Indie

Couplet Is Three Emo Lifers Letting Go Of The Pressure To Focus On The Joy

For nearly a decade, Tanner Jones fronted a pop-punk band from Orlando named after a Happy Gilmore gag – and yet, Jones never once felt like he could even attempt to write a You Blew It! song that was actually funny. At least not the kind of funny he brings on “Sold Our Shirts,” a single from his new and much more circumspectly monikered project Couplet. “I was listening to a lot of Grandaddy, who I think are very good at writing lyrics that are cheeky in a way that You Blew It! or pop-punk could not get away with,” Jones admits, and “Sold Our Shirts” broke his years-long artistic deadlock by imagining a “fairy tale for a touring band”: their Pitchfork scores are always higher than the other guys, venues pay them what they’re worth, and they never miss any milestones of their friends back home. A few years removed from quietly shuttering You Blew It!, Jones was still uncertain about whether he would ever publicly release music again as he shared “Sold Our Shirts” with some fellow artists to see if it resonated. Maxwell Stern of Signals Midwest sent a note back to Jones, describing it as the sequel to “Bands With Managers,” Pedro the Lion’s scorched earth screed on indie rock careerism. For Jones, “it was the most mindblowing compliment I could think of.”

Couplet’s spiritual connection to that song goes deeper than Stern likely anticipated. “Bands With Managers” was the opening track on Achilles Heel, a deeply embittered album that foreshadowed David Bazan’s disbandment of Pedro the Lion and subsequent formation of Headphones – a low-key electro-pop project created amongst longtime collaborators and friends. This is almost the exact circumstances under which Couplet was forged, as Jones’ email exchanges with Chicago emo fixtures Adam Beck of Sincere Engineer and Evan Weiss soon became a full-fledged band. LP1 sounds like nothing Jones or Beck or Weiss have ever made, but it does sound like Mice Parade, The Postal Service, and The Notwist, all of whom also applied their punk and emo-leaning origins to define the sound of early 2000s lap-pop.

And much like “Bands With Managers,” “Sold Our Shirts” is an unmistakably autobiographical account, fueled by the envy and disillusionment that can only come from a marginal level of success that somehow makes things worse than outright failure. Even if You Blew It!’s debut Grow Up, Dude helped define what “emo revival” meant before the term went mainstream, it’s hard to look at a band with that name and that album title and that album cover and assume they aspired for longevity. But as soon as You Blew It! started to experience some semblance of commercial and critical acclaim with 2014’s Keep Doing What You’re Doing, Jones started to see the rot setting in. Touring for nine months per year made the band financially viable, but at the cost of relationships and more sustainable career options. Opening gigs for The Wonder Years, State Champs, and Taking Back Sunday put them in front of bigger crowds than they could ever manage on their own and also made it nearly impossible to operate outside of the pop-punk market.

Jones noticed that the band’s decision-making was almost always fraught with financial considerations; not just the tour schedule, but second-guessing their songwriting instincts if a song felt too pop-punk or emo, or not pop-punk enough. An admitted combination of hubris and bad timing sealed the fate of Abendrot, You Blew It!’s final album. While Jones assumed the band’s prior success would ensure patience with their newly wistful and somber tones, especially in the context of a mid-November release, its arrival was met with indifference at best; emo’s fourth wave had reached a low ebb by the end of 2016 and three days after the election of Donald Trump, it was admittedly tough for anyone to care about any album. “I’m not sure how much of an impact it had on the release of the record,” Jones said in 2017. “I’d like to say it had a big one, but it could be the very simple fact that people just didn’t like that record either.” The ensuing tour tanked and as of now, the story of You Blew It! ends with a grace note of irony – shortly after they publicly called it quits, they accepted an offer to do a three-show run in Florida opening for American Football, the kind of gig that rarely seemed to arise when they were an active band.

