X Backstage: Tanlines

Before Tanlines existed as a band, Eric Emm and Jesse Cohen were just two friends who liked playing music as well as producing it. Emm was well known for playing bass for math-rock gods Don Caballero; Cohen for playing drums for dance-punk band Professor Murder. They joined creative forces in 2008 on a lark to remix a song for the band Telepathe, a band Emm was working with at the time. Just for laughs, they posted it online when they were finished.

The tune got a lot of attention from tastemakers and other musicians. So the duo wrote a song, dubbed "New Flowers," for a friend's art project, and the response was even stronger: The UK label Young Turks (The XX, SBTRKT) contacted them and released the single in 2009.

Invitations to play gigs around the world poured in and the Brooklyn, NY, duo traveled the globe. They also kept it local by playing a handful of Manhattan museums: The Guggenheim, The Whitney, the New Museum.

"Our genre was 'museum house' for a while," jokes Emm.

It was like working with an ax hanging over your head.
Jesse Cohen

Scoring an opening slot on Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas' solo tour in 2009, Tanlines released their first EP on True Panther in 2010. Riding high, they booked a three-week tour in Europe -- but the shows fell flat, which encouraged them to re-evaluate their sound.

Listening to Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M. and a smattering of skate punk from the '80s, Emm and Cohen started to analyze the guts of great tunes and realized that songwriting was paramount: A great song is musical gold and often pays dividends regardless of who is playing it or what production techniques are used to record it.

They took this lesson to heart on their first record, "Mixed Emotions," which dropped last year and reached No. 1 on iTunes the day it was released. A perfect summer record, it's smart and catchy. Whether you're driving with the top down on the Pacific Coast Highway or just wishing you were, it brings together the indie Afro-pop-ness of Vampire Weekend, house music and just enough synth to conjure up most bands who've appeared on a John Hughes soundtrack.

We geeked out with Cohen (drums, keyboard, bass) about his former life as a photo archivist, the comparison between a snapshot and a song as storytelling mediums (we told you it was geeky) and the search for a century-old selfie. We also chatted about his band, which will play as part of the X Games MUSIC Club Nokia at L.A. LIVE showcase on Aug. 2. (Tickets are available here..)

XGames.com: You were thrown out of your studio while recording your first album, "Mixed Emotions." Did that affect the record?
Jesse Cohen: We started this band in that space. When we were just about to start writing the album, we learned the building was going to be sold. But we didn't know when we were going to leave [the studio]. So we were like, "We're going to stay working here for as long as we possibly can and when we have to move, we'll move."

It was like, "We have to do this right now and we have to be in the moment, more than we would be if we were as comfortable as working at our own space." The record still took a long time, but it definitely happened at a time to make some changes. It was like working with an ax hanging over your head.

Your first record came out on March 20 of last year. What has the band been up to since then?
Mostly touring and playing shows. For the last four months or so, we've been writing songs.

Is there a release date for the new record?
Our plan is to have an album next year, ideally springtime.

How does the new stuff differ?
I can't say yet. We're still working, and at a certain point we tie to what the album is. I don't think we're there yet, so I don't want to say.

Do you think you'll be playing any of the new songs at the X Games show?
I'm not sure. I definitely think playing songs live these days, the songs have to be [at] a stage where you're comfortable with it being out there -- if, for example, someone puts [a live recording] on YouTube. I'm not sure if the songs will be at that stage yet.

You were a photo archivist for the Institute for Jewish Research for a decade, but you resigned last year to concentrate on music. Do you miss it?
No. I don't. I did that job for many years. I always thought that while I was doing music and while I was being a photo archivist that I had two sides to my life. The visual side was the archival job and the musical side was music. I was afraid that when I left that job that I wouldn't have that visual side being stimulated. So far, I've mostly enjoyed just immersing myself in music.

Can you tell me a little more about being a photo archivist? It's such an unusual job.
I worked at a library, a historical-society kind of place. We had a huge collection of photographs, mostly from Eastern Europe from the turn of the century through World War II. I worked with anyone who was writing a book or a documentary film -- a lot of different projects.

