[Interview] Tanlines Talk Lyric Writing, the Creative Process, and "Danceable" Music (Part One)

Brooklyn duo Tanlines have come a long way since their formation in 2008. After several years of releasing remixes, singles, EPs and featuring on compilations, Eric Emm and Jesse Cohen have firmly established themselves and the name Tanlines with the release of their debut LP Mixed Emotions, which dropped this past March on True Panther Sounds. The album sees both Emm and Cohen melding their collective talents into their most gratifying and seamless release so far, with each song delivering a fantastic mix of Cohen's production and drum work and Emm's emotive vocals and captivating guitar progression. Simply put, Mixed Emotions is fun, danceable, and consistently a joy to listen to.

During their recent tour, Emm and Cohen made their way to Fortune Sound Club in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada where the three of us sat down before their show and chatted about their debut album, what influenced the creation of the LP, the differences between "dance" music and "danceable" music, and I surprise them with a couple of gifts from local Vancouver record store Red Cat Records. After the jump, you can read part one of my two part interview with Tanlines, with the second part set to go live tomorrow morning at 11:00am EST.

Adrian: Given that the two of you have been making together since 2008, you’ve had a lot of time to define your sound. Describe the initial period of Tanlines, the first couple of years, and what approach did you take when making your debut LP?

Jesse Cohen: Yeah, the first couple of years I would describe as our experimental period, where we were just sort of making songs, making tracks. We did all different kinds of things. We did remixes. We did a 12”. We did compilation appearances. A 7”. We released music in just about every single format other than an album in those first two years, and we also started playing live in the middle of those two years, also. Basically all those experiences led to us sort of figuring out how we wanted to approach the album, you know, which was just writing songs around Eric’s vocals. That was pretty much the main thing, and we had just sort of settled on sounds that we liked, synth sounds that we liked, bass sounds that we liked, drum sounds…

Eric Emm: A palette.

Jesse Cohen: Yeah, just sort of a palette of sounds, and Eric’s guitar and voice obviously. So then, when we went to write the album, we were doing less experimenting with sounds and more just songwriting.

Adrian: And speaking of songwriting, the LP is titled Mixed Emotions, and Eric, you do most of the songwriting. Describe the emotional ambiguity of the album as a whole, the lyric writing process, and how the music reflects what you’re vocalizing.

EE: Well, the way we write is we first make the beat. We’ll get together and Jesse will play a drumbeat usually, and we’ll start adding some music on top of that. We usually know if something is good, and we can sense that okay this is good and we’ll keep playing with it. And then, sometimes we’ll be like, “eh, I don’t know,” in which case we’ll do something different. But, usually when we sense that something is good, the next day we’ll go to the studio, I’ll play guitar over it and then I’ll try to do vocals. So, I’ll take it, I’ll listen to it, and I’ll just start singing. The singing starts as sort of a reaction to the music, and typically I’m just singing the things that come to my head and often it’s just, like, a melody. And I think the thing is the melody first and the lyrics second.

I just read an interview with James Mercer of The Shins, and he was asked sort of a similar question about you know, like, what’s the fun part about writing? It’s writing the moment it happens is the best. And, he said writing the lyrics is sort of the homework, and I can definitely relate to that, because after that initial burst of creativity has passed you’re faced with thinking about… You know often times the lyrics on the record are things that just came out, and they stayed, and they made sense. But then, that second verse is always the tough part.

A: So, it’s just a lot of looking at the instrumentation you’ve made and just seeing what comes out?

EE: Yeah, it’s like reading what comes out of you, and trying to understand what it is and how to complete the thought.

A: With that in mind, what went into influencing the album, whether it’s music past or present, or life in general, or where you’re from?

EE: Life in general is a great way to put it.

JC: That’s a good album title. In fact, I’m putting that on my list.

EE: Definitely add that to the list.

A: If you take that, I get credit for it.

JC: Yes, absolutely. You’ll get thanked on the album. That’s the credit you’ll get for that.

EE: Yeah, just like we thanked the Rolling Stones.

JC: “Mixed Emotions” is a Rolling Stones song.

EE: Well, I mean, it’s not an unusual phrase. Anyways, so I think a lot of the songs lyrically were sort of informed by the situation that we were in where we had just done this tour of Europe and we were coming back from the tour to start working on our album. Halfway through this tour in Europe we got a phone call from my sister-in-law, who lives in the building that our studio is in, and she said that we got an eviction notice from the building, cause it was an illegal warehouse, loft kind of place. And that sort of sent us a little bit into crisis mode. We were so psyched to start working on our record, and that was all we were thinking about and it was immediately sort of… [pauses].

A: Just a big shock.

EE: Yeah. And that just snowballed into these bigger thoughts about life and change and transition, and your age and where you’re at, where you thought you would be, where you’re headed; things like that.

JC: I co-sign everything he just said [laughs].

EE: But really, when people ask us about the lyrics and the meaning and all that stuff, and I would think there’s a simple answer. It’s sort of along the lines of what you said in terms of life in general. It’s sort of like basic life things.

A: Life problems, life situations.

EE: You know. Some of the songs are about relationships.

A: That happens a lot in music.

EE: Exactly, it happens a lot in music.

JC: All the songs are about me.

EE: A lot of the songs are about Jesse.

A: And his relationship problems with you?

