Ten years ago, four teenagers from Newmarket, Ont., released their debut EP. The record clocked in at 18 minutes: eight songs that coursed through your headphones so quickly they could almost give you whiplash. It was clear that Tokyo Police Club had a message it wanted to convey, and the bandmates weren't going to waste any time getting straight to the point or, in this case, the chorus. As singer Dave Monks shouts on the record's opening moments, "This is an emergency!"
There was a fervour in these songs, an intensity that could be felt with every slicing guitar riff, every jittery, caffeinated handclap and every bass line that sprinted out of the gates. It was this energy that first caught the attention of Toronto label Paper Bag Records. In the band's original bio, it is said that the band's demo for its first single, "Nature of the Experiment," was such an earworm that it became a staple on the label's daily playlist. Soon after that, the label would put out A Lesson in Crime.
Below is an interview with the bandmates discussing their early days in the studio, what they've learned since releasing A Lesson in Crime and how they've grown as songwriters in the past decade. The band has taken over CBC Music for the day as guest editors, for a full list of their posts go to CBCMusic.ca.
Have any of you revisited the songs on A Lesson in Crime recently?
Graham Wright: The reason I listen to our old records is if I have to remember how the songs go and I will never forget how the songs on A Lesson in Crime go. It’ll be the last thing I know. When my brain turns into Swiss cheese from staring at iPhone screens for too long when I’m old, all I’ll have left is my fingers twitching the keyboard part of “Nature of the Experiment.”
Dave Monks: I never forget those songs and they never get boring to play. Except “If it Works,” that one’s weird.
Wright: I think “If it Works” is a prime example of like, it stayed in that moment. On the record it’s electric, I do love that song.
Josh Hook: We played that song live a few years ago and I remember it just felt like we were never as on it as we were that first time that it was recorded.
So what is it that you still love about those songs, 10 years later?
Monks: I think everything just played to our strengths so easily. We were so, I don’t know, naive or confident or whatever but there’s no breakdown chorus at a weird tempo or a solo thing that got shoehorned in. I love all that stuff and I think we’ve grown through that stuff, but this one is just always in our comfort zone.
Wright: There’s that little adage that you have your whole life to make your first record but I think what’s great about A Lesson in Crime is that we spent the least amount of time and man hours of thought on it. It was the most naturally sprung from whatever is deep, deep down. It’s easy to go back to those songs because they’re still in there somewhere.
The record only took three days to record, so what were those days like?
Monks: We had never been in a recording studio before. We all had day jobs so we took the Viva bus down. We borrowed $600 each from our parents to make the record. Although we had a record label which made that very strange….
Wright: Turns out, not conventional!
Monks: Then we went into the studio and the guy was like, “Hey, I’m Jon Drew, I will be your stoic guide through this short experience.” We had never played to a metronome so we didn’t play to a metronome. We were so caffeinated. I told the guys to all take sleeping pills the night before so that we could definitely be rested. Turns out, nobody slept. We were like, super wired.
Wright: And we took the bus back and forth in the frigid depths of the winter.
Monks: Yeah, and the three days of recording just flew by. On the fourth day we were mixing 'til four in the morning and I was supposed to work at the Gap at 6:30 a.m.
Greg Alsop: We took the bus home with all our equipment and the subway wasn’t running.
Monks: Oh yeah, so we waited for the subway to open back up.
How was it going to work that morning?
Wright: I know my experience was that I woke up and worked an eight-hour shift at Chapters during which I was behaving erratically. Now I can function without sleep but I could not in those days. Then I got home and I called Dave and was like, “That was rough,” and he said, “I don’t know, I just slept and I didn’t go into work.”
Monks: I guess my boss had called and said, “Uh, Dave was supposed to be at work three hours ago,” and my dad said, “Oh no, there’s no way he’s coming in.” They were just like, “Oh, OK.”
Alsop: I like that back then you got a get-out-of-work letter from your parents. And they were like, “Oh, you’re an 18-year-old kid so we can’t question your dad telling us you can’t come in.”
2006 was an interesting time for new bands, with the rise of sites like MySpace and the growing prominence of online publications like Pitchfork. How was it for you as a band to navigate through that stuff?
Monks: I think we really used MySpace to reach out to people who were also doing stuff in Toronto who we really liked and that kind of became this network of bands that we were friends with. We would get messages about doing shows together, we’d put them in our top eight — it was kind of like high school in a way, it was pretty cute.
As for press … I mean it’s exciting to see people talking about you. I still like it when I get Twitter notifications but then it sucks too because you get too much information. You think about your music differently and you stop operating in a vacuum the way that we did.
Looking back at your original band bio, it looked like you were particularly marketed as a young band. It referred to you guys as “boys” throughout the write-up and there’s even a line that begins with “The boys are adorable” — how did you feel about that?
Wright: I remember being kind of irked by that but in retrospect we were young as hell! Have you seen pictures from those days?
Monks: I feel like we were totally unprepared for what it was going to be like once the world got mixed up in everything that we did.
What were some important lessons you took away from that time?
Monks: I think we’re relearning this lesson now, but just going with your gut and moving forward without overthinking stuff. Be yourself and don’t worry about it. It’s all that you can do.
So how did you use the foundations of A Lesson in Crime to move forward with your songwriting?
Wright: Like a blind man in a snowstorm. I think the first batch of songs we tried to write after the EP was bananas. We got there, but there’s a lot of vestigial glockenspiel.
Alsop: Dave, you weren’t a prolific songwriter back then.
Monks: Right, that’s true. We’d always just written the songs that were needed. For Elephant Shell we went in with 10 songs and we plucked an old one. For Champ it was like, here’s 11 songs. Those were actually blissful times in a way because if you think about it, you just rolled with it. Then you get into the world of saying no to songs and writing more than you need. It starts out as mind-boggling but now I think it’s in a good spot.
How would you describe the writing process now for you guys?
Wright: The writing process now is different because we don’t have that much time together. We all live in different towns. It’s brisk, so ideas get put out and then it gets whipped into a cake real fast.
Monks: It complicates everything when you leave your hometown and it becomes hard to know who you are in the context of all this new stuff. Then, as people grow older, those questions get answered and you don’t wake up every morning thinking, “Who am I? What am I doing?” You’re kind of like, well it’s probably going to be a rock song, it’s probably going to have guitars in it, there’s probably going to be a chorus … so it becomes easier.
Alsop: Not to say it doesn’t feel exciting, it’s not like we’re just using the same pieces and rearranging them every time. We only have a limited amount of time together to record now so it allows us to just capture our first exciting idea. We’re all just putting something out there that excites us on first play. That idea gets kept now instead of being second-guessed later on and forgotten about.
Wright: You know what we finally got good at? We would talk about things for hours instead of doing it. We don’t do that anymore. We don’t get analysis paralysis.
Tokyo Police Club will be performing at this year's CBC Music Festival in Toronto alongside the New Pornographers, Hey Rosetta!, Tanya Tagaq, Whitehorse, Alvvays, Ria Mae, Maestro, Zaki Ibrahim, the Franklin Electric, Charlotte Cardin, Julian Taylor, Rich Terfry (DJ) and this year's CBC Searchlight winner. Tickets are available now at Ticketmaster.