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Luke Top had been struggling with his identity as a musician. For about half a decade, he had been the singer of Fool's Gold. The band had won acclaim in indie music circles and toured the world, even opening for Red Hot Chili Peppers in Top's birthplace, Tel Aviv. Eventually, though, Fool's Gold started to fall apart. Top was working in an Echo Park studio and taking on projects like commercials. His relationship to music was changing. Music had become wrapped up in commerce, a far cry from where he started. "I was feeling kind of unfulfilled and a little disillusioned," Top says at a coffee spot near his home in Los Feliz.
Years before, Top could hole-up in a closet and make music just for the hell of it. Now, after years on the road and feeling the pressure to sell, it was time to get back his love of making music. Top did that with "Suspects High," his first solo album, which comes out March 4. Across the album's eight tracks, his voice is smooth, mature and sometimes forlorn. He is backed by mellow beats that hint at the world music-influence of the band that first brought him acclaim and the dense production brings to mind melancholy '60s pop. In the past he sang partially in Hebrew, but for this album he sings entirely in English. "I was going through some self-doubt and thinking about commerce and art and how that relates to each other and who I am as a grown man, now that I'm getting older," says Top, 35. "It was a bit of a heavy process, but now that I'm on the other end, everything feels good."
For Top, music has long been a way to explore his identity. Born in Israel, he was only three years old when his family emigrated to the United States. They headed to Los Angeles and did what Top calls "the apartment dance" before finally settling in a house in Reseda. "I was left to my own devices when I was a kid," he says. "My parents were struggling…thinking back, I understand now. They were struggling to figure out the language. They didn't know anyone. They were going through all sorts of stuff."
Once Top started school, he made adjustments as well. His given name is Nativ. "No one could say my name in elementary school," he says. "It was embarrassing." He re-named himself Luke, which is now his legal name. "When I think back now, I think, that's a Christian name," Top adds. "I was totally assimilating and telling everybody to call me Luke." He blushes and drops his head when revealing the source of the name by which he is best known: Star Wars.
Thanks to a brother who worked at Tower Records, Top gravitated towards music early on in life. "That was my world," he says. "I would close the door and listen to music." By junior high, he had started playing guitar. Soon, he was hanging out with other young musicians. He formed bands and played venues in The Raven Playhouse and now-defunct all-ages venue Cobalt Cafe. Sometimes, he would get a gig at The Roxy and sell tickets for it at Cleveland High School, where he was in the humanities magnet program.
After studying ethnomusicology at San Francisco State University and a stint teaching in the Bay Area, Top returned to Los Angeles. He wanted to pursue a career in music, but wasn't sure how to go about that. He launched a recording studio in his mom's garage, charging bands $100 a day for a session in Reseda. He joined bands, but then quit. He landed a gig as a touring musician for a songwriter. As a fan, he delved into Ethiopian music and found that one of his friends was doing the same thing. They decided to jam and invited a few others to join them. Soon, they were playing house parties and events at local parks. The collective of musicians became Fool's Gold.
As part of Fool's Gold, Top was able to tap into his Israeli-American identity. He was inspired by the Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed and the similarity between Amharic, the language Ahmed has used in his work, and Hebrew. While Top was raised bilingually, his knowledge of Hebrew is primarily conversational, so writing and singing in the language proved to be a technical and a creative challenge.
Performing in Hebrew changed Top's style of singing. "It was pushing me to really belt it," he says. "These shows we were doing were full of energy and the audience was dancing and sweaty and I was screaming almost, screaming in Hebrew."
On stage, he and his bandmate Amir Kenan would banter in Hebrew. "It unlocked all these things," says Top of the language. "We would have these sets where we would play one song for 12 minutes and I would be screaming over it basically, which is pretty far from where I came from," he adds, noting that, in high school, he played in a "Beach Boys-wannabe" band.
Writing songs in Hebrew was a bigger task. "I tried to be really light-hearted about it," he says. Top also turned to others -- his mom, his brother, Kenan's mom -- for grammatical advice.
All that led to two concerts in Tel Aviv, where Fool's Gold opened for Red Hot Chili Peppers for a massive crowd and a smaller, headlining club gig. Since Top's extended family lives near Tel Aviv, and he hadn't visited Israel since he was a teenager, it was a momentous occasion. "Once we did that, it was kind of a full circle… It was hard to know where to go from there," he says. "We have a song called 'Tel Aviv' and we played it in Tel Aviv at that show, at the club show. People were singing along. It was really heavy for me."
Top admits that he didn't feel like he was "part of mainstream culture" in his youth. "I don't quite fit all the benchmarks for what's considered a mainstream American indie musician," he says. However, Fool's Gold helped him understand his life. "Doing that band solved a lot of identity questions for me," he says. "It was really amazing to be able to share Hebrew with the audiences. A lot of the places where we were going had never heard Hebrew before. It was really special to be able to share that with people and feel accepted."
Similarly, his recent solo effort helped Top make sense of life without the band. He has his own recording studio downtown now and says he wants to focus on working with other artists, while continuing to work on his own music. He will be playing live locally and is open to the idea of touring opportunities. Still, he stresses that this is, a new beginning. "I'm just building this project up from the ground," he says. "It's like starting over, which is exciting. I'm old enough to know that it's long term."
He adds, "I'm not the hot sexy new kid on the block. I'm in this for the long haul. I'm open to any possibilities."
Top image by Stephen Paul.