The Minneapolis-based band Tapes 'N Tapes had no illusions when it finished its 2005 debut album, The Loon, about just how much it was likely to do for the group's fledgling career.
The CD, after all, was being self released, and as keyboardist Matt Kretzman notes, there was no reason to expect The Loon to be anything but the next step on a gradual path to establishing a viable career.
"It's almost unfortunate how many bands are making records that think, 'Oh, this is going to be (the big break)," Kretzman says in a recent phone interview. "You can't really predict those things, and you can't will that to happen either. But we definitely feel fortunate. We still felt strongly about the songs, but you can't assume that it's going to resonate that way."
Modest expectations aside, the group did see encouraging early signs.
"I remember, we pressed a thousand (copies) at first," he says. "I think we pressed a second thousand maybe the second month that we had it. We were just blown away. We had the EP that we did first in 2004 and we pressed a thousand of those. We sold it for $5 and then we probably gave away 600 or 700 just so somebody would listen to it, or just because someone was our friend or nice to us. It took us probably two, two and a half years to get rid of a thousand of those. It was a little different with this one."
As it turned out, this was all just a prelude for the way The Loon would help transform the group's career.
By summer 2006, TNT had a deal with the hip label XL Records, The Loon was in national release and the group was gaining some serious buzz-band status.
Two events played key roles in elevating TNT from obscurity. The first was a rave review from Pitchfork, the Web magazine whose opinions carry considerable weight within Rock's independent scene. Then in March of last year, TNT played several well received showcases at the South By Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Tex. The performances amped up the attention the group had only just begun to receive and put the band on the radar of the national and even international music press.
"Between (South By Southwest) and the Pitchfork review, those two things kind of in pretty close succession, we definitely knew at that point that we would be busy for the rest of the year and that we would get to keep touring and hopefully make another record," Kretzman says.
Actually, at that time, Kretzman and his bandmates (singer/guitarist Josh Grier, drummer Jeremy Hanson and bassist Erik Appelwick) were probably still underestimating just how much momentum The Loon generated.
In discussing these events, Kretzman seems pretty humble about how far Tapes 'N Tapes has come since last winter. He will allow, though, that the band always liked the way The Loon turned out on a creative level.
"I think we felt really good about it,' Kretzman says. "Josh is a great songwriter. There's a good flow to the way the songs are put together."
Even that assessment might be an understatement. On The Loon, Tapes 'N Tapes has fashioned a distinctive sound that's often built around choppy and electric guitar riffs that also happen to be seriously catchy. The sound has prompted comparisons to Pavement and other bands that Kretzman admires, but those comparisons shortchange the originality of the band.
Hooky songs like "Just Drums," "Insistor" and "Jakov's Suite" generate a jagged locomotion all their own. Elsewhere, Tapes 'N Tapes also shows a few other stylistic wrinkles with the garage Blues of "Crazy Eights," the angular Rock of "Houston" and the ramshackle Folk Pop of "Cowbell."
Loon is impressive for a band that was really just beginning to find itself musically at the time it was recorded. The band had only formed in 2003, recording its 2004 self-titled EP with a drummer who would soon leave the lineup and with Kretzman playing bass. The EP, as the famous story goes, was recorded under decidedly unglamorous conditions -- in winter 2004 in a cabin in the Wisconsin woods that lacked running water. Not surprisingly, the sound quality of the EP, which was self-produced and completed in three days, was about as rough as the surroundings in Wisconsin.
For The Loon, Tapes 'N Tapes evolved into a quartet but conditions were still barebones. They recorded it over the course of two weeks at a local basement studio. The next Tapes 'N Tapes album promises to up the ante even further. Of course, it will be the first recorded under their contract with XL. And unlike The Loon, there will be the expectations that come with being a "buzz" band that has established a solid core following.
Kretzman says the band spent this past winter writing songs for the new CD and has demoed about 10 tracks so far. The keyboardist is hesitant to describe the new songs or how they compare to The Loon, saying he is too close to the material to have any real perspective at this point.
Fans, though, can get a taste of the new material on the band's current tour as they road test a few of the new songs in its set. Kretzman is curious how fans will respond to the new material, but he also feels good about how the band has progressed as a musical unit over the past year-plus of touring.
"At the time we recorded The Loon, a lot of the songs were relatively new and they definitely matured a lot over the course of (touring)," Kretzman says. "We just figured we were on the road for 170 days last year. That's almost half our lives last year, plus playing in town here (Minneapolis/St. Paul) and other things we did. And then with these new songs we've been working on, we're pretty much starting from scratch. So we're kind of hoping to get out ahead a little bit and play them and see how they feel before we go to record them this summer."
TAPES 'N TAPES plays the Southgate House on Thursday with Ladyhawk and Harlem Shakes.