The Popdose Interview: The Weepies
It’s been four years since audiences have had a chance to see The Weepies in concert. It’s certainly understandable, given that they’ve had two children since their last tour (in support of the sublime Say I Am You), but that doesn’t mean their fans have missed them any less — especially since it’s damn near impossible not to fall in love with them upon first listen.
Thankfully, Deb Talan and Steve Tannen are back on the road (with kids and nanny in tow) supporting their phenomenal new record Be My Thrill, an album that continues in the fine Weepies tradition of making hearts melt and break all at once. From the can’t-help-but-smile joy of songs like “I Was Made For Sunny Days” to the wistful “Please Speak Well of Me,” the Weepies have once again managed to deftly (and sweetly) cover love, loss and the intricate emotions that lie in between. Deb and Steve checked in with us recently from their home in Los Angeles, just as they were prepping for their cross-country family trip with three-year-old Theo and five-month-old Alexander…
Wow! So I get both of you on the phone!
Deb Talan: We’ll try!
I thought I was only going to get one of you, due to family obligations…
Steve Tannen: Well, we have a five-month-old and a three-year-old, and they went down the street. I don’t know where they are. I gave them $10, I was like, “Listen, there’s pizza on the corner…”
Deb: I think Theo took the car.
Excellent. Well, thanks for putting me first, I appreciate that.
Steve: (laughs) No, Theo’s asleep. They’re both asleep.
Well, we’re big fans of yours over at Popdose. In fact, you’ve reduced at least three of us to sniveling messes, in a very good way.
Steve: Well, thanks!
And I know this isn’t a very “journalist” thing to say, but I was bawling after the first song on your new album (“Please Speak Well of Me”).
Steve: That’s the best thing to say!
Can you tell me a little about the inspiration behind that song?
Steve: Sure. I was trying to write a song for myself to sing — this is the truth — and I was feeling all those words, I was feeling everything…y’know, having kids is pretty tumultuous. And it brings up a lot of stuff: questions of what is going to happen when you’re gone…
Deb: Right. What of you will be left behind…
Steve: …And obviously there are bigger dimensions to that; there are various places and people you leave throughout your life before it’s totally gone, and that was the inspiration for it — like, sort of not loving what I see. You try to be a good person. You try to be all these different things, try to live a great life, and [you ask yourself] “how are you doing?,” and I’m not so sure. And Deb helped me figure out what the hell I was trying to say. And her voice very often will finalize and make the melody what it is in the end, and I think that’s what happened with this one too.
Interesting. So at what point is it in your process that you might be working on a song and decide, ‘Y’know what, this would be better for Steve to take, or for Deb to take…”
Deb: It can happen at any point. Sometimes it’s not until the song is really pretty well finished, and we’ll try recording it with one of the other of us singing it, and then we’ll be like, “Why don’t you try?” There was a song that didn’t make it on this album — and kind of didn’t record — that I started and then (to Steve) you sounded much better singing it…
Steve: There were like seventy songs and we really batted a whole bunch of ‘em around, and I almost always would rather have Deb sing whatever it is, because I was a fan years ago before I met her, and I’m a fan now. Her voice moves me. And my voice is just…my voice. I’m not saying it’s a bad voice, or…
Deb: …But that’s how everyone feels about their own voice!
Steve: …But for me, I always basically have to be wrenched into it. I’ll be like, “No! Sing it! Here!”
I don’t know…Big Señorita is a pretty amazing album.
Deb: I totally agree. I think that it’s true, that you hear your own voice and you’re like, “Well, that sounds like me, or it doesn’t,” and you can’t really objectively be like, “Oh, that’s wonderful.”
Steve: And I think there is a type of singer, like Bono, who makes himself “Bono Vox” and has a fantastic voice, but I’m just not that guy, man! I love songwriting, I love music, it moves me, that’s why I do it. It’s comfortable. It’s not hard, I love it. But I also don’t look at myself like, “Yeah, I’m Whitney Houston, baby.”
So you’re comparing Deb to Bono. That’s great!
You’ve got songs like “Please Speak Well of Me” and “They’re in Love, Where Am I,” and it seems like you guys have pretty good things going on — in life and love and music — so is it difficult to get to the dark places that are necessary for songs like those?
Deb: No. (Laughs) I don’t think we’re “glass half empty” people — I think we’re both pretty buoyant — but we see both all the time. We see that it’s empty and that it’s full. There are moments in our lives that are pretty happy, but of course there’s some darkness too, and having kids has added a whole new dimension of a sense of mortality and the fleetingness of life, so when there are beautiful, wonderful things happening, we’re enjoying them and enjoying the moment but there’s also a part of each of us that’s sort of stepping back and already putting it in a snapshot for a photo album for the kids — there’s this sense of how quickly it’s passing at the same time we’re enjoying it.
