Arts Desk

Tanlines’ Jesse Cohen on Phantasmagoria, Tower Records, and iPods

If you hung out at the long-gone Phantasmagoria rock club in Wheaton, Md., in the late 1990s, you may have bumped into Jesse Cohen. Half of the Brooklyn-based electronic-pop group Tanlines, Cohen, a Potomac native, fondly remembers the punk and ska shows he saw there. In fact, he found out about many of those shows from reading the City Paper.

“I used to make a special trip to Tower Records to pick up the City Paper, so I could look at the advertisements for who was playing,” Cohen said. “I’m the Tower Records generation.”

Tonight, Cohen returns to the D.C. area to headline a sold-out show at the Black Cat. These days, it's hard to see the band in town without a little planning: The duo—Cohen and his bandmate, Eric Emm—sold out its April gig at DC9. Tanlines makes music that sounds foreign, yet relatable; it couches steel drum-like sounds and bouncy synthesizer melodies in an indescribable other-worldliness. Live, Cohen triggers samples while managing keyboard and percussion parts; Emm sings and plays guitar. Operating outside of the typical rock band set-up, they had to learn early on if they could play live in an honest and captivating way. But it's Emm's vocals that seem to do most of the captivating.

“The thing people most respond to is Eric singing,” Cohen says. “And just having songs that people [know] the words to. Very kind of traditional things about playing live turn out to be the most important things.”

The pair began as a production partnership with a focus on remixes and other studio work, but performing live wound up steering its ship in another direction.

“The fact that people were responding to what we were doing live at all, was probably the main thing that pushed us forward in terms of writing more songs and getting better and practicing and all of that stuff,” Cohen says. “I think if we had never done that, if we were just releasing songs on the Internet, I don’t think we would be here right now. And we certainly wouldn’t have written an album like the one we did.”

That album, this year’s poppy Mixed Emotions, works as a headphones record or as a car-stereo jam. It expands on Tanlines' excellent 2010 EP, Settings—which refers to a concept critical to the duo's recordings. So much of music's meaning, says Cohen, is wrapped up in the setting in which it's enjoyed.

“I think where you make music is obviously incredibly important, and I think where you listen to music is incredibly important,” he says. “You know how you have certain albums that are from different times in your life? You hear a song and you’re instantly transported to a time and a place where you would listen to that song a lot. There’s definitely a relationship between those things. I think that’s an underrated part about talking about iPods and technology. You can listen to music in so many more places than you used to be able to now.”

Take the sounds of slowly crashing waves on Mixed Emotions’ first song, “Brothers": It may channel a calming day at the beach. Or maybe your old dial-up Internet connection. That wave sound is only static, after all.

Tanlines performs with Supreme Cuts and Alex Minoff Nov. 30 at 9 p.m. at Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. The show is sold out.

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