EE: Yeah, cause he can’t sing, and he doesn’t really write lyrics. You know, I wanted to get some of his story out there.

JC: I think it would be funny, though, if there was a duo where one person wrote the lyrics and all the songs were about the other guy [laughs].

A: What would that be called then?

EE: Tanlines.

JC: In terms of the process, I don’t know, but I know the feeling of spontaneously writing music, and it’s sort of like a dreamy state that it comes out of. And I imagine with lyrics, when Eric would just write stuff while he was singing. Sometimes then you listen to it the next day and the melody is there, but then, you have to do the homework of filling in the blanks, filling in the lyrics. Or looking at the lyrics and really thinking is that something I actually want to say or is that not something I want to say, and you make some adjustments. I imagine it’s not that unlike when you’re at your most inspired. And you’re a writer. Do you ever just write?

A: All the time. I paint, also, so that happens a lot where I’ll just start painting something and spend an entire day on it, and not really eat, and at the end of the day look at it and say, “I created this.”

EE: That’s exactly it.

JC: I hear with writing it’s the same thing, where you’ll just start writing and you tell your mind not to stop, you just write. You can do really creative work, but then you might read it the next day and say, “Half of this is crap. Half of this isn’t really something I would want to stand by.” I think it can be the same thing with music. You want to get to a zone where things are just coming out of you. Then the next part is the processing of that, and then you listen to it and you think, “Is this going to stand out or do I have to change it?” The good stuff stays.

A: That happens quite often, where I’ll look back at an essay or review I’ve done and go back and think, "This is absolute crap."

JC: Do you ever write back to the band and apologize to them?

A: Well… no… [laughs]. What if I gave it a good review and then go back and tell them it was actually bad?

JC: No, never tell them. Never, ever, ever.

EE: Never, never, ever say anything. Always be confident even if you’re not.

A: [laughs] Well, getting back on track, in 2009 the two of you did an interview where you talked about the idea of your music not so much being "dance" music, but rather "danceable," and how that was a very prominent idea. You also used Depeche Mode as a reference point, and I actually have a gift for you guys.

JC: Is this a Nardwuar style interview?

A: Perhaps, just a bit.

[Here, I presented both Jesse and Eric with a vinyl copy of Depeche Mode’s 2001 album Exciter—pictured at the bottom].

JC: Wow! That is amazing!

A: And do you guys know a lot about Talking Heads, and David Byrne, the frontman of the band?

JC: Yeah, of course.

[Here I presented them with the 12" vinyl of David Byrne’s Big Songs—pictured at the bottom].

JC: Oh my god.

EE: I’ve never even heard this record. I don’t even know what it’s called.

JC: Is it a solo album?

A: It’s a three song single called 3 Big Songs.

JC: I’ve never even heard of that album.

EC: Man, this is too nice. You can’t do this.

A: No, it’s for you to keep.

JC & EE: Thank you very much.

A: You're welcome, and with the idea of these bands and their sound, it’s not dance music, it’s just danceable.

EE: It’s just music you can dance to.

JC: If you feel like it.

EE: Or if you’re sitting at your desk typing an email.

JC: I think when you call your music dance music, you’re asking a lot of the audience.

A: You’re expecting the audience to dance to it, and you’re forcing this on them, whereas bands like Depeche Mode or Talking Heads established the idea that you can listen to it if you’re depressed, you can listen to it if you’re happy, you can dance to it if you want to, you can not dance if you want to. How did that come to influence your music, and how has it come to influence the new album?

JC: I would say that if anything we wrote songs on this album and it’s not a conscious thing. I think it’s again who we are and where we come from. We’re not dance music guys. A lot of the music I like is sort of rhythmic-oriented music, so the music that I make is rhythmic. That’s really all I can do, and melodies too. But the main thing I can write is like drum patterns, drum beats, and sort of rhythmic stuff. So that’s what I gravitate to, and I don’t really think that’s Eric’s background, or at all. There’s a combination of things, but we’re sort of torn on the dance thing because it’s not who we are. I know it’s not who we are. We write these songs, like these pop songs, and the last thing I would do is call it dance music. The last thing I would do is to ask something of someone.

A: Force something upon the audience.

JC: Right, and if you do that and people don’t dance then it’s a failure, like everyone sort of failed collectively. It’s like, why aren’t you dancing?

EE: There’s nothing worse than asking people to dance.

JC: That’s the worse thing to do. Or have you ever been out at a wedding or a show and someone is like, “Come on, come dance!” and you don’t feel like it? That’s taking a good thing and making it a very bad feeling.

A: This is reminding me of childhood where they would force you to go to dances at school, and it’s the worst thing ever. I feel like if music is forced upon you, then it becomes that much less gratifying to listen to.

JC: Also, people’s relationship with music is very personal, and they want to experience music the way they like to experience it. They don’t like to be told how they ought to be experiencing it. I mean, we just write songs that we like, and trust that if we’re good, and our songs are good, then people will respond to them in any way that they want to. That’s all you really ask for. And, I mean, we have a lot of songs with a 4/4 thump on them, just cause it works, and I like that, I think it sounds good.

A: And it makes sense, it’s a very catchy drum beat.

To be continued...

Depeche Mode's 'Exciter' [2001]

David Byrne's '3 Big Songs' 12" [1981]