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Brooklyn duo Tanlines have been tantalising our earbuds since 2008 with their sporadic catalogue of songs for dancing (the sun-kissed euphoria of ‘New Flowers’) and quality remixes (for Telepathe, El Guincho and Memory Tapes, among others). Four years after the band’s inception, Jesse Cohen and Eric Emm released their debut album proper through True Panther Sounds.
‘Mixed Emotions’ sees Tanlines stretching their wings on a collection of “grown-up” (their term) pop moments, featuring all the polish and precision of timeless drivetime classics and lyrics that take a second glance at the all that emotional flotsam collected over the first phase of adult life.
Jesse from the band had a chat with Dummy about the “winkysad” feeling at the core of the record, their self-titled “existential pop” genre, and being influenced by Robert Palmer’s late period obscurities.
Rumour has it ‘Mixed Emotions’ was originally going to be called ‘;(’ – the ‘winkysad’ face. How does the emoticon tie in with the record?
It’s something that is sad and funny at the same time, or it’s sad but you can laugh about it, make a joke about it. A song can be poppy and sad at the same time, or it can sound like it’s in two places at once. I think it’s like a grown-up quality, that’s certainly what we’re going for – it’s just who we are and where we are now.
So why did you change it to ‘Mixed Emotions’?
I think it would just be kind of gimmicky to name the album as an emoticon, basically. If you’re Prince you can use a symbol, but if you’re trying to let people know who you are, then… also, in 20 years is this going to be a relevant symbol? Probably not. I’d like to think that the album will still exist in some way in 20 years.
You said you took a “grown-up” approach to writing songs?
We started writing the album at a time when we were both trying to figure out what to do with our lives. We were evicted from our studio just before we started working on the album, so a lot of things were thrown up in the air for us. We didn’t want to just put out remixes on blogs anymore, we wanted to put out an album that was reflective of who we are as artists and try to make something that would count. We were in an experimental phase of our career the first couple of years, and then we stepped away from that and entered a phase where we made this album. It feels very different to us.
One major difference is the pop vocals, which might surprise fans of your remixes and more dancefloor tracks. How did you start to introduce voices and lyrics?
It just became part of the way we wrote because playing songs live became a thing that we cared about a lot, and we had more fun performing songs where Eric sang than anything else we’d ever done. It was definitely performing that made us really make the writing of songs more important. For the most part you don’t remember where you were the first time you heard a synth sound, you know? You remember where you were when you heard a song that for whatever reason had meaning to you. From our background, which is more experimental, it became the thing we wanted to do more seriously a little bit later.
It’s as though pop is more experimental for you than the music you were making before.
Yeah, it was about halfway through the band that we started to place more focus on that. A cool synth sound, an interesting beat – that stuff is very temporal and fickle. You’re in England, you know how quick those trends can be, over there especially. All of the songs that we wrote, if you dress them down they’re still in my opinion really good songs, and when we were writing them Eric would cut a version just on acoustic guitar if we were working out something.
One song that particularly stands out is Laughing, with its triplets time signature that suggests a major departure from the dancefloor. There seems to be a shade of pristine ’80s pop in the vein of Talk Talk, or even The Police?
I’ll take that, that’s a lot of the great music of my childhood, Eric’s too. It’s interesting because that song is only on the album over there [in the UK], it’s not on the album here. We initially cut it from the album and [the UK office] had heard it before that and were like, we really want that on. I wasn’t really clear why but I thought it was cool to have different versions of the album floating around. That song was very much influenced by a Robert Palmer song, Woke Up Laughing, not the album version but a remix he did in the ’90s. It’s a really cool song. It’s sort of rare to start with something like that – influences are more subconscious, normally. And then it’s usually up to a writer or a listener to point out what the influences are.
“the music you make is half what you think it is and half what people hear when they listen to it.” – Jesse Cohen
Yeah, unfortunately for you, perhaps.
No, I really think it’s kind of your job – I think that the music you make is half what you think it is and half what people hear when they listen to it.
Musicians don’t always enjoy hearing what other people, especially journalists, take from their music.
No, in general people hate hearing that, but I think you have to accept it. The writer is also a reader, you know, and you have to be willing to hear your music through other people’s ears, because it’s part of it.
“We call the music we make ‘existential pop’, that’s the winkysad. All the songs are questioning a lot of stuff, in terms of genre. I stand by that. In the same way that a Woody Allen movie is an existential comedy.” – Jesse Cohen
I guess that’s the typically postmodern way to approach a song or text – the listener or reader provides the interpretation or the meaning, so the artist never has complete control over their art.
Exactly. We call the music we make ‘existential pop’, that’s the winkysad. All the songs are questioning a lot of stuff, that’s what I think, in terms of genre. I stand by that. In the same way that a Woody Allen movie is an existential comedy.
Well, Woody Allen is very winkysad, right?
Thinking of your previous bands – Don Caballero and Professor Murder – punk rock is obviously in your blood. But would you still call yourselves punks?
No, I mean, I’m not gonna call myself a punk, I’m definitely a thirty-something-year-old guy trying to do this, but I can tell you that everything we’ve done, we’ve done ourselves, pretty much. Our mentality is still completely do-it-yourself. This is the first time we ever mixed with anybody else, it’s the first time anyone’s made a video for us, but we’ve been doing this for how many years? And it’s the first time we’ve had a publicist.
Talking of the video for All Of Me [above], it’s directed by The Mighty Boosh’s Julian Barratt. Were you a fan of his?
Yeah, I had watched a bunch of Boosh stuff. We thought a lot about what the point of making a music video today is – we didn’t want to just hire a guy who makes music videos, we wanted to make something interesting. Somebody had heard he wanted to make a video and sent [the track] to him and he loved it, so he sent this treatment – very weird, awesome, with amazing references and we were like, definitely, do it, whatever you want to do. He referenced these Fassbinder films where people were in these really depressing dances – we didn’t want to have people dancing in our video, but if we did it would be like this.