Jesse Cohen and Eric Emm, Tanlines

"We like to say that Jesse [Cohen] brings the light and I bring the dark," Eric Emm of Tanlines told me, referring to the yin and yang of their creative output. What he means is that while the music sounds upbeat, the lyrics are dark.  That's because in their songwriting process, Cohen writes the music and Emm the lyrics. The dark sensibility of Emm's words are ironic given that, while by his own admission he can be a moody person, he gets his best writing done when he's in a good mood.

This creative disparity is about the only difference between them, though, because the irresistible melodies in their music are the product of a strong spirit of collaboration and an envious working relationship.  What impressed me most in our conversation was not just how much both Cohen and Emm could reflect on their own creative process, but how much each knows about the other's as well.  

I spoke to Cohen and Emm in a brew pub in Calgary.  I live in Washington, DC and they live in Brooklyn, but I happened to be in Calgary on business the same day they were there to play a show. So over beer and pretzels, we discussed songwriting. Tanlines' debut album Mixed Emotions ended up on many critics' year-end "best of" lists, and for good reason.  Read my interview with Jesse Cohen and Eric Emm of Tanlines after the video for "All of Me." 

Do either of you have any other creative outlets?

EE: I have none, to be honest.  We're directing a video now for "Not The Same," and this is my first attempt at another creative field.  It's something we've wanted to do for a while. But that's it.  I'm a boring, regular guy. I like sports cars and football and Tarantino movies.

JC:I've been a photo archivist for the past ten years at a small Yiddish library in New York City.  That's been my primary creative outlet. When we started, our goal was to have fun, write quickly, and put our songs on the internet.  There was no idea about creating a band. If people liked them, great. We ripped footage from YouTube and used the videos as wallpaper for our songs.  That was the earliest sign that we could direct a video.

When it comes to the songwriting process, how do you feel about inspiration?

EE: This is where I use David Byrne's quote about writing: if you're not waiting for the bus, you're not going to get on the bus.  So you have to put yourself in some kind of situation that's going to be creative. That's the first thing we do.  We get into a room to make something.  But it doesn't always happen.

JC: When we sat down to write this album, we really sat down to write.  We had our own studio at the time. I'd lay down a drum part in front of the computer, maybe a melody, then Eric would add a guitar.  We'd build a track until we didn't feel like it was going anywhere else.  Then we'd start another one.  That was the cycle: stop when it wasn't going anywhere, then start another track.  Eric would come in the next morning and take what we'd worked on, alone, and sing over it. When he couldn't, we'd throw those songs away.  Then I'd come back the next day to listen to what he'd done and build on the songs that we both thought sounded good.  We threw away a lot of songs for this album, probably about 50.  It's a back and forth with us.  We both do the music, but Eric writes the lyrics.

How do you know when a song isn't working?

EE: If you think about a three band equalizer, with a bass, midrange, and treble, I turn those knobs until I find the sound I'm looking for in my head.  How do I know what that sound is?  I don't know. But I know when to stop. Then, maybe a year later, when I'm driving and my iPod is on shuffle, that demo comes on and sounds fresh to me.  I'll start humming something to it and think, "Wow, that melody goes well with that sound." When I get home, I'll mess around and sing the melody in the song. And it can become something totally different.

There are songs on this album where we just knew it wasn't happening at that moment, but we knew it was good.  And we knew that at some point, we'd return to it and make it happen.  I don't know when the right moment is to come back to a song.  Maybe one of those 50 songs we threw away will become a song later. Usually, though, when it's really good it happens quickly.  

How disciplined are you as songwriters?

EE: I remember Bob Pollard saying that he makes a pot of coffee, sits down with his acoustic guitar, and writes songs.  That sounds great to me.  It doesn't sound like a job. It sounds like a pleasure.  But I don't try to kid myself about the job.  I believe that the work of my life is making music; it's just something I have to do.  It's a compulsion.  I work hard at it, but I'm not so disciplined that I wake up every day and say I have to start writing.  

JC: We're pretty different. When we wrote this album, we wrote every day for a long time. But I don't have that kind of discipline.  I'm like, "Let's do it, it sounds great, let's go."  Eric has the thing in his head where he knows what he wants it to be. Also he tends to be a lot harder on us than I am. I'll say, "It's great, it's done,"  and he says that it's not done.  That's the benefit if being a duo.  But I can also be a really good editor.

Meaning?

JC: When it's good, it happens fast.  And 90% of what makes it good happens at the first 5%.  You do a lot of work after that to finish it, but you're not really changing the song. The song is there.  The changes you're making are very subtle: you hear them, but not everyone else does.  I always think it's best to finish and move on.  We have a little bit of tension in that area, but in a good way.  

EE: I'm a perfectionist and will try to get it perfect, but he's good at coming in and saying, "No, don't work on this more."  We try to ban the word perfect form our studio, though.

Are you ever inspired soundwise by what you hear in your daily environment?

JC: I think that way all the time.  Like, "That blinker would be a good tempo for a high hat, or what about a beat that sounds like a basketball in a gym?"  But none of that really matters.  I mean, it matters as far as creating sounds and textures, and they're good jumping off points. But cool sounds and cool ideas matter less than writing songs that people remember, sing along to, and that mean something to them. 

How much revision do you do to your lyrics, Eric?

EE: When I write vocals, I start with nothing and just react to the music.  

So the vocals never come first?

