By Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious. Additional contributions by Philip Runco.
The podcasts are starting to pile up, which is how Jesse Cohen knows that he’s been busy.
The Tanlines percussionist is both a fan of the medium and an active participant. For over a year, Cohen has hosted “No Effects”, a program where he chats mostly with other New York musicians, like Ezra Koenig or Despot. “From one of the people who brought you Tanlines the band and Tanlines the twitter feed,” the iTunes description dryly notes. Tucked in there is a promise too: “I will never ask about the name of your band.”
Unsurprisingly, the Brooklyn resident subscribes to a wide range of them too. There’s sports (“Jalen & Jacoby”) and sex (“Savage Love”) and comedy (“The Todd Barry Podcast”). There was the late Grantland pop cultural discussion “Girls in Hoodies”, where Tanlines guested three times.
But Cohen hasn’t had much time to spend with those familiar voices lately. Looking at his queue a week ago, Cohen saw 44 unplayed episodes – hours and hours of conversation caught in digital purgatory. It’ll probably be a while before he gets to any of them.
“We’re rehearsing a lot right now,” Cohens says. “It’s been challenging to schedule anything around it.”
The swirl of recent activity centers around Tanlines’ forthcoming sophomore LP, the refined and vibrant Highlights. The duo will celebrate the release of the record with a handful of shows over the next week, so Tanlines is putting the finishing touches on their live set up.
Despite the hectic schedule, Cohen sounds energized, basking in the glow of an extremely successful promotional cycle that has included a Netflix-inspired website, a spoof of early 90s sports flicks, and premiering Highlights via an industry-skewering, old-fashioned conference call.
Amongst all of this emerge the dichotomies of Tanlines: light and dark, old and new, DSL and dial-up.
It also reflects the sense of humor and levelheadedness that make Cohen and singer Eric Emm so endearing as individuals.
“We keep our expectations very low,” Cohen admits. “And we hope that they get exceeded.”
I’m always impressed by the amount of restraint that’s evident in your music. There’s an especially crisp quality to Highlights. Is it a challenge to keep things from piling up? Are you not tempted to make some sort of maximal Passion Pit record that “the kids” might love?
Do you make music? That sounds like a question from somebody who also makes music, especially music in 2015, where there’s a real impulse to throw thirty tracks onto a song; it costs the same amount to do that as it does to throw ten tracks. You can do anything you want today. Editing becomes the difference maker when it comes to producing and writing music the way that we and many, many people do.
It’s definitely something that we’ve focused on as we’ve continued to play with this band. When we first started out, we had a tendency to pile stuff on top of each other, like four different synth lines overlaid. And I know that it’s important to Eric as well to focus on the music and the songwriting, and to be more minimal. It’s something we’ve worked on. Our music has always been relatively simple in terms of both progressions and songwriting, but we had a tendency in the past to pile up parts with sounds. This time, we’re more focused on the basics.
What guided that shift?
The main thing was to have Eric’s voice be the center of the music. When you have twenty things happening all at once, and Eric’s trying to sing over it, there’s a competition between the hooks and melodies and all these things going on. We were trying to carve out space for the songs to be the focus of the music.
I mean, there are still a couple of songs where we still have those old “Tanlines problems” with three competing hooks fighting each other, but for the most part, we make sure to keep that space on this album, and he fills it really well with his voice.
It reminds me of Miles Davis’ approach, where he emphasized the effective use of space and pauses in all of his compositions.
How has your and Eric’s partnership evolved over the years? What’s changed in the ways that you collaborate?
That’s a good question, and very essential to my life. In some ways, we have a dynamic that’s generally about contrast. And we joke about it; it’s the whole mixed emotions thing, the winky-sad, the ying-yang. I mean, even the band name, Tanlines, is about the line between light and dark. [Laughs] And historically, I’ve been the light side and he’s been the dark side, and that’s pretty much true, I’d say. He’s a perfectionist, and I’m like, “Don’t worry about it, it’ll be OK.”
The times that we have disagreed, we’ve grown together, and on this album we had some dramatic disagreements, but they were always specific, detail-oriented things. We were pretty much on the same page when it came to the big picture throughout the entire process.
