As if criss-crossing the globe for a year and a half, performing on Letterman and hitting the coolest festivals wasn’t enough for a band that infamously couldn’t get arrested in its hometown at first, Tapes `N Tapes’ booking agents wanted the band to keep touring last spring.
The guys finally said no: They couldn’t wait to get started on their second album, “Walk It Off.”
“The touring had gone extremely well, but there are only so many ways you can play the same 15 songs,” frontman Josh Grier recalled the weekend before last, following a practice session at keyboardist/tuba player Matt Kretzmann’s house in southeast Minneapolis.
Bassist Erik Appelwick chimed in: “And ironically, we just found out we can’t play a couple of those 15 songs any way right now.”
It’s good to see the members of the Twin Cities’ biggest buzz band of the past few years laughing at themselves, because they (or at least their peculiar success story) have been the butt of a few other people’s jokes.
Some people still can’t get over how the band’s little self-released 2006 album, “The Loon,” earned a mega-buzz from music bloggers before it was ever properly released. Like the Texas music writer whose preview of the South by Southwest fest asked, “Who’s Tapes `N Tapes again?” two years after everyone at SXSW knew of the band. Or the Brooklyn blogger quoted in Spin magazine’s Vampire Weekend cover story, who points out that TNT also had a big early buzz: “Then their record came out, and people stopped caring,” he said.
For the record, “The Loon” - which the band self-released five months before London-based XL Recording re-released it - actually sold fairly well. SoundScan/Nielsen lists its U.S. sales at around 36,000, and the band says it sold about 23,000 more abroad plus another 15,000 copies on its own before XL came along.
“The record was totally (and illegally) free on the internet for like six months,” Kretzmann noted. “That didn’t give us much of a sporting chance.”
Mostly, though, the members of Tapes `N Tapes don’t have much of anything to say about all the hoopla that surrounded “The Loon” and whatever backlash came from that hoopla. The most Grier would say is, “When we put the record out, our goal was to maybe do one short U.S. tour. So, to us it never felt like the momentum slowed.”
And anyway, the band has good reason to be so tight-lipped: It’s confident the new album will shut people up.
In stores this week, “Walk It Off” is at the very least a successful follow-up to “The Loon.” It builds on and just plain improves on the earlier album’s Pixies-ish nervous energy and stop/go/go-faster rhythmic patterns.
But “Walk It Off” doesn’t just avoid the sophomore slump, it has the makings of a career-making album.
Maybe it should be seen as TNT’s proper debut. Self-made CDs used to be just a come-on to record labels, but in this age of hastily hyped internet careers, they have become a band’s calling card to the world. Not to discount “The Loon,” which had many memorable tracks (songs that, rehearsal jokes aside, are still barnstormers on stage). But where much of that record sounded like Grier’s bedroom tapes brought to life, “Walk It Off” sounds like a full band in all its blazing glory.
“We toured so much, and we even got to play a lot of these songs on the road to try them out - I think that’s a big difference,” Grier said.
The band’s deceptively scrawny drummer Jeremy Hanson is the only current member who was in Tapes full-time during the making of “The Loon.” Kretzmann came in to play on a few tracks and stayed, while Appelwick - who produced “The Loon” but didn’t play on it - abruptly joined on bass in early 2006.
Said Grier, “I approached the general songwriting idea the same way, which is I like to sit in a room by myself with a guitar and come up with ideas. After that phase, though, the thought process behind this record changed. There were a lot more possibilities and things we could try as a band.”
They also had a name-brand producer to expand those possibilities this time: David Fridmann, known for working with the Flaming Lips, Sleater-Kinney and Low.
The band spent about three weeks total at Fridmann’s studio in a wooded area of western New York. Although Fridmann has produced experimental and often highly orchestrated albums, he pretty well stuck with TNT’s wish to record every song closely to how it sounds on stage.
“If Jeremy was playing drums, we were playing, too - it was all done live that way,” Grier boasted.
The best new songs indeed carry the same backhanded punch on record that they do in concert, including the storm-building first single “Hang Them All,” the Modest Mouse-y gem “Headshock,” and the band’s wickedest jam yet, “Demon Apple.” There are a few tender and moments, like the -feeling, organ-tinged “Say Something Back.” But mostly the record is all full-volume and full-steam-ahead.
Lyrically, “Walk It Off” is even more obtuse and out-there than “The Loon,” with lots of fearful themes and struggling narratives but no clear message. The words are more clearly sung, just not clearly understood.
Grier readily admits that his lyric-writing process is the last thing, and he “usually inserts words that fit the music.” They mean something to him, he promised, `but I never go into writing a song with a preconceived notion what it’s about.’
One song, “George Michael,” was named for its “Faith”-like guitar riff and otherwise has nothing to do with the former Wham! singer. The track most easily plumbed for meaning is the opener “Le Ruse,” which some might interpret as a retort to the band’s sudden bout with fame and infamy.
“I’ve been trying to hold you up until you break from the fall,” Grier sings. “You’ll be wrong/You were hiding the sign/You’ve been up and admired/You’ve been overtly wrong with your head in the sun.”
Asked if it’s directed at the music writers who praised and then dogged the band, Grier once again didn’t have much to say: “It’s an interesting, potentially valid interpretation,” he said with a sideways grin, and left it at that.
So far, the TNT hype machine has returned as “Walk It Off” nears release. The band was scheduled to perform Wednesday on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” - a night after they played the Virgin Mega-store in Times Square.
So will Thursday’s tour kick-off in Minneapolis also be the start of another year and a half of touring?
“I hope so,” Appelwick immediately responded.
Grier sounded less hopeful. That might be because he’s the lone married man in the bunch (his wife, Keri Wiese, manages TNT and Fog). The redheaded frontman also - unbelievably! - still holds down the same day job as a data analyst that he had before “The Loon.”
“I went there Monday to Wednesday of this week, and I was working for about four hours at home yesterday,” he said proudly. “I’m a good worker, so they keep me around, and they’re nice people, so it works out. It helps keeps things more normal for me.”
Grier nonetheless said he’s more confident about the buildup for “Walk It Off” than he was before “The Loon’s” re-release on XL.
“Last time, it felt more drawn-out and scattered,” he said. “Now, everything’s more all at once, and a schedule’s been laid out. We start touring two days after the record comes out, and we know we’re going to be doing it a while.”
Plus, he added, “We’re just really excited to get to play these songs live.”
Hopefully that’s still the case a year and a half from now.