Tanlines on “The Big Mess” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Thursday, April 18th, 2024  

Tanlines on “The Big Mess”

Just don’t call it a pandemic album. Frontman Eric Emm says “The Big Mess is life.”

May 01, 2023 Photography by Katie Notopoulos Web Exclusive
Bookmark and Share

In the eight years since Tanlines last released an album, singer/guitarist Eric Emm and percussionist Jesse Cohen hit their 40s, became dads, and went their separate ways—sort of.

The synthpop duo never split up. But Tanlines went dormant after touring 2015’s Highlights to spend time with family. Cohen found a home in corporate marketing, while Emm left New York for Connecticut and never stopped writing songs. Eleven of those make up The Big Mess, the third Tanlines LP and the first for Merge, due May 19.

The Big Mess is neither a return to form nor a departure for Tanlines. Yet its genesis was very much a one-man affair, with Emm driving the creative direction that incorporates both the dance floor and the arena without committing to either.

Guitar is all over The Big Mess. Emm tells Under the Radar he captured “very simple songs” by starting with three chords. Toward the end of production, Emm invited Cohen and producer Patrick Ford to help finish the tracks and give them that Tanlines punch.

Emm took a break from sledding with his kids for a video call in February. In what was his first interview to promote the record, the father of two says he recently became aware of how a singer’s voice evolves with age.

“That’s a lot of what this new album has been for me: figuring out this instrument more and more,” Emm, 47, tells Under the Radar. “I’m annoying my family all the time, just singing around the house.”

Patrick Flanary (Under the Radar): I’d read somewhere that this was more of a solo album but with the Tanlines name.

Eric Emm: When I first had the album together, I was expecting Jesse to not be involved at all. I pulled him into it more, and then we recorded for a while up here in Connecticut. So I feel weird almost thinking about it now like a solo album, because in a lot of ways it came differently, but in the end it made sense as a Tanlines album. That’s what it is.

I was scared to death that you guys had quietly broken up.

No, there was never a conversation. The closest it came was when I had been writing all this time and I got together with Jesse, and I was like, “I realize I could keep calling it Tanlines even if you weren’t by my side in it.” And he was like, “Yeah, do it! Keep it going.” And why wouldn’t I just do that?

We just were doing other things in our lives. We were both stay-at-home dads and we did that for a while. And from that, Jesse started doing his podcast [No Effects] and then started doing marketing jobs, basically, doing real-world jobs. He worked at Nike for a while. And so he has this marketing brain that was always part of the band; he just started using it for something else. And then when it came time for us to focus on this album, that marketing brain went right back to where it always was in Tanlines. So we’re both just focused on this right now. As far as putting together the artwork and this whole process of album-making, he’s been a lot more a part of it than I think I anticipated. Which is good.

I half-expected the album cover to feature the two of you, but, appropriately, it features neither of you. I’d love to know more about that shot of one man smiling.

My wife’s grandfather took that photo in Greece in the 1950s. He was there recording folk musicians, and he also had a camera with him. He took all these photos of locals, and these photos sat in an attic for 30 or 40 years. A couple years ago, my father-in-law had them digitized and we saw them for the first time. And this one photo just really spoke to me. I was kind of moved by it. And it started off as a placeholder. Jesse and I went back and forth, we talked a lot about it. This felt right for this. A lot of that was because I was sort of the driving force behind it. And it stuck.

I think I know what The Big Mess means.

It doesn’t mean what you think it means. The song itself is the first song on the album, and it really was sort of the first moment where I could sort of see a path forward. It has a lot of depth to it. It’s a kind of reflective song on where you are and also thinking about the past, how things have changed. So the title just seemed fitting once we had all the songs together. Titles are always hard for us. So we were scratching our heads, and Jesse was just like, “I think it should be The Big Mess.” It’s a good title. I just don’t want people to think it’s about the pandemic.

Yeah, there you go.

And that was my one hesitation. The Big Mess is life. I had this working title: Life Laugh Love. It was my version of the mom-tchotchke “Live Laugh Love” thing. The biggest threat is people think it’s a pandemic album. If you want to stretch it, there’s a version in which every album is a pandemic album.

How did you know it was time to make it?

I think being settled after the weirdness of the last couple of years. It probably would have happened sooner had there not been a pandemic. Before the pandemic started I was getting close to a point where I was writing more and more, and busier and busier with music. And then the pandemic happened and it uprooted our lives, and it set everything back.

