Q&A: Tanlines on Settings, Baring it All on YouTube, and Their Menagerie of Outlandish Sound Bytes
Jesse Cohen (former Professor Murder keyboardist) and Eric Emm (former Don Caballero bassist) started Tanlines as a production team at the peak of summer, 2008, releasing a string of remixes for bands like Telepathe, El Guincho, and Au Revoir Simone. But eventually, Tanlines morphed into something else: a band, cranking out original songs filled with bellowing vocals, guitar arpeggios, and electrified Latin beats, all submerged in a sea of chopped up samples. They've been staring down computers and tinkering with sound at Eric's studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn for the past year and a half. And now, after all those singles and remixes, they're releasing their debut EP, Settings (True Panther) on March 9. We recently chatted with drummer Jesse Cohen over the phone about his band's breakneck songwriting process, their fascination with YouTube, and the pleasures of being remixed.
How did Tanlines stray from a production project to what it is today--a full-fledged band?
I think that it's mostly been a process of us figuring out what we can do effectively. Originally, we were just going to produce songs and have different people sing on them, kind of like a producer album--the way that Timbaland will have a record where a different person raps or sings on each song. I think at some point we realized that we never listen to albums like that and we started writing our own songs. Although, it's still something that I think we'd like to do if we met somebody who we thought was really talented. That's why we started doing things that way: because it seemed like a really fun way to make music.
Who were you thinking of featuring?
We'd send instrumentals to different people that we knew. Some people came in and recorded vocals, just friends we know from doing music. We have some of that stuff. I've thought about making a mixtape just to get rid of it, really. It's also a year and a half old so it might be confusing. I think I would still want to release that stuff, it's just that the focus now is we want to write new songs for our next release.
Where do you typically find your samples?
We record our own samples--we use a lot of stuff that comes with software instruments, to be honest. We also have a hard drive full of free sound effects and we try to work with those. We definitely have recorded whole drum kits for samples of our own. I think this is part of how you do music now.
Your songs are loaded with tropical samples, like electrified bongos and marimbas. Is music like that particularly dear to you guys?
I think that part of this project, or even the project of doing music now, involves incorporating whatever you're listening to. I think that a big part of this project has been to give our take on dance music. There's definitely the influence of rhythm-based music, like from the West Indies, but there's also just as much British studio '90s music. I've always listened to a lot of Reggae music. There's no question that it's in there. I think the most overt use of it was when we wrote a riff on the steel drum for a remix we did for Glasser. Of all the samples and software instruments that we have, we didn't have a steel drum. The one vintage drum machine that we actually own at our studio does have a steel drum in it so we just miced and recorded the drum machine, then used it as an instrument in the computer. It was kind of funny.
It seems like a good amount of your sound is pulled from the computer, excepting the guitar and vocals. How much of the drums do you physically play?
We play everything in. We don't draw in drum parts at all. The normal way we write drum parts is we start a song and I'll just play electronic drums over it for a long time. Then we'll listen back and pick out the parts that we like and edit that to be the drum part. And then I'll play on top of that one for a long time and throw away most of it, but keep a couple things. So there's a lot of different parts playing on top of each other eventually, which is what the record sounds like. Part of the effect of the record is that a lot of the drum stuff is not something a human could play, no matter what. Maybe someday humans will be able to play those parts. I think that'd be great. Logistically we're just not there yet.
Since you both worked separately as musicians and producers, how does that fusion of sensibilities come to affect Tanlines?
The biggest thing is that it informs the process. Our process is still very much the process of somebody who is producing music in a studio. I can't imagine any other way that we could write music. We're not writing songs in a practice space, then jamming, finishing the song and bringing it to the studio to record it. Everything that we do we write and record at the same time. At first we were trying to work really fast, but as you get more complicated and think harder about what you're trying to do everything slows down. I really like working quickly. "First thought, best thought" is my go-to mentality. Eric's more of a perfectionist. He really spends a lot of time trying to get things to how he wants to hear them, and sometimes things go his way and sometimes they go my way.
I've heard you guys put on some pretty wild and energetic shows...
I would like to be able to feel like we can play any kind of live situation and somebody will find something they like about us. I'd be happy to play to an art gallery with no one there, or to a bunch of people sitting at tables who are eating dinner, or at a club, and it makes just as much sense at any of those places. The last vibe I'd ever want to project from stage is, "Why aren't you guys dancing? Why aren't you guys feeling this more?" I'm happy if it feels good to play and that can happen in any kind of situation. In the same way, I like to make music that casts a wide net where people can grab onto it from a lot of different angles.
This seems to relate to the accessibility of your music.
Yeah, we've been releasing music since the first day we ever worked together, publicly. The first time we ever sat down together to write a song we put it on the Internet the next day. I don't know if anyone's bothering to pay attention to the whole thing, but the whole project has been played out publicly. You can trace the progression of what we're doing if you cared to. It's a very Internet-era project.
You don't have a formal band website, only an eye-searing, neon-tinted YouTube page. Why is YouTube the go-to place for you?
I think it's the best music site right now. When we're working together in the studio and we want to reference any song, that's what we pull it up on. When you do that you get original versions, cover versions, live versions, versions that people write the wrong lyrics to on the screen, versions where people are in their living room, mouthing the lyrics to a song. You get all these different things. It's a genuine community of music in more ways than you could possibly imagine. I think it's a relatively new thing that's growing and didn't really happen by design. It's really amazing. When we first started doing music we would talk about it a lot and how we wanted this project to somehow be part of that community.
So far you've paired each of your songs with a video. What's the importance of doing that? What makes digging up discarded home movies and then editing them so much fun for you?
I think we'll be doing videos for all the songs on the record slowly after it comes out. Videos are really good for giving an additional layer of context in which to listen to the music, just like a song title can do that. For me, downloading stuff from YouTube, editing it, and putting it back on YouTube is not analogous to the way that we make music, but it references the way that we make music in a way that's visual. It's fun and it looks fun and maybe it makes the songs a little bit more fun.
So it seems like you've been trickling out songs on the Web. What made you decide that it was time to round up a collection and record this EP?
I really like releasing singles and I think ultimately songs are more important than anything else. If you have an album of nine so-so songs and one song that's absolutely amazing, that's all that really matters. I do think that releasing the six songs we did together for this EP contextualizes what we're trying to do in a way that you can't do just with single songs, even over a long period of time. I would like to continue doing singles, EPs, and remixes because all of those things are interesting ways to let the listener know what you're trying to do.
A clearly defined human presence only shows up in a handful of your songs.
We started using vocals as an instrument fairly early on, but it was more in an abstract way. Eric sang on some of our first songs, but not like lyrics. I think it's mostly because vocals aren't Eric's first instrument. He's played guitar most of his life and his voice is still a new instrument. There's still some experimentation and maybe a bit of anxiety that works its way into what's used, and I think that's a good combination for him, playing guitar and singing.
How does it feel to have other people remixing what you've released when you yourself got your start remixing?
I think it's great that we're able to produce something that someone can turn into something else instead of just being a one-way thing. It feels good to take something and also to make something. It's interesting to feel both sides of that relationship, to get your stuff turned into a new song.
Tanlines performs at Monster Island Basement on Friday, March 5.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.