Singer-songwriters Steve Tannen and Deb Talan, famously known now as The Weepies, started as solo artists on the Mid-Atlantic/Northeast folk circuit over ten years ago. While on their own, they amassed individual oeuvres of deserved acclaim, marking them as definite stars in the post-90’s folk explosion landscape. At first, mutual professional admiration brought them together as colleagues, but that quickly led to romantic attraction. Tannen and Talan are now married with two children, and have abandoned their solo careers in favor of the Weepies duo combination. The decision to record together has been both financially and artistically beneficial. Their music attracts a wide audience across genres, and their music has been licensed for major motion pictures, as well as the 2008 Obama presidential campaign. Still, Deb and Steve remain down-to-earth and warmhearted, interested in writing music that is compelling, affirming and meditative, without verging too heavily on the sappier aspects of love and parenthood. They’re utterly relatable, and, as their four albums can attest, incredibly good at what they do.
After 2006’s brilliant Say I Am You, The Weepies toured relentlessly for close to two years. They played over 150 shows for the record, covering the country multiple times as they cemented their reputation as riveting, engrossing folk singers with a keen ear for melody and harmony. They then released the somewhat mercurial yet whimsical Hideaway in 2008, but the birth of their first child kept them from touring that album. In fact, it wasn’t until 2010’s somewhat erratic Be My Thrill that The Weepies went back out on the road, leading to sold out venues over the forty-odd show tour. Fans were exceptionally eager to welcome Deb and Steve back to the fold, and since there was hardly any promotion behind Hideaway, it was especially exciting to see two whole albums of new material in the live setting.
The Weepies are about to embark on a hearty run of shows across North America in August, but this time they’re changing some things about their usual configuration. Rather than take a full band on the road, they’re playing entirely acoustic, with the support of bass player Johnny Flower. It’s the first time in many years that audiences will hear Deb and Steve so unadorned, and it couldn’t come at a better time. Their last effort, Be My Thrill, vacillated between outstanding songs, like “Please Speak Well of Me,” “Add My Effort” and “They’re In Love, Where Am I?” and ones that sounded like standard template Weepies (“Hope Tomorrow,” “I Was Made for Sunny Days”). Still, Deb and Steve are so earnest and heartfelt in their approach that Be My Thrill’s inconsistencies were taken as short missteps in their longer artistic journey. This acoustic tour, however, will likely put to rest concerns that The Weepies may have lost their edge.
In anticipation of the 2011 Acoustic Tour, Glide Magazine’s Peter Zimmerman had the distinct pleasure of speaking with both Deb and Steve about the tour and their career in general. What resulted was a enjoyable conversation about the daunting task of choosing (and rehearsing) forty songs for the tour, devising varied setlists, their approach to writing, and perhaps most intriguing, what constitutes a typical day in the life of The Weepies.
Where am I catching you? Are you home in Southern California?
DT: Yes! We're home, in the studio. We just finished a rehearsal with Johnny Flower, our bass player friend coming with us on this next tour. Kids are in the yard and there is an upright bass on our floor.
Let’s talk about this upcoming tour. What was the decision behind going acoustic, rather than just another leg of band tour?
DT: Partly, we wanted to scare ourselves (laughs)-- to put some fear back into performing. I think we felt like we wanted to do something different for ourselves and for people to come and hear us. And it's ended up being even more different than we initially anticipated. We even involved some lighting people and a set designer, because we want to have the intimacy of what we sort of started out doing with hopefully a little more sophistication and fun and mood and something that feels like a show.
We had a great time going out with the band the last time. It was so wonderful all-around. Just playing and performing and that experience of growing into a group playing. But, we felt like "OK, we did that and we'll do it again, but let's try something to shake ourselves up a little bit.” And we're also sort of staring down another recording. We did a lot of writing and that's always a good time to scare yourself. So you get bold, you know?
Definitely. Are you going to be playing new material on the tour, or are you getting back out there just to change it up?
DT: A little bit of both. We're sort of reinventing a bunch of songs from our previous recordings, but we're definitely going to road-test a handful of things from the new album. We're not going to throw too much new stuff at people right away, but we talked about and have practiced maybe ten, and we're going to rotate in a few each night.
How many songs do you now have in the repertoire for the acoustic show?