But by that point, Jones had already taken the opportunity to join five of his friends in starting up Easy Luck, a coffee shop and bar in Orlando where he works to this day. After years of the just-making-it touring grind, Jones prefers his routinized lifestyle – “working at a coffee shop from 6:30 to 3:30 PM and then going home and going for a run and having dinner and then going to sleep.” Despite the reputation of Florida in general and Orlando in particular, Jones has come to appreciate the college kids and “Birkenstock-wearing, hippie granola types” responsible for making Orange County the bluest-leaning one in the state. While begrudgingly acknowledging Ron DeSantis’ often-progressive environmental legislation, he also points out how Florida’s notoriously anti-vaxx governor has become a rallying point for his community. “It’s a nice thing to bond over but there’s definitely shame in it,” Jones says, “being in a state led by this guy who’s lashing out at reporters every single day over the most inane shit.”

When I interviewed Jones about all of this back in 2017, I left feeling pretty certain that he’d never make music again – or at least never allow himself to be fully reliant on music as a source of income or self-esteem. And that’s why Couplet is allowed to exist in 2021. “We’re all approaching it as a way to explore sonically and lyrically, because the stakes were so low,” Jones tells me. “No one was expecting anything.” Sparked by “Sold Our Shirts,” Jones started writing a handful of songs when he met up with Beck at a Sincere Engineer show in 2019. “He said, ‘please come up to Chicago and I’ll record you for free,’” he recalls. “So I booked a flight for April 2020 and of course that didn’t happen.” Jones linked back up with Weiss, the Into It. Over It. and Pet Symmetry frontman who also produced Keep Doing What You’re Doing and Abendrot. Jones describes his demos as “guitar and maybe a beep-boop drum track and vocals,” before Beck and Weiss rearranged and remixed them into the pointillist and nearly guitar-free synth-pop tracks that populate LP1. As their exchange of ideas continued long past its original weekend plans, Jones decided to build Couplet out into a full-on band rather than a solo project – “the amount of collaboration they were putting into it was as valuable, if not more so, than your traditional ‘three guys getting into a room and banging out a song.’”

But now that Couplet is an actual band with an actual album and, thus, an actual album rollout, Jones is again wrestling with the same aversion to pretense and self-promotion that soured the last few years of You Blew It!. LP1 undeniably owes its creative process to the pandemic and Jones has no interest in turning it into a narrative. “The arrogance to cite the pandemic and how it should be some kind of token to accentuate the artist’s struggle and increase the value of the output is where my true ire lies,” he explains in an email a few days after our initial talk. “The thing’s killed millions of people and changed everyone’s lives, and now some band wants me to covet their songs because their process was different? Wild.” There are times where he wishes he could drop music anonymously and others where he’s inspired by how his peers use social media to be forthright and vulnerable about their artistic process. There are days when he wants to listen to literally anything other than DIY punk and a few hours after we’re done speaking, he’ll be at a show for Florida up-and-comers Virginity. But for now, Couplet’s owes its existence to the same pure and noble impulse that will forever inspire friends to start a band just so they can name it after one of their favorite movie quotes. “This brings me a lot of joy, it brings Evan a lot of joy, it brings Adam a lot of joy,” Jones stresses. “And what are you doing in life? You’re mostly chasing joy, and that’s what this whole thing is.”

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Prior to the formation of Couplet, I recall you expressing ambivalence about whether there was space for you to make music again. How does this concern sit with you now?

Truthfully, it feels fucking ridiculous if I’m being honest with you. I don’t mean to demean this interview [laughs], but over the past three or four years, I’ve been solely a music fan. I’ve been watching rollouts happen and indulging them the way that anyone else would indulge a You Blew It! or Couplet record. I try to be very understanding these days, but the whole process seems disingenuous and frankly kinda annoying. Art should be consumed as art, it shouldn’t be surrounded by this halo of stories and past records. It seems like with every band that has gone on tour or announced tours, there’s been such a long diatribe about “this past year has been so hard for me, we had to be locked down,” recapping the entire pandemic as if none of us have ever lived it, in order to sell tickets. It seems ridiculous and awful, I think I would like to live in a world that didn’t have record rollouts and they would just come out on the day they actually came out.

When I spoke with Foxing earlier this year, they expressed a similar sentiment about wishing they could do an immediate drop – and they were in the middle of a five-month rollout.

It seems like there’s so much effort that goes into informing the record before people hear it when the record should inform itself. Not having been a part of it [for a few years], that was the most glaring thorn in my side that revealed itself that wasn’t there before.

