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Q&A: Tanlines' Jesse Cohen On Winning The Best Band Twitter In NYC Award, Zucchini-Borne Controversies, And Comedy As Soccer

Jesse Cohen and Eric Emm of Tanlines.
Jesse Cohen and Eric Emm of Tanlines.

Giving the Best Local Music Twitter award in our Best of NYC issue to @tanlines was pretty much a no-brainer. The account, which is run by the duo's Jesse Cohen, is heavy on the wry observational humor and light on the "come see our band" or "here's somebody saying that we're awesome" self-promotion that bogs down way too many social-media outposts for musicians. Social-media gurus (and people who just want to be less annoying online) should take note; Cohen knows how to do it right. I talked to him on a chilly afternoon outside Blue Bottle about all things Internet; a condensed version of our lengthy chat is below.

So congratulations on winning! I have to read Twitter accounts for my job and yours is very enjoyable. Have you gotten a lot of new followers?

There was definitely a little bump. For some reason, hearing positive feedback in real life about my Twitter presence means more to me than anything else. When people say, "I really like your Twitter," or "You should follow him; he's really good at Twitter," it makes me feel so validated. And when I saw this, I shared it with everybody. When people say anything nice about our music, I never share that stuff—I'm not like, "Check out this nice review." But with this I was telling strangers—well, not strangers, but I told the woman when I got my hair cut that day, I saw someone on the street, I was like, "I'm great; check out this thing that happened." I sent it to a lot of friends randomly. It unabashedly made me feel really good about myself.

I don't know why that is. I think it's because even on Twitter—where people can respond and people can retweet you, so there is a forum for feedback built into it—it still feels like you're just alone typing a text message to the Internet over and over and over again. You don't really know if people are into it or not. So when someone tells you in real life that they like it, it makes you feel like it's worth doing. I mean, I would do it either way because I really like Twitter. I really believe that everyone has one social platform; there are Facebook people, Twitter people, Tumblr people, Youtube people, Flickr people. I'm definitely a Twitter person. I think it's great.

How long have you been doing it?

Since 2009.

Have you had any shift in the way that you've approached it since you've started?

No. I've noticed as you have more followers, it sort of changes because there's more feedback—more replies and stuff like that. But in terms of how I've used it, it's been pretty consistent. Do you mean as far as posting or consuming it?

Either/or. It's such a recursive thing, where you're reading and posting at the same time; in the beginning the two were more isolated, because it was all done through texting or the web interface. But with the smartphone apps, you're in the loop a lot more.

For a while at the beginning I would read anything anyone wrote. I would scroll to the bottom and start from there. I don't do that anymore. I just check in and I see what's happening, and I check out and I don't feel like I need to see everything everyone wrote in between. It's more of a stream now, and I think it's a lot better use of my time. But the other thing I notice is I don't really look at the Internet anymore. I'll look at [Twitter] and if someone posts [a URL], I'll click on it. But I don't like to just open up the Internet and think of a website to look at.

I don't really do that anymore either. I use it as my RSS reader in a way.

Exactly. I'd say like a handful of the things I follow are sites that just post whenever they put up something new.

In terms of what I've done, I just sort of first started doing the same thing.. I'd say I communicated roughly the same amount. I responded to roughly the same amount of things. The same ratio between observational humor and actual content about what we're doing as artists, which I would say is about 1 out of 20, and some of those ones out of 20s are sort of obscure—like we were in Miami mixing a record, but I didn't really say what I was doing there.

I think the worst thing you can do on Twitter is just repost positive things people say about you.

Yeah, like just reposting every Follow Friday recommendation. That's the most irritating thing... the Lil B approach, kind of.

It's terrible. Who's that?

He's a rapper. He'll go through and retweet things that mention him, like a hundred things at once. It's like OK, dude, we get it. People like you. Ladies are into you.

I would do that if it was someone really cool... [laughs] I'll reply to people and say thank you, but no one sees that.

Exactly. It's the whole idea of amplifying compliments that people might not see otherwise.

Yeah, I would never do that. I want to use it in a way that's somehow productive.

Do you think it's because you use Twitter for your observational humor that the Twitter accolade means so much to you?

Yeah, definitely. Also it's nice to know that I'm using this platform well, because a lot of people don't and a lot of people think it's a stupid platform. There's the sound of laughter on Twitter; when 100 people retweet it, that's the sound of laughter. It's fun.

One of the best things that's happened on Twitter recently is some guy that's on Grey's Anatomy started following me. I noticed because I got all of these weird comments from people who don't follow me, and I realized that this guy from Grey's Anatomy started following me and retweeting all of these things. He's a model/actor and he has all of these women followers—like 100,000 followers—and I think it's funny because I'm just assuming that he doesn't know that I do music. It's just a hilarious thing that I can make a joke that is retold by some guy on Grey's Anatomy.

 

Tanlines, "Real Life"

How long have you been doing music now?

I started playing music in high school, but I've been in New York playing music for six or seven years.

The whole idea of having an online presence has changed a lot since then.

Yeah. In those days, bands would have websites—your own website that you'd have to figure out how to program or hire someone to program for you. No one would do that now. Well, now you do it if you're like Coldplay—then you have a website—but now, bands don't have websites. I definitely think that bands are branding themselves now from infancy, and I guess that that happened before, but it wasn't such a big thing. You have a band, and you also have a web presence, and that's cool, too.