Steve: I don’t think we’re happier than we were — I think you’re pretty much the personality that you are — but in choosing which ones to finally really work on and polish for this record, I think we just tended toward the lighter stuff in general…maybe because of where we’re at, and it was more fun to sort of dance around to “When You Go Away” with Theo than it was to listen to some of the really sad ones I’m thinking of now, the really melancholy ones that didn’t make it on the record because they were just too depressing, you know what I mean? So we just don’t highlight that. It’s not like we’re any less crazy-sad than we’ve been!
Well, you’ve got your extreme “high” songs like “Be My Thrill” and “I Was Made For Sunny Days,” and you’ve got these other ones — do you make a conscious effort to kind of distance those from each other when you’re putting together the track list for the album?
Deb: We put a lot of thought and effort into crafting a track list, which is sort of funny nowadays since people don’t listen to songs in a row on an album, but sometimes it’s like when you make a mix: Do you want to keep the mood going for a while, or do you want to break it up? So sometimes we’ll consciously put those kinds of songs near each other and have a little part of the album that’s a little bit of a party.
Steve: Doing mix tapes when I was a kid is sort of exactly the same thing now as putting together a track listing of a record. You want to hit the listener with something really good, but then you want to take it up a notch, but you don’t want to totally go over that so then you pull it back, but then here’s three in a row that you can really be psyched about while driving or painting or whatever you’re doing! And really, it’s the exact same skillset. In some of our early track listings, actually, we would jokingly put in someone else’s classic song, like, “And then we’re going to ‘Black Dog’ by Led Zeppelin.”
(Laughs) This is totally me being music nerd, but who wrote the bass part for “I Was Made For Sunny Days”?
Deb: Really great question! That’s a bass player who only shows up on one song on this album. His name is Eli Thomson and he’s really good friends with Frank Lenz, who drums with us and is just a wonderful player, musician and guy, and does a lot of other musical work — they’re really best buds and we were having so much trouble getting the right feel on the low end for that song and…
Steve: …Can I tell him what really happened?
Deb: Yeah, you can!
Steve: So we got to work with two amazing bass players, Tony Levin and Larry Klein, and I really don’t know who I idolize more for their careers and who they are. It’s amazing and they’re incredible. And both of them took a shot at the song and did really great work, but for some reason it wasn’t fitting with how the song continued to grow, with the vocals that were being put on and the other instrumentation. It wasn’t hanging together, but we really liked the song and we didn’t want to put it on the pile with the other fifty-whatever songs. And Frank said “You know, my friend Eli is a really creative guy and maybe he could come over,” and he just sort of did the bass part, and I think Deb and he really worked it out, but…
Deb:…yeah, we talked about it later — Eli has this style of playing where somehow there are all these notes going on, but it’s unobtrusive. I don’t know how he does it.
Steve: We’re big fans.
Deb: Yeah. And he and Frank had played had played together for many years and so I think we were all kind of benefiting from the way that they hear each other, and the way he’s played with Frank’s style for such a long time. I think that’s part of why it worked. It’s funny that you picked up on that!
Well, I gotta tell you, it’s specifically that riff he does in the second verse that blows my mind every time I hear it. It’s just perfect!
Deb: We will totally pass that on to him. That’s great!
I read in one of your interviews that (Indigo Girls’) Emily Saliers gave you some harmony tips for the record. Can you elaborate on where that was or what kind of tips she gave?
Steve: Well, we’ve been in touch with Emily since we opened for Indigo Girls in 2006, and they are so generous with their time and advice. We were coming to the end of the record, and I said “Hey, Em, here’s where we’re at with the record,” and she said, “Do you have anything that I can hear in advance?” And I said, “Sure, I don’t know what I’m really doing on” — for example, ‘Hummingbird,’ I think it was — and she was like, “Hit me!” And so we just sent it to her and she went into the studio with three of the tunes and just sang over them.
Steve: And she just sent us three or four ideas. And honestly…I stole one! I didn’t steal it exactly, but I thought, “hey, that’s a pretty interesting thing,” it was hewing very closely to what Deb was doing that I was going to do.
Deb: And we decided that in terms of the vocal sounds we wanted, we wanted that one particularly to be you and me — our voices.
Steve: Exactly. And then she also did a little bit for “Sunny Days” right before we went in with Colbie Caillat, some of the back-and-forth stuff was influenced by — it’s hard to pinpoint what came from where at that point, but there’s this part where Deb goes (sings) “I was made for” and Colbie then goes (sings)“Sunny days,” and you can hear a little “Emily” in there.
So between that, and you mentioned having Colbie and Tony and Larry on the album — you’ve had all these really great collaborations. Is there anybody that you’re still kind of dying to work with specifically?
Steve: Ben Watt, because he does dance-y, groove-y stuff, and we’ aren’t really part of that “in” crowd that does that particular genre. We’re big fans of people in that genre like Paul Okenfold but we just don’t know that many people. So if you know anyone who wants to remix “Forgiven” from [Deb's solo record] Something Burning, I’ve been looking for that for years!
Well, we have lots of Popdose writers who do all sorts of interviews, so I’ll see if anybody’s got a contact!
Steve: Yeah! And Ben Watt is just really great.
Deb: I love Everything But the Girl, but particularly the work that Ben Watt did with Beth Orton is so beautiful.
