Formed in 1997 from the chemistry between a bunch of Eastbourne drinking mates, Toploader have swiftly risen from the ranks of the unknown to become firm contenders for the title of Best New British Band. How it happened is something pundits are still puzzling over. The small, pensioner favoured seaside town of Eastbourne is hardly a hotbed of rock'n'roll. Musical peers are thin on the ground and the local pier is none too inspiring either. What may have been overlooked is that the absence of scene guidelines or local influence is almost certainly what allowed them to grow into such a lethally populist band.
"The thing about Eastbourne is you've got the sea and the downs and countryside so the chilled factor is quite high," says singer-keyboardist Joseph Washbourn. "So a lot of the lyrics are kind of coming from that perspective, either escapism or looking out to somewhere else."
Of all the UK guitar bands signed in the past two years they're virtually alone in regularly scoring Top 20 singles. To pull that off in an era of wall to wall trite pop you have to being something special. Guess what? Toploader have the magic down and the midas touch with it.
It was harmonious right from the beginning. Four early 20s men sat in Sullivans bar in Eastbourne and found that they agreed on the important matters of lager, women and music. "We all just ended up in the same pub talking about the same subjects and going off to play in a garage," says drummer Rob Green. "We just found a garage and that was it."
Rob, guitarist Dan Hipgrave, bassist Matt Knight and keyboardist Joseph knew each other from around town. The core of the band was instantly there and when madcap Glastonbury guitarist Julian Deane rolled by on his travels, the pentangle of celebration -loving minds was complete.
Local gigs saw them develop at a precocious rate, and after briefly considering drafting a singer, they decided Joseph could handle it sitting down. The conspicuously curly mopped Washbourn was actually the ideal choice. He was the songwriter and the looker. He was way accomplished as a keyboardist, having been taught since the age of 7. There was plenty of soul in his voice, and he even had a suitable family history (an elder brother who passed on his Zeppelin records and a mum who used to hang out with David Bowie when he was still a south London saxist called David Jones).
As is entirely appropriate considering the uplifting nature of their music Toploader did not suffer greatly on their two year journey to the mountain top of new British rock. They took their name from a technique for rolling herbal cigarettes (it was better than the briefly mooted Bloodbath or Human Spider) and after a momentary lapse into 'darkness' when Radiohead's 'OK Computer' came out, set about letting the people know how a proper, big tuned, flash keyboard lead, honky tonk rock band sounded.
Even at tiny early gigs they were an obvious safe bet for festival and stadium stardom. They had scale and confidence to spare and in '98 Sony's S2 signed them at speed. Paul Weller saw them play and asked the band to support him on his 99 tour where they sometimes followed Noel Gallagher.
By now the rock (plus the funk and soul) was thoroughly rolling. Their limited edition introductory single 'Achilles Heel' came out in May 99 leading to an early appearance on TFI Friday. Securing instant conversions at an evangelical rate they toured incessantly, played a Kosovo benefit alongside Travis and Stereophonics, blazed through festival shows at Glastonbury and Reading and grazed the top 40 with the following single 'Let The People Know'.
In one hurtling year a fuss had been successfully kicked up. They were out of towners with a fiercely optimistic attitude and as comparisons with anyone from Jamiroquai and Stevie Wonder to Aersomith, The Stones and Supertramp flew around, no-one could agree on what kind of band they were.
"The way our band works right is you got a fucking amazing keyboard player and singer, an amazing drummer and bass player, and two dodgy guitarists," laughs Julian, "And it makes us fuckin' great!"
"We don't just stand there and play," concludes Joseph. "We play like we're fucking having it. So it's alright to be called a good time band. Its like 'Yeah, cheer up everybody!"
There are more dimensions to Toploader than the sweaty, foot-stomping, girl-pleasing, lad rocking live shows and these are becoming highly apparent through 2000. Another instant convert to their cause - legendary L.A. producer George Drakoulias - had come in to produce the top 20 party anthem 'Dancing In The Moonlight'. It stayed in the charts for a month when it came out in February 2000. A full release for the epic 'Achilles Heel' then went to number 8 confirming Toploader as crossover stars.
They recorded for Top Of The Pops alongside old guard heroes Oasis and personal favourites The Charlatans. The May release of their debut album saw reality trumping even their own innate optimism when 'Onka's Big Moka' went to number 5 and notched up Gold status after just two weeks. The album has since gone Double Platinum (850,000 and counting) and is embedded in the top 10.
The album's title foxed a few people. Anthropology degree wielding band conceptualist Julian chose it after watching a film on Papua New Guinea tribal rituals where leading tribesmen give away their possessions to their rivals to gain respect and power. Musically, however, there were no misunderstandings. Produced by Manic Street Preachers collaborator Dave Eringa, the blend of giant, poignant, string-lifted ballads and energised rootsy blues rock made for a classic debut. It rocks ('Let The People Know', 'Just About Living'). It grooves ('Dancing In...'). It contemplates ('High Flying Bird'). And it giggles in the bathtub ('Floating Away').
By summer 2000 the kids knew the words to all the songs and through Paul Weller supports at The Royal Albert Hall, European festivals, blissful Glastonbury appearances and T in the Park storming, all Joseph had to do was point the microphone at them and conduct. Even the half a million people who witnessed Toploader on their 30 day Euro tour with Bon Jovi (including 2 shows at Wembley Stadium making them the last Brit band to play before the re-build) couldn't help noticing that they are in the presence of something special, natural, and meant to be. The band's single "Just Hold On" (released 21 August) saw them launched into the big time with another Top 20 placing.
"Dancing In The Moonlight" was re-released in November, entering the charts at No.11 and has spent over 3 months inside the Top 30, climbing to an all time high at No.7 in February!
Toploader have also been nominated for 4 Brit Awards: Best Group, Best Newcomer, Best Single and Best Video.
The band have another single "Only For A While" ready to go on April 9th and are off to support Robbie Williams in Europe in February before returning to these shores for a sold out UK headline tour including 3 nights at Brixton Academy.
"We don't need to sit here telling people we're the best thing ever,"reflects Dan. "Because I know that in twenty years time you'll be able to put our album on and it'll be a fuckin' good album. Longevity, that's what we want and we'll get it."
Toploader, see, are here to stay. They are not a small band. They are definitely not the sound of Eastbourne. They're the sound of healthy ambition, taking flight.
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