Progress Report: Tanlines’ Jesse Cohen chats about the genesis of Mixed Emotions
In another installment in what I like to call “interviews that the tiny technology gods that live inside my hard drive tried to destroy” series, here is my long-lost-but-now-found interview with Jesse Cohen from Tanlines. This interview was done just before the release of this year’s Mixed Emotions (an interview that I’m pretty sure prompted the band to tweet “Just had a landline-to-landline conversation #90s”) and now that everyone has had a few weeks to live with the record (and presumably dance, relax, and fall in love while listening to it), it’s still interesting to hear exactly how the record came to be and how the duo feels about touring, writing songs, and suddenly being considered the new kid on the block even after you’ve been making music for a long, long time.
STEREOGUM: How did Mixed Emotions come to be?
COHEN: It was I think May of 2010. We did like a three-week tour in Europe and we had been sort of playing a lot of shows at just a lot of places after doing an EP and we knew when we were coming back that we would start writing an album. We were gonna turn the page on the first chapter of whatever. And that’s why for us this has really felt like a second album more than a first album because we really just set out to write an album, which is often times what you have to do when you’re doing your second album. Whereas your first is sort of everything you’ve been doing up until the point where you’ve gotten a record deal. So we were very much gonna consciously stop doing shows and just write this album. We wanted to do it really quickly, but it became a much longer process for us for a variety of reasons. And so we started writing it that summer.
The backdrop story is that we had a studio in Greenpoint where we started the band, and while we were on that European tour, we got a phone call that we got an eviction notice because the building was sold. So we were out tweeting and Skyping with Eric’s sister-in-law that we had six weeks to be out of the studio. We got back and we very much didn’t know what was gonna happen. We had this plan that we would be writing the album there. Six weeks turned into a couple of months and they were going to try to turn the building into a homeless shelter. So, that actually never happened, but we ended up getting about six months of time in the studio before we had to move out, and that’s where we wrote the core of the album. For me the album represents this period of time for us — a time of change and uncertainty. We sort of wrote the album not sure where our musical home would be, and as a result we made a record about change/getting older/figuring out what the next part of your life is. And also it happened at a time we felt like we needed to figure out what we needed to do with ourselves as professional musicians.
I think that what you hear shows that. Hopefully it does, since this is something we took really seriously. I think it sounds like a major step up from what we’d been doing before and I think you can hear that. We worked ridiculously hard for a very long time on these songs. We actually wrote, like, fifty other songs that didn’t get on the album. We just wrote and wrote and wrote. We really took this opportunity to not do anything else, and just do only music and see where the process took us. I feel very fortunate now to have had a period to just be really creative. I think it’s a luxury that bands who are really established usually only get to enjoy after they do a successful album. You know, they spend a year working on it, they go off to Texas or some place like that. Bands in our position don’t usually have that luxury. I’m glad we did it that way because we really got to explore things that we wanted to do and figure out what we were good at. I can hear the time and work we put into it, but I guess time will tell. I don’t get to decide what people hear or not hear in our music.
STEREOGUM: You guys have both definitely served your time playing in other bands before this one, so you know what a gamble it is trying to make a go as a working musician. It’s cool that you guys allowed yourselves the time and space to let the music tape shape. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially in some place as expensive as NYC.
COHEN: Oh yeah. The truth with any creative career is that … I don’t think it’s unique to music, the ups and downs and the judgement that’s required for you to succeed. Music is a particularly tough form of creative enterprise because there’s just less money in it than there is in other things. Eric is a lifer, you know, he stopped going to high school when he was a teenager and started playing music. He had done it in a lot of different ways and a lot of formats. That’s been his path, and he sort of knew that a long time ago. For me I think that hit me more recently. My career with music has always been like “Oh that’s cool, I’ll make a record, and you want me to play? Whatever, I’ll go and do it.” It’s sort of been acquiring experiences, and then right before we started writing this album, the allure of making music and acquiring experience just sort of ran out as part of turning 30, and I was like “OK, I’m not gonna have many more opportunities to make something that might have some lasting value.” And at that age, I wanted to figure out what is it that I’m good at and what is it that I’m gonna keep doing. That was definitely part of the process for me. And Eric, too — he sort of had some other questions too because he built that studio with his hands and that was very much tied to how he thought of himself as a musician. I don’t know how many people hear that in our music, but I think so.
STEREOGUM: When the two of you started working together initially, was it apparent early on that this was going to work? How did Tanlines actually start?
COHEN: Eric and I had chemistry — personal chemistry, you know — just sort of a comfort level between us. We would laugh at the same things and there were similar things that we thought were good or interesting, musically. We started making music during the down period in terms of what we were doing in our other projects. We were just making songs or remixes and posting them online. And people responded to that. We got a lot of internet feedback pretty immediately and it was really worth something because it sort of made us feel not alone. The main thing that made us feel like this was something we could do was when we started to play live and people responded to it positively. We hadn’t really thought about it except that we were both talented music-makers, and so we wanted to make songs together. But when we started to play live and people responded to it, it sort of clicked that this was something that we could, if we wanted to throw ourselves more into, it was something that we could turn into something bigger than just “This is a cool sound, this is a cool idea for a remix” or whatever.
STEREOGUM: How do you guys normally work when it comes to writing? Is it always a collaborative effort that you do at the same place at the same time?
