“That was ‘All of Me’ by Tanlines,” E! news anchor Giuliana Rancic explained the other day as her program cut back from a somewhat inexplicably inserted 25-second clip of old people dancing to electro-pop.
“Tanlines,” she repeated, equally amused and confused, before getting back on script: “Well, you know who doesn’t have tanlines?”
“Khloe Kardashian Odom,” her co-host Jason Kennedy answered authoritatively.
“Yes,” she agreed.
“Yes,” he said again, for no discernible reason. And off they went to a story about a marginal celebrity getting naked to protest fur coats.
To state the obvious: These are strange times for Tanlines.
Those elderly folks were shaking a leg in the music video for the second single off the act’s recent full-length, Mixed Emotions. The record is a long time coming for the Brooklyn twosome of Jesse Cohen and Eric Emm. Following previous stints in the math rock outfit Don Caballero (for Emm) and the tragically short-lived Professor Murder (for Cohen), the two joined forces in 2009 to produce tropical-leaning remixes of songs by Glasser, El Guincho, and The Tough Alliance, among others. Singles and an EP of Tanlines’ own music came as well, culminating with the Settings EP’s stunning “Real Life”, a song that crystallized the band’s “winky sad face” m.o. by combining a percussive workout and Ibiza-ready synths with forlorn reflections.
And then, as Tanlines was gaining a full head of steam, it pretty much dropped off the grid. The duo toured Europe at one point, but the majority of the last two years was spent writing Tanlines’ debut LP in their native New York. After laying their music to tape, Cohen and Emm took a trip to Miami to finish the record with legendary soundman Jimmy “The Senator” Douglass, a man whose CV stretches from Roxy Music and Television to Aaliyah and Jay-Z. All that work came to fruition with the release of Mixed Emotions a few weeks ago on True Panther Sounds, the impeccably curated NYC label that was snatched up by Matador Records in 2009.
Cohen recently talked to NY Magazine’s Vulture blog about the risks and anxiety that came with Tanlines’ deliberative process: “Honestly, I think the truth is that the first phase of our music — putting stuff out and getting attention on blogs — that died out to a zero between then and this album, even though it was only two years ago. It’s sort of like, ‘Oh, remember that band?’ People might be like, ‘Oh, that’s so two years ago.’ That’s sort of the fear.”
That fear has proved to be unfounded as Mixed Emotions has been greeted with exceeding warmth across the “indie music blog world” and well beyond. It helps that the record is great, overflowing with big pop hooks while displaying a notable restraint and nuance. We’ll have a chance to hear those songs tonight when Cohen and Emm visit DC9 for a sold-out show with Rewards, the first stop on the band’s headlining tour. On the eve of their trek, BYT gave Cohen a call to discuss the making of Mixed Emotions, influences (or lack thereof), and responding to critics (or not).
BYT: You’re kicking off the tour tomorrow in DC. How are you feeling at the outset? Any butterflies?
Jesse Cohen: Not really. We were just running around today, taking care of last minute stuff. It’s nice, because we’re playing in DC and then the next day we’re coming right back to New York. So if we forgot anything, we’ll be home in a day. But, no, we’re not nervous.
BYT: You opened for Julian Casablancas at 9:30 Club. Jules performs with a veritable Miami Sound Machine of musicians. As Tanlines progresses, do you envision the band adding some help to the live operation?
JC: We thought about it for this tour, but we decided we didn’t want to do that. We weren’t really there yet. Our dream would be to some day have ten to twenty musicians playing ever single little thing that we recorded on the album live, but we’re not in a position to do that. We’re not really in a position yet where we wanted to do anything with a bunch of musicians, even on a smaller scale. That’s sort of the benefit of doing things as an electronic two-piece – you can kind of do whatever you want. For now, we’re just going to keep doing what we’ve been doing. We expanded out set-up a little bit. We have more stuff to play with on stage, and we adjusted some technical stuff. It’s still just the two of us though.
BYT: It’s interesting that you mention ten to twenty parts on any one song, because one of the things that strikes me about the record is that it feels clean and uncluttered. The songs breathe really well.
JC: I’m glad that you said that, because sometimes I worried while we were making the record that it was too busy and there was too much stuff happening at the same time. I’m glad to hear you say that’s not how you hear the album.
