In the middle of a winter Thursday afternoon, Tapes 'n Tapes are practicing at Minneapolis nightclub 7th St. Entry, the smaller sibling/anteroom to the famous First Avenue.
All the house lights are up, leaving the tapestry of posters and black foam that line the walls in plain view. The familiar aromas of sweat and beer are noticeably absent, replaced by a foreign sense of cleanliness and sterility. With just their band manager sitting in back, the room feels eerily deserted, even as Erik Appelwick steps onto the empty floor with his towering frame and bass guitar and turns around to face the stage.
It's an unusual place to rehearse — and granted, the circumstances are unusual, too. The band is breaking in a new sound engineer, but there's also something fitting about Tapes 'n Tapes convening at the Entry, a space so steeped in Twin Cities music lore.
The band had already been keeping a high profile in their hometown, playing their new album, Outside, in its entirety at the Turf Club last fall before celebrating its January '11 release with a listening party at the Electric Fetus and a DJ night at Nick and Eddie.
But not all that long ago, Tapes 'n Tapes had gone almost entirely off the radar.
"There was a pretty long break after Walk It Off," admits singer and guitarist Josh Grier, sitting down with the band at a nearby bar after practice. "I'd gotten married basically when we were on tour, and then we'd been on tour for another two years after that. So I was like, 'I'd kind of like to spend some time at home and be normal for a while.'"
As they got around to working on Outside in late 2009, Tapes 'n Tapes let their contract with record label XL expire, and opted for a more grass-roots approach with their new material, recording close to home at the Terrarium and releasing the album on their own Ibid label.
"There were times when we were with XL where we definitely had different agendas...Mostly, it was just things like radio edits," says Grier. "We'd kind of saved up for a rainy day with the intent of recording our next record on our own and figuring out what we wanted to do with it. So it was like, 'Well, if we can get distribution, I don't know why we wouldn't put it out on our own.'"
Appropriately, Outside has its own back-to-basics feel, shedding some of the over-production of its predecessor to strike a balance between it and the lo-fi sound of debut The Loon. The songs are spacious and relaxed, carrying many of the traits that have come to be associated with the band — jerky melodies, jittery guitars and gradual climaxes — but with a nimbleness and energy that has been less readily apparent on recent recordings.
While it could easily be regarded as a welcome return to form, not everyone's been effusive about the new album: Critics have seemed as content to repeat the cliché of the overhyped buzz-band built up and knocked down overnight by the blogosphere as they are eager to join in the chorus of voices dismissing Tapes 'n Tapes as a flash in the pan. Not to worry, though, even if such a burden has been the undoing of many another group.
"I don't ever find that it's very helpful to read your own press," shrugs Grier, and the rest of the band nod in agreement. "It's like, 'Oh God, we're awesome!' Or, 'Oh God, we're terrible!' Or, 'Oh God, we're mediocre!'" he laughs, throwing his hands up in mock despair, his eyes bulging from behind his glasses.
Rather than get sidetracked by such distractions, the band seems to have grown stronger and more assured since their hiatus, and especially through the recent recording sessions. After collaborating with big-name producer Dave Fridmann last time around, they helmed their own recordings on Outside, which helped keep everyone more engaged in the process — a fact further helped by the decision to demo more extensively as a unit before hitting the studio.
"It seemed like the band became its own thing that took over," Grier says, his voice rising as he says so, the words pouring out quickly. Then his tone relaxes and a slightly crooked but contented smile takes over.
"Now I feel like we've figured some things out and we're a little older. It doesn't seem so crazy now."
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