As with a lot of things in Boston, we worked our way around to Topshelf Records through the wrong end of the telescope. We had a general awareness of the label, but it was a long time before we realized it was based right here in our adopted hometown. Then, a couple years ago, we had a message from the head of a favorite UK label saying he'd be in town soon to visit Topshelf, then based in the Back Bay. Last May Topshelf signed (for the US) the very promising UK emo-core combo Crash Of Rhinos, a move that also raised our eyebrows. Topshelf's late 2013 signing of hotly tipped Sheffield, England-based slackercore duo Nai Harvest flat-out surprised us, and made us wonder just who was this local label signing some of our favorite overseas talent? And why -- as a fifteen-year Boston resident, and besides the reason that we might just suck -- didn't we know more about Topshelf? After an hour of Internetting, we got a sense of just how big the label is, how deep its Massachusetts roots reach, and rapidly our curiosity transformed into bewilderment. How could such a successful operation be just under our noses for much of its existence, yet there was no sign of them in the local press, and little indication of them (until recently) even in our fairly healthy blogosphere?
The same can't be said for national and international press, which recently has found a lot to like coming from the Topshelf stable; in October Pantsfork published a primer that perhaps was unfairly tagged around social media as "the emo revival piece." Given the very strong 2013 Topshelf had, which included, among others, notable releases from the aforementioned Crash Of Rhinos and majestic The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die, and a very strong start to 2014 with the release of the brilliant new one from Florida's You Blew It!, the attention from the overground is little surprise. But that the overground was taking notice while there was still relative silence in the local market highlighted even more this weird disconnect we were feeling. What the hell does Topshelf have to do to get props in Boston? We decided to put the question to Kevin Duquette, who, along with partner Seth Decoteau, has operated Topshelf from various perches across the commonwealth since its formation eight or nine years ago. Mr. Duquette very graciously agreed to talk, and was even more gracious in pointing out that his label is far from alone with regards to receiving little play with local press. Let's pick up the conversation there...
Clicky Clicky: Our initial discussions about this piece weighed my contention that Topshelf and Run For Cover are among Boston's two biggest labels, yet they paradoxically get little mention in the local press. At the same time there has been some very good national and international coverage, even recently. Why do you think there's that disconnect? Have you ever had that "I'm STANDING RIGHT HERE!" kind of moment, sitting around the Topshelf office?As of press time, the Into It. Over It. / The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die / A Great Big Pile of Leaves / Dreamtigers show tomorrow night at The Sinclair is SOLD OUT. The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die's highly regarded 2013 collection Whenever, If Ever just went into its third pressing. More signs, we'd say, that Topshelf and its bands are doing great things. Our interview with Kevin doesn't do nearly a good enough job of portraying the amount of hard work it takes to keep the label running; for a more fulsome discussion of that, as well as the label's more remote history, we point you to yesterday's excellent interview published in Made Of Chalk. Nai Harvest's forthcoming EP Hold Open My Head will be released by Topshelf on vinyl and as a digital download March 4. You can pre-order that here and scour the entire Topshelf catalogue for hits right here. For a taste of what the label is cooking in 2014, check out streams below of some forthcoming tunes from Nai Harvest and the recent rockstravaganza from You Blew It!. Who knows how the label will surprise us next?
Kevin Duquette: I am not 100% sure what to make of it. I can be pretty bad at meeting people and networking and that type of thing in person — and rarely talk to strangers at local shows (not that I'm opposed to it). I don't really know anyone involved in local press personally or professionally, and we're definitely not actively soliciting that type of thing, so maybe it's just a combination of all of those things? We're equal parts thrilled about and humbled by the national and international coverage that we've been getting of late, but it'd definitely be cool to see that translate to some local support, too. Maybe they don't know or care about what we're doing? I mean, haha, I sincerely don't know. I don't harbor any ill will over it, though, and I think there's plenty of deserving and talented people in this city also worth mentioning aside from anything our two labels have going on.
CC: Is there something inherent to the community of musicians and fans that surround Topshelf that makes it (much) less visible to the mainstream? Are the bands and fans too young, the scene too DIY? Or is it that maybe your biggest acts are not Boston acts? Can it be as simple as the scene doesn't care about that kind of affirmation, so it doesn't seek it out?
KD: With regard to us and anything we're doing, specifically, I think there's a little bit of most of what you just touched on at play. Probably the biggest being that, aside from a handful of long-since defunct acts, we don't have any bands that we work with locally. I think there's something inherently less visible (to the mainstream) about most "alt" sub-culture type things. Not to claim that we're exclusively at the forefront of — or leading anything by any means — but we're definitely a part of a niche that, although gaining a larger following, is still just a small blip. With a few exceptions, the biggest shows our bands play around here are more often than not in a packed sweaty Elks Lodge basement than on the stage of Middle East Downstairs — for what that's worth.
