For Tanlines, 2012 will go down as a monumental year that opened and closed with equally epic New York shows. Back in April, the euphoric rhythms of the Brooklyn-based alt-indie duo—who had just released Mixed Emotions on True Panther Sounds a couple of weeks prior—may as well have served as invisible puppet strings. Each chorus and bridge conducted the fluid movements and raised hands in the room, while “All Of Me,” “Yes Way,” and “Green Grass” united one happy, hustling crowd underneath the fractured light of the Bowery Ballroom’s disco ball.
“We started off the year with that tour in April, and that show at the Bowery Ballroom was a big moment for us,” recalls Jesse Cohen. “There was a lot of love. It started the whole year on a good foot that really propelled us.” Since then, Tanlines have gone on to play a handful of festivals and put their passports to good use, meandering through the country while playing for small rooms or thousands of people depending on the day. Sometimes people danced, sometimes people didn’t, and most of the time (as we’ll get into below), Cohen and his cohort, Eric Emm, disagreed about whether or not any given set was a great one or a bust.
One thing the pair will likely concede is that their upcoming engagement at Webster Hall is set to match the Bowery show for its energy and encouraging vibe. Before taking the stage on 11th Street, we asked Cohen to take us through the past year in order to get an unfiltered look at what 2013 may have in store for Tanlines.
What’s your relationship like with Mixed Emotions as a pivotal body of work for you guys? Have your feelings towards your debut record changed?
I think all of the songs have grown since the album came out. It feels like its just getting better and better, you know? It feels like every time we play somewhere there are more people who know the music. I think the more we play the more confident we are, and I think we’re getting better. We’ve done some festival shows now which was a new thing. I think playing live has been a huge part of this project, and I’m really happy with that.
What’s a concrete set list choice for you, a no-brainer pick to kick off a show with?
We open some shows with an almost acoustic version of “Rain Delay” which is totally different than the album version. It’s kind of a quiet and intimate way to start the show. I’ve been happy with that. We stretch some things out and make them longer than they are on the album. Playing live was kind of a big surprise for us, actually—before this album we were just kind of making songs and putting them on the Internet. It’s only when we started playing live and people liked us that it really pushed us forward. I think we were better live than we expected to be. On paper, we’re just two guys making live electronic music—that can be pretty boring. One way or another, I think we’ve stumbled onto something that works, and I’m really happy about that.
As far as electronic music is concerned, do you ever feel like you’re subscribing to a genre that you don’t fully identify with? How do conversations about genre go between you two?
I think that most musicians wouldn’t want to give themselves a genre—you want to feel free to make whatever kind of music you think is interesting. We’ve really tried to put our personalities at the front of the project so that people really get to know us and trust us when we make the music that we want to make. When we did this album, “Green Grass” was a rock song, and there are songs on Mixed Emotions that are upbeat and songs that are kind of downers. It’s important to us to have all of those on there. I don’t know what genre it is. I just let people who write about music decide. I think that one thing that comes through is the mix of stuff that’s on there. There’ll be a song that’s got a 4/4 electronic drumbeat with a country guitar line. The mix of stuff is what I think is important to the music, a mix of happy and sad and different styles. The mix is what I’m interested in doing, and that’s definitely part of who we are. We listen to a lot of different kind of music, and I think there’s a sense of humor and sadness to it.
What’s the anatomy of a great dance song for Tanlines?
One thing I believe in is that the worst vibe you can present to an audience is “Why aren’t you guys dancing more?!” How many times have you been somewhere where someone’s like, “Why aren’t you dancing?!” and you’re like, “I just don’t feel like it and dancing is only fun if I feel like doing it!”, right? We’re not really thinking about it that much. If a song works because it has an up-tempo beat, then that’s what that song becomes. If it works without us dropping beats, that’s what that becomes. We don’t talk about writing dance music; we just try to write interesting pop music. No part of the goal of the band is to make people dance—it’s to write good songs that people like listening to for as long as possible. We don’t think of ourselves as a dance act; we think of ourselves as alternative indie songwriters who use a lot of the same instruments that people who make dance music use. I don’t even like the genre name “dance” because I think there’s an expectation for how you should listen to it—if you’re not dancing to it, it means that something is wrong. Like I said, I don’t want to do that. We play great shows where no one is dancing, and great shows where everyone is, so you’ll always feel something. That’s really the goal: you make something to help people feel something, and that can be a lot of different things that are all equal.
Do you approach your collaborations and remixes the same way?
When you listen to our remixes, most of them aren’t danceable at all—they’re just sort of, like, songs. The Au Revoir Simone remix that we did, we slowed it down and did a half-tempo thing that turned out to be a cool song by a, like, fictional band. Our approach there was to write new music that would stand on its own. year.
If you could single out one hallmark moment from all of the shows you’ve played this year, which one would it be?
We did the F Yeah Festival in Los Angeles, and it was one of the best shows we’ve ever played. Something just happened: everything lined up right, it was the right time of day, we were in the right mood … I’m not sure what it was. Usually, when we finish playing a show, we walk off the stage, and I’ll say to Eric, “Hey, that was great!” and he’ll say “THAT WAS TERRIBLE!” Or he’ll say “That was pretty good!” and I’ll say “No, it was terrible.” We walked off the stage at that show and we were both like, “That was incredible.” It felt great. was when we felt that we can do this, that we can walk up without much preparation and play for thousands of people and everything will sound great, and people can walk away from us going, “That’s a really good live band.” That day felt like a turning point for us.
What are you looking forward to the most in this homecoming show?
I really hope that it feels like a bookend to the Bowery show, going into Christmas and the New Year. We’re slowing down with touring and stuff, so I hope it feels that way—I hope it feels like a bookend to something that started a long time ago. I hope that it propels Eric and me to the next stage, which we’re going to start writing soon.
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