December 14, 2018

From Jewish roots, band sprouts afro/new wave wings

Luke Top and Lewis Pesacov of Fool’s Gold are surprised they don’t have a larger Jewish fan base. Most of the songs on the band’s 2009 self-titled debut are in Hebrew, vocalist Top was born in Israel, and earlier this year the band played Jewlicious, a music festival for Jewish college students.

“We kind of thought that it might happen, and it totally didn’t happen,” lead guitarist Pesacov said.

However, the L.A.-based band has steadily raised its profile among indie music fans over the past five years. Santa Monica radio station KCRW embraced Fool’s Gold, and a variety of publications gave its Aug. 16 sophomore release, “Leave No Trace” (IAMSOUND Records), high marks for its marriage of African rhythms and new wave sounds. The band will headline the Troubadour on Sept. 29, and, starting in November, it will join the Red Hot Chili Peppers on tour in Europe.

Top says he sang primarily in Hebrew on the band’s first album because of his insecurities as a vocalist. He thought he could hide behind a language that most people can’t understand.

“It’s a little veiled, you know, the Hebrew. People don’t understand it, and there was a little bit of security in there,” Top said.

By singing primarily in English on the latest album, Top said he’s pushing himself.

“I think the idea was just, ‘Don’t hold back.’ To go all out,” he said.

Top and Pesacov, both 31, first met during high school — Top attended Cleveland High School in Reseda, and Pesacov went to Hamilton High School in Los Angeles. The pair started Fool’s Gold as a musical side project in 2006, as a way to explore their common interests in African music (Congolese, Ethiopian, Eritrean and Malian), progressive German rock and ’80s synth pop. Over the next five years, the band evolved into a collective that at one time featured 15 members. On its most recent tour, Fool’s Good was left with its current lineup: Top, Pesacov, drummer Garrett Ray, multi-instrumentalist Brad Caulkins and percussionist Salvador Placencia.

“We were five people on tour, the smallest band we’ve ever been, and we were like, ‘This kind of works.’ More people started to listen, and it sounded better than ever,” Pesacov said.

Last year, from Christmas Day to New Year’s Eve, Top and Pesacov rented a house near Joshua Tree National Park, where they jammed and developed ideas for “Leave No Trace.” A four-month recording process in Los Angeles followed. The result is a more concise and radio-friendly effort, featuring the lead single, “Wild Window,” in which Top plays a funky bass and Pesacov offers a jangle pop sound.

Fool’s Gold’s sound doesn’t lend itself easily to classification.

“Some listeners have commented that their songs sound as if ’80s alternative band The Smiths were jamming with Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti,” KCRW music director Jason Bentley said in an e-mail interview.

Like Chasidic reggae star Mat-isyahu, Fool’s Gold lets Judaism inform its music rather than become its music, said Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, director of the Jewlicious festivals.

“They’re not setting out to make Jewish music in any way, shape or form. But their roots, their ethnic and religious and cultural background, influence their music,” Bookstein said.

Top, who immigrated to the United States from Israel when he was 3 years old, sings in Hebrew for one of the new album’s more uplifting songs, “Tel Aviv.” In the lyrics, Top negotiates the idea of having two homes, while craving a return to Tel Aviv, his birthplace. He sings in Hebrew, “I was born in Tel Aviv… I laid down on the sand,” and then switches to English, “I reach for you.”

“Am I Israeli? Am I American? I wanted to write a song kind of touching upon that, referencing my experiences going back to Israel and being here,” he said. “It’s pretty literally talking about being in both places.”

Top has also wrestled with his level of Jewish observance. He isn’t religious, but he said his family “had a small window where they were trying to be more Conservative and Orthodox.”

Pesacov, a native Angeleno who performs with drummer Ray in the band Foreign Born, said he grew up in an interfaith family with a Jewish father and a mother who wanted to convert to Judaism. And though he wanted to explore Judaism, his father discouraged him.

“I wanted to have a bar mitzvah as a kid and my dad’s like a hippie who did not believe in religion,” Pesacov said. “But it’s funny, because I grew up with all Jews in Los Angeles. I probably recognize myself as more Jewish than I am Christian.”