Eight months ago, Tapes 'n Tapes was just another Minneapolis indie rock band trying to build a following. It was on the verge of releasing its first full length CD, "The Loon." Its EP from the year before hadn't generated a lot of local attention.
In an appearance on MPR's radio station The Current in late October of last year, lead songwriter and singer Josh Grier discussed the band's name. Relatively unknown bands are often asked about this as they try to, excuse the pun, make a name for themselves.
Grier says it comes from his days at Carleton College, when he and a friend once used a kitchen timer to see how many songs they could write in 60 minutes.
"Within the course of an hour we could come up with 15 songs," Grier recalls. "And then we're like, 'Wow, we could have tapes and tapes of....' And I was like, 'Oh, OK, that's our band name.'"
The songs on "The Loon" arise from that same kind of whimsy, adventure and spontaneity.
With its driving rhythms, Tapes 'n Tapes sounds as much like a gypsy band as edgy American indie rockers. Josh Grier bellows into the microphone as if he's exorcising evil spirits. You can hear traces of indie rock idols such as the Pixies and Pavement, and, for listeners with soft spots in their hearts for Jim Morrison, the Doors.
It seems like nearly every phrase in Grier's fragmented, elliptical lyrics tells a story. When he writes songs, Grier says he'll sometimes mouth sounds that fit the melodies. Then, he says, he looks for words to match those sounds. The tunes don't make immediate sense, leaving a lot of room for interpretation.
"I like lyrics that you can take for your own," Grier says. "You listen to a Pavement song or a Pixies song and you're, 'What the hell are they saying? Oh I think they're saying this. Oh, OK.' I think that's way more interesting than, 'Well, me and my girl went down to the bar,' you know?"
A dizzying amount has happened to Tapes 'n Tapes since last fall. In March, the band played a spate of high-profile gigs at the international indie music conference and showcase, South by Southwest. Then, it signed a major label deal with London-based XL Records.
The rolling snowball became an avalanche, with a wildly received tour of the UK, capacity crowds at every stop on an American tour, two ballyhooed, sold-out shows at the revered Bowery Ballroom in New York, and write-ups in several major publications like Spin, Rolling Stone and the New York Times.
This week, Tapes 'n Tapes keyboard player Matt Kretzmann sat on his couch with a look of disbelief on his face, trying to take it all in.
"If you would have told us that we'd be sitting here -- eight months ago -- we probably wouldn't have taken you for your word," Kretmann says.
If there was one thing that launched Tapes 'n Tapes toward the pop music stratosphere, Kretzman thinks it was the band's decision to reach out into the blogosphere. He says right after "The Loon" came out, Josh Grier and the band's manager, Keri Weise, decided to send some music to their favorite MP3 blogs.
"I think about the first week they sent off some MP3s to 10 or so bloggers that they kind of liked, or liked what they posted on in general, and maybe they'd like our record too," Kretzman says.
I loved that lyrically, it didn't make a whole lot of sense. It seemed like they were just up to something, and it seemed like they were just a little bit different than what folks were doing.
They did. Overwelmingly. One of the bloggers was the highly influential "Music For Robots" site in Los Angeles, created by Mark Willett. Willett recalls that the e-mail included a link to the Tapes' Web site, and an offer to send him a CD.
"I went to their site and I listened to one MP3 of the song "Insistor," and I was like, I don't even need to wait for the CD, you know, I know that I can post this today."
"It just hit me," Willett says. "It was refreshing. It had a great rhythm. I loved that lyrically, it didn't make a whole lot of sense. It seemed like they were just up to something, and it seemed like they were just a little bit different than what folks were doing. But there was enough there that it was still familiar."
Willett quickly posted a glowing review of "The Loon" on Music For Robots, which alerted another popular blog, "Gorilla vs Bear" about Tapes n' Tapes. Gorilla vs. Bear then started posting an almost-daily log of the band's activities.
That, says Willett, is how the Web can make obscure bands famous.
"With the Internet, and with a blog that people go back to, it's really easy to keep things fresh in people's minds," Willett says. "It'd be like, 'Oh yeah, there's that band again.' And then as you hop from blog to blog and you see, 'Oh they're talking about it too, there must be something going on.' And what's funny is, in my post I even said if I were Pitchfork, this would be my best new music. And then a couple months later it was best new music in Pitchfork."
"Pitchfork," being an online music magazine based in Chicago that's become what many consider a must-read for indie music lovers.
If it seems the entire country has gone ape over Tapes 'n Tapes, that, strangely enough, hasn't been the case in its hometown of Minneapolis. For some reason, local music critics haven't been nearly as receptive as their peers elsewhere.
Star Tribune music critic Chris Riemenschneider says he didn't think too highly of the group's debut EP to begin with.
"I wasn't impressed with that one," Riemenschneider says. "And I fully admit, I was somewhat slow to come to appreciate 'The Loon,' which is their current CD that's getting all the attention. But even 'The Loon...' it's kinda subtle."
What convinced Riemenschneider there was something to the Tapes 'n Tapes mania in the rest of the country was seeing them play eight shows in four days at South by Southwest in Austin.
"Live, they really do pull it off," Riemenschneider says. "I think they even improve on the CD. That, to me, seals the deal for them because they're touring like crazy right now. They're playing a lot of festivals. They're going places, I think, and I wouldn't have guessed it even last fall. But I believe it now, for sure."
Members of Tapes 'n Tapes aren't worried about their Twin Cities audience. They say they haven't played enough shows to win over local fans, because they've been on tour so much. They hope to rectify that situation Saturday night on the main stage at First Avenue, which they say is a pinnacle for any local band. After that, they'll be on the road for the rest of the year.
This Tuesday will be another memorable day in Tapes 'n Tapes skyrocketing career. Not only will XL Records be re-releasing "The Loon" to stores worldwide, the band will make its national television debut on "Late Night with David Letterman."