Tanlines Leave Bedroom Pop Behind in Favor of a New Sound on Highlights
Photo by Columbine Goldsmith
In the opening lines of "Slipping Away," the first single from Tanlines' forthcoming sophomore record, Highlights, Eric Emm's plaintive vocal rings out over an exuberant bassline akin to the Cure's "Close to Me": "Was I running backwards? Was it all just a dream?"
Emm's lyrics could easily be a reference to the whirlwind in which he, along with bandmate Jesse Cohen, began their career as Tanlines. Situated in an already buzzy scene full of Brooklyn bands with an electronic bent and a slightly nostalgic take on indie pop, their breakout EP, Settings, was a succinct, six-song statement in a sea of idiosyncratic remixes for like-minded bands such as Glasser, Au Revoir Simone, El Guincho, Memory Tapes, and Telepathe. There was even a split single with Salem. Circa 2010, Tanlines and their contemporaries were a who's-who of newly minted bedroom composers, and yet as these acts began to release full-lengths and fads in genre changed, many of them were relegated to Where Are They Now? status.
Tanlines, it seems, are not content to fade away.
They released full-length debut Mixed Emotions in 2012, and though some critics docked points for the LP's failure to push many boundaries, it reached No. 2 on the Billboard Heatseekers album chart and earned Tanlines a slew of fans who came out in droves to dance themselves into a frenzy at their shows. As a duo, there wasn't much else to do at those gigs besides dance; Cohen's clever between-song banter made performances a bit of a low-key comedy routine, but their stage plot was far from that of a traditional rock band. Highlights does not signify a total departure from the feel-good anthems of a late-night dance party, but it does build them up into something more substantial, with more instrumental arrangements, more complex song structure, and more introspective themes than in Tanlines' prior work.
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"The biggest reason those sounds changed is mostly from our experience as a live band over the last couple of years," Cohen explains when we talk over the phone. He's gearing up not only for the album's May 18 release, but also a summer-long tour that kicks off with two sold-out dates in New York City: at Rough Trade NYC (May 13) and the Bowery Ballroom (May 14).
"We played in front of bigger audiences, at festivals and stuff like that," he continues. "And a lot of what we do live is more guitars, more live drums — and I think more importantly, Eric's stage voice really emerged. It's just getting more of the live show onto the album."
Expanding Tanlines' sound meant expanding their inner circle. "We have always done almost everything completely by ourselves," Cohen admits. "We take baby steps. On our last album we produced it all ourselves. On this one we knew we wanted to have a producer on it." While longtime collaborator Patrick Ford offered a lot of insight, it was the addition of Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor to the production team that really allowed Emm to focus more deeply on the songwriting.
"He came in exactly when we needed another voice to sort of shape where the songs were gonna go," says Cohen of Taylor. Part of the excitement of working with Taylor, Cohen adds, was an implicit trust in Taylor's taste, but also the fact that he took the duo to a hundred-year-old Brooklyn church to record.
"That's where we finished the album and recorded most of the vocals, and that sound is all over this record. There's air and space and that's all new for us." Recording in the church was nothing short of surreal. "Eric and I, we're Jewish. We kept joking about how the most time we've ever spent in church was in these bizarre circumstances — [it's] empty, and we're working there till two in the morning, and we're on the balcony," he recalls. "It was a very unique, kind of special place, and on this album that was one of our goals: to try to work in new and more inspiring places than just, like, sitting in front of the computer together."
Everything about Highlights sees the band making bolder decisions, and Tanlines wanted to reflect that in their live shows as well. They've assembled musicians who will add guitar and live drums on tour, making these shows unlike the many that Tanlines have played as a duo. "We really just didn't want to come back out as the same two-piece, even though it was fun — and I loved being a two-piece for a lot of logistical reasons. This is just more true to [the album]. We're just trying to elevate the whole thing," says Cohen. "Eric and I, we're not Disclosure. We're in our thirties; we're not gonna be able to keep up with the way and the speed that electronic music moves. We knew that five years ago when we started thinking of ourselves more as a band."
Cohen is the first to admit that the band will always be indebted to the influence of electronic music, but now he's more interested in the way we interact with technology as human beings. The band's clever new website, which riffs on Netflix, is a nod to that. "I was like, we should make a website that looks exactly like Netflix and has our band info, but you could also watch Frasier on it. I just thought it was a funny idea and I thought that it speaks to how people use the internet nowadays," Cohen laughs. With fictitious movie posters based on the album's song titles and made-up Netflix categories like "Movies and TV You Probably Didn't Realize Were About Jews," the website is also a window into the guys' irreverent sense of humor and a telling glimpse of how they see themselves.
"The more we can let people know who we are as individuals, I think the more people will like our music somehow."
With two years having gone by since Tanlines' last release, Cohen realizes that their audience may be completely different this time around. "I think the reason that there's a sophomore curse is just because [the] people [who] really love your first album [are] gonna be different people two years later. And there's nothing you can do that would make a listener feel what they felt in the same exact way they did before," he says. "I think when you come out with your second album, people expect the same thing to happen, but everyone's in a different place than they were two years ago. I'm very comfortable with the fact that a lot of this is outside of my control. All I get to be is happy with the work that I made, and I am, so that's it."
Tanlines play Rough Trade NYC on May 13 and the Bowery Ballroom May 14. Both shows are sold out, but tickets are available on the secondary market.
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