Josh Grier of Tapes 'N Tapes on the important role of humor and handling the critical backlash

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Shortly after graduating from Carleton College and moving to Minneapolis, Josh Grier and some friends started the band Tapes 'N Tapes (due tonight at The Bluebird Theater with the Chain Gang of 1974). Within a year of the band's existence, the group recorded its first EP, and those recordings were passed on to friends of the band who passed them around on the Internet.

By the time the outfit issued its debut full-length, 2005's The Loon, the band had become something of a darling in the blogosphere. But unlike many other hyped blog bands, Tapes 'N Tapes wasn't really a bedroom project that had to scramble to have an actual, physical presence to tour and prove itself; the band had already been playing in the vibrant local scene in Minneapolis well before taking its show on the road.

Being seen as a "blog band" has resulted in some backlash against Tapes 'N Tapes, but Grier and company only ever did what they thought would be interesting for them to do with their music, regardless of immediate public reaction.

This notion is evidenced by the fact that while Tapes was picked up by XL to reissue The Loon, as well as issuing its follow-up, 2008's Walk It Off, the band parted ways with the imprint before releasing its most recent album, Outside, on its own. We recently spoke with Grier about the band's history, the role of humor in its songwriting and its healthy approach to handling the backlash.

Westword: The band started at Carleton College? What inspired you to start a band, and did you have any specific ideas for what kind of band you wanted to start going in to Tapes 'N Tapes?

Josh Grier: Actually, it started after Carleton. I went to Carleton and graduated in 2002 and went up to Minneapolis. In the winter of 2003, I gathered together the guys for the band. One of the guys who was originally in it, I went to school with at Carleton, but he quickly left the band to go to grad school. I just really wanted to be in a band more than anything. In college I played with my buddy who ended up being in the band originally and some other people.

I'd always really loved music, and after I graduated from college, I was like, "Well, there's two things I really want to do. Either go to grad school or play music." I figured you can always go to grad school, but rock and roll is a young man's game. So I figured I'd give music a shot and talked two buddies into being in the band with me, and it seemed like a fun thing to do. That was the impetus for it. After that, it just kept on going.

As a fledgling band, did you play live before releasing an album, and if so, what did you find the cultural climate like locally for original music?

I think the scene for music here in Minneapolis has always been really good since I've lived here. There's a whole lot of small venues for bands to play at, so it's pretty easy for your band to get on a bill and start playing out and about. So that's what we did. We had a whole bunch of demos, and we got a few shows, and we started playing more and more.

Then after about six months, I guess it was [later in 2003], a local guy around here said, "Hey, I want to write an article about you guys; do you have anything recorded?" We didn't, so he said, "Well, when you record something I'll write an article about you." That's when we recorded our EP. We went up to a cabin in the winter of 2003, spent a weekend and made an EP. He did end up writing about us for the local alternatively weekly here.

It was funny, he came to a show and said, "My editor wants me to write a story about you guys, but I can't really do it unless you have something for me to write about it." So it was like, "Oh, that makes sense." We didn't really know how things worked and that people don't usually write articles about you unless there's something going on, you know?

Did you get support early on from some of the independent radio stations in Minneapolis, and how would you characterize local radio and press coverage of music from Minneapolis?

There were definitely supporting us when we first started out. We got some good shows and college radio like KUOM, which is the University of Minnesota radio station -- they really supported us from very early on, which is really cool. But beyond that it wasn't like we got a ton of local press support or anything. There's a whole bunch of bands here, so I think we were just kind of another one of the bands in the mix. We tried to play as many shows as we could, and when we put out the EP in 2004, we booked our own tour and our friends sent our EP to college radio stations across the country.

Since we started as a band, there's a new radio station in town. Minnesota Public Radio now has an alternative music radio station [called 89.3 The Current]. It has really helped that there are now two or three places where you can get good local music on the radio. That has helped the local scene in general in the last five years since that new radio station has started up.

Why did you call your label Ibid, and how did you go about getting a distribution chain for the label?

Ibid started off as kind of a joke a buddy of mine had. He was the guy that was originally in the band that went on to grad school. If you reference thing multiple times in a paper, you use "Ibid," so I thought it would be funny to have people call it "Ibid." It's like, "Oh, this is like how everything in music already has been referenced." [laughs]

When we put out our EP, at the time, in 2004, you didn't self-release things, and if you did, people didn't really take it seriously. So we figured if we started up a fake label at the time and said we were on Ibid, then people would take it more seriously. When The Loon came along in 2005, we did the same thing. But then that started taking off, so Ibid started becoming more of a real entity based on the fact that people were actually interested. So we had to run it more appropriately.

Originally, for distribution, when we put out The Loon, it was something where there was a demand for it, so distributors were getting in touch with us, and we were basically doing all our own distribution.