When we were writing the songs, we would occasionally stop and record stripped-down versions of them. We would write a lot of stuff and then start erasing, basically. We would write a lot of parts and then we would start editing and taking stuff back out of it, and just try to get to what is most essential for the song. Maybe that’s what you hear. Maybe some of that is the work that Jimmy [Douglass] did when he mixed it as well.
BYT: How did the record change after you brought it to Jimmy?
JC: Honestly, it’s not incredibly different. I think what he does is extremely subtle, and there were a couple of times where he stripped down songs even more. “Lost Somewhere” is a good example of that. “Not the Same” is another example – that was a pretty minimal composition to begin with, and he really made it more so. But he just sort of put his magic on the record. He works very differently. He listens to stuff differently and starts adjusting things based upon what he hears. He wants to get to the goal line in as few moves as possible. He wants to get a checkmate in as few moves as possible. So often what he does is subtle, but very effective. It was really interesting. It was very different from the way we work.
But, overall, we brought him a lot of stuff that was mixed already. We brought him a lot of stuff that was written already. I think we wanted to hear him go crazy on a couple of songs, but that’s not really what it was about. It was mostly about just getting to the final product and making it sound like a big finished album. I think that’s exactly what happened.
BYT: You were down in Miami with him for a good chunk of time. I imagine working with someone of his stature is not inexpensive. Did you guys get some sort of a start-up discount?
JC: Well, he wanted to do it. And it was doable for us. It wasn’t crazy. It wasn’t like we sunk everything we had into working with him. It was a project he heard and he wanted to be involved with. He knew what kind of label and budget we were working with. And we just made it work.
BYT: How did you end up on True Panther Sounds? It seems like the best of both worlds: the imprint’s understanding of progressive synth/dance pop on one hand, and Matador Records’ promotion and distribution muscle on the other.
JC: Dean [Bein], who runs True Panther, was one of our very first fans. He saw us perform probably the first time we ever performed. That was 2008 or 2009. He basically said from the beginning, “I want to release your records.” That was even before he was working with Matador. He was just sort of running the label out of his house at the time. You know, you always want to work with people who love what you’re doing and get it, and you don’t have to explain anything to them. And that’s Dean. The fact that he’s working at a company like Beggars [Group] and Matador now is, like you said, great. That’s a big group of labels. That’s a big company. They have plenty of resources, and they also really care about music. And they really care about the artists that they release. I think it’s a great situation.
BYT: You’ve received a lot of love from some unlikely places over the past few weeks, from MSNBC’s Chris Hayes to MTV’s Whitney Port. What’s been the strangest pat on the back so far?
JC: It’s a little bit of a humble brag to say, but I think that the E! thing was pretty funny. I want what we do to not just be part of the indie music blog world. Any time I see any sort of exposure outside of that world, I take it as a very good sign. So I don’t want to act like [the E!] thing is weird, but it was funny to see that guy use our band as a segue to talking about Khloe Kardashian. Also, no one knows how they got the clip. They didn’t ask us about it. It just sort of appeared there. I’m sure that there’s a fan that works on the show or something. It was definitely our first major cable TV exposure like that, and it just sort of appeared out of the blue.
BYT: As far as other responses to the record go, you’ve tweeted in response to a few critics’ takes on Mixed Emotions. Why read the reviews?
JC: I’m not sure what exactly you’re referring to, because in general I barely respond to… I mean, you never respond to comments, right? And reviews, you kind of don’t respond to them either. I have a few times. It’s a weird line. I don’ want to pretend that I’m not looking at them. I see everything that passes through my Twitter pretty much. It’s part of the conversation. I think it’s weird where bands or artists sort of act like none of that’s happening.
BYT: And that it’s not instrumental. A big review from someplace like Pitchfork can be important in terms of getting your name out there.
JC: Maybe. I don’t know. It is certainly to a lot of people. It’s just a fine line. I want to have an honest and open relationship with fans and people on Twitter and stuff, so I try to talk about whatever I’m thinking about. It would seem weird to me if the week our album is coming out and I’m seeing a bunch of reviews to not somehow acknowledge that I’m seeing all of them. But it is a fine line, because I do think it’s really lame for artists to be like, “Hey man! You got that wrong!” Your job is to make music. Just do that. People will think what they want to think. If you’re an artist your job is believe that you’re good and make music that you believe in. And trust that if you’re working with good people that others will find it. That’s the main thing that I try to do. I don’t think I respond to critics all that often.