Steve: Yeah, and we were able to work with Oliver Kraus, the cello player from [Beth's] record.
So obviously there was a difference between the recording process between Say I Am You and Hideaway, given that for one recording process you had a baby and the other you didn’t — how do you feel that this album differs from Hideaway, either in the final product or even in the process?
Deb: Well, we definitely had more space to work in, and more time too. For Hideaway, we were still living in this little town called Potanga, which is kind of in the woods outside just outside L.A., and it was a beautiful setting but we had this tiny, little, like a shack…
Steve:…It was less than 500 square feet.
Deb: It was so tiny. So just physically, everything had to be done one at a time, and I think that it sort of translates to the album in a way, too, in a way that made Hideaway a more “interior” album. And on this one, we have this whole back area and we can have people over, even a couple people at a time, and sort of talk about what we wanted to do, play through stuff a little bit, and time-wise, we took our time. We felt like we needed it, and it was really, really great to be able to do that.
Did you feel any pressure to tour after Hideaway? I know you didn’t…
Deb: We did have some pressure to tour, and we almost did, but…
Steve: Yeah, y’know, we had a kid last time, and we just couldn’t get it off the ground, so we wanted to get right back into the studio and record the next album.
So you’re going back on the road, and the last time I saw you, when you played The Canal Room back in 2006, I noticed you did a combination of your group stuff and solo stuff as well. Is that something you might continue on this tour?
Deb: I hope so. We’re talking about mixing it up a little as much as we can.
Steve: I really feel old saying this, but there are so many songs now, some which really interest us, and some songs particularly from [Deb's solo record] A Bird Flies Out that we never got a chance to really do — “Unraveling,” for example. But then you look and you realize, “Aw, man, we have all these new ones.”
Deb: And then there’s all of Hideaway, because we never toured behind it! (Laughs)
Steve: Like “Antarctica,” we never got on its feet, and I’d love to do that. And so it’s going to be a little bit of a juggling act. We want to make sure that we’re not just being nostalgic for ourselves, and we’re still putting on an enjoyable thing for people who just know The Weepies.
Right. Although I have to say that I think your solo material takes on a new dimension with the both of you. I remember when you did the New York show, you did “Sing Me To Sleep” [from Big Señorita], and it was just unbelievable with the two of you together. I feel like it really took the song to a new place.
Steve: Thanks! (To Deb) So he thinks we should do “Comfort” or “Forgiven” or one of those.
Well, that’s what I say, but y’know.
Deb: As you can probably tell, we’re about to start arguing heavily about lists!
Well, I don’t want to start that! Does Theo have a favorite song of yours?
Deb: For a while, it was “When You Go Away”…
Steve: …Because it was about him!
Deb: Because it was about him, but also because he loves Frank, and he loves drumming.
Yeah, I saw him drumming away on some of your video clips…
Deb: Yeah, and that’s not staged. He’s totally fanatical about Frank’s drumming, so he really loved air drumming through the bridge. There are these drums we started calling the “boomba-bomba drums.” (Laughs) So that was probably his favorite for some time. And then he loves “How Do You Get High” as well.
Deb: Yeah! He likes to sing “Yeah yeah yeah.” He’s kind of a rocker.
Steve: And any time he sees a microphone, in any setting, he will grab it and say “Yeah yeah yeah.”
Deb: But now, he’ll also sing “You Are My Sunshine.” (Laughs)
Well, guys, I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to talk today.
Deb: Well, thanks for having us!
Steve: Jason, total pleasure. Are you in New York?
I am. I’ll be at the Hiro Ballroom show on November 10th.
Steve: Fantastic! Well, come say hi!
I certainly will. And congratulations on the new album. I don’t need to tell you, but it’s phenomenal. I just love it from start to finish.
Steve: Thank you so much!
THE WEEPIES 2010 TOUR DATES:
Mon. Nov 1 – Grand Rapids, MI @ The Fine Arts Center
Wed. Nov 3 – Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Ballroom
Fri. Nov 5 – Philadelphia, PA @ World Café Live
Sat. Nov 6 – Londonderry, NH @ Tupelo Music Hall
Sun. Nov 7 – Boston, MA @ Royale Nightclub
Mon. Nov 8 – Fairfield, CT @ FTC Stage One
Wed. Nov 10 – New York, NY @ Hiro Ballroom
Thurs. Nov 11 – Falls Church, VA @ The State Theatre
Fri. Nov 12 – Norfolk, VA @ The Attucks Theater
Sat. Nov 13 – Raleigh, NC @ Lincoln Theater
Sun. Nov 14 – Charleston, WV @ Mountain Stage
Mon. Nov 15 – Annapolis, MD @ Rams Head On Stage
Wed. Nov 17 – Atlanta, GA @ Variety Playhouse
Fri. Nov 19 – Dallas, TX @ Lakewood Theatre
Sat. Nov 20 – Austin, TX @ Momo’s
Mon. Nov 22 – Tucson, AZ @ Plush
Tues. Nov 23 – Phoenix, AZ @ Rhythm Room