The band now, with our new record, Outside, when we put it out ourselves, Ibid was an official label, and it's got its own paperwork and all its business. We work with Redeye Distribution, which is a really good distribution company based down in North Carolina. It's really nice to work with someone on distribution, otherwise it's a lot of stuff to take care of on your own.

How did you end up being a data analyst, and what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be all sorts of things growing up, you know. Typical astronaut and things like that. I debated, when I went to college, about either going to music school or going to a liberal arts college, and I ended up going to the liberal arts college. I was a Math major there, so after I graduated, doing computer stuff and data analysis seemed to fit with my degree. So that's kind of how that worked out. Nothing too exciting, but it paid the bills for a while.

You got laid off from that job or are you still doing it?

Yeah, I was part of a reduction in force about a year and a half ago, so now I'm full-time musician right now.

After the release of The Loon, it sounds like some great opportunities came your way. What would be the most surreal moments for you as a person and as a musician so far in your career?

I think a lot of it has been pretty surreal. Pretty much after we put The Loon out and things started to snowball, everything was pretty weird. I never had any expectations or grand plans for the band to become really successful or for us to be able to tour as we have or be on MTV.

All those things are pretty bizarre. Touring overseas, playing in Japan, being on TV -- every time a new opportunity came along it's like, "Holy crap! That's us? We're doing that? Oh, okay, cool." You just keep on working hard, and hopefully things work out. So I think we're always really pleasantly surprised.

Did you choose to work with Dave Fridmann for Work It Off, and if so, why? What was he like to work with?

Yeah, we did. It was pretty close after we signed with XL to release The Loon. We had a two record deal with them, and they asked us who we wanted to work with as a dream producer for our next record. Well, it was a shot in the dark, and we said, "Dave Fridmann." I love so many of his records.

It was a pie in the sky type of thing but it ended up working out. We chatted on the phone with him a couple of times. He seemed like a really good guy, and it made sense, and we were lucky enough to get the time. It was a great experience. He's an amazing person and really fun to work with. I can't say enough good things from Dave.

In working with Fridmann is there anything you learned that you have used in recording Outside?

I don't know if I can say anything tangible like mike placement or how to set a compressor, but certainly, the process of making a record every time, we all try to learn from it. In the studio with Dave, he has such an ease about doing things that is amazing, and he has a really positive mentality and wants to try out a lot of things. I think that was really one of the big things with Dave, there's really no wrong answers about doing something. If it sounds good, that's what you go with.

"The Saddest Key" is one of my favorite songs from Outside. What is the significance of that title?

It's kind of a joke. The song's in D Minor, and we were messing around with the title and there's a line -- I think it's in This is Spinal Tap -- where, I think it's Derek Smalls, is talking about D Minor, and he calls it "the saddest of all keys." So that's where we took it from. "Oh, it's D Minor song. Instead, let's call it 'The Saddest Key.'"

In reading and watching interviews with the band, it seems as though you guys have a pretty healthy sense of humor. What's your favorite kind of humor and how has your own informed your songwriting?

[laughs] That's a good question. There's a lot of humor that doesn't make me laugh. Mostly I think all our humor is pretty low-brow, for the most part. I don't know if I've met many bands that have high brow humor. That is truly a very essential part, at least for me, in music, is having a very reasonable sense of curiousness so you gotta never take yourself or your music too seriously.

Otherwise it can bog things down. So I think that's something we've always tried to embrace in the music-making process: Having a healthy dose of not taking yourself too seriously. I don't think we try to be funny, but we try to have a good time instead of going down a dark hole of egomania.

In a 2006 interview with The Onion A/V Club, they mentioned your rapid rise to popularity and the potential for backlash. Obviously that's since happened. How did you deal with that sort of thing, and what do you think it's important for any artist to know in handling it?

The main thing I always think of is that there's nothing you can do. You don't have control over what people think of your music. We never had control over whether folks liked us or whether folks didn't like us or whatever. You always have to take that into account. For me, the most important thing always is just making music that I love and that I will appreciate in the long term and be happy with. So I think that's really kind of the only thing you can ever do. If people really dig your music, that's cool, but if not, you can't really force anything down anybody's throat.

I figure that all you can do is be honest and make stuff that, musically, you really like. I think we've always done that, and I don't ever have any regrets about anything that we've done from day one. It was always, "Oh, this seems like a good idea, we're totally into that." And either people can be either totally into it or not, and that's all there is to it.

Other than that, it's kind of a waste of your time to stay up nights wondering whether or not folks are gonna even listen to your music. The main thing for us is just really like, hopefully, folks give a full listen to any music we're making before they pass judgment on it. I think that's all anybody who makes music can hope for. So if they do and they like it, cool. If they hate it, at least they had an opinion about it and listened to it. [laughs]

Tapes 'N Tapes, with the Chain Gang of 1974, 7 p.m., Thursday, August 18, Bluebird Theater, $16, 303-830-8497.

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