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Toploader

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Sam Bennett
Toploader 2
L-R: Dan Hipgrave, Joseph Washbourn, Rob Green

“It would have been absolutely awful for us,” says Dan Hipgrave, had the current social media existed in the nineties/early noughties. The Toploader guitarist resumes, “We were reckless. We might have made music that at times felt quite accessible, pop-y, whatever – but behind the scenes we were really full on, we got up to some high jinks.” Back then, without camera phones, “you could get away with pretty much anything you wanted.” Twenty years have passed since the release of their debut album, Onka’s Big Moka, and “now the photo is what everyone wants, they want a picture more than they want to say hello.” Someone will snap a selfie with them and walk away sharing it online, “to show everyone they’ve met you, but they haven’t really met you because they didn’t talk to you.”

Today’s artists are perhaps “more business savvy” than Toploader were. “We let the record company deal with the whole business side of things and we just went out, played music and had fun (which is really how it should be). But kids these days run their own PR machine; they understand the internet, how to represent themselves or – more to the point – how not.” It was cool two decades ago, he says, if a musician like Liam Gallagher said the wrong thing – people would think it behaviour of “a proper rock star”. In 2020, nobody wants to annoy anyone, “because if you piss people off it can quickly go wrong on social media.”

The band mainly just do weekend gigs now – a Toploader show is “a Friday night out, not a Tuesday” – but there was a time when they’d only get weeks off in a year, as opposed to months. “It was an absolute full-time job. Every day, relentlessly, all around the world.” They were signed to Sony’s S2 Records in those days, knowing little about the “massive corporate machine” operating in the background. “Now we have a bit more freedom,” he says, “and there’s not so much pressure on us to do certain things. It’s a lot more fun now, if I’m being honest, I feel like I enjoy it a lot more.”

Their third album, Only Human, was their first independent of a major label. Without “lots of people in suits” watching them, they produced (“probably”) his favourite album. “We were left alone to do what we wanted, so a bunch of songs came pretty quickly.” Only Human (recorded at Oxfordshire’s Hook End Manor) has a continuity, he says, a vibe, sounding journey-like when played start to finish. Onka’s Big Moka, on the other hand, “doesn’t really know what it wants to be. As successful as it was, it’s quite confusing – we were jumping around different styles.”

It’s likely they wouldn’t be doing as many shows as they are right now, he says, were it not for one particular track on that first album. The group had success before ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’, when they “were probably respected more within the music industry, and definitely within the music press”. They sometimes talk about what would have happened if they hadn’t recorded it, he says, pointing out that Toploader might have moved forward “in a different and possibly better way. There is nothing worse for a band than a song being bigger than the band, which is arguably what we have – that can hold you back.”

The song granted them an abundance of opportunities too though. “That’s a game changer, right there,” he thought, listening to it at the end of the recording session, though not anticipating quite how much it would change things. “As soon as we released that, snowballs started happening. It wasn’t just 20-somethings or teenagers that liked us anymore. It was mothers, grannies, everybody.” ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ (also the soundtrack of a Sainsbury’s ad) saw them enter “a much bigger market than we’d ever had access to before”. They weren’t selling 400,000 records anymore, but millions, “amazing when you’re a young band, but of course you can’t stop that train once it starts rolling.”

When the band then released ‘Only for a While’ – “a lovely song” – it didn’t get as much radio play as they’d hoped for “because people still played ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ four, five months after we released it. I don’t want to sound like an old bastard, but it’s different now.” Speedy streaming allows Ed Sheeran to have three or four top 20s simultaneously, “but then it didn’t work like that.”

Still, he’s not bitter about having a global hit, one he’s heard on taxi radios in Ecuador. “That song is like mercury: it’s found its way everywhere – it’s still being played 20 years later all over the place. It’s frustrating people think that’s all we ever did, but you know, you just live with that. As we’ve got older we’ve learnt to appreciate and love the doors it’s opened rather than worry too much about the doors it closed. That’s the definitive answer, I think.”

Insofar as new material goes, they’re due in the rehearsal studio soon, not wanting “to be the band that says, ‘we were really big 20 years ago and we’re just going to carry on playing those songs.’” They will keep doing the hits of course, but they’ll continue to write. “We will be producing more music and hopefully it will get on the radio and people will go, ‘I remember that band, they’re still doing music, that’s cool.’”

And perhaps one day, people might even talk to them.

Toploader play Fi.Fest Music Festival 3 July 2021

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