The Popdose Interview: The Weepies

Written by Music, Popdose Interviews

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Five years may be a long time to wait for a new release from Deb Talan and Steve Tannen — better known as The Weepies — but there probably aren’t any fans begrudging the time they’ve taken. Since the release of 2010’s phenomenal Be My Thrill, the band has embarked on a sold-out tour, rallied for this guy, had a third child (Nicholas, joining siblings Alexander and Theo) and moved from California to Iowa. Oh, and near the end of 2013, Deb was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer.

Following almost a year of Deb being in remission, the duo is making their long-awaited return. Today marks the release of Sirens, a beautiful album that, like previous releases, contains haunting melodies, wistful lyrics, and gorgeous harmonies and instrumentation. Though packed with 16 songs, the album still somehow feels too short. It includes gentle lullabies like “My Little Love” and “Sunflower,” darker ethereal tracks like “River From the Sky” and “No Trouble” and even a pair of covers, a first for the band: Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly” and Irish singer-songwriter Mark Geary’s “Volunteer.”

Prior to Sirens’ release, I spoke with Steve, who was packing the family up for a trip to LA with the help of seven-year-old Theo. We spoke about the balance between art and business, whether it’s a good idea to bring my wife to the next Weepies concert after giving birth six weeks prior (he’s doubtful but we’re determined), and why, more than anything, Sirens will be a snapshot of experiences more than an album about a diagnosis or disease.

First of all, congratulations on the new album. It’s phenomenal. It’s everything I wanted it to be.

Thank you very much. It’s not quite everything I wanted, and not quite everything Deb wanted, but I feel a little bit like that’s probably for the best, you know what I mean? Because if you work with a band, and specifically if you’re working with somebody else who is sort of “co-conspirator,” and you don’t get what you want, sometimes you get to something better. And I don’t think we’ll know if it was or not for a couple of years. In hindsight you’re like, yeah, that worked, that didn’t work..

Do you feel like that’s been the case for each of your albums — that when they’re done, because it’s such a collaborative process between the two of you, you’re not exactly sure how it’s come out?

Yes, but…when we made Happiness [in 2003], we were so sort of in love, broke, and with literally no pressure, that we just sort of did it. We didn’t really talk that much about it. And even some of the credits aren’t quite right…it just didn’t matter, you know what I mean? We were just doing it, and it was fun.

And then for [2006’s] Say I Am You, it was actually a similar vibe, but we had a little more time. We still had sort of the excitement of new collaboration,  and the excitement of new love, and we had just moved to California, but we were still broke and totally unknown. Like, it was fine. And then Hideaway [in 2008] was the first time we started feeling a little bit like…we actually are making this work now, so I actually do this for a living, so maybe I want to do this or that. I know Deb felt the same. We want to make a record that feels like this, or that explores that. We had a little more attention. And to be honest, that’s probably not the best way to go about it. And I think we started this one with a lot more of the laissez-faire stuff from the early days, because we didn’t know — we had no label deal again, Deb was very ill, and we didn’t know if the year would go well or badly. And so honestly, we just wanted to work. And Deb just wanted to work. So we did. And it was only towards the end, after Deb went into full remission that I think any of the arguments or stress started. Because then we were like “Oh, we’re really going to put something out. Oh. Maybe I want to re-do that vocal. Maybe I’m thinking those harmonies are a little rich.” And Deb feels the same, for sure.

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You’ve got essentially five years on you since the last album. Obviously you guys have very full lives in between those with kids, the things that went on with Deb, and moving — all those things. You’re heading back into this whirlwind of release-promotion-tour; how connected do you feel to the business side of this?

Oh, not very, thankfully. The business side has never been our strong suit, which is lucky because we also can’t pay attention to it and still work. However, we have good allies, and I think we choose allies pretty well. Our allies are Nettwerk Records and Michael Morris, who’s our booking agent. It’s those allies that you lean on — they take the place of business acumen for us.

Do you have a sense of anything changing around you in terms of the business, or are you essentially working with blinders on, in your own space?

We’re not “head in the sand,” we just can see that there’s a game of business that is being played at a really fast and high level, and smart people do this all the time with their whole lives, the way that we write and play; that much time goes into it. And so we’re just maybe self-aware enough to know that we should take a breath before making moves. Though we’re definitely aware that there are other people involved and that there’s a business happening here: there’s a touring business, a merchandise business, a record business, a digital platform…and all of that matters to the larger music industry, but it doesn’t necessarily affect us day-to-day.

That’s good, because you get to focus on what you know, and what you do best.