CC: Clicky Clicky certainly hasn't helped the situation much to this point. I honestly didn't realize Topshelf was based in Boston until a few years ago when Kevin from Big Scary Monsters mentioned to me that he was coming to town to visit you guys. I know Topshelf has actually been stationed in different places around the state since its inception. Setting aside the lack of support from the press, do you think the label derived some benefit from being based in and around Boston?
KD: Ah, Kev. We love BSM. Being in Boston the last five-ish years now has certainly helped us to provide better support for our bands while they're on tour, if nothing else. They can play in Boston, Allston, Cambridge, whatever and drive a mile or two down the street afterward and have a place to crash, have their albums and merch re-stocked, hangout at the office, we pick up some lunch for everyone... that type of thing. It really creates an atmosphere of camaraderie and community amongst everyone involved with the entire label. I don't think we had that before when we were in Western Mass., as just not too many tours typically go through the small towns we're from. I think when there's a really good thing going on internally, that becomes palpable externally and people notice and gravitate to that... I do, anyway. Outside of that, I feel like the profile and general awareness [of the label] has been upped for sure. But it's a totally intangible thing for me — I just kinda get the sense it has, rather than some obvious indicator that it has, if that makes sense.
CC: You moved the office to Peabody recently. What prompted that?
KD: I know, our physical address has been like the LOST island over the years, haha, but this is actually a spot that we've been at for some time now. You touched on this earlier, but we've hopped around a lot. Having started the label while in college, our actual "operating" address has shifted from Westfield, Monson, Northampton, Springfield, Hampden, Boston and Peabody. I won't even try to explain it save for that it involves a lot of dorm rooms and gross overuse of our parents' garages. Peabody came about because it's actually a shared space between a few businesses — namely Bridge Nine Records. Seth started interning at Bridge Nine *years* ago and eventually got hired. He's the label manager there now so our growth as an offshoot out of that space was probably more natural than it comes across from the outside.
CC: What really grabbed my attention about Topshelf late last year was your signing of Nai Harvest. One of the guys in Johnny Foreigner turned me on to them right before Whatever came out, and I was very surprised to learn that such a new act was already getting a U.S. label. Did you get a chance to see them play live before you agreed to do the Hold Open My Head EP?
KD: We've never seen them play (though I've seen countless Youtube performances at this point, haha), but we've met up with them at FEST in Florida the last two years. We *loved* their debut LP Whatever and kinda had them on our radar ever since first giving that a few spins. When we started talking about the prospect of releasing something new, the timeframe wasn't initially very good for us at all, but after hearing the demos and playing them in the office for a few days we knew it was something we had to do regardless. We're really happy to be working with them. Johnny Foreigner's another great, great band. I've just heard their new LP and I'm blown away by it. I think music in the UK has me more excited than anything in North America at the moment.
CC: It looks like Nai Harvest are working on some new recordings right now. Is the EP release just a one-off, or does Topshelf have plans to release new Nai Harvest music in the future? Looks like their spring is already booked up, but are you working on getting them over here before the year is out?
KD: A lot of this is purely speculative and wishful thinking, but we'd love to have them come over and I know the feeling's reciprocated. It's an idea we're definitely bouncing around, so hopefully we can make it happen. We've facilitated it before with international bands we've worked with (Enemies from Ireland, toe from Japan) and I'm hopeful we can make it happen for them, as well. As far as any future releases go, that's a similar situation. We're all on board, but there's no concrete plans for anything as of yet.
CC: You've got two of the biggest acts on the label playing this week at The Sinclair, which is one of the newest and certainly one of the larger venues in the greater Boston-Camb-erville. Sort of wrapping this interview back on itself, is having Into It. Over It. and TWIABP play a venue like that perhaps a better measure of success for both the bands and Topshelf, rather than, say, whether the local press in picking up what you're putting down?
KD: Yeah, A Great Big Pile of Leaves are playing that as well. The local support on many of the dates have largely been Topshelf-affiliated acts and a bunch of the dates have been selling out at pretty good-sized rooms so the whole tour has just been cool to watch from our vantage point. Any one of those three bands are capable of headlining their own tours at this point so getting to see how well all three are doing together every night is awesome. The Sinclair is a really great venue, but the success of the tour in general is what I'm hanging my hat on, moreso than anything else.
CC: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Kevin.
KD: Absolutely. I appreciate it. Thank you, Jay!