Tale of the tape

Life imitates art for indie band

by Philip Brasor

Tapes ‘n Tapes, this year’s designated Internet-sparked American indie band are, for the moment at least, enjoying their rocket trip to notoriety. Touring their butts off since self-releasing their debut album “The Loon” about a year ago, the Minneapolis-based quartet have already achieved a certain level of road comfort.

“In the United States, we have our own van that we drive ourselves,” says guitarist-vocalist Josh Grier over the phone from a club in Berlin. “In the United Kingdom we had a split-bus — band in the front, gear in the back. Now we’re on the Continent and we have our first-ever tour bus. It’s pretty cool.”

The band’s trajectory has been phenomenal, though it’s necessary to use a different yardstick for success with Internet-launched indie bands than with traditional label-signed acts. Word-of-mouth is essential since there isn’t much money available for things like advertising and video production. Promotion comes down to a constant flood of interviews and the never-ending tour, making the job of pop musician a young person’s game, as the stamina required is almost superhuman.

“After a while you get used to it,” 26-year-old Grier says cheerfully. “But I realize I’m not as nomadic as I thought I was.”

In all the buzz, it’s easy to forget the music that got the group noticed in the first place. Despite the techno allusions suggested by the name, Tapes ‘n Tapes play straightforward guitar rock that builds from the dynamic model pioneered by The Pixies and perfected by Pavement. Less punk-oriented than Husker Du or The Replacements, the two indie groups most identified with Minneapolis, T ‘n T are rigorous in their song structures and instinctively favor rhythm over melody.

“I’m a sucker for a really good beat, and not necessarily a straight 4/4, but something with weird syncopation,” Grier says. “Have you heard the new Jay-Z single? You can’t tell where the downbeat is. It comes at you from all directions. That’s what I love. You can put the simplest melody over a crazy rhythm and make it really interesting, whereas if you had a simple rhythm but an elaborate melody the song usually ends up being boring.”

Even song titles are rhythmically informed: “Just Drums,” “Cowbell.” “Insistor,” which the band performed on The Late Show with David Letterman, lives up to its name, constantly leaning into the listener with a beat that jumps the vocals by a hair. In the instrumental “Crazy Eights,” the guitars lag a millisecond behind the drums, lending the song a wobbly white-boy funk.

It’s definitely a group sound, though Grier came up with the ideas for the songs before the band was formed. In fact, he had trouble convincing his friends to join. “I thought if I designed a Web page about this band, they’ll have to be in it,” he says. “I used it as a motivator. ‘Hey, we have this crazy Web site, so now you guys have to be in the band with me.’ They were like, ‘Yeah, right.’ ” The site included an imaginary biography that presupposes many of the influences that would later crop up in reviews of “The Loon.”

“Things meant as jokes actually turned into reality,” Grier says. “It was really life imitating art.”

Grier studied music while he was growing up in Oregon, and played in bands after moving to Minnesota to attend college. But Tapes ‘n Tapes grew from nothing.

“Me and Matt, our present keyboard player who used to play bass, and our old drummer, went to record our first EP at Matt’s parents’ cabin out in the woods. We brought recording equipment we didn’t know how to use and read the manual as we drove up to the cabin. It was an experiment. We had the songs but no idea how it would turn out.”

The name of the band refers to the fact that they recorded everything they did and literally had tapes and tapes of material. Local gigs weren’t hard to secure, but wider exposure seemed beyond their capabilities.

“I don’t have any business savvy,” Grier admits. “A friend of ours, Keri, had done stuff with music in the past. She had never managed anybody, but she liked the record and wanted to manage us, so we said, ‘Sure, you seem to know what you’re doing. We don’t.”‘

There were some blogs Keri liked, so she sent them MP3 audio files of the band’s music.

“There was no major push,” says Grier, “but it was all we could do to keep up with the response.”

The band was filling orders for “The Loon” out of Grier’s apartment, but eventually they signed with the label XL, which quickly assumed worldwide distribution duties. Grier seems happy with the arrangement: “It’s like we just have a bigger team than we had before.”

The band’s good fortune also materialized in other unexpected ways. Comedian Aziz Ansari used the group for a video in which he plays Clell Tickle, the most aggressive Internet-music publicist in the world. It became a hit on the video-sharing Web site YouTube.

“He got in touch with us a long time ago. I’d seen some of his videos online and thought they were great,” says Grier. “We hung out at South by Southwest. He and a director friend were thinking of making a music video for us, but it didn’t work out. Instead, he came up with the Clell Tickle thing. It’s hilarious.”

Even more unexpected was Nissan’s request to use one of their songs, “Jakov’s Suite,” for a television commercial. Grier still doesn’t know quite what to make of it.

“We were relieved when we finally saw the final version.” he says. “It’s funny. Sometimes, you see songs you like in ads and you think, ‘Oh God, that was lame.’ We didn’t know when it was coming on and all of a sudden it was on during the World Series. It came out of nowhere.”

Sounds like the story of their life.