Yeah, and not only that, but we try to be good friends and allies to the people that are working with us — these people have houses and kids too! I’ll give you a great example: we’re going on tour and the record people really need us to do certain things. And we’re totally open to doing that. It usually involves us talking to someone. How hard is that? It’s not hard. We like to do it. I love to talk. So does Deb. So that’s easy. But people would say, “Oh, that’s a good business move,” you know what I mean? And it doesn’t strike us that way at all. So if that’s “business,” then yeah, we’re in business. Otherwise, I don’t really look at that stuff. I try not to.

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Obviously there’s only so much control you have over the narrative surrounding this release. A lot of the articles I’m reading about you guys are obviously focusing on the lede: Deb’s diagnosis and recovery. How comfortable are you guys with this album potentially being known as “the cancer album?” Does it feel like that to you?

Boy, I hope that’s not what it is, but I understand why that’s a headline or why that’s a hook. We tend to think of it in terms of the artwork on the front. I swear that’s how I think of it. And we also think of it in terms of location — where we were. We’ve also been really comfortable thinking of it in terms of babies, because we’re writing and recording while we’re having babies. So this one is really the “mermaid” record, it’s the Iowa record, it’s the Nicholas record. The last one [Be My Thrill] was the “pig” record, the Hollywood record, and the Alexander record. The one before that [Hideaway] is the “whale” record, the Topanga record, and the Theo record. And the one before that [Say I Am You] is the Pasadena “transition” record. And we also think of that as the “band of brothers tour from hell,” like 186 shows or something, and we definitely learned a little lesson there about basic needs that we didn’t think we had but it turns out we do, like a hotel room. We made mistakes in terms of enthusiasm that would get us sick for three weeks and crappy shows for a couple of weeks while we were recovering.

I remember when we talked last time, you told me about how Hideaway was basically recorded in this tiny shack, and how Be My Thrill was in this larger space where you were able to have guests over to record. I wasn’t sure whether this album was recorded in Iowa, but was most of this with people mailing or sending you their files?

We did a lot of Skype and phone calls at odd hours because people were touring. This space is probably, believe it or not, the smallest space we recorded in. There’s an attic on top of this house that we were able to set up in. Deb and I recorded in there, and we have a drum set in there that we did play, but then since we were isolated — we’re in Iowa, far away from everybody that we know, really, who’s a musician — we, track by track, started off saying: “Well, if we could have anyone on this record…” Because for example, [drummer] Frank Lenz had taken a gig as the Disney drum chair and so he was really busy during this one particular period, and we thought, shoot, Frank can’t do it; if we could have anyone…this sort of sounds like an old Elvis Costello and the Attractions record…well, [longtime Costello drummer] Pete Thomas…and then it turns out that Sara Watkins from Nickel Creek was playing with Pete, and so we got his number and he couldn’t have been nicer. And then his friend [Costello keyboardist] Steve Nieve heard “Sirens,” and he played piano on it. And so that’s sort of how it went. And we didn’t set out — again, we had no plan. And we didn’t think, okay, we’re going to go get all of our heroes and put them on a record, it just happened track-by-track. And we’d been trying to record again with [bassist] Tony Levin for literally two years, while he was out with King Crimson and Peter Gabriel and and his own trio and then Stick Men and he dropped back in for two days, and did a track that was really great, called “Ever Said Goodbye.” And little by little, we got tracks that we liked. But again, we weren’t thinking, “Oh, we’ll release this.” We just were happy to be successfully working and getting a lot out of that, during a really rough time. And then toward the end, when we had this stack of songs, we actually had a friend come by and listen to some. And he listened and he started talking to us as if it was a record. And we looked at each other and thought, “ Wow. This could be a record. Great.”

How did handling so much of it via Skype or phone calls affect your collaborative process, in terms of not having people in front of you?

I think it made us more dictatorial, because you feel like you only have so much time. If you’re over with someone and you’re in a room and you’re playing…yeah, you can play it through four or five times. But if the guy’s on the road and you know he has two hours…at one point we had a very strange moment because I was talking to Pete Thomas [on the phone] and he was in a studio in LA, and Deb goes “Let me talk to Pete Thomas. Hey Pete, it’s Deb. So on the bridge you need to take the H-steel out, but bring that kick back in…” And I looked at her, and you could see by her face where she just had this moment like, “Oh my God, I’m telling Pete Thomas what to do!” It was really funny. And these players play what they play. They are that good. But we did end up having a few moments like that, where it was kind of funny. And of course, these guys couldn’t have been nicer, because there’s no one like someone who is super amazingly confident to be able to collaborate with. Like, they know how to do it. Tony Levin has definitely told me “no” before!