EE: We've never done it that way, but I would love to.  My writing style is all about reacting to the music.  I open myself up and see what comes out.  From there, I piece together the story.  Not invent a story, but piece together what I just said and what it means.  It's like a new dream: it just happens, then I have to figure what it's about. From that point, it depends on how much of the lyrics I get out in the writing process. Sometimes it's an entire chorus or verse.  From there, it becomes like homework: I have to sit down and think about it and write that second verse.  That second verse is always the hardest because it's not there yet.  

It's never the same thing twice.  There's a song on this album where I woke up one morning and all the lyrics just came out.  I dreamt half of it, then sat in bed piecing it together. Then I wrote the whole thing on my iPhone.

 Photo by Shawn Brackbill

Photo by Shawn Brackbill

Do you believe that what comes out in that first attempt at music and lyrics is how the song is meant to be?

EE: There's been times where I've written gibberish, thinking that something better will come out later, but then nothing better ever comes out. And that's what it has to be because it wants to be that.  I think to myself, "It shouldn't be so hard.  Just change the words!" But it doesn't feel right when I change them; it doesn't work quite the same way with that melody. So I let it be, even if it means sharing a credit with the Beach Boys! Laughs.

When we were writing "Lost Somewhere," one of the first lines that came out was a Beach Boys line.  We tried to change the phrase--it was like five notes--but nothing else worked. So we kept it.  Someone wanted use it in in a TV show, and that's when our publisher told us it would be a problem to use a recognizable part of a Beach Boys song. Fortunately, the Beach Boys let us keep it, and we share songwriting credits with them for the whole song.

JC: I definitely think that the first thought is the best thought. That's a big part of our songwriting philosophy.  

Is melody paramount for you?  That is, are you willing to sacrifice a word or a line if it means keeping the ideal melody?

EE: There's a song on the album where I had a great melody but hated the line.  I wanted to change the line and tried a bunch of different words, but no words seemed to fit the melodic structure.  Even when we were mixing the record, I tried to move the syllable from one word to another word. I wanted to change that one word because I hated the line so much.  But I had to live with it because it served the melody.  But when we sing the line live, I change it.

JC: There's also the idea of "demo love."  The first time you record a demo, you fall in love with it.  It's the first time you've ever recorded the song, and often that early inspiration is on that demo.  It doesn't always work, because sometimes you end up keeping things that you probably should refine a little more. 

EE: Right now, we're thinking about how we're going to write our next record. And I keep telling myself that I need to get inspired.  I want to start watching more movies or listening to some new records.  And you think that it will be inspirational.  When we wrote this last record, we planned on listening to some music that I thought would inspire us.  But looking back, I'm not sure that it did.  So I don't have the answer.  

But here's one thing I know about myself: I think I'm a better, more productive, and more inspired writer when I'm in a better mood.  When my spirits are up.  Because I'm a moody person.  I'm not always in a great mood.  I can be a pretty unpleasant guy to be around. Laughs.  But a weird irony is that our lyrics and our lyrics and melodies are dark, and our music is light.  We say that Jesse brings the light and I bring the dark. 

Many songwriters tell me that they get their best songwriting done when they are hungover.

EE: I was just going to say that! I can think of a few times when I've woken up not feeling great and writing some great stuff.  I don't get hungover very often because I've found that as I get older I don't go as hard as I used to, but there's a weird twilight there.  You can be hungover and still feel very good.  I guess it's all about that magic moment that we never understand. Is it because I had six drinks and not seven, or maybe because I slept on my stomach and not on my back?

JC: Regardless, you always have to put yourself in a creative environment.  As you take songwriting more seriously, it requires more and more sacrifice to have a lifestyle where you put yourself in that place. At the beginning of the band, we were just making songs to put on the internet.  But now we've realigned our lives so that when we have those moments when things are working, we're already there.  If you go every ten days, it might take a year.  But if you are in that position for five days a week, you'll have more opportunities to capture ideas. 

Do you have an ideal environment for writing?

EE: I don't know that it matters for us, because our process has always been routine-based. We might get together to work on music one night, then in the morning the next day I'll write vocals. 

JC:  I'm so less disciplined that it can happen any time for me.  I wrote the keyboard line for "New Flowers" in my apartment, someplace where I've never written anything.  It became the riff on that song.  And that's something I'd never done before and I've never done since.

EE: I'm always writing down ideas on my phone.  I'll hear a song and like the bells on it, so I'll make a note of that.  Or I'll hear a phrase somewhere.  I write down a lot of ideas and titles for songs.  I've got about 700 note files with words and phrases and song titles. Sometimes I'll just hum a melody into my phone and record it. Who knows, maybe in a couple of years it will become a song. 

JC: I've recorded myself tapping on the table before.  

How often to do you set songs aside, then, and deliberately return to them later?

EE: There's one song on this album that we worked on for a while.  It wasn't going anywhere, so we set it aside.  About two years later, I came back to it and wrote the entire song in an afternoon.  Ironically, it was the last song we finished for the album even though it was the first song we started.

What do you do when you have writer's block?

EE: When we started writing this album, it was on my mind a lot. Jesse and I had planned on making this record in the studio where we first started making music.  It was a place that carried a lot of meaning for us.  But we had to move out because it got sold.  That changed our process and created a lot of questions for us as far as where we were headed. I remember writing every day, and nothing was coming.  I was putting too much pressure on myself, and nothing good comes from pressure.  So I stopped writing and watched a lot of movies. I don't know if it helped, but I needed to get away

JC: I don't know if I have a specific thing that I do when I can't write, but if I'd rather be somewhere else than writing, I know my writing isn't going to be good.  I don't want to force it.  I want to be in that zone where I know what I write will be good.