Outside Looking In

A former buzz band readies its comeback

Think Cleveland gets a lot of snow? Last month, Josh Grier — frontman for Tapes 'n Tapes and self-proclaimed budding weatherman — got snowed in under more than two feet of the white stuff in his hometown of Minneapolis. The city even had to buy a Snow Dragon — a biodiesel-powered machine capable of melting 30 tons of snow per hour.

Grier was inside most of the time, warming up for a winter tour in support of the band's just-released third album, Outside.

 Tapes 'n Tapes were one of the first bands to benefit from major blog buzz, back when blog buzz was a relatively new thing. The quartet self-recorded and self-released its debut album, The Loon, in 2005 and promptly became one of the most heralded indie rock bands of the era.

Fans and writers compared them to the Pixies, and for a few months, Tapes 'n Tapes were the It band. "Things just kind of snowballed and caught all of us by surprise," recalls Grier.

 By the following year, the popular indie label XL Recordings (which has released albums by M.I.A., Vampire Weekend, and Thom Yorke) scooped up The Loon and reissued it, and the band soon had famous fans in David Bowie and David Letterman, who asked them on his late-night show for their TV debut.

For the group's follow-up album, 2008's Walk It Off, their record company paired them with producer Dave Fridmann, a veteran of the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, and MGMT.

Tapes 'n Tapes soon discovered just how fickle indie rock fans could be. The album bombed. There was backlash. And the group disappeared.

 Actually, they took a break. When they decided to regroup, one of the first things they did was to relaunch the label that originally released The Loon. "It just seemed like the natural thing to do," says Grier. "When you deal with a label, there are more people you have to clear things with, and everybody has more opinions. And we really liked our opinions."

 After gathering tapes and tapes' worth of demos, the band was ready to make its new album in Minneapolis all by itself. "It's scary sometimes, because we are on our own," admits Grier. "We're making all these decisions for ourselves, so if we screw up, we only have ourselves to blame."

 No worries. Tapes 'n Tapes sound reenergized on Outside, playfully parading through a dozen songs with newfound confidence. Everyone steps up their game — from Matt Kretzman's keys and horns on the poppy "One in the World" to Erik Appelwick's brooding bass lines and Grier's frenzied guitar on "The Saddest of All Keys" to Jeremy Hanson's spastic drums on "Nightfall." And Grier has never sounded stronger as a singer.

"On previous records, I wanted my voice to be low in the mix," he says. "This time around, I did feel more comfortable in singing. In some of these songs, the vocal melodies are more driving the song."

 Once again, Tapes 'n Tapes have taken to the internet to promote their new album, responding to fans — and even other bands — on Twitter. They're also creating some online buzz again, this time putting together contests to win "lovingly handmade" cassette tapes, which they're also selling at their concerts. Laughs Grier: "You got to have a little fun with our name every now and then, you know?"

The band's new tour includes songs from all three Tapes 'n Tapes albums (heavy on Outside material, of course) and maybe even some acoustic numbers. Grier's even promising a few surprises. "I don't think we'll go off the deep end and do any tripped-out psychedelic jazz sessions or anything like that," he says. "We'll keep it real, but you got to explore your possibilities."