The pandemic era’s music industry has proven so difficult to navigate it’s even stumped an elite squad of rock stars who’ve mastered the conundrum of time travel. So maybe don’t feel too badly if your band has been frustrated by the fits and starts that have kept the tour van mostly off the road over the last two years. TWRP, Toronto’s electro funky synth rock stars from beyond the stars, has found it challenging, too.
The band is finally hitting the road again and has a sold-out stop March 8 at White Oak Music Hall. Assembled like Voltron in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 2007, its members — Doctor Sung (keys and vocals), Havve Hogan (drums), Commander Meouch (bass) and Lord Phobos (guitar) — come from mysterious corners of the music universe. They wear costumes (we think) and have a fictional (we think) back story that their intergalactic journeys were designed to bring feel-good music and wild live shows to this time and place.
When COVID restrictions made it difficult to fulfill the live performance part of TWRP’s mission, it focused on creating music. They’re hitting the road with new songs for loyal fans from 2020’s Over the Top and last year’s New & Improved.
“New & Improved is kind of a snapshot of where we’re at as a band during a pandemic. It’s been challenging for everyone. As a touring act, it’s obviously a big shift for us. We haven’t been able to do our main thing, which is touring, over the last couple of years until very recently,” Doctor Sung said by phone. “New & Improved is kind of a snapshot of that and how our style has sort of evolved and also our outlook on things because it is meant to be hopeful.”
New & Improved also represents the band’s new look with revamped costumes and a revamped attitude. It reflects some changes the band’s members made during its downtime.
“We sort of tried to take that time and flip it around to work for us and improve ourselves, both in terms of learning new skills but also trying to love ourselves at the same time and not be too down on ourselves for the challenges that have come out of the situation,” Sung said. “The song itself, which is the title track to the album, is meant to be pretty cheeky because it’s very boastful in spirit, I guess, and kind of self-congratulatory in a sort of ironic way. But it does come from a real place where personally I tried to put myself out there and do a bunch of things that I’ve been really hesitant or honestly maybe even scared to do.”
If that sounds familiar to your life, it’s no mistake. Despite its unique mishmash of music styles and its distinctive look, TWRP’s songs are relatable and plentiful. They’ve released a new studio album every year going back to 2017 so they’re prolific in a manner expected of an outfit that has heard music from across the multiverse.
“We’re very lucky to be able to have the workflow and the camaraderie and the collaborative spirit between us all to a point where we’re able to make music that quickly and that we’re proud of,” Sung said. “We did put out two albums during the pandemic which is quite a lot. Looking back on it now, I sort of see how at times it was challenging to find inspiration just because in the early days of the pandemic it was very scary and you don’t really know what’s next.
“We were drawing inspiration from different places, I guess you could say, over the pandemic. Normally we’d be out touring and we’d be seeing the world and we’d be inspired by all sorts of cool things that we’re seeing; but then, when we’re stuck in our basements trying to write songs, it sort of comes from a bit of a different place where it’s based more in the hope and the optimism of things to come, rather than amazing shit that we’ve just witnessed.”
That makes the uplifting album so identifiable to many of us in 2022, everyone emerging from our respective basements into a world that we can try to make new and improved with a hopeful optimism. The message is delivered by the music, a category-defying sonic mashup of two disparate music eras, the 1970s and 1980s. It takes masterful musicianship to do something like that. How do they do it, we asked?
L-R: Havve Hogan, Lord Phobos, Commander Meouch and Doctor Sung
Photo by Tucker Prescott, courtesy of TWRP
“We are an elite squad of rock stars from the ‘80s, but also the future, but also outer space, but also Canada,” Sung explained simply. “We don’t like to get too into the weeds about our own backstories. It’s obviously very complicated when you’re time travelers, such as us.
“A benefit from that is our disregard for genres, from being locked into a specific genre and a specific era,” Sung hinted. “We come from all over the place in terms of our musical influence, our musical inspiration, and that’s part of the time travel thing. We just try to make music that we like in that moment without any regard to, ‘Oh, does it fit in our grand scheme?’ and as a result it sort of blurs a lot of genres, a lot of lines together. That’s why on one album we’ll have this greasy, downtempo, stompy kind of funk song and then on the same album we’ll have this super upbeat, weird, city pop kind of ‘80s, Japanese-inflected yacht rock kind of vibe.
“We try not to get too lost in the genre, the classification of it all,” Sung said. “Whatever we’re listening to at the time, whatever’s inspiring us, it really does come through in our music.”
TWRP has fostered some interesting collaborations over the years, working with acts like Planet Booty, Ninja Sex Party and Dan Avidan. New & Improved features team-ups with Diamond Café, Alex Moukala and Magic Sword, among others.
“We’ve always tried to create music that can work well with others and that sort of comes from a strong sense of the backbone of songwriting, coming from a rhythm section, because up until recently we didn’t really create a lot of our own vocals. We often outsource guest vocalists to a lot of our songs, not including songs that feature the talkbox which is another big part of our sound. When we write songs with others in mind, it sort of gives us a bit of a direction,” Sung explained.
“We’ve wanted recently to become an artist that other people will want to collaborate with and we try to cast a wide net in that regard, in terms of asking others to work with us, because it’s a lot of fun and it keeps things fresh for us. I think that’s a big part of why we’re able to work at the clip that we’re going, like an album every year. A big part of that is getting inspiration and creativity from collaborators. We’ve been so lucky to work with all of the people we’ve worked with. Every album, we try to bring in at least a couple of new features and New & Improved was no different. It’s fun for us and it also helps us move forward when we work with others.”
All of that work is to the benefit of listeners, of course, and listeners love it. The live sets are legendarily zany and music-rich. The question was begged - if an elite squad of time traveling rock stars could inhabit any era, why would it choose one bogged down by a pandemic? Hearing TWRP’s songs, especially the new ones, is sort of the answer. You need music like this not just for the party moments, but for the tough ones, too.
“It’s really inspiring for us to hear from fans and listeners,” Sung said. “Something that comes to mind is we often have a VIP portion to our shows and that sort of gives us some face-to-face interaction with fans to a certain extent. Hearing people describe our music and how it makes them feel and hearing that it has brought them through a dark time or something – which we hear fairly frequently, I guess – that is really powerful for us. We’ve all been there, when music has hit just right, like a song or artist clicks just right, and it feels like magic.
“It’s this feeling that we can instill into others, this sort of sense of wonderment and joy that music gives to us,” the good Doctor continued. “That’s something that you don’t set out to do as a musician. We don’t anyway. That seems like a bit of a pretentious kind of goal, to be like, ‘I want to inspire the masses,’ but when you do hear first-hand from somebody that that has happened, it’s a really special thing.”
Hearing that from a rock star from the future is a good sign for us all, we think. That aspect of music and why we love it will be with us for a very long time.
TWRP lands at White Oak Music Hall, 2915 N. Main, Tuesday, March 8. With Rich Aucoin. Doors at 8 p.m. for this sold-out, all ages show. Check White Oak Music Hall’s website to join the waitlist.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.