BYT: I wasn’t meaning to suggest you do it for each review. There are just some bands that don’t acknowledge critical takes on their records, at least in the public sphere.
JC: Right. Also, why just re-post on only positive reviews? It’s a weird thing. I want to be as open and honest and public as I can be. When someone wrote a bad review of us in London, I wasn’t like, “Fuck you, man. You don’t get it. It’s your fault you don’t like it.” I would never say anything like that. I generally believe that critical approval is nice if you get it, but it’s not really your job.
BYT: Getting back to the record then, as you were writing it and laying down the tracks, were there any artists or albums that you and Eric considered to be touchstones sonically?
JC: I don’t know. That’s a really hard question for bands and artists to answer, because you don’t want to sound like you’re not influenced by anybody – because you are, obviously, influenced by a ton of stuff – but I don’t have, like, the five things we were listening to or inspired by. I think the influences come out very quietly and subconsciously. Then it becomes the job of music writers to sort of spell out what they think they are. There was never really any time when we were like, “Oh, I want to do a song that sounds like this.” Or: “Remember when we were listening to this album? We should make music that sounds like that!” In a good situation, you don’t have that much control over the creative process, even if you wanted to. I think that writing music, you sort of have to be in a zone where you just allow stuff to come out of you. Where it comes from is a lot of different places, but it’s not really spelled out until people hear it and they start talking about it.
BYT: Given the amount of time you spent on the record, was it tough to cut it down to eleven songs?
JC: We spent about a year and half writing the album, and it was about two years before it came out. Well, maybe it was less than two years – we started writing it in May 2010 and it was done by October 2011. We wrote every single day and we wrote dozens of dozens of dozens of songs, or pieces of music. By the time we were going to mix the album, we had about 15 songs that we could have mixed with Jimmy. We ended mixing 13 of them, and then we cut two more. By the time it got to the very, very end, it wasn’t that hard. I mean, it was hard, but it wasn’t as if we had a million things. It was sort of natural selection.
BYT: “Real Life” is the only previously released song to make the LP. Was there any debate over whether to include it?
JC: Yeah, we originally didn’t want to. I’ll just tell you that. We didn’t want to, and it wasn’t our idea. But we were kind of convinced that there would be an audience finding it for the first time, that it’s a strong song that still has a life. I think that including it on there did sort of change the album, but I still want to play it prominently in our set. I want people to know it. It definitely made sense to have it on there in a lot of ways, but there was definitely debate and discussion about including it, and that was ultimately the decision that we – the band and the people we work with – decided on. And I stand by it.
BYT: I’m sure there are a lot of tough decisions that goes into the process, especially when it’s dragged over a year-and-a-half period. Are there any that you regret?
JC: The number of decisions is astronomical. Are there any that I regret? No. Well, I wish that we did a better job defining ourselves before the album came out, because if you don’t clearly define yourself and what you are doing, then people will do it for you, and it’s usually not what you would want them to say. That’s a hard job though.
BYT: How were you misrepresented?
JC: I don’t think we were necessarily misrepresented, but I do think that people that know us – not just personally, but having a sense of our personalities – know that we’re serious guys and we’re working really hard on everything we do. That’s a big part of it. Eric’s voice is a big part of what we do. I think that if you don’t define that clearly… Like, I don’t think [Mixed Emotions] is just a fun, party time album. It wasn’t going to be that. I think it could have been defined as a statement a little more than it has been. But, whatever, I don’t think any of that ultimately matters if the music gets out and just keeps going further and further.
BYT: Do you think your experience with Professor Murder and Eric’s in Don Caballero informs Tanlines? Did it make you more patient with Mixed Emotions?
JC: I guess. I’m not sure. It’s hard to compare – the music world moves so fast and technology has changed so much. Making an album in 2012 is completely different than making an album 2008. I think it’s nice that with Tanlines, we had the opportunity to do both things: to quickly write music and release it, to do remixes, and really just do anything that came to us, and then to also have the opportunity to take a year off, write an album, and do a big lead-up to it. I like that we had a chance to do both.