We also had our second child during the pandemic. I just didn’t really have time or emotional energy for [the album], really. Once we finally moved and I was out in the middle of nowhere, I was like, “Okay, I can focus on this.” And it just started kind of coming together after that. But I hadn’t moved in 20 years so I didn’t know what it was going to be like to settle somewhere. It took more than a year to finally sit back and say, “Okay, right, I have a studio in my basement. Now I can start using it.”

Did calling the shots yourself afford you more freedom creatively?

Yeah, I think the results were different. But even all along the way I had Jesse and our producer Patrick [Ford], who has been with us since pretty much day one. I was always bouncing stuff off of them, so I did feel like I was always kind of being guided. There was a guardrail to some degree. But there were some things that went way outside the box of what I would consider a Tanlines song.

The process of starting songs was different. I would start with three chords on an acoustic guitar, versus when Jesse and I sit in a room together and he’s hammering out a beat on the laptop or the synth. We just have a very different workflow. I was definitely more focused on just keeping things super-simple: How does a really simple song work? How do you make it richer and deeper? And so that’s sort of the process I followed for all these songs. You strip them back, they’re very simple songs. What I like best about them is you can strip away all the noise and all the music and play them on an acoustic guitar. That’s what I always look for; that’s my litmus test.

Who put the first guitar in your hands?

I had a ukulele when I was a kid, does that count? Every kid has a ukulele, right? But my mom does have a memory of me strumming it when I was six and putting words together with the strumming. Which I like to say was maybe my first attempt at writing a song, as my mom remembers it. But my dad got me my first guitar at a pawn shop. I think because I loved U2, I wanted to learn guitar. My dad had a friend that owned a pawn shop, and he took me and maybe my brother there when we were super-young, like nine or 10.

I remember the guy took us in the basement and opened these boxes of brand-new electric guitars. They were Cort guitars, very expensive. We had one in each color, an aqua-colored one and a pink one. And that was really my first electric guitar. And I played it barely at all, because you had to take lessons. And the lessons were coming from this old-timer who wanted to teach me how to read music. And I didn’t want to read music, I just wanted to play U2 songs. And so I quit pretty quickly. I gave up. And then, a couple years later, I got an acoustic guitar and I found this great teacher who just wanted to teach me whatever I wanted to learn.

At what point did you discover that you sang well?

I started really late. I didn’t really start doing that until Tanlines, when I was in my 30s. I feel like I kind of got a late start at it, so it’s always been this instrument that I feel like I’m always learning how to play. Whereas maybe a lot of other singers figured it out when they were 14 or 15.

I think it was really on Highlights that I realized I could do more with it than I was doing. Learning how to sing in Tanlines was a lot of screaming, always being at the top of my range. And then I started to pull it back a bit and just play more in, what I think is a dangerous term, that comfort zone. But I wanted to feel where I could sing comfortably. That’s a lot of what this new album has been for me: figuring out this instrument more and more. Growing into it, growing with it. I’m annoying my family all the time, just singing around the house.

So is this album closure or a beginning for you?

For me, it feels like a new beginning. In some ways it’s a reset, in some ways it’s a reboot. We haven’t been doing this for a long time and I’m excited to be back doing it. I have to say, honestly, there have been a bunch of times in my life where I’ve said to myself, “Do I have more songs in me? What am I writing for? Who am I writing for?” I just keep doing it and I can’t stop. It just bubbles up inside of me enough that I want to share it.

Will Tanlines tour again?

Of course I want to. It has to be family-friendly, whatever the definition of that is for indie touring in 2023. I definitely feel like we’re past the point of the label saying, “Okay, get in the van for six weeks.” Because it’s just not economical. And we have families…. The thing that I’m always thinking about now is, how do we do the old songs and the new songs together? What’s the best way to deliver that live?

When did Tanlines last play for an audience?

Unofficially, the last time we played was at a wedding, in 2018.

Do you accept commissions?

[Laughs] I wouldn’t rule it out. It was weird but fun. You can’t really screw up that much because not all of the attention is on you. That was the last time we really played. It’s been a minute.


Support Under the Radar on Patreon.


Submit your comment

Name Required

Email Required, will not be published


Remember my personal information
Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

There are no comments for this entry yet.