DT: Far too many (laughs). What are we practicing? Forty all together, and we're just seeing what works the best. Again, being able to rotate stuff in so we keep it fresh. Yeah, we put out a line, I don't know if you knew this already…
ST: Kind of as a joke.
DT: We put out a word to Twitter and Facebook, just to see if people were interested in hearing songs that we hadn't even thought about playing. We brought in a couple from the suggestions.
I bet you got responses for every single song that you've ever written.
ST: There were ones from "Humming Fish". Ones from when I was in college and I was like "are you sure I did it? I don't even remember that song-- What is that?"
DT: That's so nice. It was encouraging just to get quite a few responses. And then, some of them, we were like "we have seen that one crop up quite a few times" and we hadn't had it on the list, so let's reconnect with that song and see if we could do it.
Be My Thrill is your newest record, but I'm sure you're not obligated to tour just that material anymore. So, it must be nice to divide the setlist so that's it's a little bit rounder from your catalogue.
DT: Yeah! It's been really fun. Kind of crafting the songs from what I really feel like and excluding some.
The Be My Thrill tour back in October/November 2010 was your first time back on the road since Say I Am You-- that huge tour with that album. Are you starting to get back into that touring mode, or are you going to be doing engagements sporadically? What’s your current perspective on touring?
DT: Sure-- "What's the thinking?" We're thinking that we want to be touring on a yearly basis, for sure. I don't know that we'll ever be a touring band in the sense of people who tour 200 days a year kind of thing. We've got our little family and we want to stay put for a lot of time during the year. But we write a lot. That's a large focus of ours.
You've worked with many other artists as songwriters. I know you've written with Mandy Moore, specifically. So, are you looking to diversify into that territory further? Doing a lot more songwriting for other artists? Or, are you focusing on Weepies stuff right now?
DT: When we write, we just write. And I think we would write with someone else or for someone else if it seemed like the right pairing. Someone whose voice we think is really interesting--we would definitely write with or for them. And actually, if we're stuck on our own stuff, it's helpful to step out and think about someone else singing your song. But mostly, we devote quite a few months a year to concentratedly writing-- making sure that we have a nice collection of songs. And then what happens to them later remains to be seen. But it's a very generative part of our musical life.
I'm really interested in how you go about writing-- what a song's genesis often is for The Weepies. I know that famous duo the Indigo Girls write separately and then they bring the songs to the table to figure out harmonies and arrangements. How do you and Steve go about songwriting?
DT: Well, at this point, everything that we write ends up being collaborative at some level. Usually before the point of singing harmonies and stuff like that. But often it's more of starting in on a writing jag or a writing time. We'll go into our own secret caves and get our own mojo going. And then it becomes more collaborative as we go along, just naturally, because we have to connect with that part of ourselves first.
ST: It's like marriage. (everyone laughs)
Understandably. Also, I know that you both have very large catalogues of your own solo work. How does that play into where you are now? Deb, if you would continue to be a solo artist, I'd assume you'd still play a bunch of stuff from earlier records--"How Will He Find Me?," "Ashes On Your Eyes"-- those kinds of songs that would still make up your repertoire. And the same for Steve-- "San Francisco" and "Sing Me to Sleep"-- those songs. Now that you're in the Weepies, do they ever creep in? How do you guys feel about that solo work now?
DT: They absolutely do. It's pretty exciting. We were fans of each other's music before we met and started collaborating and all that. So, it's kind of funny when we get to the point of being able to choose songs-- like choosing songs for this tour. All the songs you just mentioned by the way, we're playing! I was like "No. Steve, we have to do these" and he's like "Deb, we're doing these from your…we're doing 'Ashes on Your Eyes.’” And I'm like, "Really?" We are both really attached to each other's music that we made before we met. So, when there is an opportunity to play those songs and bring them in, generally we're like, "I'll raise you one 'Ashes On Your Eyes' if I trade you 'Just A Little.'" So, that's been actually quite fun. It's fun to rediscover those songs together. The ones that have some staying power anyway.
You put out a Weepies iTunes Live EP quite a few years back, but it really is two Weepies songs and then four songs from your solo careers. At that point, they actually started to sound like Weepies songs. Both of you were singing on them and brought some great new harmonies to the table. So, I was interested to see if they were coming back in, especially since it's an acoustic tour.