Fortunately, we’ve grown together, and I can’t say that it has changed hugely. We spent more time apart than we have in the past while working on this album, and I don’t know if that shows or it doesn’t show, but there were also times where we spent 24 hours a day together because we were working in Pittsburgh, LA, or in the church, or whatever. It has evolved, but the core elements are what they’ve always been.
That was a loose answer. [Laughs]
Recording in a church – at least partially, in your case – is something that you associate with grandiose productions like Arcade Fire or Godspeed You Black Emperor. What was that experience like? Did it take any convincing?
This was something that we really wanted to do, and one of the reasons we wanted to work with [Grizzly Bear’s] Chris Taylor. We were pretty conscious about going outside the box while making this album – and the box is the computer.
We wanted to look for opportunities to go outside of the computer, when we could, and it started from the beginning, when our computer blew up in Pittsburgh. We sort of ping-ponged back and forth between electronic and organic sounds, which is really the essence of the music we make. The opportunity to work with Chris and record in a church was a chance to go pretty much as far outside the box as we could, and you can hear a lot of the actual room on this record. That was something we wanted, and that we’ve never really had before.
But then of course, when we were done working with Chris, we worked with Rob Kinelski, who is a hip-hop mixer and works strictly within the box. You know, we went back in the other direction. We were always trying to find the balance between those two places, and I think we did in a way that’s much wider than in the past.
Our old album sounds small and really computer driven. On this one, you can hear actual air, and actual room reverb, as opposed to a room reverb plug-in. And it’s not an accident – whether it’s a choir or an organ, those rooms are built to project sound in a pretty specific way.
Between your podcasts, the faux Netflix site, and the teleconference call, you’re pretty plugged into using media effectively to get your worldview and your work out there. Do you think that’s a necessity in 2015 to get people’s attention?
I don’t know if it’s a necessity to get attention for everybody in 2015, but I know that for our band, it’s always been very important to me that we get our personalities and points of view out alongside the music. You can only learn so much from the music. Eric doesn’t write songs that are personal stories about his life; he writes songs that relate to his life in a more abstract and universal way. If you just listen to the music and look at the pictures of us on the front of our albums, you might not get a sense of who we are as people or where we come from.
And I happen to like who we are, and think we have good ideas that go outside of the music, so it was always important for our band to put things out there and let people know what we think is cool or funny or clever, in whatever way possible, whether it’s social media or podcasts. Any time that we have to do something, I’m also thinking of ways we can put it out in ways that feel honest and true, and are hopefully funny and compelling.
The Netflix site, the conference call – these are things that sit nicely alongside a band that’s a dancey kind of band. It’s the other side: It’s the nights that you’re staying home, it’s the days that you’re at work. And those are also important places for people to listen to our music; in fact, I try to speak more aggressively to those places than I do to clubs or going out or whatever. It’s where people listen to music, you know.
Whose idea was the Netflix site? It’s genius.
I’ll take credit for that, thank you. [Laughs]
That was something that I’ve had on my list of ideas on my phone for a long time. Our friend Teddy Blanks, who is a web designer, was the person behind the execution, and has worked with us on a couple of things on the album. I explained the concept to him a while back, and wanted a site that worked just like Netflix, where you could like, actually play episodes of Frasier from.
Our label built it, and all those people were involved with it, but it’s something that I wanted to do, and I’m really, really happy with it. Thank you! There are obviously little inside jokes about us, and what we do, and it was fun to fill in those spaces and categories for the site.
What do the band’s rehearsals look like? Is it just you and Eric jamming out in a room, or have you added more members to the live lineup?
We haven’t revealed the live set up yet, but I can just tell you: We’ve brought a couple of more people to play with us. It’s a bigger band and a fuller sound, and it parallels how this album has grown from the last album. And my set-up and Eric’s set-up are the same as it’s always been, but we’ve doubled our exposure on the stage.
In your heart of hearts, what are your hopes for this record, and maybe Tanlines in general from here?
You know, both Eric and I are in similar places. I try to focus on what I can control: the music, the live show, the website. I try to focus on making things that I’m proud of, and hope that translates to people – and it might not! I think of that as outside of my hands.
There are a lot of things that affect whether a band is successful in 2015, and this comes up on my podcast all the time. The one guarantee you have in this career is your relationship to your own work, and that’s what I’m focusing on the most right now. I hope people see it the way I see it, and it makes people happy, and gives people memories, and things like that, but it’s outside of my hands at this point.