Tanlines' Jesse Cohen Takes Music Interviews Into His Own Hands
Podcasts turned ten this past year, and in celebration of that milestone, every person you know decided to start one. The upside to the proliferation of new DIY downloadable shows is that lots of smart and interesting people are starting them too. One of these smart and interesting people is Jesse Cohen of the band Tanlines, who started his No Effects podcast nearly a year ago out of his own frustration with music journalism. No Effects is a platform for Cohen to engage and interview musicians, often indie, in long-form discussions about pretty much anything they feel like talking about.
Since he started, Cohen has demonstrated a natural knack for drawing artists out of their shells and bringing out previously unknown and fascinating stories from them. He’s had an impressive roster of guests, including Ali Shaheed Muhammed of Tribe Called Quest, Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, and Abbi Jacobson of Broad City, among others. I sat down with Cohen to talk about his passion project, and what it’s like on the other side of an interview.
What initially sparked your interest in starting a podcast?
I listen to a lot of podcasts. I play in a band, and I do a lot of interviews as someone in a band, and most interviews when you’re in a band, at our level, are pretty bad. There are questions [that one can answer] straight off the press release: “How did you get the name of your band?” etc. I just thought, I wish there was a podcast like [Marc] Maron [WTF with Marc Maron], something long form, with people who do music. That was the show I wanted to be on, and it didn’t exist.
My sort of elevator pitch about the show is that unless you’re famous enough to be on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, no one in music press is going to sit and talk with you for an hour. It just doesn’t really happen. I also think that interviews with musicians tend to be pretty boring, and I don’t think that’s the musician’s fault. There is built in animosity between music press and musicians. It’s an old story. So, I thought maybe I’d be able to get around that.
What are some of the benefits you find being on the other side of the interview table, and what are some of the challenges?
The benefit is that I know what not to do. I know not to ask the common questions. Every artist has questions they get over and over again: “How did you meet?” “What are your influences?” “How did you get your band name?” When I hear those, my mind switches and I’m like, Oh okay, this is going to be that kind of interview. And, I give the answers that I’ve rehearsed.
I also don’t have an editor. I’m not trying to push a narrative or story line or anything like that. That’s a journalist thing to do. I’d rather create a space that the person I’m interviewing is happy in and trust that. More often than not, something good or interesting, a gem, will come out of that. Sometimes it doesn’t. That’s the drawback of my approach. Sometimes it’s boring or doesn’t go anywhere. But, I’d rather that happen than to go out there with an agenda or alienate the person I’m talking to in some way.
How do you prepare for a show?
I personally don’t read press releases or Wikipedia or whatever. I listen to the music. I don’t want to say, “Yeah I just listen to the music and that’s the only thing I go off,” because that’s not true. I form an opinion somehow about who I am about to talk to, and I prepare in the sense that I think about a few things I think are interesting about what the person is doing, and sometimes I write them down and sometimes I don’t. These are things I will reach for if I need to go somewhere. But usually, what happens is, I just trust my instinct and pick up on what the person wants to talk about. Once there’s a comfort level, it just happens on its own, usually about 20 minutes in.
Are there certain qualities you look for in guests you book?
The people who I want to be on the show are people who are going to be open with me. Sometimes you can [hear] that in the music, but sometimes you can’t. It’s hard to predict who is going to be open. The best guests are the people who are the most open, willing to share, and willing to go along with me. The worst guests are the people who want [me] to “ask me the questions and I’ll answer them.”
Are there any conversations you’ve had with your guests offline that you wish had made it on the podcast?
All the time. My goal of the show is for the recorded part to be the same as the part where the microphone is off. I don’t know if I want to mention specifically who they are, but there was one guest on the show who was pretty uncomfortable and he did the thing where he sort of answered the question, then waited for me, and it was pretty awkward. As soon as we were done recording, he said, “Oh I really need to get better at doing these interviews now that I’m a solo artist. I used to do interviews with the whole band and I could hang back, and I guess now that I’m a solo artist I need to get better at talking about myself.” I was like you should have said that! We could have talked about that, that’s interesting. And then there are the people who as soon as we are done recording, they start talking about their shitty record deals and things that shouldn’t be on air, but I wish they were, because that stuff is good and interesting and juice. That happens a lot. People don’t like to talk shit, and I respect that, because neither do I. There are plenty of other people on the internet who do that.