DT: Yeah, they certainly are. I was just going to say that you'll see that we've woven in a lot of those songs from our respective pasts.
How much unreleased material do you guys work with? I remember reading an interview last year about Be My Thrill, stating that you’d come up with about forty songs for that album or so. Where does that material go? Do you keep it in binders, ready for the next record?
DT: Generally, we move on, I would say. Sometimes songs will make it to being recorded and they just don't make it onto a recording that we press. And sometimes we freeze them. They're on drives. Actually, we've started revisiting some of that stuff. There's a song called "Strange Place Now" that we're going to play on this tour that is quite an old song. And for some reason, we've had the hardest time finding a way to record it well. But we're so fond of it and so we're like, "Let's bring it along a little bit now and see what happens." And then there are other songs--many, many songs--that just fall away.
ST: Yeah, like hobbies that you just don't do anymore, you know?
DT: Yeah, like "I used to love tennis".
ST: Or "I'm going to be a pilot".
DT: Yeah, I was going to be a pilot when I was 25!
You both relocated to the West Coast after spending many years living and performing in the Northeast. How has that transition been for you? What do you find has changed? Do you stay connected to the people from the folk communities of your past?
DT: We were very much based in the East for awhile. I feel that we still have a lot of musical and friendship relationships with many people that are still living on the East Coast, but a lot of the people that we first met when we were there have moved to different parts of the country at this point. I'd say that we've definitely met some good people while we’ve been out here. For instance, Johnny (bass player) is from New York, but he's done what a bunch of our musician friends have done-- they've come out to L.A. to spend some time, or maybe split their time between New York and here. With the musical community, it doesn't feel particularly bound by either coast. A lot of people that we know are out touring during the year, so we touch base with people we know all around the country.
The band that we took out last Fall was made up of Johnny and Meg, who are both originally from the East Coast, but are living out here. Our friend Frank, the drummer, is out here and actually grew up here. Brad is from New Orleans, but is living out here as well. So, it's an eclectic group of people. It doesn't feel like we left the East Coast behind, it feels more like it's all expanded by moving out here and touring a bit more.
Speaking of cross-pollination-- is there any music that is inspiring to you now? Or, when you both write, do you sort of close off your ears to other work?
DT: What generally happens is before we start writing, or right at the beginning of writing intensively, we both seem to become very extroverted and start listening to a bunch of the "You know who is good? I've been listening to…" kind of lists. But, while we're actually writing, no, we don't listen to much. Steve can speak to this too. It's distracting rather than being inspiring. But, early on I think there really is a lot of exploration that we both get into. We listened to a good bit of Bon Iver, as well as a lot of older stuff.
ST: We usually listen to one or two people who we find inspirational. And we're like, "Oh man. I want to do something that good!" You know what I mean? To listen to walls and walls of stuff is distracting.
What does a typical Weepies day look like? More of an irreverent question, for sure, but I'm interested. Now that you guys live and work together full time, how does it work?
DT: Haha, anywhere between 5:30 and 6 o'clock because we have a one-year-old and a three-year-old.
I bet a lot of sleep deprivation there.
DT: A lot of sleep deprivation, yes, but luckily, when we're either writing intensively or getting ready for tour--both of which we've been doing for the past six months or so-- we have a really good friend who helps us out with taking care of the kids. We're up with them in the morning, though. We get up, have breakfast, play with the kids, sometimes take a walk, often listen to a little music that our oldest boy is into,well, actually that Alexander's into actually. We have sort of their hit lists. The “Cars” movie soundtrack is very big at our house.
ST: Also Bob Marley, Manu Chao, Chumbawamba.
DT: Generally we start work at 9 AM. That's been rehearsing for this tour. After that, writing for some hours. We usually write for a bit
ST: And then have lunch with the kids, and then later in the day is business.
DT: Steve talking a lot with our manager Brett and me playing with the kids and feeding them. I'd say that's about a typical Weepies day. And it goes until about 11pm.
ST: And we have a DVD sometimes when we need to just stop.
Awesome! I know you guys are busy and all over the place, from writing to preparing for the tour, so I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.
The Weepies will launch their upcoming 2011 Acoustic Tour on August 17 at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, CA. For more information, please visit www.theweepies.com. Alternatively, you can find them on Facebook or Twitter.