Mixed Emotions is the debut album by Tanlines, a Brooklyn NY duo composed of Eric Emm (vocals, guitar, keyboards) and Jesse Cohen (drums, keyboards, bass). Initially born as a production project based out of Emm’s Brooklyn-based Brothers Studio, Tanlines has evolved into a deeply personal, unique electronic pop group.
But before there was Tanlines, there was just Eric and just Jesse, working in separate bands and projects until their paths crossed in 2008. Jesse’s former band had recorded at Eric’s studio; the two got along famously and struck up a friendship. “We have complementary qualities. It’s like a lot of duos, I think. We have different personalities, but we just innately understand each other,” says Cohen. The pair began making music together almost on a lark, deciding one night to remix a song for the band Telepathe, with whom Eric was working at the time, and put it on the internet that same evening for no reason beyond simply doing so. Suddenly, the song was making rounds on the web and being championed by various tastemakers. Their second song, “New Flowers,” written for one of Jesse’s friends’ art projects, had the same reaction, resulting in excellent UK label Young Turks (The XX, SBTRKT) emailing the band to release a single in 2009. “It was at that point that we thought, ‘Okay, this is a real project now,’” says Cohen.
Shows around the world followed, including amazing sets at the likes of The Guggenheim, The Whitney, the New Museum and more in their hometown of NYC (“Our genre was ‘Museum House’ for a while,” jokes Emm), and an opening slot on Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas’s solo tour in 2009. Effortlessly cool Parisian label Kitsune released a Tanlines single, while American label True Panther released the Tanlines’ first EP in 2010. They booked a three week tour in Europe, excited from the exciting things that had been happening to them, only to play some of the most disappointing shows of their career. “It was eye opening,” says Emm. “We realized we had a lot of work to do.” The inspiration for said work came in the form of albums the duo brought with them to listen to while driving through Europe. “We brought R.E.M. records, skate punk records from the 80’s, Born in the USA, stuff like that. Emm says, “listening to them, I became very aware of the lasting resonance of a good song. A good song transcends production trends. That’s what we were missing, and I wanted to start making songs that would have a life of their own.”
Upon returning from the European tour in the spring of 2010, Cohen and Emm returned home to New York to find an eviction notice for the recording studio that Eric and his brother (one-time trance producer Joshua Ryan) had built from the ground up eight years prior. The building had been sold and there were plans to convert it into a homeless shelter (...which was ultimately never built). For two years, the studio had been their figurative, and sometimes literal home (the spare bedroom often housed Jesse Cohen after late night sessions). With all of that change and uncertainty in mind, Tanlines began to work on their first proper album.
That album, Mixed Emotions, is a testament to the benefits and pitfalls of life’s changes, getting older, and being pushed out of one’s comfort zone. The band that was born out of a studio suddenly found themselves without a home base, forced to reevaluate themselves. Emm honed his voice, a confident and tranquil baritone, and focused on lyricism, something he had not done seriously in the past. Many of the songs on Mixed Emotions began as simple songs written on a guitar, with the band later adding their palette of electronic and organic sounds afterwards. “A great song can stick with someone for their whole life,” says Cohen as a means of explanation. “As a musician, you have the opportunity to create that, and that is the thing that you chase. When we were forced to really figure out what we were trying to do with our album, our music in general, and our lives broadly, it was obvious.” Emm attributes his newfound lyrical earnestness and immediacy more directly- “I just reached a point in my life where I wasn’t afraid and didn’t give a shit.”
Emm sings stories about loss, the passage of time, and the lessons and warnings of accumulated knowledge gleaned by someone who has spent an entire lifetime in music. “Real Life,” one of Mixed Emotion’s most bombastic songs, has Emm countering with the searching lyrics: “For a minute I was lost / I looked away/ I was looking for a home / I was looking for a role.” Emm, who by his own account has lived “an extremely unconventional life,” quit school at 15 to play guitar and skateboard, joined his favorite band and toured around the world at 19, and built a studio that hosted some of the area’s most notable underground acts in the mid 2000s, found the displacement both bittersweet and liberating. The lyrics that poured out of him reflect both earnest excitement and wisdom- they are about recognizing the sadness of a loss while still accepting that nothing ever really changes for good. On “Brothers” he sings “You’re just the same as you ever were / You fight and you don’t wonder why it makes no sense, I’m just the same as I ever been / But I’m the only one who doesn’t notice it”.
“This process,” Cohen says, referring to the agita of recording in the midst of the studio loss and its subsequent, sudden adulthood, “felt more like making a movie than an album.” Ultimately, the final step of mixing the album took them to an entirely different musical universe, the Miami-based studio of legendary mixer Jimmy Douglass (Timbaland, Aaliyah, Justin Timberlake, Television, Roxy Music) in whom the band found an unlikely kindred spirit. It was a journey that pushed the band to expand their sonic ambitions and away from the comfort of their previous experiences.
Perhaps that’s why Mixed Emotions feels so vivid—sometimes painful, sometimes transcendent—a very precise labor of love. It obscures and blurs the lines between synthetic and organic sounds, real and fake, happy and sad. It is the sound of stadium pop in small spaces. Before deciding on the name Mixed Emotions, Tanlines’ debut was called ;( (pronounced “winky-sad’), an emoticon of their own creation and the unofficial mascot of the band. A winky-sad is used to indicate something that is sad, but that you can still make a joke about. Musically, it is perhaps a happy-sounding song with melancholic lyrics. It’s the acknowledgment that most things are many things at once. It is Mixed Emotions ;(