How do you determine whether a song you write is worthy of taking up space in 2021?

I think it would be arrogant to say that we’re releasing music for anything other than my friends and their enjoyment. I stopped making music for a long time because it stopped bringing me joy, until one day it started doing that again and I chased that. I found friends that wanted to make music with me, they found me and we put it out because it was a worthwhile process to us. I think that if it were tied to something altruistic – if releasing music shrunk the wealth gap just a little bit with every song – then maybe I could say that releasing music is for the world. Not to be cynical about it, it wouldn’t be right of me to say that I’m releasing music for anything other than myself or Couplet’s self.

With the intention of writing from a different sonic and lyrical perspective in Couplet, how do you identify subject matter that’s worth pursuing?

I think a lot of that credit can go to Evan and Adam and maybe even the way we wrote songs together. Being so far away from each other physically required a lot of trust and modesty. We had no deadlines, all we had were lockdowns between Chicago and limited lockdowns in Florida. I’m sure you’ve noticed there’s not a lot of guitars on this record, the onus was very much – “if you don’t have a good idea, make it an interesting idea.” And also humoring every member’s input as an equal.

What’s the difference between a good idea and an interesting one?

Sometimes good ideas can be safe ideas. It would be a good idea to write a song with a traditional pop structure because that’s a successful structure. An interesting one would be to stack a chorus at the beginning, build two verses and a bridge and stack a chorus at the end. More specifically, it would be a good idea to use a guitar to play a part because that’s what we’re used to but it would be more interesting to put it through a Rhodes or a Wurlitzer type of thing.

Have you felt burnt out on listening to music from the DIY or punk worlds?

Absolutely. The past three years have been very rewarding because I’ve been able to get out of the mindset of “I have to know everything that’s going on in the guitar rock world” and I’ve been able to dig into things like bossa nova or American classics like Grateful Dead or the Byrds or Gram Parsons. I was able to familiarize myself with Yo La Tengo, I never really did that until You Blew It! broke up – even though they’re guitar music, they’re not really. I go in and out of phases these days where I’d rather not listen to punk or guitar-driven indie.

Are there any newer bands in this space that excite you?

Hovvdy – at the end of “Sold Our Shirts,” I say “mm-hmm” and that’s inspired by one of the songs on Heavy Lifter, I love that band. I love how their earlier records were very sparse, almost slowcore and now they’re kind of pop songs. I like a lot of the new psych bands like Crumb and Mild High Club. King Gizzard too, those bands are so sweet. I work in a coffee shop eight hours a day, so all I can do is go through these “Recommended Artists” [on Spotify]. I found this band called The Sweet Enoughs and all their [“fans also like”] bands are all these guys from Nordic countries wearing silly hats and writing these new jazz records that are just so out of this world cool.

Are there any times where you see your friends or peers releasing an album and think, “man, I actually miss that”?

Any record rollout that’s happening kinda in the sphere where You Blew It! existed. For example, the Shortly album that was released today. I think Triple Crown did a really cool, little quick rollout with her and just seeing her through tweets – I imagine she feels this way – just being grateful and showing her excitement for this record. I feel like I would try to do that with every You Blew It! rollout. In some alternate universe, if I were in her shoes, I would say the same type of things. Or in this universe, I’m releasing a record!

The title of LP1 implies there might be an LP2, has there been more Couplet music made?

We have more music – we finished the record about a year ago and we’ve been slowly writing ever since. We have another release planned after this one and more stuff on the way. We’re trying to plan something [for touring} in the middle of next year should everything go well.

How do you plan on setting boundaries or expectations so that Couplet doesn’t repeat some of the mistakes You Blew It! made while touring?

What’s going to be different is the mindset, rather than the physical aspects that come along with touring. Before, that was how I lived so it was very important that I worked out a routine and that routine followed similar steps and tempos every single day. Whereas now that this is a part-time band I think it will be easier to tolerate the unsavory parts of touring. Before, one wrong thing was detrimental to a routine and therefore resulted in that domino effect of bad mental health, being pissy all the time, being annoying, being annoyed. Now that this is in the “part-time” category, the things that seem dire at first might actually be enjoyable. That’s my hope.

Couplet’s LP1 is out today. Get it here.

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