A week with Tanlines in Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh in February is a cold, dreary place. The sky is like a giant grey tarp that sucks up all color. I’ve looked it up and can tell you that, statistically, it’s the fourth cloudiest city in the U.S. And if you know our music only a little bit, you might find it odd that we decided this would be the setting to begin officially writing our new album, Highlights, in early 2013. But we have always been about both light and dark and the combination of the two, and so it made sense to me when Eric suggested, during some downtime before a spring tour, that we go to his childhood home in Pittsburgh to write and record while his parents were in Florida for the winter.
Not being able to write on the road, we hadn’t worked on much new music at all for over a year. We were still in the midst of touring in support of our first album, Mixed Emotions, about a year after its release. One thing we had agreed on early for this album was that we wanted to find ways to work outside of the familiar environments in New York where we had written most of Mixed Emotions, and preferably NOT on a midi keyboard in front of a computer screen. While we might have liked to go to Marfa or Hudson and just set up camp in an awesome-but-still-totally-chill recording studio, those weren’t exactly realistic options for us at the time. So we packed a mid-size SUV with our recording gear and headed to Western Pennsylvania.
Today, we are excited to share “Invisible Ways,” the only song from the Pittsburgh sessions to end up on the album. What follows is a look back at the week we spent there — and how the song came to be.
After unloading the gear into the living room, I spent a good hour exploring the house, snapping pics of Eric’s childhood photos and ephemera.
The next morning, we got to work building our makeshift studio in the (very cold) basement.
The idea was to put together a version of our live setup in the basement, with Eric’s guitar and vocals, plus my drums and some very cool 90s synths I bought for the album.
After about a day and a half of setting up, we were finally ready to go.
We booted up our computer and without any warning, it loudly and violently burst into a cloud of sparks and smoke, then promptly and decisively shut down for good.
Without the computer, we didn’t just lose our basic ability to record our work, but also all of the instruments, effects, samples, and sounds that we were used to having at our disposal. While we were *kinda* hoping to get away from those things on this trip, in reality we didn’t have any kind of back-up plan for working without them. We considered calling the trip a total failure, packing up, and just going back to New York.
Not yet ready to accept an early defeat, we took the computer to the Shadyside Apple Store, whose geniuses determined that the power supply had blown and that it would take the rest of the week to get a new one. We were mostly relieved that we hadn’t lost any data and decided to wait out the week.
We took a brief trip to the Carnegie Museum of Art, where Eric’s brother’s old trance records happened to be on display as part of Cory Arcangel’s Masters installation. Then we had lunch at one of Eric’s old spots.
We arrived back at the house in better spirits and began to brainstorm some alternative ways to write and record so that the week wouldn’t be a total loss.
Eric’s laptop had a barebones version of Logic on it, which we knew we could use to at least record basic tracks. He had always wanted to create samples from his living room piano and now was a good time to do that. The piano ended up all over Highlights.
With a renewed sense of determination, we made our way back down to the basement to get to work.
Partially out of necessity and partially in deference to the angry computer gods, we spent the rest of the week writing and recording primarily on guitar and drums. This was a departure for an “electronic pop” group like Tanlines, but in some ways it was a natural fit for the basement where Eric first started playing guitar with his brother on drums.
“Invisible Ways” emerged almost completely fully-formed that week. Without any conversation, all the music, in its entirety, just came out. We quickly figured out a structure and played through the song once or twice, recording the basic guitar and drum tracks. Eric recorded a bass line (on guitar) and I overdubbed a simple melody on the keyboard for the chorus. When we got back to New York, Eric sang the vocal. It was the first song that we had written for our new album. And although we had a lot of conversations about whether it “sounded enough like Tanlines,” we knew that it came from a really special place, and that it would always be part of this album. It was the only thing that happened that week that felt really good.
We loved the song so much, in fact, that for the next year, we never went back to tweak it, afraid that we would mess up whatever weird magic made it happen. That is VERY rare for us. Only when it was time to finish the album did our producer, Chris Taylor, convince us to go back and make a few small moves to finish the song. In the mixing process, we also found that the less we did, the better the mix would sound. The final version remains incredibly true to our original recording.
Highlights doesn’t sound like 10 different versions of “Invisible Ways.” As we kept working on the album into 2014, we did end up reaching for a lot of our electronic sounds, but for us, this is the song that really set the tone for all the work that would follow. It’s both familiar and new territory for us, much like the place it came from.