up the dog poo from the carpet after an accident so I guess there is a balance! Facebook just consumes so much of your time and who has the time to sit and read the posts? For bands it’s great, it allows you to get the information out there, news of upcoming shows and it allows fans to interact with you as well which is something that was never possible before it came about so it has its positives too!”
Back in the early days, Toploader wouldn’t have had the benefit of Facebook or to a degree, the internet to use to sell themselves, Dan recalls, “The only time I used to go on the internet was when I went into an internet café to send an email, there just wasn’t really the demand back then for a home computer as much as there is these days and I rarely used to use it until things became a lot more established.”
On the subject of the internet, Dan suggests that we are becoming a lot more intelligent but the downside being that there are more mental health issues because of it, “The brain is constantly feeding on new information and it needs to rest but these days, we don’t really allow that to happen, if you want to know something, you just access Google and there’s the answer, we are creating so much knowledge, it’s amazing.”
I was reading the Toploader discography on their website and I saw ‘Cassette’ mentioned as an available format, I asked Dan if they would ever come back into fashion? I went on to say that there is now an annual event called ‘Cassette Store Day’ which releases new material solely on the one format, Dan commented “Cassettes were rubbish back in the day and no doubt they’re still awful now, if any kids are out there that want to know what they’re like, don’t bother, they sound crap, they get stuck in your cassette player, tape bloody everywhere! They’re noisy, messy and a complete waste of time. Vinyl on the other hand…. My daughter has her own record player, it’s amazing holding a record, the artwork is immense and being able to see it is even better! You can’t see it on a screen of a phone, the image is about half the size of a postage stamp, why would bands bother spending time and money on it in the first place?"
Dan explained that he used to trawl his father’s record collection when he was a lad and recalls stumbling upon a copy of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, “It was incredible, there was a poster inside with pyramids on it and it was at that point that I thought it wasn’t just about the music, it was about creating art as well. I love vinyl and I so want to get something sorted for the new album but unsure if anyone would buy it!"
I added that I find the whole putting a record on, almost Ritualistic, dusting off the disc, lowering the needle, sitting down, reading the liner notes, looking at the artwork…. Dan, added, “Look at Apple Music, I can listen to any album I want which is never a bad thing, the more music people can access the better! Back in the 90’s you’d buy a record for £15 and you’d listen to it over and over due to the fact that you’d just spent all your money on it and from being something that I initially didn’t like it would grow on me so much, it will have turned into my favourite album of all time! I think that it’s such a throwaway industry these days, if I don’t like it on the first listen on Apple Music, I won’t listen to it again which is a bit of a shame as I am probably missing some real gems but you know, there just isn’t enough time in the day!”
I asked if they’d be touring the new album, “We will but for the time being we’re focussing on festival, it’s looking like we’re going to have a pretty solid year ranging from late April to Sept, I think at the moment we’ve got 15-20 booked in.” I asked if there’d be any Major festivals this year, “No, we tend to do better at smaller ones where we can be the headline act rather than playing the larger ones and being further down the bill. We’ve got ones booked in Europe and the UK which cater for between 2 and 5 thousand people, his gives a much better atmosphere too! Keep an eye on the website as they’ll all be on there."
I mentioned that I felt Glastonbury Festival has now become too large, opting to watch it on the TV instead, Dan agreed and said that he much prefers smaller festivals which are more family friendly, creating some lovely memories that he can share on Facebook and show everyone just how perfect his life is!
He said that they’d definitely try to get a tour in towards the end of the year, nothing too big but they really do want to do something, “It’d be nice to do something with the original line-up, Kula Shaker got back together to perform their debut album ‘K’ and that went very well, in 2019, it’ll be the 20th anniversary of our debut which is a great album to play live, we still have a couple of years to finalise the plans for that!”
I asked about any interesting stories that they could tell me from their days of touring, Dan added, “We were in Germany supporting Bon Jovi, after the show, we were invited to dinner at the hotel the guys were staying in. owing to the situation, we needed to get a police escort from the venue to the hotel otherwise it would take about 2 hours to get there via a taxi. We got together and sat in the minivan ready to join the convoy, there were 4 cars waiting out the back of the venue ready to whisk the band away to the hotel and we were waiting patiently until the police turned up. They didn’t believe that we were with the band and wouldn’t let us stay in the van! We then spent over 2 hours battling through the crowds who had recently exited the venue and arrived at the hotel just as they’d finished dinner! That was our one and only chance to have dinner with Jon and the rest of the band so we were pretty gutted!"
Toploader play The Terrace Bar in Exeter on April 5th, I asked if they were planning on playing any new material at the show or whether it would solely be a ‘Greatest Hits’ set, “We’ll be playing ALL the hits, all the singles and probably showcasing 3-4 of the new tracks too, maybe a couple from Only Human that people may not be so familiar with, obviously we want to please the fans at the same time! We’re off to Dubai the next day for a show so things are looking up, we’re in for a busy year!
Tickets for the Exeter show are available from HERE whilst stocks last!
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Interview by Steve Muscutt