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Tanlines Open Up About 'Highlights,' Their New Make-It-or-Break-It Record

A candid look at the inner workings and anxieties of the Brooklyn-based electronic-pop duo, whose sophomore album dropped today.

by David Shapiro
19 May 2015, 11:00pm

Last Wednesday, in a dressing room behind the stage at Rough Trade in Williamsburg, I sat with Jesse Cohen, one half of the Brooklyn-based electronic-pop duo Tanlines, a few hours before their sold-out show. I watched as he fidgeted and readjusted the way he was sitting on the couch. He asked, "What's the question, exactly? What are my anxieties about being a guy who's 35 and whose success depends on how this record does? Is that the question?"

Tanlines' second album, Highlights, came out this morning, more than three years since their debut, Mixed Emotions. That's a long time. Especially considering the idea of a "band" feels less relevant now than it ever has. Outof the last ten albums that Pitchfork has given Best New Music designation, only one has been by a band, whereas in the ten albums that received Best New Music immediately surrounding Tanlines' 2012 debut, seven were by bands.And out of the top 40 songs on Billboard right now, only three are by bands. In 2015, two white dudes making guitar-oriented music seems almost antiquated. The landscape has changed.

"If the album doesn't go anywhere, this whole thing we've been building up to for three years could be over in three weeks, when the tour is over," Cohen said with a sigh. "If the demand isn't there, the offers dry up, and then we have to think about the next thing."

I've known Jesse for five years, and I've never heard him talk about his work with such vulnerability. He said, "You don't want to go out and close the show with the same song you closed with on the last tour. I mean, if the audience wants it, you do it, but it's not something you want to have to do. You want to close with a new song, but if there's no new song to close with..." He trailed off.

Jesse Cohen: "I banned the word perfect from our studio. I'd say, 'Oh, it isn't perfect? Hey, nothing is.'"

Handsome, garrulous, and immediately likable, Jesse runs Tanlines' Twitter account (18.7K followers) and orchestrates the band's unconventional promotional tactics—for this album, they turned their website into a Netflix clone that Netflix itself loved , set up a conference call to let people hear the new album, and released a music video for the song "Pieces," produced by comedy site FunnyOrDie, that interpolated White Men Can't Jump.

For a band playing subtle, adult pop songs that don't sound trendy and take more than 15 seconds to love, promotional acumen is a survival skill, not a luxury. But it seems like they like doing it. Jesse keeps a list of promotional ideas on his phone. "In the band, I'm the vibes guy. [Eric Emm]'s the technical one. He's a perfectionist. He can hear things, like the smallest change in a reverb setting, that I can't hear," Jesse said. "I banned the word perfect from our studio. I'd say, 'Oh, it isn't perfect? Hey, nothing is.'"

A few minutes later, Eric, the more serious, somewhat prickly member of the band who sings the songs and plays guitar, sat down with Jesse for a Skype interview with about the "Pieces" video. The interviewer asked them why they chose to riff on White Men Can't Jump and Jesse said with a grin, "We liked the idea of showing us, two grown men, trying our hardest and failing."

Jesse Cohen and Eric Emm in 2015. Photo credit: Columbine Goldsmith

After the interview was over, Jesse said, "I mean, if it were up to me, I would rather interviewers ask more about the music. But if they didn't talk about the promotional stuff, they wouldn't be talking about us at all." He shrugged. "I don't know if with Eric and I, there's a great narrative." (Jesse quit a job as a library archivist to be in Tanlines full-time. Eric's been in bands since he was a teenager.) Jesse continued, "Some bands appear fully formed, like the xx. The music, the packaging, the narrative—it was all there. With us, I would just like for people to be like, 'I like those guys.' I think it's working. No one says anything mean about us on Twitter."

Related: Meet Tanlines

The duo have spent most of the last six years together. They admire each other. But sometimes they disagree. "Me and Jesse are in a relationship not unlike a romantic partnership, so we argue like people in a romantic partnership. We fight about stuff that we don't even remember. Like, why did I throw that bottle at him in Manchester?" He looked away for a second. "I don't remember. But we want the same things."

One thing they want, that's hard for anyone to admit about their creative project, is for their album to succeed enough to let them keep making music together. Eric said, "It never occurred to me that the songs on the new album wouldn't be bigger, better, and brighter. But sometimes I think, Will 'All of Me,'"the surprise slow-burn single from their first album, "be the biggest thing Tanlines ever does? I'm getting to a moment in my life where this is what I do. In my darkest moments, I think about what else I would do. Like, when I see Nuno Bettencourt, who's very respected in guitar circles and who was in the 80s metal band Extreme. Now he's Rihanna's guitarist, I think... Good for him. That's a decent gig and it pays well. Good for him."

Jesse Cohen and Eric Emm in 2015. Photo credit: Columbine Goldsmith

Eric, who's reserved when he isn't singing, wants to be heard at the same volume as those closest to him. "My wife," BuzzFeed senior editor Katie Notopolous, "my brother," prominent technology journalist Joshua Topolsky, "and Jesse, they're all talkers. They all have podcasts. And I come from a family of talkers. But my voice gets heard on these songs. That's the place I've sort of stolen away from everyone. For those 45 minutes," onstage or on their albums, "the people around me have to listen to me."

And maybe more than they want their band to succeed commercially, they want to make people feel something. Highlights is bittersweet and direct. You might get choked up when you listen to it. After a few spins, it's hard to stop playing it, because it's rewarding each time you press play. And it's small enough to feel like it's yours.

I left Rough Trade and called Katie Notopolous, Erics's wife, the BuzzFeed editor. I asked her about what Eric and Jesse are going through.

"What's scary for them is that they've spent three years on something and they don't know what's going to happen," she said. "It's a week before it comes out and they don't know if people will like it. That messes with you. But on the other hand, getting to be in a band, they're lucky. That's a blessing. And they both know that."

Tanlines' new album Highlights is out today on True Panther.

David Shapiro is the author of You're Not Much Use to Anyone and the creator of Pitchfork Reviews Reviews. Follow him on Twitter.