Can you tell me some unusual or wild things you’ve learned about any of your guests through the course of your show?
When I talked to Youth Lagoon [Trevor Powers], he told me that when he was in his 20s he had to decide between a career in baseball and a career in music. That very much surprised me.
Also cool life-worst-case-scenario.
Right? On a [new] episode I talked to Jona Bechtolt from Yacht. He told me his backstory about dropping out of high school to play music with his ex-con older brother, and touring Oregon. Afterwards he said, “I don’t know if I’ve told that story before.” And, on a recent episode I talked to Alan [Palomo] of Neon Indian, and he told me that his dad is a professional recorded musician. So many people who have been on the show will say–and I’m not tooting my own horn, I’m just always looking for signs that I’m actually maybe good at this, because I don’t know–”I’ll do this again, I love this!” Or they’ll say, “That was like therapy, I really enjoyed that.” Or they’ll say, “I should have a podcast.” [Laughs]
You’ve inspired them. Who are some dream guests and why?
I’d love to interview Questlove because he’s had an amazing career and is a musician. He’s also amazing at talking about music. One thing I want to do eventually is reach out to older people who did music and were successful maybe in the 70s or 80s, and are now done [recording], for example, Evelyn “Champagne” King. I love so many of her songs, and I know nothing about her. I would love to talk to her. There’s a reggae group called The Lovejoys that I’ve listened to for years. It was one of those things where I was like, “This is a cool looking album,” and I bought it.
I ended up listening to it for ten years, and I know nothing about them. I’d love to talk to them. I’d also love to talk to pop stars. I want the show to have some guests where people are like, “Wow, I can’t believe Jesse is talking to them.” Either because they’re really famous or because they’re obscure and interesting. I want to continue to have the kind of people who have been on my show, which is this middle-tier, middle-class of successful, working artists, because there aren’t a lot of outlets for those people to tell their stories and talk about who they are.
What podcasts do you love?
Besides the sports podcasts I listen to, right now my favorite podcast is The Read [by] Kid Fury and Crissle. They’re young, black radio hosts. They go over pop culture, and this week in black excellence. I like listening to them talk about stuff; there’s a political aspect to the show that is very good. They’re awesome. I love Call Chelsea Peretti. She doesn’t do it very often anymore. I’m a long time Chelsea Peretti fan. I like Bodega Boys, a podcast by Desus and The Kid Mero. They’re crazy. That’s the one I definitely listen to on headphones.
“Friend of the band” Katie Notopoulos has an amazing podcast called Internet Explorer for Buzzfeed where she covers the internet in the way that only Katie can. My favorite episode is where she helps comedian Akilah Hughes go through the 150,000 unread emails in her in inbox. Also, my band did all the music on the show. And, of course, Marc Maron.
For someone just starting to listen to No Effects, what three episodes do you recommend?
One of the most recent ones was with MNDR, and I was blown away by her. I’ve known her for a long time but I never knew her story–she grew up on a farm in Fargo and was a virtuoso classical musician. She talks about the Fargo punk rock scene, and how she had a number one hit in Europe with Mark Ronson. She’s just had this really interesting career and she’s so good at talking about what she does. She projects such confidence, knowledge, and coolness.
Kelela is another one I thought was really, really good. I listen to her music, and it’s very cool and collected, and she was so warm when I spoke to her. We grew up in the same area so we had a lot to talk about there. I thought it was a very good conversation.
And, Ezra Koenig and I talked for a really long time. So many people love his band. That’s the person I talked to when I was the most like, Wow this person is doing exactly what they want to do. He felt like the person who was the most actualized in terms of having an idea about music and a goal, and then executing it. That was interesting.
Can you give us a teaser of upcoming guests?
I try to have at least three or four episodes banked, but sometimes I’m running on empty, because this is just me. This project for me is like most other things I’ve done where it appears to be ambitious, but I’m just totally winging it. I have DJ Dodger Stadium coming up, and Jake [Duzsik] from HEALTH. I’ll also be doing live podcasts from Moogfest 2016.
Check out No Effects, and stay tuned to Milk for more music coverage.
Photo of Jesse Cohen by Chris Black. Photos of Tanlines courtesy of EW and Instagram. Additional image via Sputnik Music.