Basically, I know the collection as well as anyone could and I worked with those people and helped them find images for their projects. It was interesting work. It was changing a lot. I was spending my days looking at these old photographs myself. It was [an] interesting and inspiring place.

Ben Rayner

Tanlines performs at X Games Los Angeles on Fri., Aug. 2, at Club Nokia.

What kind of photos were they? I read they were snapshots.
Yeah, it's a Yiddish library, so they were mostly snapshots and what you would call "vernacular photography" from Poland and Russia before World War II. A lot were family portraits and they were the only time these people had been photographed in their entire life.

It was a nice sort of balance with the rest of the world, which is nonstop photographs, all the time. One of the things I was trying to do was, like ... [Cohen pauses.] I really wanted to find very old selfies, from the 1910s or 1920s. But I could never find one. I don't think it was something people really did at all until -- I don't know when. We didn't have a lot of stuff from the '60s, '70s and 80s; I would guess that sometime around then you would see one.

How would you compare a photo and a song as storytelling devices?
That's hard. I don't write the lyrics. That's a great question, though. One of the things I always thought about photographs was when you look at an old snapshot, especially one where you don't have any additional information, you don't know who the people are; you don't know where the people are, exactly. A lot of the story the picture tells is the story you make up for yourself. You look at the photograph and you fill in the details on what you personally know. You project your own thoughts. You think the girl looks sad or the guy looks happy and you start to wonder why the guy looks happy.

When they say a picture says 1,000 words, it's all stuff you're just making up. With a song, that's true also because you don't know what the author is thinking. But with a song, you can tap into more specific emotions than you can … [Cohen trails off.]

I'm just comparing it to work I did, working with other people's snapshots. A photographer would disagree with me because they're creating images to tap into people's emotions. But comparing to work I've done, I think that you can create a mood with more purpose [with songwriting] than you can with selecting a photograph.

They're incredibly different, but those are the two narrative devices I'm interested in. I've never really compared them. Part of my life when I was working as an archivist was keeping the two worlds separate. I'd clock in and clock out mentally. I was never interested in combining the two preoccupations.

Songs and photographs are self-contained worlds.
Also, that work -- I felt like I was working the 1920s in Warsaw half of my time. I'd leave that work and be in Brooklyn in 2012 or whatever, making music that's pretty new-sounding.

Your last band, Professor Murder, definitely had a dance element. Eric Emm's band, not so much. How did you two find your sound?
Eric's other bands were not danceable, but they were extremely rhythm oriented. Both the drumming and the guitar work definitely played with the idea of rhythm a lot. The big difference is his other bands had a niche appeal and [were] more cerebral. The music we make now is more visceral. I think that's the combination of me and him.

I just sit down and I want to work good beats and catchy hooks. That's really all I ever think about. He's in another place. He's focusing on his lyrics and weird little details about the music and songwriting.

We always say that Tanlines is the line between light and dark. In general, I bring the light and he brings the dark. That's the musical partnership.

How did you come up with the name?
Fans think more about the band's name than the band does. You have to come up with the band name at the very infancy of the band. You put the name on the band when you want to have your first show or when you want to put your first piece of music on the Internet.

The name starts at the infancy of the band and you hope you can grow into it. The truth is, we never really thought that much about it. It was sort of a joke about being white guys working in the studio all day and being pale and [the music] being really sunny sounding.

That was sort of the joke, but as time goes on, I'm more into the line between light and dark -- the line between where the sun hits and where it doesn't.

How do you compare playing live to making music in the studio?
One thing we learned when we started doing this was without playing live, it wasn't really that fun or interesting to us. When we first started making music together, it was unclear if we were trying to be a band or be producers.

When people asked us to play live, we were like, "Alright, let's try that."

Straight from the beginning, we got a great response live. Once that happens and once you play a song and people know the words and people come up to you and say, "I love that song" -- once that starts to happen, that automatically becomes, at least for us, what we're chasing. It's the payoff for all the work you put in [at] the studio: to go out, play it and see a few thousand people singing along. Or people who want to thank you.

Do either of you skateboard?
Eric used to skateboard back in Pittsburgh when he was growing up. We went to Pittsburgh for a week in the winter to write music and he showed me his skateboard collection. They're kickass.

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