The self-professed ‘chatterbox loudmouth’ Tandem Felix rides into town with his sophomore release.
When I first enter the video chat with David Tapley, the primary songwriter and lead vocalist of Tandem Felix, he reveals he has just made himself a lasagne that will last him most of the week. He admits, almost with a subtle, half-serious hint of shame, he used “store-bought” bechamel sauce but promises his next one will be more “bespoke”. I suggest drizzling some truffle oil over it but he just associates the ingredient with the overpriced chips you can get at bougie pubs. Right from the off, Tapley is proving that the pleasantly quaint articulation and endearing irascibility we find in his music is just as present in his day-to-day self.
He’s with me to promote There’s a New Sheriff in Town, Tandem Felix’s second album and first in over four years. Readers will be glad to know the dreaded sophomore slump has been avoided. There’s a New Sheriff…shares much of the folksy alt-country of debut Rom-Com, but adds to that a more expansive art-rock sound. There are smatterings of Deerhunter, Grizzly Bear, and War on Drugs but all of this is done through that unmistakable Tandem Felix lens. The follow-up also differs from its predecessor lyrically. With Rom-Com, Tapley says, “I wanted the songs to reflect who I was, so they would have to be funnier or wordier as I’m a chatterbox loudmouth, and love playing the fool.”
That was a conscious decision for that album but he sees this one as less of an overt reflection of his personality. “I set myself a task of not saying less lyrics, but have them less autobiographical,” he says. “I’m trying not to use the word vibe here, but I wanted as much as possible for these songs to be sort of vibe pieces.” My suggestion that this makes There’s a New Sheriff…the Miami Vice (often accused of being ‘vibes-based’) of his releases is met with a gentle rebuke. After some ruminating on Michael Mann’s filmography, he decides this LP is actually more like The Keep, Mann’s least regarded work and the only one in his oeuvre about Nazi soldiers being picked off by a supernatural force. He does not elaborate further.
Given the less autobiographical material, Tapley is understandably reticent about delving too much into the meaning of the words he sings. His somewhat-improvisational songwriting process also means he’s happy for any lyrics’ significance to be revealed over time. He would sit in front of his phone with an instrument and record whatever comes out. Sometimes he would even leave any mumbling or mispronunciations in the finished product. “The lyrics that came out, I feel there’s an honesty to them,” he says. “I guess you can probably assign meaning to anything as vague as pop lyricism. Sometimes I don’t realise until much later that I was wiser when I wrote them but I was a little bit too blind to see it.”
This isn’t at all to suggest my subject isn’t generous with either his time or his words. Responses are always thoughtful and he accepts, even encourages, different interpretations. This is probably most evident in the music video for The Kitchen, in which “Carte Blanche” was given to director Liam Farrell to do with the song as he pleases. Farrell takes a track ostensibly about being overwhelmed with a chaotic work environment and turns into a narrative about a slimy-looking political figure frantically falling into ignominy.
Our musician, wanting to avoid suffering from “main character syndrome”, appears only in a supporting role. “He wanted to go for this sort of Fawlty Towers dystopia,” Tapley explains. “We were trying to figure out what level of distress this person would be in. I guess a red-top scandal that appears in the papers is never not relevant, especially in Ireland. It’s nice to pull their pants in front of YouTube.com.”
Although he’s far too modest to ever admit it, there’s a case to be made that Tapley is one of most pre-eminent players of the pedal steel guitar in Dublin. He has lent his talents to albums by acts like Saint Sister, Maija Sofia and Neil Dexter. When he first learned the instrument, it was at a time when the indie-music scene viewed it as an antiquated relic of ’70’s country.
Cut to today and it’s having a major renaissance. Angel Olsen and Mitski are big fans. “I’m annoyed I’m not getting any credit, not that I deserve it.” He jokes, before explaining how the band used it on a country EP in 2015. “I identified that sound creeping in with some folk artists. I’d be told ‘Not everything is a country song’. But now it seems that people are fully going for it,” he declares triumphantly but slightly in jest. “When I was pointing out to people that Mac DeMarco was inspired by Weyland Jennings, they thought I was crazy. But now who’s crazy? It’s them! They’re crazy,” Tapley laughs.
And what of that title of the album and lead single, There’s a New Sheriff in Town? It’s an intriguing, authoritative platitude as well something of a filmic cliché, especially in westerns. True to form, a myriad of meanings can be drawn from it. He wanted to, “have an album title that was sort of bombastic, especially considering that I’m not an alpha male.” He continues, “It’s a funny thing. I like when unexpected bands have a certain metal element to them like Destroyer, or maybe some time in the inverse like Deftones. I like when those things are flipped on the head.”
There’s a lot to like over the album’s nine tracks. There’s the fearsome, fuzzy guitar lines of the aforementioned The Kitchen; the title effort is a moving, mournful ballad buoyed by some shimmering pop melodies. Seven-minute closer Losing Streak bursts out the gates with a pulsating psych-rock ambiance before migrating to a piano-heavy latter half with a forlorn narrator seemingly accepting his melancholic, monotonous lot in life.
The strongest track, for this writer’s money, is Watching TV for the Hell of It, a cheeky if impassioned ode to the joy of losing an afternoon to the alluring power of the tube. Anchored by an atmospheric piano line reminiscent, of all things, of Sia’s Breathe Me, the song charges forward playfully which is fitting for a subject so supposedly frivolous. The sumptuous, sizable-sounding production coupled with Tapley’s earnest delivery, however, affords the whole thing with a humorous gravitas.
I ask him if it’s a celebration or condemnation of being unproductive. For him it’s more about recalling a feeling of freedom that television could offer. “It’s when you’re going to school and really want to have a sick day,” he muses. “I vividly remember my mam having her toast and marmalade in the morning and that smell just reminds me of thinking, ‘Fuck sake, I have to go to school’. For that half-hour of her having that toast, watching that TV was exactly what I wanted to be doing and I never enjoyed that TV as much as when I was sick and home from school.”
Words: Mark Conroy
Photo: Liam Farrell