Indie rock, like many genres, has become something of a strange umbrella category that doesn’t quite do justice to the artists that fall under it. Sadly, a lot of music that is considered “indie rock,” in an effort to be more easily accessible to the masses, has fallen victim to a sort of deflavorizer that takes the sass and bite out of the genre. Thankfully, though, there are still indie rockers that thrive and breathe life back into a term that has, in many cases, mistakenly become code for “lukewarm mainstream.” Regardless of what indie rock means (because who really cares, right?), it gives me hope that there are indeed bands that have successfully straddled or crossed the line between obscurity and recognition, all the while keeping their integrity.
Thoughtful indie rock six-piece Tan Vampires broaches this subject, dealing with the idea of settling for blandness and mediocrity in their single “Digital Rot,” a track from their 2011 breakout album For Physical Fitness. Tan Vampires hails from New Hampshire and has graced the soundtrack of Teen Mom, opened for the likes of Yo La Tengo, and done a positively bitchin’ set on Big Ugly Yellow Couch acoustic sessions. What is so unique about Tan Vampires is the thread of cohesion that coexists alongside such an incredible diversity of sound from song to song. With two lyrically and instrumentally gripping albums, For Physical Fitness (2011) and Ephemera (2013), Tan Vampires has most definitely caught our attention. I recently chatted with Tan Vampires’ guitarist and vocalist, Jake Mehrmann, and got the scoop on puns, plans for SXSW, and what it means to “make it.”
The Quad: How did you guys come up with the name Tan Vampires?
Jake Mehrmann: We all get a kick out of free-associating ideas and riffing on puns, words, names, etc. The name “Tan Vampires” was born of one such silly conversation.
Q: What was your first instrument? How did you get it? Did it inspire you to be musicians or did that come later?
JM: My first instrument was the piano. It belonged to my parents who were firm believers that their children should all be well-rounded individuals and who pushed me to learn to play (something I resisted stubbornly as a child but am now hugely grateful for). I didn’t really develop a deep love for music until I was a teenager, but there’s been no going back since.
Q: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen or heard of while touring? Do people surprise you or all they the same wherever you go?
JM: I don’t have too many memories of anything bizarre happening on tour besides a whole lot of goofiness on our part, and some rather odd venues and musical pairings on bills. A lot of what being on the road entails is a lot less glamorous and a lot more mundane than I think a lot of people might expect. There’s a lot of cramming in vans and sitting around backstage to do before you get to get onstage and play and afterwards meet the folks in the audience—which for us is the payoff for all the tedious bits.
I think the most surprising thing to me is just how many really great people we’ve encountered all over—people who will generously open their homes to traveling bands, people who set up DIY shows in basements (and the kids who attend them), people who go out of their way to travel for hours to see bands (and who bring their friends!).
Q: Do fans misinterpret your music? Are you okay with it or does it annoy you?
JM: I’m not sure I think it’s possible to misinterpret music. Everyone has their own subjective experience with music, and that’s largely the beauty of it. Whatever intent we put into a song when we’re writing it obviously guides our own feelings and interpretations, but once it exists it’s out of our hands. I’ve had folks tell me all sorts of things about how they feel about our songs that were different than what I intended when I wrote them, and I think that’s great. Someone once told me they thought “Digital Rot” was a very romantic song, which really surprised me, since for me it was kind of a song about anxiety and dread. But knowing that someone else gets something so completely different from it than I do is a pretty cool feeling.
Q: What are you working on right now? What’s in store for the future?
JM: Right now we’re hard at work writing material for what we think will be a new record, hopefully something that will be out later this year. We’re also getting excited and gearing up for SXSW, where we’ll be playing a bunch of shows with the likes of Deer Tick, the Felice Brothers, and a whole bunch of other great bands.
Q: How do you guys feel about having music on a show like Teen Mom? Because it’s a show on MTV (which arguably used to be the pinnacle of recognition), does that mean “making it” to you guys?
JM: Well, I’m not sure any of us would know what “making it” felt like if it happened. We hope that those types of licensing opportunities get the music in the ears of a few more people who will then check out some other things we’ve done. If we could eventually make a solid living doing this I think that would be a dream, at least to me. Ultimately, though, this is a labor of love. We get to hang out with people we love and make music we love, and anything more is just gravy. Delicious, delicious gravy.
What is the story behind “Digital Rot” from For Physical Fitness?
JM: Ah, well. We were about a week away from going into the studio to start recording For Physical Fitness, but I didn’t feel like we had a song that felt like a good opening track for the record. So, I locked myself in my apartment on a Saturday evening, drank most of a bottle of bourbon, played until I had broken several strings on my telecaster, hit send on an email to the rest of the band with a rough demo attached, and woke up Sunday morning having forgotten what I recorded the night before. A couple of days later I think one of the guys was like, “I think that idea will work for an opener,” and I remembered I had sent something. So I went back and listened to it and wrote some lyrics very quickly.
I think the studio take that ended up on the record was maybe the third or fourth time we had played through the song together. It’s funny how sometimes those songs that happen the most quickly manage to keep some of the magic to them. So, yeah, not to condone getting blackout drunk or anything, but sometimes it works out great!