If I'm going to do something, like if I'm going to be on Twitter or MySpace and it's going to represent our work as musicians, I want it to be good. If you put anything out, it should be something you think is good or consistent. If it's personal, then it should be good.

We have a Facebook page, too, and the only things I put on our Facebook page are [pieces of promotional news]. That's all that goes on there.

Do you think there's a reason for that? Do you think that Twitter feels more intimate?

I think that they're different mediums and I feel that people consume them differently. So Kanye writes "Mosquitoes suck," on Twitter. I don't know, maybe he would do that on Facebook.

Well, I think the thing with Facebook is that there's the division between your personal profile and your profile as the brand, or the band. With Twitter, for you, it's more integrated.

It's funny that you say that, because I don't know if I would use Twitter if it was just "Jesse Cohen." The fact that it's Tanlines, and there's sort of this wall between it and the people who know me—or know us, and at some point know that I'm the one who's doing it—it's underneath that umbrella. If it was just Jesse Cohen, I don't think I would do it, or I wouldn't do it in the same way. I might just use it to read or talk to my friends, but I don't think I would enjoy it as much.

It helps me also that there's sort of some anonymity about it vaguely, because some people think, "Well, maybe it's Eric," or it's our label. People don't really quite know, and I never really talk about my personal life. I can't explain that. I don't swear on Twitter; I don't know why, I never thought about it. I never was like, "I don't want to." I swear in real life all the time, but I never do on Twitter. I may have been like, "Look at this fucking hipster joke," but I put a star in the middle of the [f-]word.

I remember someone asked Jerry Seinfeld if he ever told a joke where he swore, and he said, once I told a joke and I used the word "fuck" and people laughed and then I tried to tell the joke again without it and no one laughed. I don't want to tell jokes like that.

Who are your biggest comedic influences?

I've gotten really into comedy in the bunch of several years. I really like Louis CK and George Carlin and Chris Rock and those guys. On Twitter I really like Chelsea Peretti—I think she's really funny. I just got Dick Gregory's autobiography and I think he's a really cool guy. Who else? Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David. I think comedy is maybe the greatest and most pure form of art possible.

Why?

I've never done comedy, but I have so much respect for them because it's like the soccer of art. There's no equipment, you don't need the right stuff to play—it's just a ball. Comedy is the exact same thing; it's just a person talking, and it's good if people are laughing. It's a very simple equation. Music doesn't really work that way. I can tell when we're having a good show; I can tell when people who like us are there. But it's not as pure. There's a built-in mechanism for knowing if you're succeeding in your art in comedy. And aughing is one of the best things you can do, and if making people laugh is your craft, that's incredible. That's such a gift. It seems incredibly difficult, you know? Having recently gotten into the Marc Maron podcast, it definitely sounds very difficult in terms of a career.

How long have you been online?

I don't know how to answer that. I was never a LiveJournal person or anything. In 2003 and 2004 I was doing some online art projects. In those days, you made your website or had to know someone who made one, because there wasn't Tumblr or Wordpress. So we did a few music art projects, my friends and I. I used to do these email exhibitions—I have a career as a photo archivist; I'm part-time now—in like 2003, 2004, 2005, and it was just things I would find either in our archives or online and I would put them in an email and send it out to a list. I think it was maybe 500 people by the end. Some of them were whimsical and some of them were sad, and some funny and some whatever. People were like, "Well, you should really do a blog." But the point of it was not a blog; the point of it was to create a temporary space on the Internet.

Twitter is super-temporal; the search is notoriously terrible. It barely goes back a week. What do you think of that, as an archivist?

I'm more of a content person than a systems person, but I have to assume somebody is just working on that. I know that they are in terms of the White House, and maybe some of that will trickle down. We still don't know the lifespan of a digital file. We like to think that our photos will last longer as digital items then as paper items, but we don't really know.

I think I naturally have pretty good etiquette when it comes to these kinds of things, but sometimes I see people and I'm like, "That person's using the Internet wrong." I never talk about artists on Twitter. I don't know why that is. I made a joke about Justice the other day and I was like, "Maybe I shouldn't have done that." But I figured it wasn't mean-spirited, so that's OK.

It's so easy for one mean-spirited thing online to sort of just funnel up into a tornado of people getting angry and upset.

For whatever reason, I'm not not subject to that kind of scrutiny. I think the most controversial thing I ever said on Twitter is I don't like zucchini. Well, I didn't say I don't like zucchini—I said I don't think zucchini is anyone's favorite vegetable. People like it, but I don't think anyone would say, "Oh, that's my favorite vegetable." I got, like, a million responses—"Oh, I love zucchini!" That's fine; I like it, too. My point was I didn't think it was anyone's favorite.

That was the most controversy I've ever drummed up. Just a lot of replies. Maybe it's just because people thought I was hating on something, and I never really hate on anything. But I wasn't really hating on it. Man, that's sad if that's all it takes. And I think in some ways, that's all it is. I think the impulse to comment negatively about something is stronger than the impulse to comment positively on something. Like, if you look at Yelp, most people go on Yelp when they want to complain about something more so than they do when they're like, "This is awesome."

I've always had an idea for a web service called big-up.com, where you can only talk about things you like.

I think you should do it.

Only positive things, and the community will kick you out if you hate on something.

You should start getting your angel investors.

I would love that. That would be my dream job.

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