I wanted to talk to you a little bit about “Early Morning Riser,” because I just think the whole style of the song is so different from what we typically hear on a Weepies album.

Yep!

And if you’ve had horns on your albums before, I’ve not noticed them take such a front seat.

We did. We had them on “All This Beauty.” That was our first attempt. And we had one horn player, and he had to play all the parts and had to morph them. And this one, Carsie Blanton, who is a songwriter from New Orleans, came through town, and we were playing some stuff for her, and we were bemoaning the fact that we didn’t know any horn sections. And she said, “Well, I know a great horn section in New Orleans.” And we got in touch with them…and it was again, really organic, like we weren’t looking to release it or to do anything other than explore this track, so we had a guy named Phil Chen, a reggae bass player, who knows Pete Thomas. And Phil Chen, I think he was in Rod Stewart’s early band, like “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy,” he’s an amazing guy…

Oh, I know him! He’s in the video! He’s doing the bass rock squats!  [Ed: somewhat embarrassed at my excitement/knowledge level here]

That’s him! That’s Phil. So Phil ended up doing a reggae banjo, which you’ll hear, and based on that, Pete Thomas spent a long time getting what he called “a non-totally white reggae feel,” he was really, really conscious of not doing that. And we actually argued a little about it, but when Phil’s banjo came in we were like, “Oh, I see what he’s going for — that’s awesome.” And then we had the horn guys from New Orleans and they couldn’t have been nicer or more spot-on. We sang them the parts over Skype and David Torkanowsky, who’s the band leader, sort of wrote it out in chart form, and then we just moved on with our lives. It was a really fun two days and then we moved on to the next thing. And when we gave the record to Nettwerk, that was one of the ones that they liked, and it ended up on the record. I can’t tell you anything more about it other than I originally wrote it for Deb, and she really liked it too.

I think it can be challenging enough to balance the life of an artist and a parent, and I feel like you guys have doubled down on this by homeschooling. How do you balance and delineate time for each?

I’ll tell you what we try to do: we try to not separate the kids’ lives from our lives. I think we’re very conscious of trying not to do that. We want to include them in everything. And it’s not like “You can’t come in here.” It’s like, you can see exactly what I’m doing, and I can see exactly what you’re doing, and that’s how kids learn, I think. So it’s really organic. We don’t think about it much, other than we wanted to do this, we did it really wanting kids, and we still want them. (Laughs) And that’s where we’re at with it. And I know it gets hard, it gets tiring, and what can I say? It’s hard and tiring without them, and it’s hard and tiring — and better — with them. That’s our opinion.

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The Weepies Tour Dates:

Fri, May 29      Madison, WI @ The Majestic Theatre
Sat, May 30     Chicago, IL @ Park West
Sun, May 31    Minneapolis, MN @ Fitzgerald Theatre
Tue, June 2     Salt Lake City, UT @ The Depot
Wed, June 3    Boise, ID @ Knitting Factory Concert House
Thur, June 4    Seattle, WA @ Neptune Theatre
Fri, June 5       Portland, OR @ Revolution Hall
Sun, June 7     San Francisco, CA @ Fillmore
Tue, June 9     Los Angeles, CA @ Fonda Theatre
Wed, June 10  Solana Beach, CA @ Belly Up Tavern
Thur, June 11  Phoenix, AZ @ The Crescent Ballroom
Fri, June 12     Albuquerque, NM @ BioPark Zoo (Zoo Music Concert Series)
Sat, June 13    Boulder, CO @ TBA
Mon, June 15   Dallas, TX @ Granada Theatre
Tue, June 16   Austin, TX @ Paramount Theatre
Thur, June 18  Nashville, TN @ City Winery
Fri, June 19     Atlanta, GA @ Variety Playhouse
Sat, June 20    Charlotte, NC @ Neighborhood Theatre
Sun, June 21   Falls Church, VA @ State Theatre
Mon, June 22   Annapolis, MD @ Rams Head On Stage
Tue, June 23   Philadelphia, PA @ Union Transfer
Thur, June 25  Norwalk, CT @ Norwalk Concert Hall
Fri, June 26     Boston, MA @ Wilbur Theatre
Sat, June 27    New York, NY @ Town Hall
Sun, June 28   Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Ballroom
Mon, June 29   Traverse City, MI @ City Opera House
Tue, June 30   Detroit, MI @ Magic Bag
Wed, July 1    Iowa City, IA @ Englert Theatre