COHEN: It is and it isn’t. We wrote a lot of different ways on this album, but I’d say that the most common way we worked together was that I’d come over to the studio at night and we’d open a new song on the computer, and I’d lay down a simple drumbeat and timeline and Eric would add something and we’d start editing a little so we’d have like a loop. If we sort of ran out of ideas, then we’d open up another one, do it again. And then we’d just sort of keep working like that, pretty quickly and sparsely. I had this other job, this other career, and I would go to work and Eric would go back to the studio and he alone would take what we had done and listen to it in the live room and start singing, he’d start working his vocals on top of the song and start putting lyrics onto the song. And I’d come home at the end of the day and he’d be like “I did a couple of things. I’m not sure if they’re any good.” And then I’d be like “Let me hear it,” and be like “This is great, this is it. Let’s work on this.” And then we’d sort of flesh it out — maybe add guitar or maybe play live drums instead of programmed drums and that’s how a song would work. Or if a song wasn’t working, then we’d throw it away, and that’s one of the fifty songs that didn’t make it to that stage. So that was how we worked — the vocals and the lyrics for Eric were a very sort of personal alone time thing that he did for the most part, and the rest of the music is written collaboratively. So that was pretty much how we usually worked. There were some songs that he just wrote on an acoustic guitar and was like “What do you think of this?” and I’d be like “This is good, let’s turn this into a produce-able song.” But for the most part that’s how we would write songs — collaboratively.
STEREOGUM: It’s fascinating hearing how people work. Would you say this is very much unlike the way you’ve worked in the past in bands with other people?
COHEN: In the past I’ve written songs like jamming in a practice space. This felt more like somewhere between composing and jamming you know. You can do that with technology, fortunately, but it’s definitely similar to how we worked with Tanlines in the beginning. The good thing about this process was that for the first two years it was sort of throwing stuff out there and seeing what was working, we sort of developed a palate of sounds that we liked, different drum sounds, different sorts of rhythms that we liked, guitar stuff, and Eric really worked out his vocal style and lyrics during that time. And so when we started to write this album we just sort of drew from that palate. There are a lot of different kinds of songs on this album — like “Greengrass” is sort of a rock song. A few of them are kind of like that. And we wrote those and were like “Oh is this a Tanlines song or is this something else?” And we decided like if we made it, it’s a Tanlines song. And for the most part we drew from the same palate of sounds that we always did. That’s a big part of how we work, also — we sort of draw from this palate of sounds, this experience we had at the beginning of learning to make music together.
STEREOGUM: So much of what has been written about your music references the stylistic links between house music and what people would think of as world music, I guess … but Mixed Emotions is really so much more diverse than that.
COHEN: Thank you. I think so too. Something I’ve learned is that your music is half what you think it is and half what other people think it is. If you’re gonna work in public, you kinda have to accept that, you know, and be comfortable with that. And we released “Brothers,” the first song on this album and were like “This will be great to release because it’s like a slow song and it’s got this weird melancholic kind of Bruce Springsteen vocal, and people will see that we’re on this other page now.” And we released it and people were like “Whoa this is great, I’m jamming to this, I’m dancing at my desk.” We were like “OK, alright.” You have to let people hear what they want to hear because that’s how they feel something. I have Twitter to talk about what I hear, and I have these interviews to talk about how we feel about it, but that’s only worth so much. It’s really interesting to me, and it can occasionally be frustrating because you want people to see things like you do, and to feel about it as you do, but you don’t have any real control over that … and you shouldn’t, at least to some degree.
STEREOGUM: I always think it’s interesting when I talk to a band about what they’re working on and they say things like “We definitely don’t want to make the same kind of record again, we’ve scrapped our old sound and we’re doing this now. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever done!” And a few months later you hear the record and you’re like “Wow that sounds exactly like their other records.” But in their mind it doesn’t.
COHEN: And you might be thinking that about all the stuff I’m saying to you right now! I think that the last song we did — “All of Me” — does sound a lot of like the other stuff we were doing. I think the process felt pretty different to us, and I think as a whole the thing is different. But as I said, we consciously drew through from the same palate of sounds we always did, so I think that there’s major threads. And I think that’s important. And when we’re talking about playing live now, there was a time in this process where we were like “We’ll put together a whole band and we’ll just do these songs as like a guitar, bass, keyboard, vocal band” because they can all be played that way. We tried it a little bit in the studio just him playing drums and me playing guitar. It sounds like 311, which was the first sign that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to do that. Also it’s pretty clear now that the people who like us already wouldn’t be into that, and we can continue to perform as an electronic duo because that’s what people expect from us. But I think that’s more and more how we think of what we’re doing — the context of which we’re thinking about what we’re doing.
STEREOGUM: What will the rest of this year be like for you guys? Will you be touring a ton?
COHEN: We’re definitely doing a lot of touring. We’re making ourselves available to do whatever we need to do. We’ve decided that we’re only touring for, at the most, three weeks at a time, because I’m not 22 and I think Eric and I would literally kill each other if we had to do more than that. But we want to make sure that people hear what we’re doing, and we’re up for it. We’re doing the US and we’re doing Europe and I’m sure we’ll do the US again at some point. After that I don’t really get to decide, it’s sort of like we’ll see where this has gone by then. I feel pretty confident that we’re putting the leg-work in and we’re not on some trip where it’s like “I only want to tour the main cities” or “The road’s not really for me.” That’s part of the job – you have to be aware of yourself and what you’re good at. If we went out five weeks at a time, we wouldn’t be good at that. I’m not gonna put myself in that situation where we’re playing a city five weeks out and we hate each other and we’re awful. I’d rather go out for three weeks, come back home, and then go back again, do it that way.
STEREOGUM: I was just talking to a friend who’s putting out a record and he was saying “I really want to do whatever it takes, whatever I need to do, but I don’t want to sleep on anyone’s floors.”
COHEN: That’s totally where we are also. We’ve been doing this long enough that you feel like you’re past that to some degree, but the truth is, I don’t know if we are or not. I mean, it is and it isn’t, but I think that we’re certainly at the stage where we want to do it, but we want to be as comfortable as we can … and it will all be better if we are.
Mixed Emotions is out now on True Panther.