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Tanlines’ Jesse Cohen on Mixed Emotions and the Band’s ‘Winky-Sad’ Sound

Jesse Cohen of Tanlines. Photo: Roger Kisby/Getty Images

Tanlines kicked off summer in February when they dropped their dance-it-out single “All of Me” — and Vulture was super excited about that. So you can imagine our delight today, when the Brooklyn-based duo (Jesse Cohen and Eric Emm) release their first full-length album, Mixed Emotions. (They’ve otherwise been kicking around the Internet for two years, sharing YouTube singles, EPs, and remixes.) Cohen chatted with Vulture about online indie cred, his siblinglike relationship with Emm, and their “winky-sad” sound.

This is your first full-length album. But you’ve been putting music out for a while, straight from your studio to the Internet.
I never wanted to be the kind of artist that sat there working on something that I thought was a masterpiece for, like, years and either never putting it out because I never thought it was done, or putting it out and no one caring about it. It was always like, “Well, it’s done. Let’s do it. Throw it out there.” And, you know, some of that stuff that we put out? I don’t know if it holds up. It very much matched the temporal way it was released, in my opinion. I would say we had to release music that way at the beginning because it’s what propelled us to keep trying things. If we hadn’t thrown songs out there, no one would’ve asked us to play live. And playing live, I think, is the thing that really made us feel we could do this as a band. We learned a lot about our chemistry together. It was like a relationship: You know how when you’re in a relationship with somebody, you want to take a trip with them to make sure you guys are actually [compatible]? So we had to go through some of that ourselves.

Do you feel pressure, though, for Mixed Emotions to succeed in a more legit way?
I do, sure, but I would no matter what. Honestly, I think the truth is that the first phase of our music — putting stuff out and getting attention on blogs — that died out to a zero between then and this album, even though it was only two years ago. It’s sort of like, “Oh, remember that band?” People might be like, “Oh, that’s so two years ago.” That’s sort of the fear. But what else can you do? I’m really glad we took the time and we treated this the way we did, because even though it might’ve been better for us in some respects to get an album out to capitalize on whatever buzz we had a couple years ago, we want to think of ourselves not in terms of reacting to whatever the music marketplace is, but as artists.

How is writing songs for YouTube different from writing songs for a cohesive album?
I guess one big difference is the immediate gratification of finishing a song and putting it out. You get this immediate feedback. This was more working, working, and working. We wrote, like, 50 songs. We were just writing constantly. Some of those 50 songs we wrote in a day and we were like, “No,” and moved on. The ones we thought were good were the ones we kept going back to, and those were the ones we finished. By the time we got to the point of mixing the album, it was probably more like fifteen or sixteen songs that we thought about putting on the album.

How’d you get it down to eleven?
We were trying to get it down to ten, really, which I think is the best number of songs for an album. So we started playing stuff for a lot of people … When you play music for people who’ve never heard it before, you really hear it through their ears; it sounds different to you because you can feel what they’re responding to.

What’s the working relationship with Eric like? Any fights?
Oh, yeah. We know each other well enough and are close enough that we’re comfortable fighting about stuff. We have a shared sensibility and often think a lot of the same things are good, but like any relationship, we’re two individuals and have to find a way to meet in the middle. Especially because Eric is more of a perfectionist than I am. We often fought about when something was done. I’m more into the sunnier, brighter parts of the music, and the darker stuff tends to come from him, so sometimes I’d be like, “Eh, this song is kind of a bummer.” And he’d say, “This song is actually really important to me.” And we’d find a way to make it work for both of us.

Your music pushes new, innovative sounds, but some people say they hear the eighties in there, too.
I’m not afraid of those comparisons at all. I do think we are a very contemporary band in the sense that we produce our own music, for one thing, and the way that we write is somewhere between composing and producing; it’s a very progressive way to make music. In terms of what it sounds like, I think we try to sound like a lot of things at once, but still have our own voice. I don’t think there’s really anything ironic about the music that we make. I don’t think there’s anything so referential that it’s distracting. Sometimes that can happen — it’s too overly nostalgic or whatever.

Why the combination of happy, upbeat production with sad, introspective lyrics?
That’s our thing. That’s our sound. That’s the winky-sad. That’s just generally how I would describe our music, and that’s why I think it’s a grown-up record. It’s complicated in that way. When you make something that’s difficult to categorize, you can get lost. That’s something I fear a bit about what we do. I think that someone could listen and be like, “Is this a band? Is this electronic? Is this indie? Is this dance music? Why do they look so sad?” That’s something I fear in regards to how we’re perceived and how much people will respond to us, but it’s also as honest as we can possibly be about who we are, where we are in our lives, and how we can express that through our music. That’s what this is. I hope people trust us.

Tanlines’ Jesse Cohen on Mixed Emotions and the Band’s ‘Winky-Sad’ Sound